The shallowest something I can possibly throw out into the world

The Illusion and Despair of Short Gains

Bret Zawilski
7 min readSep 11, 2021
A screenshot of an instagram post showing a photo of a path along a canal near sunset. The caption reads: I don’t think it’s any surprise that over the past year social media has occupied too much of my time. This photo-a-day project keeps me pretty tethered to Instagram and Facebook and I think I need more of a break from screens. The photos will keep coming since I’m not about to throw in the towel at [day] 233, but I’m intentionally going to limit my access to these platforms.

The specter of self-loathing haunts my anxiety. Like a well-worn path through the park, I follow without conscious effort. It’s instinct.

I’m horrible. I’m worthless. My existence is meaningless.

These words float in my mind close to the surface of consciousness at all times. It’s the demon I can’t exorcise. A vital force that comes at night. And in the morning. After an afternoon nap.

I’m helpless against it, even when I know that the cortisone flooding my synapses is poisoning my body through its steady drip. It’s a strange sensation to both hate and love yourself in equal measure.

In the dark moments, I feel like I have to do something. Anything to prove my worth. My innate value. I have to chase the awful words away by making something, even when the dark pressure means making anything is impossible. Even when I know that a person’s value isn’t attached to the things they create.

So I make something. Except when I don’t.

When I sit staring at a screen. Scrolling and tapping and swiping. Looking at images of cats while my cat stares up at me from her cube on the floor.

I fight to find the relevance. My relevance. The reason why my actions matter.

That’s how I know I’m trapped.

Nicholas Carr wrote an article that haunts me: “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I used to scoff at it, throwing back to Carr’s own argument that Socrates thought writing would ruin our brains. Look where writing has gotten us. I believe that technology is transformative — it’s what I teach my students. But I thought I had it under control.

I didn’t perceive the way that it could prey upon my emotions and stir up new demons.

Once, a group of students asked to see my Apple ScreenTime report for some comparative research. I didn’t feel smug, but when I saw that the average number of hours on my phone fell far short of theirs, I was pleased.

Ignoring, of course, that my tool of choice is a laptop.

To blame the tools that surround us for my ever-increased anxiety is unfair. It’s exaggeration and over-simplification. They don’t bear the full burden. But that doesn’t mean the actions I’m taking as a result of my addiction to those tools are healthy.

Quantitative metrics are wonderful, but they don’t tell a complete story. The number of hours spent on my device isn’t the true measure of my dependency.

Instead, the true measure can be seen in my motivation. The subtle shift toward extrinsic rewards for minimal effort. Success measured in the number of likes or minutes-watched pull me toward that quantitative dopamine rush. Or push me to whinge about the unfairness of the algorithm.

Of course the algorithm is why so few people are seeing and appreciating my extremely creative output. I’m being knocked down by the system! It’s just an echo chamber where my ideas…

Where my ideas can do what?

Is *this* my creative output?

Statuses and instagram posts. Witty shorthand comments that short-circuit the need to develop nuanced thoughts. That reduce so many arguments to a contest of who can be most enraged. Perspectives and policies constrained to 240 characters, and consumed just long enough to fuel a reply that has nothing to do with communication. It’s about visibility.

I used to draw pictures. Then I drew pictures and shared them online. Now I draw pictures to share them online.

To get those sweet likes.

Much has already been written about social media and the economy of attention. The platforms we use are designed to pull us into their orbit and keep us there. They refocus the locus of interaction on a flat screen with the illusion of depth. Except, that’s not an entire truth either.

It doesn’t have to be flat. Has it always been flat? Was it not flat at some point in the past? Nostalgia distorts my view.

A writer I knew once shared with me: Never tell your entire story to someone else, especially not early in the process. It destroys the need to write it. You’ve told it, so why bother with the hard work of getting it on paper?

Statuses are that danger made real. They’re a graveyard for my thoughts. Fruit that’s gone from underripe on the vine straight to rotting in the ground. The articulation of an idea at the moment of its birth, only to witness the violence of its life being drained by the need to circulate it immediately.

Perhaps not everyone is afflicted by this, but the pages of my journal remain blank while my activity log builds entry upon entry.

Each post is a flickering spark. Perhaps rekindled a year later as a “memory,” but otherwise inert.

Happy Birthday, John! Hope it’s a good one!

What is my meaning? Where is my value?

Oh my gosh! That vacation looks so amazing!!!

Perhaps one day, some web archeologist will stumble upon the remnants of my life captured on a Facebook wall. I can only dream of what they will think.

The guy liked sushi. Let’s move on?

A life worth living isn’t an artifact waiting to be assessed. Yet many of us become stewards of our supposed personal brand. Encouraged to view the minutes of our lives as monetizable chunks of content. Even avoiding these tools altogether just labels one as being a bit of an odd duck. A performance that’s understood and evaluated by its absence.

I struggle to find a balance. A solution. I look for some distance; can abandonment solve the problem? Does closing your eyes and blocking your ears create more peace? Or does it just drown out the cacophony of horror and pathos-laden, surface-level sentiment that takes complex issues and renders them into a disembodied expressions of outrage that reach only those who already agree? Who are already outraged.

Who already feel the same darkness.

Even when creativity escapes the boundaries of a status, my desire to post lingers like the promise of a hit of adrenaline.

I need to share something. To push it out into the world. For pride. For accolades. For a sweet side hustle that can net me passive income to augment my hyper-productive creative life.

The sacred and intrinsic is rendered profane and extrinsic. The constant process of self-reflection becomes more grist for the machinery that pumps out self-help lists and templated advice books. I chase the secrets of success, desperate to find the magic words—bullet journaling, time blocking, mindfulness meditation—that might finally work.

Circulation is a part of writing. A part of creating. And the gates have been thrown wide open for anyone who wants to share. Well, perhaps not wide open. Just wide enough for easily classifiable ideas to monopolize SEO trends and ensure we don’t get too much transgression on the first page of results. To ensure the correct ideas by the right people find a platform.

We wouldn’t want anyone to be uncomfortable. Wouldn’t want that mirror of privilege to shatter.

Perhaps the portal is poisoned

We’re awash in the extrinsic, told to live our lives in view of the public. To cultivate our image so that we can profit from it. Our sense of self and our public persona rendered as commodities. I become the monetizable.

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Unlock success for the low-price of $19.99 and an attention divided from the world. Take my course to make and market your own course. Multi-level marketing made one degree more abstract?

Yet how can we escape? Won’t we be missing something vital if we leave? Friendships and long-distanced family? Adoration?


Think slow. Read deep. Purchase my 15-part video series to find out how to reshape your life.

How?! Tell me!

Reflection isn’t about the past. It’s about the future. And silence isn’t the opposite of productivity. It’s the start of it. The quiet of existence that calls forth an idea. Yet for me that silence is dangerous.

It opens me to the voice in my mind that tells me of my own insufficiency. My lack of value. It prods me with despair. I wonder if it’s always been there, and I think it has.

But that fear and my doubts have gained powerful tools.

The marketplace of public identity makes contact every time I unlock my phone.

Create something, the voice hisses. Create to prove you exist!

Yes, make something. The shallowest something I can possibly throw out into the world. Exult with the likes. Despair with the silence. The evil silence. The silence that lets the voice drift up again.

I need to learn to ignore that voice. To counter it and replace its Siren song with one less damaging. Less destructive. I need to escape the manic crescendos that peak with staccato notes echoing into the void. A thought that blips out of existence at its moment of utterance.

I’m not sure how to escape. I don’t have an answer.

But I’m happy to sell you one.



Bret Zawilski

Scholar of Rhetoric and Composition. Artist and Writer.