With so many choices, what if we get it wrong? Pandora Sykes wallows in questions of modern life [BOOK REVIEW]

There is only so much insight from Pandora Sykes’ book How Do We Know We’re Doing It Right? (2020) I can squeeze in an article. It does not have answers, but the author took questions as luxury. A consoling read for any burnt-out millennials and Gen Z alike. An insightful read for media practitioners.

Gertrude Abarentos
5 min readMar 27, 2021

From knowing what will exactly bring us joy in the age of Wellness boom & McMindfulness, the problems with modern empathy, to what makes AI influencers captivating, the journalist Pandora Sykes dissects what Phoebe Waller-Bridge delivered in her comedy-drama series Fleabag really meant:

“I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about…Screw all my choices for there are too many to make; tell me how to think and how to live. Tell me how to get it right.”

In her essays on modern life, Pandora traversed insights into why millennials (more especially millennial women) feel as though they are constantly running out of time. With relentless self-optimization tricks/bio-hacks we splurge from wellness industries as if “death could soon become ‘optional’” (the words of Paypal founder Peter Thiel), she quotes writer Barbara Ehrenreich for solace:

“There is a curious self-alienation brought around by self-optimization, where there is the self that must be worked on, and another self that does the work. Such splitting encourages self-surveillance, where you are watching yourself improve while doing the improving. Transcendent Oneness does not require self-examination, self-help, or self-work. It requires self-loss.”

Self-loss denotes how we are only so much in charge of our destiny and therefore we can pardon ourselves when things do not manifest themselves as we hoped, Sykes spelled out.

We endeavor to enhance what surrounds us in the quest to find ideal work weeks or the best productivity systems, to be the ideal selves as seen on the telly; “the winning formula that will bring endless happiness, fulfillment, and satisfaction,” it advertises — leaving us question why does it seem like we are doing life wrong. We now focus so much on how well we are doing things (i.e. living our lives), instead of how well we feel doing the activity itself.

The well-being trade can be harmonious to the increasing workism, as writer Derek Thompson calls it — “the idea that work should be the nucleus of our lives, the centerpiece of our identity and the fundamental organizing principle of our society.” If we can optimize ourselves so rightly, we can generate work perfectly and incessantly.

Sykes extracted a melancholic pondering from Kate Walbert’s “To Do”: “Are we the sum of what we’ve crossed off? Or are we only what we still have left to do?” She labels it “tickboxery” — an insidious obligation to ‘tick off’ everything now that we have more if not endless ways to live, travel, work. Getting things done has become more important than the ‘doing.’ We tend to deluge ourselves in them because perhaps, we don’t know or scared of what’s left to us without it.

The notion of self-care, she suggested, bespeaks our desperation to maintain a sense of control in a ‘chaotic’ world:

I don’t think the world has necessarily become more chaotic, but the idea of choice certainly has — there are so many options thrown at us daily, from both the marketplace and the internet — and amidst this chaos of choice, we double down: less willing to relinquish control over ourselves, our bodies, our careers. We are so terrified of things slipping from our grasp, that we think having a bad day is a reflection of our failure to harness something — rather than a shitty day being a life staple, often to do with uncontrollable external conditions and not some inner failing. As technology makes so many aspects of our life quicker and more efficient, instead of enjoying this liberation, we are now able to spend — or rather, feel like we should spend — more time on improving ourselves.

Do this for 7 days, you will be flawlessly calm. Indulge lavishly in your beautifully lined daily morning fruit bowl, your afternoons shouldn’t suck — ever! Do these things, you can; but Sykes warns about viewing them as redemption. Seek self-respect instead, the “sense of peace and private reconciliation.” See them as ends (because you willingly choose to do them) rather than means (because you have to do it out of the expectation that it will take you to some constant orderly state — losing thyself as you subtly chase the stagnant concept of who you are).

Breathe. Re-evaluate how the concept of who you are shaped. Let go. Have fun. Feel your feelings. Delay some gratification and do the work. Try not to die. Disconnect if necessary, it’s okay. Realize nothing is risk-free. She ends:

“Sparks of joy are essential, but so are the low points — otherwise how do we know to value the peaks? I put my eggs in the basket of contentment, which is not about being passive, but about achieving an equilibrium from which we can assess the topography of our lives. Malik argues there are so many ways — through narrative myth and the validation of social media — to reassure ourselves that we are doing things right, that it has meant the concept of rightness has been shorn of any meaning. It has become mere lip service. Rather, living the right life means being ‘in a state of questioning,’ Malik tells me. It involves self-sacrifice.”

“The progress of humankind depends on us striving for more. Otherwise, we’d all stagnate. But the concept of ‘more’ is something we need to turn inward as much as outward. To accept that gain can involve loss; that to compromise is not the same as being compromised; that sensitivity does not eliminate resilience.”

Rating: 3.9 stars

Sykes, P. (2020). How Do We Know if We’re Doing it Right? Penguin Random House. Kindle Edition.



Gertrude Abarentos

WRITER for UNDERSCORE | Creating something means imagining it and not imagining the world without it. We’re all telling a story, what’s your medium?