List Life: How Lists Make Us Feel Alive

List Life: How Lists Make Us Feel Alive image listlife 300x223

“3 is shy, not like 4, who’s a real show-off.”

7, I learn, is invisible, while 5 is musical (but short-changed of any super power such as invisibility). 6 is mechanical, 18 is a hunter. And gender divides them all. 3, for example, is a girl, “but 13 is actually a boy”. This last revelation is imparted in a tone that suggests it might come as quite the surprise.

My son is 7, and while he may simply be exercising his imagination (or messing with my head for mild sport), the very fact he’s applying it to numbers implies he has a very different relationship with them to the one I have.

I’ve never had an instinctive ‘feel’ for numbers, never engendered them with gender or a superpower. I’d always regarded numbers rather dryly, but of course, everything is a matter of perspective.

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Recently I’ve been thinking about numbers, particularly the lists they build, and why we have them; the role they play, the rules they make, and why they rule our lives so much. It’s a reasonable enough thing to mull during a daily commute. The 7am alarm, 8:01 train, my 43 minutes between door and desk, the number of emails, received, replied, during that time. The working hours in a 5-day week, the number of times I go to the gym, the length of time I spend there.

Modern life seems to very conspicuously be a thing of numeric markers and lists. Like it, list it. Loathe it, you’ll still likely give me at least “3 reasons why” you feel the way you do.

When I arrive in work, my Inbox lists the new emails that have arrived in a twenty-one minute walk from Marylebone to Charlotte Street.

The subscription emails include an invitation to watch ‘The 10 best dog ads’ (an invitation I can comfortably resist) and read about ‘The four watches… (I really must inappropriately spend my money on)”… subject to the number in my savings account. The number will never be enough.

Another ‘alert’ tells me about Tikker, a watch that tells the time and counts down the time you have remaining. It’s like the Timex Life Index watch (from 2008) which processed your key biometric inputs and then trended your likely end-date. That was called “the death watch”, and named number 7 on PC mags list of “Technologies we can do without”. Spin “life is short so make the most of it all you want”, Tikker is just a new entry in next-level creepy.

But our fixation with lists has much to do with our feelings towards time – and how it flees, leaving us feeling like we never have enough of it.

So we must learn, understand, improve, and quickly. The best tip for assailing this vanishing time: heed a wise list. The 7 best exercises to burn bottom fat; the 6 best mother-in-law put downs or ways to humanely poison your neighbor’s spaniel. And to be more effective at the aforementioned, perhaps a skim of Dr Stephen Covey’s “inspirational” book list – the ‘7 Habits Of Highly Effective People®’?

It’s even more fundamental than just being a sign of the times and a passing of them. Lists are what we’re ‘made of’.

The Human Genome Project is the ultimate list, a big data attempt to build the definitive biological picture of “life”. Join the right data points, get the algorithm right, and pre-empting and solving diseases might be a maths answer to a very long source code.

‘Life’, quite literally, is a genetic list amounting to a built-in expiration date, the stuff of BladeRunner and Gattaca and Logan’s Run. DNA lists give us the know-how to design babies, that will stay healthier and live longer. With the right list, we can push at the edges of our mortality – which returns us to the essentialness of therefore making the most of it, of every 24 hours and how we fill them, which returns us to more lists, so we may be productive, so we may accomplish, achieve all we can in the time we have.

The completion of each list like hitting the equals button that calculates a new state of personal order: I am now ‘Informed’, or ‘Inspired’. ‘List Completed’ = I am now more complete. The 100 albums you must listen to and movies you must see before you die. In the latter case, it’s unlikely that will include ’10 Rules for Sleeping Around’, a new “screw ball sex comedy”. Evidently, promiscuity is a thing of lists, but then, it always was.

The ‘number of people you really must sleep with (before you die)’ is a life-list that varies rather wildly by person. Mick Jagger, aged 70, is a still-rocking jitter-bag of rolling bones said to have bagged north of 4000 women. James Hunt suffered a fatal heart-attack at 45, but speculation of his 5000 sexual conquests went some way to implying that the guy had “lived”.

Comic book writing legend Alan Moore once described life as “a horrifying, romantic, tragic, comical, science-fiction cowboy detective novel. You know, with a bit of pornography if you’re lucky.”

I figure Jagger and Hunt would make it onto Moore’s lucky list. And surely that’s the real skill with any list, to live it well?

In my ‘right here and now’, I’m neither in the office nor commuting in either direction relative to it. It’s actually Sunday, the 13th of the 10th, 3:05pm. It’s 11 degrees outside, very wet, humidity at 94%, the barometer reading 1009mb. A weather list, and a somewhat gloomy one. I take a call from Dubai, a +971 in the international directory. Their present weather list is rather different.

After the call, I turn on the radio. The Radio 1 DJ asks whether OneRepublic’s ‘Counting Stars’ will be number 1 in the top 40 for 3 weeks running, then hits play.

“Everything that kills me makes me feel alive.”

Everything that kills me: that would be quite the list. I consider – ‘Number 1: Tied to a tree in the Amazon to be methodically devoured by a raid of over-peckish army ants.’

The very fact I’m not tied to any tree or anything’s lunch menu is cause to smile, to feel grateful, to feel alive.

Umberto Eco once said that “we like lists because we don’t want to die”. My feelings towards numbers, particularly towards lists, is changing. Lists make us feel alive, I think.

My son runs into the kitchen, breaking my reverie. “Dad! Remember when we talked about numbers? Number 7, he’s also a ninja.”

An invisible ninja? That’s pretty awesome.

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