Inspiration, Ambition, and the Inverted U

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What inspires you? A child refusing to live ordinarily and choosing to showcase a remarkable ability to sing or dance or express themselves, an elderly person refusing to accept ageing and displaying an undying desire to maintain their youth through physically strenuous activities, a disabled person refusing to accept their handicap as a hindrance to their dreams, an underdog who worked tirelessly and sacrificed everything to become successful, an athlete who outperforms millions, a romantic story that defies all odds, a famous performer, politician, artist, author, leader, someone who overcomes discrimination and racism, a brave soldier, a loving parent who lifts a car to save her child, a genius?

We are all inspired by someone, or have the capacity to at least. We are often inspired by those who excel at a field that we take a passion in, those who have surpassed what we thought was possible, those who break all the records and touch our hearts in some way, those who are famous. I also believe that there is a lot of inspiration to be found in other, less explored, less popularized, less flashy areas in life.

There is a lot to be learned , for example, from immigrants who move to a new country where they don’t understand the language, the traditions, or the culture. They have a basic level of education, little to no savings, and yet are adamant at working tirelessly and quietly to make sure they can support their family. Because of remittances, they have no money to spend on themselves, to buy that marginally more expensive meal, or outfit. A lot of great people today have only been able to achieve their success because their parents were one of those people.

Many can also take admiration of people with a very demanding job who maintain the ability to have external interests, who find the ability to lead a well balanced life. There is a common theme between everything we find inspiring, it is the action of overcoming a large obstacle. Be it lack of financial power, lack of physical ability, fear, environment, circumstances, laziness, we all feel inspiration by someone having to overcome something.

No one feels inspired by someone who inherited money, or was sent to an excellent school. There is nothing inspiring about these people because they didn’t need to overcome anything; there’s very little romanticism and heroism in the idea of being born privileged in some way. Respect goes towards only those who had to work hard, and it is perhaps in this concept that the trade-off exists in being privileged.

When someone is privileged, they lose most of their ability to inspire others, and even, to inspire themselves. Their success can easily be attributed to favorable circumstances and thus lose the tenacity, hunger, and will to become successful. This loss of hunger will almost certainly cause them to fail. If you give a prehistoric hunter  a lifetime supply of any food he wants, would he still hunt? Would he still hone his skills and tirelessly try to improve? Of course not.

If there is no urgency, then it is extremely difficult to create motivation, albeit not impossible. This concept, explained by Gladwell in his book, David and Goliath, is coined “The inverted U”. It’s a representation of a two-dimensional graph where personal success is measured vertically, while inherited wealth is measured horizontally. In summary, poverty and excessive wealth are equally and fatal for an individual’s personal financial success. A person in poverty is handicapped for the obvious reasons of living in an unfavorable environment for proper education, lack of opportunities, lack of connections. A rich person on the other hand is well equipped with each of those things, however, suffers from severe lack of ambition and hunger.

The theory is something I personally find very intriguing and should seem counter-intuitive to most; I certainly think it is.  If the hypothesis is true, and that these extreme levels of wealth and poverty are both equally detrimental to an individual’s success, then shouldn’t that imply that we should feel inspired by someone who inherited a very large sum of money and was still able to become successful?

In other words, while it is clear that much admiration will be shown towards someone who overcame poverty to become successful, should it also be true that similar admiration should be shown towards someone who overcame extreme wealth to succeed?

The Two Tragedies in Life

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“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” Oscar Wilde

The reason I love this quote is because of how gently, poignantly, and cynically it depicts life as an inevitable tragedy. However,  a few things came to my attention when looking more closely at it. Wilde obviously did not mean this quote as an irrefutable philosophy, it was meant to be a provocative poetic expression that is both witty and informative. It does, however, raise an interesting philosophical point about the meanings we place on our goals, and that is what I’ll discuss.


The obvious deduction one would have from the quote is that Wilde is implying that achieving goals is a tragedy, because one loses his purpose, ambition, and desire. And of course, that is the ultimate tragedy. The other obvious implication is that not achieving your goal is another tragedy for you have failed at what you’ve set out to accomplish. The final deduction is that life is by definition a tragedy. No matter what you do, you will always be unhappy.

Achieving your goal and not achieving it are both equally tragic and painful. One way to get around this is not have ambition. Since ambition inhibits goal seeking, it also prevents failure. To not have a goal, however, ought to have been considered the third tragedy in life, and most people would agree that this isn’t a viable solution; albeit a much practiced one.

As Ted Danson once said as Dr. John Becker“You see… no expectations, no disappointments.”

There was an interesting observation made by a comedian. I cannot remember who it was. The idea was that in sports, sprinting for example, the third and fourth placed finishers often finish the race fractions of a second away from first, and these are people who have spent months training intensely for this race. It’s interesting how we place so much emphasis on achievement, on being the very best, when what separates the very best from his competitors in many fields in life are often fractions of a unit.

In many people’s lives, a single moment of good or bad fortune could decide whether or not they are remembered as successful, whether they consider themselves as being successful. There are professionals who work their entire lives to become recognized and valued, some do eventually, some do very early, but the vast majority don’t at all. Not because they didn’t have the talent, or they didn’t work hard enough, but because the line between failure and success was that thin.

To relate this to the Oscar Wilde quote, I would add that it’s infinitely more tragic to have ambitions that are aimed at finishing first in a race. Most people who do, necessarily fail. The first part of the quote that related achievement to failure I think is very interesting. There are many people who, after having achieved what they had worked so hard for, they find themselves without a purpose, desire, or reason to live. Many professions inherently breed this kind of mentality. The most obvious is sports. Once a professional athlete is forced to retire, they often report feelings of depression.  Boxing legend Sugar Ray Leonard famously quoted, “Nothing could satisfy me outside the ring… there is nothing in life that can compare to becoming a world champion, having your hand raised in that moment of glory, with thousands, millions of people cheering you on.” 

Of course, many professionals feel relief after retirement. Some retired workers choose to finally go on that vacation they always wanted but never had time for, to spend more time on their hobbies, but there are many others who feel there simply is no value outside of their work, outside of what they’re so good at doing. I think to avoid the first of the tragedies Wilde expresses is to do one of two things.

Either work in a profession that has no expiry date, something that you will always be able to do for the rest of your life. Or find a hobby that will always be with you, something you can always improve in, something that is not trendy, but permanent, not social but personal, and not physical but mental.

By doing so, you cannot be doomed because you don’t have to value your life according to achievement or non-achievement in one particular field that has an expiry date, only those who have trapped themselves in this philosophy are doomed to fail no matter what. If what you do is all you have, and all you ever will have, but will inevitably end one day, then so with it will your ambition, life meaning, and self-affirmation. References: http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/life-after-sport-depression-in-retired-athletes/

The Lonely Race to Nowhere

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One of the most alarming and unsettling trademarks of today’s society seems to be the universal urge to be involved in some kind of race. People race to get an education, to make money, to get into relationships, to get a job, and to find happiness. Oftentimes, they end up with an education they never even wanted, money that made them more miserable, relationships that they never really wanted to get into, and jobs they hate doing. Most tragically of all, they almost never achieve happiness.

I think the main problem with this ‘racing’ approach, is how easily it tends to get mischaracterized with efficiency. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with efficiency as long as it is geared towards the right objectives and goals, but when it isn’t, there’s nothing more dangerous and damaging. Efficiency, like many other things in life, can effectively blind us. It can make us believe that our purpose is to get to a location, a vision, and downplays the importance of reflecting on why we should want to go to this location in the first place.

In general, the main culprits seem to stem from social pressures including family and friends, as well as media based ideals that advertise quick success, and immediate happiness. Many of the most popular shows on TV idealize those who achieved their dreams when they were young, and try to encourage you to do the same. I can’t think of any that promote introspection and careful thought. But regardless of what these external factors may be, the fact that we can choose to ignore them means that we ought to.

This cultural promotion, I think, gives birth to insecurity, anxiety, and feelings of inadequacy and failure. For every success story, of course, there are a countless number of failures, and what happens when we only see success stories being advertised to us on a regular basis is the illusion that most people succeed.

Of course, this isn’t to say that one shouldn’t strive for success, that is the opposite of what I’m saying. I’m making the point, that to be successful, it’s essential to understand the reasons for why you are doing what you’re doing before you design the most efficient ways of doing them.

I think people can only be more successful if they truly believe in what they’re trying to accomplish. A lot of us seem to be driven to go somewhere, trying to get there as fast as we can, and what I find bizarre in these cases is that, oftentimes, the destination has nothing to do with what we really want. Many have gambled away their finances and health, their psychological well being, happiness, and compromised their relationships with family and friends to try to get to where they want to be, which paradoxically, are all of the things that they have gambled away.

Many people look for shortcuts because they believe that if they can do it faster than everyone else, then they’ll be the last ones laughing, that the joke will be on everyone else. The reality is quite different.  Trying to find such shortcuts ends up consuming most of your life.

Asking ‘why’ instead of ‘how’, being unrealistically optimistic about the things we really love instead of the things we think we should love, prioritizing the things that matter to us now instead of the things that we think will matter to us in the future, doubting everything instead of believing everything, listening to ourselves more than listening to others, are some of paradigm shift that I think need to happen.

Another problem is society’s condemnation of indecisiveness. I find that to be one of the most puzzling features of our time. Indecisiveness, of course, can be harmful if it was about things that don’t really matter. What to pick on a menu, what to get from the supermarket, which movie to watch, and what color socks to wear. These things are harmful because they take up too much time, and they won’t yield an amount of value that would make the time you spent deciding on them worthwhile.

But when it comes to deciding what you want to be in life, what you want to get out of it, and who you want to be with, and why, then surely, if there was ever a good reason to waste time, it’s to reflect on and ponder these questions as much as we feel is appropriate.

Being Human and the Sweet Spot of Irrationality

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Human beings are innately irrational. We tend to overeat when we shouldn’t, we don’t stick to fitness plans, we miss appointments, we forget we put our keys, we are easily manipulated by media, we smoke, we do harm to ourselves, we don’t get enough sleep, we overpay, we trust people we shouldn’t trust, we make snap judgments about people without really knowing anything about them, we lose track of our spending, we procrastinate. But is irrationality truly damaging to our well-being, is it really harmful?

Being human entails being irrational, at least to some extent. A lot of the arguments that would be given for irrationality being harmful center on our failure to achieve goals we put forth for ourselves. That doesn’t really damage us. It prevents us from achieving certain goals in the short run, sure, but I think that’s necessary for our well-being.

There are thousands of different occupations in life, there are so many different paths, and choices we can make, and this explains why, wherever you go, you will find that people are so different. Now imagine for a second, that we were all perfectly rational beings. And to be clear, when I say perfectly rational, I mean we are not subject to any mental heuristics or shortcuts, every single decision we make is precise, mathematical, and well thought out.

In this world society, what I suspect we would have is a convergence of behavior to an alarming degree. Since some decisions are more rational than others, and since we are all rational human beings in the made up world, we would all choose the most rational decision. We would choose the same food, we would choose the same clothing, and there probably wouldn’t be any music, since it’s irrational to make music for people who are so rational that they have successfully devoted their lives to maximizing their productivity, and things like art, music, poetry, and theater would really have no meaning.

It wouldn’t really be a world that’s attractive to live in. Now, I’m not saying we need to be completely irrational, but some level of irrationality is welcome. It keeps us wanting to continually struggle against our nature, and that’s exactly what motivates us to improve. We need to be imperfect to have any kind of meaning in life. We need to fail at achieving our goals, so that when we do achieve our goals, they become all the more meaningful. If people didn’t have to endure hardships towards achieving what they want, then it would greatly reduce the meaning of trying to pursue that goal in the first place.

It takes hard work and tremendous effort to be able to identify our points of irrationality and then address them properly, but by having this balance, by consciously implementing rationality to fight irrationality, we become constantly motivated to strive for improvement.

Imagine human beings were perfectly rational beings who never made any mistakes, that all our thinking processes were perfectly valid and consistent. It would make for quite a boring existence, and that I feel, that would be quite damaging. Being completely rational is clearly not as harmful as being completely irrational (You’re more likely to survive if you’re completely rational), but the point here is that a little bit of irrationality is not really damaging us.

The more we learn about our irrationality, and the more we are able to adopt novel ways of becoming more rational, the more effective we will become at accomplishing our goals, and reaching a higher level of satisfaction, and the more we will be able to understand why human beings act the way they do, and that in itself is fascinating. Too much irrationality can obviously be harmful. We would make the wrong choices too often, and in a world where rationality exists, being too irrational can be a cause of social exile. Having said that, the level of irrationality that most people possess isn’t harmful at all.

Achievement

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“For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him he must regard himself as greater than he is.” Van Goethe

There are a very small number of people throughout history who have truly achieved great things from a global and historical perspective. What I mean by that is that there are very small number of people who have gone down in history as reformers and difference makers,  A testament to that fact is that by the end of this post, you will have probably recognized the authors of the quotes that you will see. This means that the same names have reappeared and will continue to reappear throughout your life.

This kind of timeless achievement, in my opinion, is very context based. The people who’s names are inscribed in history books, and who’s teachings and legacies are religiously celebrated and tirelessly echoed by school teachers, professors, parents, and students are remarkable and exceptional people. But the significance of the things they have done depends heavily on the historical and cultural context that they found themselves in.

What they all seem to have in common, however, was self belief. You don’t become a president of a great nation without really believing in your capacity to undertake immense responsibilities with a minimal amount of fear and doubt. In a sense, it seems rather conceited or even delusional to believe in yourself unflinchingly, and genuinely feel that you are entitled and fit to reach posts of such high rankings. It’s a little insane. I say this because it is really impossible to reasonably reach a conclusion that you are qualified to rule a country of hundreds of millions of people, and be able to make decisions that would, for better or worse, have lasting effects on their lives and on the state of the country that you are in.

This, of course, only applies to politicians, but surely, a certain level of conceit must have existed within the greatest entrepreneurs of our time like Henry Ford, Bill Gates, or Steve Jobs. They must have believed that they were capable of reaching heights that the vast majority of people wouldn’t even dream of reaching. I think on some level, if you do want to achieve this level of fame and status, you need to allow your ego to inflate infinitely.

On the other hand, there are figures who are rarely talked about in mainstream media, but who have truly accomplished remarkable things in their lifetimes and have dramatically changed the lives of people around them. Social entrepreneurs, humanitarians, nurses, and doctors. It’s unfortunate that history does not remember those people with the same reverence that they do world leaders, generals, dictators, and psychopaths. But perhaps those who work towards the benefit of mankind without caring about gaining fame, money, and post mortem statues would have wanted nothing more than silent acknowledgement, and perhaps a selfless philosophy that can opposes and contradicts the wicked nature of man, and one that that can be emulated and repeated.

“It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” Harry Truman

Philanthropy, while the worthiest of all causes, will never be able to capture the ambitions of the majority of people. Self interested fame, wealth, and power will always be the prime motivators for human action. They always have been.

However, maybe achievement can be characterized more internally and personally. Maybe we can all become achievers, and even overachievers in our own small domains, by being dedicated, perseverant, and diligent. Or maybe, we can learn to become more delusional, and achieve greatness. Whatever we choose to do, we better do it the best way we can.

“If you can’t do great things, do small things in a great way.” Napoleon Hill