“Requiring demonstration of inadequate means up-front, rather than on the back-end, creates at best a delay between when a shock is experienced and when it can be ameliorated. “Delay” can mean your kid skips meals, you start rationing your insulin, or your family is evicted from its home. It’s a big deal.”
One thing I’ve started doing (without really thinking about it until just today) has definitely improved my life: I’ve changed my attitude about “saving” energy for later.
It used to be that I’d consciously do less, if I expected to need that energy later. (And not just with energy. I’d ration all kinds of things that I had in limited supply. When I was suffering from plantar fasciitis, I’d ration my time spent standing or walking.)
I do much less of that now. It’s not that I have boundless energy, but I’m consciously refraining from setting boundaries in advance: I treat my energy as if it were boundless—and then, only when I find that I’ve become very tired, do I go ahead and quit spending energy with reckless abandon, and prioritize recovery.
One key here is having come to understand how important that second step is. I deplete myself, and then I recover. The more I do both of these things, the better I feel.
Children are like this—boundless energy and then none. (It was somebody pointing this out that prompted me to recognize that I’d shifted in this direction myself.) Broadly speaking, natural systems often work this way. A grassland that is intensively grazed and then allowed to fully recover tends to be healthier, more productive, and more diverse than one that is perpetually grazed, or one that goes ungrazed for long periods of time.
I recognize that I have some privilege here. I’m in a position where, if I tire myself out, I can just decide to stop whatever I’m doing. Someone working on a chain gang (or in an Amazon warehouse) doesn’t have that same option. If you’re not in control of when you stop, acting like you had boundless energy could get you into real trouble.
“Ultimately, we the public will decide when the economy reopens, not the government.”
If people decide not to fly, not to stay in hotels, not to eat at restaurants, and to wait and see how things work out before making major purchases, it doesn’t matter if the “stay-at-home” orders are lifted or not.
Happily, except for playgrounds, outdoor public spaces are still open where I live.
The outdoors and sunshine are such strong factors in fighting viral infections that a 2009 study of the extraordinary success of outdoor hospitals during the 1918 influenza epidemic suggested that during the next pandemic (I guess this one!) we should encourage “the public to spend as much time outdoors as possible,” as a public-health measure.
Vicki Robin of Your Money or Your Life is right about responding to Covid-19 if you’re financially independent:
I wake up every morning asking, “What can I do for others to ease their material or psychological pain as Covid-19 upends our lives?” and “How can I use my leadership in communities of influence to increase vigilance where people are slack and calm where people are freaked?” The privilege of financial independence is the ability to serve.
I have always been an optimizer. I spend way, way too much time, energy, and attention optimizing things. Which is, you know, fine, even though my net benefit is small or zero, largely because I don’t focus my optimization efforts in places where I get the biggest payoff. (I’d say that I don’t optimize my optimization efforts, but I don’t want to tempt my brain into trying to do that. It would not end well.)
One place where my optimization efforts did end well has been in optimizing things for life under late-stage capitalism.
I was helped by a couple of lucky coincidences and a bit of lucky timing.
Purely because I enjoyed doing software, I became a software engineer at the dawn of the personal computer era, which gave me a chance to earn a good salary straight out of college, a salary that grew faster than my expenses for most of the next 25 years.
Whether because of my upbringing or my genes (my grandfather was a banker), I liked thinking about and playing with money, which meant that I was doing my best to save and invest during a period when ordinary people could easily earn outsized investment returns.
It worked out very well for me. I’m as well positioned as anyone who isn’t in the 1% to do okay in late-stage capitalism. (Frankly, better positioned than a lot of the 1%, who find it easy to imagine that they deserve the lifestyles of the 0.1%, and if they live like they imagine they should will quickly ruin their lives.)
This whole post was prompted by a great article that looks mainly at the efforts women make to optimize themselves under the overlapping constraints of health, fitness, appearance, and financial success in the modern economy. Highly recommended—insightful and daunting, but also funny:
It’s very easy, under conditions of artificial but continually escalating obligation, to find yourself organizing your life around practices you find ridiculous and possibly indefensible…. But today, in an economy defined by precarity, more of what was merely stupid and adaptive has turned stupid and compulsory.
One focus of that article is on “fitness.” I put fitness in quotes because of the way, especially for women, so much of fitness is actually about appearance. Perhaps because I’m not a woman—also perhaps because I’m already married, and because I’m older—my own perspective on fitness has gotten very literal: I want my body to be fit for purpose—fit for a set of purposes which I have chosen. I want to be able to do certain things because I have found the capability to be useful. (I also want to be able to do certain things that I can’t do, because I imagine that the capability would be useful, and much of the exercise I do now is intended to achieve those capabilities.)
In a sense, optimizing for fitness is really neither here nor there as far as optimizing for late-stage capitalism, which is mostly about money. And yet, really it is. My fitness suffered during the period I was working a regular job. Getting fit and staying fit takes time. To a modest extent, you can substitute money for time—you can pay up for the fancy gym where the equipment you want to use is more available, or take a job that doesn’t pay as much but allows you to squeeze in a midday run. But now we’re right where we started: optimizing for life in late-stage capitalism.
I should say that I’m delighted with how well my life has turned out. If I’d had any idea how little I could spend and still have everything I really want, or how early I’d have saved up enough money to support that modest lifestyle, perhaps I could have avoided a lot of anxiety and unhappiness along the way. But who among us has such luck? And more to the point, maybe some of that anxiety and unhappiness were crucial to my making the choices I did that got me to where I am.
I worry just a bit about my irresistible impulse to optimize, but like everything else about me, it got me to where I am. And, as I say, I’m delighted to be here.