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When it comes to books, I’ve never been immune to guilty pleasures. Breezy beach books and mysteries have always been a staple in my reading diet. Yet going through my reading history, I noticed that ever since the arrival of my first Kindle, I’ve indulged a lot more in Amazon’s literary fast-food section. But why?

At a brick-and-mortar bookstore, I typically make aspirational choices. I select books that will challenge me in unexpected ways. Holding a physical object makes me think about the long-term: is it worthy of the space on my bookshelf? Within the privacy of my Kindle, however, my inclinations work differently: I tend to pick books that will grip me immediately, that will offer instant entertainment without too much effort. I’m much more easily satisfied. I settle.

We all settle, and we do it increasingly. When it comes to weighing what we can have if we exert an additional amount of effort against what is available easily and instantly, we frequently choose the latter. From Netflix to Spotify to Amazon Prime – instant gratification has become the norm. We expect to be able to watch, read, share, download, access, or chat about anything and everything right now. Technology has conditioned us to live in the moment, with the disturbing side effect of making anything that we have to wait for, strive for, endure for, or fight for seem annoying or off-putting. Why bother?

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As I contemplated the decline of my reading habits, I stumbled upon a fascinating study about happiness and meaning by a psychologist named Roy Baumeister. Much to my surprise, I learned that what makes us happy has very little to do with what gives our lives meaning. Happiness is very much about the present, having our wants and needs fulfilled in the moment. Meaning, on the other hand, is about connecting the past, present, and future; it is about activities that have purpose and duration and many ups and downs – sustaining a marriage, raising a child, or growing a small business. The study found that when we live in the instant, we are indeed happy. But it also showed that without duration, without perseverance and commitment over time, we will experience very little meaning in our lives.

Of course, this isn’t just about movies, books and music. It’s about how new technologies are slowly changing our values, pushing us toward an obsession with instant gratification that goes beyond what we watch, read, and listen to. Our addiction to the instant is also changing the way we work.

When we see technology companies go from zero to a billion-dollar valuation in just a few short years (which amounts to near ‘instant’ growth in the world of business), we expect our own venture – even if it’s not technology-driven or designed to scale fast – to increase in valuation and accrue public validation at the same pace. Bombarded with “30 under 30” lists and profiles that celebrate the success of entrepreneurs barely out of puberty, we begin to question the pace of our own career advancement. We become anxious about whether or not we’ve accomplished enough fast enough. Did we miss our window of opportunity? Does hard-won experience matter in a world of instant?

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At our desks, we crave instant feedback loops, so much so that we will restructure our priorities to experience them. Admit it, you probably spend an inordinate amount of time chipping away at your inbox – rather than facing the more challenging work of writing, or designing, or planning – because it’s easy to feel productive (and needed) as you shoot off a few quick replies and see your unread message count drop.

We choose to willingly delay starting major projects, or interrupt ourselves in the midst of those precious moments of creative flow, to check up on social media. We let the intoxication of an instant stream of likes and favorites take precedence over the act of going into ourselves to create the work that truly matters – the work that demands our full attention, the work that pushes us outside our comfort zones, the work that gives it all meaning.

Meaning does not exist sui generis. You won’t stumble on it while you’re out on a hike in the mountains, thinking deep thoughts or hoping to uncover your calling. Meaning unfolds over time. It is the product of continuous commitment and perseverance. Meaning is the opposite of easy, and it is the opposite of instant. So what happens when “now or never” is our only rule of thumb?

This essay originally appeared in Offscreen magazine, a print magazine about life in the digital age. All illustrations and animations are from the incredibly talented Yukai Du.


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