How to keep up with the world
Stay ahead of the curve with this life and career hack
As we age, we might notice people around us fit into one of two broad groups, those who:
- Seem to be stagnant, i.e., not changing, not progressing, not accomplishing their goals, or
- Are growing, i.e., moving up in the world, making things happen, reinventing themselves and their lives.
What’s the difference between these two groups of people?
A bestselling author of over 13 million books named Mark Manson believes he knows the answer: curiosity. After researching the topic, Manson concluded the defining trait of progressing in the first 20 years of this century appears to be a driving curiosity about anything and everything.
In contrast, he points out the 20th century did not reward curiosity. The traditional structures of schools, corporations, universities, and churches didn’t just deter open questioning and experimentation — they often feared it.
These often-stuffy institutions usually rewarded emulation. Knowledge was often held at the top of a hierarchy. Any sort of innovation or experimentation was limited to a few people at the very top of the pyramid. Everyone else was expected to be a good worker bee.
But the internet has inverted this. Knowledge and swathes of information are everywhere. Nowadays, it seems that it's the ones who fail to experiment, innovate, or challenge preconceived notions who get left behind.
Because in the 21st century, any decision-making that is sufficiently repeatable or predictable will eventually get taken over by a robot, computerised, or outsourced.
Peter Reinhardt called this phenomenon “living below the API.” An API is how software communicates with other software or with people. An Uber driver works “below the API” because his or her decisions at work are determined by software, not by him or herself. Journalists arguably live somewhat below the API because much of what they report on is driven by web traffic data and social media virality.
Basically, the more algorithms and software determine your day-to-day decisions, the more you live below the API.
What is worse is that the API is always rising, consuming more human endeavors as it goes. As technology progresses, so does its ability to micromanage every aspect of our lives for maximum efficiency. This efficiency benefits society yet punishes those who fall under it with stagnant careers, outdated thinking, repetitive entertainment, and soul-destroying jobs.
Once under the API, our opportunities for growth and advancement shrivel up — once robbed of the ability to make bold decisions, any chance to stand out or get ahead is likely gone.
Similarly, once under the API, your interests and worldview will become cemented, as algorithms feed you information they know you agree with and entertainment they know you will enjoy (more about Harry and Meghan, anyone?). People who live under the API feel as though they are this wonderful, unique, hard-working individual, but the truth of the matter is that they are simply living out what the algorithms have already determined for them.
What to do to keep up?
The only way to stay above the API is to foster an intense curiosity, to take professional and personal risks, to habitually challenge preconceived notions, to lean into uncertainty and unpopular opinions, to challenge yourself with information you don’t agree with, with entertainment that doesn’t come naturally to you.
In short, staying above the API requires a certain level of discomfort — and Manson doesn’t advocate simply the discomfort of working more hours or reading more books — he means the discomfort in the kind of hours and the kind of books. It’s not a question of effort but intent. You should feel a little bit contrarian. You should feel a little bit wrong. You should feel a little bit foolish. That’s the only way to know that you’re right. The only way to be “on” is to feel a little bit “off.” The only way to stay ahead of the curve is to ditch the curve.