The Extreme Danger of Living Responsibly
Updated: Jan 26
One sunny spring weekend, David Turner canceled his plans to go out with friends so he could stay home and “catch up on a few things”. The casual facade David presented to his friends (“oh no big deal, just gotta get some stuff done”) was a carefully wordsmithed and brilliantly acted ruse to mask the desperation of his situation. David was finally going to get his shit together.
Most of us are balanced enough, or maybe simply lazy enough, to handle the daily dose of unsolicited self-help that the Internet brings us without any harmful or long-lasting effects. You might study the list of “twelve toxins you need to purge from your home today” to avoid talking to your Uber driver, but will instantly forget what you’ve read when the trip is over. “Ten things you need to do right now to prepare for retirement” is something one might skim to alleviate a minute of boredom in the elevator. Most of us, however, will reach our floor without experiencing overwhelming financial panic. Who amongst us hasn’t read the list of “seven top tips to improve your credit score” without making detailed plans to improve our creditworthiness? Nobody, actually. Except David.
David diligently transcribed each of piece of sage advice that had been conveniently ranked and published online into his own private to-do list. The twelve toxins, ten things to do right now, and seven top tips became twenty-nine new tasks on the list he maintained on a thick pad of legal-sized paper. By that fateful weekend, with two neatly printed columns per page, the list extended fifteen sheets into the pad. None of the items were crossed out.
Although the cycle of tardiness and guilt fueled by the growing and completely unanswered list led to stress-induced nausea, insomnia, and frequent headaches, it never occurred to David to just not do any of it. Once he wrote an item onto the list, it was immediately woven into his vision of a halcyon future. A future of financial security, strong relationships, professional success, and exceptional colon health. The idea of removing something from the list without having completed it cast a dark, ominous shadow over that bright future. In David’s imagination, the future version of himself who dwelt in the shadow of an uncompleted list was full of regret, and spent his lonely golden years calculating how much more his retirement account would be worth had he, in his youth, switched to a cheaper mobile data plan and invested the savings.
These two futures, the bright future formed by responsible lifelong habits and the dark future of the compounded consequences of laziness, were the carrot and the stick that drove David’s feverish productivity that sunny spring weekend. In just forty-eight hours, David rebalanced his 401k, alphabetized the containers in his spice rack, called his mother, updated his LinkedIn profile, rotated his mattress, meditated for 30 minutes, filled out and mailed the product registration card for his Blue Ray player, cleaned the bathroom, re-folded his shirts in the Japanese style, got laid (this was actually written on his list, inspired by health tips in a men’s magazine he read in a waiting room), cleaned his oven, changed the passwords on all of his on-line accounts, ate plenty of selenium-rich foods, and completed an online course on management consulting.
Yet, despite sustaining a level of energy and focus exceeding that of even a first-time meth user, David only managed to work off a few dozen items on the first page of the list. For most of us, had we attempted it, which we wouldn’t have, that frenzied weekend would have been a lesson in the futility of striving for perfection. Viewed in hindsight, the forty-eight hours of intense work could be seen as a personally-acted-out allegory about the impossibility of living up to the standards that modern civilization places on us. Who wouldn’t be demoralized after sacrificing a beautiful weekend to the gods of responsibility and good habits, just to find that virtually no progress was made? David Turner, that’s who.
Between Saturday morning and Sunday evening, David became addicted to the burst of dopamine that came with the crossing off of each chore. Where adding an item to the list produced a burst of cortisol and a fight-or-flight reaction, David discovered that crossing one off produced a surge of pleasure and satisfaction. One might think that, as addictions go, this one isn’t that bad. Not so. David’s addiction to responsible, forward-looking behavior eventually destroyed his life.
Through that spring and summer, and into the fall, David worked late into the night and all day every weekend to do everything that, according to his to-do list, he needed to accomplish. He installed water-saving showerheads, lost that last five pounds to get back to his ideal body weight, slightly over-inflated his tires to get better gas mileage, had his ducts cleaned, caught up on his reading, took a public speaking class, got certified to perform CPR, improved his credit score, and replaced his windshield wipers.
By October, he had become a study in contrasts. His clothes were impeccably neat and stylish (the to-do list included items such as “Dress for success”, “Add a splash of color to your wardrobe to exude confidence”, and “Five ways to avoid wrinkled shirts”). But his hair was unkempt and his fingernails long, as he had not come across advice related to hair and hands.
In contrast to his spot-on wardrobe, mentally David had become a wreck. “I’m just getting my shit together … just need to get my shit together,” he could be heard muttering over and over as he worked late into the night. At first the repetitious utterance was a sort-of mantra to help him focus, but eventually his constant muttering became a subconscious behavior sustained by his autonomic central nervous system.
Now we get to the interesting part of David’s story. If you thought his story was a parable about letting go of the things you cannot control, or some kind of strained analogy to Sisyphus and the boulder he can never quite get to the top of the mountain, you’re wrong. David eventually crossed every single chore off his to-do list. This is a story about the extreme danger of responsible living.
At 6:18 pm, October 25th, David replaced the last incandescent light bulb in his house with an energy-efficient LED bulb, then increased his monthly 401k contribution by an amount equivalent to his expected savings in energy costs. He then made one of the most important marks on a piece of paper since the Magna Carta was signed. David crossed off the last incomplete item on his to-do list. For what many believe is the first time since the Enlightenment, someone had gotten their shit together. David Turner’s shit was as together as shit can be.
Physicists have long theorized about the existence of rare and exotic states of matter like Bose-Einstein Condensates, superfluids, and quark-gluon plasmas. Occasionally well-funded and Nobel-hungry groups of researchers find a way to briefly coax matter into one or another of these heretofore-only-imagined forms, then extensively study the phenomenon and record its properties.
We can think of David Turner on that October evening as the human equivalent of the specimen of matter tortured into an exotic state in an elaborate physics experiment. As the only human in the past five or six centuries to have completely gotten his shit together, David was like an experimental specimen coaxed into exotic state of humanity — a state that was theorized to be possible, but never observed. As scholars of the human spirit, we must know: what was the experience have fully having one’s shit together like?
It was awful. There was no sense of accomplishment. Only terror. For eleven minutes, David stood paralyzed in his kitchen. Every potential action he could make carried with it the risk of adding a fresh chore to the now completed list. Go for a walk? He might accidentally notice a detail of a neighbor’s landscaping that he could copy to improve his house’s resale value. A walk was too risky. Read a book? The only books worth reading were too long to read in one go. Even if he enjoyed the book, the obligation to complete it would exist. Call a friend? They might make plans for the weekend. Plans involved planning which implied a written list of things to do. He was afraid to leave the room, or even turn his head, for fear that he would notice some un-optimized part of his life, like a piece of mail he accidentally left unopened that, once examined, would compel him to change insurance companies or compare credit card benefits.
To comfort himself while standing motionless in his kitchen, he turned his mind to the happy vision of the healthy, financially secure future that drove him into this singularity of responsibility. This is when David had the epiphany that would ruin his life. The details of the daydreams about his future varied — in one vision he lived in a lovely house by the ocean, in another he sent his children to college without incurring any debt, in others he traveled the world, or mastered oil painting. But in none of those imagined happy futures did he have a to-do list. The meaning of life, he realized, wasn’t to do everything you’re supposed to do. The list was a horrendous mistake. The meaning of life is to get to the point where you don’t have to do anything in the first place.
With that thought, David’s exotic state of shit-togetherness collapsed, leaving behind a person in a much more ordinary state of existential crisis. His obsession had come full circle. Where he once accumulated life advice and struggled to get his shit together, his obsession now became one of keeping things off the list. He now lived a life of fear — fear of accumulating even one uncompleted chore to follow him like a circling vulture.
David spent the next six months methodically dismantling his life. He sold his car to eliminate the endless parade of inspection, registration, and maintenance events that it demanded. He withdrew from his group of close friends (too much planning of weekend activities), canceled his internet access, got rid of his phone, quit his job, and donated all of his possessions. He was last seen living in an ashram in rural Virginia. People there recall that, just before he took a vow of silence, he was discussing the benefits and drawbacks of performing a crime spree of minor felonies, followed by a detailed and public admission of guilt. “In prison,” he explained to whoever would listen, “you don’t need to plan anything. They do it all for you.”
What can we learn from the David-Turner-shit-togetherness-experiment? Here are the three top takeaways from the story of David and his to-do list:
1) It’s not just you. Nobody has their shit together
2) Something-or-other about moderation
3) Don’t write anything down.