Deconstructing dualisms to understand the world
My annual reflection for 2022
Warning: This is not an article to skim through.
Reading it will take time, but I am near certain that it will be worth it for you.
What better way to start than with a quote from the great Jerry Seinfeld?
If you had a billboard, metaphorically speaking, that could get a message, a quote, an image, question, anything out to billions of people, what might you put on that billboard?
Back in the ’80s, I had a friend who was teaching a comedy course at The Improv on Melrose in L.A., and he asked me if I would come in and talk to the class. I said sure. And I went in and there was, I don’t know, maybe 20 people in the class. It was in the afternoon. And I went up on stage and I said, “The fact that you have even signed up for this class is a very bad sign for what you’re trying to do. The fact that you think anyone can help you or there’s anything that you need to learn, you have gone off on a bad track because nobody knows anything about any of this. And if you want to do it, what I really should do is I should have a giant flag behind me that I would pull a string and it would roll down, and on the flag would just say two words: ‘Just work.’”
Have you ever read a quote or had a friend tell you something and it felt like that insight was going to change everything? For the next two hours or days, you went about your day as a changed person with new knowledge on your mind. But soon enough, you forgot it, or remembered it but it lost its effect.
This always confused me: how could something that felt so profound lose its effect so quickly? Later, when reading The Almanack of Naval Ravikant, I found the answer: “There are no permanent solutions in a dynamic system.”
The life of a human is a dynamic system. Just like in evolution, the only solutions are those that adapt. The only “tips” are those that must be applied continuously. I love this Seinfeld quote because it guards against the nature of life—its inherent dynamism. Regardless of when you hear this quote, its effect never goes away (proof being that I listened to this podcast in February and am writing about it in December).
Wisdom of this type (solutions that adapt) is what I define as “timeless wisdom”. It’s this type of wisdom that I hope to uncover and express in this 2022 reflection.
I’ve always been intellectually curious about questions like the following:
“Why is it that the journey is the best part when going from point A to B, yet journeying for the sake of journeying is dull?”
“Is having new ideas objectively hard? Or are new ideas rare just because most people don’t believe they can have them and consequently don’t try?”
“At what age/level of intelligence can you rightfully say that you know what’s best for you? What factors of my upbringing have led me to accept other people’s assessments of how I should feel about things as correct, even when they clearly are not?”
You might say, “Tobias, isn’t it unproductive to be thinking about this stuff? Shouldn’t you just go get something done instead of having these thoughts?” That’s what I thought to myself too. So in November, for two whole weeks, I decided to suppress having any thoughts of this sort. What I realized is that thinking is not the problem. Not thinking is the problem.
Thoughts like the above would pop up as I was listening to a podcast on the way to school, doing calculus homework, or working on my diesel project. I would momentarily displace my attention to the thought that arised and lightly squirm at the complexity of a possible answer, then the thought would fade away and this cycle would repeat. That is not thinking.
Thinking is setting time aside to ask the question, ponder possible answers and nuances to understand deeper, and ultimately come out the other side of the exercise with new knowledge.
But what’s the point of new knowledge?
This is a valid question. Other than the fact that curiosity drives a lot of what humans do, the answer I’ve come to is that new knowledge = better understanding. Better understanding leads to greater leverage when working to achieve goals.
The way I think about it is that there is a certain mix of requirements—a recipe—to achieving a certain outcome. But often we don’t know what that recipe consists of. Most of the time, we’ve seen other people achieve goals we’d like to achieve by taking a hodgepodge of actions. But this confused melange of actions is not the recipe, it is a more bloated soup containing many non-necessary steps. By having better understanding, you can craft a more optimal path to get what you want—one that wastes less time and energy, and might actually get you what you want.1
Instead of a summary of my year’s work or a December newsletter (which I wrote here), consider this like a thought dump—a thoughtfully-ordered buffet of my brain. My goal is to give you this year’s best insights on a silver platter, after having vanquished my thoughts and extracted their utility. Let’s get to it.
This year, I faced the dragon of dualism
I was sitting at home with three days to spare before my linear algebra final exam. As I looked through the online notes, I thought to myself: “Damn. I’m really not prepared.” Back-track to a month earlier in November: I had just finished my second linear algebra midterm, and I decided I wasn’t going to come to linear class anymore.
The classes were slow, and whenever the class was over I always needed to go back and read the notes anyways. Plus, the real learning happened when I was doing the assignments and asking questions about them. I told myself I wasn’t going to waste any more time in that class, that I would stay home and get some project work done and to compensate for missing class I would read the notes and do the assignments. I thought it would save me time, and it probably would have, if I had followed that plan.
Cut scene: I was no longer going to linear class, but also was no longer reading the notes and sometimes not even doing the assignments because they were worth a fraction of a percent. In indignation to the imperfect school system, I kept telling myself that I was doing the right thing: “Look at how much more I’m learning by working on these projects!”
A classmate of mine even approached me and asked why I wasn’t coming anymore, and I had a super elaborate explanation for her. I was so sure that I was making the best, most principled decision, that I didn’t notice the most important thing: I was wasting a lot of time. I was staying up later than I should have and wasting time on activities that I would never do if I didn’t have an extra 8 hours in my week. So my mastermind scheme fell apart, such that on test day I walked in very worried.
Why am I telling you this?
I ended up doing just fine on the exam, that’s not the point. The point is that, for the first noticeable time in my life, I found myself on the wrong side of the invisible line.
The invisible line is my term for the line dividing dualisms that are hard to tell apart.
Dualism: the division of something conceptually into two opposed or contrasted aspects.
Paradoxical isn’t it? An invisible line between two contrasted aspects. What can be so hard about telling the difference between two contrasted aspects?
In my case, I had crossed the invisible line from conviction into delusion.
Conviction and delusion are an interesting duality. To do anything great, one requires conviction. You will not achieve anything extraordinary if you’re not willing to be the exception. Being okay with being the exception requires conviction. Too much conviction, however, and you end up like those bad actors who’ve lived in LA for five years and still can’t “catch a break” but think they will.
“I’m telling you man! The guy who parks the car for the guy who sets up the lights for the guy who does the casting, he told me he’d put in a word for me! I’m telling you, one more year just you see, I’ll be on the big screen.”
Believe it or not, the first time I ever skipped a class was this semester. I'm a senior in high school. Ever since I was young, I was always a goody-two-shoe'd boy—I broke no rules and did what I was told. This semester I decided to try things out; experiment a bit. What possibilities would be unlocked if I removed this invisible barrier I’d adopted? I wanted to know.2
Some experiments I ran turned out really well. Linear algebra is an example of one that didn’t. I was on the side of delusion because instead of using my missed class time to make more progress on my projects, I was wasting it.
Dualisms are common amongst founders
Steve Jobs is a classic example of heroic conviction. When told that something was impossible, his default response was “Fuck you.” And his conviction worked, obviously. Until the day that it didn’t.
In 2003, Steve Jobs went to the doctor for kidney stones. But the doctors soon noticed a “shadow” on his pancreas. They told Jobs that he had a neuroendocrine islet tumor, a rare form of pancreatic cancer.
In a way, it was good news. People diagnosed with neuroendocrine islet tumors generally have a far better prognosis than those with other forms of pancreatic cancer. Experts urged him to seek surgery as soon as possible. But to the dismay of his loved ones, he kept putting it off.
“I didn’t want my body to be opened,” Jobs later confessed to Isaacson. “I didn’t want to be violated in that way.”3
After lots of time spent with alternative ineffective cures, Jobs eventually agreed to have surgery but it was too late. The cancer came back and he died of his own delusion (metaphorically). Life of conviction. Death by delusion.
It turns out, I’m not the first to notice this pattern. In his book Zero to One, Peter Thiel has a whole chapter called “The Founder’s Paradox” where he talks about how founders have extreme and contradicting personality traits. There are often many “invisible lines”: conviction and delusion, creative spirit and lack of work ethic, disagreeableness and inability to work with others.
Peter concludes his chapter with the following sentences:
The single greatest danger for a founder is to become so certain of his own myth that he loses his mind. But an equally insidious danger for every business is to lose all sense of myth and mistake disenchantment for wisdom.
Conclusion: achieving anything exceptional requires conviction, but too much conviction leads to delusion if not guarded against properly.
So, this begs the question, “How do you guard against delusion while maintaining as much conviction as possible?” There’s multiple aspects to it:
Have OKRs (objective key results) and hit them. Don’t make excuses.
Be around intellectually honest people who want to achieve similar things as you. Have stand-up meetings with them. Don’t compromise or euphemise. (Read my article on euphemisms.)
(1) and (2) are simple. For (3), what I mean by “be crazy” is you have to have over-the-top excitement and conviction in your ideas already for the first 2 tips to be useful. A community of intellectually honest low-ambition friends won’t do you much good if you want to change the world.
Just like everything in this article, this idea is paradoxical in nature: you need a community of crazy people to hold you back from doing crazy dumb things but to keep you accountable for achieving crazy things.
Just today, I was on a call with my friend Valkyrie telling me “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a space company that made ink from materials on the Moon and tattooed people on Earth with it? We could call it SpaceInk.” Now that’s the crazy shit I’m looking for in a friend.
But seriously, watch for the invisible line with dualisms. Your best case scenario (Jobs’ success) is just as high when on the right side of the line as your worst case scenario (death) is low on the other. Create systems to ensure that the best case scenario is achieved.
A timeless dualism: the Unknown and the Known
The word ‘dualism’ has many definitions, but these are the two I’m using for this section on the Unknown:
The division of something conceptually into two opposed or contrasted aspects.
The quality or condition of being dual.
The Unknown and the Known have the quality of being dual because there is nothing else in the world other than the Unknown and the Known. They are the two mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive buckets of ideas and matter.
This year, I struggled a lot with the Unknown.
I struggled with it because I like to know where I’m going, and make plans to get there. I’m highly skeptical of people who openly admit that they feel lost. My first instinct is always to say: “Then what are you doing about it?!”
This isn’t because I don’t feel lost sometimes. Quite the contrary, I often overthink my actions, direction, and motivations. I have this voice that goes on in my head all day: “Is what you’re working on important enough? You’re going to die soon, you better hurry up. You better not be working on something less impactful than you could be.”
I plan. I methodically think through what’s the best course of action. I measure, I report, and most of all… I worry a lot. I’ve fooled myself that worrying is the counter to failure. “If I worry enough about something, I’ll be ready for it when it comes,” I subconsciously think to myself.
You get the point; I have “life OCD”. So you can imagine how taken aback I must have been when some of the best, most needle-moving things that happened to me this year were completely. un. planned.
My trip to San Francisco…completely unplanned
In July, my friend Davide called me and asked if I’d want to have his room for free in SF for 2 weeks. I’m not exaggerating when I say that he and his friend had to convince ME to take this offer because I “didn’t know what I would do there” and “had to work on my diesel project”. Thank God they cut right through that bullsh*t reasoning.
On the first day I arrived, my awesome friend Davide threw another opportunity my way: he had a hotel room in San Diego with space for me over the weekend of a conference called the 1517 summit. The same “what am I doing here?” thoughts bubbled up in my mind but at that point I was already in too deep to start saying no to serendipity. Off I went to San Diego.
Thanks to that doubly unplanned decision, I met a great friend named Sriya who I estimate saved me one year of confusion about my desires and improvement of my ability to think, just in those three days of being around her. That’s not all. The rest of my time in SF profoundly changed my perspective of what’s possible to achieve and opened my eyes to people living life on their own terms. Spending time in the city of genius eccentrics who decide not to give a f*ck taught me more about not giving a f*ck—in the good sense.
So, other than getting an awesome friend like Davide, what is there to take away?
This quote, from a book I was reading two days ago, is the takeaway:
Having to know the benefit of everything before you begin leads to missed opportunities.
This quote still gives me shivers because I know it’s true; I witnessed it before my very eyes. But what to do about it? How do I figure out what the right direction, path, or opportunity to take is after I’ve done my rational thinking and still can’t decide? How do I know whether this or that good decision is the best? And how do I fit all of these heuristics and guidelines into my limited brain space? Here’s the answer: don’t.
Read that again. The answer is don’t.
To explain, I’ll have to refer to a life-changing book I read in February called The Left Hand of Darkness.
The Left Hand of Darkness : A novel about our relationship to the Unknown
The Left Hand of Darkness is a science fiction novel by U.S. writer Ursula K. Le Guin. Published in 1969, it became immensely popular, and established Le Guin's status as a major author of science fiction. The novel follows the story of Genly Ai, a human native of Terra, who is sent to the planet of Gethen as an envoy of the Ekumen, a loose confederation of planets. Genly’s mission is to persuade the nations of Gethen to join the Ekumen, but he is stymied by a lack of understanding of their culture.
I read The Left Hand of Darkness in February 2022 for English class. This book taught me more about how to live life than all of the high school classes I’ve taken combined. Before I explain why, I’ll brief you on the plot and important details. I promise you, the learnings are worth the setup.
Genly is an envoy of the Ekumen which is a confederation of planets trying to reunite all of the planets in the universe. If a planet agrees to join the Ekumen, it gains access to all the knowledge, culture, and resources (through trade) that exist across the planets in the confederation. In return, the planet must agree to share its knowledge, culture, and resources (through trade) with the rest of the Ekumen.
The Ekumen is a highly ethical confederation. It doesn’t force anyone to join it, and even vows not to land on anyone’s planet until they’ve agreed (through discussion with an envoy that is dropped on the planet alone) to join.
Throughout the novel, Genly meets characters from both countries on the planet of Gethen. There are two countries on Gethen: Karhide and Orgoreyn. Each country has its own religion: the Handdara and the Yomesh.
In Karhide, the population believes in the Handdara. The Handdara is a deeply interesting religion. The highest virtue for them is ignorance—or the act of not knowing. The prayer they say every night is “Praise then darkness and Creation unfinished.” Above everything else, they value the recognition of the Unknown. When Genly walks with a Handdara monk called Faxe, they have this absolutely beautiful discussion:
(Faxe:) “We in the Handdara don't want answers. It's hard to avoid them, but we try to.”
(Genly:) “Faxe, I don't think I understand.”
“Well, we come here to the Fastnesses [monasteries] mostly to learn what questions not to ask.”
“But you're the Answerers!”
“You don't see yet, Genly, why we perfected and practice Foretelling?”
“To exhibit the perfect uselessness of knowing the answer to the wrong question.”
I [Genly] pondered that a good while, as we walked side by side through the rain, under the dark branches of the Forest of Otherhord.
“The unknown,” said Faxe's soft voice in the forest, “the unforetold, the unproven, that is what life is based on. Ignorance is the ground of thought. Unproof is the ground of action. If it were proven that there is no God there would be no religion. No Handdara, no Yomesh, no hearthgods, nothing. But also if it were proven that there is a God, there would be no religion… Tell me, Genly, what is known? What is sure, predictable, inevitable—the one certain thing you know concerning your future, and mine?”
“That we shall die.”
“Yes. There's really only one question that can be answered, Genly, and we already know the answer. … The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.”
The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.
In contrast, in Orgoreyn, the population believes in the Yomesh. Meshe is their God, and not only does he see everything, he has seen everything that ever happened and that will ever happen. Here’s a passage from the Yomesh scripture:
Nothing is unseen.
In the Eye of Meshe are all the stars, and the darknesses between the stars: and all are bright.
Darkness is only in the mortal eye, that thinks it sees, but sees not. In the Sight of Meshe there is no darkness.
The people of Orgoreyn deny the Unknown, while the people of Karhide recognize it.
Main takeaway: the most effective relationship to the Unknown
The main takeaway from this novel is that recognizing that certain things cannot be known while still desiring to know what can be known allows one to achieve exceptional progress in the world.
Some characters in the book achieve close to nothing because they recognize the Unknown to such a great degree that they are paralyzed by fear. Others, like the country of Orgoreyn, deny the existence of the Unknown and miss out on the greatest opportunity of all: joining the Ekumen.
The hero of the story, a character named Estraven, strikes the balance (between wanting to know and recognizing the Unknown) perfectly. He uses the Unknown as a guide: he does not fear it. He wastes no time worrying. He plans, and he goes. His way of acting/relationship with the Unknown leads to him have an immeasurably big impact on the world: he assures that Karhide joins the Ekumen.
There’s a thrilling part in the book where Estraven and Genly are walking across “The Ice”, a vast land of snow and ice on the planet of Gethen comparable to Antartica. During their crossing of The Ice, they almost die multiple times falling into crevasses. They can’t see the crevasses beforehand because there’s nothing in sight but flat snow and sun—there is nothing but Light.
They decide to walk extremely cautiously, taking only a few strides per minute, making virtually no progress on their journey. It’s at this point that Estraven says something tremendously profound:
It's queer that daylight's not enough. We need the shadows, in order to walk.
My drive, that is good. My planning, that is good. My worrying, that must go. We need the shadows, in order to walk.
So, after thinking hard about the right direction to take and still being unsure, remember that unproof is the ground of action.
Walk daringly into the darkness…
Remember that darkness is nothing other than the right hand of light.
The Final Duality: Cain and Abel
Throughout this year, I struggled with dualities that had invisible lines and the duality of the Known and the Unknown. Everything I have written above I believe to be true and helpful advice. But sometimes, things get hard and you’re not in the state of mind to remember that you must both be crazy and let go of paralyzing fear. What do you do then? Let me tell you a story…
Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve—the first humans to ever walk the Earth according to Christian theology.
Abel had laudable character. He would often fail, but he would get back up and keep going no matter what, and God saw this and rewarded him. Cain, desiring the same rewards, would pretend to give his best effort to fool God into rewarding him. God consequently never gave him any praise, which made Cain bitter and resentful, eventually killing his brother Abel.
The first dualities I talked about have invisible lines; it’s hard to know when you cross. The second duality, the Known and the Unknown is actually two inseparable concepts. I realized that the third, the characters of Cain and Abel respectively, is the only truly polar duality.
You are only ever in one of these two states. There is no mixed/neutral state (a little bit of Cain and a little bit of Abel). You either demonstrate agency or you don’t. You figure things out or you don’t. You get to work or you don’t. There is no in-between. And that is wonderful.
Every second of every day, you get to decide which mode you want to be in.
Nothing, nothing in life is as simple as this one choice: do I want to be Cain, or do I want to be Abel? And from this simple choice branches the ever-complex suffering and blessings of life.
If I could go back to the beginning of 2022 and give myself ten seconds of advice, it would be this:
Be crazy. Walk daringly into the darkness. And last but not least, be Abel by embodying what Seinfeld said…
Thank you so much for reading. I appreciate you and hope this brought you value.
I still have so much to say, but I realize that I’ve gone on for too long and that this is a good place to end. If you want to read some other learnings I had in 2022, click the button below to go to a Notion page with some (shorter) thoughts I pondered this year.
Here’s an example of one of the short thoughts I included in the page:
One of my first violin teachers used to tell me, “If you practice it wrong once, it’s a mistake. If you practice it wrong twice, you’re practicing a different piece.” 1 bad day is never just a bad day. Don’t practice the piece you don’t want to play.
Have a terrific 2023,
This post took me a lot of time to write. If you found it valuable, I’d appreciate you subscribing for free to receive new posts and support my work. Hope to see you again!
In this case, it’s important not to confuse what is necessary with what is sufficient. To be an olympic gold medalist, it’s necessary to have trained 10,000 hours. But having trained 10,000 hours doesn’t mean you’ll become an olympic gold medalist—there are many other factors you need, all of those combined are what is sufficient.
Obviously, I’m only talking about breaking rules when there is potential upside and little comparative downside to not respecting a rule—a dumb rule you could say.