Notes on Surviving the 21st Century

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If you are suffering from 21st century over load well don’t worry. It seems you’re not the only one. Not according to Matt Haig’s new book Notes On A Nervous Planet anyway, which is currently enjoying a stint on the best seller list. It appears that Haig, like many of us is also struggling with occupying a primitive body in a digital, super charged world. The book is in some ways a how to guide in surviving the modern world. How do we deal with so much change when we as human beings don’t really like change all that much? This is one of the many topics he attempts to tackle. Haig asks, “How can we live in a mad world, without ourselves going mad?”

Now I’m going to be honest, some of the facts in this book are frightening. Some might even bring on a panic attack, which is exactly the opposite of what Haig is trying to achieve. He is brutally honest about the effects of over exposure to social media, lack of sleep, a 24 hour news cycle and an ever increasing addiction to smart phones. So much so that on the second night of reading it I went to bed, too late of course and began feeling very anxious. I thought about all the terrible habits I’ve picked up that are slowly killing me and worse still I really enjoy most of them. I didn’t sleep very well that night. As a self confessed over thinker just like Haig, I began to over analyse these facts. Haig uses the Shakespeare quote very effectively here saying, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”  Some of the scary facts that I obsessed over were about technology and the way in which we are using it to frighten the lives out of ourselves. He cites one very successful marketing book that says the best way to sell products to consumers is by using fear, doubt and uncertainty. The more unfulfilled we feel the more we buy and so the world keeps turning. Or so they would have us believe.

Perhaps the most depressing fact I discovered was that the CEO of Netflix believes his biggest competitor, is not other companies like Amazon or HBO but in fact sleep. Yes sleep is the thing they are trying to fight against. Comforting isn’t it?  Makes you begin to understand why so many are struggling with mental health problems and why as Haig points out, the whole world is in fact having a collective panic attack. Basically it’s that good old never enough feeling we’re all trying to fight. Never enough time, never enough things, never enough money. Surely the next click, the next purchase or box set will fix it but strangely enough it doesn’t. Panic breeds more panic so perhaps its time to slow down, breath and reboot. Or as Haig would say just “add a comma to your day”

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Fortunately Haig didn’t leave me hanging in despair for too long. He went on to offer some very helpful solutions as to how we can counteract this feeling of overwhelm. Some of them are the usual healthy tips, drink less caffeine, less alcohol, get more sleep and spend more time away from our devices. These things we all know of course, the irony of blogging about disconnecting is not lost on me I assure you. The fact that you will, if you feel so inclined that is, read this blog post on one of your many devices I’m well aware. However Haig does offer other useful tips such as look up at the sky, breath, don’t hate follow or get into a Twitter war about North Korea, no matter how tempting it may be. He also gives a welcome reminder that we can in fact choose what to take in and leave the rest behind. We are over burdened with choice all day long but we don’t have to pick it all. Remember that old adage people used to say when you were young, you can be anything you want. Well lets just say for argument sake that it’s true. Perhaps we can be anything we want but we can’t be everything. We can’t have it all because we are just one body and one mind and it’s too much to take. But maybe we don’t actually need it all, maybe some of it will do just fine.

It sounds simple I know but the reason this book is so endearing is because Haig admits that it really isn’t. Turns out he is also just a mere mortal doing all the wrong things like the rest of us. This left me with the comforting feeling that we’re all in this big mess together. I think that’s the whole point of the book really. The realisation that it’s not just you and you’re not alone. We are all trying and mostly failing, to deal with modern life. The real truth is that none of us are built for it so it’s no wonder we feel so ill-equipped. Haig discusses these things with such humour and humility that it really made me root for him. In the same way I believe he is rooting for all of us.

He also touches on the subject of loneliness and perfectionism. Why is it that in a world where we are more connected than ever before we feel lonelier than ever? Haig suggests that perhaps the gap between the person we are presenting ourselves to be online and who we really are is growing ever wider. We are building a brand and when we fall short of the person we’ve created we feel even more isolated. He quotes Kurt Vonnegut who says, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful who we pretend to be”  and so the challenge becomes to find ourselves amid as Haig would say “the crowd of ourselves”  I told you it wasn’t easy but one of the solutions he offers actually is. He urges us to go out and talk to an actual human being. He proposes that connection actually has nothing to do with WIFI. The book is full of crazy ideas like these that might just blow your over stimulated mind. Or if you are anything like me, they may just make you feel a little bit better. Because as turns out we are all just human after all, go figure!

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