The world is complicated.
It’s driven by a number of universal truths that most of us don’t notice. For us to make any form of meaningful progress, we need to grasp these truths. We can’t move forward without knowing what’s holding us back.
Some of these truths come in the form of paradoxes, which makes it difficult to spot them even when they’re right under our nose.
Understanding these ironies will help you make better decisions and improve your life.
1. Speak Less, Know More
The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wise people so full of doubts.” — Bertrand Russell
You’ve probably noticed it.
There’s always someone who’s ready to voice his opinion at every issue. But the only thing he really proves right is the old adage that “empty vessels make the most noise”.
On the other hand, there is always the individual who’s slow to tell everyone what he thinks even though he’s the smartest person in the room.
The contrast is stark. This phenomenon is what psychologists call the Dunning-Kruger effect. It’s a cognitive bias where people suffer from an illusion of superiority because they don’t have the competency to even spot their deficiencies.
It’s why almost every competent person doesn’t feel confident — at least at the start — because they are aware that there are more accomplished people out there. Others suffer from impostor syndrome: they feel like a fraud because they don’t believe they deserve the success they enjoy.
It bears remembering Socrates’ famous remark: “I am the wisest man in the world, for I know one thing, that is I know nothing.”
Confidence and competence don’t often go hand in hand. We would do well to remember that.
2. Having More Choices Hurts Us
“If you’re not saying HELL YEAH! about something, say no” — Derek Sivers
Technological advancements have given us more choices than ever before, but it doesn’t seem to have helped us. Research shows that the more options we have, the less likely we are to commit to any of them.
When we are confronted with a number of options, the natural tendency is to freeze and consider them all. It’s paralysis by analysis. To avoid the discomfort of making complex — and potentially wrong — decisions, we inherently prefer the default option and to maintain the status quo. It’s natural human inertia.
Even when we do make a decision, there’s a good chance it doesn’t stick. As Barry Schwartz observes in The Paradox of Choice, “the very option of being allowed to change our minds seems to increase the chances that we will change our minds.”
The solution to resolving this conundrum is simple: intentionally limit the number of options you have. Don’t be afraid to impose stringent criteria on the projects you will take up. Design your defaults by taking control of your environment.
This forces you to commit and double down to a few options. In the long run, this paradoxically opens up more options as you’ll be able to reap the benefits of being a superstar.
3. Realistic Goals Are Harder To Achieve Than Seemingly Impossible Ones
“Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for the mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most time and energy-consuming” — Tim Ferriss
Once you stop and think about it, this is a natural case of supply and demand.
We think that everyone else is aiming for the top so we shoot a little lower. But not only are we selling ourselves short, we also don’t make life any easier.
Small goals don’t motivate us as much as big ones do. In fact, it’s just the opposite. Because it’s a small goal, we expect that we should be able to achieve our aim easily without putting in the work. That often doesn’t work out well for most endeavours.
Things that seem impossible are also usually a result of false limitations that exist in our mind. We once believed that running a 4-minute mile was impossible, but that belief quickly disappeared once Roger Bannister accomplished that feat.
Of course, there are some things that we can’t do. But we should reason from first principles to determine whether it’s possible, and not allow ourselves to be guided by emotion or social proof.
You do no one good by playing small.
4. We Focus More On Others Than Ourselves
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinions of himself than on the opinions of others.” — Marcus Aurelius
Much of what we do stems from our need to be liked and accepted by others.
It’s hard-wired into our brains. Disapproval from our social group had serious repercussions in the past. Survival was difficult. Death was a likely consequence if you didn’t have others to support you out in the wilderness.
That’s the reason we do our best to look good in front of others. Having a high status ensured that you had the first choice of meat and mate. It’s why most of us still go out of our way to impress others.
But the pursuit of status is killing us. Because the overt pursuit of status is a low-status activity, we signal our worth and value to others by acquiring possessions. Those who spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need aren’t entirely illogical; they are just misguided.
Rather than change what everyone thinks about us, we would be better served if we worked more on ourselves. Create value, and the world will notice you, slowly but surely.
5. Negative Thinking Leads To Positive Results
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation” — Seneca
Much has been said about the power of positive thinking in recent times. We are taught that optimism and affirmations are the key to leading a happier life. Except that doesn’t always hold up.
The ancient Stoics thought that this practice invited passivity into our lives. Such thinking encourages us to simply hope for things to get better instead of taking concrete action. And so, they went the other way.
They regularly conducted an exercise known as premeditatio malorum, which translates to a premeditation of evils. The goal was to imagine the worst events that could possibly happen to them and then figure out the best way to prevent such an occurrence.
That’s the power of negativity. We are primed to avoid pain and discomfort. It makes sense that we take advantage of this inclination to give us motivation to act. Rather than deny the harsh realities of life, we should acknowledge them and take the driver’s seat.
6. Every Strength Has A Tradeoff
“Every virtue in excess becomes vice” — Aristotle
Before we tout a characteristic as a virtue, we should consider what we’re really commending. Many of the qualities that make people great have shadow sides. They may be beneficial in some situations, but can be a total detriment in others.
For example, Picasso and Einstein were the greatest minds of their generation. Their singular devotion to art and science meant that they were always pushing the boundaries of their field. But that same commitment to their work often caused them to neglect their families.
Take a macro view, and we’ll see that every single trait has a drawback.
Courage in excess becomes recklessness. Organised can easily become obsessive. Persuasiveness taken to an extreme becomes manipulative.
The nature of a virtue is that a vice is almost always hidden inside.
Context matters more than we think. Strengths can easily become weaknesses if we don’t watch ourselves. Conversely, we can turn supposed weaknesses into strengths if we place ourselves in the right environment.
You can set yourself up for either success or failure.
All That Glitters Is Not Gold
Most of these truths aren’t as obvious as we would like.
The reality is that much of the world works in counter-intuitive ways. Much as we laud the importance of common sense, it doesn’t help us understand ideas which are more complex. Those require more time and deeper thinking.
It’s worth it. Figure out how the world works, and you’ll live better.