Daily life is overwhelming: each day we are faced with an unforgiving barrage of in-your-face advertisements, with “calls to action,” and with half-a-million bits of unsolicited data. Amongst this information avalanche, it’s difficult to discern which details are relevant and which are not.
It is, however, the details that make life interesting, exciting, and, most of all, memorable. The details are important; both God and the devil reside there. Without life’s myriad particulars, our lives lack variety—and without variety, we quickly get bored out of our skulls.
Last year’s Misfit Con was, without doubt, the best conference I’ve attended (and I’ve attended scores). It wasn’t special because of an expensive light show, some brand new technology, or even because I spoke there—it was special because of its intentionality and the overwhelming attention paid to the small things.
AJ and Melissa Leon, Misfit’s founders, focused fervently on the details: they didn’t hold the event in your typical conference-type location, like New York or California, opting instead for Fargo, North Dakota, a city surprisingly erumpent with creativity. AJ and Melissa involved the local community, too, intertwining neighborhood artists, musicians, and writers into the proceedings. And they didn’t attempt to “scale-up” the affair, opting instead for handcrafted everything, from the surprise venues and full-time onsite barista, to the custom artwork on the walls and bright flowers hanging overhead like vibrant stalactites. They even curated not just the event’s guest speakers, but also the audience, deciding to limit the number of attendees to fewer than 150, requiring an approved application to attend (hundreds of people from all over the world applied, only a fraction were accepted). The whole thing was, in a word, unforgettable.
In fact, every memory we hold—good or bad—is comprised of absorptive details. We remember outstanding conferences like Misfit because people like AJ and Melissa are obsessed with getting the details right: the handcraftedness, the personal touch, the careful curation. Conversely, we remember a restaurant’s terrible service because of the little things they got wrong: the overcooked meat, the apathetic waiter, the crumbs on the table.
Without the details, though, the experience is neither good nor bad: it is transactional. No one ever remembers the transaction—transactions are banal by nature.
Get bogged down with too many details, and life quickly becomes overwhelming, unbearable—vanquished with sensory overload. It is our job to distinguish the 2% of the details that are important from the unimportant 98%.
This is a lesson I teach in my online writing class: a great story highlights the essential 2% by eliminating the superfluous 98%. Only then does the story become interesting, only then is the reader absorbed into something more meaningful. This was true for the Misfit Con: it was remarkable not only because of the attention to detail, but because of the deliberate attention to meaningful details.
The same holds true for any well-curated life: of those half a million daily inputs, the key is to highlight the few dozen that are actually important—the details that add value to our lives. Often, the best way to do so is to start eliminating—to get rid of the excess that makes life opaque so that everything worthwhile shines through.
The details are direly important—being obsessed with the right details is even more important.
Read this essay and 150 others in our new book, Essential.