Resist the List

One of the most persistent forms articles take on the internet is the list. There are lists everywhere and it seems as if there is almost an unspoken pact that if you are going to post an article, share a podcast, or blog post it needs to take the form of a list. This isn’t a new phenomenon as there have always been rankings, the Billboard Hot 100 or the New York Times Best Sellers, but those lists are rankings not authoritative outlines. Everywhere you look now there are “The Top Ten Reasons…” or the “The Top Twenty Uses For…”, etc. Why do we suddenly need to structure our dialogue with a list? Is listmania problematic to living a happier life?

We are by nature, categorizing animals. We have enormous taxonomies for the plants, animals, and insects we discover in the world. We created a periodic table of elements, a color wheel of the visible spectrum, and we have books on grammar and structural guidelines for writing like the Chicago Manual of Style. Human beings have been cataloging and categorizing the world since we began. This inherent tendency draws us to lists because we assume they provide structure where there was none before. Even if there are rankings based on sales, we apply a meaning to those and many of us make decisions based on those rankings. Often we’ll check Rotten Tomatoes before we decide to see a movie. Lists provide us with a sense of security because of our quantifying nature and our trust in the authority of others. Combine those two tendencies with our current addiction to media and you get an ocean of lists.

In Andrea Batista Schlesenger’s book The Death of Why she outlines some alarming statistics about how our access to data through search engines like Google are limiting our capacity, especially in younger people, for ‘deep inquiry’. Although Schelsenger doesn’t address list-making directly in her book she does tangentially by addressing the rise of opinion journalism. Opinion journalism is what we might refer to as “talking heads” journalism, where instead of the usual research involved in real journalism we are getting one person’s opinion(who may represent a larger interest). There is now a massive amount of opinion journalism across television, print, and the media and its short form is lists.

The danger of opinion journalism and listmania isn’t merely a political and social one, but very basically it’s a health one. Occasional deep inquiry or deep thought wires our brain differently. It forces us to do some mental heavy lifting which gives us greater capacity to analyze life when things don’t always go our way, or even if they do go our way. Shaping that mental resilience is critical to living more artfully because we build our sense of security from within not from without. Lists lure us into believing there is authority in their taxonomy when in fact they are representative of either pure data (like a listing of top album sales) or opinion, These 9 Things Are Draining Your Passion at Work (Here’s How to Counter Them). Are there really only 9 things and if so why weren’t they discussed? How do we know these are the authoritative 9 things preventing us from having a richer work life?

Reality is hard and we want it to be easy. We believe that the easier we make our lives the better they will become but sadly this is far from true. Personal growth is born not just from struggle (and I’m not advocating for real suffering here) but from insight. Sure, simple functional things can be shared as generalized knowledge, such as how to open a potato chip bag or how to brush your teeth, but nobody can really give you a list on how to safely navigate your life. You need to take some risks, try out your own models for living and make mistakes, then learn from those mistakes to build a rich foundation for an artful life. Avoid the lists and practice questioning. Look a littler deeper and you’ll find the rewards are much greater than any list can provide.

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