Zen and the Art of Not Keeping Up

Erin Kernohan-Berning

5/1/20243 min read

a drop of water falling into a body of water
a drop of water falling into a body of water

If you are of a certain vintage you may be acquainted with the idiom “keeping up with the Joneses.” It’s a phrase that has come to reflect the feeling that we need to rise to some lofty ideal, the archetypical middle-class Joneses that have the things that “everyone” should have. A related idiom that, if you are of a somewhat different vintage, might be FOMO or Fear Of Missing Out. Again, this phrase also reflects our collective need to go with the crowd, do whatever everyone else is doing, or have the latest popular thing. These phrases reflect a deep-seated need that we all feel to “keep up” and the value judgements we make around not keeping up.

The rapid pace of technology often hits people right in these types of feelings. People born in the 1930s for instance, have witnessed the rise of the telephone, television, computer, and internet – all brand-new technologies attaining household ubiquity in a human lifetime – and now we hold devices in our hands that encompass all those things and more. As someone with a foot in either the GenX or Millennial generations (depending who’s opining on the topic), I remember life without the internet and we now live in a world where the internet pretty much touches the infrastructure of everything. That in itself has been a big change.

As the development of new technology propels the world in directions we can’t quite fathom, it’s easy to feel like we can’t keep up. It’s easy to feel that we’ve somehow failed when we have not mastered the latest, newest, fastest, shiniest something. We don’t need to adopt or know how to use every scrap of new technology that crosses our path. We don’t actually have to keep up. In fact, the most important thing we can do is let go of the idea that we have to keep up and concentrate on being open to learning how to do the actual thing that we want to do.

The only reason we really use technology is because it helps us get a particular thing done. Now, usually when I’m talking about technology, I’m talking about something like consumer electronics, or the internet – the notable “technology” of our time. We tend to put more moral judgement on our difficulties when using that kind of technology than any other. I’ve never heard someone disparage themselves for not knowing how to use a pair of knitting needles or a chainsaw the way they do when they struggle to use their computer or smartphone. But we wouldn’t expect to be able to pick up a set of knitting needles and make a sweater the first time out, nor would we expect to be able to pick up a chainsaw without any sort of experience and cut down a giant tree.

The same goes for using a computer or a smartphone. Instead of taking the approach that we need to know “how to use it” and then feel like we failed when we struggle, we need to think about what we want to accomplish with the thing that we are using and then be gentle with ourselves when we don’t quite get it right out of the gate. Rather than level judgement at our seeming lack of skill, we need to create an openness to learn so that we can do the thing we want to do – whether that’s doing our online banking, starting a video call with a loved one, or reserving tickets online for an event you want to go to. And if this means asking someone for help, that’s perfectly okay. If you concentrate on the task you want to complete, and practice doing it, then you’ll eventually get good at it.

Likewise, even though planned obsolescence might push the issue a little bit, you don’t necessarily need to keep up with the Joneses when it comes to having the latest gizmo. The most important factors that you need to consider when thinking about upgrading what you currently have are: is your current device now making it harder to do what you want to do? And is your current device able to operate safely?

The angst around technology, the pace at which it moves, and the feeling we need to be good at it all is valid. It’s also counterproductive when it comes to moving through a world in constant flux. But if you take a breath and focus on the thing you want to actually do, and not worry about the rest, you might find that “keeping up” is no longer an issue. And you might even find that none of it is as hard as you think.

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