Paul Feyerabend calls our accomplishments “debris on an ocean.” Currents bring a few of them together and we mistake this coagulation for permanence and security. It may seem like a platform to build a life around but it really isn’t. We forget, he says, that this illusion can be swept away at any time by the very “powers that permitted them to arise.”
It’s hard for me to think about what I was like a few years ago and not notice that I am calmer, more open minded and reasonable. But I know already that this kind of emotional progress comes along with leaving your teens and entering adulthood. It’s called growing up. And it’s a cliche for a reason.
This is why Taleb likes to do what he does: pointing out the accidental nature of some of the world’s most respected accomplishments. To make you realize that whatever credit is due to this successful trader or a ballplayer on a hitting tear, it was a statistical certainty that somewhere, someone was going to do that eventually. It just happened to be them.
These kinds of contemptuous expressions are important because they are lessons in humility. For instance, biographers like to point out that so-and-so published their first bestseller by the time they were 30 or founded a company days before their 25th birthday. We hear these things and feel inadequate in comparison. Or we feel a kinship for them, like two special outliers on the same trajectory. But what we know is that there are powerful biological pressures that channel these types of accomplishments right into this range, almost uncannily [or cutely] so.
The Stoics had a similar idea to this ocean analogy. Not only are the things we own not really ours, they said, but even our life itself is possessed by us only in trust. It can be taken back at any moment. Like a mortgaged house or a leased car, you set yourself up for disappointment if you take any pride in the “ownership” or resale value of it.
They had another, too, that explained how our personal contribution in any situation is often dwarfed by a world much bigger than ourselves. Like a dog tied to a moving cart, we have two options. We can struggle with the foolish notion of control and dig our hind legs in. Or we can go along for the ride, uniting our necessities and freedoms together.
There is something interesting about the fact that so many philosophers, scientists and economists have all danced around this same theme in different incantations. The temptation is always there to wrongly attribute credit or use prior returns to predict future results when it comes to ourselves. Both are unwarranted and un-humbling. They are weak but alluring centers of gravity. And when something crashes or unravels or wakes up one morning horribly unhappy with the person they’ve become, I think there is a good chance that they built too much on top of one.