In his book Four Thousand Weeks, Oliver Burkeman, a reformed productivity journalist, dives deep into many of the productivity traps and mindsets of what I’ll term as “beginning stage high performers.” I’ve posted some of the best takeaways that I got from the book, but I wanted to write a separate post on the topic of what Burkeman calls “Cosmic Insignificance” both as a reminder to myself and to really drive the point home.
First, a direct quote from the book and then my thoughts:
“…the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs – an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our won – took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about twenty-lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne. Five! … [T]he number of lives you’d need in order to span the whole of civilization, sixty, is the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party. From this perspective, human history hasn’t unfolded glacially but in the blink of an eye. And it follows, of course, that your own life will have been a miniscule little flicker of near-nothingness in the scheme of things: the merest pinpoint, with two incomprehensibly vast tracts of time, the past and future of the cosmos as a whole, stretching off into the distance on either side…when things all seem too much, what better solace than a reminder that they are…indistinguishable from nothing at all? To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.”
It wasn’t until I was re-reading the book that I remembered this double-underlined, highlighted quote and I absolutely love it for the main reason that sitting and thinking about this idea (which has presented itself to me in other forms than just this quote) is, I think, a massive way to speed up what you’re working on.
The fact of the matter is that there is oftentimes friction between “what you’re working on now” and “what you really want your life to be about”. I’ve observed in myself and others that the space between those two extremes is often occupied by a handful of excuses, such as “What will people think?” or “There is no way I could pull that off” or “I’m not capable of achieving it”. The good news is: it doesn’t matter. By overvaluing our existence and believing that we are somehow significant in cosmic history, we slow down by worrying, planning and making sure everything is perfect before we just go and do it.
It is immensely freeing to arrive at the conclusion that in the history of humanity, we have such a small and insignificant role to play. Given that the shackles of expectations and a wrong-headed need to accomplish something “significant” are thrown off, it can really free up your brain to think creatively and spend time working on the things that matter to you – and work on them with joy and curiosity. I’m paraphrasing someone (I forget who), but really the only obligation that we have are to raise nice kids – the rest of life is a game. Have fun with it and don’t take yourself too seriously!