Clarity: The Alternative to Proverbs, Self-Help, and Rules to live By

 

Abundance is not always a good thing – in fact, it is often a crutch. Abundance breeds weak character and blurry vision, it leads to laziness and dependence. Abundance robs the soul of creativity. When there are no limitations, there is no challenge, and when there is no challenge, the mind becomes complacent, no longer spurred into action by stress. The hallmarks of necessity: deadlines, scarce resources, limited abilities, in contrast, inspire action, commitment, and creativity.

Necessity will force you to become effective, whereas abundance will convince you that you don’t have to.

A classic story is the Biblical tale of David and Goliath. The weaker David manages to overcome the monstrous Goliath, not because he has more resources, but because he was constrained by a few. Knowing he could not match his opponent in brute force, David was forced to innovate. He would not be considered a powerful soldier, many were preferable to him in the eyes of the king, but David perfected the art of using a slingshot by many hours of practicing shooting down birds in mid-flight. This gave him the ability to strike any opponent effectively. Goliath was large and powerful, a single blow from him would end the battle, but he was also slow and lethargic. Goliath’s weaknesses were David’s strengths. David was agile, he fought with more options, more creatively. He waited for the right opportunity, he concentrated his effort on one task, and it secured him an unlikely victory.

Jordan Peterson has repeatedly said that the primary aspect of being is limitation. Without limitations, there is no being. When the writers of the Superman comics gave him god like powers and no weaknesses, people got bored. When they wrote Kryptonite into the script, interest picked up again. If a challenge does not exist to make you suffer, then you will never improve, you will not experience the beauty of life. This is meant to convey the idea that our fragile existence is what gives our lives meaning. If we lived forever, we would see no value in anything.

Bruce Lee said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”

You may have heard another version of what was said before, for these sentiments have grown in popularity. Another common belief is that it is not versatility that makes you dangerous, but specialization. A versatile well-rounded person only gives the illusion of competence. If an opportunity arises where the versatile man must apply his knowledge practically, and not for the purposes of pea-cocking or showboating to establish social capital – he will fail.

‘The jack of all trades is a master of none’ is a truism, and what it implies must be taken seriously. To not be a master means to remain in the realm of the superficial, and whatever is superficial, introductory, intermediate, is always insufficient, and often misleading. If you wish to become knowledgeable about everything, to compete in many different battles simultaneously, you exhaust your resources, energy, and time, and you will have nothing substantial to show for it. You will remain an amateur.

But the jack of all trades also has options and is more agile than the specialized person. The versatile individual does not depend on perfectly predictable circumstances, she can adjust. The bona fide expert is constrained by their own talents, sunk costs, and commitments. They are ripe for disruption by new technology and changing circumstances. If you decided to specialize in repairing fax machines thirty-five years ago, you’re in a rather precarious position now. And yet, if you merely kept your options open, you may have studied how to code in your thirties and salvaged your career.

While it is true that scarcity can be better than abundance, it often isn’t. And while it is true that specialization is a better strategy than generalization, it often isn’t either.

The Illusion of Knowledge

“A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” is one of the only proverbs you should remember. It is often the illusion of mastery that makes people dream of the impossible – that is, the things that will not happen. The hapless American Idol contestant with self-belief that emerged from polite, merciful words she received from close friends and family at the dinner table, or the rookie gambler who thinks he’s figured out all the “nooks and crannies” of the game and proceeds to bet everything he has on the assumption that he is right, because he has had many conversations with veteran gamblers who have passed down their wisdom to him.

This is the same kind of illusion that will prevent people from seeing reality for what it is. It is difficult to hold two contradictory positions such as ‘I do not know enough’ and ‘I have the ability to win’. In favoring the more egotistical option, the latter statement, you will underestimate your own ignorance. A familiar variation of this idea is the Dunning-Kruger effect: People who think they’re experts in a field because they have yet to walk the narrow path that leads to the mountain of knowledge that they have yet to scale.

The illusion of knowledge leads people to take things for granted. Some people will always believe the narrative that scarcity is better than abundance, others will only accept the opposite narrative.

Illusions protect their owners from understanding their realistic limitations – in terms of abilities and knowledge – this is what prevents them from truly understanding the world. And this is different from mastery, it is not only the case that knowing your weaknesses will help you master a subject, but it will help you abort a falling ship. Imagine you have been working for a project for three months – this involved a couple of friends, and a significant investment of your time, but you have not seen any concrete results yet. Now you are faced with a difficult choice: to continue moving forward, or to cut your losses?

If you decide to move forward, you should only do so because you have understood what you need to change to possibly see results. If you decide to quit, it should be because you have realistically assessed your situation, and have concluded that your weaknesses are too many, and your efforts would produce better results if they were invested elsewhere.

The Illusion of ‘Never Quit’ and ‘Cut Your Losses’

There are two mistakes that can possibly be made. The first is quitting too early because of a distorted outlook that was too pessimistic, and the other mistake you make is to relentlessly fight a losing battle until your last breath. In this situation, ‘quitting is not for losers’

 “It ain’t what you know don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” – Mark Twain

The Illusion of Scarcity

Because a clear illusion of abundance exists, it is tempting to believe that scarcity is always better. Yes, limitations are necessary, they breed creativity, they build stronger hearts and minds, but they can also be blinding. Scarcity obscures the big picture. When you are constrained by time, you do not think about the long term, but only the short term. You can only see what is directly in front of you.

The person who succeeds through adversity, need not have succeeded because of adversity, but despite it. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers makes the point that limitations are often what propels the individual to success. He makes the point by explaining the concept of the inverted U.

But as Nassim Taleb noted in his book “Antifragile”, it is false to conclude that a correlation here implies causation. The holocaust survivor did not become a tough person because he survived the holocaust – she survived the holocaust because she was a tough person.

Scarcity can be a crutch – the same way abundance can be a crutch. Our natural tendency is to find a formula or a rule that explains the world to us in simple terms, but reality is much more complex.

Sometimes, abundance can give people second chances, time to reflect and reinvent themselves, it can imbue them with a sense of assurance and confidence, and it can make them more forward thinking, and balanced in the way they live. Sometimes, being a jack of all trades can be very useful, especially in times of uncertainty and change.

On the other hand, abundance can result in complacency and laziness. Many individuals manage to overcome scarcity, the rags to riches stories are many and they convey an important truth – that circumstances do not always determine a person’s fate. A person who is forced to succeed, to study well, to get the best job they can, often does. If you sacrifice enough for success, you will achieve it.

Yet many people have sacrificed a lot for success and have not achieved it. Why? Because sacrifice is not enough, but neither is environment, nor one’s own biology. It is a confluence of factors, and the important thing is not to memorize the factors so that they can be used in arguments. The point isn’t to find data that supports your worldview and point to it like it is evidence of anything conclusive.

What we need is a more nuanced understanding of how scarcity and abundance operate on different people. Individuals respond to circumstances differently. Here is a matrix that represent four distinct possibilities.

Abundance, Success Abundance, Failure
Scarcity, Success Scarcity, Failure

Individual A will succeed no matter what, whether conditions are abundant or not. Individual B will always fail. Individuals C and D have peculiar capabilities and temperaments that will either help them succeed in times of abundance or succeed in times of scarcity. C will succeed in times of abundance only, and D will succeed in times of scarcity only.

Individual A will use his time well. Individual B will use his time badly. Individual C will succeed in the right environment but will react badly under pressure. Individual D will succeed under pressure but will be complacent in abundant circumstances.

This is to say that no general rule can be applied to everyone. If there was such a rule, it would have been discovered, and there would be no debate – in particular, the debate that exists between the right and the left in politics.

The leftists think that individuals can succeed when put in the right circumstances, If you only give people the right opportunities, the right mentorship, resources and social conditions, then there is nothing they can’t accomplish. And people on the right think that individuals succeed only through hard work – the circumstances don’t matter very much. If a community is suffering from poor literacy rates and a lot of crime, it is because the individuals of this community have collectively chosen a culture of failure. The leftists disagree, they will tell you that it is only circumstances that matter. Of course, this is a rough sketch, or a caricature of the two opposing sides on this issue.

‘There is always three sides to every story. Your version, his version, and the truth.’

Reality is different, and the truth is much more subtle.

Clarity

Have Presence of Mind. The child of a happy promptitude of spirit. Owing to this vivacity and wideawakeness there is no fear of danger or mischance. Many reflect much only to go wrong in the end: others attain their aim without thinking of it beforehand. There are natures of Antiperistasis who work best in an emergency. They are like monsters who succeed in all they do offhand, but fail in aught they think over. A thing occurs to them at once or never: for them there is no court of appeal. Celerity wins applause because it proves remarkable capacity; subtlety of judgment, prudence in action. – Baltasar Gracian 

The ancient Egyptians worshiped Horus, the falcon-headed deity, the eye on top of the pyramid. Horus symbolized attention – the highest value among the ancient Egyptians. Paying attention will give you clarity. Knowledge can be confusing, contradictory, and irrelevant. It is necessary to accumulate knowledge, but it is a mistake to depend on it completely. Attention will lead to clarity – an unadulterated vision of reality.

The only valid self-help advice that can be applied by anyone is to have more clarity, to properly weigh their situation, and understand how to best exploit it.

If you live in conditions of scarcity, you must use deprivation to push yourself beyond your natural limits. You should be simultaneously wary of short-term thinking for it might trap you in a place you don’t want to be trapped in. Conditions of scarcity will push you towards making better use of your time, but you can choose to rebel against this impulse. You shouldn’t. Allow necessity to be a tailwind rather than a headwind.

If you live in conditions of abundance, you need to make the most of your time. Abundance can help generate positive outcomes for certain people if exploited properly. That is, if your time is abundant, don’t spend it wasting your time on frivolous things, as tempting as it is, focus on areas in life that are truly important. Since you will be able to more easily recover from failure – you will undoubtedly improve with time in any endeavor that you choose.  At the same time, you should fight the forces of complacency for they will inevitably manifest itself and dominate your attention.

What is always required is clarity. When you have clarity, you understand what could go wrong in your own specific situation, and what often goes right. There is no generic formula to follow. You have to try multiple strategies, you have to experiment in both belief and doubt, you should take life seriously at times, and at another to understand its absurdity. When you have clarity, you don’t need strategies to follow, but strategies to understand. It is not important to know that ‘biding your time’ is a good thing, it is important to know when it is a good thing, and when exactly, it is not such a good thing.

Even this rule: to have clarity, is not sufficient, for there are times when you should allow yourself to explore things you don’t understand, and this requires you to suspend your urge for clarity. But if you want to limit the ways in which you deceive yourself, then you must start thinking clearly.

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