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  • Writer's pictureSean

How To Do Nothing

"Guard well your spare moments. They are like uncut diamonds. Discard them and their value will never be known. Improve them and they will become the brigest gems in a useful life." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

If you are new to the Books & Beers world, know that I often find myself wandering down the path of books about solitude, being alone, and boredom. Perhaps there is a sense of longing for younger days without being inundated with technology everywhere. To sit quietly in a room and rely on our imagination to find wonder in the world. A book called How to Do Nothing stands out to me and immediately goes on my list. Jenny Odell has written that book supporting the real world and ever-encroaching attention economy that prods at our defences daily.

As we take up the book, Jenny lays down the gauntlet of this encroachment as we all try to find our way through a real-life that now includes social media and perhaps a personal brand that many of us may not have been expecting.

"it is the invasive logic of commercial social media and its financial incentive to keep us in a profitable state of anxiety, envy, and distraction. It is furthermore the cult of individuality and personal branding that grow out of such platforms and affect the way we think about our offline selves and the places where we actually live."

As Emerson highlighted, the need for us to protect our spare moments is chipped away by devices that are insidiously capable of distracting us to no end. As Jenny noted, they are altering the way we think about ourselves offline as well. Have you found yourself impacted in your offline day-to-day life by this personal branding? In my case, there has been a definite change in how my vacations are planned, for example. Looking for beautiful bookstores and trendy breweries to visit may not have made my list six or seven years ago, and yet now I find myself picking locations that have both.

Is this a bad thing? This is perhaps a mundane example as it is something I enjoy but are these decisions at the cost of something else? Maybe I would pick a location with neither of these things but instead allow me to get out and spend time in nature. Odell's book focuses on this very thing. How do we peel ourselves away from our computers and devices while reconnecting with something that restores us? She spends time exploring the parks around her place while learning about their history and the small details that make them unique.

It is something I've been working on myself—the simple act of getting outside and going for a walk. Going for a walk and perhaps not being distracted by anything. Leave your phone at home and try to avoid the distraction, and watch what happens. What do you see? What do you hear? I'm actually finding it incredible the variety of birds that live close to my house and the ponds nearby; perhaps a hobby for when I get older!

Like many of these books, I found it particularly enlightening to match my own thoughts about the attention economy while weighing the irony of being someone who creates content online and tries to capture your attention. How do we find balance in this new world? How do I find balance? It requires us to think deeply about why we do what we do.

A few guidelines:

a) You have to understand the fundamental reasons why you are creating content.

Books & Beers grew out of a desire to learn photography and also sharpen my writing skills. As time progressed and gained traction, it now creates value for others by finding new books and new ideas.

b) You need to understand the nature of the attention economy and look deeply at the impact it may be having on your life.

How do you interact with social media? Are you someone who can separate your personal life from one online? Have you found yourself picking up unwanted habits as a result of social media? Perhaps you are shopping more often or find yourself feeling more down than usual after having just scrolled through Instagram or Facebook. These are the small things that chip away at our self-esteem and lead us astray in understanding who we actually are. Does the idea of taking a weeklong break scare you? It's nothing to be embarrassed by because many of us are in the same boat. It should raise the question as to why though, and what fundamentally are you fearful of. It's more than likely the idea of missing out on something.

c) Do I feel good about what I'm creating and why?

This is perhaps the most straightforward question to ask but the most challenging to answer. If you've spent some time thinking about the impact on your life, do you feel good about your social media activity? Do you find that overall it has improved your life? With Books & Beers, I can definitely say yes. The act of learning photography and long-form writing has been a huge outlet for my own creativity, something that didn't exist before this.

Another concern that Odell and I share is the polarization that social media seems to foster. She writes:

"I worry that if we let our real life interactions be corralled by our filter bubbles and branded identities, we are also running the risk of never being surprised, challenged, or changed - never seeing anything outside of ourselves, including our own privilege."

Jenny goes on to recognize what Chris Bail also talks about in Breaking the Social Media Prism: "[the inability to publicly change our minds] is one of the things I find the most absurd about our current social media, since it's completely normal and human to change our minds, even about big things." Social media seems to have an innate ability to polarize people further. A conversation between two people face to face allows for more flexibility vs. a conversation that happens online where everyone can watch it unfold all while yelling themselves. As we become our branded identities, it becomes more and more challenging to change our views and beliefs. They become part of who we are perceived to be and thus who we are.

This book is a book for anyone feeling subtle anxiety about the world moving a bit too quickly and social media being part of the problem. It's a book that provides a prescription but ultimately forces us to ask ourselves what the best course of action is. Odell's own path may differ vastly from our own, but it eventually involves connecting with those parts of our lives that exist outside of a screen. You may enjoy being a creator, but it is essential to recognize the line between who you are as an individual and who the online persona is.


A few other posts you may find inspiring if you are interested in learning about social media and our place with it. A post on Chris Bail's Breaking the Social Media Prism. Roger McNamee's Zucked is an excellent look into Facebook and how our lives are being monitored for profit. If you want to make a big break then consider this post on Catherine Price's How to Break Up WIth Your Phone.

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