The Myth of the Lost Year

When I was younger and just getting into meditation, I became briefly enamored with the idea that all human experiences were just varieties of the same thing. The thought was that there’s really only one experience: being a brain that thinks things and takes in sensations. Having sex with a beautiful woman and being punched in the face, for example, are therefore not different experiences at all, but actually just slight variations on the same theme. We’ve all already had the only experience we can have—we’ve had it millions of times, in fact—and the rest of our lives are just versions of this same single experience over and over and over.

I quickly abandoned this thesis—maybe I matured enough to stop thinking these kinds of dumb ideas made me interesting, or maybe I just started smoking less weed. But I’ve been reminded of it recently because of this thought I keep having about pandemic life, a thought that can be either uplifting or depressing depending on what kind of mood I’m in.

The thought is basically this: on a certain level, the challenges of life during covid aren’t really any different from the challenges of life before. Life is always about trying to find happiness and meaning given the constraints the universe imposes on you, always about trying to stay sane through the cavalcade of random horrors that can befall you at any time. You often hear it said that this pandemic has changed everything—but in a way, it hasn’t really changed anything.

That’s why it doesn’t sit quite right with me when I hear people refer to “this year”—a phrase I’m really using to refer to the period between March 2020 and however long we have to go from here until the pandemic subsides—as a lost year. Life never stops, and it still counts even when the world saddles you with limits that are absent from so-called “normal life.”

I can already hear some people saying that this perspective is a reflection of my privilege—that the reason this doesn’t seem like a lost year is that I’ve been able to work from home, that I haven’t faced real financial hardship, that no one close to me has died. But I actually think that, if anything, the opposite is true. The concept of a lost year is itself a manifestation of privilege, since it takes some level of privilege to be able to put your life on pause, or to feel like you are. If a year has been one of extreme suffering for you, you almost certainly aren’t thinking of it as a lost year. The worst years of our lives tend to be the most memorable.


The one year of my life that I do sometimes find myself tempted to think of as a lost year was one that was full of activity. In 2017 I was splitting my time between Oakland and Detroit, flying back and forth once or twice a month as I tried with increasing uncertainty to reverse the neutral gear my startup seemed to be stuck in. We were lost in the netherworld of the slow plateau, not really succeeding but not exactly failing either, at least not obviously enough to inspire any true sense of urgency. I ended up caught in the weeds, spending so much time putting band-aids on each in a series of little problems that I was never able to lift my head up and solve any of the big ones. And although I was close with my team, I didn’t have much of a life otherwise; my endless travel made dating or making new friends hard, and the constant low-grade anxiety didn’t help either, even though at the time I was too deep in the thick of it to even realize that I was anxious at all.

If you looked at my calendar it wouldn’t have seemed like a lost year: I spoke at a conference, raised a venture capital round, attended at least two music festivals, and spent so much time in the same few airports that I developed an intimate familiarity with their layouts and rhythms. But although my life was a blur of activity, I barely accomplished anything, and I didn’t develop much as a person either. My corporeal form spent the whole year running, but my emotional self was frozen in place, and I ended up in the same spot I started on both counts.

I’m tempted to consider it my lost year because when I look back now, I remember very little except for the general feeling of going going going and never getting anywhere. But I’m not sure that’s fair—more likely, that year wasn’t any more or less lost than the rest of them. It’s just easier to call it my lost year than to admit that I was actually the one who was lost.

This year may have seemed like a sharp departure from normal life, but it’s really just a reminder that there’s actually no such thing as “normal life” at all. And though some of us may be more lost right now than others, I doubt there’s anyone for whom this year won’t remain memorable. In 2080, when we’re uploading our consciousnesses into the cloud from our retirement homes on Mars—or killing each other for scraps of food in what remains of our climate change-ravaged civilization—chances are this year will have been one of least lost years we ever had, even if we did spend most of it sitting at home watching old episodes of Community.

Yours in wanting to clarify that the only Mars I’d ever be willing to live on is the one from Adventure Time,

Max

P.S. Last week, I had a great conversation with Nate Kadlac and Reza Saeedi on their podcast It’s Gotta Be the Mic. We chatted about my day job running the On Deck Writer Fellowship, my haphazard (read: nonexistent) approach to career planning, and why it doesn’t matter what I’d say if I were to give some advice to my former self. Take a listen here.