Presidents face this same challenge. After the significant achievement of winning an American presidential election, they think they can just adapt their campaigning skills to the White House. That's a mistake. It's a very different job.
Before I started down my list of questions, Goldsmith asked if I would commit to an exercise. I agreed, and a lively interview followed. He is energetic, impish, with a well-polished story for each point he lands. I found myself agreeing with him, getting swept up in charm. Afterward, when I remembered the promise, I wasn’t exactly sure what I had committed to. Was I on the hook for a kidney? If I wanted to back out, would I have to get someone to say “Rumpelstiltskin”?
It turned out that all I had agreed to was to establish a routine.
Goldsmith emailed me a spreadsheet. I was to write questions in the left-hand column. These questions were ones I would ask myself that reflected my goals in work and life. They could be basic: Did I work out? Did I practice guitar? They could be cosmic: Did I find meaning this day? At the end of every day, I was to pose the questions to myself and grade my progress. I could write whatever questions I wanted, but I had no freedom from the daily accountability exercise. I had to do it. This, Goldsmith said, was the hard part. Most people jump ship after two weeks.
John Dickerson: The hardest job in the world
If I stuck with the regimen, though, I might gain some control over my days.
I was drawn to this exercise because I already had a list. Unfortunately, I was not its author. Amazon, social media, cable television, bad-faith arguments, and my own vanity had been writing the list for me. During the day, these corrosive forces stole my attention, spending it frantically. I wanted to unsubscribe from that list.
We are wired to flit. Saint John Cassian, a fifth-century monk, complained that the mind “seems driven by random incursions.” This is not entirely bad. Without a jumpy mind, we'd be less creative and experience less joy, surprise, and spark, but this architecture also leaves us vulnerable to attack. Social-media companies, advertisers, opinion makers, and media companies have grown ever better at luring us in our distracted state.
The content they serve up has become so attractive that we can get addicted to the interruptions. When there is a lull, when the Zoom call has grown stale, we look for diversion. In time, this develops into a habit, and then an addiction. We get hooked on the jolt of dopamine delivered by a “like” on Twitter, a “heart” on Instagram, or information that affirms what we already believe. Studies show that we will chase the reward of that brain chemical with the passion of a gambling addict or smoker. The pull of dopamine is so strong that when there is no immediate reward, the disappointment makes us hunt more fervently. Pelted by news alerts and emails, alarmed by the hair-on-fire claims of the extremely online, we end each day empty and worn.