This post was originally written for The Creative Cafe.
The first night after I moved to London, I went out for steak and Irish coffee alone in a little French restaurant around the corner from my new home.
The waiters were snide, because they seemed to be going for the authentic Paris experience. And because they usually are towards solo diners. But I knew no one and had no one to celebrate with. So I sat in the window, a book in one hand and a chunk of baguette in the other.
Going out for dinner was an act of pure joyous extravagance. Everything I’d wanted for years was suddenly within my grasp.
Walking to the restaurant, it became apparent that it was the first moment where I’d felt happy for well over a year.
That morning, I’d packed up my life in a rucksack and single tote bag, somehow managed to get my scrappy little cat into a carrier, then bought a one-way ticket to my new home.
Every time I find myself back at the tube station where I first alighted, the look of the entrance hall brings back the way it felt to see it for the first time. That particular sense of sudden lightness.
Everything felt significant that day. I’d wanted to move for a while. Living anywhere other than London felt impossible.
But I hadn’t felt ready, nor able to trust myself enough to manage it. In retrospect, I wasn’t in the least bit ready for it. The future possibility of moving kept me sane(ish) throughout the time I spent saving up for it, bored and restless. It took time to gain the self-assurance necessary to know I could manage it.
Reflecting on that day, it seems hard to label it as anything other than a defining moment in my life, the point where everything changed. It was one of the best choices I’ve made, and the best choice I could have made at the time.
Was it really, though?
It’s always strange to reflect upon how something that seems of earth-shattering importance right now can become only of mild interest a short time later, and almost meaningless a long time later.
Around this time last year, I found myself debating how to spend my 21st birthday. Seeing as it seemed like enough of a strongly mandated social milestone to override my general dislike of the whole idea of obligating a bunch of people to celebrate your success in not dying for another year.
Stuck for ideas, I asked a few coworkers, all aged somewhere between late twenties and late thirties what they did. What surprised me was how vague their answers were.
The ones still in their twenties could about remember how they spent the day. Most gave only broad strokes (i.e. they all got very drunk) and only one could recall specific details — which were tied to photographs they could pull up on Facebook.
Those in their thirties struggled to recall anything much, or admitted that they weren’t sure if they were remembering the right birthday. Some of those in their late thirties didn’t even pretend they still had a clue. When I later, experimentally, asked a few even older people, the answers were similar.
When I ultimately ended up spending most of the day alone, it was a lot easier recognising that it was less consequential than it seemed. We just tend to place the most emphasis on the memorable and therefore the recent.
Ha-Joon Chang writes in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism that ‘In perceiving changes, we tend to regard the most recent ones as the most revolutionary. This is often at odds with the facts.’
In this context, Chang is referring to the idea that the washing machine is a more significant invention than the internet. We just perceive the latter as having had a greater impact on society because washing machines have been around since before pretty much everyone alive now was born.
The basic idea is that washing machines (along with similar household appliances) vastly reduced the time women needed to spend on housework. This laid the economic basis for us being able to start working and contribute to other forms of productivity. Not needing to wash clothes by hand had all kinds of second-order consequences, like reducing birth rates in developed countries as the opportunity cost of staying home to care for a child increased.
But the internet seems far more monumental because many, perhaps most, people who use it remember a time before it existed or before it was widely accessible. We have all, however young, seen it change and develop, touching new areas of our existences throughout our lives. On an almost daily basis, it changes us in new ways.
Except, our perception is skewed because the internet is new. The societal shift it has created (and continues to create) is, according to Chang, smaller overall than that of the washing machine.
As disjointed as Chang’s idea seems in this post, I like it because it’s a tangible reminder of one of the quirks of how we perceive our lives. When we weigh up the most significant events, people, changes, and decisions we automatically give greater weight to the more recent ones.
In our own lives, we have the washing machine — events that seem meaningless because they happened a while ago, or they’re not super sparkly on the surface — and we have the internet — events that seem of the utmost meaning, yet we place too much value on because they’re recent and vivid.
When we start placing too much importance on what’s happening now, sometimes that distinction is a good way to put things into perspective.