On New Year’s morning, fighting blustery subzero temperatures in South St. Paul, MN, I squeezed into the car for the drive back home to Georgia. The 1,225.2 miles would take two full days of relatively straight driving. My faithful Ford Fiesta would carry me south, off the icy roads of the Midwest to Bowling Green, Kentucky, where I would spend the first night at Baymont Inn, which is a steal of $54/night plus a free continental breakfast. The next day would be a scant eight hour drive home. When all’s said and done, tolls, traffic, detours, Siri’s random mis-navigations, we’re talking twenty solid hours in the car. That’s solo driving, too.
Mentally, I survived on three podcasts. Physically, I stopped every couple of hours to walk around and do as many pushups as I could. I think the record was 51. Mostly, I gave up not out of fatigue, but because the people at 7-Eleven or McDonalds or wherever start looking at you weird. And after all the privacy of being by myself on the road, I felt extra self-conscious. Aside from a few short TED talks, I listened to the following podcasts: 1) On Being, 2) How I Built This, and 3) The Minimalists. And, per the title of this article, these podcasts are enormously popular, but for the reasons I describe below, I urge you to steer clear. In no particular order, here are the three podcasts that kept me company during my solo drive:
First, On Being with Krista Tippett. According to its own website, On Being “opens up the animating questions at the center of human life: What does it mean to be human, and how do we want to live?” The episode I listened to was about silence. Gordon Hempton was on the show, discussing how silence has become an endangered species and basically advocating for renewed prioritization of quiet. And of course, I was into it. Our lives, as Gordon asserts, are frenetically assaulted by text-message dings, email dings, SnapChat dings, you know, whatever. And I agree. Would I like a gulp of silence or maybe a whole glass? You betcha.
Second, How I Built This. This one “is a podcast about innovators, entrepreneurs, and idealists, and the stories behind the movements they built. Each episode is a narrative journey marked by triumphs, failures, serendipity and insight — told by the founders of some of the world’s best known companies and brands.” Of the three podcasts, I clocked the most hours here. I listened to the Sam Adams episode, the one on the founders of Airbnb, Vice, Angie’s List, Patagonia and there’s probably more that I just can’t think of now. Super interesting.
Lastly, and yes, least (in terms of aesthetic anyway), The Minimalists, featuring Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus. These two “help people live more meaningful lives with less.” To supplement their podcast, they’ve also put out books, a blog, and a documentary. Like On Being, these two highlight the ways in which we might simplify our lives, from reducing unnecessary duplicate possessions (earbud headphones, for example) to helpful usage rules required to keep something. Like the other two podcasts, I really liked listening to this. In fact, this one was often so compelling (especially on the heels of New Year’s resolutions) that I actually paused the podcast to record voice-memo notes to myself.
So, if these podcasts were so edifying in the moment, why do I think they’re not worth the listen? In short, they’re too good. That is, each identifies a space listeners would like to inhabit, a goal, if you will. And because they articulate this goal so clearly and so compellingly, we’re left with no choice but to want to achieve that goal, be it minimalism, entrepreneurialism, or quiet. The catch, though, is we can’t. We cant have everything. We can’t be like the billionaires on How I Built This. Well, maybe we can. But we certainly can’t be billionaires AND live in the proverbial tranquility of Walden’s Pond AND practice material minimalism. Can we?
Don’t listen to the podcasts. Why? First: cognitive dissonance caused by competing goals. Second: frustration and disappointment on account of the gap between lofty ideals on one hand and the dismal state of reality on the other. If you must, choose one of the three. But like the slice of fudge-drizzled triple chocolate cake I bought at diner off the interstate somewhere in Indiana, all three podcasts leave you feeling stuffed, sick, and sorry you stopped.
Photo: Getty Images