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What's the smallest unit of meaning?
This week I started a new class at the School For Social Design. They're teaching me how to be more articulate about my values, so I can design social systems that scale without succumbing to meaninglessness.
The first reading assignment is Joe Edelman's essay Four Social Worlds, presenting 4 lenses to observe any social situation: perceptive (what's objectively happening), appreciative (what it means to me), normative (what's expected of me), and strategic (how it contributes to my goals).
To help me internalise these lenses, I asked the teacher Anne-Lorraine Selke for a writing prompt I could bring into my daily journalling practice.
So this week I've started each morning by listing all the moments I remember of the previous day: made breakfast, had a meeting, saw a funny dog... Then I notice which of those moments stand out for any reason, because they're particularly meaningful, or frustrating, satisfying, disappointing, exciting, etc.
Then I do some detective work, asking questions like: what increased the lucidity of those moments? Why do they stand out in more vivid detail? What do those moments say about what I care about? How do I want to be seen? What do these moments reveal about my goals?
It's a simple practice but it's a powerful insight pump. I'll share some examples here to show you what I mean.
Moment #1: A Shopping Trip
Reviewing my day, a visit to the department store was surprisingly meaningful. I'd like to think I'm too cool for consumerism, but today I must confess I'm an occasional sucker for retail therapy.
I'm looking for bluetooth speakers, testing out different options. It feels good to have permission to make a lot of noise in the shop. Most of them sound terrible, flaccid farty bass and squeaky blowfly treble. But one of them sounds good. I flick back and forth a couple of times, no... probably not... maybe... no... yes! yes!! this one definitely sounds good, I wanna take this one home with me.
I'm falling in love. It's on sale, I feel like a genius for getting a big discount. I'm excited, like I'm 3 beers in and the party's just getting started.
The marketing team has added a million little details to make me feel like this is the product for me. I read "Plastic-free packaging" and part of me thinks "Wow I'm so environmentally conscious!" (Just don't ask where the lithium comes from.)
Walking out of the store, I'm impatient to play with it, giddy, I can't wait to get home. I'm blasting techno while we walk down the street. Stupid grin. Check out my cool new toy! Check out my awesome taste in music! I feel like a kid on Christmas. Nati is mortified.
Moment #2: A Phonecall
A long phonecall catching up with my friend overseas. When I reviewed my list of "memorable moments" this one surprised me because it wasn't a very meaningful experience. I mean no disrespect to my friend, I love you buddy!
The problem is not with him, or with our relationship, it's the fucking phone. The phone is only good for exchanging words, which is about the least interesting part of being friends with someone. The best bits of a friendship can't be sent down the phoneline.
My heart aches.
Don't know how to explain this to my friends without sounding extremely rude but these days digital connection is about as satisfying as a cardboard sandwich.
Moment #3: Home Improvements
I take a break from my computer work to modify the tabletop. I trim about 30cm off with a handsaw. Now that's done, take a look around the room. That's it. We've completed this stage of the renovations in our little motorhome. Took out a couple of seats, added storage drawers, a bigger kitchen bench, and now with the shorter tabletop, the transformation is complete. There's a wide open corridor through the middle of the space. Space to dance, space to move, to stretch, to breath. Feels like a major quality of life improvement. I never would've guessed my most desired feature in a tiny home is wide open empty space.
Unusual for me, I'm excited to take photos and share them with my friends and family. What's that about? I'm house-proud. I want to show off our lovely little home. I want to be seen as competent, practical, hospitable. And I want you to think I'm radical, a romantic, I want you to envy my freedom, just a little bit. I want you to think, wow, Rich has such a cool life... (I may have somewhat spoiled the effect by admitting that.)
Moment #4: The Crossroads
We're parked in the foothills of the Pyrenees. It's the end of the work day. Time to get unscrunched, leave the computers behind, stretch our legs. Let's take a little hike while the sun is still up.
I'm not sure about this place. The land is overgrazed, eroded topsoil, sad-looking trees, brambles, a couple of horses and several million flies. Glorious griffon vultures sailing in great loops overhead. We keep walking, headed for forest cover. Now here's the moment that's seared into my memory:
We find ourselves in the court of the oak trees, a family of 6 or 7 siblings in a loose ring, crossed by two intersecting footpaths. Nati and I instinctively shut up. Cluster of butterflies rise like steam from the forest floor, flicker in and out of the filtered light. Bright red berries held outstretched, long branch reaches for canopy gap. Big fat happy mushroom feasting slowly on dying tree.
It took me a while to understand why this moment stands out in my memory with such hifi detail. You see, for a minute there, I disappeared completely, totally absorbed into the landscape, all curiosity, wonder, devotion. No concern for what other people might think of me. More than that. A temporary forgetting that people exist at all.
Moment #5: An Averted Argument
I cook a lazy dinner, bring the plates to the table. Instead of joining me immediately, Nati is finishing up some work on her laptop. Unbelievable! Doesn't she know that eating together is a sacred value! Well two can play at that game, I pretend to be lost in my phone. She puts the laptop away after a couple of minutes, looks at me and says "hey I want to connect with you!" I give her the death stare, thinking to myself "What am I? Some kinda vending machine?! You press the button and out pops a little intimacy packet?!"
But instead of saying this sick burn out loud, I take a breath, noticing that we're on the precipice of an argument. I look for a different approach, some way to switch from tug-of-war to side-by-side. Of course! That's it, side-by-side! I don't have anything particularly nice to say but I do want to come back into connection with her. So I get up and move to another seat, so we're sitting alongside each other instead of facing each other across the table. I remember that nice new speaker we bought today. Choose some good music. After a couple minutes we're up dancing, clowning around, enjoying each other's company.
Reviewing this moment the following day I'm struck by how easy it is to start an argument, the ping pong match of an immature comment bouncing off a thoughtless gesture, ping, pong, ping, pong, escalating hostilities and mistrust. It's gratifying to learn this new move: stop talking, get alongside each other, start moving.
So yeah, this reflection game is a lot of fun. It feels almost psychedelic to review my day and zoom into the most memorable moments to ask why? Why do they stand out? Each of the lenses described in Joe's Four Social Worlds essay adds a new dimension: perceptive, appreciative, normative, and strategic.
If you want to play along at home, just note down all the moments you remember from yesterday, mark the ones that have particular weight, and investigate each of them in turn to understand what meaning you're making.
You may be surprised by the results.