You Can't Be on Top of Everything
Don't let the world overwhelm you—focus on what you can do, here and now.
When I was younger, I felt a more urgent need to be on top of things—a fear of missing out on history, I suppose you could call it. I remember how, because I was home sick from elementary school, I wound up glued to the television set the day Ronald Reagan was shot. I remember watching the first Gulf War, a decade later; a few years after that, I stayed up until the early hours of the morning keeping an eye on the failed coup against Boris Yeltsin.
And of course there were presidential debates, and election nights, and congressional hearings, and Oscar ceremonies, and Super Bowls (because even long after I stopped caring about any NFL teams, there were still the commercials). Then, in the 21st century, it was just as important to keep with what everyone was saying about those events on Twitter as it was to be watching them yourself.
I’m not sure exactly when I broke myself of this habit, although if I had to make a guess, it would probably be the night of the 2016 presidential election. (Well, actually, I probably stopped watching the Oscars a few years before that.) It’s not that I’ve gone cold turkey in the six years since then; I definitely put in a few hours watching the 2020 presidential election, and I did want to have some immediate idea of what was happening when Trump’s thugs stormed the U.S. Capitol two months later, so I turned on Al Jazeera for that. (Why Al Jazeera? Because that way I could at least get a perspective besides what the American cable news networks were offering.)
For the most part, though, I find myself increasingly content to let the truly important information come my way in due course. I don’t know for sure whether watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine live this last week would have made me more anxious about the situation than I am; I do know that it wouldn’t have increased by any measure my ability to do something to change the situation.
It was much the same with the onset of the pandemic two years ago. I certainly wasn’t going to watch every federal briefing, especially not the ones overseen by Trump personally, but I also didn’t bother with the regular briefings by New York City mayor Bill de Blasio or the state’s governor, Andrew Cuomo. I knew that my small network of trusted information sources would zero in anything genuinely significant or useful from those events, and I would learn about it then.
I picked up an expression from Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear about twenty years ago, the idea that “News means Nothing Ever Worth Seeing,” and while I don’t believe it absolutely, I’ve found it increasingly helpful. Again, to be clear, I’m not suggesting that we should be ignorant about what’s going on in the world—only that we should do our best to make sure the world doesn’t overwhelm us, because if it does, it will become increasingly impossible for us to fulfill our purpose in this world.
I wish I could tell you that reducing my exposure to current events has made me an insanely productive person, but of course it’s not that simple. I’ve found plenty of other ways to avoid creative work over the last half-decade; on the other hand, I believe that I’ve been able to do things—like (mostly) sticking with this newsletter for four years now—that I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise. And I believe that as I continue to apply myself, I will be able to accomplish more.
And I believe this holds true for all of us.
This feels like it’s worth repeating one more time: I’m not saying you should cut yourself off from current events, and I’m especially not saying that you should stop caring about current events. After all, your concern about the war in Ukraine, or about the ideological campaign to deny the full humanity of transgender people, or about the gross power imbalances that exist between American law enforcement programs and the communities they ostensibly serve, or the unrelenting climate emergency, or… whatever it is, your concern may well be a major driver of your creative energy.
If that’s true, especially if that’s true, then you need to make sure that concern doesn’t overwhelm you, doesn’t leave you feeling powerless to do anything more than watch. If you can tackle the problem head on, do that whatever way you can. If you don’t think you can contribute skills or expertise, but you’re able to contribute in some other way, do what you can on that front.
And if you have a story to tell, get to work on telling it.