This post is a follow up on my previous post: A Rigged Game, which itself was a response to Jordan Cooper's Full of Potential = Full of Shit… Jordan has responded to my post and now we're locked in an epic debate re: the Meaning of Life. Here's an excerpt from his latest post, Trees, Sharks & Change. My response is below…
I was talking to my friend Brett yesterday and he said something that made a lot of sense to me. He said, “you and me, we are like sharks…we like to be moving all the time, and if we stop moving we die…most people aren’t like us.” I thought about this for a while and I realized that the reason why I didn’t detect a shred of despair in my previous post (while many people read it that way), is because the state that I am happiest in is one of change. Through that lens, the reason I keep introducing what the most ardent critic, Matt Mirelis, would call “unattainable” accomplishments/timeframes as points of reference to measure my own progress in life (i.e. those who accomplish amazing things very early in life), is because with the knowledge that more is possible than what I have or am doing, comes the reminder to keep moving and never become complacent.
I think many people work towards defined goals in life (money, wife, house, kids, cars, corner office), and once they achieve them, they stop creating new goals and become complacent. I will call these people “trees” (once a tree grows to be a certain hight, very hard to move it). In this complacency, “trees” find happiness, but that is because they are not “sharks” as my friend Brett would say. Reveling in the satisfaction of what you are doing in the present or what you have done in the past is a recipe for slowing the rate of change in one’s life. This is a completely valid ambition, to reduce change, and some of my closest friends are unhappy during transitions, and extremely happy in routine…but “sharks” crave constant transition.
Ahh, hubris. Never fails.
Hmm. Where to begin….
Although the motive makes some sense, I think it is dangerous for you to place yourself in a separate class of humanity. The "sharks" vs "trees" categorization envisions a pretty static view of human psychology, your understanding of which seems deeply flawed.
The problem (that this model doesn't seem to account for) is that in reality, today's "shark" is very often tomorrow's "tree." Sharks swim and swim and swim and then, say in their 30s, begin to ask the question: What's the f'ing point to all this swimming and chasing and running and movement?
All too often, the answer is: there is none, there is no point. (Thoreau: Masses of men live lives of quiet desperation). And so, faced with this existential crisis, people attempt to give meaning to their lives. How? They have kids. And they become "trees."
Some people, of course, never figure it out. And they spend there whole lives on the shark treadmill, probably congratulating themselves for being so in shape.
But at the end of the day, what's the point? Are you hustling just to keep up, or is there some bigger meaning, some larger ends, some purpose for all this effort and strain and movement?
To imagine yourself on a pedestal, claiming you have some sort of different, special DNA than us mere mortals is a classic mistake of youth, a classic act of hubris. I think you're probably better off doing some more introspection and asking yourself: Why is it that so many "sharks" like me end up as "trees" later on? What is it about their worldview and circumstance that causes so many smart, ambitious people like me to end up thinking this way? How do I avoid this fate?
Because in truth, you're really not that extraordinary. You really don't belong to a separate category of human being, except perchance by luck of birth, education and economics. And that's not something you earned.
This frenetic search for the next, for the new––it is a classic marker of the highly competitive, outlandishly privileged, prep schooled elite. You and your friends alone have been given this special training, fed this special sauce that makes you "sharks," or so you have been indoctrinated to believe. I went to those schools. I get it.
And it is from this "sharkiness" that you derive pride and a sense of identity. And part of that is cool. You have been conditioned to run fast, to work hard, to constantly push. The same was true when I fought fire on a hotshot crew––we were conditioned to work, to push, always just go, go, go without question. It ain't a bad tool to have in your playbook.
But at some point, you gotta reflect and ask the question: What's the point of all this movement? To what ends do we struggle? Why am I working so f'ing hard?
And that's my whole point: Are you a shark simply swimming in circles because you need to move, because you have to move, because moving is all you know, because if you don't, you die. Or are you fucking going somewhere? Is there a direction? Is there a point?
PS You misspelled my name: It's Matt MirelEs.
Nice to see some TR philosophy mentioned here. 🙂 Regarding the 6 Human Needs, he also says you need the first 4 to survive, and the final 2 to be fulfilled. Though for some of us, without the final 2, live just ain’t worth it.
This discussion reminds me of the story of Alexander the Great meeting what he called a “gymnosophist”. In the end, both are operating under a different set of beliefs, having grown up reading and learning different sets of myths (eg, glorifying one lifetime versus an infinite cycle of lifetimes).
Maybe both “sharks” and “trees” value exactly the same thing (or maybe not), that is change in the sense of growth, but maybe both groups just see different kinds of changes as growth or as valuable. Maybe both value having and striving for a “greater goal”, but see differently on what specifically is the “greater”.
Maybe the shark/tree dichotomy is false to begin with. I think different can just be different, not better.
(The story of the gymnosophist, to quote from http://www.ted.com/talks/devdutt_pattanaik.html ):
“Or perhaps he was just a yogi, who was sitting on a rock, staring at the sky, and the sun, and the moon.
“Alexander asked, “What are you doing?” and the gymnosophist answered, “I’m experiencing nothingness.” Then the gymnosophist asked, “What are you doing?” and Alexander said, “I am conquering the world.” And they both laughed. Each one thought that the other was a fool. The gymnosophist said, “Why is he conquering the world? It’s pointless.” And Alexander thought, “Why is he sitting around, doing nothing? What a waste of a life.””
I just read Coopir’s full post and was amused when I read:
“I think most of the people who saw the negative element in that post are probably not “sharks,” and that is completely cool.”
WTF? Why does he keep making things worse for himself.
Jordan must be proud to be a shepherd for this herd of sharks…
I saw the Vivek Wadwha piece in TechCrunch. Ehh. I’m less interested in outsiders traveling to poor countries and imposing solutions on them, limousine liberal-style, than I am in fattening the pipeline for people who grow up in these countries to get access to knowledge, education and resources/capital to solve the problem themselves. Generally speaking, i think people should stick to solving problems they actually understand and care about based on their own personal experience and need.
I think it’s important to remember that “having it all,” while possible, is not normal and really requires a concerted, determined effort to execute. Most people make trade offs that leave them feeling empty later on in life.But that’s part of growing up.
I also agree with your sentiment entirely, and to prove Ibagrak’s point, I come from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ in which I had to work my tail off to get into an amazing school and develop access to resources, opportunities, and an astounding network. Once I got to this astounding college, I thought I was set. I had made it a significant goal early in my life, and because no one in my family had attended college, I pretty much became lost and thought I was just swimming for swimming’s sake after I got to school. My plan as a kid in high school was to get into this college, be a cs major, start the next google, cash out early and then do whatever I wanted in life. In freshman year, I realized this was absolutely the wrong idea.
I have since changed focus on something called social entrepreneurship – entrepreneurship that focuses on the world’s toughest real problems such as poverty, food access, preventable diseases, etc. This change has been extremely rewarding because it combines the intense challenge and engages all of my sharky characteristics but also providing the meaning stevecheney mentioned. In short, if you become an entrepreneur that doesn’t build yet another social games platform but rather solve some real problem like the 3b people who don’t have access to food, clean water, education, healthcare, etc you will actually become more of a shark because you are driven by some cause / human need bigger than yourself. Here’s a quote for case in point:
“If the villager has a cell-phone, why doesn’t he just call 911? This is really dumb.” A judge at UC-Berkeley Hack-a-thon. Don’t fall prey to this naive and ultimately wrong way of thinking (there is no infrastructure for 911 in developing countries). Article here – http://tcrn.ch/9MQUHw
Thank you very much for your post and I’d love to hear your thoughts on social entrepreneurship.
I agree with your sentiment entirely, although I don’t believe privilege is connected with sharkness, since you can also be a shark born at the wrong side of the tracks where the odds are stacked against you. The privileged shark is the one where the odds are stacked and the game is rigged in their favor by the birth right, parents, economic status, whatever. This is also connected to risk aversion. You can be a risktaker on the move because you have no choice, so you are in a constant state of motion and struggle for survival. Or you can be a risktaker because you can simply afford it and you would be idling otherwise. You lose nothing in the end. Either way, I don’t believe that either shark is necessarily looking for a deeper meaning in life, but again for entirely different reasons. Thank you very much for your post.
Nice post. I took the time to read the back and forth and I have a few thoughts.
A lot people float by in life, without knowing they are driven by an evolved set of human emotions and needs much deeper and more profound than lay in their conscious mind… (not saying this is fact, but I’ve come to believe this through a lot of introspection, reading, and listening..)
The 6 key human ‘needs’:
1. Certainty/Comfort. We all want certainty and a lot of our comfort comes from having a sense of security (economic, safety etc).
2. Variety. Following almost UNintuitively from #1, humans also crave variety. Some uncertainty to spice up your life, and the mix between 1 & 2 is different for everyone.
3. Significance. Inside, and I know you touched on this Matt, humans want to feel significant. To feel like they are making a difference. But sometimes this conflicts with how others judge us, as you pointed out.
4. Connection/Love. People crave this. Human anthropology or any science discipline recognize humans’ absolute need to feel love and connection.
5. Growth. the whole shark/tree analogy can be applied here. I like to say “people don’t have very many gears in reverse”. It’s true – we all want to grow and get better. At least 99% of us. Otherwise we can feel like we’ve plateaued. A lot of people focus all their growth on career though, and lose their identity in the process
6. Contribution. The last real need is to feel contribution. This is why a lot of people later in life start to donate all their waking life to a cause, charity etc. They didn’t get satiated by this in life and are ‘missing something’. Helping people is also highly contagious and therapeutic. Interestingly, you can have all the accomplishment and security in the world but can never truly feel satiated without giving back…
There is so much interrelation between these core human needs. A lot of people lose track of their own internal compass and identity when these needs get overrun with desires for external recognition. I totally agree with you. Sometimes it’s difficult to balance that inward vs outward compass. For us all.
This was extremely important stuff for me to internalize about 8 years back. It drives, you, me, and everyone else in the world to a certain extend (again in my humble opinion).
Thanks for sharing your thoughts.