Who's Running The Show? (Newsletter 045)
Can you hear me? Does it seem to you like everything is getting louder? Maybe it's just that we're emerging from our pandemic isolation and engaging in society once again. But I think it's more than that, at least in our case. Moving from Switzerland to the U.S. made us notice that some places are definitely louder than others. And no place seems as loud to us as the U.S. We discuss what we're hearing in this week's Paradise Found entry I Wish American Had A Volume Button.
Having overheard a lot of conversations here, we’ve noticed something interesting about how people talk about themselves. If you listen, you can hear people dividing themselves into distinct groups based on their life philosophies.
Let's start with a certain type of successful person. They are the first ones to promote the idea that people are in charge of their own destiny. That with hard work and sacrifice you too can be successful. They may espouse a corollary belief, which is that people who do not achieve all they want are simply lazy or lack intelligence or drive.
But take such a person and ask them to explain a prominent failure they were associated with. “That wasn’t my fault,” you will hear. They trot out a thousand explanations and excuses, all of which point anywhere but them. The takeaway is clear: Good things that happen are the result of their agency. Bad things are caused by something other people did.
I don’t mean to pick on successful people. I’ve observed many unsuccessful people believe the same thing. It’s just they have fewer accomplishments to feel smug about, so you don’t notice their inconsistency as much. Let us refer to the inconsistent situational thinkers, whether successful or not, as the Fair Weather Flock.
Some smaller number of people are at least consistent in their thinking, although they fundamentally diverge into two groups in their approaches to life. Let’s call the first group the Shit Happens adherents and the other group I Make Things Happen. Do you count yourself among either group? Here’s how to tell.
You can distinguish members of the Shit Happens group from the others in this way: They never add the words “to me” to their inner thoughts. You will never hear them say “This bad thing happened to me,” or “This good thing happened to me.” Shit happens, it's not personal, and members of this group deal with it.
You might also think of the Shit Happens group as realists or fatalists. They don’t control the cards that life deals them, but they find a way to make the best of the hand they’ve got. What’s refreshing about their approach to life is you don’t usually hear them complaining. Life is what it is, sometimes great, often unfair, but they get on with managing their affairs.
A member of the Shit Happens tribe is great to have on your team because they are rarely fooled by wishful thinking. They see the world as it is and they respond accordingly. But this comes with some potential downsides. When you see the world as it is you can become cynical because unfairness is everywhere. The result can be a lack of initiative and less motivation to take on big challenges. If the world is screwed up and out of our control, why should you go the extra mile?
Consider now the proud members of the I Make Things Happen group. You can also think of them as optimists, dreamers, and even naïve. They are certainly more likely to see the world through tinted glasses. On the positive side, they assume they control their destiny. They believe that with persistence and determination, they can make their own success.
This can-do attitude also makes them great team members. They are prone to putting in extra effort and consequently they achieve great things more often than not. When the Fair Weather Flock observes the successes of the I Make Things Happen group, they grumble “They were just lucky,” noting neither how this is inconsistent with how the Fair Weather Flock assesses their own performance nor how the I Make Things Happen group’s luck always seems to go in only one direction.
But the I Make Things Happen members also suffer. Even the most determined people do not succeed at everything. And when failure strikes, members of this group feel it personally. They believe there must have been something more they could have done to avert the problem.
When I started this article, I thought I would declare a clear winner. For example, the I Make Things Happen group are more likely to be successful so you should strive to take ownership of your life. But I see that membership in each comes with pros and cons:
- Fair Weather Flock: inconsistent and delusional, but happier by virtue of taking credit for good things while not taking bad thing personally.
- Shit Happens: most accurate perception of the world, so avoids many wishful thinking mistakes, but can miss out on opportunities that require dedicated hard work.
- I Make Things Happen: consistent and delusional, most likely to be successful by virtue of taking more chances, but sense of responsibility means balance and life satisfaction are harder to find.
Membership in these groups is not fixed or exclusive. Although I think most people tend towards one inclination most of the time, I have seen people purposefully change the course of their lives and careers by choosing another group.
Change requires two steps: Audit your past thinking to see whether you consistently assess the causes of both positive and negative events in your life; and make a conscious choice to assign agency for everything that happens in your life.
Your choices are these: I’m running the show (as long as times are good), no one’s running the show, and it’s always me running the show. Choose wisely.
This week's Moral Letters offer you practical encouragement, first on how to use the study of philosophy to help you in your life and, second on what is the prize ultimately offered by philosophy.
In Moral Letter 089 On How To Study Philosophy, and consistent with the lessons of today's Newsletter, we learn that there are multiple paths to achieve your goals. No matter which path you choose, consistency in your thinking is what you are after, which leads to consequent behavior:
You create the structure of your life by taking actions consistent with your values.
In Moral Letter 090 On Philosophy's Dividends, we learn that our intelligence and ambition are insufficient to live a good life. Without wisdom to understand what are the proper pursuits in life, we risk spending time on pursing accomplishments that lack meaning and value.
Spend some quiet time for yourself contemplating this week's lessons, and you will be one step closer to both happiness and wisdom.