The book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman (@oliverburkeman) was recently recommended to me by Cal Newport, bestselling author of Deep Work. The first few pages hooked me, and I devoured it over several days, capturing hundreds of Kindle highlights in the process. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve ever read, and one of my favorite chapters is titled “Cosmic Insignificance Therapy.” Even by itself, this chapter left me with a profound sense of calm that lasted several days. It sticks with you.
In short, I loved the book, so my team reached out to Oliver to see if we might be able to share this chapter on the podcast and blog, and here we are.
“Cosmic Insignificance Therapy” is excerpted below with permission from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. If you prefer to listen to this chapter, you can find the audio on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast here. The author, Oliver Burkeman, can be found at OliverBurkeman.com, and you can follow him on Twitter @oliverburkeman.
Cosmic Insignificance Therapy
The Jungian psychotherapist James Hollis recalls the experience of one of his patients, a successful vice president of a medical instruments company, who was flying over the American Midwest on a business trip, reading a book, when she was accosted by a thought: “I hate my life.” A malaise that had been growing in her for years had crystallized in the understanding that she was spending her days in a way that no longer felt as if it had any meaning. The relish she’d had for her work had drained away, the rewards she’d been pursuing seemed worthless, and now life was a matter of going through the motions, in the fading hope that it somehow all might yet pay off in future happiness.
Perhaps you know how she felt. Not everyone has this kind of sudden epiphany, but many of us know what it is to suspect that there might be richer, fuller, juicier things we could be doing with our four thousand weeks—even when what we’re currently doing with them looks, from the outside, like the definition of success. Or maybe you’re familiar with the experience of returning to your daily routines, following an unusually satisfying weekend in nature or with old friends, and being struck by the thought that more of life should feel that way—that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the deeply engrossing parts to be more than rare exceptions. The modern world is especially lacking in good responses to such feelings: religion no longer provides the universal ready-made sense of purpose it once did, while consumerism misleads us into seeking meaning where it can’t be found. But the sentiment itself is an ancient one. The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes, among many others, would instantly have recognized the suffering of Hollis’s patient: “Then I considered all that my hands had done, and the toil I had spent in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”
It’s deeply unsettling to find yourself doubting the point of what you’re doing with your life. But it isn’t actually a bad thing because it demonstrates that an inner shift has already occurred. You couldn’t entertain such doubts in the first place if you weren’t already occupying a new vantage point on your life—one from which you’d already begun to face the reality that you can’t depend on fulfillment arriving at some distant point in the future, once you’ve gotten your life in order or met the world’s criteria for success, and that instead the matter needs addressing now. To realize midway through a business trip that you hate your life is already to have taken the first step into one you don’t hate—because it means you’ve grasped the fact that these are the weeks that are going to have to be spent doing something worthwhile if your ﬁnite life is to mean anything at all. This is a perspective from which you can finally ask the most fundamental question of time management: What would it mean to spend the only time you ever get in a way that truly feels as though you are making it count?
The Great Pause
Sometimes this perceptual jolt affects a whole society at once. I wrote the first draft of this chapter under lockdown in New York City during the coronavirus pandemic, when, amid the grief and anxiety, it became normal to hear people express a sort of bittersweet gratitude for what they were experiencing: that even though they were furloughed and losing sleep about the rent, it was a genuine joy to see more of their children or to rediscover the pleasures of planting flowers or baking bread. The enforced pause in work, school, and socializing put on hold numerous assumptions about how we had to spend our time. It turned out, for example, that many people could perform their jobs adequately without an hour-long commute to a dreary office or remaining at a desk until 6:30 p.m. solely in order to appear hardworking. It also turned out that most of the restaurant meals and takeout coffees I’d grown accustomed to consuming, presumably on the grounds that they enhanced my life, could be forsworn with no feeling of loss (a double-edged revelation, given how many jobs depended on providing them). And it became clear—from the ritual applauding of emergency workers, grocery runs undertaken for housebound neighbors, and many other acts of generosity—that people cared about one another far more than we’d assumed. It was just that before the virus, apparently, we hadn’t had the time to show it.
Things hadn’t changed for the better, obviously. But alongside the devastation that it wrought, the virus changed us for the better, at least temporarily, and at least in certain respects: it helped us perceive more clearly what our pre-lockdown days had been lacking and the trade-oﬀs we’d been making, willingly or otherwise—for example, by pursuing work lives that left no time for neighborliness. A New York writer and director named Julio Vincent Gambuto captured this sense of what I found myself starting to think of as “possibility shock”—the startling understanding that things could be different, on a grand scale, if only we collectively wanted that enough. “What the trauma has shown us,” Gambuto wrote, “cannot be unseen. A carless Los Angeles has clear blue skies, as pollution has simply stopped. In a quiet New York, you can hear the birds chirp in the middle of Madison Avenue. Coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge. These are the postcard images of what the world might be like if we could find a way to have a less deadly effect on the planet.” Of course, the crisis also revealed underfunded healthcare systems, venal politicians, deep racial inequities, and chronic economic insecurity. But these, too, contributed to the feeling that now we were seeing what actually mattered, what demanded our attention—and that on some level we’d known it all along.
When lockdown ended, Gambuto warned, corporations and governments would conspire to make us forget the possibilities we’d glimpsed, by means of shiny new products and services and distracting culture wars, and we’d be so desperate to return to normality that we’d be tempted to comply. Instead, though, we could hold on to the sense of strangeness and make new choices about how we used the hours of our lives:
What happened is inexplicably incredible. It’s the greatest gift ever unwrapped. Not the deaths, not the virus, but The Great Pause. . . . Please don’t recoil from the bright light beaming through the window. I know it hurts your eyes. It hurts mine, too. But the curtain is wide open. . . . The Great American Return to Normal is coming . . . [but] I beg of you: take a deep breath, ignore the deafening noise, and think deeply about what you want to put back into your life. This is our chance to define a new version of normal, a rare and truly sacred (yes, sacred) opportunity to get rid of the bullshit and to only bring back what works for us, what makes our lives richer, what makes our kids happier, what makes us truly proud.
The hazard in any such discussion of “what matters most” in life, though, is that it tends to give rise to a kind of paralyzing grandiosity. It starts to feel as though it’s your duty to find something truly consequential to do with your time—to quit your office job to become an aid worker or start a space flight company—or else, if you’re in no position to make such a grand gesture, to conclude that a deeply meaningful life isn’t an option for you. On the level of politics and social change, it becomes tempting to conclude that only the most revolutionary, world-transforming causes are worth fighting for—that it would be meaningless to spend your time, say, caring for an elderly relative with dementia or volunteering at the local community garden while the problems of global warming and income inequality remain unsolved. Among New Age types, this same grandiosity takes the form of the belief that each of us has some cosmically significant Life Purpose that the universe is longing for us to uncover and then to fulfill.
Which is why it’s useful to begin this last stage of our journey with a blunt but unexpectedly liberating truth: that what you do with your life doesn’t matter all that much—and when it comes to how you’re using your ﬁnite time, the universe absolutely could not care less.
A Modestly Meaningful Life
The late British philosopher Bryan Magee liked to make the following arresting point. Human civilization is about six thousand years old, and we’re in the habit of thinking of this as a staggeringly long time: a vast duration across which empires rose and fell and historical periods to which we give labels such as “classical antiquity” or “the Middle Ages” succeeded each other in “only-just-moving time—time moving in the sort of way a glacier moves.” But now consider the matter a different way. In every generation, even back when life expectancy was much shorter than it is today, there were always at least a few people who lived to the age of one hundred (or 5,200 weeks). And when each of those people was born, there must have been a few other people alive at the time who had already reached the age of one hundred themselves. So it’s possible to visualize a chain of centenarian lifespans stretching all the way back through history with no spaces in between them: specific people who really lived, and each of whom we could name, if only the historical record were good enough.
Now for the arresting part: by this measure, the golden age of the Egyptian pharaohs—an era that strikes most of us as impossibly remote from our own—took place a scant thirty-five lifetimes ago. Jesus was born about twenty lifetimes ago, and the Renaissance happened seven lifetimes back. A paltry five centenarian lifetimes ago, Henry VIII sat on the English throne. Five! As Magee observed, the number of lives you’d need in order to span the whole of civilization, sixty, was “the number of friends I squeeze into my living room when I have a drinks party.” From this perspective, human history hasn’t unfolded glacially but in the blink of an eye. And it follows, of course, that your own life will have been a minuscule little flicker of near-nothingness in the scheme of things: the merest pinpoint, with two incomprehensibly vast tracts of time, the past and future of the cosmos as a whole, stretching oﬀ into the distance on either side.
It’s natural to find such thoughts terrifying. To contemplate “the massive indifference of the universe,” writes Richard Holloway, the former bishop of Edinburgh, can feel “as disorienting as being lost in a dense wood or as frightening as falling overboard into the sea with no-one to know we have gone.” But there’s another angle from which it’s oddly consoling. You might think of it as “cosmic insignificance therapy”: When things all seem too much, what better solace than a reminder that they are, provided you’re willing to zoom out a bit, indistinguishable from nothing at all? The anxieties that clutter the average life—relationship troubles, status rivalries, money worries—shrink instantly down to irrelevance. So do pandemics and presidencies, for that matter: the cosmos carries on regardless, calm and imperturbable. Or to quote the title of a book I once reviewed: The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You. To remember how little you matter, on a cosmic timescale, can feel like putting down a heavy burden that most of us didn’t realize we were carrying in the first place.
This sense of relief is worth examining a little more closely, though, because it draws attention to the fact that the rest of the time, most of us do go around thinking of ourselves as fairly central to the unfolding of the universe; if we didn’t, it wouldn’t be any relief to be reminded that in reality this isn’t the case. Nor is this a phenomenon confined to megalomaniacs or pathological narcissists, but something much more fundamental to being human: it’s the understandable tendency to judge everything from the perspective you occupy, so that the few thousand weeks for which you happen to be around inevitably come to feel like the linchpin of history to which all prior time was always leading up. These self-centered judgments are part of what psychologists call the “egocentricity bias,” and they make good sense from an evolutionary standpoint. If you had a more realistic sense of your own sheer irrelevance, considered on the timescale of the universe, you’d probably be less motivated to struggle to survive and thereby to propagate your genes.
You might imagine, moreover, that living with such an unrealistic sense of your own historical importance would make life feel more meaningful by investing your every action with a feeling of cosmic significance, however unwarranted. But what actually happens is that this overvaluing of your existence gives rise to an unrealistic definition of what it would mean to use your ﬁnite time well. It sets the bar much too high. It suggests that in order to count as having been “well spent,” your life needs to involve deeply impressive accomplishments or that it should have a lasting impact on future generations—or at the very least that it must, in the words of the philosopher Iddo Landau, “transcend the common and the mundane.” Clearly, it can’t just be ordinary: After all, if your life is as significant in the scheme of things as you tend to believe, how could you not feel obliged to do something truly remarkable with it?
This is the mindset of the Silicon Valley tycoon determined to “put a dent in the universe” or the politician fixated on leaving a legacy or the novelist who secretly thinks her work will count for nothing unless it reaches the heights, and the public acclaim, of Leo Tolstoy’s. Less obviously, though, it is also the implicit outlook of those who glumly conclude that their life is ultimately meaningless, and that they’d better stop expecting it to feel otherwise. What they really mean is that they’ve adopted a standard of meaningfulness to which virtually nobody could ever measure up. “We do not disapprove of a chair because it cannot be used to boil water for a nice cup of tea,” Landau points out: a chair just isn’t the kind of thing that ought to have the capacity to boil water, so it isn’t a problem that it doesn’t. And it is likewise “implausible, for almost all people, to demand of themselves that they be a Michelangelo, a Mozart, or an Einstein. . . . There have only been a few dozen such people in the entire history of humanity.” In other words, you almost certainly won’t put a dent in the universe. Indeed, depending on the stringency of your criteria, even Steve Jobs, who coined that phrase, failed to leave such a dent. Perhaps the iPhone will be remembered for more generations than anything you or I will ever accomplish, but from a truly cosmic view, it will soon be forgotten, like everything else.
No wonder it comes as a relief to be reminded of your insignificance: it’s the feeling of realizing that you’d been holding yourself, all this time, to standards you couldn’t reasonably be expected to meet. And this realization isn’t merely calming but liberating, because once you’re no longer burdened by such an unrealistic definition of a “life well spent,” you’re freed to consider the possibility that a far wider variety of things might qualify as meaningful ways to use your ﬁnite time. You’re freed, too, to consider the possibility that many of the things you’re already doing with it are more meaningful than you’d supposed—and that until now, you’d subconsciously been devaluing them on the grounds that they weren’t “significant” enough.
From this new perspective, it becomes possible to see that preparing nutritious meals for your children might matter as much as anything could ever matter, even if you won’t be winning any cooking awards; or that your novel’s worth writing if it moves or entertains a handful of your contemporaries, even though you know you’re no Tolstoy; or that virtually any career might be a worthwhile way to spend a working life if it makes things slightly better for those it serves. Furthermore, it means that if what we learn from the experience of the coronavirus pandemic is to become just a little more attuned to the needs of our neighbors, we’ll have learned something valuable as a result of the “Great Pause,” no matter how far oﬀ the root-and-branch transformation of society remains.
Cosmic insignificance therapy is an invitation to face the truth about your irrelevance in the grand scheme of things. To embrace it, to whatever extent you can. (Isn’t it hilarious, in hindsight, that you ever imagined things might be otherwise?) Truly doing justice to the astonishing gift of a few thousand weeks isn’t a matter of resolving to “do something remarkable” with them. In fact, it entails precisely the opposite: refusing to hold them to an abstract and over-demanding standard of remarkableness, against which they can only ever be found wanting, and taking them instead on their own terms, dropping back down from godlike fantasies of cosmic significance into the experience of life as it concretely, finitely—and often enough, marvelously—really is.
Excerpted from FOUR THOUSAND WEEKS: Time Management for Mortals by Oliver Burkeman; published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2021 by Oliver Burkeman. All rights reserved. Shared with permission.
If you prefer the audio version of this chapter:
Excerpted with permission from the audiobook of Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman, published by Macmillan Audio.
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