The Illusion of Value

This isn’t an article, it’s a rant. And like any good rant, I don’t even really know who I’m talking to, however, I know I’m talking to you. I’m talking to you, because you’re the one that needs to hear this. Odds are, that likely means that I’m talking to myself and I just need an outlet to say the things that I really need to hear but I’m too cowardly to just say them to myself. But who knows, maybe something I’m saying to myself will strike a chord with you. So here we are.

Nothing you invest your time in is valuable. Prove me wrong on that, but for just a short while, I want you to entertain the idea that everything you work so hard at and everything you believe so strongly in simply carries the illusion of value. I want you to challenge yourself to that end because, like all preposterous statements, my words carry with them a grain of truth and it is only through our ability to acknowledge what we are doing something wrong, however insignificant, that we permit ourselves the freedom to do what is right; to find your value.

I used to tell myself that I wanted to change the world; affect a billion lives. Now I’m beginning to realize that all I really need is a few grinning faces. I used to tell myself that I wanted to disrupt the status quo and rewrite the course of technological history. Now I’m beginning to realize that I just want to feel clever, unique, and special. I used to tell myself that I was going to invent the next best things since sliced bread. Now I’m beginning to realize that I’d be happy with a couple of pieces of sliced bread.

And my core issue around these adorable little comments that I craft for your every chuckle and chortle isn’t the fact that I’ve lost sight of my values, it’s that I’m fundamentally beginning to question the underlying principles upon which they were founded. In the immortal words of Chuck Palahniuk, “we’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” Yet, I’ve stopped blaming my upbringing for promising me false hopes and started blaming myself for believing them. Fool me once, shame on you, but fool me for over 30 years, and good god, what is my problem?

My desire to change the world is the same desire that was shoved into every high-potential, overachiever as a kid. “With your skills, work hard and you could change the world.” They forgot to add the part about the contextual luck of a multi-lighting strike survivor, a network greater than Kevin Bacon’s, and enough sleepless nights to make medical professionals diagnose a new type of insomnia.

My need to disrupt was born of my underdog upbringing. I was met with hurdles so frequently that jumping simply became a natural way of living and to this day, I’m weary of any task that is too easy to accomplish. My upbringing didn’t create a winner, it created a fighter – a man who can become so caught up in the struggle that he misses sight of the true objective.

My desire to create something new came from a childhood of idolizing inventors like Edison, Bell, Tesla, Brunel, Turing, and da Vinci. However, nearly all of them existed during a time when it was possible for a single, polymathic mind to create something drastically new and change the course of history. To create something revolutionary in this day and age, it seems one needs a platoon of highly specialized individuals to bring together something remarkable at the convergence of disciplines that each would take half a lifetime to master.

These are my own strange, Lisa Simposon-esque intellectual obsessions and shortcomings. Some of them may sound familiar, but if they don’t, it likely just means that you have your own equally ridiculous, convoluted, and self-destructive motivations and beliefs that push you forward; not necessarily towards greatness or success, just forward, wherever that may lead. If this sounds disheartening, it should. You should question everything you know about yourself and your definitions of value and success. You may be one of those lucky savants who simply falls into place with their life’s work and meaning, but odds are much higher in this day and age that you’re another confused, ambition-filled human gun: capable of powerful and incredible acts, but only as useful as the last agent to grab hold of you, take aim, and pull the trigger.

Your purpose is likely not your own. It is something that has been beaten into you through some combination of your family, friends, and media influences. This may not be a problem with you if you’re fine with subconsciously fulfilling someone else’s goals and dreams, however, if you start to peel back the layers and question your own intent, you may not like what you find at the core. You may start to see that the dream that you’re chasing and the things that truly make you happy could not be more divergent. This isn’t a fun discovery to make, and dragging yourself through this self-reflective mud can be a difficult slog, but what starts to come out the other side has the potential to be more rewarding than anything you’ve taken decades chasing.

Personally, I’m still somewhere in the mud, however, with each arduous step forward, my masochistic tasks is rewarded by some glimmer of an understanding of true happiness. Already with only a few steps under my belt I have started to understand that my visions of grandeur are in face delusions. I love the idea of the big picture, but the reality is that I often get lost in it and simply become anxious trying to define such an all-encompassing vision in our increasingly large, complex, and interconnected world.

Instead, I find myself taking greater pleasure and purpose in small acts that begin to assemble together into larger meaning. I’ve begun to see my fools errand of attempting to rewrite history when so much of the writing is out of your hands. Instead, I find myself taking my energies to plant thousands of tiny seeds into the topsoil of history to see which may take root. In the end, none of them may, however, this way, I at least get to enjoy the process of planning and sharing with others without having to hold a vision, plan, and actions in my mind for months or even years before they come to fruition as little more than disappointment and exhaustion.

Fuck your purpose, you likely don’t believe in it anyway. Find a new one; one that you actually care about. Be selfish and challenge your motivations to ask whether they are truly your own or if your intent is simply being puppeteered from information or individuals vast distances, long times, or separate contexts away. It won’t be easy to deny these things and it won’t be easy to find what to do next. You’ll fail a lot, you’ll get worse before you get better, and you won’t immediately see the value in your actions. But keep going. Start small. You never know what things can grow into.

Shane Saunderson plays with robots, minds, and organizations.