Last night I dreamed that I bumped into Nassim Nicholas Taleb in a cafe.
He was sat thinking, recording his ideas via audio note on his mobile phone. Then his phone rang and he spoke to someone in Arabic for a few minutes.
After the phonecall I introduced myself. I told him how inspired I was by his Antifragility concept.
Half way into this dream, a girl in a beret snuck behind the philosopher. She switched his beret, which had been resting on a shelf behind him, with hers.
He didn’t notice the girl but, before she finished sneaking behind his back, I pointed her out to him. He had a twinkle in his eye as he stopped her and reclaimed his hat.
The whole time, he seemed gathered and at ease, in good spirits.
Once the girl was gone, it was like she’d never been there. He finished his conversation with me and went back to his thinking.
I think this dream illustrates my own inner dialogue pretty well. I adore well developed, longform writing and thought: philosophy, theology, fiction. I long to be part of that world. But I have a boundary problem: I let too many of the thoughts of others into my head.
I do this through Twitter, news apps and email. Before I deleted some of my apps, I was also a slave to Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Flickr.
For example the BBC app tells me “worry about the Democrat Party leadership contest,” and I do. Even though the outcome of this particular contest will have little or no impact on my life. Even though there’s nothing I can do to change the outcome.
By letting others dictate what I think about I lose control of my mental space.
I lose the opportunity to apply my thinking abilities to the work of crafting ideas that I can be happy with.
The girl who wants to steal my beret and the guy who wants to stop and have a chat have distracted me from my work of thinking.
Unlike the Taleb of my dream, my undisciplined mind falls prey to the many things that vie for my attention.
Now I’m not saying that I want to cloister myself from the world. There will always be diversions, welcome or otherwise, from the path I expect to take.
But there’s a difference between handling everyday intrusions and choosing a lifestyle of distractedness.
There’s a phrase that Paul of Tarsus uses in a letters to his followers: “take captive every thought.”
I think he’s alluding to the fact that we have some influence over what we think about. We have responsibility for taking every thought captive.
But how do we do it? I think it involves looking at each one, examining it and asking “does it belong in my mind?”
We have to cultivate mental space that we own and that reflects our values.
Thinking right is important
We all know that thinking right is important to how we view ourselves and the impact that we make on the world. We’ve all seen the damage that thinking wrong can do to a person’s life.
We’ve known people full of potential but held back by their fears of who others say they are. For some of us, we are those people: always asking ourselves, “who do you think you are?”
If thinking right is so important, why we give so much mental space to others?
After all, those “others” usually don’t have our best interests at heart.
Back to the BBC
All news organisations are in a competition for readers and viewers. Reporting feel good news doesn’t attract readers the way that reporting danger does.
Humans want know what risks are ahead.
Journalists know that a story describing some new risk will be easy to sell to a news agency. Their goal is selling papers, and spreading fear does just that.
Those agencies have apps and Twitter feeds that keep us updated on the Breaking News that we need know about.
At any moment we can be interrupted with the latest notification. The new thing that totally overshadows whatever it was we were just thinking about. Our previous thought relegated to the back burner.
If it’s not our just our hunger for knowing about risk that keeps us tuned in. We are also plagued by FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out).
It’s no fun being the only person who doesn’t know about that latest thing that just happened.
But in this sphere not missing out (NMO) isn’t as satisfying as we expect.
In the real world, when we let FOMO take over, the payback is usually tangible. We go to that party instead of staying home. That means that we have the memories and experiences of that party.
But most of the breaking news that we hear doesn’t offer us a payback. Our day gets distracted because X has happened, but there’s nothing we can do about X.
Sure, we can talk about it. But the outcomes of this particular scenario are out of our hands. Instead of feeling engaged, we end up feeling alienated.
The elites skirmish and play their power games and all we can do is spectate.
Our news cycles are set up to reinforce dissatisfaction and a sense of powerlessness.
Take the power back
I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to this question. It’s something we each have to weigh up for ourselves.
There are some for whom electronic discipline comes naturally. They know when to turn off their phones and focus on the real world.
And there are others who just don’t see it as an issue. The convenience of constant connection to the shared consciousness far outweighs its drawbacks.
But I’m not in either of those groups. I want to take back my inner space, and I can’t do it without conscious effort.
Maybe I’ll begin by learning to take every thought captive.