Recently, I joined my friend Sean Bonner at a dinner gathering he put together for the sake of productive conversation. Sean is one of the most interesting people you’ll ever meet, because he’s a person that has ideas and then actually follows through on DOING the ideas. I’d try to describe who Sean is, but he does that best on his website:

Sean Bonner is co-founder and global director of Safecast, a visiting researcher with the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media, sits on the board of CicLAvia and holds advisory/mentor roles with both the Highway 101 Incubator and Singularity University. He previously co-founded Coffee Common and Crash Space and was a founding collaborator to the multimedia art/music collectiveCMHHTD. He has been a regular contributor to BoingBoing as well as written editorials for MAKE, Al Jazeera and others. He maintains a regular link filled newsletter and has been a Shuttleworth Fellow since 2014. A selected artist CV can be found here.

As you can see, Sean is a bit of a Renaissance Man. He’s a fountain of plans, and moves from whim to whim with a desire to examine, deconstruct, master, and either conquer the new passion or move on to the next. I’ve long supported Sean’s endeavors, because I am inspired by the seemingly limitless drive which motivates him to constantly try to make himself and the world better.

At the dinner, we discussed the state of our society. Eventually it devolved into politics, but along the way we had a hearty discussion about the impact our relatively newfound access to instant global information is having on our collective psyche. I voiced a not quite fully formed opinion that our instant link to everything an Internet connection provides may be more than our brains can handle, and that we are perhaps drowning in the perpetual failure of trying to parse an unprecedented amount of data. I made the argument (justification?) that my own temporary solution was to stay local, for the most part, on the impact I can make on the world. Since I can’t fix global problems, I can find some small success in tending to the immediate needs of people in my daily life and local community. I can descend from 30,000 feet, and start interacting with the people around me at ground level with full attention.

Since that dinner, I have done quite a bit of self-examination. I wondered if my own mood, seemingly always tinged with an underlying sense of panic and dread, had any correlation to incessant data noise. By merely plugging my brain into an unending handheld pipeline of stress, am I bombarding my senses with impossible problems, amplifying my own insecurities, and constantly absorbing the anger and frustration everyone else seems to be feeling? Possible, I think.

Even more recently, I had the not so fun realization that I’m probably a textbook control freak. From Wikipedia:

Control freaks are often perfectionists defending themselves against their own inner vulnerabilities in the belief that if they are not in total control they risk exposing themselves once more to childhood angst. Such persons manipulate and pressure others to change so as to avoid having to change themselves,and use power over others to escape an inner emptiness. When a control freak’s pattern is broken, “the Controller is left with a terrible feeling of powerlessness … but feeling their pain and fear brings them back to themselves.

I googled it because I found myself sitting in anger one day watching someone do something that didn’t fit within my parameters of how something should be done. I then found myself wanting to apologize to strangers for that person’s behavior, and realized, with some sadness, that the issue was almost certainly my own. I went home, determined to look inward. I wanted to search the web for “what is my fucking problem,” or “why am I an asshole,” but eventually settled upon “am I a control freak?” And there it was. Each search result hit me in the gut. It’s a personality disorder, and man, from what I read it’s a pretty rough one for other people to be around.

Lots of things clicked once I realized, as they say, I’M the asshole. At first, I was shocked that it was so obvious, and then I was ashamed that it took me so long to recognize the problem. So much of my anxiety and stress can be directly connected to the insatiable need to control the way things are done around me, including the data pouring in from the ongoing global conversation. It’s a hopeless battle for me, ending always in dissatisfaction.

I started changing some bad habits. I felt both tremendous relief at the recognition of my problem, and a slight dread about whether it’s a problem I can fix. Letting go of the need to be right about everything has been an indescribably welcome relief. I have continued to feel the emotional release as I stop trying to control everything happening around me, and adjust to the freedom it gives my brain. The world doesn’t need my imaginary harness. It’s doing just fine without it. And so I’m experimenting with letting go of trying to dictate the terms for everything that happens. Stress has quite literally sloughed off of me like an extra heavy skin I’ve been carrying for as long as I can remember. What’s gone with it? The daily grind of creating, cultivating, and tending to an online persona. Is that part of the control thing? I think so. I was so tired.

There is a new stress in being vulnerable. Letting go of trying to control people’s perception, letting go of trying to control the person I present both IRL and online, letting go of trying to build a flawless system of systems around me in every aspect of my life has been scary and remains a work in progress. It’s a challenge. Abandoning old habits is difficult not because I am afraid of what I leave behind, but because I am uncertain about what lies ahead. Undoing the bad parts of who I am requires faith in my conviction to do so, even when the end is neither clear, nor in sight. I think that applies to my personal health, various addictions (physical or behavioral), and especially the way I listen to that smart voice inside that always seems to know when I’m drifting off the path.

Perhaps that is how these two seemingly disconnected ideas connect. I want to pay better attention to the people I encounter every day. I want to not be thinking of the next thing on my list when I interact. Similarly, I’ve been trying to pay that same focused attention to myself. By really listening, both to the people around me and to myself, maybe I can drown out the blaring speaker of perpetual discord blaring through my phone, my laptop, and ringing on in my own subconscious until I make the decision to shut it off altogether and hopefully, hear something much more pleasant.