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First World Problems

This week's Mr. Perfect Blog is written by David Graham.

Depending on how you count it, Dave is embarking on his 3rd or 4th career. After completing postgraduate research in mathematics he spent the next decade working for Defence, which included deployments to Afghanistan and the Middle East. He’s now working as a junior doctor, is actively publishing research in medical journals, and loving life as a first time Dad with another on the way.


We all have them. Your smartphone crashes intermittently, throwing your life into disarray. Your area blacks out during a heatwave, causing your air conditioner to shut down and your Netflix viewing to stop.

“First world problems” are important in their own small way. But it is so easy to let them build them up and become far more than they are. Without that smartphone, you’re unable to function in today’s information-centric society. This is an important problem, but you could always default to older solutions, plus laptops and desktops are still able to perform all the functions of a smartphone. They’re just less convenient. Friends, family and colleagues will no doubt forgive the delay on that email, or that transaction, or that witty Facebook reply.

It’ll still be funny a day later – after all, wit today does not play by the same rules that it used to. Just don’t vent your rage on the lady at the Genius bar – she can only work so hard to help you. Yelling gets you nowhere.

I (Dave) met a gentleman in the queue for the apple store. It was the second time my iPhone had a complete failure and I was without my phone for 4 days over the weekend at work. Sure I carry a pager for work but my phone is so much more convenient for contact and I can facetime my daughter before I start work knowing that I won’t see her for a few days. It was inconvenient but it wasn’t the end of the world.

My new friend however had been evicted from the Apple store the day before. We got along really well. They said he was being aggressive. He said he was asserting his rights. He was planning to go to the ACCC with his experience. It was his son’s iPad that was faulty, but his son was still able to use one of the 3 other iPads in the house. He was a semi-retired lawyer. Perhaps he was looking for something to use those skills he’d refined over the years. Perhaps he was just filling the time he had off with purpose. I wasn’t there to analyse his motives but the impact of his first world problems seemed enormous.

A little perspective and a little humour go a long way to dislodging the grip of first world problems. This is why first world problems are incredibly meme-worthy, and are never so bad once they’re solved – yet the solution is always so simple. An old military approach is to remind yourself that it could always be worse. It could be raining. If it’s raining, it could be flooding. You could be on life support without power.

It can always be worse. But when trapped in first world problems, we’re besieged by their apparent significance.

Anxiety and depression are over-represented in developed countries. These are not first world problems, they’re big problems of the first world. Yet we are reminded again that it can always be worse. But is this healthy?

Recently I (Terry) reminded myself relentlessly that I am lucky in many aspects. We are sadistically hard on ourselves when we should not be and then even harder by reminding ourselves that someone else has it worse than you.

But as a Lifeline course instructor once made abundantly clear, “Everyone’s crisis is different...someone losing their car keys can be irrelevant but to you it may well cause a chain of anxiety that is devastating and crippling”.

Furthermore recently Matt Runnalls of mental health organisation MindfullAus posted a reality check on social media. Without the exact wording to hand, the sentiment was clear that just because you may have more resources than another human, belittling your own struggle is now helpful.

There is a term in Psychology called Minimization. It is usually coined to describe a negative or manipulative purpose of downplaying an action. But it can surely be used to express a person’s comparison and then denigration of their own distress or suffering, not giving it the worth it deserves.

It’s no wonder that there is an epidemic of mental illness in the first world with all of the pressures of modern society. Increasing youth unemployment despite unprecedented education. Increasing costs of living outstripping the gains in wages. Don’t even dream about that home when median house prices in Sydney are surpassing $1million. And even a small apartment will set you back $700-800k.

Who can afford that? It magnifies the pressures to succeed all the while being bombarded by advertising to buy a new car or go on a holiday, and experts reminding us that we shouldn’t work so hard, that we should strive for work-life balance, that we should eat healthy and exercise. Not to mention the impact all of these small choices have on the environment.


There are alternative perspectives. As Joshua Fields Milburn and Ryan Nicodemus rightly point out, you can’t always control how much you make, but you can always take control of how much you want. It’s all about identifying what gives your life meaning and purpose. If you love books, then fill a room with books but be mindful of how you fill the rest of your life. This is the essence of minimalism. Just as mindfulness is about giving focus to each thing that you do, minimalism is about giving focus to what gives your life meaning. They’re two sides to the same coin. If mindfulness is an interaction between two characters in, say Fargo, then minimalism is a story arc.

But for minimalism to work, you first need to know what gives your life meaning.

I (Dave) take a Nietzshean perspective of meaning. Along our life’s adventure, we may take steps to shed the weight of the stuff that doesn’t reinforce our journey. This is organic and it is hard. Our journey is at once both defined by and defines the stuff that reinforces it. It’s as if we’re rendering the map as we go, finding direction as we create it. Meaning can be viewed as stuff that is coherent with our journey. The journey lends meaning to the stuff and it becomes meaningful.

But because it’s so hard, we so easily collect stuff along the way. Just as Sarah from the Labyrinth lost her memory and her identity dissolved, the goblins piled her back with junk. Meaning can be lost beneath the weight of excess stuff. Minimalism presents an idea that challenges us to shed that excess stuff to unearth something significant in our life. Hidden beneath the dust of stuff, we re-discover the path that we’ve been rendering.

Minimalism is also hard because you have to have lived a life and come to the realisation of what stuff gives your life meaning and what stuff is excess. You need to have made mistakes – they are the most convincing teachers in our life. Minimalism a deliberate and affirmative paring down – as Michelangelo said “every block of stone has a statue in side it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

First world problems are inherently nihilistic. We simply drift from one thing to the next as dust on the wind, filling our lives with stuff. Nihilism is the touchstone of every Nietzschean, it gives in to the meaninglessness of the world and concludes that there is no such thing as meaning. To him, death and suffering are an inevitability of life – to flee from this inevitability is to flee from life itself. Meaning in his philosophy was a product of nihilism.

An existential response makes sense to many. It finds meaning in the pursuit of meaning. Theistic existentialism argues that meaning does in fact exist, but is only knowable through a deity. Atheistic existentialism on the other hand – such as Sartre’s existentialism – argues that creating your own meaning is sufficient, and is necessary to live an “authentic” life.

While Nietzsche diagnosed the infection of nihilism and prescribed a stat dose of affirmation of life, Camus’s response was to describe the Absurd. It’s the cognitive dissonance that arises from our need to search for meaning in an indifferent world that either has no meaning or defies our search for meaning. Camus literature essentially expanded on Nietzsche’s observation that there are two responses to the Absurd: succumb to society, and buy more stuff; or embrace the Absurd and own it.

Be careful when saving for a house in Sydney, or you could end up in ICU with smashed avocado deficiency.

Minimalism challenges us to confront the Absurd and asks us to search for what gives our life meaning. Whether we take an absurdist or existential position is irrelevant – all we need to know is what gives our life meaning. And even then, Nietzsche would point out that this is inherently nihilistic.

I (Dave) am now the proud owner of a new iPhone. It doesn’t give my life meaning but it’s nicely distracting and I can read journal articles and watch Netflix on a larger screen. Sometimes you just need a little bit of stuff in your life. Just don’t let your first world problems take hold. As with anything, take everything in moderation.

You can’t escape the Absurd.

Take action.

Own it.

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