The 2-Day Retreat Down the Street Where I Met the Last Decade of My Life ...And My Relationship with the Internet

I was down for the count, pillow over my eyes as I listened to the man on the video go through the steps to fight a migraine. The migraine had won several rounds already, and I of course had tried to ignore this reality. But these kinds of realities can only be ignored for so long.

The man went on. “Form your knuckles like this. Rub like this.”

This was the first night on my 2-day retreat in a little AirBnB in somebody’s back yard a few miles from home.

This time away was meant to provide me space and quiet to finish a manuscript for work—outside our little apartment that can feel cramped with me, my wife, our dog, and our two cats.

I knew I needed a little space to get work done. What I didn’t know was what this space would actually bring.

Lying on the bed, mostly debilitated, manuscript work wasn’t really happening. It was hard to think about anything except following the man’s instructions. “Wet the washcloth, and put it over your eyes.”

I followed along, and then I fell asleep.

A couple hours later, I woke up. Head now lighter, I felt a wave of inspiration come over me. I now try to pay attention to these late-night waves; they almost always carry with them some gift for me.

For the past week, I had been thinking about a new business idea (not an uncommon thought for me). And just then, a name popped into my mind.

I went over to my computer to check on the domain name. Not surprisingly, it was taken.

Well, I thought, I guess I’ll check it out anyway. In the past, I’ve found some really neat websites this way. I even got one of my jobs this way. A company had already thought of the same idea and was ten steps ahead of me, so I just joined them.

I typed in the name:

A little browsing and close to an hour later (now quite late into the night) I came across a few of The School of Life’s videos. One of them in particular caught my attention. I have to admit that all I first saw was a man’s head and long locks floating against a dark background.

Then the title came into focus: Jaron Lainer on Digital Life.

I’d never heard of Jaron, but I wondered what The School of Life wanted to say about “digital life.”

Soon enough, I was captivated. I went from one video to the next of Jaron. Something was hitting home as I listened. Something important. I just wasn’t sure what.

If you watch a couple videos of Jaron, you’ll quickly understand his core philosophies. Fair warning: the videos are long; he doesn’t seem to care much for brevity.

Here’s one of the videos, so you can get an idea:

Whether or not you fully agree with all of Jaron’s ideas or conclusions, his words about our use of the internet are thought-provoking. For me, his ideas sparked a couple key revelations.

By the end of the night, I felt like I was transformed to a totally different place. How did I end up here, watching this guy go on and on about the digital world? And why did these new revelations seem so fitting for the moment—like they were actually the reason I was here?

I wondered now if I’d actually get any work done. I thought, What if needed this time away for something I didn’t know I needed?

Sure enough, I did.

My body was already speaking to me of my need for rest. And now, in this strange space, away from work and noise, another voice was telling me something of my past.

The Archives of My Past

The next day, I felt a new sense of freedom, like some weight had been lifted from me. I strolled to the coffee shop down the street and enjoyed a quick encounter with the barista, who said with a smile that he felt “that vibration.”

I assumed he meant my vibration, but who’s to say?

Either way, I enjoyed his internal world that sprung outward with a childlike carefreeness. It all seemed fitting for the way I was feeling.

I guess I liked his vibration too?

As I walked back from the coffee shop, I wondered what I needed to do this day, but in some strange way I already knew. I knew I needed to search the archives of my past. I just wasn’t sure what that meant.

Jaron’s words had made their way deeper now.

I started to question what the internet had done to me. I thought it strange that I had thought so much about technology and yet, somehow, had so often ignored its particular affect on me.

I had always assumed, as an “entrepreneurial type,” that the internet was the best possible tool someone like me could have access to.

As new questions surfaced and rose in volume, I found myself browsing through old folders and documents I had stored along the way. I had lost quite a bit over the years due to broken hard drives and irretrievable files.

But as I browsed, I was surprised by how much I still had in the cloud. Years and years of projects and papers, ideas and messages, videos and designs.

The movie of the last decade of my life came into fuller focus:

  • More than a dozen websites. Created, built, expanded, and then deleted.
  • Even more projects. Started, but never launched.
  • Multiple books, fiction and nonfiction. Partly written, but never finished.
  • Trails left behind from online tools I had used at some point, many of which are no longer in existence, have changed names, or have transitioned to something completely different.

As I kept searching through this vast archive of my past, I felt all kinds of emotions.

I felt a great weight of sadness. The hours, the weeks, the months, the lack of sleep, the stress all seemed to be encapsulated here—in a few folders.

I felt happy, as I remembered some of what I had forgotten. I laughed at videos I had made with friends in college, videos we used to try to sell something online. Of course, our efforts never really paid off, but we had a ton of fun.

I even felt angry. I couldn’t ignore that the way the internet was set up—Jaron’s main message—had put me into never-ending loops. I had become addicted to the possibilities the internet portrayed, possibilities there for people like me. And all the while, I was less present with myself and those around me.

Of course, all this online work and all these attempts to make money online were not for nothing. I learned a lot along the way.

  • My self-study online allowed me to get paid positions I would have never gotten otherwise.
  • I learned more than I ever wanted to know about self-publishing because of the access I had to this information.
  • Being able to market services online, I ran a web design/content marketing side business for multiple years.
  • Even social media had helped me reach particular audiences along the way, when it came time to market books.

Still, on the grand scheme of things, it felt somehow like the internet had lulled me to sleep. And now I felt exhausted.

I sat in silence that afternoon—no thoughts or words left.

Finally, I stood up, ready for whatever would come next. Mind now moving again, I began to notice questions.

To Questions

This journey to and through my past led me to a few important questions—questions I’d challenge you to ask yourself if anything I’m sharing resonates with you.

These questions are not here to make you feel bad about using the internet or about having a smart phone. Not at all. They’re here to encourage honesty.

When you’re honest, you’ll find the answers you need to find. Which will be different than mine.

Questions are often better teachers than statements because they lead to honesty, not to rules. I don’t know what you need to learn. You do. I don’t know what you need to discover. You will.

So, I encourage you to take some time to think through these questions for yourself. They, along with other related questions, have helped me to be just a little more aware of my use of the internet and technology.

When have I handed over control of my time to the internet?

This is probably the biggest question that came up for me as I looked at the last decade with honesty.

My response here was not to say I would abandon the internet or technology altogether. I believe these are incredibly useful, amazing tools we have access to.

My response was not even to stop using technology for things some might consider a waste of time (if they are not a waste of time to me). For example, I love watching interviews of people on YouTube. If I have some time off, I will often find my way to one of these interviews. I’ve always enjoyed learning from people and hearing their perspective and stories, while also getting to see their expression and movement, which speak without words. YouTube provides a perfect platform for interviews, and I want to take advantage of that. You will have your own ways to take advantage of technology today.

Where this question led me, instead, was to a need for awareness.

I never want technology to control my time. As simple as it sounds, I want to decide how I use the internet and when I use it.

Why have I believed the internet would magically return money to me so many times?

This is another way to ask why I so often gave valuable knowledge and work away for free.

One of Jaron’s main arguments is that the major tech companies (Facebook and Google, in particular) were set up in a way that creates an everything-is-free system and mentality.

I would argue that these systems aren’t all bad. They have their advantages, for sure. Still, I also saw his point.

On a broad level, when everything is free, nothing has value. With rising generations now growing up in a world in which so much is free, they are prone to believe that their experience, wisdom, and gifts don’t really mean much. But they can of course feel free to share them anyway…for free.

On an individual level, people who would like to make money using the internet or technology can be stuck in an endless pattern, believing that they need to keep giving things away because that’s what everybody does and tells them to do. Some marketers even tout this as “the way of business.” You’re supposed to “give your most valuable stuff away.”

But does that make any sense? Of course not.

Modern marketers might say, “That’s just the way it works these days.” But does it have to?

Netflix would say no. They are highly successful charging a small monthly fee that millions of people are willing to pay. What’s happening here? A very natural exchange of value. Of course, Netflix could charge more, but they want to make their technology available to the masses. It’s a win-win for everyone. In other cases, it would make more sense for an individual or business to charge more if, for example, what they offer is much more personalized (as something like coaching or graphic design is).

A lot more could be said on this point. For me, what was important was to recognize was where I had given too much away, in the meantime over-burdening and over-stretching myself.

I don’t think it’s right for anyone to feel they have to nearly break just to make it in the new world of work and money. Way too many young people feel that way.

I know there’s reality. I know you have to make money. Again, there’s a lot more to say here, and the topic has to be individualized to you. But no matter what, your time, gifts, and energy are valuable. It’s time to treat them that way.

Where have I traded intimacy for the internet?

In one way or another, at one time or another, we all hand over the possibility for intimacy for a distraction.

And I don’t think that’s always wrong. We’re human, and our brains and emotions literally require breaks from full-on presence with ourselves and others. Even when people didn’t have access to all the entertainment we have today, they still found ways to entertain themselves—because that’s part of being human.

The problem is that many of us have become so accustomed to a lack of presence that we don’t even realize how cheaply we’re living.

We let a picture we post online interact with the world. We let little hearts and bubbles bounce around and momentarily fill our desire for connection.

Again, these things are not bad in and of themselves. I think they can even add to our lives. The problem arrives when they are replacements for intimacy, because they never will be.

A lot of people have spoken academically about what the internet is doing to our brains. Plenty of people have given TED talks, warning parents of the dangers associated with their kids’ cell phone use. And all of that is great.

But perhaps the best response we can have is not to run from the internet or technology in fear, but to instead run toward presence. Maybe, just maybe, presence will bring us the answers we’re after.

How will I move forward with my use of the internet (and technology in general)?

As you begin to answer these kinds of questions honestly, you will likely feel a desire for change rise within you.

Let that desire be whatever it is. Let it inform you. There’s something it’s saying to you that’s true.

This desire will likely lead you to a few practical steps.

For example, I decided to consolidate some of what I’ve done online over the years to a single website (this one). I didn’t want to lose all memory of my work or writing over the years. I wanted to have some record of what I’ve done. Most importantly, consolidation allows me to simplify.

For you, consolidation might look like being on one or two social media networks instead of five. Or you might decide to consolidate when you’re online. Maybe you turn off Wifi at a certain point during the day or at night.

I also decided to be more aware of why I’m using the internet. In any work-related position I have today, I will probably use the internet quite a bit. And I actually love that about work today—that we have all these new tools that make our work more efficient and, in some case, even allow us to stay more connected.

But why else am I using the internet? When I’m not working but still online, am I improving my life or enjoying it more? If not, why am I doing what I’m doing? I know these are very basic questions, but I think many of us would benefit by going back to the basics here.

Finally, I decided to more regularly check in with myself to consider how present I am. I’ve found that the more reliant we are on technology, the more we live in a state of distraction.

Personally, I don’t want to live a life full of distraction. So, I’m proactively doing something about that.

What About You?

My main goal here was to simply share a scene of my story. This is by no means a thesis about internet use today. Still, the little scenes of our stories can have a huge impact. It’s important to pay attention to what they have to teach us.

So, what about you? Have you had any wake up calls like the one I had on my little retreat?

When you look over the ways the internet and technology have impacted your life over the past few years, what comes to mind?

Do these questions help? Have other questions risen to the surface?

I’d love to hear your experience and thoughts.

About John J Mannion

Hi! I'm John. I'm rebelling against the mini-bio that tells a little piece of a little piece of the story.