Not Seeing Results? This is Why
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.” — Richard Feynman
How do you look at the world? Do you look at it the way you wish it was? The way you imagine it will be in the future? The way it used to be? Do you avoid the world altogether because of what it isn’t? To truly face the world, we have to look at it for how it actually works. All of its flaws and disguises have to be unmasked. How we wish it worked isn’t of use to us. We can only take advantage of how the world actually works. This isn’t always pleasant.
As you grow old you lose the naivety of youth. The lack of awareness from childhood is gone. Once those rose-colored glasses are removed, you might be left with a world that looks different than the one you remembered. Our youthful naiveties aren’t exclusive to inaccurate assessments of how kind or fair the world will be, but also our own estimations of what ourselves and others are capable of. There’s a naivety involved in assuming one is better or more capable than they are. You see it in the failed musician who still believes they’ll be a rock-star, the aspiring actress who hasn’t landed an acting gig in her 10-year-long attempt, and the man who believes he cares about his family while he’s actually cheating on his wife.
Lying to yourself, imaging, and believing the opposite of truth is easy. It’s easy to pretend you’re greater and more capable than you are. A healthy dose of inner-confidence might even be needed to push us forward. But an unhealthy dose keeps you delusional and falsely fulfilled, because in your head you’re a marvel, even though the external world doesn’t match the delusions. Many young people seem especially talented at fooling themselves. Being raised to believe one can do anything isn’t necessarily helpful either. Can we really do anything we set our minds to? Are we actually good enough? Are we even putting in the right amount of effort or putting that effort in the right places?
“The strength of a person’s spirit would then be measured by how much ‘truth’ he could tolerate, or more precisely, to what extent he needs to have it diluted, disguised, sweetened, muted, falsified,” Friedrich Nietzsche wrote. Our strength and the likelihood of our success lies in our ability to not only properly assess our strengths and weakness — surely a tall order — but to accept the truth of what we discover.
Jack Nicholson’s character in A Few Good Men says “you can’t handle the truth.” And how accurate, because how often can we? The truth is brutal. The truth might mean that we aren’t good enough to be what we want to be. It might mean that we aren’t working hard enough and are farther from our goals than we thought. It could even mean harsh realities like discovering relationships are built on unhealthy foundations, or that you’re much more alone than you’ve realized. When truths aren’t pleasant to face, it’s obvious that we would do our best to maneuver around them. “The truth is cruel, but it can be loved, and it makes free those who have loved it,” George Santayana writes.
Use the Truth to Avoid Being Misled
The world isn’t all it appears to be. There’s a truth to ourselves and who we are, and there’s a truth to others and how they operate. Human nature isn’t as kind as we’d like to think. And apart from the unconscious, which drives many of our behaviors without our realization, there’s sufficient room for malevolence and deceit in people’s conscious actions.
History books are filled with tales of vicious rulers who went to great lengths and played long games to fulfill oppressive outcomes and gains. Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power has been criticized as much for its likelihood to teach people how to deceitful as its revealing of how many people operate in the real world.
In Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince, he argues that a prince (better translated as a ruler), in order to keep his estate, could never rely on Christian virtues to succeed. To our current point in history, the leaders of the western world have used Christian virtue as the ideal to lead politically and philosophically. But while Machiavelli argued against applying these virtues in action, he believed that a prince should still always give the impression of espousing Christian virtues, despite not actually abiding by the teachings. How many politicians or leaders can we attribute that strategy to? What about corporations and organizations? We shouldn’t grow paranoid or assume the worst, but can we ever be sure motivations are pure when there’s a clear gain for a given party if they’re to be perceived a certain way?
This is a simple reminder that things aren’t always done for the reasons that we think. The pro sports team might be donating to cancer as a PR stunt and to get people in the seats rather than any sense of virtue or care. The actress may support a cause to impress a director who shares a belief with that cause so that they can get a role in an upcoming film. One of your peers may hang out with you due to your status or the benefits they get from you.
A Machiavellian strategy to interpersonal relations is discouraging in the political realm, but it shouldn’t be written off so quickly as something that is only at play there. Human nature drives many of our interactions and goals. There’s no need to be paranoid with how the world works — be diligent in the areas that are in your control — but it’s important to understand the long-term cunning that humans are capable of, so that you aren’t deceived on the front-lines of your personal life, or on the airways and television sets.
Deception is much more subtle and hidden than we often care to acknowledge. And when we find those organizations that work counter to this, those that stand for something while being as truthful and genuine as they can, we have more reason to stick with them.
Like the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn — who survived the Soviet Gulag systems — wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.” We’re all capable of malevolence. Evil cuts right through all of us. The organizations and people that actively work to suppress the ills of human nature, and do their best by others, are the ones worthy of our attention, participation, and membership.
Reflect to Discover the Truth
“Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled among the simple and quiet words that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find those words.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
The writer strings together magnificent prose because of the hurt that they carry. The artist depicts existence through the lens of the anguish that they feel inside. The musician finds joy through sound because he lacks it elsewhere. The politician — oh, the politician — controls and manipulates due to their external drive for power and control that they might not get outside of their work.
If we can recognize what motivates others, we can avoid being taken advantage of, and we can even help them achieve their motivations if they’re fruitful and good. Better yet, if we can recognize our own motivations, we can stay away from our temptations and pursue the positive aspects of our personality that lead to success.
The truth is our only protection against error or disaster. We have to say the truth, think the truth, pursue the truth, and present the truth to others. The truth won’t save us from life’s difficulties, but it’s a shield that offers us a fighting chance. What else do we have? And what better way is there to live? Is it preferable that one assumes a naive view of the world? Is it better to assume abilities at tasks we aren’t capable of performing? What if we take a job we aren’t capable of? What if we set out for tasks with physical consequences without ample training or know-how? What if we’re fooled by a person or belief system?
There’s many decisions with the capacity to change our lives indefinitely. We have to be honest with whether or not we are capable of acting out the responsibilities asked of us, and whether or not they are right choices altogether. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus says, “It is true, however, that no bull reaches maturity in an instant, nor do men become heroes overnight. We must endure a winter training, and can’t be dashing into situations for which we aren’t yet prepared.”
You might prefer to avoid the truth. It’s cruel. It’s tough. But it’s how we know ourselves and the world around us. The best way to learn about other people is to watch them to see what they’re up to. This applies to ourselves, too. If you want to learn what you’re up to or where you’re headed, watch your actions and your thoughts. Do they align with your stated goals? Are you acting out how you say you want to live or who you want to become? The writer Flannery O’Connor advised, “To know oneself is, above all, to know what one lacks. It is to measure oneself against Truth, and not the other way around.”