what are you going to do with your time?
Secret of Mana video game promo art by Hiro Isono (1993)
The way I see it, modern American society is a lot like a massive multilevel video game designed by our parents, managers, and government — all without any pre-planning, principles, or plot coordination between parties.
It’s no wonder the game’s plot feels weak and unsatisfactory. Where’s the hero arc? The ultimate salvation? The clear metrics in the corner that tell us if we’re winning the game or not? Instead, all we get is second-hand backstory and form-filled talk tracks. “Meaningless” is how some people put it. It’s just too easy to peek under the hood and realize there’s no master plan or final destination.
And maybe there never was. But at least we maintained the illusion better before. We used to be told how to live, provided lore that outlined where the lines were drawn between right and wrong, and granted something resembling safety and stability in exchange. Yes, I’m talking about the glue of society: religion. “Literally false but metaphorically true,” as Bret Weinstein puts it. In our dramatic pendulum swing away from collectivism towards the most extreme form of individualism that we’ve ever experienced, we’re now forcing ourselves to come up with all our own answers to the existential questions that have plagued humankind since forever. What is our purpose on this planet? Do we have a responsibility to one another? Who even are we?
Answering those questions alone is asking a lot of a person. The easier option is to choose from the platter of social-strata-acceptable possibilities we’re presented with for education, occupation, geographical location, personality, etc, and call it a day. In contrast to the tightly-knit choice architecture that religion used to provide, each of our choices now has to stand separately — it’s on you to narrate any cohesion to your existence.
There are a lot of benefits to being good at that narration. Describe your “calling” convincingly and you've defined a new game that others want to watch and play. But it’s a catch-22: if you spend all your time constantly sketching (probably quickly outdated) pictures of your thinking on the bigger questions we’ve all been tasked with answering, you neglect the actual doing that would reveal answers with richer hues. It’s too easy to confuse playing the “performing yourself” game with figuring out who that self really is.
This is what growing up very visibly online is like. It’s hard not to internalize the sense that you’re constantly being watched and thus everything you do demands a defensible explanation. Granted, there are many benefits to this — incredible opportunities are unlocked by constructing a digitally consumable caricature of yourself that makes you legible to literally anyone in the world. It’s probably the most far-ranging bat signal possible to find people who think and feel similarly to you.
But spending too much time as a character also comes with a lot of unforeseen consequences. Anecdotally, my digital tracks followed the natural evolution of a girl online: starting on Tumblr when I was 12, traversing to Instagram in my teens, and finally arriving at Twitter in my twenties. Being given this dopamine firehose at such a young age has shaped my brain’s choice calculus in difficult-to-define ways. My mind’s decision-making process doesn’t default to what I’d find most satisfying — it instead filters for which options would be both respected and easily understood by my audience.
The pressure to perform and live up to the expectations of others is not a new social phenomenon — nor a bad one. But the way it manifests at the internet’s global scale increases its intensity tenfold — especially for young people. The goal is no longer to simply live up to the high expectations of your parents and peers — online you could be striving to appease the CEO of the company you most admire’s ambient interest in “your trajectory.” The potential to be believed in by so many people you don’t even know is both a uniquely internet-enabled blessing and a surprisingly heavy burden to bear.
The funny thing is that the nature of the internet means that even if you do happen to garner the attention of interesting and important people, their belief in you will always be passive by default. There’s simply so much friction in the process of turning belief into action online — meaning that most of the time all you actually get from internet attention is internalized impossible-to-attain expectations for yourself and an extremely confused ego. Why do these people believe in me? Who do they think I am? What do I even want to do? Having some of the most extraordinary people alive watching and commenting on your every move makes you feel like doing anything less than extraordinary would make you a catastrophic disappointment.
The effect this has on a young person with a lot of “potential” and opportunities available to them but not a lot of pulse on what they find meaningful yet is too often paralysis. With infinite options on the table and your entire professional reputation and future prospects in your hands, you’re forced to ask yourself: what am I going to do with my time and how do I make sure I don’t mess this up?
Let’s break down the options.
If you opt for an off-the-shelf game like becoming a PM or going back to school, you’ll quickly discover that these paths have been expressly designed to minimize downside. Sounds great, right? Sure, until you realize that they’re only minimizing one very specific type of downside: status. While these “safe routes” safeguard how low your status can go by nature of their title carrying clout, they don’t necessarily impart any sense of meaning. And more importantly: each of these games’ upside is capped. Even if you do end up shipping the product or graduating from the best school, you’re still doomed to hit the ceiling of the game some other person designed for people like you to play.
So maybe it isn’t so safe to play those stock games after all. Or at least, it depends on what you consider “safe.” If you care about personally choosing the shape, scale, and direction of your impact on the world, you might find that playing off-the-shelf games turns out to be a remarkably risky bet. There’s just no money/time-back guarantee that any of the off-the-shelf options will continue to fit you as your desires evolve. And maybe that’s ok — but continually reinventing yourself is a tiring and time-consuming task that too often leads you away from the real “calling”-finding-and-defining work.
This is why optimizing for satisfaction is almost always the most meaning-making and longest-lasting option. In my book, big things are only worth committing to if the answer to the question “would you do this thing even if no one was watching?” is an immediate and unequivocal yes. That isn’t a selfish question, by the way. Instead, it ensures sustainability. Continuing to play games that only feel rewarding when other people are watching is a trap that too many never crawl out of — resulting in so many people’s short shelf life working on important problems.
Nonetheless, there is still value in playing off-the-shelf games — even if just for a brief bit. First off, the legibility granted by success within these games is not to be underestimated — after all, there’s a reason we respect successful scientists and (sometimes) politicians. The power in winning pre-packaged games is the ability to influence people now. If that matters to you, my question is this: how much are you constraining yourself to your local maxima’s platter of present-day status games? Are you really considering all the games — including historical, status, and geographic-agnostic ones? After all, what happened to archetypes like the instigator? The inventor? The polymath?
I see us as always having two distinct options: you either 1) consider all possible games and then use your won influence wisely, or 2) design a custom game for you alone to play that shamelessly follows the nose of your satisfaction. Don’t try to play both at the same time or you’re bound to feel frustrated by failing to achieve influence or satisfaction. If you opt for satisfaction: realize that while the plot’s shape will likely only be revealed in retrospect, defining your game’s guiding principles might be a good place to start. In my case: “I solemnly swear I will not be boring.”