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.
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.
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.