Why Your Life is Meaningless Without Context (Excerpt from Experience Curating)

My new book, Experience Curating, will be published in early 2014. The following is an adapted excerpt from the book on the importance of context in curating (and life).


Experience Curating

I learned one of my greatest lessons at age eight walking along the Mississippi River banks with my dad. With the sun warming our bodies and bird songs cascading from the trees, I said, “Dad, this river is huge!”

“Yes, it is,” my dad replied, “but compared to what?”

That was the first time the phrase “it’s all relative” actually sank in for me. Of course! The Mississippi River is just one of many rivers. It doesn’t exist in isolation. It’s best experienced in the context of everything else. And so it goes with the Experience Curating. Context – the key information related to an experience – challenges us to explore how walking along a river on a beautiful day relates to strolling along the cold canals of Venice on New Year’s Eve.

If organizing provides the building blocks, road signs, and glue of Experience Curating, then context is the nourishing river that gives each moment life. This river comes in various widths, depths, speeds, and levels of transparency, just like the mighty Mississippi River flowing by my childhood home. Everyone has access to that river. But the same river that you share with everyone else can look radically different based on your unique perspective.

Consider the following statements for a practical example of what I’m talking about:

“His lips are moving!”

“ . . . out of control, it is a ravaging tyrant.”

Let me guess. You have no clue what the two statements above mean. They’re missing something crucial. Something . . . relative. They’re missing context! Now, let’s try this again:

“How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? His lips are moving!”

“Under control, it is the most useful of servants; out of control, it is a ravaging tyrant.” – Clinton Rossiter’s comparison of fire and government

Wasn’t that better with the right context? The wrong context turns a hilarious joke into an insult while the right context converts a so-so experience into a powerful one. After all, you can’t put a fraction of a puzzle into a box and expect to reconstruct the whole thing later. That’s why context preservation is a hallmark of Experience Curating.

How you preserve context and what format it takes is relatively unimportant. You can copy and paste an online article into your archive and then add your own thoughts on the text. You can record a recap in your smartphone of your walk, conversation, or restaurant. The simple goal is to capture the original context right away before your memory starts mutating it. Donna Bridge, a postdoctoral fellow at Northwestern University, explains:

A memory is not simply an image produced by time traveling back to the original event – it can be an image that is somewhat distorted because of the prior times you remembered it. Your memory of an event can grow less precise even to the point of being totally false with each retrieval.

This quote highlights why the ability to preserve context and add layers separates average curators from the masters. Daniel Kahneman – a Nobel laureate and the father of behavioral economics – would agree. He expands on memory’s fickle nature in his TED Talk “The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory,” and makes a powerful plea to preserve context outside of your brain. Daniel states that the psychological lifespan of a moment is about three seconds long and the average person will have about six hundred million of them. But a miniscule number of moments leave a trace because our memories ignore or lose most of them.

Since moments are time’s currency and each unit could buy us a valuable experience, shouldn’t we make the important ones count by accurately remembering them? Wouldn’t recreating a faithful and complete experience with its core original information – independent of our memory – benefit us tremendously?

The context provided by Experience Curating is a blessing. But how can we preserve and build on it? Let me illustrate.

I love Excel spreadsheets like I love Trader Joe’s Fair Trade Organic 72% Cacao Belgian Dark Chocolate. But unless you’re a spreadsheet fanatic like me, you can only imagine the joy I get from that chocolate. So you’re going to need a lot of context to be convinced that spreadsheets are as awesome as a taste bud explosion. Here’s how I’d layer on the spreadsheet context until you “get it”:

First, I’d ask you to read an article I wrote on Value of Simple called “Spreadsheets and You: How and Why to Put Your Life in Them.” It’s there that you’ll learn more about my “put it in a spreadsheet” philosophy and many spreadsheet benefits.

If you aren’t on the spreadsheet bandwagon after reading that, I’d recommend you absorb the “Spreadsheet Spotlight” category on Value of Simple. This is where I show you how to use spreadsheets for everything from home and auto maintenance tracking to naming your children. (And yes, it’s true. Both of my sons, Grant and Clark, were named based on a custom “Baby Names Scoring” spreadsheet.)

If you’re still not feeling the funky flow of spreadsheets, I’d then show you the one that I used as a playbook for creating this book. It’s the previously mentioned The Digital Launch Playbook, and this baby distills a digital project launch into one simple spreadsheet.

Do you see what I’m doing here? At each branch in the context river, I’ve given you the chance to say:

  1. “Interesting. Tell me more.”
  2. “I’m in! Spreadsheets will now be my lover, too.”
  3. “You’re crazy, man! Stop with all this spreadsheet insanity.”

This kind of context layering is how a savvy Experience Curator does it. It’s also how you avoid dropping too much information on someone and overwhelming them in the process.


You can download the first half of Experience Curating by joining the Refuge of Simplicity.

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2 Responses to Why Your Life is Meaningless Without Context (Excerpt from Experience Curating)

  1. Ciara Conlon says:

    You know if you sent me some of that Belgian chocolate I might just enjoy the spreadsheets a bit more! Can’t wait for the release of the book.

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