commitment as a defense against the void
There’s too much going on all at once: things to do, things to buy, friends to compare yourself to. People getting new jobs, getting engaged, getting married, having children, moving to Hawaii, moving to Colorado, moving back to SF; people starting new diets, starting Substacks and OnlyFans, asking you to watch their Youtube videos. We’re ruled by the constant obligation to create and consume and keep up with our peers. It makes feel vaguely nauseous. You could describe it as the nausea of modernity: too much information, too much optionality and not enough focus.
It seems to me that in our world today the balance between willing to change and improve and knowing who you are is tricker than ever before. Take this Substack, for example: I want it to be a very pure distillation of who I am and my thoughts about the world. That’s why I write about relationships, being a young woman, being in tech, the process of writing itself, taking care of my body, and the books and information I’m reading: there’s some universality to these topics, but I’m trying to comment on them through the lens of my personal experience. But there’s a million different Substacks out there, tons of people very successfully writing about politics, finance, amphetamines, and pop culture, and that creates the temptation to look at what other people are doing and think, hey, I could do that too. I think it’s good to constantly iterate your approach—to experiment and make improvements—but too much of that can veer into a loss of individuality. By copying someone else’s style you ultimately abandon your own.
In the end you have to choose: if you don’t make a choice nothing ever happens. I promise you that if you spend too long optimizing you’ll get existential in a bad way. Of course, it’s almost guaranteed that the choice you’ll end up making is not the best possible choice. That’s why it’s so hard for people to pick life partners: how can you know that the person you’re with is the best possible person for you? They’re probably not, they never are. But you still have to try your best to choose well. If you make the wrong choice, you’ll likely be miserable. But if you never choose at all, you’ll probably also be miserable. High stakes, I know. The best advice I can give (or at least the tactic I’m trying to take) is to wait until you know yourself pretty well (take time to explore, take time to experiment), and then decide without too much dithering.
Work is the same. I write because it’s what I know how to do. Sure, there are other things I know how to do—other things I could probably be good at—but writing is the thing I put the most time into. The time I spend is evidence of my love. I try to write about what I’m interested in in a way that is hopefully interesting and enjoyable to you. Committing to this is my defense against the void: it’s what anchors me to my life out of the millions of possible lives out there. There’s a lot of content out there about how commitment is necessary in order to get good at anything, but commitment is also important for peace of mind. Once you’ve made a choice you're better equipped to survive the onslaught of optionality around you. You don’t have to always think, oh, I could be doing this and this and this. Instead, you can focus on doing one or two things well.
It’s impossible to optimize perfectly for what other people think. Of course, everyone enjoys receiving good feedback: whenever someone emails me it makes my day, every single time. But I don’t want to be someone who’s all id and no superego, constantly trying to fill up my gas tank with compliments and feeling sad when it’s empty. I know lots of people who live like this. It’s a difficult and painful way to live. You don’t feel good unless you’re praised, you don’t feel good unless you’re seen. But who are you when you’re alone on a Saturday night with no new notifications? What would you have to commit to in order to like yourself if there was nobody there to shower you with adulation? If you know the answer to that question, you’ve found a sort of peace that no one can disturb.
What I’ve been reading:
I love Melissa Broder, and her new book Milk Fed just came out.
This New Yorker piece about dismantling Trump's immigration policies.
If you’ve never read this piece about a Harvard grad who spends his 20s as an professional Ultimate Frisbee player, read it right now. I still think about it all the time.
I’ve given up added sugar (for at least a month, but it’s looking like it’ll be longer). This book does a great job of explaining how sugar has made us sick.
If you love memoirs, Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy is killer.
I love this idea of commitment as an antidote to existential dread. I was first introduced to what I think of as "commitment as a defense against the void" via this Masters of Scale podcast episode with Shellye Archambeau. What got me about that interview was how throughout her life she always seemed so sure of her self. Whatever she wanted to do, she committed to it, set a plan, and iterated on the plan until she got there. That's it. It was mind blowing to someone like me who always wanted "options" and "freedom" and was obsessed with the idea that "I could be anyone if I really tried hard enough". After listing to the podcast, I realized that my way of thinking was handicapping my ability to get anything done. So I sat down, drafted a 5 to 10 year plan, and worked backwards to determine the steps I would take. And then I took those steps, adjusting based on intermediate results. It was scary at first to think that I would be pigeonholing myself into this one grand plan, this one direction, but soon I realized it was actually the opposite. The more I worked at it, the more confidence I got from realizing I was making my dream come true. And like you're saying, it helped me find a sort of peace that no one can disturb. By achieving my initial plans and filling my life with contentedness, I've been able to open up my mind and spirit to even more opportunities than I thought were possible before. I hope more people can find this kind of peace in their lives. Thanks for writing about it.
This was so great. It's amazing how much closer the void is than one might expect -- I once binged https://www.youtube.com/c/InvisiblePeople/videos and what's remarkable is how a single hit of heroin, a car accident, infidelity, or a layoff can suck people into the void and then it's so difficult to get out. It's easy in those moments to feel deep loss but much harder to cultivate gratitude before everything is gone.