Monthly Archives: February 2013

Why Do Things?


Cats are amused by the concept of ambition.

The previous post may have given the impression that I’m against doing stuff, which is not the case.  I’m a major stuff-doer.  I don’t, however, think that the way to encourage people to do stuff is to systematically devalue those who don’t, leaving the disabled, the mentally ill, and the disenfranchised–people who are less able to do stuff due to circumstances beyond their control–as collateral damage.  So why do stuff?

Because you want to.  Why do you need another reason?

The article previously addressed makes a curious conflation of stuff you do and stuff you do for other people, never acknowledging the difference.  But there is a difference: You can make the former happen, but not the latter, because the latter necessarily depends on the actions of other people.  For instance, you can just get up and write, but you can’t just get up and become a New York Times bestselling author (a reward apparently bestowed only on the unworthy).

So what if you write all the time and never get published?  It’s a perfectly common occurrence.  Then, according to that article, you are not doing anything for other people–no one else’s life is a speck different than if you didn’t write–and therefore no one will love you and you have no value*.  What a capricious metric.

Which brings me to one of the oddest bits of the article:

Do the math: How much of your time is spent consuming things other people made (TV, music, video games, websites) versus making your own? Only one of those adds to your value as a human being.

That’s got to be the first time anyone’s told me to spend less time reading.

Setting aside the obvious point that Wong is telling people to stop reading his article (the best advice he offers), notice the conundrum: Creating material for consumption is good.  Consuming material other people create is bad.  Imagine the result if everyone followed Wong’s advice: Everyone would constantly be creating things that would then languish unappreciated because no one would ever spend time consuming them.  Writers already know that the market is difficult because creation exceeds demand; he would drive it to the point where there wasn’t even a single reader for each book.  And then, naturally, the writers would be worthless because no one read their works.

And that’s even before you consider how one is supposed to create something good without exposing themselves to the good things created by others.  Increased knowledge makes you a better conversationalist; doesn’t that add value to you?  And if you’re strictly comparing how much you create versus how much you consume, wouldn’t one be better off doing nothing than reading a book?  And what if your ambitions are actively harmful to other people?

Obviously the creating-value-for-others measure is worthless in practice, so let’s metaphorically throw other people out the window and try a different reason: You should do things because you want to and doing them will make you happy.

A theist like me will wax eloquent at this point about gifts, but you don’t need to believe that God made you for a certain purpose to know that doing certain things makes you happy, and that it’s a more enduring form of happiness than you get from simple diversions like a TV show.  It’s natural to be proud of something you create, for instance, whether or not anyone else ever knows about it.

But what about someone who never does anything productive and never wants to?  What if you work a dead-end job and otherwise sit around on the couch eating potato chips and watching soap operas, not because you haven’t motivated yourself enough to pursue your real ambitions, but because you honestly have no bigger ambitions?

Well, what of it?  If you’re taking advantage of others in your quest to be lazy, that’s one thing, but if you’re happy and you aren’t harming anyone, who’s to say that there’s a problem?  It’s not many people’s ideal lifestyle, but it’s not their life.

There’s no need to overthink this.  If you’re already happy, then there’s no problem.  If you aren’t happy and there are things that you could do that would make you happier, do them.  But you may well be unhappy for reasons unrelated to what you do, and if so, then beating yourself up about what you have or haven’t done is pointless.  (I hope Wong’s article hasn’t caused any depressed people to fall into a spiral of lacking the motivation to do anything and then feeling worthless because they haven’t done anything.)  Be good to other people because people have value.  Allow them to be good to you.  There doesn’t have to be anything complicated about it.

*I was pondering whether Wong would say that you have an obligation to self-publish, since you have an obligation not only to do something but to do something that affects other people.  We may never know.

Image found here.


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