Or, when a list by one crabass generates a list by another
Dr Essai has long appreciated Neil Postman as a smart, incisive, attentive thinker; a fluid, skillful, persuasive writer; a crank about the modern world, especially technology; and a grump of the sort the doctor finds congenial. He wrote the fine Amusing Ourselves to Death and other books that picked a fight with the direction of 20th-century American culture. For many years he taught at NYU, and frequently concluded a semester with a presentation of his rules for living one’s life, many of them tongue-in-cheek but no less serious for what lurked behind their ironic tone.
Whatever your age, the rest of your life is all you’ve got, so it’s worth thinking about. This does not mean pondering its meaning. Forget meaning. “What is the meaning of life?” is a child’s question. We are sub-atomic particles organized and governed by the laws of physics. Best of luck finding meaning in that.
But we do. We embrace a core paradox: Though life has no intrinsic meaning, we can and should lead meaningful lives. On a cosmic scale, the doctor’s life amounts to nothing, but it’s the only one he’s got and it sure as shit means something to him. If you have any hope of living a meaningful adult life, the one vital question is, “How do I live?”
The World’s Most Attentive Man™ can help you with that.
The following tenets are numbered but not ranked; the first one on the list does not mean more than the fifth. This is not a carefully curated hierarchy of meaning — it’s a mindblat. Should you take the numbering as indication that the list might continue in coming weeks, well, one fears you may be right.
- Be a skinflint with your attention. The ur-rule of life is Pay attention, but not to everything, silly. Don’t waste your precious attentiveness on TV news, productivity experts, political pundits, literary theory or any other theory outside science, anything that involves superheroes, anything said by anyone who presents as a thought leader, anyone from middle management, advertising, website popups, podcasts by guys who call themselves dudes or bros, mission statements, “the X things you need to…,” or the NFL draft. The list could go on and on, but you get the point.
- Read more books and fewer articles. Some articles, good articles, but not at the expense of books. Essays enjoy an exemption from this rule. So do newsletters if they feature essays.
- Don’t think you’re smart because you watch TED talks. TED talks are fun but aimed at people who want to feel smart but can’t be bothered with the real work of reading smart books.
- Whenever possible, ignore authority. For the good of a civil society, you should obey most laws, drive near the speed limit, and be honest about your taxes, but other than that, disregard most of what you are told to do. Too much authority is wielded by witless dickheads who think they’re the cleverest person in the room, despite all evidence. It’s usually childish to make a show of your disobedience. Better to silently pay them no heed. Practice stealth disobedience.
- Be wary of anything that issues from a room containing more than four people. Collaboration can produce wonders, but only when it’s driven by a single big idea from a single very smart and creative person. Nowhere in recorded history has a good idea ever come out of a brainstorming meeting. And there has never been an idea so good it can’t be ruined by a sufficient number of meetings, especially a meeting of “stakeholders.” Which reminds the doctor…
- Disregard anyone in a meeting who uses the term “stakeholders” or “metrics” or “the optics” or “verticals” or “leveraging assets” or “disruptive.” This is the vocabulary of the overpaid empty suit. Chances are you work for such a person, so this can be awkward, but do your best.
- Frank Zappa once described rock journalism as “people who can’t write writing about musicians who can’t play for readers who can’t read.” This applies to much service journalism. When you come across anything in a magazine or newspaper labeled “tips,” turn the page. The Zappa Rule also applies to anyone designated as an institutional communications professional. Ignore them, as well.
- Avoid investing too much time in trying to figure out the smartest thing to do. You’ll be much better off trying to figure out the dumb things to avoid. It won’t take as long and will produce better outcomes.
- Question all orthodoxy. If it’s “widely known,” it’s probably wrong.
- You don’t need more information. You already have too much. You need more thought, more knowledge, more skepticism, and more constructive doubt. And more bacon.
- Do not name a persona with an unpronounceable word, such as essai. That is, now and then bite the hand that feeds you. Even if it’s your own hand.
After that, you deserve a taste of Neil Postman. Enjoy:
Religion is one of the few social institutions that have continuity. Moreover, religion addresses the most interesting issues available to an intelligent human mind. For instance, science asks how, but religion asks why. And if you are Jewish, do not attend bar mitzvahs where they serve chopped liver molded in the form of a duck.