Big tech’s inspiring COOs, faux apologies, and philanthropy all smear Vaseline over the lens, obfuscating more social damage than any sector in recent memory. The industry has employed tobacco/NRA genius to a communications strategy best summarized as “Fabric Softener” or “Lipstick on Cancer.” One of the lens filters is big tech’s coopting of terms that reflect some better things about our species: like, share, friend, engagement.
I’ve written a book on happiness (The Algebra of Happiness, Portfolio, May 2019). If this sounds ironic or incongruent with my visible anger (at everything), remember that most comedians are usually assholes… and depressed. Except for Flip Wilson. Flip was awesome. He was always ready to put on a dress and a wig. Seventies, macho America, and a black man would wear a tight minidress to speak to David Frost. Fearless, a role model for me. My dad and I ran into Flip once on a golf course. I was 10. He immediately engaged with me — made eye contact, ran over to give me golf balls, and lay down on the green and pretended he was doing the backstroke to make me laugh.
I’ve been thinking about the building blocks of happiness. Happiness is easily confused with pleasure. Netflix, Cialis, and Chipotle can bring short-term happiness but won’t build the narrative of lasting meaning and satisfaction. The narrative that, if you were to recite it on the back half, quarter, or week of your life, you’d feel as if you’ve earned the right to drop the mic. A life well lived, so to speak.
If you were to distill the elements of this narrative down to a few building blocks, the carbon of life might be engagement. Not the number of likes, comments, or shares on a piece of content posted to a platform, but the visible investment you make in someone or something else with your most precious resource, you. (If social media were more truthful about the metrics they use, the activity on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube would be referred to as “enragement.” That’s the building block of their business model, and the test they study to. But that’s another post.)
“Emotional involvement or commitment” is how Webster’s defined the engagement building block. It’s how we say “I find you interesting/captivating/worthy” on the front end of a relationship (the easy part) and “You matter to me” as we continue to invest in the relationship even if it lacks the buzz of “new” (the hard part). Psychologists say the number-one predictor of a couple headed toward divorce is contempt (e.g., an eye roll). Ambivalence is the antichrist to engagement and the bridge to contempt.
The best periods of my life have been defined by engagement, and my worst moments by lack of it. In the mid-seventies my mom, dad, and I were living the American Dream. Two immigrants who had been pulled out of school at 13 were thriving in America. My dad was a sales manager, my mom a secretary, and I was doing well in school and little league. They saved and extended beyond their reach with one of the greatest innovations since the wheel — credit — to buy a home in Laguna Niguel. My dad and I went body surfing on weekends, and if you stood on your toes in our living room you could see a strip of blue. It made our home “ocean view.”
Slowly our home became infected by ambivalence. My dad was no longer interested in my mom or me. He was spending time in Houston engaged in a budding relationship with a woman who’d become his third wife. (It would be easy to make her out to be a bad person. She’s wonderful and was wonderful to me.) My mom was either depressed or so fed up with my dad that she became indifferent, ignoring us both. It was an ocean view home filled with… nothing. It wasn’t what happened that made it a depressing environment, but what didn’t happen. There was no affection, no teasing, no arguing, no discipline, no conversation. Nothing. The few times I think I’ve been clinically depressed I didn’t feel sad, I felt nothing. As if my feet were hollow and my being had experienced a brownout.
The next time I felt the same nothingness I was 33, after my divorce. I had consciously decided I wanted to disengage. Disengage from internet startups (burned out at 33), San Francisco (the most overrated city in the US), my marriage, our friends (mostly unremarkable people who had mistaken luck for being remarkable). I moved to NYC to be all about Scott. Work a little bit, make fake friends, who were more partners in partying than friends, and not be reliant on, or reliable for, anybody. I was an island living on an island. Tom Wolfe said, “One belongs to New York instantly.” I found I also took to being alone instantly. Maybe it was being an only child or slowly becoming more like myself, an introvert. I could go days without interacting with anybody else and was fine.
Teaching at NYU, partying at Lotus and Pangea, vacationing in St. Barts, and occasionally advising a hedge fund — being selfish came easily to me. New York is a great place to be selfish and anonymous. I reverted to a caveman and would only leave my loft for food, sex, or to hunt (make money). It was an empty experience. Though, as empty experiences go, it was pretty good.
As I approached 40, survival instinct kicked in. While being an island nation is a doable strategy in your thirties, it steadily becomes apparent you’re making a choice. The choice is… death, as men who live alone have much shorter lifespans, and you can sense it. Single men could die about 8 to 17 years earlier than their married male friends. Mortality risk is 20% higher for those who are socially isolated and 32% higher for people who live alone. We are pack animals, and mortality rates, especially among men, skyrocket when you’re not actively engaged in other people’s lives. Most studies on longevity across genders cite the strongest signal of a long life is how social (engaged) you are in other people’s lives, whether it’s marriage, friends, children, or colleagues. For a 50-year-old, the biggest predictor of your health at 80 isn’t your cholesterol level, but the quality of your relationships.
The Road Back
The key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.
— George Vaillant, Harvard Study
My road back, or re-engaging, is fairly cliché. I didn’t plan on having kids, but having two boys got me off the island. Investing in a partnership to create a household with laughter, crying, chaos, and engagement. Same at the dog park as at school: making friends, since we see each other all the time as we exercise/socialize our dogs/kids. Re-engaging at work as paternal instincts (providing) kick in, and the fear of failing on a cosmic level is real.
Greatness is in the agency of others, and if you aren’t willing to engage with co-workers, you aren’t going to be an effective leader. Corporate America has invented a term for people who are talented, but don’t want to engage — sole contributors. This is business Latin for asshole: someone who’s talented enough to recognize they can be an asshole (not engage) and still be tolerated. Big tech and media have conflated talent with being an asshole. No, the two are not correlated — it’s that some talented and fortunate people find currency in being an asshole. Most people don’t have that luxury. As I reread the last three sentences, it dawns on me this is a decent description of how I behave at work. I’m working on it. There’s a real dignity and grace to people who are super talented and super nice. These are the people who, near the end, get to drop the mic.
My oldest now responds to most of my questions with monosyllabic answers. I continue to ask, as occasionally I get a full sentence back. Sometimes he’ll even initiate a conversation, and I become flustered with excitement, as if an alien is reaching out to talk to me. Even though they appear indifferent, we tell them when they’re messing up, as we believe they’re listening. There’s just a lag to them hearing what you’re saying. Every fourth game, I play Sushi Go! with them. I trust when they’re older they’ll recognize this card game is, for adults, so awful as to be just short of an enhanced interrogation technique.
Our youngest comes into our bed 2–3 times a week. During the day he takes great care to fight me… on everything. I mean everything. However, re-engaging, at night he stumbles to our room and, similar to a peace offering, straddles me as if he’s hugging a tree. I wait a few minutes then roll counterclockwise and spill him into the center of the bed and put my hand on his back so he knows he’s part of a pack. He drifts off. He is not just sleeping, but dreaming, processing, learning, and growing — 1.5 millimeters each night. He’s asleep. It’s just that this process has a similar effect on his dad as a cold plunge pool, and I’m now very much awake. The cold plunge sets in motion the process of getting up, peeing, walking around the house, checking on his brother, maybe peeing again, and not sleeping. I may not get the sleep back, but I’ll recapture the hours, as I’ll be around longer. I’m engaged.
Life is so rich,