187 million emails, 38 million WhatsApp messages and 18 million texts are sent out every minute. This speck of time allows for 4.3 million YouTube videos, 1.1 million Tinder swipes, 1 million Facebook logins, 500,000 tweets, 3.7 million Google searches and 400,000 mobile-app downloads. Taking a yearly count makes things even more intimidating – 100 trillion emails are sent every year.
We spend 0.3 million hours watching Netflix every minute, a 400% increase from last year. I have been reflecting on these numbers, along with the key takeaways from civic reformer Pete Davis’s riveting commencement speech at Harvard. He starts off with an image many of us relate to.
“I am sure many of you have had this experience – it’s late at night, and you start browsing Netflix looking for something to watch. You scroll through different titles, you even read a few reviews, but you just can’t commit to watching any given movie. Suddenly it’s been 30 minutes and you’re still stuck in Infinite Browsing Mode, so you just give up – you’re too tired to watch anything now, so you cut your losses and fall asleep. I have come to believe that this is the defining characteristic of our generation: Keeping our options open.”
He makes three key points in his speech. First, fear of meaningfully committing to something makes us a perpetual nomad thirsty for that elusive satisfaction. Second, everyday boredom and distraction impede our ability to focus on things that matter. Third, everything worth doing takes time.
You might be familiar with Swedish psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s "10,000 Hour-Rule": the idea that becoming world class in something requires 10,000 hours of dedicated practice. Ten thousand hours means 26 years of focused effort for one hour every single day. Twenty-six years seem a lot, so let us try bringing it down to six. What would that entail? Four hours of undisturbed effort in a state of meditative trance. If we follow through, we could have a shot at being world class in six years. This sounds realistic, even doable, but how many of us actually put in this kind of effort learning and unlearning every day?
We live in a blizzard of information and often don’t find time to process it. We begin our days with a flurry of emails and messages, and get on with responding, reacting and managing chaos. This gives us the illusion of being busy, but are we really being productive? Are we accomplishing more or less?
Now let us explore the impact of our lifestyles on creativity. Tim Harford’s book Messy celebrates the impact that messiness has on our lives. He explains that the human qualities we value – creativity, responsiveness, resilience – are integral to the disorder, confusion and disarray that produce them. One might be tempted to jump to the conclusion that being disorderly, confused and disarrayed makes us creative, but that would be over-simplistic and might give Tim a panic attack. The larger point he is making is that non-linear, unorthodox, seemingly messy modes of engagement can foster creativity and innovation in the right context.
One of the reasons we are continually in the respond-and-react mode is that we want to be connected. We have a profound fear of missing out, even if what we are missing out on happens to be a cute cat video. Since we end up engaging with so many things, we run the risk of forgetting why we are doing what we are doing, especially if we don’t carve out time to pause, reflect and synthesize what is going on.
Paul Erdos went about connecting and collaborating differently. Erdos was one of the most loved, most networked, most brilliant mathematicians ever. A true giver, he produced more papers during his life than any other mathematician. Some were published posthumously. Technically, Erdos kept publishing seven years after his death. His collaboration principle was something we can all learn from – give serendipity a chance, be clear with your goal and focus on making the collaborator successful.
The Fields Medal is the highest honor in mathematics. Erdos never won it, but several people he helped did. Erdos is best known for the “Erdos Number”. It wasn’t a theorem or a tool, but a measure of how close you were to working with Paul Erdos. Research has shown that, in many cases, mathematical prowess is proportional to how closely you worked with/were influenced by Erdos. Two Nobel prize winners in physics have an Erdos Number of 2. Fourteen have an Erdos Number of 3. As Erik Barker puts it (drawing upon Adam Grant’s research), Erdos made people great.
Erdos lost his two sisters to scarlet fever the day he was born. His mother was so scared that something would happen to him that she didn’t let him go to school or leave the house. He grew up with no friends. Given the context, it is worth noting that the boy with no friends growing up ended up creating the greatest network in math, perhaps the greatest that ever will be.
Erdos accomplished all this without the internet. Just imagine what he would have done if he had modern productivity tools, social media and new-media technologies at his disposal. Some might say he would have exponentially enhanced his impact and reached millions of people. Or maybe he would have been distracted by adorable cat videos bombarded from well-wishers around the world.
Being a techno-optimist, I think he would have managed his consumption of technology to enhance his productivity and scale his impact. His online lectures, blogposts and papers would inspire millions and serve as fertile ground for collaboration on a daily basis. If he felt like unwinding outside the realm of math, he would create a meme of Isaac Newton’s cats, which would have been educational in its own way.
Technology is not deterministic. It is a function of our choices. How and what we consume digitally is largely up to us. These are some bits of advice I have stumbled upon, discovered and learned from people I look up to:
1. Remember the five person rule. We are an average of the five people we spend most our time with. Surrounding yourself with people you respect and look up to is one of the most effective ways to find purpose.
2. Spend at least one to two waking hours a day offline. This sacred hour(s) is to unplug and focus on the key goal of the day or week. I have personally seen a marked difference in happiness, productivity and well-being of people who have started following this.
3. Know your focus, but collaborate across boundaries and disciplines. The best ideas are often a fusion of different strands of thought – philosophy and physics, math and music, art and engineering.
4. Remember that being busy and being effective are different things. Today, it is possible to be very busy, put in copious hours of work and still not create anything of consequence.
It is time to commit to ourselves, our communities and exit the infinite browsing mode. In the world of Pete Davis, “We should pick a damn movie and watch it all the way through … before we fall asleep.”