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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Back to Work

Posted by Maximum Fun on 10th April 2011

Vital stats:
Format: episodic discussion of some of the most vital questions of human existence
Episode duration: 1h-1h30m
Frequency: near-weekly

I thought I’d hold off on writing about Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin’s new podcast Back to Work [RSS] [iTunes] until I could hammer together a sentence saying what it’s about. Then I thought, screw that — I admit defeat. I don’t know what Mann’s spookily popular, sporadically updated other show You Look Nice Today is “about” either, but that hasn’t stopped me from developing a hearty addiction to it. Benjamin, of course, we know from The Pipeline, an interview podcast with people who make internet stuff. So we’ve got Mann’s aggressively wandering yet intensely self-critical sense of humor combined with Benjamin’s becalmed inquisitiveness about technological creation. The original peanut butter and chocolate, right?

Okay, so maybe I don’t shoot entirely straight when, after over ten hours of Back to Work, I claim ignorance of its subject matter. But here, in some sense, subject matter doesn’t; if you like, you can enjoy the show simply for the level of verbal interplay between its hosts. They tell stories about the crappier, foodier jobs in their pasts; they remark upon what they see going right and wrong in the creative world; and they give their opinions on films written and/or directed by Charlie Kaufman. They make jokes aplenty. If you’ve listened to the show yourself, you might insist that Mann does all this, while Benjamin only stokes the Merlin-fires by tossing in occasional questions, prompts, and concerns. Sure, one of these guys racks up way fewer talking minutes than the other, I’ll grant you that, but I insist the dynamic runs much deeper.

I say that because, to my mind, this show takes no simple form: not a super-extended interview of Merlin Mann, not banter-based comedy, not two dudes yammering. As an enterprise, it actually faces the most vital questions of human existence, so vital that I can under no circumstances spell them out directly, for free, in a Podthought. Clap me into irons for crimes of grandiosity if you must, but I would argue that Mann and Benjamin’s conversations on Back to Work deal with no less urgent a matter than how to live an actual life. That is to say, a life where you create things, where you contribute, where you connect — where you have an effect. These lives turn out to be rarer than you’d think.

But oh, the obstacles in the way. According to this podcast, they include fear, lack of care, jittery attention spans, quarterlife crises, “tip” dependency, pathological inspiration-seeking, and the temptation to buy a new beret instead of doing your life’s work. Our many squirrely, irrational tendencies toward pathetic self-preservation, inbuilt by evolution, make it hard enough to do anything meaningful; figure in 21st century’s the veritable Horn of Plenty of distractions, and I’m surprised any of us can even fold a paper airplane. The question of how best to work on what matters remains a hard problem — possibly the hard problem — and I haven’t yet deluded myself into believing that Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin have it solved. But they do know that we can only hope to get our hands moving and muddle through our cycles of ever-improving failure, and they know how to remind us of that, almost weekly, in a terribly entertaining way.

Great, hairy issues naturally lurk underneath all this: even given the above, does it still make sense to have to depend on a podcast to urge us to pursue our crafts? Given both Mann and Benjamin’s horn-rimmed, smartphone-wielding, font-kerning-knowing, nine-keystroke-Mac-command-using audiences, might they anyway waste all this insight on a depressing, ephemeral grind like iPad app production? And considering that I always listen to new episodes of Back to Work on something-ahead-of-first priority moments after downloading, do these lingering questions mean a damn thing?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]