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January 14th, 2023
The Fallen Dancer is a series here on Tinkered Thinking exploring a recent shift in perspective. The resulting framework appears to tie together many topics explored on Tinkered Thinking over the years such as resilience, struggle, patience, curiosity, emotional regulation, artistry, entrepreneurship, winning, honesty, and communication. This series will be an attempt to unify them in a cohesive treatment.
Part III: Veiled Levers
Luck and chance transcend everything: language, religion, culture, location and history. As a concept, Luck has wiggled it’s way into virtually every single person’s brain. As far as the stickiness of ideas go, it supersedes some of our most powerful ideas. Like God. Two people of different religions might argue over god, but when their argument is interrupted by someone falling and hurting themselves, they’ll both say: that’s bad luck. Even religion cannot adequately explain the fickle nature of good and bad luck. In the absence of a good explanation, the default is: God works in mysterious ways! A statement that has no actual utility. Linguistically and cognitively it is a dead-end. So what is going on: is God’s mysterious method a set of dice?
We are told that everything works out. In the end? Everything works out. Right? But this too is a cop-out of extraordinary proportions. It is at odds with some of the most horrific things that have happened to human beings throughout our history. When we hear of some horrific massacre or the death of a starving child, shall we conveniently forget the belief that everything works out in the end? Certainly it wasn’t the case for such people who had to exit life in such devastating ways. What shall we say then? Do we shrug and say, that’s just bad luck?
Strangely, bad luck appears to be a better explanation than squaring such patently terrifying details of reality with some sort of compassionate god. But The Fallen Dancer is not about god, and the discussion here is only to emphasize the truly ubiquitous role that Luck plays in virtually all peoples’ view of reality.
Putting aside Luck as pure chance, instead let’s regard luck as access to leverage, and this access dilates depending on whether we have good luck or bad luck. Good luck means access to more leverage.
But let’s get even more nitty gritty: what is leverage?
1. The exertion of force by means of a lever or an object used in the manner of a lever.
2. The power to influence a person or situation to achieve a particular outcome
Archimedes once said “Give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.”
If there’s one quote that forms the back bone of The Fallen Dancer, it’s this one. But the purpose of this entire escapade of words has to do with one ubiquitous confusion:
Where’s the lever?
And even more important:
Are you even looking for a lever?
Since we’re dealing in metaphor, we’ll place aside the first (literal) definition of leverage and focus on the second: the power to influence a person or situation to achieve a particular outcome.
Power evokes images of people in office, kings and queens, and perhaps business magnates and bosses.
What exactly is Power? In this case the literal definition from physics is quite useful. Power is energy expended over a certain amount of time. Another way of saying it is: how much work gets done in a given amount of time. A hard worker only has a limited amount of power because they are only one person. But if that person can use the gains of their handwork to magnify their effort. That’s a different ball game. For example say a hardworking person creates a business and the business generates enough money to hire an employee. That original person’s power grows because now twice the amount of work can get done in the same amount of time because there are two people working on the same vision. This is like having a lever that is twice as long, which means it can apply a lot more force.
The business owner now has more power, meaning their ability to literally change reality in order to reflect their vision for their business has increased. The more successful the business becomes, the more people that can be hired, and as a result the business owner is eventually regarded as a powerful individual.
There’s an important caveat here that’s often missed. Hard work alone does not necessarily accrue power. The ability to successfully leverage that hard work is what unlocks additional power. Working very hard every day on balancing an egg is not going to accrue power no matter how hard working that person is, and many people are doing the equivalent of just that: David Graeber called them Bullshit Jobs.
Just because you’re getting paid, doesn’t mean you’re doing anything that’s actually useful. Working very hard also doesn’t mean that anything truly useful is getting done. And just because someone isn’t getting paid doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something useful. But this dichotomy will become more important later on in the chapters about Artists and Entrepreneurs.
For now, the point is: you only live once, so look for the leverage.
But how? Where are the levers that magnify one’s own hard work into something more powerful?
The ability to see the veiled levers that are available to us is the reason for setting the context with the Huainanzi parable. Hopefully, by juxtaposing the onlookers’ narrow perspective with that of the wise Father who interpreted things with an expansive perspective, we have a hint of where these levers lie. Paradoxically it’s also the one crucial ingredient to understanding Luck which isn’t present in the parable: resourcefulness.
Paul Graham discovers a beautiful species of resourcefulness in his essay A Word to the Resourceful. In the essay he explores a strange metric he discovered while working with start-ups. He noticed that people who would eventually succeed with their start-up were very easy to talk to. While those who would go on to fail with their start-up were very difficult to talk to. In the essay he realizes why this is the case:
“…the key to the mystery is the old adage ‘a word to the wise is sufficient.’ […] What it means is that if someone is wise, all you have to do is say one word to them, and they’ll understand immediately. You don’t have to explain in detail; they’ll chase down all the implications… Understanding all the implications -even the inconvenient implications- of what someone tells you is a subset of resourcefulness. It’s conversational resourcefulness.”
This is a very niche definition of resourcefulness - a subset, as he says. But it is a particularly useful instance of resourcefulness because it is a purely cognitive one, which highlights acutely a difference in perspective. The resourceful entrepreneur is easy to talk to because as you speak to them, they are trying to interpret what you are saying from as many points of view as possible in order to hit upon the correct implication that is the actual meaning of your message.
Compare this to the opposite: when you say something to someone and they don’t understand. By default they’ve missed out on at least one possible interpretation of your words: the actual meaning you are trying to get across! This isn’t to say such a person doesn’t search for additional implications of what you’ve said. It means that over the course of many conversations if this person continually has trouble understanding what’s been said and constantly requires further explanation, then they are on the whole seeing fewer potential meanings than someone who doesn’t need further explanation. It’s a definition of degree that is important between these two perspectives.
It’s a matter of answering the question: why is this person more resourceful than that person?
The more resourceful person is simply traversing more imaginative territory where the correct answer might lie. The less resourceful person is blind to that part of the territory because their aperture of focus is too narrow.
Resourcefulness is dependent on a range of focus: too narrow, and it blinds a person from seeing potential resources, implications and levers that exist outside of that narrow field of focus. A wide range of focus simply includes more options, and the resourceful person knows how to open up their aperture of focus as wide as possible in order to survey as many potential resources as possible. This enables the resourceful person to have a more generous selection of options to pick from.
Now, recalling the Huainanzi parable, who had the narrow range of focus, and who had a larger range of focus?
In the case of the Huainanzi parable, the Father’s larger range of focus essentially renders Luck to be net-neutral. But as mentioned earlier, there’s a crucial ingredient missing in that parable. At no point in the parable do any of the characters seek to deliberately leverage any resourcefulness available to them. The role of all characters in the parable is passive. The Father’s perspective in the Huainanzi parable might be more resourceful because he can imagine more implications for the present conditions, but as no point does he actually do anything to accrue leverage, he is open to the whims of fate, for better or for worse, and despite his ability to have an expanded outlook.
With this frame of reference, consider again the very first question: why are evil people so Lucky?
Or rather: considering how inactive the father is in the Huainanzi parable, let’s consider an alternative question: are evil people passive?