There are nuances to leadership that everyone has to uncover for themselves. Leaders are different. Followers are different. Peers are different. Everyone has their own individual characteristics, personalities, and perspectives. I often tell leaders that what makes leadership so hard is dealing with people, and people are crazy. And the craziest person a leader has to deal with is themselves.
You can never rest on what you have achieved in the past. You always have to improve.
Detachment is one of the most powerful tools a leader can have.
Be aware. Pay attention to yourself and what is happening around you. Make it a goal to avoid being fully absorbed in the minute details of any situation. Don’t let it happen. If you are staying aware, checking yourself, you will be likelier to avoid getting tunnel vision.
I realized I didn’t always need to lead. I didn’t need to be at the center of decision-making. I realized it was my job to support the team and the mission, which meant supporting the boss.
The Laws of Combat: Cover and Move Simple Prioritize and Execute Decentralized Command
Extreme Ownership is a mind-set of not making excuses and not blaming anyone or anything else when problems occur. Instead of casting blame or making excuses, good leaders and good teams take Extreme Ownership of the problems, find solutions, and implement those solutions.
The Dichotomy of Leadership describes opposing forces that are pulling leaders in contradictory directions at the same time. Any trait, technique, or attitude can easily go too far in one direction or the other. To lead properly, a leader must be balanced.
Leadership requires relationships; good relationships with people above you, below you, and beside you in the chain of command are critical for a strong team. The better the relationships, the more open and effective communication there is. The more communication there is, the stronger the team will be.
The approach you use to discuss this is important. Put the onus on yourself as to why the idea doesn’t make sense. For example: “You know, boss, I really want to support the plan to the best of my ability, but I’m having a hard time understanding how to execute this part of it. Can you explain why you want it done that way so I can do it right?”
How much will be gained by approaching the boss and trying to convince them to change their plan? If the difference is minimal, it is probably not worth investing any time or effort into it. Next, ask yourself how much of your concern is just your ego; there is a chance that you see your way of doing something as “smarter” or “more efficient” than what the boss has offered. If that is the case, and you don’t truly think there is much to be gained by using your method, let it go. Don’t create drama over your ego. Lastly, ask yourself if you will be moving your relationship with your boss forward or backward by raising this issue. This is important because you should be constantly trying to build that relationship. You are not building the relationship so you can garner favor from the boss; no, you are trying to build a relationship so the boss trusts you and will listen to you so you and the team can more effectively accomplish the mission. For these reasons, choose your battles carefully.
It is obvious that building a trustworthy relationship with your superiors is important. But how do you do that? One of the simplest ways is obvious, but it often gets overlooked—that is performance. Your boss expects you to complete certain tasks. So complete them. Do them on time, on budget, and with as little drama as possible. Get the mission done. This includes doing things you might not be in 100 percent agreement with.
When I do what needs to be done, the boss trusts that I can make things happen. The boss also knows that if I do raise an objection, it is likely to be founded on solid facts that should be considered. Since I get things done and don’t constantly voice my objections, the boss actually listens.
One of the most powerful tools you have is a good relationship with your boss.
When you’re the boss and your subordinates come to you objecting to something you say, listen and ask for alternatives, and when they give you a decent one, say yes to them and utilize the alternative. Even if their alternative doesn’t seem quite as effective or efficient as your methodology, let them do it. This builds the trust and relationships with the people below you in the chain of command.
As often as you can, listen and say yes.
Playing the game is not easy, but it will build trust and relationships, improve the integrity of the team, and make the team more capable of accomplishing the mission. Don’t let your ego or your team’s ego cause turmoil. Get a grip on yourself and play the game.
If you are doing something small for your boss and you feel it might not be the best way, you aren’t a hypocrite for following his or her instructions. You are simply storing up leadership capital for a time when it really matters. There is nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make you a hypocrite; it makes you smart.
It is much better to take an indirect approach. It is better for the subordinate to ask questions that put the fault on themselves. Try an approach like, “I want to make sure I understand your thinking here so I can learn to think through these issues myself,” or “It’s hard for me to understand this clearly since I don’t have the experience you do.” Each of these approaches will disarm the boss and make sure they don’t feel they are under attack.
Do not pit your idea against the boss’s idea. That move brings out egos and can negatively impact decision-making. Instead, try to root your ideas back to the boss so the idea is tied directly to them. People almost always like their own ideas better than anyone else’s.
The better a person can communicate their ideas in a simple, clear manner, the more effective a leader they will be.
So how can a leader become great if they lack the natural characteristics necessary to lead? The answer is simple: a good leader builds a great team that counterbalances their weaknesses.
And that is what a good leader does—finds other people to bring onto the team who compensate for his or her shortfalls. By doing that, even the biggest deficits in leadership traits can be overcome. Combine that with hard work to try to improve on areas of weakness, and soon any person can drastically improve their ability to lead. Well, I should say almost anyone. Because there is one type of person who can never become a good leader: a person who lacks humility. People who lack humility cannot improve because they don’t acknowledge their own weaknesses. They don’t work to improve them, and they won’t bring someone onto the team to offset their shortfalls. This person will never improve.
Leadership and manipulation are closely related, but one is deemed to be bad and the other is considered good. They are closely related because they are both trying to do the same thing: the aim of both leadership and manipulation is to get people to do what you want them to do. The highest form of both leadership and manipulation is to get people to do what you want them to do because they want to do it.
Both leaders and manipulators use many of the same techniques. They both build relationships, leverage their influence, and maneuver politically to attain the outcome they desire. Both leaders and manipulators capitalize on others’ egos, personal agendas, and individual strengths and weaknesses to achieve their own preferred outcome.
While there are many similarities between leaders and manipulators, there is one glaring difference: manipulators are trying to get people to do things that will benefit the manipulator, while leaders are trying to get people to do things that will benefit the team and the people themselves.
To put your ego in check, to subordinate your ego, you must have incredible confidence. If you find you cannot put your ego in check because you are afraid it might make you look weak, then guess what? You are weak. Don’t be weak.
Truth and honesty are perhaps the most essential of leadership qualities. Tell the truth to your people. Tell the truth to your boss. Tell the truth to your peers. And, of course, tell the truth to yourself.
The more communication there is with subordinates, the easier it should be to communicate with them, even if the things being communicated are negative.
If the frontline troops aren’t sure why something is happening, they will make up their own reasons, and the reasons they come up with will likely be much worse than reality.
Don’t wait to have hard conversations; they will only get harder.
Stay humble, and always learn.
A leader must know and understand the jobs, skills, and equipment used by the people below him or her in the chain of command. This isn’t to say a leader needs to be an expert in everything; that is impossible.
What should a leader do if he doesn’t know or understand a skill or a job that plays a role in the accomplishment of the mission? Simple: ask.
Most people avoid this process because they fear they will look stupid. They think their subordinates will lose respect for them. But the opposite is true. This is another area where ego can be a real impediment to success. Some leaders feel it is a weakness to ask for help.
If you need help with something, ask for it. Subordinates understand that their leaders might not know everything. Put your ego in check, and ask for help. You will do a better job, and you will gain respect from your team. Stepping down and learning frontline skills also shows your humility. It proves you aren’t above what the frontline troops are doing, and it shows you know their job is hard.
When you get down in the dirt with the frontline troops, you get to know them. You build relationships. And when you have relationships with the frontline troops, they actually tell you what is going on. They give you information. They tell you what is working and what isn’t. That is powerful knowledge to have.
If two people trust each other, they have a relationship; if there is no trust, there is no relationship.
To build trust and relationships down the chain of command, you have to give trust.
If I want my subordinates to trust me, I need to give them trust. So, for instance, I will allow—and trust—them to run a mission. I will allow—and trust—them to make a decision. I will allow—and trust—them to work through a problem without my oversight.
Make sure you distinguish between telling the truth about things the boss needs to know and complaining about every little thing that goes on.
Too often, leaders think they deserve to be respected because of their rank or experience. Similarly, they think their position of authority equates to influence.
Generally, a subordinate looks to a superior and expects that their superior’s training and experience will give the superior the ability to make good decisions and lead the team in the right direction. Rank and position do carry some level of respect and influence. But such respect and influence are extremely limited. The leader needs to build upon that initial platform and increase the respect and influence they receive from the troops as much as possible.
Similar to building trust, to build respect and influence you have to give respect and influence.
Treat people with respect. What does that mean? Allow them to give their opinion. Listen to them. Don’t interrupt them. Don’t disparage the importance of their job or position. Share the burden of hard tasks.
The same is true for influence. If you want to have influence over others, you need to allow them to have influence over you. That means when you listen to them, you actually listen. You consider their recommendations and, whenever possible, you incorporate their thoughts and ideas into whatever you are trying to accomplish. You keep an open mind.
When people take ownership of their jobs and their mission, the jobs get done and the mission gets accomplished. When there are problems and people take ownership of those problems, the problems get solved.
A leader is responsible for everything a person on his or her team does.
Simply taking ownership—is obvious, but it can be a hard one to figure out. It is hard to do this, once again, because of our egos. It hurts our egos when we accept the blame and take ownership of
When you are a leader and someone blames you for something going wrong, you accept the blame. You own it.
Leaders might be above their subordinates in the rank structure, but they are not actually superior to those below them in the chain of command, and this means leaders must respect them. It also means there is no job too small or menial for a leader to do.
A leader has to lead. A leader does have to attend meetings, take care of administrative work, plan for the future, and attend to all kinds of pressing tasks. But there are times, especially when a job is particularly taxing on the troops, when it is important to get down in the dirt with the folks on the front line and do work.
Good leaders will do the hard things their subordinates do every day so they never forget to respect the job itself and the people who do the job, and also so the troops recognize the leader’s willingness to shoulder some of the burden so he or she can understand the true challenges of the job.
If the leader doesn’t take action, no one will.
A leader must be judicious about when and where to take risk.
When the leader allows the team members to come up with the plan, those members have already bought into it; there is no need to convince them of anything.
The best ideas often come from the people on the team who are closest to the problem;
Overreaction is always bad. Not only does it lead to poor decisions, it also makes you look bad as a leader. People don’t like it when leaders overreact; it means the leader is not in control and might make irrational, snap decisions. So take a step back, detach from your emotional reaction, find out what is really going on, and then make calm, logical decisions based on the reality of the situation.
The ability to not care goes a long way, but it is also a hard ability to acquire. Why? Because it requires being able to subdue and subordinate the most powerful driving force a human being has—their ego.
Every person has some shared characteristics that make them human, but at same time, every person is a one-off, unique individual who requires handling specific to their singular nature.
While success in the past certainly indicates a probability of success in the future, it does not guarantee it.
Put people in roles that make sense for their personalities.
To grow and learn, people must be assigned tasks that bring them outside their domain of competence.
The leader must make the final decision. If the decision results in failure, it wasn’t “the team’s decision.” No, it was the leader’s decision. There is no escaping that reality; no matter how many advisors weighed in, no matter how much a leader was swayed by the arguments of their team, the ultimate decision rests solely on the leader and the leader alone. That is all there is to it.
Any good leader must be able to do the same thing: discriminate between what is important and what is not.
Change is the reality of life; almost everything is in a constant state of flux. And it is a crucial part of a leader’s job to figure out which changes are important and which are mere distractions.
Good leader detaches and elevates above the tactical situation, where they can see what really matters. Before they dive into a problem, they ask themselves questions. How will this problem impact the team’s strategic goals? Can it cause mission failure? Is it worth my time and effort to engage in it? How bad can it get if I leave it alone?
A good rule to follow is that a leader should err on the side of not getting involved in problems; the goal is always to allow problems to get solved at the lowest level. When subordinates are solving low-level problems, it allows the leader to focus on more important, strategic issues.
The more control a leader can put into the hands of his or her subordinates, the better.
When the past is held up and put on display in honor, it becomes the standard for all to pursue. Ideally, the goal is to have the team members strive for that high standard individually—to have them hold themselves and one another to that level of excellence. Optimally, a leader doesn’t have to constantly police infractions and motivate them to give their best; if there is pride, the team polices itself. The team will not allow substandard performance. Anyone who slacks off is corrected not by the leadership but by the team itself. That is the power of pride.
When the opportunity is available, let your subordinates come up with the plan. Not only will it result in their taking ownership and buying into it, it will also give you the standoff distance and altitude you need to see holes in it. By not getting into the weeds, you can stand back and be the tactical genius.
If you want optimal performance, don’t just count on your own brainpower. Instead, encourage the rest of your team to think and to question you. Don’t surround yourself with yes-men. They do nothing to help you or the team. And if it makes you uncomfortable to get pushback or questions from your team, check your ego; it is probably a little inflated.
Be humble. It is an honor to be in a leadership position. Your team is counting on you to make the right decisions. Don’t act like you know everything. You don’t. The team knows that. Ask smart questions. Listen. Ask for advice and heed it. Treat people with respect. Regardless of rank, everyone is a human being and plays an important role in the team. Treat them that way. Take care of your people and they will take care of you. Take ownership of failures and mistakes. Pass credit for success up and down the chain. Work hard. As the leader, you should be working harder than anyone else on the team. No job is beneath you. Have integrity. Do what you say; say what you do. Don’t lie up or down the chain of command. Be balanced. Extreme actions and opinions are usually not good. Be decisive. When it is time to make a decision, make one. Build relationships. That is your main goal as a leader. A team is a group of people who have relationships and trust one another. Otherwise, it is just a disconnected, incoherent cluster of people. Lastly, get the job done. That is the purpose of a leader—to lead a team in accomplishing a mission. If you don’t accomplish the mission, you fail as a leader. Performance counts.
Volunteer to lead whenever possible, but don’t make that your primary focus. Make your primary focus helping the team accomplish its goals.
For leaders, there is such a thing as a dumb question. If you haven’t taken the time to research as much as you can, if you haven’t looked through manuals, read operating instructions, studied the names and basic qualifications of the team—basically, if you haven’t done your homework, the team will see just that: you didn’t care enough to invest in understanding the mission, the gear and equipment, and, most important, the people. That lack of preparation shows the team you don’t really care.
When you transition from within a group to becoming a leader of that group, you have to step up. This doesn’t mean you have to know everything. This doesn’t mean you need to lay down the law. But it does mean you have to differentiate who you were as one of the troops from who you are now as a leader. Come up with a plan. Give simple, clear, concise direction. Stay humble, take input, and listen. And, of course, lead.
Don’t be the leader with your hands in your pockets, but don’t be the leader with your hands in everything.
When you have an idea, thought, or opinion, don’t dig in. That means don’t overcommit to ideas. Keep an open mind, and leave yourself an out.
Arguing is generally bad. It means wasting time without moving forward—and what is worse, people often argue not for the best idea but for their idea.
As a leader, you have to learn to let situations develop, to allow things to unfold enough that you have a clear picture of what is happening. Until you have a relatively good idea of what is going on, it is foolish to make a conclusive decision about what you and your team should do.
So be decisive when you need to be, but try not to make decisions until you have to. Assess what is happening to the best of your ability with the information you have, and then make smaller decisions with minimum commitment to move in the direction you most highly suspect is the right one.
Don’t stunt the growth of your team members. Don’t solve every problem they come to you with. Don’t be the easy button.
To be in the group, don’t be overaggressive. Don’t alienate yourself from the group. Become part of it and earn your influence.
Bad things are going to happen. When they do, it is important for the leader to maintain a positive attitude, to find the good in the situation.
When a person is placed into a leadership position, their perspective changes, and the new perspective often reveals to them the errors of their ways. Because of this, putting people into leadership roles is one of my most common remedies for a wide variety of leadership challenges.
One of the best tools a leader has to help shape others is leadership itself; giving people responsibility and putting them in leadership positions teaches them to be better in a multitude of ways.
Putting junior people in charge makes them better. It makes them understand what is going on way above their pay grades and how their jobs tie into the strategic mission. It is one of the best possible ways to develop subordinates to become not only better at their jobs but better leaders in the future.
One of the best ways to subdue your own ego and start building a relationship with your peers is by supporting their ideas. They might come up with a plan slightly different from yours, but if it is functional and will get the job done, support it. Let them take the lead. Don’t feel the need to stick out your chest and flex your ideas; instead, support your peers’ ideas.
Support your peers. Stay humble. Take ownership of problems. Pass credit on to the rest of your team. Build relationships. That is how you lead your peers.
There are many reasons why people micromanage. The primary cause is a lack of trust; the micromanager does not trust their subordinates.
I never looked at a weak boss as horrible; I always looked at a weak boss as an opportunity. If my boss doesn’t want to come up with a plan, guess what? I will. If my boss doesn’t want to clarify the mission, guess what? I will. If my boss doesn’t want to take ownership, guess what? I will. And if my boss doesn’t want to lead, guess what? I will.
If I am working for a micromanager, that means I am working for someone who is engaged and cares about doing a good job. Guess what? That’s what I care about as well. If the person I am working for is indecisive, that’s also fine with me. That means I can set priorities and guide decisions. And if my leader is weak, good, because if my boss isn’t leading, then it means I can step up and lead.
When the troops understand the mission, know the parameters they are allowed to work within, and have the skills to execute, then there isn’t much left for the leader to do except sit back and await the outcome.
Having good relationships up and down the chain of command is one of the most important leadership elements for any successful team.
The need to punish someone on the team is almost always a direct reflection of the leader and the failure to lead appropriately.
To punish an individual for the infraction of an unwritten rule is usually inappropriate, unless the behavior is grievous enough that any reasonable person would deem it out of line. Barring that level of violation, unless rules are clear and documented, it is difficult to punish an individual for their judgment, however far off it might be.
A leader who considers mitigating factors will be seen not as lenient but as sensible. To show clemency is not being a pushover; it is being understanding. Those are not bad things.
Troops that know what is happening remain engaged, prepared, and operationally capable of doing their jobs with efficiency and high morale. Uninformed troops are a disaster waiting to happen.
In any leadership situation, it is critical for the leader to keep everyone on the team as informed as possible. When the team members don’t know where they are, where they are going, or how much longer they have to go to reach an objective, they are lost. When people are lost, they don’t know in which direction to move. They don’t understand how their efforts impact the strategic mission. They can no longer effectively do their jobs. Morale plummets.
The hardest part of this from a leader’s perspective is understanding that the team doesn’t always see what you see. Team members aren’t given the information that you have, and assuming they do have that information is careless. You have to be proactive in updating your troops. You have to continually keep them abreast of what is happening. And you can’t count on them to ask questions either; they might not know what they don’t know. Don’t assume they know anything; in fact, assume the opposite—that they know nothing—and then take responsibility as the leader to keep the troops informed at all times.
If rumors are running rampant in your organization, you have created the environment to allow them to grow. The environment that rumors grow in is one in which there is a lack of information. If you don’t tell people what is going on, they will make up their own versions, and their versions will not be pretty ones.
If your subordinate leaders or frontline troops aren’t doing what you want them to do, the first person you should check is yourself. The most likely cause of this problem is unclear or misaligned guidance.
Make your guidance to the troops simple, clear, and concise. More guidance does not necessarily make guidance clearer; in fact, more guidance can actually make things more confusing and convoluted. It is also important to ensure that the guidance given at every level of leadership is aligned. While there might be differences in the details at different levels of an organization, the guidance that underlies the message must be the same.
If one of your subordinates asks why you are asking them to do something a certain way, and the only reason you can give is “Because I said so,” this is an indicator that you don’t know the reason why. And if you don’t know why you are doing something, then why are you doing it?
Explaining why not only ensures the frontline troops can execute with understanding, it is also a way of ensuring the frontline troops aren’t wasting time and resources on things that don’t matter. And “Because I said so” defeats all that benefit. So if you find yourself saying, “Because I said so,” stop, assess, and give your subordinates, and yourself, a real reason why.
When delivering criticism, it is important to do it with consideration and delicacy. If you punch someone in the face with criticism, they will become defensive and are unlikely to take the criticism on board, so a more indirect approach is needed.
When you are a leader, your words will impact the behavior of your subordinates and the team more than you might think. Think before you speak, and measure your words carefully.
Hope is not a course of action. You cannot rely on hope. You have to plan. You have to consider contingencies. You have to stack the deck in your favor. You cannot have hope play a role in planning or execution. See more about Hope and Mark Manson.
But hope does play a role in leading and in winning. While hope must not be a course of action or a pillar of planning, it must be present in the hearts and minds of the people executing the mission. If there is no hope for relief or success or victory, the will cannot endure. Without hope, there will be surrender.
Reflect and Diminish means to reflect the emotions you are seeing from your subordinate but diminish them to a more controlled level.
If someone wants to talk a lot, then listen. There is no better cure for a person who wants to talk a lot than letting them get their thoughts out of their head. Let them say what they want to say. When they have nothing left, you will be able to make your point. This is also good because as they unload all their ideas, you now know not only everything you know, you also know everything they know. Armed with this knowledge, you can assess their ideas. You can formulate counterpoints or recommendations around their thoughts.
The less you talk, the more people listen.
There is nothing wrong with apologizing when you make a mistake. That is part of taking ownership. This is especially true in relationship situations where you have done something that had a negative impact on someone. You left them out, overlooked them, or otherwise disrespected them in some way. When that happens, apologies are completely acceptable; actually, an apology is more than acceptable, it is the right thing to do.
If you find yourself in situations where you might not feel you owe an apology—you feel it wasn’t your fault—first check your ego; chances are, there is something you could have done differently. Apologize for that. And if you truly think you weren’t at fault, guess what? You are. And taking ownership is still an effective tool. Disarm the people who are looking to place blame by saying sorry and taking the blame yourself. Then find the solution and start moving toward it.
A leader must choose their words very carefully and remember that their words can have immense impact; positive remarks can incite and intensify enthusiasm while negative remarks can fully crush spirits. So be judicious and thoughtful about what you say, who you say it to, and how you say it.
Today, much in our world appears to be fucked. Not Nazi Holocaust–level fucked (not even close), but still, pretty fucked nonetheless. Stories such as Pilecki’s inspire us. They give us hope. They make us say, “Well, damn, things were way worse then, and that guy transcended it all. What have I done lately?”—which, in this couch-potato-pundit era of tweetstorms and outrage porn is probably what we should be asking ourselves. When we zoom out and get perspective, we realize that while heroes like Pilecki save the world, we swat at gnats and complain that the AC isn’t high enough.
Heroism isn’t just bravery or guts or shrewd maneuvering. These things are common and are often used in unheroic ways. No, being heroic is the ability to conjure hope where there is none. To strike a match to light up the void. To show us a possibility for a better world—not a better world we want to exist, but a better world we didn’t know could exist. To take a situation where everything seems to be absolutely fucked and still somehow make it good.
Bravery is common. Resilience is common. But heroism has a philosophical component to it. There’s some great “Why?” that heroes bring to the table—some incredible cause or belief that goes unshaken, no matter what. And this is why, as a culture, we are so desperate for a hero today: not because things are necessarily so bad, but because we’ve lost the clear “Why?” that drove previous generations.
We are a culture in need not of peace or prosperity or new hood ornaments for our electric cars. We have all that. We are a culture in need of something far more precarious. We are a culture and a people in need of hope.
“I have tried to live my life such that in the hour of my death I would feel joy rather than fear.”
One day, you and everyone you love will die. And beyond a small group of people for an extremely brief period of time, little of what you say or do will ever matter. This is the Uncomfortable Truth of life. And everything you think or do is but an elaborate avoidance of it. We are inconsequential cosmic dust, bumping and milling about on a tiny blue speck. We imagine our own importance. We invent our purpose—we are nothing. Enjoy your fucking coffee.
In the infinite expanse of space/time, the universe does not care whether your mother’s hip replacement goes well, or your kids attend college, or your boss thinks you made a bitching spreadsheet. It doesn’t care if the Democrats or the Republicans win the presidential election. It doesn’t care if a celebrity gets caught doing cocaine while furiously masturbating in an airport bathroom (again). It doesn’t care if the forests burn or the ice melts or the waters rise or the air simmers or we all get vaporized by a superior alien race. You care. You care, and you desperately convince yourself that because you care, it all must have some great cosmic meaning behind it.
Here’s what a lot of people don’t get: the opposite of happiness is not anger or sadness.1 If you’re angry or sad, that means you still give a fuck about something. That means something still matters. That means you still have hope.2 No, the opposite of happiness is hopelessness, an endless gray horizon of resignation and indifference.3 It’s the belief that everything is fucked, so why do anything at all?
Hopelessness is the root of anxiety, mental illness, and depression. It is the source of all misery and the cause of all addiction. This is not an overstatement.4 Chronic anxiety is a crisis of hope. It is the fear of a failed future. Depression is a crisis of hope. It is the belief in a meaningless future. Delusion, addiction, obsession—these are all the mind’s desperate and compulsive attempts at generating hope one neurotic tic or obsessive craving at a time.
When people prattle on about needing to find their “life’s purpose,” what they really mean is that it’s no longer clear to them what matters, what is a worthy use of their limited time here on earth—in short, what to hope for. They are struggling to see what the before/after of their lives should be.
Whether we realize it or not, we all have these narratives we’ve elected to buy into for whatever reason. It doesn’t matter if the way you get to hope is via religious faith or evidence-based theory or an intuition or a well-reasoned argument—they all produce the same result: you have some belief that (a) there is potential for growth or improvement or salvation in the future, and (b) there are ways we can navigate ourselves to get there. That’s it. Day after day, year after year, our lives are made up of the endless overlapping of these hope narratives. They are the psychological carrot at the end of the stick.
We are the safest and most prosperous humans in the history of the world, yet we are feeling more hopeless than ever before. The better things get, the more we seem to despair. It’s the paradox of progress. And perhaps it can be summed up in one startling fact: the wealthier and safer the place you live, the more likely you are to commit suicide.30
Hope doesn’t care about the problems that have already been solved. Hope cares only about the problems that still need to be solved. Because the better the world gets, the more we have to lose. And the more we have to lose, the less we feel we have to hope for.
To build and maintain hope, we need three things: a sense of control, a belief in the value of something, and a community.
“Control” means we feel as though we’re in control of our own life, that we can affect our fate. “Values” means we find something important enough to work toward, something better, that’s worth striving for. And “community” means we are part of a group that values the same things we do and is working toward achieving those things.
We’ve all had the experience of knowing what we should do yet failing to do it. We’ve all put off important tasks, ignored people we care about, and failed to act in our own self-interest. And usually when we fail to do the things we should, we assume it’s because we can’t sufficiently control our emotions. We’re too undisciplined or we lack knowledge.
To generate hope in our lives, we must first feel as though we have control over our lives. We must feel as though we’re following through on what we know is good and right; that we’re chasing after “something better.”
It’s better to find hope in lowly places than to find none; that without our unruly impulses, we are nothing.
The Classic Assumption says that if a person is undisciplined, unruly, or malicious, it’s because he lacks the ability to subjugate his feelings, that he is weak-willed or just plain fucked up. The Classic Assumption sees passion and emotion as flaws, errors within the human psyche that must be overcome and fixed within the self.
We cling to this narrative about self-control because the belief that we’re in complete control of ourselves is a major source of hope. We want to believe that changing ourselves is as simple as knowing what to change. We want to believe that the ability to do something is as simple as deciding to do it and mustering enough willpower to get there. We want to believe ourselves to be the masters of our own destiny, capable of anything we can dream.
The fact is that we require more than willpower to achieve self-control. It turns out that our emotions are instrumental in our decision making and our actions. We just don’t always realize it.
This is the Classic Assumption, the belief that our reason is ultimately in control of our life and that we must train our emotions to sit the fuck down and shut up while the adult is driving. We then applaud this kidnapping and abuse of our emotions by congratulating ourselves on our self-control.
The Feeling Brain drives our Consciousness Car because, ultimately, we are moved to action only by emotion.
The Feeling Brain is the wisdom and stupidity of the entire body. Anger pushes your body to move. Anxiety pulls it into retreat. Joy lights up the facial muscles, while sadness attempts to shade your existence from view. Emotion inspires action, and action inspires emotion. The two are inseparable.
Every problem of self-control is not a problem of information or discipline or reason but, rather, of emotion. Self-control is an emotional problem; laziness is an emotional problem; procrastination is an emotional problem; underachievement is an emotional problem; impulsiveness is an emotional problem.
Emotional problems are much harder to deal with than logical ones. There are equations to help you calculate the monthly payments on your car loan. There are no equations to help you end a bad relationship. And as you’ve probably figured out by now, intellectually understanding how to change your behavior doesn’t change your behavior.
It’s incredibly easy to let your Thinking Brain fall into the trap of merely drawing the maps the Feeling Brain wants to follow. This is called the “self-serving bias,” and it’s the basis for pretty much everything awful about humanity.
The self-serving bias simply makes you prejudiced and a little bit self-centered.
This is why cultish leaders always start by encouraging people to shut off their Thinking Brains as much as possible. Initially, this feels profound to people because the Thinking Brain is often correcting the Feeling Brain, showing it where it took a wrong turn. So, silencing the Thinking Brain will feel extremely good for a short period. And people are always mistaking what feels good for what is good.
The overindulgence of emotion leads to a crisis of hope, but so does the repression of emotion.
The person who denies his Feeling Brain numbs himself to the world around him. By rejecting his emotions, he rejects making value judgments, that is, deciding that one thing is better than another. As a result, he becomes indifferent to life and the results of his decisions. He struggles to engage with others. His relationships suffer. And eventually, his chronic indifference leads him to an unpleasant visit with the Uncomfortable Truth. After all, if nothing is more or less important, then there’s no reason to do anything. And if there’s no reason to do anything, then why live at all?
The person who denies his Thinking Brain becomes impulsive and selfish, warping reality to conform to his whims and fancies, which are then never satiated. His crisis of hope is that no matter how much he eats, drinks, dominates, or fucks, it will never be enough—it will never matter enough, it will never feel significant enough. He will be on a perpetual treadmill of desperation, always running, though never moving. And if at any point he stops, the Uncomfortable Truth immediately catches up to him.
Wherever there is pain, there is always an inherent sense of superiority/inferiority. And there’s always pain.
When confronted with moral gaps, we develop overwhelming emotions toward equalization, or a return to moral equality. These desires for equalization take the form of a sense of deserving. Because I punched you, you feel I deserve to be punched back or punished in some way.
It’s our natural psychological inclination to equalize across moral gaps, to reciprocate actions: positive for positive; negative for negative. The forces that impel us to fill those gaps are our emotions. In this sense, every action demands an equal and opposite emotional reaction.
Equalization is present in every experience because the drive to equalize is emotion itself. Sadness is a feeling of powerlessness to make up for a perceived loss. Anger is the desire to equalize through force and aggression. Happiness is feeling liberated from pain, while guilt is the feeling that you deserve some pain that never arrived.
When we stop valuing something, it ceases to be fun or interesting to us. Therefore, there is no sense of loss, no sense of missing out when we stop doing it.
Our Feeling Brains warp reality in such a way so that we believe that our problems and pain are somehow special and unique in the world, despite all evidence to the contrary.
These narratives we invent for ourselves around what’s important and what’s not, what is deserving and what is not—these stories stick with us and define us, they determine how we fit ourselves into the world and with each other. They determine how we feel about ourselves—whether we deserve a good life or not, whether we deserve to be loved or not, whether we deserve success or not—and they define what we know and understand about ourselves.
We react to protect the metaphysical body just as we protect the physical.
any attempt to break free from those values through new or contrary experiences will inevitably be met with pain and discomfort.37 This is why there is no such thing as change without pain, no growth without discomfort. It’s why it is impossible to become someone new without first grieving the loss of who you used to be.
“The stronger we hold a value,” he wrote, “that is, the stronger we determine something as superior or inferior than all else, the stronger its gravity, the tighter its orbit, and the more difficult it is for outside forces to disrupt its path and purpose.
Today, appealing to the hopeless is easier than ever before. All you need is a social media account: start posting extreme and crazy shit, and let the algorithm do the rest. The crazier and more extreme your posts, the more attention you’ll garner, and the more the hopeless will flock to you like flies to cow shit. It’s not hard at all.
Nonreligious people bristle at the word faith, but having faith is inevitable. Evidence and science are based on past experience. Hope is based on future experience. And you must always rely on some degree of faith that something will occur again in the future.
Evidence belongs to the Thinking Brain, whereas values are decided by the Feeling Brain. You cannot verify values. They are, by definition, subjective and arbitrary. Therefore, you can argue about facts until you’re blue in the face, but ultimately, it doesn’t matter—people interpret the significance of their experiences through their values.23
The majority of human history has been dominated by a belief in supernatural forces and, most important, the hope that certain actions and beliefs in this life would lead to rewards and improvement in the next life.
Ideological religions generate hope by constructing networks of beliefs that certain actions will produce better outcomes in this life only if they are adopted by the population at large.
The problem with evidence and ideologies is that humans have a tendency to take a little bit of evidence and run with it, generalizing a couple of simple ideas to entire populations and the planet.
Interpersonal religions give us hope that another human being will bring us salvation and happiness, that one individual (or group of individuals) is superior to all others. Interpersonal religions are sometimes combined with supernatural beliefs and ideological beliefs, resulting in pariahs, martyrs, heroes, and saints.
You need to find a way to protect that faith from the inevitable criticism that will be flung its way. The trick is to adopt a belief that creates a self-reinforcing us-versus-them dichotomy—that is, create a perception of “us” versus “them” in such a way that anyone who criticizes or questions “us” immediately becomes a “them.”
Leaders need their followers to be perpetually dissatisfied; it’s good for the leadership business. If everything were perfect and great, there’d be no reason to follow anybody.
True freedom doesn’t really exist because we all must sacrifice some autonomy for stability. No one, no matter how much you love them or they love you, will ever absolve that internal guilt you feel simply for existing. It’s all fucked. Everything is fucked. It always has been and always will be. There are no solutions, only stopgap measures, only incremental improvements, only slightly better forms of fuckedness than others. And it’s time we stop running from that and, instead, embrace it.
Nietzsche called this belief system, in which those who end up ahead do so because they deserve it, “master morality.” Master morality is the moral belief that people get what they deserve. It’s the moral belief that “might makes right,” that if you earned something through hard work or ingenuity, you deserve it. No one can take that from you; nor should they. You are the best, and because you’ve demonstrated superiority, you should be rewarded for it. Conversely, Nietzsche argued, the “slaves” of society would generate a moral code of their own. Whereas the masters believed they were righteous and virtuous because of their strength, the slaves of society came to believe that they were righteous and virtuous because of their weakness. Slave morality believes that people who have suffered the most, those who are the most disadvantaged and exploited, deserve the best treatment because of that suffering. Slave morality believes that it’s the poorest and most unfortunate who deserve the most sympathy and the most respect.
Natural philosophers, as scientists were called in Isaac Newton’s time, decided that the most reliable faith-based beliefs were those that had the most evidence supporting them. Evidence became the God Value, and any belief that was no longer supported by evidence had to be altered to account for the new observed reality. This produced a new religion: science.
The scientific revolution changed the world more than anything before or since.10 It has reshaped the planet, lifted billions out of disease and poverty, and improved every aspect of life.11 It is not an exaggeration to suggest that science may be the only demonstrably good thing humanity has ever done for itself. (Thank you, Francis Bacon, thank you, Isaac Newton, you fucking titans.) Science is singularly responsible for all the greatest inventions and advances in human history, from medicine and agriculture to education and commerce.
science did something else even more spectacular: it introduced to the world the concept of growth. For most of human history, “growth” wasn’t a thing. Change occurred so slowly that everyone died in pretty much the same economic condition they were born in. The average human from two thousand years ago experienced about as much economic growth in his lifetime as we experience in six months today.12 People would live their entire lives, and nothing changed—no new developments, inventions, or technologies. People would live and die on the same land, among the same people, using the same tools, and nothing ever got better. In fact, things like plagues and famine and war and dickhead rulers with large armies often made everything worse. It was a slow, grueling, miserable existence. And with no prospect for change or a better life in this lifetime, people drew their hope from spiritual promises of a better life in the next lifetime. Spiritual religions flourished, and dominated daily life.
Once believed in, a supernatural deity is impervious to worldly affairs. Your town could burn down. Your mother could make a million dollars and then lose it all again. You could watch wars and diseases come and go. None of these experiences directly contradicts a belief in a deity, because supernatural entities are evidence-proof. And while atheists see this as a bug, it can also be a feature. The robustness of spiritual religions means that the shit could hit the proverbial fan, and your psychological stability would remain intact. Hope can be preserved because God is always preserved.
Ideologies, because they’re constantly challenged, changed, proven, and then disproven, offer scant psychological stability upon which to build one’s hope.
Nietzsche was on top of this before anybody else. He warned of the coming existential malaise that technological growth would bring upon the world. In fact, this was the whole point of his “God is dead” proclamation. “God is dead” was not some obnoxious atheistic gloating, as it is usually interpreted today. No. It was a lament, a warning, a cry for help. Who are we to determine the meaning and significance of our own existence? Who are we to decide what is good and right in the world? How can we bear this burden?
Nietzsche believed that any worldly attachment—to gender, race, ethnicity, nationality, or history—was a mirage, a make-believe faith-based construct designed to suspend us high over the chasm of the Uncomfortable Truth by a thin rope of meaning. And ultimately, he believed that all these constructs were destined to conflict with one another and cause far more violence than they solved.15 Nietzsche predicted coming conflicts between the ideologies built on master and slave moralities.16 He believed that these conflicts would wreak greater destruction upon the world than anything else seen in human history. He predicted that this destruction would not be limited to national borders or different ethnic groups. It would transcend all borders; it would transcend country and people. Because these conflicts, these wars, would not be for God. They would be between gods. And the gods would be us.
Like a surgeon’s scalpel, hope can save a life, and hope can take a life. It can uplift us, and it can destroy us. Just as there are healthy and damaging forms of confidence, and healthy and damaging forms of love, there are also healthy and damaging forms of hope. And the difference between the two is not always clear.
I’ve argued that hope is fundamental to our psychology, that we need to (a) have something to look forward to, (b) believe ourselves in control of our fate enough to achieve that something, and (c) find a community to achieve it with us. When we lack one or all of these for too long, we lose hope and spiral into the void of the Uncomfortable Truth.
Experiences generate emotions. Emotions generate values. Values generate narratives of meaning. And people who share similar narratives of meaning come together to generate religions. The more effective (or affective) a religion, the more industrious and disciplined the adherents. And the more industrious and disciplined the adherents, the more likely the religion is to spread to other people, to give them a sense of self-control and a feeling of hope. These religions grow and expand and eventually define in-groups versus out-groups, create rituals and taboos, and spur conflict between groups with opposing values. These conflicts must exist because they maintain the meaning and purpose for people within the group.
Hope depends on the rejection of what currently is.
Amor fati, for Nietzsche, meant the unconditional acceptance of all life and experience: the highs and the lows, the meaning and the meaninglessness. It meant loving one’s pain, embracing one’s suffering. It meant closing the separation between one’s desires and reality not by striving for more desires, but by simply desiring reality.
Hope for nothing. Hope for what already is—because hope is ultimately empty. Anything your mind can conceptualize is fundamentally flawed and limited and therefore damaging if worshipped unconditionally. Don’t hope for more happiness. Don’t hope for less suffering. Don’t hope to improve your character. Don’t hope to eliminate your flaws. Hope for this. Hope for the infinite opportunity and oppression present in every single moment. Hope for the suffering that comes with freedom. For the pain that comes from happiness. For the wisdom that comes from ignorance. For the power that comes from surrender. And then act despite it.
The only thing that frees us is that truth: You and I and everyone we know will die, and little to nothing that we do will ever matter on a cosmic scale.
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the reality is that this truth scares them because it liberates them to responsibility. It means that there’s no reason to not love ourselves and one another. That there’s no reason to not treat ourselves and our planet with respect. That there’s no reason to not live every moment of our lives as though it were to be lived in eternal recurrence.
Eventually, though, we realize that the most important things in life cannot be gained through bargaining. You don’t want to bargain with your father for love, or your friends for companionship, or your boss for respect. Bargaining with people into loving or respecting you feels shitty. It undermines the whole project. If you have to convince someone to love you, then they don’t love you. If you have to cajole someone into respecting you, then they will never respect you. If you have to convince someone to trust you, then they won’t actually trust you.
What matters are a person’s intentions. The difference between a child, an adolescent, and an adult is not how old they are or what they do, but why they do something.
The best way to teach an adolescent to trust is to trust him. The best way to teach an adolescent respect is to respect him. The best way to teach someone to love is by loving him. And you don’t force the love or trust or respect on him—after all, that would make those things conditional—you simply give them, understanding that at some point, the adolescent’s bargaining will fail and he’ll understand the value of unconditionality when he’s ready.
Kant cleverly deduced that, logically, the supreme value in the universe is the thing that conceives of value itself. The only true meaning in existence is the ability to form meaning. The only importance is the thing that decides importance.
The Formula of Humanity states, “Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”
The Formula of Humanity is merely a principle. It doesn’t project some future utopia. It doesn’t lament some hellish past. No one is better or worse or more righteous than anyone else. All that matters is that conscious will is respected and protected. End of story.
The only logical way to improve the world is through improving ourselves—by growing up and becoming more virtuous—by making the simple decision, in each moment, to treat ourselves and others as ends, and never merely as means. Be honest. Don’t distract or harm yourself. Don’t shirk responsibility or succumb to fear. Love openly and fearlessly. Don’t cave to tribal impulses or hopeful deceits. Because there is no heaven or hell in the future. There are only the choices you make in each and every moment.
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Politics is a transactional and selfish game, and democracy is the best system of government thus far for the sole reason that it’s the only system that openly admits that. It acknowledges that power attracts corrupt and childish people. Power, by its very nature, forces leaders to be transactional. Therefore, the only way to manage that is by enshrining adult virtues into the design of the system itself.
It used to be that being the victim of violence meant somebody had physically harmed you. Today, many people have begun to use the word violence to describe words that made them feel uncomfortable, or even just the presence of a person they disliked.3 Trauma used to mean specifically an experience so severe that the victim could not continue to function. Today, an unpleasant social encounter or a few offensive words are considered “trauma,” and necessitate “safe spaces.”
Developmental psychology has long argued something similar: that protecting people from problems or adversity doesn’t make them happier or more secure; it makes them more easily insecure.
Our emotional reactions to our problems are not determined by the size of the problem. Rather, our minds simply amplify (or minimize) our problems to fit the degree of stress we expect to experience. Material progress and security do not necessarily relax us or make it easier to hope for the future. On the contrary, it appears that perhaps by removing healthy adversity and challenge, people struggle even more.
Pain is the universal constant of life. And human perception and expectations warp themselves to fit a predetermined amount of pain. In other words, no matter how sunny our skies get, our mind will always imagine just enough clouds to be slightly disappointed.
This constancy of pain results in what is known as “the hedonic treadmill,” upon which you run and run and run, chasing your imagined ten. But, no matter what, you always end up with a seven. The pain is always there. What changes is your perception of it. And as soon as your life “improves,” your expectations shift, and you’re back to being mildly dissatisfied again.
You can’t get rid of pain—pain is the universal constant of the human condition. Therefore, the attempt to move away from pain, to protect oneself from all harm, can only backfire. Trying to eliminate pain only increases your sensitivity to suffering, rather than alleviating your suffering. It causes you to see dangerous ghosts in every nook, to see tyranny and oppression in every authority, to see hate and deceit behind every embrace.
The point is, not only is there no escaping the experience of pain, but pain is the experience. This is why hope is ultimately self-defeating and self-perpetuating: no matter what we achieve, no matter what peace and prosperity we find, our mind will quickly adjust its expectations to maintain a steady sense of adversity, thus forcing the formulation of a new hope, a new religion, a new conflict to keep us going. We will see threatening faces where there are no threatening faces. We will see unethical job proposals where there are no unethical job proposals. And no matter how sunny our day is, we’ll always find that one cloud in the sky.
Living well does not mean avoiding suffering; it means suffering for the right reasons.
There is a third type of system, and that is the “antifragile” system. Whereas a fragile system breaks down and a robust system resists change, the antifragile system gains from stressors and external pressures.
The Buddha said that suffering is like being shot by two arrows. The first arrow is the physical pain—it’s the metal piercing the skin, the force colliding into the body. The second arrow is the mental pain, the meaning and emotion we attach to the being struck, the narratives that we spin in our minds about whether we deserved or didn’t deserve what happened. In many cases, our mental pain is far worse than any physical pain. In most cases, it lasts far longer.
While pain is inevitable, suffering is always a choice.
Death is psychologically necessary because it creates stakes in life. There is something to lose. You don’t know what something is worth until you experience the potential to lose it. You don’t know what you’re willing to struggle for, what you’re willing to give up or sacrifice. Pain is the currency of our values. Without the pain of loss (or potential loss), it becomes impossible to determine the value of anything at all.
Antifragility is therefore synonymous with growth and maturity. Life is one never-ending stream of pain, and to grow is not to find a way to avoid that stream but, rather, to dive into it and successfully navigate its depths. The pursuit of happiness is, then, an avoidance of growth, an avoidance of maturity, an avoidance of virtue. It is treating ourselves and our minds as a means to some emotionally giddy end.
We seem to have forgotten what the ancients knew: that no matter how much wealth is generated in the world, the quality of our lives is determined by the quality of our character, and the quality of our character is determined by our relationship to our pain.
Fortunes are made and lost around things that help people improve upon or avoid pain.
There are two ways to create value in the marketplace:
1. Innovations (upgrade pain). The first way to create value is to replace one pain with a much more tolerable/desirable pain.
2. Diversions (avoid pain). The second way to create value in a marketplace is to help people numb their pain. Whereas upgrading people’s pain gives them better pain, numbing pain just delays that pain, and often even makes it worse.
People don’t make decisions based on truth or facts. They don’t spend their money based on data. They don’t connect with each other because of some higher philosophical truth. The world runs on feelings.
“Give the people what they want” is a pretty low bar to clear, ethically speaking. “Give the people what they want” works only when you’re giving them innovations, like a synthetic kidney or something to prevent their car from spontaneously catching on fire. Give those people what they want. But giving people too many of the diversions they want is a dangerous game to play. For one, many people want stuff that’s awful. Two, many people are easily manipulated into wanting shit they don’t actually want (see: Bernays). Three, encouraging people to avoid pain through more and more diversions makes us all weaker and more fragile.
The only true form of freedom, the only ethical form of freedom, is through self-limitation. It is not the privilege of choosing everything you want in your life, but rather, choosing what you will give up in your life.
Diversions come and go. Pleasure never lasts. Variety loses its meaning. But you will always be able to choose what you are willing to sacrifice, what you are willing to give up.
Greater commitment allows for greater depth. A lack of commitment requires superficiality.
Fake freedom is seeing the world as an endless series of transactions and bargains which you feel you’re winning. Real freedom is seeing the world unconditionally, with the only victory being over your own desires.
Loneliness is also a growing issue. Last year, for the first time, a majority of Americans said they were lonely, and new research is suggesting that we’re replacing a few high-quality relationships in our lives with a large number of superficial and temporary relationships.
Today’s tyranny is achieved by flooding people with so much diversion, so much bullshit information and frivolous distraction, that they are unable to make smart commitments.
Over the last couple of decades, people seem to have confused their basic human rights with not experiencing any discomfort. People want freedom to express themselves, but they don’t want to have to deal with views that may upset or offend them in some way. They want freedom of enterprise, but they don’t want to pay taxes to support the legal machinery that makes that freedom possible. They want equality, but they don’t want to accept that equality requires that everybody experience the same pain, not that everybody experience the same pleasure.
Evolution rewards the most powerful creatures, and power is determined by the ability to access, harness, and manipulate information effectively.
Don’t hope for better. Just be better.
Be something better. Be more compassionate, more resilient, more humble, more disciplined.
We require three things to feel motivated and satisfied in our lives: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.
Roy Baumeister’s model of “meaningfulness”- In this model, we need four things to feel that our life is meaningful: purpose, values, efficacy, and self-worth.
What’s interesting is that narcissists will even justify their pain with claims of their superiority. Ever hear the phrase “They hate me because they’re envious”? Or “They attack me because they’re afraid of me”? Or “They just don’t want to admit that I’m better than they are”? The Feeling Brain merely flips its self-worth on its head: we’re not being harmed because we suck; we’re being harmed because we’re great! So, the narcissist goes from feeling that the self deserves nothing to feeling that the self deserves everything.
It’s interesting that most polytheistic religions haven’t had this obsession with conversion that the monotheistic religions have had. The Greeks and Romans were more than happy to let the indigenous cultures follow their own beliefs. It wasn’t until slave morality that the religious Crusades began. This is probably because a slave morality religion cannot abide cultures that hold different beliefs. Slave moralities require the world to be equal—and to be equal, you cannot be different. Therefore, those other cultures had to be converted. This is the paradoxical tyranny of any extremist left-wing belief system. When equality becomes one’s God Value, differences in belief cannot be abided. And the only way to destroy difference in belief is through totalitarianism.
Albert Camus put it well when he said, “You will never be happy if you continue to search for what happiness consists of.”
We all require a “Goldilocks” amount of pain to mature and develop. Too much pain traumatizes us—our Feeling Brain becomes unrealistically fearful of the world, preventing any further growth or experience. Too little pain, and we become entitled narcissists, falsely believing the world can (and should!) revolve around our desires. But if we get the pain just right, then we learn that (a) our current values are failing us, and (b) we have the power and ability to transcend those values and create newer, higher-level, more-encompassing values. We learn that it’s better to have compassion for everyone rather than just our friends, that it’s better to be honest in all situations rather than simply the situations that help us, and that it’s better to maintain humility, even when we’re confident in our own rightness.
It’s prosperity that causes crises in hope. It’s having six hundred channels and nothing to watch. It’s having fifteen matches on Tinder but no one good to date. It’s having two thousand restaurants to choose from but feeling sick of all the same old food. Prosperity makes meaning more difficult. It makes pain more acute. And ultimately, we need meaning way more than we need prosperity, lest we come face-to-face with that wily Uncomfortable Truth again.
During periods of prosperity, more and more economic growth is driven by diversions. And because diversions scale so easily—after all, who doesn’t want to post selfies on Instagram?—wealth becomes extremely concentrated in fewer hands. This growing wealth disparity then feeds the “revolution of rising expectations.” Everyone feels that their life is supposed to be better, yet it’s not what they expected; it’s not as pain-free as they had hoped.