Sunday, November 29, 2015

Life Rules

I had never heard of Oliver Emberton before this piece popped up on one of my news feeds. It is dated from around a year ago, and is brief. And yet, despite or perhaps because of its brevity, it vastly outshines the everyday round of earnest entreaties by would-be moral philosophers.

Emberton’s common sense, down-to-earth approach is refreshing. Well, more than refreshing. Compared to those who want us all to run off in search of an ideal, to tilt at windmills, to seek a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow, Emberton is tell you to get out of the clouds and get down to work.

The internet and the media are filled with whiners whose plaints amount to: why am I not more successful? To which Emberton offers his first moral principle: The problem is not that life is unfair. The problem is that you don’t know the rules. (Evidently, this also means that Emberton is British.)

What are the rules?

First, “life is a competition.”

This might seem clear, but those who rail against Western civilization tell us that since competition involves winners and losers, it is inherently unfair and unjust. If we are all equal, how can some be more equal than others?

In truth, if you refuse to compete, you are more likely to lose. Then you will hate competition even more.

Emberton writes:

That business you work for? Someone’s trying to kill it. That job you like? Someone would love to replace you with a computer program. That girlfriend / boyfriend / high-paying job / Nobel Prize that you want? So does somebody else.

Uh, oh. The lesson is: don’t just coast along. Don’t waste your time protesting about how unjust it is. If you want to achieve something in life you should begin by understanding that other people want the same thing. And that if you are going to beat them at the competition, you are probably going to have to work harder than they do... assuming that you have the talent to do so.

He continues:

We’re all in competition, although we prefer not to realise it. Most achievements are only notable relative to others. You swam more miles, or can dance better, or got more Facebook Likes than the average. Well done.

It’s a painful thing to believe, of course, which is why we’re constantly assuring each other the opposite. “Just do your best”, we hear. “You’re only in competition with yourself”. The funny thing about platitudes like that is they’re designed to make you try harder anyway. If competition really didn’t matter, we’d tell struggling children to just give up.

I will grant that the platitudes are designed to get you to do your best, but in truth, telling children to do their best is also a consolation. Instead we should be telling them to be the best at whatever they are doing. I appreciate that we lie to children to motivate them, but at some point the truth will out.

Rather than complain about life’s unfairness, you should engage fully in the competition:

But never fall for the collective delusion that there’s not a competition going on. People dress up to win partners. They interview to win jobs. If you deny that competition exists, you’re just losing. Everything in demand is on a competitive scale. And the best is only available to those who are willing to truly fight for it.

I would mention that in order to compete you also need to learn how to cooperate with your partners and colleagues. Competition is not mano-a-mano; it is team vs. team.

Emberton’s second rule is:

You are judged by what you do not by what you think.

To which I would add, as he does, that your good intentions and your good feelings are for naught if they are not accompanied by good deeds. It’s all about your actions in the world, not the state of your soul.

Society judges people by what they can do for others. Can you save children from a burning house, or remove a tumour, or make a room of strangers laugh? You’ve got value right there.

That’s not how we judge ourselves though. We judge ourselves by our thoughts.

“I’m a good person”. “I’m ambitious”. “I’m better than this.” These idle impulses may comfort us at night, but they’re not how the world sees us. They’re not even how we see other people.
Well-meaning intentions don’t matter. An internal sense of honour and love and duty count for squat. What exactly can you and have you done for the world?

The next time your therapist says that you should tell yourself that you are a good person, you should ask yourself what you can do to demonstrate to others that you are a good person or a great artist or a great insurance salesman.

Emberton adds that your fame depends on the number of people you impact. I take his point, but I do differentiate between fame and infamy.  Celebrities impact large numbers of people, but this does not, in my view, make them winners. If the whole world is watching you make a blithering fool of yourself, this might make you rich, but it will do nothing for your good name.

It’s possible to influence large numbers of people for the worst. Infamy is not quite the same thing as fame. It does not bring the same level of respect. Being a rich freak does not bring you to have very many good friends.

In Emberton’s words:

Write an unpublished book, you’re nobody. Write Harry Potter and the world wants to know you. Save a life, you’re a small-town hero, but cure cancer and you’re a legend. Unfortunately, the same rule applies to all talents, even unsavoury ones: get naked for one person and you might just make them smile, get naked for fifty million people and you might just be Kim Kardashian.

You may hate this. It may make you sick. Reality doesn’t care. You’re judged by what you have the ability to do, and the volume of people you can impact. If you don’t accept this, then the judgement of the world will seem very unfair indeed.

Emberton’s third rule: we should not mistake fairness for self-interest.

I am modifying his expression slightly, but he is advising people to stop thinking that if they don’t succeed, then life is unfair. We are too prone to believe that once we puff up our self-esteem the world will give us everything we want. Some day people will look back at this and ask: whatever were we thinking?

In a cartoon illustration, Emberton pictures a whiny schoolboy saying:

I’ve sent her a thousand photos of my junk. Why won’t she love meeee?

The question answers itself.

Emberton explains what’s wrong with high self-esteem:

Take a proper look at that person you fancy but didn’t fancy you back. That’s a complete person. A person with years of experience being someone completely different to you. A real person who interacts with hundreds or thousands of other people every year.

Now what are the odds that among all that, you’re automatically their first pick for love-of-their-life? Because – what – you exist? Because you feel something for them? That might matter to you, but their decision is not about you.

Similarly we love to hate our bosses and parents and politicians. Their judgements are unfair. And stupid. Because they don’t agree with me! And they should! Because I am unquestionably the greatest authority on everything ever in the whole world!

And this means: get over yourself. Emberton does not use the term but he is saying that you should get over your hypersensitivity and stop being so thin-skinned:

But however they make you feel, the actions of others are not some cosmic judgement on your being.

So, life isn’t fair. Emberton explains his final rule:

Can you imagine how insane life would be if it actually was ‘fair’ to everyone? No-one could fancy anyone who wasn’t the love of their life, for fear of breaking a heart. Companies would only fail if everyone who worked for them was evil. Relationships would only end when both partners died simultaneously. Raindrops would only fall on bad people.

Most of us get so hung up on how we think the world should work that we can’t see how it does. But facing that reality might just be the key to unlocking your understanding of the world, and with it, all of your potential.


Leo G said...

The path of truth is the most overgrown.

Or as Yogi Bera said, "if you see a fork in the road, take it."

n.n said...

Life is inherently unfair. However, in societies where members acknowledge intrinsic value, there is a justification to establish a floor. In societies where members reject intrinsic value for casual reasons or scientific naivety, there are ulterior motives that sponsor corruption by virtue of hypocrisy. The same outcome occurs when people construct congruences (e.g. gender equivalence, "=", class diversity, etc.) in order to favor and exploit politically correct/favorable classes.

Ares Olympus said...

I certainly don't mind hearing advice like this, but it does seem very incomplete to me.

I don't see life as "competition", but I do see a need for assertiveness and learning the art of "sales resistance." So we need to practice learning how to say no, so when it is important, like an offer to jump off a bridge, you not only know what you want, you also know what you don't want, and why, and how to say so.

The flaw for me for seeing life as competition is easily expressed in the idea of social Darwinism. If its a dog eat dog world, then the only measure of success is doing whatever it takes to not be eaten. And of course raw unregulated capitalism follows the same logic, with money as the only measure of success, and once you have it, you use your money to manipulate the system to avoid the vulnerability you left behind, even if that means keeping others down, repressing the competition by unfair means.

I do agree that the way you escape the harshest aspects of competition is to be a part of a group, and that you can and should express loyalty towards the home team, to help that team succeed. But what do you do when you discover some of the home team is acting immorally, illegally? Do you keep quiet, or do you risk group unity by calling out bad behavior? And if you're getting 3 million dollar year end bonuses, you can imagine it is harder to speak up.

That's when you probably know at some point its going to all go crashing down, and you'd better collect your nest egg and pull it out of harm's way, before the wicked day of destiny.

And then when the wicked day comes, magically you discover you're too big to fail, and the government has thrown more money at you, to keep everything going, so you decide to stick with it another 8 years, as long as you're Schulz, "I know nothing." and keep doing your job another day.

And the whole world is like that to degrees, we're all participating in corrupt systems that exist to suppress rivals, and race every currency to the bottom.

But that world of "only money is important" eventually fails, so those of us who cooperate in different ways to informal home teams, so we don't need $120k jobs to survive, and someday that might make a difference.

Ares Olympus said...

p.s. On this thanksgiving weekend, if you need proof life is a competition, you just need to watch videos like this: Black Friday Fight Compilation 2015

And there's even a website to tally black-friday deaths and injuries? It looks like they still need to update for 2015. 2006-2014: 7 deaths, 98 injuried

Webutante said...

Great piece Stuart. The only thing I would add is that most adults pick their battles carefully realizing competitions are and are not worth our efforts.

I am just completing settling a lawsuit that was supposed to go to trial beginning today. We won it against some formidable foes and are now in the process of settling it to my great satisfaction after prevailing in a massive hearing to dismiss on October 20. This is one of the hardest and most expensive (I'm getting all my legal expenses paid plus some of our land back) things I've ever undertaken and yet this battle has been very satisfactory. It was a competition beyond anything I could have imagined.

As always, thank you for your wise postings.

Dennis said...

Like a number of people, I have often wondered what the "meaning of life" was for we human beings. It does seem that a lot of "bad" things happen to a significant number of what might be considered "good" people and conversely it appears that "good" things happen to those, many would deem, not the best of human beings.
After years I have come to the conclusion that life is a learning experience in which we face all of the challenges that are meant to help us become good souls. Ever notice that every time we run from life's challenges that it finds us yet again until we either deal with it or flee another time? Every challenge that we confront is something we have the wherewithal to overcome if we will just see them that way.
Much of what we see as problems for others is because they themselves have refused to face the challenges put before them. They seek a utopia that does not and will not exist. The more people hide the more that which they wish to escape follows them. I do feel some compassion for people who need "safe zones," fear free speech et al for they are condemning themselves to a life of intellectual poverty and failures to meet the challenges of life. They can run, but they cannot hide and are destined to keep repeating their sins of the past. We are all ultimately responsible for how we deal with life. Each of us have deal with far greater sins than many of those who make victims of themselves.
Life is a learning experience that is meant to be learned from despite our desires to run away. The "bad" is what can make us the "good" if we just accept life on those terms.

Ares Olympus said...

Dennis, to support your perspective, here is a quote from E.F. Schumacher I like:
"The art of life is always to make a good thing out of a bad thing."

So if there are bad aspects to competition, then our task as conscious beings is to also find the good within it, and make that count too.

And we discover there's more to learn in a well-earned failure than an unearned success.
Schumacher said the tasks of an individual can be summed up as follows:
1. Learn from society and tradition.
2. Interiorize this knowledge, learn to think for yourself and become self-directed.
3. Grow beyond the narrow concerns of the ego.

So the way we tilt the scale towards the good is to widen the net of our concerns beyond self-interest, beyond "winning" for its own sake, but merely enabling truth to rise and corruption to be exposed and redeemed, beyond competition designed to silence the loyal opposition.

Okay, there's no way to escape idealism, and a chance for sadistic domination is always more fun when you're hurt and angry. It's a wonder wounded people ever step above self-interest once they have a chance to be a big fish in whatever little pond.

Dennis said...

I would add that Marianne Williamson said it in a manner with which I agree. "There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you." It demonstrates a lack of respect for yourself and the people who would or could learn from you. One must ask how did academe come to the point that it runs from its responsibility to educate and graduate students who are prepared to meet life's challenges? here many of the students of these failed institutions should be suing them for fraud. It follows that the whole society has been learning it is better to run and hide than it is to face the challenges set before us.
Life is filled with beauty if one just sees it. I start the day with an accomplishment by making my side of the bed. Doesn't seem like much, but it reminds me of the fact that there are many things I can accomplish throughout the rest of the day. Life becomes good because I can accomplish and there is its own form of beauty about this.

Ares Olympus said...

Dennis, yes I appreciate Williamson's quote too, longer version is here, although it seems as much to be directed at women, who think that deferring to men (or insecure men) will make them more attractive, so it may be a feminist's calling.
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us; it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I tend to think there must be some balancing principle, between the extremes of shameless egotism of high status and a false humility to try to "deserve" friends.

I'm not ready for a fixed opinion of whether college students are being coddled away from life's challenges, or if Everett Piper's daycare shaming is the right approach to fight it.

Kipling's poem If offers another set of rules or standards of the unsafe approach to life.
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!