The price of experience

Reflections on the difference between doing and experiencing, why Instagram is full of nonsense, and why 9-to-5 jobs still count.

Last night I took a walk around the city with a new friend in Kiev. He showed me the landmarks, we grabbed an organic, locally-produced beer, and we complained about people around us not wanting to change things, not having a positive outlook, and not wanting to relate to one another. We cheered to their selfishness and to our kind hearts, paid the bill, and called it a night.

Next morning, on my way to my 9-to-5 job, I stumbled upon an article on the internet about ‘the 9 thing the most productive people do every day’ (by James Altucher on TechCrunch, if you’re interested). It was a great read, one of those that motivate you early in the morning and fuel your work for a bit. Of the 9 items in the list, the last one was the meatiest:

We’re the sum of our experiences and not our material things. Experiences stay with us forever and build us into who we become. They add to our well-being. Material things get lost or thrown out or lose their usefulness. A good experience for me is: where I meet friends, where I learn something new, where I learn something new that can increase my freedom.
When I do something I know will be unproductive my gut reaction is saying “Ugh, I can’t believe I have to…”.
Here’s my trick: if I always change “I have to…” to the words “I get to..” then I can usually turn the experience into something productive.
Today I have to take my kids to dance recital rehearsals. But then I get to see them dance.

Who wouldn’t like this approach? Imagine if we could turn everything into such a rewarding experience: instead of filling in an Excel sheet, you are mastering the art of applying borders and backgrounds to tables and harnessing the power of numbers, increasing your freedom all the while. Beautiful.

The rise of experience(s)

James from TechCrunch is not alone in this approach; like him, thousands of bloggers, coaches, writers and who-else are taking to a more “experiential” way of life than the classic 9-to-5. There is an increased understanding today that one should feel and experience things, instead of simply doing them. It is a more reflective, almost romantic way of looking at life. And it’s all over the internet, especially on Instagram.

Before I move on, allow me some name-dropping here. Erich Fromm, back in the 50s, saw that people in his time were confusing love (an exercise of knowledge, responsibility, care and respect, he said) with falling in love (a state of excitement fuelled by adrenaline). He blamed it, partly, on the capitalist tendency to feed off the modern man’s inability to simply “be”, and off his fear of isolation. In today’s world, things remain pretty much the same: all around us we see a constant search for adrenaline and for self-assurance. Billions of photos in our phones, on Instagram, on Facebook, on Twitter. We capture the things we do and share them with others to turn daily routines into valuable experiences, escaping our own isolation in the process.

In On Disobedience, Fromm argued:

It is exceedingly difficult for a man to be moved by ideas, and to grasp a truth. […] But ideas do have an effect on man if the idea is lived by the one who teaches it; if it is personified by the teacher, if the idea appears in the flesh. If a man expresses the idea of humility and is humble, then those who listen to him will understand what humility is. […] Those who announce ideas — and not necessarily new ones — and at the same time live them we may call prophets. (p.14)

Fromm’s understanding of prophets was a positive one: extraordinary people who appeared in intervals of human history to exert an extraordinary change. Today, with the rise of experience, prophets are all over Instagram.

What does Instagram have to do with Fromm?

Nothing. Well, a bit. Think of what marketers call influencers. These are people who can reach a large number of customers and—not only — through social media influence them to behave in a particular way, using their experience and their way of life as the main attractor. When one applies this approach to daily life and social movements, influencers become prophets in Fromm’s sense: they bring a message of self-development, they live it, and they make others want it for themselves. In extraordinary cases, these prophets can inspire positive social change.

What marks the sign of our time, I think, is what I would call a “culture of experiences and emotion” — if you have a better name, do please let me know! — , a culture based on reaffirming the value of experiencing everyday life instead of simply riding through it. We first saw this culture taking over marketing: pop-up stores, engagement campaigns, restaurants “experiencing” food, coffee shops with their organic and responsible coffee, airlines selling the experience of traveling, or tourist agencies — and volunteering agencies, too — selling the chance to “experience a culture”. We then saw it in some schools, thanks to experiential education, getting students to do and feel things instead of just reading about them. Thanks to social media, and particularly thanks to visual social media, today we see the push for experience in most aspects of daily life: food, productivity, healthy living, you name it.

People who promote this trend often do so under the idea that it betters their life. Healthy food makes you, well, healthier; being aware of your body helps you stay fit and energetic; traveling and exchanging with other cultures builds your capacity to survive on your own and to think of the other. They are passionate defenders of self-development, and they often share the values and passion of the hipster movement. Taken to the extreme, however, the culture of experiences can become nothing but a way to satisfy our basic need for attention and reassurance, and to escape isolation. It also tends to look at the exotic to do so, and neglects experiences that may seem more trivial—like a 9-to-5 job.

For marketing, embracing the culture of experiences is a clear win: where we used to measure things in numbers, now we measure them in experiences. “How valuable is this experience? How much am I enjoying myself?” If you think that experience is just as hard to measure as happiness, it is no wonder marketers toy with the two, catching people’s hunger for experience and guaranteeing a lifetime supply of customers. Bravo. With regards to education, I could not be happier knowing children will — hopefully — no longer have to gulp 700 pages of text in two weeks like we used to, but instead will get to learn new and exciting things in more creative ways.

Still, something doesn’t feel right.

The price: experience, romanticism, and solidarity

Looking at the social media of well-off users, the rewards one gets from experiencing and feeling life more deeply are evident: immediate physical well-being from a bowl of granola and yoghurt, immense bliss when hiking the Carpathians, absolute joy bungie-jumping off the Australian Kings Canyon, or total happiness when quitting a 9-to-5 to go travel the world. Experiencing, so it goes, makes us stronger, more independent, and less conformist.

I don’t have a particular problem with the rise of experiences and emotion in that sense. In fact, I think it’s a great trend; let the people become more passionate! My problem is not with the end-goal of this culture, but with the way it manifests.

Experiences, as reflected in social media, often gravitate around the individual, around the personal joy one can harvest from them — they hardly go beyond self-profit and into, say, the concepts of sharing or solidarity. Granted, the very purpose of “posting” on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter is to let others partake of the things we live, and yet I can’t help but feeling we are building a world divided between those who “do” and those who “experience”. I wonder how we can bridge the two.

For those who cannot afford the privileges of a culture of experiences (be it because they have a family to sustain, a 9-to-5 they don’t want to quit, or because they don’t have the means to travel to New Zealand on a rotor-engine airplane), this new drive for enhanced emotion may sound like nothing but nonsense. Those who can afford such privileges might be disillusioned by the lack of engagement from their neighbouring “doers” and by what they might see as an incapacity to enrich their lives, and begin seeing themselves as a select group. In that sense, the culture of experiences could become yet another manifestation of the rift between the elite and the majority.

Thankfully, James from TechCrunch is right when he says “we’re the sum of our experiences and not our material things”. So was Fromm on his depiction of prophets. The message that we should capture from this culture for enhanced experiencing, emotion, passion and self-awareness is not that one must seek thrill and adrenaline in what’s outside, but instead that one can actually turn their daily activies into a meaningful exercise. The challenge is in how to do that when social media promotes an image of experience that is so radically unachievable for far too many of us.

Fromm suggested an answer 60 years ago: be reflective about the content of our lives, and acknowledge that action does not necessarily imply adrenaline, but instead often requires patience, care and responsibility — the exact same things that a 9-to-5 job requires. Let’s turn action, experience and passion from something exotic into part of our daily lives.

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