It’s maybe a little bit weird to start writing again by pointing to a post by Jakob Greenfeld I disagree strongly with. It’s about a book called 4000 Weeks by Oliver Burkeman. I’m not going to write a strong rebuttal about all of the claims in the post but rather focus on one important point and also add a few more general thoughts. But let’s start with a little context:
I do think embracing the limits of life to focus on what we can do is a good thing. I had written about the book myself a while ago. My main points were:
- “I have to play the hand that I was dealt and resources (and everything is a resource) are not available in endless supply. If you take these two things together, it makes sense to go for a satisficist way of life.” - Or: privilege is not evenly distributed, but you can still forge a life out of what you got (just not every life).
- “My here and now is not merely a transitory state in between the lacking status quo and an amazing future. Instead of improving things in the present moment, I would endure certain things simply because I defined my present situation as something that didn’t matter in the future.” Or: I am allowed to improve things in the here and now.
I think that Greenfeld’s post sees fallacies in Burkeman’s book where I see a not very generous reader. Greenfeld is a “hustle culture” kind of person whom I follow for useful notes on self help and productivity books but I do not always agree with him. One thing stood out as interesting to me in his post:
A cheap dinner with my parents is infinitely more meaningful than some networking dinner with strangers that costs me a fortune. In short, the amount of time/money you spend on something (and how much of it you possess) doesn’t dictate the meaning of anything.
This is a counterpoint against Burkeman’s claim that, because of the limited life span we possess, what we choose to spend our time on - and how much of it on what - becomes meaningful and defines our lives.
Greenfeld says that time = money. He then gives an example where spending relatively little money on an event doesn’t mean that that event couldn’t be more meaningful than another event that you spent more on. What Greenfeld has discovered is that you can’t compare single events like this but must compare topics: The question is how do you spend your time - over your lifetime? Comparing two singular events doesn’t make sense. But whether you spend your life mostly at networking dinners vs. mostly with your family does. This doesn’t mean that when you have disregarded an important aspect of your life that choosing to spend more time on it - even if at first it’s just a small amount - doesn’t feel meaningful. But the meaningfulness doesn’t come from it being a short event but rather from trying to rectify the neglect (or maybe exploring new frontiers).
I do think it can be worth it to read opposing opinions like this because it strengthens my viewpoint, it points to flaws in my approach or simply just widens my horizon. I am not convinced that what Greenfeld writes points out fallacies in Burkeman’s writing, but it still made me reconsider my own views, which is valuable.
The quoted passage for example made me think more deeply about my claim “everything is a resource” and how that relates to the sometimes very meaningful singular moments of life, as I’ve tried to untangle above. I think this passage especially hooked me for its relationship to my tendencies of sometimes living too much for a future that may never become a reality (it’s a risky investment strategy to always reinvest and never reap rewards). And that meaningful moments exist, reminds me how important it is to take advantage of choosing to be present for the things I am making my life about.
This post is also valuable because it’s an example of a person who is unwilling or maybe (as of yet) unable to recognize life’s limits. These people exist out there and they may not be easily convinced of the opposite. That’s useful to keep in mind. Greenfeld and I are holding different values that’s for sure and since values are personal one may be persuaded to think this is just a battle between differing subjective viewpoints. But the objective realities of life - e.g. that your lifetime is limited and being more productive doesn’t make life last longer or spending time fiddling with your productivity systems doesn’t make you enjoy the important moments more - do not care if you would like to forget about these facts (and rather work hard to grow your business or whatever). You will have to come to terms with them - if you like to contemplate these things, or not.
The post and its author is a useful counter example to my own life’s plan: A (relatively) small but reflected life in the here and now is more rewarding, more livable, more rational, more emotionally honest and also more ethically sound, than any sweeping pronouncements of a “big life"™ could ever be.
My mental model predicts that sooner or later everyone will have to open their eyes to the small life they are actually living and embrace it - or failing that will live with a lot of avoidable cognitive dissonance. Greenfeld suggests the opposite. We’ll see whose bet holds.
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