Life Advice from Neil Postman

Bookmarked Neil Postman’s Advice on How to Live the Rest of Your Life (

Some of his advice I like, and some makes him sound like an asshole. Here are the bits I agreed with or found worth thinking about.

Do not watch TV news shows or read any tabloid newspapers. Life, as it is, is terrifying enough.
In every age, it’s the same story, life is too busy and there’s too much news. I think part of the problem is we live in a globalized world but never learned how to think like we do when most of our lives are so local. We feel this responsibility to be global citizens when we cannot physically empathize with that many people, cannot influence the government of other nations (hell, truly cannot influence our own Federal government meaningfully). To feel as though we are connected to the rest of the world, to attempt to understand how our own nation acts internationally, we read news from around the world, about which there is literally nothing the average person can do. Even most politicians lack power at this level.
Sure, a lot of what’s true locally is influenced by bigger picture structures, but we shouldn’t forget that what really matters in our own daily lives is determined at the local scale. Our lives are constructed in symphony with real spaces that shape how we can live our lives on a daily basis. The places we live are shaped locally and when we neglect to fight for walkable, green communities the cars and NIMBYs will always win.
The lesson to be learned from the NIMBYs is the power of loud voices in shaping our communities. They aren’t afraid to take their egregious 1950s attitudes directly to Councilmembers, those of us who want a people-centric community with public amenities would do well to follow their example for the good instead of the fear of change.

Establish as many regular routines as possible… The point is to reduce the number of decisions you have to make about trivial matters. Save your energy for major questions that arise in our technological society. Regularize the trivial to cope with the significant.

Nowadays seems like technologists do this with “uniforms” which is maybe more important for CEOs and politicians who are judged on their appearance, while I work from home and don’t meet with anyone important so I just need to look passable on Zoom. But I can look for “templates” and routines to adapt in my life in the places I notice friction: keeping exercise consistent and the same time of day so I don’t have to decide what to do and when, or picking theme nights in advance for dinner to reduce the decision stress. Taco Tuesday is Taco Tuesday.

Avoid multiple and simultaneous changes in your personal life… Change is tremendously stressful, so control the amount of newness you must face.
A good reminder to not make drastic decisions and life changes during the pandemic, if possible.
Keep your opinions to a minimum… Although middle-class America seems to require an opinion on everything, you will find it liberating to say the phrase “I don’t know enough about it to form an opinion.”
This is probably good for me to chew over, who has an opinion on everything. But has to be weighed with privilege on what we’re able to ignore.
Carefully limit the information input you will allow… As a general rule, do not take in any more information after seven or eight o’clock at night. You need protection from the relentless flow of information in modern American culture.
Probably a good idea. Ties back in to not knowing how to live in a globalized world.
The question is what he means by information — does that include any form of intake (e.g. fiction), or just news and facts? How about reading nonfiction? For me I think news and Twitter are the information suspects.
Seek significance in your work, friends, and family, where potency and output are still possible. Work, friends, and family are the areas where what you think and do matters… Information used to be an agent or instrument for action, but nowadays, information is often inert — you cannot act on it… Try to dump useless information from your head.
Again, a balance in not stressing ourselves out about things we can’t control while advocating for a better world for all. Not forsaking responsibility to society — but focusing our efforts at a scale and scope we’re likely able to impact. That probably means local or County scale, potentially State, but for the most part probably donations are the best way to pitch in on bigger battles.

Divest yourself of your belief in the magical powers of numbers. Quantification has a very limited effectiveness. Any attempt to apply quantification to human affairs represents pure superstition of a medieval kind.

I’ve been into self-quantification in the past but numbers definitely can be a trap. And we’ve seen how reductive GDP is as measure of societal success, where the US has a huge growing GDP yet poverty and suffering are widespread while being largely avoidable if as a society we prioritized people directly over businesses. Playing out right now in the debate over upping the minimum wage. It makes me sick to think how many people believe it’s reasonable to pay a person less than ten dollars for an hour of their time. We all are worth more — and need more — than that. If your business can’t afford to pay people a reasonable amount, your business model is not viable (or you’re exploiting your workers to steal the profits).

Patriotism is a squalid emotion.
Exhibit A: January 6, 2021.

By Tracy Durnell

Writer and designer in the Seattle area. Freelance sustainability consultant. Reach me at She/her.

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