Leave Your Phone At Home
a real life origin story
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I decided to spend five years in undergrad and, as you might expect, I was broke. It was a brisk February in gray Rochester. Spring break in my dark attic room—my lair, as I called it—it was too much. Outside, the snow was piled up. Two feet high. I put on my boots, layered up under my ski jacket, wrapped my scarf around my face and neck, and left just enough of a gap to see where I was walking.
In my iconic blue LL Bean backpack, I carried six things: two black pilot g2 pens, a notebook, wallet, and a paperback copy of The Black Swan by Nicholas Nassim Taleb. Where I was going, I didn’t need my phone.
Who would need to reach me? Everyone in my life was on a beach somewhere or bundled up at home wishing they were.
A large black coffee, two sausage egg and cheese McMuffins—back when they were available all day long. $6.48, tax included. This was the golden era of the golden arches. After I had devoured my McMuffins, I looked away from the silent screen streaming CNN and opened my book. I had hate-watched enough 2017 political news for one day.
My pen traced along under Taleb’s words, cutting off the margins and focusing my attention. As I turned each page, doubt began to creep in. Uncertainty. What do I know to be true? How do I know if it’s true?
It was time for a refill. Two large coffees may have been a bit excessive but it was miserable outside and I was inspecting the foundation of my epistemology. I wrote quote after quote in my notebook. A new perspective that I had never considered. An earthquake ripped through the palace in my mind, and the facade started to crumble.
I didn’t feel the need to tweet about it. I didn’t send a wide-eyed, over caffeinated snapchat selfie to my friends. My mind had the space to wrestle with the idea of ‘Fragilistas’ or ‘the limits of Gaussian statistics’. Every uncomfortable thought was attacked head on. There was nowhere to run for a moment’s reprieve.
Am I an intellectual-yet-idiot, as Taleb calls them?
The modern world began to appear in my mind as but a baby, vulnerable to innumerable threats and the growing pains we all suffer. Social security. The global financial system. The grid. What systems that we take for granted are not truly time-tested, “lindy” but fragile?
My own hubris, the hubris of modernity was laid bare. Was the world I grew up in its own kind of bubble? Maybe the status quo was always destined to end. People said that’s what they wanted and perhaps later they would say: “Oh no, not like that!”
After hours of contemplation and scribbling ideas in my notebook, I decided it was time to trudge home through the frigid darkness. My roommates and I stood in the kitchen, our preferred place to congregate for no good reason. They tolerated my ramblings about statistics I didn’t understand. Ideas careening through my skull, forcing their way out into the air.
Later, I turned my phone back on. A few snapchat selfies from friends and a beautiful girl I had gone on a date with. Spam in my email. No texts. I hadn’t missed anything of consequence.
The next day I ordered the same thing, and spent my day the same way. It was not the ideal spring break but it was the one I needed. A great book can change your life. The Black Swan certainly changed my mind. This moment was just the beginning of something bigger—a reorientation that would leave me humbled and psychologically prepared for a future distinct from the world I had grown up in.
Our world of infinite feeds, blue light screens, and in-your-ear audio is noisy. We don’t realize how much it weighs on our subconscious and distracts us from our path. It is easy to stop reading when you get uncomfortable and return to the sweet retreat of your preferred digital sedative. It’s often only a few swipes and taps away. However, if you want the space to wrestle with uncomfortable ideas, to risk the terrible burden of a fundamental reorientation in the world, to turn down the volume, you only have to make a simple choice, an easy choice. Leave your phone at home and go to McDonald’s.
The best way to support Seeking Tribe is to convince McDonald’s to pay me for this essay. The second best way is to support me yourself.
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