What If We Put Down Our Phones — and Started Living?

What If We Put Down Our Phones — and Started Living?

This afternoon, I met with a fellow creative for happy hour and to discuss a potential collaboration. What I initially expected to be an hour meeting turned into three hours of conversation about art, entrepreneurship, family, moving to a new city, the creative process, writing, authenticity, being paid what you’re worth, setting boundaries, the meaning of beauty, and travel.

The best part? We were having such a great time that our phones didn’t come out once, other than to exchange numbers. There was no compelling need to photograph our meal, ourselves, or to otherwise document the occasion. And while there’s nothing wrong with doing any of those things, I marveled at the silent agreement that had been made between us: our mutual company was enough.

The conversation was enough.

Being present was enough.

Recently, I read a quote from novelist and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison that resonated with me:

“At some point in life the world’s beauty becomes enough. You don’t need to photograph it, paint or even remember it. It is enough.”

I think I may have reached that point.

The last week of December 2017 was an eye-opening time for me. After reflecting on what I had experienced in the previous year, I realized I had thousands of photos to look at — but the majority of these images portrayed only half realities. (There were more than a few smiling selfies in which puffy eyes hid behind dark glasses.)

Further, in selectively sharing only my best photos to social media, I was adding to what I believe is a dangerous clamor responsible for alarming rates of anxiety, depression, feelings of inadequacy, and other forms of psychological distress. And research suggests our society’s youngest members are at the highest risk of developing these side effects, particularly when using Instagram.

It seems that, in our widespread use of social media, many people are living within the self-imposed constraints of curated lives. Many of us show our faces only when they’re made up, filtered, and otherwise beautified. (Ladies, please tell me you realize the smoothing function makes your husbands look like Ken Dolls and your babies’ already cherublike faces resemble possessed Cabbage Patch Kids. You and your families are beautiful; please stop turning them into scary dolls in the name of vanity.)

Yes, there are certain benefits of social networking.

I work in this field, so I’ll be the first to disclose: social media is an integral part of my business and my livelihood. The platforms at our disposal have revolutionized and streamlined the way we communicate. News and information can reach millions of people in mere minutes. Powerful imagery can be uploaded to the web and shared with people on the other side of the planet in seconds. Correspondence can happen between loved ones living across oceans.

But at what expense do we experience those benefits? At the expense of our productivity? At the expense of our authenticity? At the expense of our mental health?

As I looked at my year in photos and pondered the disconnect between what I showed the world of an entire year of my life — and the reality of that year (for the record, 2017 sucked, y’all), a part of me — the part of me that craved connection, suffered intense FOMO, and needed constant approval — cracked in two.

It was by no means a trip to the beach or the mountains for a full-fledged digital detox, but I embarked on a brief purge that meant four days without using my phone, watching television, or listening to the radio.

Those four days were both my punishment and my reward.

I missed social invitations, yet fortuitously ended up running into several friends whom I hadn’t seen in months. I missed a few days of working over the weekend, yet that meant I actually took time off for the holiday (like most normal people with jobs and vacation time do). I was absent from Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Marco Polo, Strava, Instagram, et al. — but I was, for the first time in months (maybe years) present in my own life.

Something else amazing happened when I realized I didn’t have to publicize every social function, every life event, every happy hour, every toast with friends. I call it liberation. It was only a four-day-long detox, but I felt like I got my life back.

In the weeks that followed, I found myself experiencing my life with newfound curiosity and wonder. My phone’s battery began to last the entire day, instead of just eight or nine hours. I began to notice just how dependent I was on a device — for distraction, for entertainment, and for fulfilment.

And I started asking myself some tough questions I wasn’t willing to answer even a week earlier.

What would happen our society stopped its morbid fixation on documenting every last detail our lives?

What would happen if we truly showed up — with our presence alone as our sole intent?

What would happen if we put… the phone… down?

Social media platforms go away, algorithms change, people get bored, people unfollow. Remember MySpace? You may laugh, but that kind of mass, gradual exodus can (and will) happen again. (Did I mention I do this for a living?)

If you, like me, could rarely enjoy a moment last year without your phone in front of your face, a digital detox may be in order. At the very least, I’m inviting you to join me in committing to connectivity — real connectivity — in 2018. Whether that’s reconnecting with others or reconnecting with ourselves, I feel it’s a worthwhile endeavor.

We still have 11 months remaining in the year to show up, be present, and take it all in — even without the phone. Maybe, just maybe, everything about our lives would improve.

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Social Media—The Game Changer

I never tire of observing the polarity of social media engagement. If there’s anything I’ve learned about this fast evolving game, it’s that everyone plays by a set of different rules.

football-player-on-field
Social media is a lot like football.

Some take it very seriously. Some engage just for fun. Usage can lean toward the personal, the professional, or may fall somewhere in between. There may be witty statuses updated, pictures posted, articles shared, or game progressions revealed.

Some see it as an opportunity to interact with fellow adults via respectful discourse, genuinely asking for the answers to difficult questions and hoping for solutions to big issues. Others use it as a platform to broadcast their beliefs, often stating their opinions as fact and berating others with differing views.

I used to be afraid of trolls as a child. But they really are quite harmless (even if they do have bad hair).
I was afraid of trolls as a child. But they really are quite harmless (even if they do have bad hair).

And while social media has increased the speed at which we can receive information, it has also completely changed the way we share it.

Social has transformed the way we communicate.

It’s made us harder, more opinionated, and a little less forgiving. We engage in heated battles via Facebook, and talk to one another roughly via Twitter’s limited 140 characters.

On the flip side, how often do we treat our acquaintances with that same brusqueness when we see them in person? I don’t know about you, but if I could see the countenance of every person with whom I communicate online, I would likely be a little less vocal.

Because feelings get hurt easily, no matter how much of a troll a person may appear to be on the web.

Come to think of it, aren’t we all flawed human beings who make errors in judgment? Personally, I struggle to find the perfect balance—both in face-to-face communication and when online. What should I say? What shouldn’t I say? How much is too much? And how do I remedy a situation if I’ve crossed some invisible, digital line? I’ve certainly made my share of bad calls, throwing  inappropriate statements like yellow flags onto a field of aghast onlookers. And sometimes those calls must be retracted and apologies must be made.

But if something unkind is said in person, anyone with decency would promptly apologize. That’s not always the case on the worldwide web. In that climate, if you mistakenly tackle a teammate by saying something inappropriate, sometimes without knowing or intending to, you lose a friend. Sometimes permanently. But always with a crowd nearby to taunt or cheer both teams along.

football players on field
Social media—how do you play the game?

Due to my vocation, I spend most of the day logged into multiple social media platforms for both personal and professional use. I’m the frequent announcer of my own game, and my voice projects louder than the crowd noise (at least when it comes to my own Facebook wall).

That sense of hyper-engagement has sparked this post, as well as the following questions:

How do you prefer to engage online? Do you socialize casually or professionally? If you’ve ever found yourself sacked or outed when communicating via social media, how did you handle the situation?

Also, if you’re on Twitter, let’s play ball. I’ll try not to make too many bad passes.