I was playing Cards Against Humanity for the first time yesterday and I came a cross a word which I didn’t have a clue as to its meaning—though I suspected it was something sexual. When the game was over, I asked my hipper, younger friend what it meant, though I also suspected I didn’t want to know. I was both right and wrong. As explained, it was vaguely disgusting (although I later found out her definition was wrong) and clearly not a word I was ever going to use myself—but at the same time I did want to know simply so I could be attuned to what people were doing and thinking. I wanted to be relevant.
Relevance—the ability to understand and comment appropriately on a topic—is something most people strive for all their lives. Most of you are probably trying to do it right now.
Certainly, as a policy adviser, it was my job to be relevant, to know enough about a wide range of subjects that, if I couldn’t immediately comment, I could quickly research to make useful remarks or give cogent advice. It was a struggle sometimes and, frankly, some topics constantly eluded me. Unlike some people, I usually was smart enough not to venture an opinion about something I was completely unaware of.
Relevance is what I have striven for as a writer. I try to keep up with the latest trends in fiction. I read a lot and listen to what other people are saying about the field. I think I have a sense of what the cool kids are doing, well enough to make reasonably intelligent critical comments or editorial suggestions.
But that doesn’t make me relevant. My own stories don’t seem to resonate much with editors these days. That may just be a phase or maybe my time has come and gone. It happens to most of us and, sometimes, the only answer is not to try to be young and hip and cool and diverse (hard when you are an old white man) but to shrug and move on to other things – like cooking exotic foods or traveling to mountaintops. Maybe it would be better if a lot of people—and not just old ones—stopped trying so hard being relevant to the wider world (or, at least, attempting to impose their own sense of importance on the culture) and tried to be relevant to themselves, their families and their closest friends.
I doubt if many will follow my advice—the quest for relevance is a struggle against the grave. Yet, maybe they should acknowledge that relevance is like any other social commodity. You have a lot of it at one time and you can use it to build up your laurels (that you can then uncomfortably rest on) and create a legacy or you can spend it on making irrelevant comments that make you look foolish and out of touch (says the guy who insists on writing political blogs two years after leaving the field of advising politicians).
Still, I will struggle to understand new technologies, (I took part in a fascinating meeting about block chains today) social media—which in “my day” consisted of showing people slides of my last vacation—and following the latest trends in politics (how is this different than the 1930s?) and cultural transformation. Because the alternative might be to retire to Cambodia and stare at the waves all day.
And that’s ten minutes.