Master, Gypsy, or Aimless: The Familiarity Problem
We have too much media. It’s everywhere. If you go back to the period before we had video recordings, household access to major media, especially video, was very controlled. Movies were only in theaters for a short period of time, and then, if you were lucky, you’d see them on television years later. Television shows had the same level of control. If you missed an episode you better hope for a rerun at some point or you would never see it again until the show went into syndication years later. This really lasted from the introduction of the TV until the introduction of the VCR, and DVD/Blu-rays. There was a benefit to this control. Media, or I should say the media companies, were very selective. The stories we watched were novel. Everything seemed new and fresh and different. This feeling of new and fresh waned a little bit as pre-recorded media sold for home consumption continued to grow and grow as a market. Being able to buy an entire season of a television show or a complete series of movies and watch them all at once started to lessen the impact of the stories. Then streaming hit.
Streaming is exploding. Netflix, Amazon Prime, Tencent Video, Baidu, and Disney Plus all have somewhere around 100 to as much as 200 million subscribers each. Then you get to the ‘mid tear’ of 10 to 50 million subscribers which includes Hulu, YOUKU, Peacock, YouTube Premium, CBS All-Access, HBO Max, ESPN+, and Apple TV+. At the time of this writing Discovery+ is coming very soon and I fully expect that service to be in the 10–50 million club in short order. After that there is an extensive list of services that are smaller than ten million subscribers. Most streaming services cost money, some are free to the viewer and monetize through Ad’s or other network distribution deals. The thing all these services have in common is a voracious need for content. Most of them have been on a production spree of epic proportions. Many are calling this the golden age of TV because of the quantity and supposed quality of new shows that are being produced. Unfortunately no matter how fast they produce new content their audiences can consume it exponentially faster. To flesh out this virtually unlimited need for content the streamers are diving deep into the archives. I’d love to know the actual percent of recorded media that’s available, but to me, it seems that virtually all existing television and movie production throughout history is available via a subscription of some sort or other.
There has been a second order effect to all this media. It happened with me a while back, but I’m wondering if it’s going to happen to the world at large. Everything is starting to seem samey. It’s all just a rehash. Nothing seems new. This isn’t exactly surprising when you consider that scholars will argue that there are only seven original stories or narratives. They are, if you are so-inclined to know, 1) Overcoming the Monster, 2) Rags to Riches, 3) The Quest, 4) Voyage and Return, 5) Comedy, 6) Tragedy, and 7) Rebirth. We are very good at window dressing these basic story structures to make them seem new. I believe this is why my children, who are less seasoned consumers of media, think everything is new. I see the patterns immediately and lose interest quickly.
Upon reflection, I realized that this sameness extends beyond media. It’s really everywhere and in everything. It got me wondering: What’s the benefit of doing most things on offer in life to any great extent? I say this because the natural result is that whatever you decide to do with any regularity becomes rote and unfulfilling just like media consumption. When I say ‘on offer’ I mean the packaged and industrialized stuff that’s all the same. Restaurants, concerts, active experiences, vacations, even tourist locations, etc.. Let’s face it, with the rise of the corporation the world’s experiences have become one big package. I’m sure a tour of Venice Italy to see the cathedrals feels a great deal like a tour of the churches on Cozumel. A meal at Olive Garden really feels quite like one at Outback Steakhouse in the same way a meal at Chic-fil-a feels quite a bit like the Taco Bell experience.
Going back to the argument that you only live once, the theory is that you should go enjoy everything you want in life to the maximum you can. I realized for that theory to work, you have to want something unique, otherwise you can quickly get tired of your chosen interests. I have some examples from my own life which underscores this point.
I enjoy music, especially live music, and I’ve been to hundreds of concerts. Some specific bands I’ve seen dozens of times, and many others I’ve only seen once. As any dedicated fan will tell you, after you’ve seen a favorite band several times you realize the show is mostly the same and, unfortunately, it eventually gets boring to the point where you wind up skipping the latest tour when they come into town. The artists I went to only once were nice even if I didn’t know the music by heart. Still I still got that same sense of been-there-done-that that I have had with the bands I’ve seen many times. If you go see a bunch of bands you aren’t a huge fan of, and you don’t really know the music, you’ll still find that the structure of the shows is very similar. This includes the tempo of the show and even the things like the lights and concert effects.
Eventually everything is the same, and then if it’s all the same, it gets boring. There is absolutely a valid reason for this. People, in general, like the familiar. Popular trends have always been variants on a theme rather than an entirely new experience. Another example I’ll cite is one I’ve talked about at length over the years which is cruising. If you’re really into vacationing by cruise ship to the point where you have been on dozens of cruises, then you’ll understand the differences in cruise ship design. One line will tweak it’s cabin layout versus how the other one does. Tweak is the important word in my last sentence. The layouts are 98% the same, except one line’s cabin may separate the sink from the rest of the bathroom so that one person can shower or use the lavatory while another can brush their teeth. Other lines have a traditional bathroom in one little cubicle in the cabin. Another example would be how one ship is structured with public areas closer to the water versus another ship where they are high on the pool deck.. For almost everyone, eventually, the ships all just become huge floating hotels that are 98% the same and are going to mostly the same destinations. Yes, there are small ship lines, exotic excursion lines, lines which only have big sail boats, and many other really different variants of cruising. They aren’t a huge part of the market. The majority of the cruise industry is made up of the slightly tweaked, but mostly the same, mega-ships.
There are other examples, but the point of everything I’ve written up until now is that many of the experiences that life has to offer tends to be pre-packaged. This mass produced homogenization ultimately leads anyone with a deep desire for new experiences to find that there is something that’s still lacking in nearly every interest area they take up. Even consuming experiences if you have the resources is nice but broad consuming doesn’t really work as a fulfillment vehicle, not in the long term because of this sameness across experiences. This naturally leads to the question of this article: When things in your life start getting boring, what should you do?
I think there are two solutions. The first is to jump from one big thing to another. I describe this as having another mountain to climb. I think this is what the Career Gypsy does on a professional level. They make massive jumps from one career to another. When I did it I thought of it as having another mountain to climb and I have to admit there was an absolute thrill attached to starting at the beginning again. That being said, In this article I’m really discussing it more from a personal interest perspective.
This looks like going from being a movie buff with the best home theater you can afford to being massively into personal fitness and living at the gym and sucking down protein shakes every week. These big shifts make everything truly seem new and interesting. If you lose interest in free weights and move to peloton, and then go to Yoga, that can all eventually feel the same. If you go from watching movies every weekend, to working out six days a week, that definitely will feel new as the two life experiences have very little in common. Also, using this example, when you first move to the health and fitness lifestyle, you have to spend time with all the different variants of working out to learn them. This will include the aforementioned weights, yoga, and many other styles of working out. Learning about all of them takes time before they start to get that feeling that they are all just variants on the same theme. As soon as you get really bored, then maybe the next move is away from working out into local politics or travel.
If the first track is the gypsy track, then the second track is the mastery track. To me it looks like personal creation or accomplishment in a particular genre. Yes, it can all seem the same to the outsider, but if you are the one making the movie, or music, or podcast, or even building hot rods, the minute tweaks in each creative effort make it seem very different to you. It’s because you are so deep into the machinations of your art, that every discovered nuance and every little change is new to you. There was a plot line from the Inheritance cycle of books that included a race of elves who all lived like this. They all chose a craft and became masters of it to the point where it was their only purpose for living. The theory behind the concept is that if you live forever you need something you must always be working to master to give your life meaning. Considering the age of the author it’s a very interesting take on the problem I’m trying to describe here. the problem of what to do when you have reached ‘been there, done that’ status with your current interests.
I think no matter if you are a life experience gypsy or a proto-master in your interest area much of it depends on your personality. Some people get bored more easily than others and they tend to move on. Others are never satisfied. Both styles can work to keep life interesting. The people I feel really bad for are the ones who aren’t on either track. They don’t bounce around to get interested in new things nor do they get so deep into them they attempt mastery to the point that their skills allow. They just sort of consume the prepackaged life experiences without any purposeful intent. They are in a constant state of semi-engagement in their lives. I think this group is the majority. To me it’s sad, but I guess we really do need these folks. I say this because if everyone was off doing really interesting things with all of their free time, then we’d have a problem. There wouldn’t be enough customers to benefit from the life’s work of people who are masters at creating bucket loads of media, pre-packaged life experiences, and if you don’t mind me closing on a pun, the people who make board games for vacationers.
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