The Pros and Cons of the Curated Life

As a Communication professor, I often give my students an assignment that they have dubbed the “cyber stalking” assignment.  I ask them to choose a friend and find out as much as they can about that individual online.  I tell them to use a critical eye, as if they were a future employer.  What do they see? What are the implications of every photo, every comment, every update?  All of it communicates something about the individual.

After this assignment, my students are invariably shocked at the picture that has emerged and I then urge them to scrub their own digital presence (no more photos holding red plastic cups!).  I explain that the internet has become a log of our lives, an addendum to every cover letter and resume we send out, an attachment to every performance review at work.  I stress the importance of curating your online presence.

But lately I have begun to see the downside of a curated life.  All those students and friends who have taken to heart such warnings now present themselves well online.  They post beautifully constructed facades of vacations, achievements, happy accomplished children and the results are, well, isolating.

For many of us with friends scattered around the country and the world, social networking sites (and even the holiday newsletter) are the primary way that we learn about each other’s lives.  But what we learn from the curated life is only half the story.

The child who starred in the dance recital or won MVP in little league or came in first at the spelling bee, also has meltdowns over homework, suffers from anxiety attacks, talks back and slams doors, is bullied or is a bully. The friend with the great promotion works 80 hour weeks and hasn’t seen her friends or spouse for dinner in 6 months.  The college friend who always looks so cheerful in her photos is deeply depressed over losing her job, but is too ashamed to post it.   But to read the updates you would never know.

The result of this is that it makes it harder for everyone to talk honestly about the meltdowns, anxiety attacks, conflicts, bullying, the challenges of working, living, and parenting.  The result is that we are all left alone to cope.  Coping is especially hard when we believe we are the only ones.

The curated life turns each of us into our own PR agents.  We may look great on the screen, but the process leaves us little room to be real.

The answer may not be to stop curating, but to pick up the phone, or better yet, meet in person.  Call a friend and tell them what’s really going on.  When you are with others, be real about what is going on in your home.  More often than not, the other person will feel relieved and open up about their challenges as well.

From Sixty to Zero

We measure cars by how fast they can go from zero to sixty.  My husband once told me that the more important statistic is how fast they can go from sixty to zero.  Lately I have come to feel that his words of wisdom can be applied to life in general.  In our culture we value how quickly people can go from zero to sixty (and then eighty, ninety..) and how long they can function at maximum velocity.  We almost never value the opposite- how easily do people slow down, from sixty to zero (or twenty) and how well they stay there. Going from sixty to zero in cars is about safety.  In life, it is about sanity and health.

In our non-stop work world, we regularly work 50+ hour weeks (more in certain professions) and then come home only to be harassed by emails from work, the call of social networking sites and the other stresses of daily living.  Our children, stretched to the breaking point, are being steeped in this culture too- running from sports to music and then back to the house for hours of homework.  They do not have time for play or family.  Constantly scheduled, they do not how to be still.

Living such high velocity lives takes a toll on our bodies and minds.  We know from medicine that stress is a factor in heart disease, depression and even diabetes.  We know that lack of sleep diminishes health and well-being.  And yet we push ourselves harder- order another coffee, energy drink, or take medication to help us push through.  When we are too wired from the stress (and coffee, and energy drinks and meds), we anesthetize ourselves with alcohol and sedatives.

This holiday season give yourself a present.  Slow down.  Go from sixty to zero and enjoy the space it gives you.  Ignore email, your cellphone and the internet.  Let them zoom past you at the speed of information. Pull over and enjoy the view. When you are still, you gain perspective. When you are quiet, you hear the sounds of life- laughter and music.  At zero, more is available to you.

Of course, we cannot live at zero.  But maybe, after sitting there a bit, you will decide that when you speed up, you only want to take it to forty.