Identity Burn Out and the Digital You

Yesterday I was looking back at some old blog posts from 2002, my first year of blogging. At the time blogging platforms were next to nonexistent, so I took to pasting my posts onto webpages like a dork.

In 2007 I shifted to WordPress, and in 2008 my book RenGen: The Rise of the Renaissance Generation was published. It forecast the power of digital to be a creative force for social and economic transformation.

Around 2012, I saw that our collective relationship to the internet was changing. The attention economy and its back-end tools were highly seductive. Bit by bit, we grew addicted to our smartphones. Those optimists among us who found the rising digital culture fascinating—as I did—were slow to see what it was doing to us as human beings.

For starters, technology was burning us out. The full-throated excitement for building a new way to communicate, with its daily dips into social media was more taxing than we cared to admit. It hijacked our ability to stay focused and feel centered. Hyper-generation of personas to spread across platforms was secretly draining our creative energies. As a result, in 2018 American adults reported being 39% more anxious than a year ago. Not good.

The achiever in us said we needed to optimize our content, which meant optimizing ourselves. Welcome to the endless and exhausting pursuit of always needing to be more. More fun, more interesting, and crucially, more seen.

Eventually, I flamed out.

Speaking with others, I heard similar themes. I wasn’t alone.

Curious, I recruited people from Tumblr for a beta study. They showed me pictures and collages that conveyed their feelings anxiety, exhaustion, and self-doubt. It was visually arresting, numinous.

When I did my first round of interviews, people talked about feeling stuck and uncertain. I saw a pattern. These feelings were leading people to drop out, unplug, and drift from their moorings. Others would soldier on but talked about problems like insomnia and losing clarity about themselves. Either way, the woof and weave of the collective was showing signs of wear.

Many people felt the symptoms but couldn’t identify the source. What artist Gyorgy Kepes said about the modern psyche felt true: “We are all carrying chaos at our core.”

Bringing this to light became my mission: to make what’s unconscious conscious.

Despite being sparked by modern challenges, my endeavor is not a new one. In this newsletter, I share the story of how Buckminster Fuller overcame a state of terror at his failures and went on to become the beacon of innovation for generations of designers. Fuller’s life is an example of Neil Young’s chestnut: “It’s better to burn out than fade away.” Fuller hit a wall. But he took a step toward a different purpose and it restored his creativity.

As this mission has led me to reflect on my personal experiences in the digital age, I’m learning to write differently from a place of vulnerability. I also share my insights into what makes content more memorable based on reading The Next American Essay edited by John Agata, which is loaded with fissionable gems.

Looking up from my desk as I write this, the trees in my woods are bursting with red and orange colors. I watch as oak pods pirouette to the forest floor.

Just stopping to look, to take it all in, puts me in touch with something deeper. These times we’re living in will eventually fade. Endings mark new beginnings. The seeds for the next renaissance are being planted right now. It’s a good time to consider what joy and meaning we can derive not just from optimizing life, but feeling alive.

Which is life’s actual work.

As always, thanks for following along.

Photo by Dan Freeman