Gratitude on two wheels, rage on four: a metaphor for our “age of acceleration?”

I’ve presented three times at TEDx events over the years. Those gatherings are mostly intended to be proactive, uplifting fireworks for the brain. But as I’ve signalled in my most recent keynotes at T-Mobile and the University of Washington, were I to give a TEDx talk now, I would title it “I’m grateful when I ride my bike. When I drive, I sometimes rage.”

Bear with me a little, this is as much about how I commute as how we communicate today.

I prefer to ride my bike to get to work, meetings and presentations. I always arrive on time, despite traffic or weather. And I do so with a clear head.

On any given day, I’ll ride between seven and twenty-five miles. On any given ride, I will gesture in gratitude — raising my hand with an open palm to drivers, fingers slightly spread apart. I am exposed to the elements. I’m visible — sometimes recognizable. I have little, to no power. I see a lot with my wider field of vision and with every sense aware. And yet I’m appreciative when a driver sees me. Because I assume drivers don’t see me. I rarely get upset when I’m cut off. I’m just glad to be alive.

A bike and pedestrian path in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood

When I drive, it’s sometimes not pretty. I take things personally. I get upset when other drivers don’t pay attention. I’m hidden behind slightly tinted windows. I get angry easily. I have no relationship with the other drivers. I’ll probably never see them again. I have a powerful machine under me. Yet at the same time, I’m afraid for my safety. I’m afraid of being late. I’m afraid that my powerful, expensive machine could be damaged or destroyed — and me along with it. I’m not accountable. My emotional state is high. So when I drive, I sometimes rage.

I see a direct parallel between how I commute and how we interact with each other daily. Our online communication has put us in a heightened state of emotion. Try to notice next time when you’re perusing your social media feed and someone posts about a mass shooting, terrorism, North Korea or the President.

Recently, the architects of those “bright dings of pseudo pleasure” who created the Facebook “like” functionality admitted that “our minds can be hijacked” by our 24/7 connectivity.

“We’ve habituated ourselves into a perpetual cognitive style of outrage by internalizing the dynamics of the medium.”

The fast-paced, fragmented nature of the social technologies we use to connect to others is unsettling us greatly. We are in a constant state of communication. We express our thoughts and options to others well outside our traditional social circle of family, friends and colleagues. Not everyone agrees with us. We’re forced to defend our ideas, and consequently, who we think we are. In this way, our identity itself is under attack. That makes us afraid. It makes us angry. Kind of like driving a car in traffic.

With this disconcerting rate of change, we all seem to be living in a state of low-level anxiety. We’re concerned about our place in an unrecognizable world. Will I keep my job? Will my kids get jobs? Are the barbarians at the gate? Why did they need to re-boot Ghostbusters?” Ultimately, anxiety may be nothing more than something the brain thinks is dangerous but actually isn’t dangerous.

As Thomas Friedman observed in his most recent book, Thank You For Being Late, as our technological advancements pile up on each other, it leads to this “age of acceleration” that’s provoking such widespread anxiety. It’s up to us — the sense-makers and connectors — to help lead the way to a state of adaptation.

So can we exercise the communication equivalent of riding a bike? Perhaps we can all find the courage to see more, expose our vulnerabilities more, and be more accountable to others. By practicing a little bit more gratitude, we might exert a little less emotion — taking the time to take in all that’s around us.