“How can I more fully embrace my finitude?”

Oliver Burkeman

“How can I more fully embrace my finitude?”

Oliver Burkeman

Writer & Journalist

Oliver Burkeman is a British author and journalist. From 2004-2006 he wrote a weekly column in the Guardian about self-help and productivity called “This Column Will Change Your Life”, and is the author of  The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012) and Four Thousand Weeks.


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KP Hello Oliver, I’m delighted to be speaking to you, and so grateful for you giving up your time. The theme of this podcast is to elicit and explore a question that we should be asking ourselves, so if we could start with the question you think we should be asking…

OB So I guess what this calls to mind, in my mind anyway, is sort of big abstract questions that seem to be like at the core of all the things that I feel drawn to write about and look into. One of those big abstract questions is something like, how can we more fully embrace the condition of being finite? What does it mean to sort of embrace your limitations as a human, and live wholeheartedly in that state, instead of trying to run away from it or escape it. Now that’s about 80 words so it’s not a very elegant question, but it’s definitely the subject matter.

KP So let me just and rehearse what I heard there. How can we more fully embrace, was it our mortality or our finitude? What was the wording you used?

OB Well I would say our nature as finite human beings, yeah I would say I’ll find finitude rather than our mortality. It’s arguably a distinction without a difference – it’s an interesting question. But yeah…it’s the fact that we are limited in so many ways, not not simply the fact that we we die, although in some sense the fact that we die is what is what creates all the other limitations.

KP So that seems to be the question behind your book Four Thousand Weeks, which was born of the realization that you can’t fit everything into a life, and so how do you reckon with the fact that we are finite, and how then to spend that well. Would it be fair to say that question has kind of driven that exploration?

OB Yeah, I think that that book I now see sort of in the rearview mirror, because you only ever see these things that way. But that book is is an attempt to ask that question specifically through the lens of time, and our daily time.  I don’t think that’s the only lens through which confronting limit is important and interesting, but yeah, absolutely. It’s like, once you really see that there will always be too much to do, and too many things that genuinely matter, you know, not just sort of nonsense busy work, but really really important ways to spend a life. Once you see that there are far more of those than you’re ever going to actually have the the chance to get around to in a finite life, how does that change everything, really? Partly of course one’s choices about what you spend time on, but also just how it feels to be human in this situation.

I don’t know, I think what I’m always coming back to is this sort of theme, or it’s a sort of perspective. or way of approaching things. It’s almost like there’s there’s some kind of freedom for me and liberation in realising that our situation is sort of even worse than we thought it was. If you think that it’s really hard to make time for everything that matters in life – that’s a very stressful and anxiety inducing situation. If you see that it’s completely impossible to make time for everything that feels like it matters in life, that’s not so stressful because you have surrendered to reality in some important way. You’ve accepted that things are the way they are and from then on you’re sort of freer to choose a few things to spend your time on, because you’re sort of no longer haunted by this impossible goal. I mean obviously it continues to haunt me on a sporadic basis multiple times a week, but [we’re talking] in terms of the sort of the the ideal mindset here. The thing to sort of aspire to, is that we might see just how bad things were in terms of our limitation, and actually be freer as a result.

KP So we kind labour under an impossible burden, and calling that out as an impossible burden removes it from you. It says actually okay, what am we gonna choose what’s worth my time?

OB Totally. There are all these there are all these quotations that come from Zen Buddhist teachers especially, about how the problem that we have, is not the problems that we encounter in life, but that we think life is a problem that can be solved. So at the beginning of the book I quote um Joko Beck, the late American and Buddhist teacher, who said what makes it unbearable (I think she’s talking about life as a whole), is your mistaken belief that it can be cured. I really like this kind of bucket of ice water over the head kind of observation; because it’s like oh yeah, it just rings immediately true to me. It’s like, the problem here was thinking that I was going to find some way to, you know, escape the terms and conditions of the human condition. It wasn’t the fact that I can’t do that, it was the fact that I thought I might be able to do it.

KP I actually read that just before speaking to you, and every time I’ve read it, as you said it’s like a bucket bucket of ice water over the head. It’s been so refreshing, like actually yeah, this is something which I’m not going to solve, an equation which will never write quite resolve.

OB Right.

KP And that’s okay, it’s better that I know that it won’t resolve than, you know, that I struggle on with it thinking I’m going to get to the end of it.

OB Yeah, and not just in a sort of spirit of resignation either – not that that’s what you meant. But you know, it’s tempting to say that this kind of advice is to sort of like give up doing something futile so that you can just sort of be becalmed and kind of accept that life sucks, and eek some minor enjoyment out of it along the way. I don’t think it’s that at all. I think it’s that it’s sort of precisely the precondition to being the most that we can be, and doing the most that we can do; and all these kinds of things that sound a bit cheesy American self-help. It’s not that they’re bad goals necessarily. It’s just that actually, they have to come through this encounter with limitation, not by sort of visualizing impossible outcomes so effortfully that eventually they come true, or whatever you would be told by those kind of cliched books. It’s so that you can live full-throatedly that you need to be able to come to terms on some level with with these sort of built-in limitations.

KP I think you write about it in the book, having kind of a memento mori – things that remind you that you’re going to die, which we we we seem to be very good at denying and the death is ever going to envelop us in our culture. You know that’s it’s a truism say the Victorians talked about death and not sex, and we talk about sex and not death. And is I suppose my question is whether this question of our finitude is more relevant now than it was in the past, because of where our culture is, and the things we’re influenced by. And this book has come out of a particular moment, and maybe that’s no coincidence – it’s the question we need to hear, because we’re not very good at paying attention to it. Do you get where I’m going with this kind of question?

OB Yeah I do. I think there are multiple ways to sort of talk about the timeliness of this idea, and one of them which I’ll put to one side, is that you know, I definitely think my interest in these ideas is something to do with my stage of life – there’s a mid-lifey thing to this kind of idea. I hope it can be useful to people who aren’t at midlife – and I think it has been – but I think it there’s something about the encounter with limitation that naturally comes out of turning 40 or whatever. It’s a cliche, but it’s but it’s a cliche for a reason in terms of where we are in history and in the culture.

I think that there’s all sorts of factors that sort of make this encounter with limit so important. It’s like on the one hand, there’s a whole lot of ways in which it feels like we are coming up against our limits. So in the discourse about work and burnout there’s this idea that burnout is now something that you seem to experience in your in your twenties instead of something towards the end of a professional career. The sense that evermore is being demanded from individuals in the in the workplace, that eventually that you know that optimization and efficiency tricks on and a person on a personal level are not going to get you to the point. It’s more obvious than it has been in the past I suppose, that you’re not going to be able to solve all these problems with that kind of technique – and partly that’s to do with late capitalism, to coin a phrase, but I think that there’s also this sort of technological piece to it where we get more and more ways in which I think we are encouraged to believe that the moment at which we could transcend our limitations is just around the corner. So that sort of the acceleration in technologies just like, you know, the internet, email, social media, mobile internet, it feels like we’re really close to being sort of gods in all sorts of contexts.  And so you know when you can be updated on what’s happening four thousand miles away in less than a second, it becomes all the more frustrating that you know you can’t sort of, make a traffic jam go at the speed you wish. I give this example in the book about why it’s more frustrating to wait two minutes for microwaves than it is for something we’ve put in the oven for 2 hours, and it’s very much something to do with this kind of feeling that if it can be that quick, it ought to be even quicker. You know that we now have the technology that means we shouldn’t have to compromise with our desires, and therefore it makes the remaining ways in which we do have to compromise all the more all the more infuriating. I think that’s they’re the same point in some ways, but as we test the limits of individuals in the workplace, and the limits of the environment, and the limits of all these ways in which we live in a culture and an economy that tests the limits, we’re also being given all these technologies that sort of whisper that maybe maybe we can pass the test, and sort of achieve escape velocity. Somehow it’s a weird situation to be in, that’s my conclusion.

KP It is, it’s such a paradox. It seemed that you know the invention of dishwasher and washing machines, and things that make us more efficient, haven’t seemingly given us any more time back.

OB Right.

KP And clearly it shouldn’t work like that. Things that stop you doing laborious time intensive chores should give you more time, but as you say, it’s maybe changed the way we think about what we need to do with the kind of time we’re given.

OB Right, yes, and I think that where this fits into this idea about limitation I think, is that you know, there’s this much observed phenomenon in all sorts of different fields, where if all you do is you make a system more efficient then, it actually just sort of clogs up with with more junk. So the the classic example of induced demand in traffic management – if you widen a motorway to add an extra lane to ease congestion, it becomes a more appealing route for more drivers so more people use that route and the congestion, at least in some cases, tends back towards what it originally was.

You mentioned washing machines. There’s really good historical work to suggest that that housewives in in early twentieth century American Britain who started to get these machines didn’t save any time at all, because the standards of cleanliness to which they were held by the culture just rose to offset the benefits. It’s there in Parkinson’s law, the idea that the work expands to fill the time available, and I think the sort of the general point here is something like, we are these finite creatures facing hypothetically infinite numbers of emails we could send, infinite levels of ah household cleanliness to which we could in principle aspire, infinite levels of speed of a motorway that you could imagine, and in all these cases we think that if you just use efficiency to try to get through that infinite supply. Well, you’re never going to get through it, because it’s an infinite supply, so more and more inputs kind of rush in to to fill the gap. And so using efficiency and optimization as a way to try to get on top of the situation, to try to master time, is sort of doomed to fail because it’s an attempt to sort of escape the reality of the situation. So I guess on a sort of concrete level, what I’m saying in my most recent book is that there is nothing wrong with getting a bit more efficient in certain areas of life. If it takes you an hour to find the things you need for breakfast in the morning, then there’s probably some efficiency that you can be working on in that system. But we’ll never solve this sort of emotional, psychological, existential problem of feeling out of control with respect to time, feeling on the back foot with respect to time. We never solve that through efficiency. You can only solve that, if you can solve it at all, by reconciling yourself to the situation, deciding to focus on a few things, and letting a whole lot of other stuff fall by the wayside. There isn’t a technique or a technology for getting on top of time and mastering time in that way because time always wins that battle in the end, I guess.

KP It’s reminds me of the French Sociologist Jack Ellul, who talked about the governing principle of our society since the industrial revolution – though he would actually go back to Genesis in the fall – being efficiency and productivity. Or I think of Michael Sandel who said we’ve moved from ah having a market economy to being a market society, and that we only do things that are kind of productive or efficient, which leaves very little room for what Kiran Sentiya’s term atelic, which you mention – doing activities things that are not productive for their own sake.

So your question of how do I embrace my finitude is very much not a question of how do I become more efficient and productive and fit more in is it. Is it more about a different way of inhabiting the time that we have?

OB No, exactly, I just got sent a book actually written from a Christian perspective called how to inhabit time, and I love that title because I don’t know yet.

KP Oh is that by Jamie K Smith?

OB It is, yes’s correct.

KP I hear that’s a good book.

OB I have not read it yet, so I should not comment on its on its innards. But that title was like ‘oh yes, right’ – it totally chimes with some stuff I’ve been reading about Dogan the Zen teacher, and this is the sort of Christian approach to the same idea. But yeah, it’s like um so backing up because I shouldn’t talk about a book. Right, efficiency…I’ve slightly lost the thread of the question, but I thought it was a very good question and now I can’t recall…

KP The the question was and your your question about embracing our finitude isn’t about efficiency and productivity. It’s about inhabiting time in a different way, and that’s in a sense quite subversive to a culture which only seems to value um productivity and efficiency, and time gains and getting more done and that kind of thing. So I think you were speaking into that.

OB Yeah, absolutely. So yeah I think for example, I’ve noticed sometimes a sort of a response to the title of my book Four Thousand Weeks, which is extremely approximately the lifespan of a human being in the west these days, there’s a sort of reaction you can have to that which is like, yeah that’s terrifying and as a result, I’ve got to try to cram every remaining week that I’ve got with the most extraordinary stuff, and go like base jumping every weekend, and do extreme sports and live a completely remarkable life that’s really different to other people. There’s that whole ethos in the culture of like seize the day, meaning, you know, be extraordinary do more than anyone else, do more extraordinary things than anyone else.

There’s nothing wrong with doing things that are extraordinary, if they are actually the things you want to do, but that reaction always strikes me as a sort of a halfway to what I’m trying to say. Which is like, in the desire to cram life with more and more stuff, which is what efficiency is right – whether it can be efficiency of workload, or efficiency of, you know, getting through thrilling experiences or something, but in that desire to cram all this stuff in, there is still a desire to somehow gain the upper hand over time, to somehow win this battle – and if not achieve immortality, then at least sort of achieve an immortality by other means. Which is if you can’t live forever, you can try to do an infinite amount with the time that you that you do have, and I think both of those are just different versions of the same mistake right? And actually, I’ve found that there’s something very relaxing about really getting inside the idea of limitation. It isn’t like, now I’ve got to find even better techniques to counter this limitation. It’s like ‘oh this is how it is and this is the ground from which I can do some interesting and meaningful and hopefully helpful things with my with my time’.

KP And that seems key a to your book – it’s about inhabiting a moment for meaning rather than for instrumental purpose?

OB Right, and you mentioned Kiran Setiya’s idea of atelic activities – the idea of doing things that that are beneficial and meaningful for themselves not because they lead somewhere. I think that’s really the crucial thing here right, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with using time instrumentally – we all do it every day all the time, where we’re using an hour to achieve some goal. But if you just end up focusing on achieving those goals, if you’re never sort of letting life cache itself out in the moment as meaningful now, then like, it’s never going to happen – because it’s only ever now. And so, it’s a different way of inhabiting time, as you say, and it’s a way of sort of more fully inhabiting time.  Because there is something about that purely instrumental mindset that sort of skirts over the surface of life towards the moment of truth when it’s all sorted out, or the project is launched, or you can retire, or you know, whatever it is in each person’s case.

KP So Oliver, we’ve been discussing the pressure our culture puts on us to instrumentalise our time, to sort of live beyond our very finite human limits. And so I’m wondering how helpful it has been for you to become aware of this problem, like, how much are you managing to live more in the present because you’re aware that we need to?

OB  I mean this question of how to embrace my finitude, I mean I think I’ve made leaps and bounds compared to how I used to be. But it is absolutely like such an ongoing struggle of life. I think it’s a cliche but it’s true that people don’t write books or create podcast or anything else about topics that they don’t struggle with. I mean that’s what makes these things interesting.

So I did an email newsletter the other day where I sort of wrote about how to what I do on those days when I just have a complete motivational meltdown and can’t bring myself to do any of the things that I feel I ought to be doing and a significant number of people in reply to me sort of astonished that I ever have such days, because I’ve spent so much time writing about this kind of topic. Um, and it’s….

KP I found out a very refreshing email Oliver, thank you – please share more of your foibles and flaws, I think it makes everybody else feel a bit better about themselves.

OB Well also, it’s such a testament to how destined we are to try to assume that other people have got it together right? because I literally call my email newsletter The Imperfectionist, and the way I see it I’m endlessly writing about my foibles and flaws, but still because you wrote a book, or because you’re the writer of the email newsletter instead of the recipient on this particular day, there is this assumption that you know more than than other people.

I mean the thing I am always. trying to do I think, and I think I do more successfully than I used, to is to let go of a certain kind of need for control, or for comprehensive productivity for the idea that I’m going to be able to fit everything in. The idea that it’s absolutely terrible if anybody out there is disappointed in me, or impatient with me, or wishes that I was doing something that I’m that I’m not doing. And to just sort of stay more aware more of the time of the real situation, which is that every single moment I’m doing anything, I’m saying no to a million other things in that choice. So you know, if I leave behind some unanswered emails to go and spend the evening with my son because I would rather do that, I mean most people would endorse my decision, but the feeling that if I just gave it another hour I would have those emails all done takes away value from it. It leaches into the experience of being with my son, and it gets very difficult. If I understand instead, that to finish those emails would be literally (you know, not literally), be a drop in the ocean – it would be nothing compared the incoming supply which is infinite -it’s just a question of doing what you can. Then I’m sort of freed from the tyranny of that thought about what else I ought to be doing, and more able to be present in that moment.

So you know in fact, when we stop speaking in a little while I’m going to go down and start making start making dinner and there are various urgent emails or emails that the people who sent them consider to be urgent in my inbox, and I don’t mean to be callous towards those people, and I do try ultimately to work with their agendas too whenever I can, but it’s just this understanding that there’s no way of winning here, right? It’s like ah the only way of winning is not not to play the game, or whatever. It’s like it’s like there’s no hope of keeping everybody, or all parts of me happy here, and that is wonderful. That’s that’s like a huge release from the burden.

KP The gift of your book is awareness, right? It feels like you like that quote at the beginning the the and you know that ‘what makes it unbearable is the mistaken belief that it can be cured’ –  when when you say those things out loud and you realise, ah I’ve got I’ve got to actually figure out what I value here and prioritise.

OB Yeah, yeah, it’s just about becoming it’s about becoming conscious of what was already the case. Yeah I think that’s really true.

KP There’s a sense in which I think why what you say is so important and relevant, is that the air we breathe has very much  reversed the values which are probably good for us. So spending relationships spending time with people is better than inbox zero, but that nagging sense of inbox zero and efficiency, and you know, getting things done – means that we often do the reverse. And so that’s why I love the question of finitude, because we then have to reckon with what trumps what, given that I’ve only got four thousand weeks, and actually 2000 left if I’m lucky.

OB Yeah, and you you raise a really good point there, which is that it’s not always the case, what I’m about to say, but it is very often the case that the lure of getting the emails answered exerts a pull, and sort of the idea of spending time with my family, even though I love doing it, doesn’t while I’m answering email. If I’m with my family it’s easier to be haunted by emails; when I’m answering emails, I’m less likely to be haunted by the wish to be spending time with my family. It’s not always true, and certainly when my son was a newborn I found it really hard to be doing things other than just being with with him. And you know when you’re in the first flush of love in a relationship, nothing else seems like it has any meaning. But once you get into sort of the routines of life, it’s exactly the wrong things that exert the that exert the pull. Yeah, and it’s fascinating. So you really have to sort of stay aware of that, or at least have structures in your life that cause you to do the things that are good for you, whether they feel like the urgent things or not.

KP Yeah, your family doesn’t always have a persuasive design like Twitter or whatever does.

OB Right, exactly. Yeah, there’s no gamification in the in that, whereas the satisfaction of knocking out the emails is real. Yeah.

KP Yeah, and I suppose the other point I think you raise here is to do with cosmic insignificance. One lovely part of your book you use Brian Mcgee;s thought experiment about hundred year old people living end to end to give perspective, and actually ah the the significance of what we contribute ah is vanishingly small, and therefore getting and anxious and stressed about it kind of goes away when you see when you zoom out.

OB Yes, right. I think there’s all sorts of ways to use this idea of one’s own insignificance, but certainly one of them is the sense that the decisions that tend to haunt us and leave us mired in an indecision, it’s very useful to realise how little difference they’ll make to the run of things. The other is just that you know there is this cultural message that we’ve spoken about about, you know the idea that a meaningful life is an extraordinary one or a very noteworthy one, and if you sort of zoom out to cosmic time you see that there’s a sort of flattening of the difference between living a very quiet and so-called ordinary life, and living a very big deal and extraordinary life. Because you know on the scale of the cosmos, all these extraordinary people are basically the same tiny little pinpricks of consciousness as the ordinary ones, and actually I find in that the possibility of seeing that there is more meaning in the ordinary things I do than I had realised. And so I don’t want to live a life where cooking a cooking dinner on an ordinary weeknight is a distraction from living a meaningful life, I would like to live a life where that was part of a meaningful life.

I think what I’m doing in with that idea is you take a sort of Y axis on the graph of how important your activities are, and you could plot having a boring mundane life at the bottom, and then doing some extraordinary world-changing things a bit further up. But if you then extend the X-axis for another sort of ten thousand miles, sorry the Y axis, if you extend the Y axis 10,000 miles further up, everything’s down at the unimportant end of the scale, and that is liberating too I find.

KP Yeah, absolutely, me too. I find the way you’ve thought through these problems has ah has the potential to re-enchant the mundane and the ordinary and the things, that that in a different way of thinking become you know, annoying details like cooking, when they are actually the stuff of life and that we need to be present to. So your question, ‘how do I embrace my finitude’ is a recipe for living in the moment in a richer kind of more meaningful way, and I get the sense that that’s that’s how you intend it for yourself as well as a question.

OB Yes, absolutely,There’s lovely of you to say and that phrase about re-enchanting ordinary life, I couldn’t hope for for a for a better sense of what I’m trying to say and trying to experience than that.

KP Well on that on that note I think you you said you need to go and re-enchant dinner for your your family,

OB Ah, yeah, got to re-enchant some broccoli. Yeah, yeah, absolutely.

KP As do I. I’m going to re-enchant some broccoli and Lidl’s pie…which I’m not sure was ever that enchanting in the first place…

I’ve so appreciated you making the time in you know, but particularly with this question of, you know, you’re only going to live about four thousand weeks and you’ve you’ve spent a hour talking to me. So Oliver I’m very very grateful for that.

OB It was a pleasure. Thank you very much for inviting me to to do so.



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