Is the “Harrison Bergeron” problem handicapping your work day?

Harrison BergeronHaving trouble thinking straight? Try thinking for more than 45 seconds at a time. That’s a lesson from of one of my favorite stories of all time, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.’s “Harrison Bergeron.”

Vonnegut describes a dystopic future in which “everybody was finally equal.” If you happened to have some unusual quality, such as beauty or a great voice, the handicapper general provides you with a handicap that reduces your advantage.

Here’s what that’s like for smart people:

George, while his intelligence was way above normal, had a little mental handicap radio in his ear. He was required by law to wear it at all times. It was tuned to a government transmitter. Every twenty seconds or so, the transmitter would send out some sharp noise to keep people like George from taking unfair advantage of their brains.

George and Hazel were watching television. There were tears on Hazel’s cheeks, but she’d forgotten for the moment what they were about.

On the television screen were ballerinas.

A buzzer sounded in George’s head. His thoughts fled in panic, like bandits from a burglar alarm.

“That was a real pretty dance, that dance they just did,” said Hazel.

“Huh” said George.

“That dance-it was nice,” said Hazel.

“Yup, ” said George. He tried to think a little about the ballerinas. They weren’t really very good — no better than anybody else would have been, anyway. They were burdened with sashweights and bags of birdshot, and their faces were masked, so that no one, seeing a free and graceful gesture or a pretty face, would feel like something the cat drug in. George was toying with the vague notion that maybe dancers shouldn’t be handicapped. But he didn’t get very far with it before another noise in his ear radio scattered his thoughts .

George winced.

You don’t need a handicapper general. You’re handicapping yourself. With your smartphone, your email, your Facebook and Twitter, you make sure that you don’t think about the same thing for more than 30 seconds at a time.

This is one reason I like writing. It requires concentration. I need to set aside time for it and during that time, I am happier if nobody interrupts me. And I try not to interrupt myself.

Please, do this to maximize your above-average intelligence (all of my readers are above average):

  • Set aside some time every day to think. Think about a problem you’re trying to solve. Write, draw, code, or noodle, but do it for 45 minutes in a row.
  • Exercise alone. It occupies your body, which leaves your mind free to wander. I get some of my best ideas while biking. (This doesn’t tend to work well when you’re doing golf, yoga, or football with other people.)
  • Change your settings so you don’t get a desktop or mobile alert every time you get an email or Facebook update. It can wait three-quarters of an hour. (If not, they’ll probably call you.)

You don’t need to do this. But if you don’t, you’ll spend your whole day reacting to other people’s needs. You’ll get to the end of the day having created nothing.

And for lord’s sake, don’t write anything important in five minute snippets. We can tell.

The full text of “Harrison Bergeron” is here; it’s short, and it’s worth it. H/T Dave Winer.

Drawing: Danieli Prati via Flickr

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  1. I have much to say about this, but needless to say I’ve deleted all my social networking profiles as I realized just how distracted, unmotivated and anxious I was from all the noise. I also don’t have a working smart phone…I just buy a TracPhone when I need something whole traveling. I compare the mobile pandemic to a zombie infestation. I come from a world where one went to a cafe/coffee house and interacted with intelligent, creative minds of various types. That’s no longer an option as we have millennials, gen-X’s and even older staring at the bright, hypnotic glare of their new master. The Huxley prophecy has come to pass. I’ve also come to observe just how devalued most industries are, as mobile technology is so addictive no one cares about anything other than apps, posts and the next upgrade. I love me a quality blog, a Wikipedia entry and the means to order things online. But the web (mobile or computer flavor) should be here to augment your real life…not replace it or usurp it.

  2. Your ad would be more powerful if you simply wrote:
    This keeps all concepts even…it does not require punctuation, has more impact, and is positive throughout . AND it means the same thing….. Give it a try!!!

    1. Thanks for thinking about this. I was very deliberate in picking my tagline, I am going to keep it.

      First off “be interesting” is not the same as “don’t be boring” — people respond more to the idea of not being boring. It’s more provocative.

      Second, three things of which the third is somehow the same but different has more impact than three things that are the same.

      So I hear you . . . but I feel like I know what I’m after here.

  3. This is one of the best things you’ve ever written in this blog, Josh. It’s apt, it’s insightful, and it calls out something that’s a real problem in today’s–BZZZT! Um, what was I saying?