Ah, the internet. On the one hand, it’s a great blessing that we have access to infinite information. But it’s also a detriment: The more information we have, the more we have at our disposal to make a good, informed opinion — so we think. But do we ever know what’s the right decision?
As Alfred Hirschman, the late economist, championed all his life, it’s the bad decisions that end up being the most valuable sources of growth. For example, take my latest issue: My initial housing in Paris didn’t work out, so I was forced to find an apartment on my own. All of a sudden I was acting like a real adult — emailing landlords, dealing with Craigslist scammers, going to open houses.
I learned that i) the Paris real estate market is insane ii) there is an inverse relationship between location and crappiness of any given flat. But the biggest lesson, besides all the knowledge, was that if called upon to do this in the future, I actually could.
Who was this person making color-coded lists and attending open houses? And where was the girl who procrastinates on practically everything and shows up to class late?
In feeling a little more like an adult and less like a teenage shit-show, I felt a disproportionate amount of pride. And I had the sudden housing crisis and the real possibility of homelessness to thank for it; for had I not been pushed to my extremes, I would not have discovered this more resilient, creative alter ego.
Even just knowing you can take care of yourself and more or less survive is empowering enough. It reminds me of something George Orwell wrote about the period when he was broke in Paris: “It is a feeling of relief, almost of pleasure at knowing yourself at last genuinely down and out. You have talked so often of going to the dogs — and well, here are the dogs, and you have reached them, and you can stand it. It takes off a lot of anxiety.”
That’s the beauty of really terrible decisions. For how are we to learn — truly learn — if not through our own mistakes? The right information may help us avoid making the mistakes, but we miss out on the knowledge we might have gained had we really screwed it up.
Yahoo Answers, though it has the answer to all of my obscure questions and existential crises, alas cannot shine a light on who I am nor explain to me the roots of my fears nor reveal what my heart really wants.
This is why I’m worried, or at least ponderous, about how technology will deprive us of these opportunities to make really bad decisions.
If stranded at an unknown corner, we can conjure a cab in an instant with Uber and get home safe and dry. What would my dad have done? Would he wander around, get soaked, and ask a man working at a laundromat for help?
Might he make a new friend, or at least learn about asking help from strangers? Might all these random encounters, tallied up, have shaped him into a more outgoing, open-minded person, the one I know him as? How many chance encounters does our automated system of decisions deprive us of? In being handed, again and again, the “right” path, what do we forgo along the “wrong” one?
I’m reminded of playgrounds, and how tin slides, see-saws and speedy merry-go-rounds have been disappearing in favor of puny plastic slides and lame padded forts. It’s no wonder, iPads aside, I see less kids enthused about the jungle gyms in their yards. They’re just not as fun.
And though our parents surely do this out of love and concern for our well-being, how are we to learn? How can we stretch our wings, know our strength? And if we break an arm, do we not learn what it means to heal, and how strength regenerates?
Though it’s natural for parents to want the world for their kids, just as it’s natural for us to want a cab in the middle of the night, sometimes the only real lesson is the hard lesson. How are we to know our strength if never called upon to use it? How are we to grow antibodies that will make us resilient to infection if never exposed to germs in small, occasional doses?
What do we never learn when we take the easy route? About what we’re capable of, about how to respond to crises? When life inevitably hits us in unexpected, unfair ways, how will we respond? If we lose someone we love, where does one go from there? Yahoo Answers is blank; despite what the self-help aisle has you believe, there are no real manuals for this stuff. Only the words of those who’ve lived it really get you.
Why does heartache make the most beautiful sound? And why do we turn to our parents, the older we get? Life, beneath its serene and beautiful surface, is rocky and enigmatic. The wise are not the ones who know information, but the ones who have lived.
And to live, you’ve got to mess up and make mistakes and hit a dozen rock bottoms and claw yourself up and up again. Nietzsche, via Kanye West, was right when he said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I didn’t get that line for the longest time, because I never could understand the formula.
A teacher who dislikes me? A friend who has abandoned me? A school I was rejected from? Feeling as small as a mouse, I couldn’t possibly understand how any of these were supposed to make me feel stronger. Not until recently did it finally click: It’s not the problem itself, but what you do in response to it, that makes you stronger.
It’s all about the fight; that’s what makes you use your inner strength, and how would you know you’ve got it in you otherwise? Crazily enough, the most wrong decision may be the only right one.
Contact Alex Bayer at abayer ‘at’ stanford.edu