The Overthinker, 2/14/21

For the past month or so, I've been doing what looks very much from the outside to be nothing. "Are you looking for a job, or are you happy where you are?" someone asked me recently, with the carefully modulated skepticism one uses when someone else's life makes no sense to you but you don't want to be overtly rude. I've personally been calling what I've been up to a "listening tour," though I am neither a tech CEO attempting to placate hordes of aggrieved employees nor a tech CEO coyly considering a bid for president. I have only one stakeholder, and we have marathon 24/7 meetings and can't decide on anything. 

You could also call what I'm doing soul-searching, or navel-gazing, which it turns out is an actual meditation practice according to the internet. (Delightfully, the practice is also termed "omphaloskepsis.") From a site appropriately called "Releasing Your Unlimited Creativity": "You can, if you wish, use your naval [sic] as an anchor point and go backward or forward in time asking yourself 'What brought me to this particular time, place and body?' or 'What are the potential impacts of using and not using this body?'" I ask myself some version of these questions every day, mostly while trying and failing to get out of bed any time before noon.

What I'm trying to do is solve a problem, a problem I've always struggled to articulate to other people because no one else seems to have it. And even if they did, no one can solve this problem but me. The problem is simply that I don't have, and never have had, a clear sense of what I'm interested in or what unites the disparate things I am interested in; it's why I ended up with a degree in geology despite having no intention of becoming a geologist. Recently I've concluded that what I'm really interested in is "meaning," which—well, you see the problem. Among other things, this fundamental vagueness makes it very difficult to write. Sometimes I feel like I've been mired in a writer's block seven years long and counting, and most of that time has been spent trying to convince the rest of the world that I'm a writer rather than figuring out what I might actually want to say or how I might want to say it. 

So I've been doing a lot of thinking—which, funnily enough, looks a lot like doing nothing. (And if Rodin is anything to go by, it looks like taking a particularly craggy dump.) Sometimes this means gazing abstractedly at the things on or around my desk, or lying in bed staring at the ceiling, or attempting to remember what delighted me as a child. I read, obviously, and take notes. It is all agonizingly amorphous and it's hard to tell whether I'm even making progress, though I feel like I am sometimes, maybe. At no point, however, does it look like something a parent, particularly one with a Masters of Business Administration, would recognize as anything approaching work. "Do you think you're being a little, you know, spoiled?" my mom asked me on a call one Saturday. Well, yes: I'm often convinced that all this thinking is an embarrassing luxury. Just as often, though, I can't see it as anything but an absolute necessity—which also kind of sums up our culture's vexed position towards the arts. 

It's not that there aren't plenty of suggestions out there for how people should spend their lives. In fact, seemingly everything—one’s parents, the distortions of prestige, public opinion refracted through a million subtweets—is trying to tell us, explicitly or implicitly, what we should be aiming for and how we should feel. (Bad, mostly.) Advice is cheap, and so little of it is any good; truly useful advice either descends at random, like falling space junk, or is preceded by tons of careful listening by a sympathetic interlocutor. But at the same time we cling to these set paths towards "success" (whose inadequacy as a ready-made concept I don't need to explain to you) because the world is complicated and constantly changing and so figuring out what each one of us really wants from our lives is complicated, too—and frightening, because it requires that we actually reckon with the fact that no one knows what’s coming next and no one really even knows what’s going on now and we’re all playing it by ear. What I'm trying to say is that advice about what you should do with your life “doesn’t scale,” as they say. I'm on my own.

Every weekday, I go out to a tiny nearby park, where delicate white blossoms are just beginning to open on the ornamental pear trees, filling the air with the unmistakable scent of jizz. The park contains an oval walkway, a large zero spread across the grass, and I pace around this walkway while listening to a productivity podcast and communing with my true spirit animal, a tech bro. Maybe you sense some irony here! But I will defend to the hilt that what I've been doing for the past month—the lying in bed, the staring aimlessly into space—is priority zero: the most productive thing I could possibly be doing. What people always seem to forget is that implicit in "being productive" is working hard/smart towards something, and it seems to me that not nearly enough time is spent working out what that thing is. We focus so much on the means that we've confused them with the ends, and to what end?

To return to The Thinker, this whole process does feel like an act of straining. But rather than straining to expel something, it's more like straining to hear something very, very faint, to pick out a recognizable tune from a rush of noise. I've been listening to the pianist Glenn Gould's famous recordings of Bach's Goldberg Variations (both 1955 and 1981), which are noteworthy in part because at some points you can hear Gould humming along to the music he's playing. A lot of people really don't like the humming, which is not very tuneful and almost a bit eerie if you don't know what it is—it sounds like a weird ghostly fluttering around the music itself. The first time I heard it, though, I found it surprisingly profound: a reminder that an actual person was hitting the keys to produce the notes I had settled myself on a beanbag in the dark to listen to over fancy noise-canceling headphones, a person whose idiosyncratic experience of and sheer enthusiasm for Bach literally could not be contained. I spent most of my time on that beanbag trying to detect Glenn Gould's humming, and maybe if I get just as quiet and listen just as hard I'll be able to hear myself too. 




Shameless self-promotion/sponsored content/advertising section  

I reviewed three short story collections for the New York Times Book Review, despite the fact that I have no idea how to review short story collections!

📚 FREE BOOKS: With your efforts combined, you've managed to clear out more than 60 books from my stacks, for which I am extremely grateful and very impressed. (I will try to mail the last four packages that have been lingering on my floor for weeks as soon as possible!) I'll keep updating the spreadsheet every time I send out this newsletter, though, so feel free to keep requesting. Link here: 📚