“On the evenings that we stay in Palo Alto, we walk down the tree-lined University Avenue, reflecting upon our key wins and challenges and preparing for the adventures of the next day.”
And to be honest, how could she not? They are horrible, bone-chilling words — the sort of thing an alien might come up with if it was trying to blend in with human society, shortly before luring us into its feeding-chamber. The fact that Edwards uses them to describe an intimate moment with her boyfriend only serves to compound the monstrousness. Since reading them them, I've been unable to think of much else.
2am. I like to spend this time in a restless half-sleep, feverishly reflecting on the words 'key wins and challenges' while lapsing into detailed hallucinations in which I'm arrested by the police and forced to appear on the Goop podcast.
5:30am. This is my time for waking up in a cold sweat, the dead eyes of Melania Edwards staring back at me from the depths of whatever remains of my soul.
7am. Lying on the couch upside-down playing Tetris on my phone for three hours while the cat clambers over my face.
10am. I kick-start my day with an energizing bowl of Huel. The water has been cut off in my apartment so I just eat the powder dry. Is this a key win or a challenge?
And so forth.
If there is any comfort left to me in this bleak world, it is that no human being actually lives the life that Edwards does. How could they? Her world is a one in which she rises at 5:30 to meditate for an hour, before calling family and friends (who live all over the world) at 6:30. She plays tennis every day before work, splits her time between San Francisco and Palo Alto, and balances her top executive job with some sort of MA at Stanford and volunteer work 'promoting women's economic empowerment' in Papua New Guinea (I can only assume, by dismantling structures of capitalism, patriarchy, and imperialism?). No one could possibly live like this without dying of exhaustion after a week, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
And yet, despite its bizarre unreality, there is something distinctly familiar about Edwards's routine. Upon reading the piece, I immediately thought of Mark Wahlberg's routine, which went similarly viral in September — the actor waking up every day at 2:30am, working out almost constantly, and going to bed at 7:30pm. This might be slightly different because Wahlberg is a celebrity, and so by definition does not live the sort of life we are used to — on a certain level his life ought to be as inscrutable to us as the ways of the gods.
No one could possibly live like this without dying of exhaustion after a week, and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.
Much more similar are the regular refinery29 money diaries, instances of which (such as this one) have also provoked the internet's scorn. The refinery29 diaries range in focus — some are touchingly relatable or outright hilarious — but others veer much closer to Melania Edwards terrain.
The Edwards piece was part of a series that Business Insider runs on the similarly obnoxious routines of individuals who almost certainly don't use Twitter but definitely maintain a LinkedIn. A lot of them seem to play lacrosse, for some reason. Sometimes the series focuses on famous people, like Jeff Bezos or Barack Obama.
This begs the question: why do these pieces exist? What are they trying to do? One theory holds that the Melania Edwards piece is a recruitment ad for HSBC. This could well be correct in a causal sense: other profiles in the same series are heavily focused on the benefits of working for a particular employer, such as Credit Suisse. But this only highlights the need for a deeper explanation. Why would anyone think to advertise their company like this?
In his Poetics, Aristotle claims that comedy is concerned with the imitation of “characters of a lower type” — the ludicrously defected or ugly — with the aim of provoking laughter. And certainly pieces like the Edwards one are comic in this fashion — there is something wrong with these high-flying business types, they fall somehow within the uncanny valley of human nature, and this is funny to us. In short: they are grotesques. This explains why they are so widely shared — but why would someone intend it as an advertisement for the life it depicts?
Here's some more closing-time-at-the-pub philosophy: In his late work, Michel Foucault stopped calling everything a prison long enough to introduce the notion of “technologies of the self”. In Foucault's own words, these technologies “permit individuals to effect by their own means or with the help of others a certain number of operations on their own bodies and souls, thoughts, conduct, and way of being, so as to transform I themselves in order to attain a certain state of happiness, purity, wisdom, perfection, or immortality” .
Obviously the word “technology” is being used in quite a broad way here — Foucault explicitly distinguishes “technologies of the self” from, e.g. “technologies of production”; so it doesn't just mean, like, a machine. A technology of the self is just anything which helps you to live a certain way. It could be something like the Christian practice of confession (a particular fixation of Foucault's). But it could also be something like a self-help book, or a monastic code — something which provides an ideal for how to live, perhaps with instructions about how one would go about conforming to it.
It strikes me that these pieces — think of them as “books of hours for successful sociopaths” — are attempting to perform a similar function. On a certain level, they're trying to get us to look at the lives they describe and get us to think: yes, you really could live like this! You really could have it all, you could be rich and fit and thin and transport your serene glow constantly between San Francisco and Palo Alto, if only you... well, to put this point frankly: if only you conformed to the demands of capitalism as effectively as this person is doing.
The characters featured in these books of hours have clearly spent their whole life working towards the lives they are depicted as living, putting aching amounts of effort into always looking just right, always having the exact right email manner, always arriving for every meeting at exactly the right time, always squeezing the right breakfast juice, always taking the exact right amount of time out of their days to work out or meditate or ‘relax’ with family and friends — to the point that, as in Edwards’ case, they are now literally capable of believing that the nightmare HR-speak of 'reflecting upon your key wins and challenges' is a normal way to describe a conversation with a loved one. And you know what — in a way, they really have got what they deserve. From the perspective of modern capitalism, their life can stand as a hagiographic example.
But these books of hours largely fail as technologies of the self. The reason for this is fairly simple: if something is presenting you with an ideal, it has to be one you feel motivated to embrace. But what sort of person is motivated to lean in to the sort of capitalism Edwards and her ilk represent? For starters, you can't just suddenly choose to become an HSBC executive as an adult — at the very least you'd probably need to delete your whole internet presence and doctor your CV. And besides, most younger people see the fundamental lie at the heart of this goal — they don’t want tips on working smarter, they want communism.
To at least a critical mass of people, then — who are not already aspirational finance executives — there must seem something really weird about people like Melania Edwards — something wildly off about their libidinal orientation towards themselves and the world. The good life should be about escaping this nonsense, not making it the guiding principle of everything you do.
In summary then:
Key wins: have figured out that the grotesqueness of the Edwards piece is derived from the realisation of just how far our conception of the good life, and that of the people who govern us, diverge.
Challenges: Economic system filters into every aspect of our life, constant sense of precarity unlikely to be alleviated soon, may have just burned all remaining bridges at HSBC.