Racing Against the Clock: A Meditation on Being Human in a World of Endless Possibility

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On a planet that has existed for billions of years, the human lifespan is remarkably short. Assuming I live to 80, the average age of a Canadian male, I have about 4,000 weeks on this earth. If I am lucky and healthy enough to make it that long, that gives me about 2,500 weeks left. [1]

Given the limits of our short existence, why is it that we waste so much of our time on trivialities, on fulfilling the expectations of others and neglecting our authentic selves. We spend our time carelessly while we know our mortality is something that can often be often unpredictable, unexpected and out of our control.

Constrained by Limits

Writing in ancient Rome, the Stoic philosopher Seneca observed the importance of being aware of your mortality as a check against frivolously wasting our days. In his essay On the Shortness of Life he writes,

you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your head, you never notice how much of your time is already spent. You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing, when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone or something may be your last. Like the mortal you are, you are apprehensive of everything; but your desires are unlimited as if you were immortal. 

As humans, whether we accept it or not, we are constrained by our biology – we all have limits. What this means is that we have to make choices about what things to prioritize, and how best to spend the fleeting number of weeks, hours and minutes we have left.

In his book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkeman makes the point that is naïve and often counterproductive to think that there will come a point when we have attained perfect order and control of our lives. When we finally reached the ideal ‘work-life’ balance that we’ve been dreaming of, crossing off every item of our never-ending to-do lists. Instead of running on the elusive treadmill of productivity, filling our lives with worry and anxiety, Burkeman advises that we should learn to accept our limitations. He notes that we are seduced,

into imagining that we might find room for everything important by eliminating only life’s tedious tasks. But it’s a lie. You have to choose a few things, sacrifice everything else, and deal with the inevitable sense of loss that results.

Technology, self-help gurus and ‘productivity hacks’ have attempted to convince us that we can do more and more with our finite time. It is true that these tools help us achieve more and eliminate mundane tasks, but it comes at a cost. The great paradox of the modern age is that technology, which was meant to save us time has left us more anxious, busy and frantic.

The smartphone has made communication much easier and more efficient. However, it has also blurred the lines between work and home life. Instant messaging has left us in a state of constant apprehension and alertness always anticipating when we’ll receive the next text message.

A consequence of being a finite human being is the necessity of making decisions which limits our options. ‘FOMO’ or the fear of missing out, is not a defect or something to be frowned upon. Rather it is a byproduct and a feature of the limited nature of our existence.

Quality Versus Quantity

Thanks to the modern advances of the industrial age, the human lifespan has more than doubled over the past century. Of course, this is a great achievement is something to be celebrated.

What gets missed however in this project to continuously increase the length of our lives is the focus on quality. That is, the ancient ideal of living a life akin to virtue and goodness.  A rich life filled with purpose, value and intention.  

What good would it do me to live a long life devoid of meaning?

Ultimately, we don’t know when our time will come. Like many, we may hope to prolong our life’s ambitions or wishful side projects for our retirement. But who knows what fate has in store for us?

An individual who is solely focused climbing up the career ladder, may neglect the need to cultivate interests and hobbies outside of work. When they are finally ready to retire, they are left with their life’s savings and an influx of free time but no idea what to do with it.

Memento Mori: Remember That You Are Mortal

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The 16th century philosopher Michel De Montaigne said that “to practice death is to practice freedom.” We know our lives will all come to an inevitable end. Rather than succumbing to fear or avoiding this basic fact of our existence, Montaigne advises us to embrace it. To accept it. To keep it at the forefront of our minds.

Allowing ourselves to be constantly reminded of our finitude and mortality enables us to give our lives a renewed sense of urgency and purpose. Once the fear is quelled, we can fully appreciate the time we are given.  Our time can be savored with our full attention and meaning.

The world is in constant flux. Our lives are entangled in a sea of uncertainties. While we can meticulously plan ahead, the only thing we can be certain about is the present moment, what is right in front of us.

In the final analysis, when you’ve reached the end of your days, what will you truly remember?

What will you desire to be known for?

Perhaps answering these questions is a starting point to allocating our limited number of days left of this earth.

Tell me, what is it that you will plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

[1] If you do the math, you’ll come to the conclusion that I am just about 30 years.

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Embracing the Art of Play

We often look back on our childhood with great reverence and adoration. A time when we were not yet burdened with the responsibilities and demands of adulthood. When the only limitations and boundaries we faced were the limits of our imagination.

Learning about the world and experiencing things for the first time we were often in a perpetual state of awe and wonder. A state of play.

This essence of euphoria and enjoyment for the world however starts to fade as we transition into adulthood. We are no longer able to find joy and awe in the mundane aspects of everyday life.

Life transforms into something that must be taken seriously, and the idea of play becomes trivialized. Something we only feel justified engaging in if we have spare time after completing our work, responsibilities and obligations.

Furthermore, we are told that time is money and conflate ‘busyness’ with importance. Thus, we feel guilty in indulging in leisure or any sort of ‘unproductive’ activity.

Every minute must be planned and calculated. No time must be wasted.

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Instrumental vs. Intrinsic Values

We can divide our motivations for pursuing certain activities/things into two categories – instrumental and intrinsic values. 

Instrumental value is something that we pursue to achieve some other goal. To illustrate this point, we can look at our incentives for work. Many of us work not because we enjoy doing so[1] but rather out of necessity – to earn a living and survive.  Other examples of instrumental thinking include:

  • Getting an education to get a good job;
  • Working a prestigious career because it brings you high status;
  • Jogging for the health benefits it brings you.

I want to emphasize that these are all valid reasons for pursuing worthy goals. The point is however is that they are not done for sake of themselves. They are simply means to ends.

The logic is, only after achieving X {dream job, promotion, a certain salary, marriage etc.} I can be content. Happiness is deferred to the future.

On the other hand, intrinsic value is something that is appreciated in and of itself. These are the core reasons why we pursue certain goals. One way to get at what is intrinsically valuable is to ask a series of questions which get at the root cause of your motivations.

Suppose your life is made up of things you do for the sake of something else — you do A in order to get B, and you do B only to get C, and so on. Therefore A has no value in itself; its value lies in the B. But B has no value in itself: that value lies in the C. Perhaps we eventually encounter something — call it Z — that’s valuable for what it is in itself, and not for anything else.

Mark Rowlands, Tennis with Plato

For Aristotle, his notion of eudaimonia, roughly translated as happiness or human flourishing, is something that has intrinsic value. Things such as having a successful career where one enjoys their work or having financial freedom are sought after because they allow for one to attain happiness.

Let us look at some other examples:


The Rise of Machines

So how does this tie into some of the current issues we face today?

The prominent sociologist Max Weber claimed that modern societies were trapped in an ‘iron cage’ of rationalization. With the loss of traditional values and social ties, the modern era is governed by the ethic of efficiency and rationality.

The ideal of material progress has allowed us to create effective and innovative corporations and bureaucracies which have enabled significant increases in our living standards. However, it has come at the cost of the stripping away of human sympathy, emotion and dignity.  We are transformed into numbers on a spreadsheet, cogs in the machine and mere instruments required to keep the system running.

Consequently, we become more akin to robots or machines than sentient human beings.  The intrinsic value and dignity as a human being is all but lost.

Weber’s critique of modern society is that it is governed by instrumental reason and utilitarian values.  For the sake of greater efficiency and productivity, we transform human activity and interactions into something measurable and quantifiable. Social media fosters intense competition for status as we chase after more likes, comments and shares then our peers.  

A consequence of this mode of existence is that our relationship to the world becomes primarily extractive. Our focus becomes consuming or having things rather then experiencing them in and of itself.

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Reclaiming Play

It’s a cliché in our culture to hear the phrase ‘do what you love’, what does that even mean?

On a deeper level I think it is connected to play. We play when are deeply engaged in something because we truly enjoy it, irrespective of any reward or social benefit it may bring us. It awakens us to the present moment.

 Diane Ackerman in her book Deep Play discusses moments of play when we are completely immersed in the moment. It bears resemblance to the concept of flow which I have written about before.  She writes,

Deep play arises in such moments of intense enjoyment, focus, control, creativity, timelessness, confidence, volition, lack of self-awareness (hence transcendence) while doing things intrinsically worthwhile, rewarding for their own sake…It feels cleansing because when acting and thinking becomes one, there is no room left for other thoughts.

Diane Ackerman – Deep Play

This is not to say we must detach from our obligations and responsibilities as adults. Rather, it is to emphasize the importance of carving out a space or time to immerse yourself in play. A space where you can temporarily forget about expectations and the world around you.

Where you can feel alive.

When you can to let go, be in the present and be free.

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Play, you see, in the sense that I am using it is a musical thing. It is a dance. It is an expression of delight

Alan Watts

[1] According to a 2017 global Gallup poll, 85% of workers surveyed were not engaged or actively disengaged at work.

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Renewing the Dignity of Work: A Review of the Tyranny of Merit

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In the book The Tyranny of Merit, the renowned Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel sets out to explore the origins of the recent populist sentiment in Western democracies.

How can we explain the public distrust in social, economic and social institutions that we see in the West?

 Both Brexit and the recent presidential elections in the United States point towards the fact that many people no longer believe the stories about upward mobility and economic success that are continually reinforced in popular culture. It is clear that trust in the credibility of many of our institutions, experts and decision makers has been eroding.

The Problem: How Did We Get Here?

Sandel’s diagnosis of these issues stem from our unwavering support in the meritocratic system that governs our society. The belief that individuals, regardless of the social standing in which they are born, can rise as far as their talents can take them. A validation of the ‘rags to riches’ stories that are well known in our public consciousness.

As inequalities of wealth and income rise in many developed countries, and social mobility stagnates, we begin to see the dark side of this meritocratic ideal. It entrenches and justifies the pride of the ‘winners’ while solidifying the guilt and shame of the least well off. Moreover, those who achieve success tend to see their lot as a direct result of their own doing. It emboldens them with a sense of meritocratic hubris, which can lead them to look down those who have less social standing.

The meritocratic logic is that everyone deserves what they get.

You may object that people’s social standing and wealth is justified because our society permits upward mobility and rewards hard work. Where one ends up is ultimately their responsibility.

Of course, there is truth to that statement. However, Sandel recognizes the impediments people face when aiming to move up the social ladder. Namely, those who have existing wealth and power often mold the system in their favor. This occurs most explicitly when those with the means to do so can buy their kids way into elite colleges. We saw this with the college admissions cheating scandal. Moreover, having access to the right connections, social and community support, and better schooling gives some individuals an inherent advantage over others.

Irrespective of how well our societies enable enable upward mobility, Sandel’s main thesis is to question the ideal of meritocracy in and of itself.

Let’s look at two problems he identifies.

1.The Role of Luck

 While our hard work and ambition play a role in our success, we can’t ignore the arbitrariness of several key elements that are out of our control. We don’t choose whether we are born into a wealthy or poor family, our family upbringing or genetics. Random life events sometimes can either provide us with good fortune or derail our long-sought after plans.

Grit and determination do matter. However, isn’t it also true that one can work tirelessly long hours and not see the lucky break that they deserve?

In addition, we can’t claim credit for the particular talents society values. The book looks at the case of Lebron James. As a super basketball player living in a society that rewards the game of basketball, he is generously rewarded for his talents ($42 million/year to be exact). But, if Lebron was born in Renaissance Florence, a period of time which valued artists, sculptors and fresco paintings, his talents as an elite basketball player wouldn’t pay off financially.

2. A Question of Value(s)  

Economists will claim that the most efficient way to financially reward individuals is to allocate their income in a way that aligns with the supply and demand of the market. However, efficient outcomes are not necessarily ethical or just. They don’t always align with our values and morals.

The hit TV show Breaking Bad looks at the story of Walter White. It assesses his transformation from a modest earning high school teacher to a high-income narcotics dealer. Although the market rewards him for being a drug dealer, we wouldn’t say that this profession creates more value to society than that of a high school teacher.

His new job as a drug dealer in fact leaves people worse off through addictions and damage to the health of others. The point is the market makes no ethical judgements- it is morally neutral. It doesn’t tell us what contributes to the common good.

A recent example to highlight this idea is the discrepancy between market rewards and morals is in the 2008 financial crisis. Many financiers profited off the vulnerability of others by knowingly selling risky investments. The speculation bubble popped, leaving the average person to loose a lot of money while enriching the bankers through the ‘too big to fail’ bailouts.

Contributive Justice and the Common Good

To be clear Sandel is not advocating to a return to earlier forms of social organization. What he is ultimately attempting to do is to get us to rethink success and the contributions our work provides to common good.

He is trying to restore the dignity of work.

He makes it clear that every job, especially those ‘low-skill’ workers that we look down upon, is fulfilling the essential needs of society. This sentiment is nicely summed up by Martin Luther King Jr.,

One day our society will come to respect the sanitation worker if it is to survive, for the person who picks up our garbage, in the final analysis, is as significant as the physician, for if he doesn’t do his job, diseases are rampant

The book goes beyond mere technocratic policy solutions. Sandel wants to begin a dialogue about how we can restore social solidarity and community by respecting the significance that others provide our society through their work.

He wants to question the assumption that ‘value’ is confined to economics, arguing that it should be something the public sphere should weigh in on.

Final Thoughts

I remember my first essay in university was a reflection on Winston Churchill’s famous quote “democracy is the worst form of government – except for all the others that have been tried.”

I feel the same way about meritocracy. Sandel exposes the issues with it as an ideal and as it plays out in the real world. However, it is not clear what would be a better organizing system for society.

In the final analysis, whether you agree with the book’s critiques, it provides a good starting point for us to think more critically about the dignity of work. Work is not only a means for us to earn a living, but something that provides us with self-esteem, a sense of worth and social recognition.

In the age of the pandemic, perhaps we all can start appreciating how valuable those ‘essential workers’ really are.

Work, at its best, is a socially integrating activity, an arena of recognition, a way of honoring our obligation to contribute to the common good

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit

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