on presence vs productivity

For the past year ever since I came across Maria Popova’s incredible website, Brain Pickings, I’ve been a huge fan. If you haven’t been introduced to it yet, here’s the time to click on the link to check it out. It’s, simply put, truly amazing. 🙂 It’s basically an amalgamation of bits of wisdom – timely and timeless – that she has culled from the incredible depths and breadths of her readings, in order to answer the question of what it means to lead a meaningful life. (Isn’t it great that there are so many people out there also grappling with this universally human question? And the fact that she happens to be kind enough to put her gleanings out into the world just makes the everyone else’s journey so much easier.) From philosophical writings, to Children’s Books, to beautiful artwork, her readings span a huge gamut of genres and she cross-references and links so many works to each piece that she puts out.

Recently, I’ve started listening to some of the interviews she’s given and they are wonderful soundbites of wisdom as well. One which I really enjoyed was when she was interviewed by Alexis Madrigal, and they touched upon a subject that she’s admitted to always being conscious of working on, which is that of presence vs productivity. It was a something she had originally touched upon in a piece that was about the 7 things she’d learnt from her 7 years of Brain Pickings (subsequently expanded to 9 things when the site turned 9).

Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.””

It’s something that really resounded in me. After all, the Chinese culture is arguably one of the cultures most geared towards productivity and the importance of having something tangible to show for one’s efforts at the end of the day. She had written before, about being worried, because for so many of us, “being productive is the surest way to lull ourselves into a trance of passivity and busyness the greatest distraction from living, as we coast through our lives day after day, showing up for our obligations but being absent from our selves, mistaking the doing for the being.”

A concrete example that she gave in the interview was about something as simple as the conflicting desire to want to enjoy a moment and also wanting to capture it through a photograph. Something that always always crosses my mind whenever I’m on holiday or experiencing a particularly wonderful moment in life that I feel so compelled to capture for myself.

She talks about Frederick Douglass (an African American social reformer), who had spoken about the power of aesthetic force, “which is an experience that we have when we encounter, that transforms us in the act of engaging with it. So a symphony, a poem, a sunset, in the course of that experience it’s the aesthetic force that really changes us… About a century later, Susan Sontag, wrote, in On Photography… about aesthetic consumerism, which is our tendency to reduce the experience to an object. For instance, by photographing a moment, as opposed to living it, and making it this package-able, shareable, marketable commodity. One of the dangers of our culture… is that we have come to mistake the aesthetic experience for the aesthetic object… The presence and productivity is very much about finding out for yourself which part feeds which… it’s a discipline to do the one that is truly rewarding, the one that changes you.”

I had struggled with this idea a lot more a few years back when I first started blogging. At that time, I remember thinking, if I do something such as visit a nice cafe and don’t take a photo of it or share it on social media, is that not a bit of a waste of a trip? When there could be so many other outcomes just by documenting it and sharing it? Or what about if I cooked or baked something and did not share it on Instagram? Did that not negate the entire morning’s work? Now that I think back about it, I do feel a little silly that I had even contemplated those thoughts. But now that she has elucidated those exact sentiments in such an eloquent way, it’s comforting to think that it’s not something that I myself have experienced before.

Elaborating on the point of photo taking, “if you do it for yourself yes, but if you do it in order to share or to get the productivity thing… like I need to put out 20 photos a day in order for this day to count…then it’s no longer about seeing but about being seen as a seer.”

That last bit so perfectly encapsulates my thoughts about social media nowadays. How much of it is us truly seeing versus wanting to be seen as seers? I think at the core, all of us want to be seen and acknowledged by the world. That is the same desire that drives us to want to create anything. To be noticed and not pass by the world without ever having put anything into it or made some form of a mark in the world. With social media nowadays, it’s much easier to be seen and there’s almost a certain formula that can guarantee that one will be seen by 10s…100s…1000s or millions of viewers. But once that becomes our driving force rather than the experience of the matter itself, then it begs the question of what our motivations were in the first place. At least for me, now, I’m able to reconcile that with the question of, is this something that is rewarding for me? That is transforming me or illuminating me? Is this part of the aesthetic force that I’m going in for or is it something that I’m reducing to an aesthetic object? Everyone’s motivations may be different and hence we may all arrive at different answers but at least now I’m always going to be cognizant of this fact. And the answer I get each time will serve to allow me to understand myself a little better.

It’s funny isn’t it? Because after listening to all these interviews, I think it just goes to show that perhaps no matter what we think, it’s highly likely that someone else has already thought about the same thing and perhaps to a much deeper extent. If we think we are in any way alone in our mode of thinking, we are definitely sorely mistaken. And the beauty of living in this day and age is that is so much easier to find such inspirational figures than it would have been, say, 30 years ago. Now it’s a matter of looking.

So, watch/listen to this wonderful interview below:

Any thoughts?



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