In Defense of the Unoptimized Life
Give yourself the space to be inspired
At the start of the new year, I feel guilt-tripped by Twitter threads. Whenever I scroll some guy is telling me to optimize life so I can “be productive.” Thought leaders argue in the replies that overheating in saunas—wait, scratch that, it’s now freezing to death in ice baths—will unlock eternal life. Life coaches say that I must talk through every emotion in therapy, or actually, the better thing to do is to not talk at all, on a silent meditation retreat. Diets are a mess, too. Meat only! No, just snort kale juice! There is a relentless pursuit of optimization.
Self-improvement is great and productivity is wonderful, but something about this vein of thought feels off. When I try to follow this advice, I may temporarily get more stuff done, but it comes at the expense of my soul. I feel like an obsessive-compulsive lumberjack, hyper-focused on marginal improvements in my sawing technique—until one day, as I finish my labors, I realize I accidentally clear-cut the forest for the trees. The little things we do to make ourselves better may end up draining us dry.
Instead, I would argue for the unoptimized life.
My argument for an unoptimized life is a little subtle, so give it room to breathe.
When we focus too hard on being a little better every day, we destroy the ability to be inspired.
When I first started writing online, I felt a lot of pressure to do things the “right” way: tweet the threads, create a newsletter “product,” etc. I studied people more successful than me and tried to emulate their style. The business results were fine, but I got burned out to the point where I had to take a few weeks off from writing anything at all.
Now, I run this newsletter poorly. There is no rhyme or reason behind my topic selection; my tweets are riddled with spelling errors; the courses I teach are challenging to find. I don’t do podcast interviews, and just the thought of attending an event to “network” makes me break out in hives. If I schedule more than five or six meetings a week, I start canceling them, regardless of their importance. (Sorry if you’re one of the people I’ve canceled on and are just finding out the real reason right now). Despite that (or for the sake of my argument, because of it), my work was read over 1 million times last year.
I’ve achieved this success because I’ve partnered with an exceptional team of writers at Every. Our collective effort has resulted in more than 66,000 subscribers and over $50,000 in subscription MRR. Yet my perspective is that we also don’t run a very optimized publication, either. We might be more successful if we stuck to a specific beat or made editorial compromises around sponsorships or subject matter, for one thing.
But my success has also happened because I’ve given myself space. I ignore all the extra things I’m “supposed to do” that I mentioned above so I can pursue something called “afflatus.” Afflatus is a Latin word that refers to a sudden rush or inspiration, seemingly from the divine or supernatural. Moments of afflatus are euphoric and intoxicating. When they occur and I create output, I always end up happier.
I’m not advocating for a lifestyle of ease and no work. I work so, so hard to make this writing happen every week. There are always late nights and sacrifices. What I’m arguing for is the cultivation of a state of being to allow for afflatus to occur.
My wife shared a Kurt Vonnegut interview with me in which the author discusses going to buy some envelopes.
“Oh, she says well, you're not a poor man. You know, why don't you go online and buy 100 envelopes and put them in the closet?
And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I'm going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope.
I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don't know...And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don't realize, or they don't care, is we're dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we're not supposed to dance at all anymore.”
We are dancing animals, not quick-sync meeting animals.
Sector of the gods
It isn’t that I think my way of doing things occupies a moral high ground over those who care about being productive. My colleague Dan is someone who I admire both personally and professionally, and he has dedicated years of his life to the pursuit of organizing himself. The key difference is the thought and reasoning that goes into the changes you’re trying to make.
I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to cultivate afflatus in your life. How you construct your life is your business. It could be that you need to take an ice bath (I actually enjoy daily cold showers). At Every, we have already published articles outlining how to try to live your values.
But we get so caught up in the daily grind, in the pursuit of the next step of the ladder, that we miss the point of being. I think the default state of life is that we will get filled up with small things. Whether small productivity improvements or minor inconveniences, it doesn’t matter. Either take away our chance to focus on something more.
In David Foster Wallace’s commencement address, “This is Water,” he stated, “The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline [emphasis added], and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.”
You can be productive with 100 meetings a week or zero. Who am I to say? What matters is the ethos and thought with which you approach all of life’s activities. We love the idea of productivity hacks because it is so seductive to think that you are just one adjustment away from achieving outrageous success. But that’s not the case. The only way is hard work and giving yourself the space to do it.
There is a term in Greek closely related to Latin’s afflatus: enthousiasmos, which refers to being possessed by a god or spirit in a state of religious or creative ecstasy. To work in the technology industry is to dally in godhood. Our daily task is to play with the stuff of creation. We fly as Hermes with our rocket ships, know as Athena with our large language models, hold power like Zeus with our nuclear reactors. With work that is so important and so sacred, it feels silly to waste time on marginal gains. I would argue for the unoptimized life because it is the one that gives us the space to do and be more.