August 25, 2017 ☼ life
The other day, I was swimming laps in a local pool.
It was mid August in Brooklyn. Early in the morning, and the day was already hot. Pink sky and fluffy clouds. Mint blue water. A serene sight.
If I could see it.
Instead my eyes stung from chlorine. My vision was blurred. I could barely see my arms stretched out in front of me.
I reach the end of the lane, squint and lift my goggles off my face and tip out a teaspoon of water back into the pool.
My goggles were leaky.
An easy problem to solve, but until recently, I had no idea it was even a problem.
Let me explain.
Four weeks ago, I moved apartment.
We all know how we feel about moving. It’s not the most pleasant way to spend a Sunday.
At best, it’s painful. At worst it’s a nightmare. The road to hell is paved with cardboard and packing tape.
Maybe it’s the physical and psychological discomfort caused by disturbing your private space.
Or maybe it’s the banality. Carrying lots of little boxes from one box to another slightly more expensive box.
But it’s not all negative. Moving can also offer interesting and instructive perspective shifts.
I’ll show you.
Whilst packing, I came to the realization that I had accumalted a lot of stuff. Lamps, scissors, clothes, chairs, pots, pans, mirrors, paperclips. Drawers and drawers filled with things.
Let’s face it, we all own a lot of junk. And as a collective, that junk is choking the world.
That can be overwhelming to recognize, and most of the time, we simply don’t. But some of us do, and respond by doing what futurist Bruce Sterling calls “playing dead.” We stop buying stuff. We save. We re-use and recycle. It’s the opposite of consumer culture, and it’s the default position for most young, socially conscious people.
You might think that’s the good, morally superior position to take. I’ve learnt recently it’s not.
Playing dead is a terrible, reductive strategy, simply because you’ll never be as environmentally conscious as your dead great grandfather. Bruce calls this the “Great-Grandfather Principle.”
“You’re trying to save water, because you’re told to save water. All right, your dead great-grandfather is saving more water than you. You cannot possibly save any more water than a dead guy.
If you move into a smaller apartment, your grandfather is in a very, very small apartment. It’s underground, there’s no lighting, there’s no heating, he doesn’t have any broadband.
And furthermore, in a pretty short amount of time compared to the length of the problems you’re tackling, you’re going to be dead, like your great grandfather.”
Instead of playing dead, Bruce encourages young people to “do things you can do while alive. If your grandfather’s doing a better job at it, you can put that aside for later, when you’re dead, like him.”
One important thing to do while you’re still alive is to take a good hard look at all the everyday objects you interact with in your life.
To figure out what stuff to keep, and what to throw, he offers a simple triage method.
• Is it beautiful? Is it so beautiful that you’re going to proudly show it off to your friends?
• Is it emotionally important? Does it have a real story behind it that you would tell someone about?
• Is it useful? Does it work? “There’s nothing more materialistic than doing the same job five times because your tools are inferior.”
If your object does not satisfy at least one of those criteria, REMOVE it from your life. Virtualize it, store the data, get rid of it.
“You’re losing nothing by getting rid of these things. They have no real meaning for you. You are gaining time and light and space and health by removing these objects from your vicinity.”
So, with my mind blown, I easily sorted through all my possessions. Stuff I had relied on, used, looked at, protected, heated, stored, organized, every day of my life.
Gone. I donated a lot of stuff.
It was an interesting psychological experiment too. I’m a minimalist compared to most people, but I still found myself hemming and hawing over lots of things that weren’t particularly beautiful, meaningful, or even useful.
And I’m not the only irrational one. We all cling onto this crap.
Later, at a bar, I notice all the tiny scratches covering my friends sunglasses.
“Look!” I shout, pointing at her face.
“This is what I’m talking about! If there’s one thing that should work properly and look good, it’s anything you put in front of your eyes!”
She laughed, “Aww, they’re not that scratched…”
Back to the pool.
Despite my revelation, I was still clinging onto one last remnant of my former pretend-dead life.
And when I say clinging, I mean strapped around my face.
Standing at the end of the lane, I ripped off the goggles and flung them away.
Find your leaky goggle, whatever that might be, and remove it from your life, because you don’t need it.
If you do this you will be able to make room for the important stuff.
A few weeks later, I’m can now see where I’m swimming.
I think my great grandfather would be proud.
Bonus: I made a PDF with Bruce’s rules. Feel free to use it as a guide the next time you move house!