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.
This was on of the most lucid descriptions of the dangers of success I’ve read. I appreciate that there are a number of different perspectives all tied together, and referenced neatly in the process. However, I wish you had gone a different direction with that last sentence. It seemed like you were making assumptions, whereas the rest of the thoughts had been drawn from your own experience. Though that may be a reasonable inference, it came across as condescending and not a part of the natural progression of the rest of the thought.
Hope you get something out of the feedback, and thanks for referencing a few sources. I’ll be sure to check out Feyerabend.
very, very true. nicely said. p.s.- i’m glad you don’t actually smoke like the profile page picture implied, longer maybe to live and think
If you haven’t already (and I’d guess you have based on this post) I suggest you read Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers.
holy [email protected]&T!!!! This blew my mind. So true and it was something I really needed to hear.
This post brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s poem, “The Moment”
The moment when, after many years
of hard work and a long voyage
you stand in the centre of your room,
house, half-acre, square mile, island, country,
knowing at last how you got there,
and say, I own this,
is the same moment when the trees unloose
their soft arms from around you,
the birds take back their language,
the cliffs fissure and collapse,
the air moves back from you like a wave
and you can’t breathe.
No, they whisper. You own nothing.
You were a visitor, time after time
climbing the hill, planting the flag, proclaiming.
We never belonged to you.
You never found us.
It was always the other way round.
so your saying we shouldnt take credit for accomplishing a bestseller at 25 because we are motivated by the need to sow wild oats (or whatever such evolutoinarypsych BS). even if we grant you that what about everybody else who has the same pressure yet does nothing and is a loser? DO we give these people a pass as well?
You’re right, about the whole people feeling dwarfed by other peoples’ accomplishments. And that we never really own anything we do. To many, this is probably depressing and demotivating… however, what you do is perceived first by your own mind and if within that sphere you’re happy with what you’ve done, there is no need for outward motivators. Indeed, it can all disappear in any given moment – when I was fifteen I wrote this quote down: “Reject permanence and embrace the ephemeral beauty of all things that are”
Nothing will really last… and neither will we, so what’s the big deal? Everything could always be better and jealousy will arise no matter what. It’s up to one’s mind to overpower that and make sure that ocean is so full of debris you can walk on water.
Just wanted to say that thanks to you I have become a big fan of Meditations. I have two versions (Hays and Penguin Classics) both of which I find enjoyable.
Some days when I read it it gives me perspective and a lot of knowledge that would have been great in when I faced depression six years ago in my teens. Other times it leaves me feeling depressed. I guess it depends on what I am trying to find by reading it.
Good to see that other people my age out there are committed to success in the world and are on a path of entrepreneurship! Keep up the great work!
Well put. This sort of humility is important to realize.
Where do you think the intersection is between logos and possibility and hard work on goals?
By working hard at your dreams you can, in a sense, change your logos like you can change your percentage of success on the field or in the boardroom.
I think the metaphor Hays uses about the dog and the cart explains that we, the dog, can’t stop change or the ride to death.
The terrain you ride through and the amount of slack on the rope around your neck, though, is a different matter.
It’s actually not Hays’ metaphor. It comes from Cleanthes.