Midlife, books and watching Adam Curtis films

This post was written 10 months ago.
Thu, 20 Oct 2016
Right. I am going to do a kind of review now. Review in the "Getting things done" sense. I have to admit, my efforts to implement GTD in my life have to date not been that successful. My brain always seems to want to take over the collecting and scheduling etc. again. My suspicion is, this is because my tasks and appointments are just about managable without resorting to a system that needs quite some energy to set up and keep going. I am still looking for the sweet spot where I can benefit from some of its aspects while keeping it lowfi enough as to not cost too much enery to follow through with it. I will keep on trying!

But let me start not so much with all my projects, "next actions" or any such thing.

I want to look at what is causing me (and perhaps others, especially women?) this thing that almost feels like a pain. This tension, which by now contains the realisation that you probably won't become anymore what you possibly could have, less than you'd been capable of. When I last went out for a meal with close friends in Germany, all women, I said at some point "I still want to achieve something". As if having a lovely family and a pretty specialised job in an area you basically self-trained yourself in, didn't count. And yet, if I'm honest with myself, I still feel the same. It must have sounded overly ambitious, competitive, as if I was after outer success, but I don't think that's what I meant.

I think it has to do with competence and an urge to be creative, while feeling you don't have the means for it; also, not feeling competent at anything in general - on the contrary, feeling pretty inadequate.

When I was a teen, I had an anthology of pieces by women writers. There was an extract from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It started something like "I started adding up all the things I couldn't do" and in the end, she comes to this conclusion: "The one thing I was good at was winning scholarships and prizes, and that era was coming to an end". I later bought the Bell Jar, it must have been one of the first books I read in the original English version. The similarities between how Plath was experiencing things and myself was so striking it blew me away. It was comforting, too, that I was not the only one feeling that way. In particular what she describes in that quote, that feeling that you cannot really do anything properly, has remained with me up till now; it is not always present, and occasionally I manage to convince myself that I know some stuff, but yes, it is still very strong.

By now, this is also coupled with a feeling of powerlessness on the political level. That I cannot stop nasty things from happening, not even when acting in a group. Is that true? I am not sure. It looks like we are still on a downward path, economy-wise. And then there is the poisoned public discourse which I hope has reached peak shrillness and meaninglessness now.

Returning to the above, what is interesting here, is to make a distinction between the perceived lack of competence and the real one. And while it happens with the best intentions, telling me I've got impostor syndrome does not help me that much. Yes, I might have that, because almost everybody has it, especially in tech. But that does not mean I'm not dissatisfied with where I'm at and would like to know more. Of course, I have reached a certain level of competence, I can do my work (sometimes I get a bit stuck, but by and large I can do it). If I think about it - hm, I had actually not been so clear about that, so writing does help! - in this particular area, the level I'd like to reach is where I can a, contribute to Open Source b, teach c, create own projects/use my skills in projects that are meaningful to me.

There is something else, this is again political, I am jumping back an forth. So, there is the actual competence, but then there is the entitlement, for lack of a better word. That does not really match it actually, what I mean is perhaps, being effective out of habit. Being used to being in power, used to being able to do things. I wonder if that is one of the things pupils learn at a private school. You can do things! It could also be that, for whatever reason, this message was just quite weak in my own youth (although a class-mate once actually said to me "You can do anything you want" - meaning my good grades). Knowing something, but then also using it. And by using it you get better at it..

Two more things regarding perceived vs actual competence. Another significant book in my life has been Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig. I read it in my early 20ies and then again in my early 40ies! I believe Robert Pirsig is the grandfather of all geeks and his style of writing must have influenced many tech blogs. If you read the book now, his way of writing would probably not seem that unusual but that is because it has become mainstream. One central philosophical idea of the book is that we are capable of recognising quality even if we can't define the criteria for it. We recognise good writing style, good design ect. At the ReasonsTo conference in Brighton, Stefan Sagmeister gave a good example when he showed the audience a work of art by Mondrian and a fake one, side by side. Asked to say which was the real one, by show of hands, a vast majority went for the correct one.

Then there is this about the Dreyfus model of skill acquisition, which David Moody pointed me to at the hack night. I once started reading "The Pragmatic Programmer" and really liked it, and the book this chapter is taken from is by the same people. I like the idea of these distinct stages, and I like the idea that people on a team can be at different stages, not everybody has to be an expert.

I want to make a somewhat structured effort to move along this scale, and document it as well. Again, I have to make sure that the documenting does not take up too much energy, I will just record some things that I find significant steps, things where I improved beyond what I'd have thought.

But really, if some of the above sounds a bit negative, in reality I am not unhappy at all (with my learning, world politics is a different thing!). If I look back to 5 years ago, I have already got much further than I thought I would. It took me longer than young people nowadays who decide to become a web developer (and have grown up with computers). Many times I didn't learn in a very effective way. But I'm glad I persisted, because I really do love working in this area.

I won't write so much about the Curtis films anymore, but wanted to mention them, because they do always have quite some effect on me. So, I watched Hypernormalisation on IPlayer - I then also started to watch Bitter Lake which was made about two years ago and which I had missed. But I stopped for now, as it is becoming a bit too much (I normally don't watch any telly). It is scary to think, with the many things mentioned in those films that I had not known about, how many more scary stuff is out there. But mostly, Hypernormalisation reinforced an uncomfortable feeling I (and others, I am sure) had already. We are not really ruled by politicians anymore but by corporates, the potential of technology for evil goes much further as we want to admit to ourselves, and what is presented to us as political discourse is just a spectacle that is put on to distract us. I don't really watch it anymore, just what I hear about it is enough to make me turn away in disgust. Will we ever get to some place of normality again without there being a huge catastrophe first? But really a lot that is happening is already catastrophical, that is the sad thing.

In the credits, the Massive Attack musician Robert del Naja was one of the first people - or the first? - Adam Curtis thanked. I found that intriguing and googled the two names together. I found this article in Vice about a show they did together in 2013. I think the trend they mention there, to obsess about the past, has only become more pronounced, with the Brexit vote being the culmination. And yes, entertainment these days is probably quite conservative even if it doesn't always look like it, and is capable of exerting control. And this sentence sums it all up for me, and has stuck with me: "If you like yesterday we are going to give you more of yesterday so you never get a tomorrow"

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