On our obsession to optimize

There is something about moving to a new city, starting a new job, moving into a new home [or as in my case, all of the above all at once] that triggers an urgency to optimize – this newness.

On many an occasion, I’ve found myself quoting a desire to “skip to the part where I’m all settled in”.
I can’t pinpoint what exactly I wanted to feel settled into. Was it my flat? My job? Or the city?
If I were to guess today, I’d say I wanted to feel settled within – this new person I was becoming.

And even though my brain kept reminding me that hardly any time had passed since I’d uprooted my life [again], I felt a sense of urgency in my bones. An urgency to optimize my transition into this new way of life.
Or a new me?

An identity crisis never comes as one clean cut.
The pangs and spirals are like cutting raw meat with a blunt knife.
It’s a lot of back and forth, pressure, friction, and above all patience.

I needed to find a way to keep up [or if I’m being honest, cope]. And what’s a better way to cope than a good old hit of dopamine that comes from the intense satisfaction of checking things off a list?

Now if you are anything like me, the urgency to optimize is only fueled [not alleviated] by task lists, and I had parallel ones ongoing on my iPhone, in my notebooks, on post-its; honestly about any medium that offered an outlet to organize the endless to-dos in my mind.

If I can take a step back to think about this with some level of objectivity, the obsession to optimize [the newness], starts in the “old” way of life – where one might call it planning. We can all agree that some level of planning is needed, required even when leaving a familiar comfort zone to enter an era of newness.

The problem begins when somewhere between planning and the race to find your [new] comfort zone, the lines start to blur.

As I find myself orienting to the different directions that merge or diverge my old and new life (self?); I can’t help but imagine myself standing at crossroads, only these exist in a parallel universe and draw parallels between my old and new life (self?).

It’s a new city. A new job. A new home.
I face a new choice.
But will I walk on the same [parallel] path?
The one I can optimize based on everything I already know.
And my old and new life (self?) would look quite alike.
Leading straight to my [new] comfort zone.
Same same but different?

Or could I dare to embrace the vulnerability of newness?
Make new choices.
New mistakes.
Sit with the discomfort of not knowing.
Let life surprise me.

If I can give myself permission to find out [rather than know].
Then maybe, just maybe, I could liberate myself from the limiting beliefs and behaviors that no longer belong to this [new] life (self?).

Call it a professional hazard, but bear with me as I quote a game designer (Soren Johnson) who captures my dilemma so perfectly –
“Given the opportunity, players will optimize the fun out of a game.” 

Reading (and re-reading) this quote, I can’t help but wonder, in my race to ‘settle in,’ am I optimizing the fun out of my life?

Where was the finish line to my race?
Why was I in such a hurry to get there?
What’s so wrong with a little friction in figuring things (life?) out?

And hadn’t relying on what I know only led me to question just about everything I knew?

Not making a compelling case for optimizing then, am I?

So what if I stopped trying [to optimize] for a second, just enough to recognize that this friction – between the old and the new – is actually offering me a pause in disguise?

A pause to reassess – what I like, what I’m good at, what I’m interested in vs what I think I am, and what truly matters vs doesn’t, even if I thought it did at one point.

Even if I thought it did at one point.
Yes, I can give myself permission to change – my mind, my life, and myself.

This pause is how I can truly exercise my choice.
A choice to balance the old and the new.
Keep. Or toss. Or make space for something new.

Yes, it all comes down to how we [pause to] make this choice.

At the Interesting 22 event this year, Nicki Sprinz & Helen Fuchs spoke about why we need more ravers in the world.

[Yes I have a point to make].
[Let’s not fall into the “get to the point” optimization trap].

The speakers took us down memory lane on the cultural and political significance of raves. Back in the day, one could only find out about a rave through word of mouth, flyers, or waiting around near public telephones to receive a tip on the location of one. If we think of this in today’s context –in the ages of Ubers, DMs, and Apple watches reminding you when its time to sleep, drink water or even stock up on your femme care go-to’s as your menstrual cycle approaches – it would be fair to think that no one showed up to these raves. After all, it sounds incredibly inconvenient, right? Surely there was a way to optimize this?

Tell that to the hordes of people who showed up and danced the night and following days away, finding not just bliss and escape but also a life-long sense of community in their fellow ravers.

This is what got me thinking [& what actually sparked writing this post] on our obsession to optimize. Is Soren right? 

In the obsession to figure it all out [quickly, efficiently, right here right now], are we optimizing the fun, the very essence out of life?

A bigger [bleaker] question looms – are we becoming hard-wired to optimize?

A few weeks back at a friend’s thesis presentation, the common theme of conversation led us to the post-human world – where machines are an extension of us [humans]. And no I’m not talking about a distant future filled with cyborgs. If the conversation that evening left me with anything, it was that the post-human era is already here and now. 

We look at most things from the lens of technology – feeding our phones before we feed ourselves, finding connections and collaboration through Zoom screens, even consuming art through the lens of AI – technology has intercepted every aspect of our life, especially in the last couple of years courtesy COVID-19.

Yuval Noah Harari, among many others, has explored in much depth the meaning and impact of technological evolution on humankind.
But that’s a topic for another day. 

Today, I can only deliberate on what it means to be human in a post-human world.
When the rules and definitions [of being human] are changing.
Where once what was natural, no longer is.
Neither are we.
Not in composition. Nor in our core.
And what was once intrinsically human – freedom to choose – is diminishing.
Faster for some than others. 

So how can we preserve our humanity?
In this post-human era.

The answer lies, as I said before, in the choices we make.
The pause we take.
That gives us space.
To question, reassess.
To give ourselves permission to not know [it all, or anything].
To give ourselves permission to reconsider, change [our mind, life, self].

Then maybe we can slow down, if not stop, the race to a post-human life (self?).
And maybe, in doing so, we’ll stumble upon the fun in living life as it’s meant to be lived – full of surprises, friction, and inefficiency even.
Where not everything can be optimized, or planned.
Where keeping an open mind [to change] we discover things we’d never [thought we’d] know or even find out.
Because it’s in this randomness of life that we find ourselves a little gift – the present.

Here and now.
It’s all we have.
Not back at the start.
Nor at the finish lines.

Our lives (and selves) are vast, diverse, and complex.
And optimizing it all, this life, won’t bring us to the finish any sooner.
And is that what we really want anyway?
To get to the end?

Going back to Soren’s thought; even players playing a game don’t really want it to end. 
So to what end are we optimizing our lives?

Let’s just take a beat.
Pay attention.
What makes our heart beat.
What brings us joy and peace.

Why not enjoy the friction.
In discovering.
In finding new ways (and selves).
Sometimes along those old ways (and selves).

Why not rediscover our humanity.
Even in a post-human world.
We can find joy in being alive.
And with it, find meaning [and grace] in being human.

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