Overcoming your modernist training for constant improvement, advancement, development and accumulation

Overcoming your modernist training for constant improvement, advancement, development and accumulation. That’s what the social psychologist Kenneth Gergen advocates in the new introduction to his famous work The Saturated Self, as quoted by Harmut Rosa in Social Acceleration:

I am also struggling against my modernist training for constant improvement, development, and accumulation. Slowly I am learning the pleasures of relinquishing the desire to gain control of all that surrounds me. It is the difference between swimming with deliberation to a point in the ocean – mastering the waves to reach a goal – and floating harmoniously with the unpredictable movements of the waves.

This rather Taoist sentiment does not necessarily entail passivity, as much as an embrace of situational constraint. It’s probably easier to embrace as a life philosophy when you’re an internationally renowned tenured professor at a private liberal arts college. I think we need to recognise this privilege but it would be a mistake to dismiss what he is saying on this basis. We should take his life philosophy seriously, as well as the goods that it can lead us to:

The rewards can be substantial – the devotion of one’s intimates, happy children, professional success, the achievement of community goals, personal popularity, and so on. All are possible if one avoids looking back to locate a true and enduring self, and simply acts to fulfil potential in the moment at hand.

What Gergen articulates is one particular solution to a problem we all face: how to give shape to our lives? This has a practical dimension to it. Any plan for the future provides a framework within which present choices can be understood as moving us further towards or farther away from where we hope to get to. I think there’s a more affective dimension to this as well, albeit one which varies a lot between people for reasons that likely incorporate the social, cultural, psychological and neurophysiological. Our future plans create a structure for our present experience by constituting a sense of how the present connects to the future. It is in virtue of this that we feel our lives are ‘going somewhere’ or that we are ‘drifting’.

What Gergen’s responding to is the stress produced by the drive towards “constant improvement, development, and accumulation” when it operates under uncertain conditions. With the acceleration of social change, our experience comes to be characterised by instability, both ontologically (circumstances are unlikely to last) and epistemically (circumstances cannot be assumed to last). My plan to ‘play the game’ and climb to the top of my profession begins to seem implausible if the ‘game’ itself is seen as being in a state of flux. My plan to ‘lay down roots’ in a particular geographical area comes to seem implausible if the characteristics of that area are changing rapidly (or my ability to preserve these roots is likely to be interrupted by the demands of my a changing professional ‘game’).

He’s suggesting that it is our “modernist training for constant improvement, advancement, development and accumulation” which is the problem here. As Bauman puts it, “the site on which we build is always cluttered: the past lingers in the same ‘present’ in which the future tries to take root”. Extending the metaphor, I take Gergen to be saying that our ‘modernist training’ leads us to grasp hastily at potential futures taking root in the present, trying to steer the unfolding of events but killing these roots in the process: an activity that fails to work and makes us miserable in the process.

Either we kill potential futures by grasping too hastily or we ignore potential futures because of our fixation on our prior blueprint. Trying to control the direction of our future leaves us failing to attend to our present. Instead, Gergen advocates we should embrace the reality of our present situation, act in ways that are valuable within it and cultivate an equanimity towards the future unfolding of events.

However the social world is not so ‘liquid’ as thinkers like Bauman are prone to suggest. While radical changes does occur, it is far from the norm: our circumstances are not transformed in each successive moment. Margaret Archer suggests that instrumental rationality becomes increasingly untenable with the intensification of social change. This doesn’t mean that people abandon it, only that strategic planning in terms of means and ends becomes error-prone to the degree that each is prone to change. The point can sound trivial in the abstract but when you consider the number of contingencies built into any ‘life plan’ that has been elaborated with any degree of detail, it starts to seem much more significant. The point is not that planning is becoming impossible but rather that it is becoming unreliable.

We might respond to this by building contingencies into our life plans and returning to them with much greater frequency. These changing circumstances therefore encourage an intensification of reflexivity, an expansion of life tactics to ensure the endurance of our life strategy. This will work most effectively when our ends remain stable (e.g. becoming established & recognised within a given profession that remains securely existent) and only the means are subject to change (e.g. changing expectations attached to this professional role, changing practical activity necessary to establish oneself within the field).

An alternative strategy is to temporise, reducing the window of time within which we seek to enact a plan in order to preserve the efficacy of our planning, as can be seen in the example of Spotify’s 31 year old CEO:

Ek describes himself as “missionary,” by which he means he likes to formulate five-year missions for himself. “That’s how I think about life,” he said. “Five years is long enough for me to achieve something meaningful but short enough so I can change my mind every few years. I’m on my second five-year commitment on Spotify. In two years, I will have to make my next one. I will need to ask myself if I still enjoy what I’m doing. I’m kind of unusual that way, but it gives me clarity and purpose.”


Without a window of five years, it becomes possible to “achieve something meaningful”. Ek might well have accomplished something similar if muddling through situationally in the way advocated by Gergen. But this would be a collection of actions rather than a project: it would be something we look back and realise we’ve done rather than a growing awareness of succeeding in something we’d sought to accomplish. However if advocates of the acceleration thesis are to be believed, it is likely the window within which instrumental rationality could be operative in a subjectively satisfying way will continue to decrease: the practicality of ‘five years’ as a unit of time for Ek cannot be assumed to be sustainable.

It’s against this background that we can see how planning can come to take on a fetishistic character. We look to our plans to secure us against contingency, providing us with a sense of security and direction in a world that makes the achievement of either into a precarious accomplishment. We look to ‘escape the mess of life’, as Ian Craib puts it, fantasising about a life in which plans unfold smoothly and taking the inevitable failures we experience in reality as invitations to plan further and plan better. It’s in view of this that Gergen’s suggestion comes to seem distinctly therapeutic, representing a regime of equanimity through which we seek to stop worrying about the future and start living in the present.

However when does equanimity become drift? When does acceptance become passivity? The instrumentally rational life plan operates at the level of biography as a whole and increasingly fails for this reason. The ‘five-years missions’ of Ek enact this strategy over a shorter span of time, ensuring the same motivational pay-off while building in uncertainty in a way that makes the missions into plausible undertakings. Gergen’s presentism embraces living well under current circumstances and accepting our inability to dictate the direction of their change. The problem with this is that much of what matters to us extends beyond our present situation. There’s a dimension to human experience, in which we recognise ourselves as having become the person we are now at this moment through a process that goes back far into the past and extends forward through the entirety of our life. Gergen’s account confuses the capacity to control our biography with the reality of that biography itself. His person risks idling away their life in a diverting and enjoyable way only to wonder in old age about all the things they could have done with their life if only they had looked beyond the confines of their circumstances.

So how can we shape our lives while avoiding the sisyphean business of life plans? By finding meaningful projects and cultivating the mindfulness necessary to attend to them maximally. Any project pursued in such a way is liable to change because neither self and circumstances are static. But our projects and the concerns in virtue of which they are meaningful to us constitute a thread through which purpose is enacted at the biographical level, linking the many situations within which we find ourselves over time through our projects and the meaning they hold for us.

2 responses to “Overcoming your modernist training for constant improvement, advancement, development and accumulation”

  1. Great essay! By the way, have you read Walter Lippman’s Drift and Mastery? Sennett references it in Respect, I believe. That or Corrosion of Character. It would be interesting to see this tension between drift and mastery and the concern with shaping one’s life compared to Lippman’s late-1950s/early-1960s analysis.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.