Building Purpose in the Age of Digital Distraction (Introduction)

[Author’s Note: This post is a chapter of my forthcoming book 
RESET: Creating Purpose in the Age of Digital Distraction.]

Introduction: Why do I need to RESET?

“Work is hard. Distractions are plentiful. And time is short.”
Adam Hochschild, American Author

It’s a whole new world out there. A digital world.

Everything is changing: the jobs we have; the friends we choose; the hobbies we pursue; and the time we invest. We are living through a societal earthquake.

Each of us experiences this massive shift in intensely emotional, often disruptive, ways. We feel stuck, left behind, angry, afraid, and frustrated. Why? Because we are being tested in new and surprising ways. And so far, most of us are failing to take advantage of the digital world.

The common thread that connects us is that we were not prepared in any way for the digital world, or its endless stream of distractions. And how could we be prepared? Our parents had no idea what was coming. Neither did our teachers, mentors, and friends.

So we simply don’t have the right tools. Not yet, anyway.

The digital world makes it easier than ever to consume information, while also expanding the range of options at our fingertips. This traps us, numbs us, and ultimately destroys us. Our default setting has become mindless, passive consumption.

All of us in the digital world are swimming in a vast ocean of information, conveniently packaged to lull us into numbed complacency. And we are choking on it! We are being dragged down by a digital flood of texts, comments, videos, notifications, movies, posts, shows, articles, threads, and on and on and on.

When was the last time you looked up from a screen and couldn’t believe how much time had passed? You aren’t alone, believe me. All of us are suffering the same fate. We all feel the itch to pull out our phone everytime there is the slightest pause in our day. Assuming, of course, we aren’t staring at it already.

We don’t have to certify to become a citizen of the digital world. There are no classes, no training, no certificate. At some point we are handed a laptop or a phone, then we just . . . start using it. And we quickly become addicted to these devices and the bite-sized treats they dispense to us.

And if we aren’t careful, we will spend the rest of our lives this way.

The saddest part of our current situation is that each of us is suffering in isolation. We are struggling to figure out what works by ourselves. Why? Because the digital world is so new that we don’t have a set of rules for adapting to — and thriving in — this environment.

Traditional institutions will not help us. Our systems of education and business were built for another era. The mindsets and behaviors that we learned were all about the industrial age, where conformity and efficiency dominated. Back then, we were expected to keep our heads down, grinding away at work until we retired into sun- and golf-soaked irrelevance.

But that fantasy is no longer an option for us. Things change, and so must we. Eventually each of us will face the harsh truth: we are struggling in the digital world.

Most of us already sense this, and are trying to figure out the solution on our own. Ironically, this involves diving deeper into the world of infinite information. We read articles, listen to podcasts, talk with our friends, and then settle on a few changes we hope will make the difference. We may avoid answering emails for a few weekends, or try to unplug during our next vacation.

This is the equivalent of a new year’s resolution. Things might look good for a few days or even weeks. Eventually, however, your plan will disintegrate despite the best intentions. Why? Because a few uncoordinated tactical changes won’t save you from the world-class advertising machinery that wants to steal every second of your attention.

Unfortunately, the reality is that you probably won’t stumble onto a sustainable strategy that addresses the root problem. For that, you must uncover and confront fundamental issues.

This personal transformation is the purpose of this book. That’s what it means to RESET: to help lead you to the point where you begin building your purpose. To systematically change your mindset from one of scarcity to one of abundance. To shift your habits and daily routines toward consistent action.

It won’t be easy, but the goal is a worthy one: conquering distraction and living a life of purpose.

Success in the digital world can reward you like nothing else. You can develop skills that you never dreamed of, the confidence to tackle new challenges with enthusiasm, and the experience required to live a complete life. You can wake up feeling on fire to pursue each day’s unique opportunities. You can impact the lives of millions of people. You can leave behind a legacy that will inspire others. You can exploit the digital world, instead of being exploited by it!

We all sort of understand the situation. We sort of see how much our daily lives are changing. We sort of believe that the world is fundamentally different than it was a few generations ago.

Sort of is not enough. We must believe. We must commit. Only then can we live the principles of this book. Then we can experience the digital world in a different way. We can feel the changes in our bodies, minds, and souls when we have a clear and compelling mission, a bias toward taking action, and a daily structure that reinforces our goals.

If any of this rings true for you, then read this book. Everything will change when you start putting these ideas into practice.

Me with a local chieftain in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, 2010

How do I know? Because everything changed for me. I started taking advantage of the digital world years ago, mostly by an accident of my military service. I saw the effects of technology while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan as a United States Marine. People’s lives were literally transformed before my eyes through access to information. They went from sitting in remote mud-walled homes to checking email in the blink of an eye!

The quest to understand technology’s impact on us led me to Singularity University, where I worked with some of the world’s most accomplished entrepreneurs and futurists. There I learned about the accelerating momentum and power of technology. This paired with my research at Stanford studying how our lives change with each new wave of technology products. It wasn’t just academic, either. During college I deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, forcing me to test my thinking against the harsh realities of war.

After graduating I dove headfirst into building a series of successful businesses. Right now my work is split between running entrepreneurial education programs around the world (out of Stanford and for GE), and helping the military solve its most difficult problems by working with Silicon Valley’s best and brightest engineers.

Finale of the Stanford entrepreneurial education program, 2015

The military and Silicon Valley are wildly different environments, of course. The cultures, dress, language, and worldviews diverge in many ways. I wasn’t expecting to find a common thread running through them. But I was wrong.

I learned something simple and profound from my years of experience at the seam of technology entrepreneurship and national security. Two of the most demanding activities on the planet share some common ground. Both cultures learned to foster the same things, albeit for very different reasons.

What is this powerful truth? Simply this: your mindset and daily habits are most important predictors of your ability to live in a fulfilling way. No matter the environment — from war to business — we can create purpose every day through our actions. And it is this purpose that will sustain us in the face of the digital world’s distractions. A deep, fulfilling purpose is the only lasting cure.

Easy to write, and hard to put into practice. But once we got the foundation right, everything else falls in line.

I wrote this book to walk people through this difficult process, and help them take practical steps to improve their daily lives in the face of endless distractions. Instead of guessing, I want you to take the best of what already works from other brilliant and inspirational people, cutting-edge research, and personal experience. Use the parts that resonate with you. Toss out the rest.

RESET flows through four phases, each one building on the last. In Part I: Challenge — Chapters 1 through 4 — we will explore the nature of the digital world, especially its educational, social, and financial dimensions. We will finish Part I with a better picture of why and how the world is changing so quickly.

In Part II: Inspiration — Chapters 5 and 6 — we will dive into the inspiration and logic for your reset. We will learn from people and organizations who have already walked this path. This part points us in the right direction.

In Part III: Foundation — Chapters 7, 8, and 9 — we will discuss the principles that let us adapt successfully to the digital world. We will see the hidden value of mission, action, and structure. These three powerful concepts are the open secrets of a few visionaries who already figured out the digital world!

In Part IV: Method — Chapters 10 through 16 — we will walk through your unique path toward fulfillment. We will construct a plan to increase your sense of purpose while minimizing the distractions that threaten to overwhelm us every day.

The chapters in this book follows a pattern. Each one starts with a question, a prompt that orients us on the material. Then we explore the question with stories and analysis that make up the bulk of the material. Finally we close with a recap of the key concepts, some follow-up practices, and additional resources if you are interested in learning more. And in Part IV you will also find specific guidance that will channel your enthusiasm into useful changes in your mindset and behavior.

This book will help you get perspective on your own life and the challenges you face. You will find common ground with the people in these stories. You will also learn both the Why? and How? to begin adapting your behavior to the digital world. Especially the daily re-creation of your purpose.

By the end of the book we will see how the right combination of mission, action, and structure helps both you and the people you care about. That’s right: even your family and friends will benefit from your RESET. This mutually guaranteed success is part of the beauty of the digital world. Everyone can win!

I want you to do this book, not just read it. I want you to grab this opportunity to starting transforming your mindset and habits.

We’re going to see how adapt to — and thrive in — this new digital world. We will learn the surprising truths about evolving from a life of distraction to one of purpose. From consumption to creation. From passive to active. From the trivial to the significant.

This transition to purposeful action, especially in the service of others, is the secret to success in the 21st century. I hope you’re ready to earn your place!

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