I set out reading this book already believing what he tries to say, that materialism is bad and doesn’t fulfil you. But I find this book annoying, fulI set out reading this book already believing what he tries to say, that materialism is bad and doesn’t fulfil you. But I find this book annoying, full of endless boring anecdotal interviews, confirming what he already decides from the start instead of serious rigorous research. I also suspect he secretly pities his interview subjects instead of feeling compassion for them. This book is a yawn-fest with this tirade of “rich people are horrible, selfish, greedy, materialistic, unhappy workaholics” while poor people are so much better. I didn’t feel I was learning anything new or insightful from this book. I suspect the world is more nuanced than this. So I decided to quit after 300 pages. Many times, he mistakes correlation and causation, for example: the number of advertisements has gone up in the past 3 decades, while the level of trust among Americans has gone down, so advertising must be the culprit. It is full of over-simplifying generalizations like this. I am also very sceptical of some aspects of his analysis of the Chinese culture to explain why they can be materialistic without being so depressed. Generalizing China using Shanghai, America using New York is at best simple-minded, and at worst insulting to these hugely diverse countries. Also lacking is an account of how this virulent form of Selfish Capitalism arose and what social changes it has brought about. I recently read another book called “The Life of I” about the rise of narcissism which explores this topic more satisfactorily. Another thing that bugs me about him is he seems to be saying that as long as your goals don’t have extrinsic motives to impress other people, then it’s okay, you’ll be happy. It doesn’t matter that your greed ruins the world as long as you find your work fascinating. I simply can’t swallow this. I think happiness is a wobbly overrated concept and there should be higher values to our life rather than our own happiness. There should be objective ideals such as compassion, justice, adventure and truth that we should work towards and happiness comes as a by-product of such pursuits. I don’t know if he gets to explore it because I’m already fast asleep after 300 pages… ...more
This book is a lot deeper than its title suggests. It is insightful, witty and inspiring. Read it. Here's the appetizer
"To be human is to be finite.This book is a lot deeper than its title suggests. It is insightful, witty and inspiring. Read it. Here's the appetizer
"To be human is to be finite. Because of this, the good life warrants an ongoing struggle to be clear about what’s important, and to seek it with lucidity and passion; not be distracted by false ambitions or waylaid by dissipated consciousness.
Distraction is ultimately a question of value. ‘Value’ comes from the Latin valere, meaning ‘be strong’, or ‘be worthy’, ‘be valiant’. To obtain what’s valuable is to acquire power, in the finest sense of the word: capacity, capability, energy and enthusiasm. What’s valuable is what gives us the potency to cultivate the best life we can within the circumstances we’ve inherited or created. It enables independence, freedom from coercion and a check against self-deception and delusion. What’s valuable is what enhances our liberty.
To be diverted isn’t simply to have too many stimuli but to be confused about what to attend to and why. Distraction is the very opposite of emancipation: failing to see what is worthwhile in life and lacking the wherewithal to seek it.
As Heidegger suggested, we often spend our daily lives avoiding existential responsibility: speaking in clichés and entertaining ourselves with ‘idle talk’. We frequently defer to this anonymous ‘they’ instead of living our own lives. Distractions are often our way to elude the existential burden: deciding what we are and what to be.
We often seek distraction. One reason for this urge is Heidegger’s ‘fallenness’: the preoccupation affords a reprieve from the anxieties of life, which confront us in moments of repose. “We are afraid that when we are alone and quiet’, wrote Nietzsche, ‘something will be whispered into our ear’. This something is our own conscience and awareness; the lingering, nagging realisation that there are realities to be confronted, choices to be made; the knowledge that opportunities are diminishing with our days. The compulsion to seek respite is as ancient as humanity itself, and it stems from our understandable unwillingness to look our own lives squarely in the face.
‘How we labour at our daily work more ardently and thoughtlessly than is necessary to sustain our life’ wrote Nietzsche in his Untimely Meditations, ‘because it is even more necessary not to have leisure to stop and think. Haste is universal because everyone is in flight from himself’. If we lament the speed and fracturing of life, we can also welcome these as a refuge from the burden of the self; from the responsibility to live. In this state, it’s difficult to identify what’s valuable, and almost impossible to seek it with lucidity and determination. The result is diminished opportunity for liberty.
For many of us, the site of the most frustrating diversions and interruptions is work. The result can be an inability to properly perceive, think and imagine; a dissolution of consciousness, which affects health, peace of mind and close relationships.
Automated technologies have afforded a great many time savings, but they also create an atmosphere of urgency and immediate outputs, instead of patient, engaged attention. They transform the workplace into a site for the harried production of tomorrow’s profit, rather than for today’s professional competency and completion. The pleasure of challenging work for its own sake is deferred and rarely achieved.
We have to work, often for bosses and businesses we don’t hold in high esteem, … we have mouths and mortgages to feed. What this calls for is not desperation or recrimination but judicious compromise – we need to make the best of the limitation the world provides. Sometimes this means working in jobs that are menial or uncreative, but making the best use of our free time as something genuinely free.
With sufficient presence of mind, we can use work as it uses us. While it takes our hours and energies, it also serves as a redemption for many of our idiosyncrasies and proclivities. Even if we’re drawn to work because of loneliness, guilt or a longing for respect, it can provide a site for the commitment of the unruly psyche to something constructive. It’s a crucible in which our passions are transformed into tangible rewards. Work is not a distraction from our finest aspirations but a way of strengthening and deepening our capacity to achieve them.
We are free when we are authoritatively being ourselves and not deferring to the demands or expectations of someone else. Liberty requires a robust and self-sufficient character. We can’t be free until we’ve cultivated an ‘I’ that can resist the demands of others, one that has its own modus operandi. (To Spinoza,) liberty wasn’t something that other individuals or institutions could provide-it was up to the wise man, and him alone to properly cultivate himself. His ideal of freedom was a life without distraction.
In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche wrote of the ‘three metamorphoses of the spirit’. The spirit becomes a camel, the camel a lion and the lion a child. In the modern workplace, these three metamorphoses remain a challenge for us all: the endure busywork and its distractions, to fiercely say No to subjugation, and to claim the leisurely freedom of the child.
Henry James’ solitary impulse was perfectly, consolingly human. And his struggles against indifference or flight involved the very same stakes we confront today: the achievement of a tangible, worldly freedom, through enduring sympathetic attention to others.
A distracted mind is a clumsy, fumbling guide. The disappointment this breeds can compel us to flee more zealously, to seek asylum in false consolation, delusion or ubiquitous noise. The opposite of distraction is a life of liberty – one spent not in seeking refuge from ourselves and the world but in sincerely taking up the challenge of existence; of ‘being’ something rather than anything. This endeavour requires an honest, sometimes courageous recognition of what is life-affirming or inspiring, and the vigilance to safeguard this vision from corruption or misunderstanding. An undistracted life requires gratitude, not to a patron or a saviour but for the simple fact of existence itself. If we cannot choose our birth, or vault the impermeable barriers of place and time, we can still warm to the existential endeavour; we can smile at the opportunity to live, instead of flinching or closing our eyes. Of course this will entail pain and loss, sacrifice and compromise. And there will be time for games and idleness. But at its most profound, this is a simple primal “Yes” to the attempt, the aspiration, the lurch towards freedom. To seek emancipation from distraction is to accept this ambivalent liberty – an unspoken, unrepentant “Thank you” for the adventure of being."...more