Our uniquely human ability to look down from a higher level doesn’t apply just to understanding reality and the cause-eﬀect relationships underlying it; it also applies to looking down on yourself and those around you. I call this ability to rise above your own and others’ circumstances and objectively look down on them “higher-level thinking.” Higher-level thinking gives you the ability to study and inﬂuence the cause-eﬀect relationships at play in your life and use them to get the outcomes you want.
In my own life, what I want to give to people, most importantly to people I love, is the power to deal with reality to get what they want. In pursuit of my goal to give them strength, I will often deny them what they “want” because that will give them the opportunity to struggle so that they can develop the strength to get what they want on their own. This can be difficult for people emotionally, even if they understand intellectually that having difficulties is the exercise they need to grow strong and that just giving them what they want will weaken them and ultimately lead to them needing more help.
Of course most people would prefer not to have weaknesses. Our upbringings and our experiences in the world have conditioned us to be embarrassed by our weaknesses and hide them. But people are happiest when they can be themselves. If you can be open with your weaknesses it will make you freer and will help you deal with them better. I urge you to not be embarrassed about your problems, recognizing that everyone has them. Bringing them to the surface will help you break your bad habits and develop good ones, and you will acquire real strengths and justifiable optimism.
If you don’t let up on yourself and instead become comfortable always operating with some level of pain, you will evolve at a faster pace. That’s just the way it is.
Every time you confront something painful, you are at a potentially important juncture in your life—you have the opportunity to choose healthy and painful truth or unhealthy but comfortable delusion. The irony is that if you choose the healthy route, the pain will soon turn into pleasure. The pain is the signal! Like switching from not exercising to exercising, developing the habit of embracing the pain and learning from it will “get you to the other side.” By “getting to the other side,” I mean that you will become hooked on:
Identifying, accepting, and learning how to deal with your weaknesses,
Preferring that the people around you be honest with you rather than keep their negative thoughts about you to them-selves, and
Being yourself rather than having to pretend to be strong where you are weak.
There is no avoiding pain, especially if you’re going after ambitious goals. Believe it or not, you are lucky to feel that kind of pain if you approach it correctly, because it is a signal that you need to ﬁnd solutions so you can progress. If you can develop a reﬂexive reaction to psychic pain that causes you to reﬂect on it rather than avoid it, it will lead to your rapid learning/evolving. After seeing how much more eﬀective it is to face the painful realities that are caused by your problems, mistakes, and weaknesses, I believe you won’t want to operate any other way. It’s just a matter of getting in the habit of doing it.
Most people have a tough time reﬂecting when they are in pain and they pay attention to other things when the pain passes, so they miss out on the reﬂections that provide the lessons. If you can reﬂect well while you’re in pain (which is probably too much to ask), great. But if you can remember to reﬂect after it passes, that’s valuable too. (I created a Pain Button app to help people do this, which I describe in the appendix.)
The challenges you face will test and strengthen you. If you’re not failing, you’re not pushing your limits, and if you’re not pushing your limits, you’re not maximizing your potential. Though this process of pushing your limits, of sometimes failing and sometimes breaking through—and deriving beneﬁts from both your failures and your successes—is not for everyone, if it is for you, it can be so thrilling that it becomes addictive. Life will inevitably bring you such moments, and it’ll be up to you to decide whether you want to go back for more.
If you choose to push through this often painful process of personal evolution, you will naturally “ascend” to higher and higher levels. As you climb above the blizzard of things that surrounds you, you will realize that they seem bigger than they really are when you are seeing them up close; that most things in life are just “another one of those.” The higher you ascend, the more eﬀective you become at working with reality to shape outcomes toward your goals. What once seemed impossibly complex becomes simple.
As Carl Jung put it, “Man needs diﬃculties. They are necessary for health.” Yet most people instinctually avoid pain. This is true whether we are talking about building the body (e.g., weight lifting) or the mind (e.g., frustration, mental struggle, embarrassment, shame)—and especially true when people confront the harsh reality of their own imperfections.
Realizing that we innately want to evolve—and that the other stuﬀ we are going after, while nice, won’t sustain our happiness—has helped me focus on my goals of evolving and contributing to evolution in my own inﬁnitely small way. While we don’t like pain, everything that nature made has a purpose, so nature gave us pain for a purpose. So what is its purpose? It alerts us and helps direct us.
Because humans are capable of conscious, memory-based learning, we can evolve further and faster than any other species, changing not just across generations but within our own lifetimes.
This constant drive toward learning and improvement makes getting better innately enjoyable and getting better fast exhilarating. Though most people think that they are striving to get the things (toys, bigger houses, money, status, etc.) that will make them happy, for most people those things don’t supply anywhere near the long-term satisfaction that getting better at something does. Once we get the things we are striving for, we rarely remain satisﬁed with them. The things are just the bait. Chasing after them forces us to evolve, and it is the evolution and not the rewards themselves that matters to us and to those around us. This means that for most people success is struggling and evolving as eﬀectively as possible, i.e., learning rapidly about oneself and one’s environment, and then changing to improve.
It is natural that it should be this way because of the law of diminishing returns. Consider what acquiring money is like. People who earn so much that they derive little or no marginal gains from it will experience negative consequences, as with any other form of excess, like gluttony. If they are intellectually healthy, they will begin seeking something new or seeking new depths in something old—and they will get stronger in the process. As Freud put it, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.”
The work doesn’t necessarily have to be a job, though I believe it’s generally better if it is a job. It can be any kind of long-term challenge that leads to personal improvement. As you might have guessed, I believe that the need to have meaningful work is connected to man’s innate desire to improve. And relationships are the natural connections to others that make us relevant to each other and to society more broadly.
Where you go in life will depend on how you see things and who and what you feel connected to (your family, your community, your country, mankind, the whole ecosystem, everything). You will have to decide to what extent you will put the interests of others above your own, and which others you will choose to do so for. That’s because you will regularly encounter situations that will force you to make such choices.
While such decisions might seem too erudite for your taste, you will make them either consciously or subliminally, and they will be very important.
For me personally, I now ﬁnd it thrilling to embrace reality, to look down on myself through nature’s perspective, and to be an inﬁnitesimally small part of the whole. My instinctual and intellectual goal is simply to evolve and contribute to evolution in some tiny way while I’m here and while I am what I am. At the same time, the things I love most—my work and my relationships—are what motivate me. So, I ﬁnd how reality and nature work, including how I and everything will decompose and recompose, beautiful—though emotionally I ﬁnd the separation from those I care about diﬃcult to appreciate.
It is a great paradox that individually we are simultaneously everything and nothing. Through our own eyes, we are everything—e.g., when we die, the whole world disappears. So to most people (and to other species) dying is the worst thing possible, and it is of paramount importance that we have the best life possible. However, when we look down on ourselves through the eyes of nature we are of absolutely no signiﬁcance. It is a reality that each one of us is only one of about seven billion of our species alive today and that our species is only one of about ten million species on our planet. Earth is just one of about 100 billion planets in our galaxy, which is just one of about two trillion galaxies in the universe. And our lifetimes are only about 1/3,000 of humanity’s existence, which itself is only 1/20,000 of the Earth’s existence. In other words, we are unbelievably tiny and short-lived and no matter what we accomplish, our impact will be insigniﬁcant.
At the same time, we instinctually want to matter and to evolve, and we can matter a tiny bit—and it’s all those tiny bits that add up to drive the evolution of the universe. The question is how we matter and evolve. Do we matter to others (who also don’t matter in the grand scope of things) or in some greater sense that we will never actually achieve? Or does it not matter if we matter so we should forget about the question and just enjoy our lives while they last?
Natural selection’s trial-and-error process allows improvement without anyone understanding or guiding it. The same can apply to how we learn. There are at least three kinds of learning that foster evolution: memory-based learning (storing the information that comes in through one’s conscious mind so that we can recall it later); sub-conscious learning (the knowledge we take away from our experiences that never enters our conscious minds, though it aﬀects our decision making); and “learning” that occurs without thinking at all, such as the changes in DNA that encode a species’ adaptations. I used to think that memory-based, conscious learning was the most powerful, but I’ve since come to understand that it produces less rapid progress than experimentation and adaptation.
To give you an example of how nature improves without thinking, just look at the struggle that mankind (with all its thinking) has experienced in trying to outsmart viruses (which don’t even have brains). Viruses are like brilliant chess opponents. By evolving quickly (combining diﬀerent genetic material across diﬀerent strains), they keep the smartest minds in the global health community busy thinking up countermoves to hold them oﬀ. Understanding that is especially helpful in an era when computers can run large numbers of simulations replicating the evolutionary process to help us see what works and what doesn’t.
To give you a quick example of nature creating incentives that lead to individuals pursuing their own interests that result in the advancement of the whole, look at sex and natural selection. Nature gave us one hell of an incentive to have sex in the form of the great pleasure it provides, even though the purpose of having sex is to contribute to the advancement of the DNA. That way, we individually get what we want while contributing to the evolution of the whole.
This evolutionary cycle is not just for people but for countries, companies, economies—for everything. And it is naturally self-correcting as a whole, though not necessarily for its parts. For example, if there is too much supply and waste in a market, prices will go down, companies will go out of business, and capacity will be reduced until the supply falls in line with the demand, at which time the cycle will start to move in the opposite direction. Similarly, if an economy turns bad enough, those responsible for running it will make the political and policy changes that are needed—or they will not survive, making room for their replacements to come along. These cycles are continuous and play out in logical ways—and they tend to be self-reinforcing.
The key is to fail, learn, and improve quickly. If you’re constantly learning and improving, your evolutionary process will look like the one that’s ascending. Do it poorly and it will look like what you see below, or worse.
Everything from the smallest subatomic particle to the entire galaxy is evolving. While everything apparently dies or disappears in time, the truth is that it all just gets reconﬁgured in evolving forms. Remember that energy can’t be destroyed—it can only be reconﬁgured. So the same stuﬀ is continuously falling apart and coalescing in diﬀerent forms. The force behind that is evolution.
For example, the primary purpose of every living thing is to act as a vessel for the DNA that evolves life through time. The DNA that exists within each individual came from an eternity ago and will continue to live long after its individual carriers pass away, in increasingly evolved forms.