We’ve all heard it bandied around: 50% of all new marriages end in divorce. A quick search, however, disputes that. Most of the estimates are lower, stating that somewhere between 10% and 40% of all new marriages end in divorce. Not 50%. That seems more reasonable.
Still, it’s not unusual for people who say “Til death do us part” to break their vow and be parted by something other than their mortality. But what about people who marry themselves to something else? What about individuals who swear an oath of fealty, not to another person, but to their craft or art?
I’ll give you an example. Phronetic is a daily blog. I’ve written about how one of my writing principles is “Every day. For Decades.” Essentially, I’ve made an indefinite commitment to keep doing this. And my intention is to only allow that commitment to be broken by the Grim Reaper tapping me on the shoulder. I’ve looked this creative life in the eye, held its hand, and said, “Til death do us part.”
So what about the divorce rate for those who marry themselves to what they love? I wonder how many make honest commitments, like I have, to keep doing something they love, only to have their vow broken by the events of existence? And why do they allow themselves to separated from something they once swore they would never be separated from? Do they, as in normal relationships, experience a change of heart? Does a significant blow or windfall from fortune alter their perception and make them renege on their commitment? I really don’t know. I’m just wondering.
But I do know this. Whenever these sort of commitments are made, they’re made with sincerity. They’re made with the best of intentions by people who look into the future and see their commitment enduring. But as they move into the future, the bonds loosen. We make a commitment under certain circumstances, but those circumstances change drastically, and then the question becomes, “To what extent must I be loyal to the past?”
It takes strength to stand alone. It takes courage to stand up when there’s no there, or no one willing, to stand with you, to be a lone soldier in the fight against fortune.
But you know what? Most of the time we don’t have to fight alone. We live in a hyper-connected world and we all have options and opportunities to gather support around ourselves and our cause. In such a world, the refusal to gather assistance and support isn’t virtuous. It isn’t noble or indicative of strength. It betrays stubbornness, fear, stupidity and vanity.
To continue the fight alone when you have genuine offers of support is to allow the ego to overpower the faculties of reason. If you shun support when it is sincerely offered and freely given, your are not a hero, you are not strong, you are not courageous. You are a fool, you are weak, you are a coward, no matter what you try to prove or communicate with your lonely stand.
Your unwillingness to accept assistance is proof of your vulnerability, not an example of its absence.
When HSBC was caught laundering dirty money for drug cartels they said they were very, very sorry. When this student got into a heated debate with a lecturer, he said that he was the beneficiary of white privilege, of an unfairly gained advantage. When a politician gets caught up in a scandal, he releases a statement that 1) justifies why he did it, and 2) says that he won’t do it again.
Words don’t cost a thing.
HSBC said they were sorry. But what did they do to show it? They paid a measly fine. That’s it. No one was fired, no one went to jail. The bank continued to operate.
The student said he believed that people, himself included, benefited from unethically and immorally gained opportunities. But what did he do about that believe? Was he willing to give his position at university to a member of the disadvantaged population he was advocating for? Nope.
A politician can make a grandiose statement that says that he’s sorry. But what does he do to display his repentance? Nothing. Instead, he uses the crisis as an opportunity to forward his agenda.
All over the internet there are opportunities to give advice. One such place that comes to mind is a subreddit on relationships. People post about situations and problems in a relationship, others respond describing possible ways to deal with or overcome said problems.
That’s fine, as long as you keep in mind that talk is cheap, that words don’t cost a thing, as long as you remember that the advice givers in such a place have no skin in the game. The result of the advice they give—be it positive or negative—doesn’t actually affect them. It’s as if their counsel is given in one universe and undertaken in another, where the effects don’t affect them in any way.
Now contrast that with an uncle giving some relationship advice to his nephew. The uncle has some skin in the game. The impact of his advice concerning his nephew’s relationship will impact the strength of the relationship between the uncle and his nephew.
Or, another example. A social worker working with a family in which the father is abusing the mother has skin in the game. Every decision she makes and action she takes is recorded, monitored and analysed, pre and post-contact. If she gives advice or does something that leads to a serious incident, perhaps endangering a young child, she is held responsible. She could be suspended, maybe even sent to jail.
The point I’m trying to make is that it’s easy to give advice when the impact of that advice doesn’t actually affect you. There’s no risk in saying “You should just confront him about it.” There’s risk in saying “You should confront him. I’ll go with you right now.”
Out of this we can conceive a heuristic: give advice if, and only if, you are personally affected—positively or negatively—by the consequences.
There was two things that I loved about the old Top Gear: the chemistry and the charm. Watching the show, it was apparent that Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May were good friends. That was what made it such fun to watch them interact, tease each other, argue, and just generally goof around. And in addition, there was a roughness to the show’s production that amplified this chemistry. The show and its features weren’t too polished, too slick. There were countless moments that stank of “great idea, but not enough time/money to pull it off perfectly.” Moments that screamed, “done on a budget.”
But that was an asset, not a liability. And I only realised that when I began watching The Grand Tour after accidentally agreeing to a free trial of Amazon Prime.
In The 48 Laws of Power, the 46th law is “Never Appear Too Perfect.” The author, Robert Greene, elaborates:
“Appearing better than others is always dangerous, but most dangerous of all is to appear to have no faults or weaknesses. Envy creates silent enemies. It is smart to occasionally display defects, and admit to harmless vices, in order to deflect envy and appear more human and approachable. Only gods and the dead can seem perfect with impunity.”
In essence, what Amazon has done with The Grand Tour is make it too perfect. I suspect that most people, me included, tuned in expecting to see the old chemistry and the endearing imperfections that the three old geezers were known and loved for. Instead, what we got was slick title sequences, elaborate (and clearly expensive) features, a tight script, and in general, a show too well executed to be worthy of any actual affection.
Amazon, by taking the core of Top Gear and making it better, have created something worse. By smoothing the rough edges they’ve created a show too polished to resonate with its audience.
The lesson to take from this is that imperfections add something intangible to the value of a thing. That a defect, far from representing a weakness, can actually be a strength. That something without weakness, without failings, is seen as artificial and treated as such. After all, we humans aren’t perfect, so it’s no wonder we find it hard to relate to something that is flawless.
In the 1930s an Austrian-Canadian endocrinologist—grossly over-simplified, someone who specialises in hormones—by the name of Hans Selye came up with General Adaption Syndrome. It’s a simple, robust model of the biological response to stressors. It’s most easily represented in graph form.
As you can see, there are three stages. The first, identified in yellow on the graph, is known as the alarm stage. It represents the body’s immediate response to a stressor. The second stage, known as resistance, is when the body begins to attempt to adapt to the stressor. After that comes the fork in the road that is the the third stage. If the magnitude of the stressor exceeds the limits of the body’s ability to cope with it, the third stage is exhaustion. Physiological resources become depleted and the organism begins to lose function. But if the stressor is either eliminated or overcome, the third stage is recovery. The body will attempt to reset and regain homeostasis.
An applied example of this can be found in physical training. In the beginning of a 5000m row, your body is shocked. It becomes aware of the stress and demands being placed upon it and reacts. The state of the cardiovascular system is altered and optimised for the task and resources are shifted to the working muscles and organs. But the body cannot keep this up for ever. If the 5000m row is completed before the body is overwhelmed, you’ll enter a state of recovery. If you push so hard that your body can’t keep up with the demands you make of it, your performance will suffer, and eventually, you’ll drop into a state of exhaustion and have to stop rowing.
Another way to understand this model is by saying that muscles get stronger by undulating between stress and recovery, by moving through periods of rest and exertion which gradually increase in intensity, duration and complexity. Essentially, what the GAS model teaches is that without stress, there is no adaption. There can be atrophy and decay, but no improvement.
This idea becomes even more interesting when we take it out of the biological realm and apply it to learning and development.
James Stockdale, a fighter pilot who crashed in Vietnam and was held and tortured as prisoner of war, said in his book, “To me the biggest educational fallacy is that you can get it without stress.” What Stockdale understood is that improvements in the mind are prompted by the same thing as improvements in the body; stress.
When you’re attempting to learn something, does the effort put you under stress? If you’re learning to play a sport, do you try to apply the techniques learnt in training during live performance? If you’re studying at university, do you just show up at lectures, take notes and go home to do your coursework? Or do you read extra material that sits at the boundaries of your comprehension? Do you enter into debates and argue with your peers about the interpretations and applications of what you’re learning? Do you undertake research that deliberately pushes you to the limits of your ability? Or do you stay ensconced in a safe, sterile environment where stress is eliminated?
Muscles get stronger by lifting weight. The cardiovascular system develops only when it is taxed. And we grow only when necessity challenges us to use and implement all that we’ve been trying to learn. In the realm of the biological, in the domain of the mind, when there is no stress, there is no development.