Terrifying Freedom

It can be comforting to have something keeping you down.

A shitty boss or a dead end job, the Gub’ment or the Man. Patriarchy or racism. All of these things conspire to block you from being happy, successful and fulfilled. And that’s comforting for a lot of people because it gives you something to blame. Something to rail against and to grumble about on the commute home each day.

I’m pretty sure my best thinking is behind me. I did it all during my four years of high school debate team. But during that time the one idea that we studied that continues to fascinate me the most is threat construction. Threat construction is a fairly formalized sociological and psychological tendency for us to construct external threats. Psychologically this manifests in our desire to constantly create a bogeyman that’s the root cause of the problems in our life. The effect becomes even more powerful when groups of people circle the wagons and rally together to blame some “other” for their misfortunes. People are constantly creating, or at least vastly exaggerating, external threats.

And we really enjoy this. Coworkers love to kibitz about the bosses. Crazy uncles love to prognosticate on the impending threat of sharia law. I do it too. When my startup was failing I used to love to bitch about the stupid VCs who wouldn’t invest in us. Once you start thinking about threat construction, you see it everywhere, including in your own thinking all the time. We are constantly manufacturing and exaggerating layers upon layers of external threats.

Because the alternative can be terrifying.

When you start to really examine these threats or forces one by one and deconstruct them, what you probably find is that 99% of what’s keeping you down is made up of two things. The first thing is the shear randomness of the universe. You’re not cursed, you don’t have consistently bad luck, it’s just that the universe, the distribution of positive events, gene allocation are all profoundly random. Nothing is conspiring against you there and they only thing you can do is act like a professional poker player. You make good bets with your time, energy, decisions and resources and you let the chips fall. The second thing is You. And that’s the terrifying part. It’s comforting to think that you’re doing all you can and some force, human or otherwise is just blocking your path. But we when you really examine those thoughts it turns out that you have the ultimate control over the vast majority of those things.

Those layers of external threats and forces act as comfort blanket, shielding us from the ultimate responsibility for our own lives. My Dad used to always have a saying about his martial arts teacher who would say that “if someone punches you, it’s your fault for not getting out of the way.” It sounds a bit crazy at first glance, but it’s pretty liberating. It’s a way of thinking that you have the capacity to affect every part of your life and nothing is really out of your control to influence or improve.

Now I’m not saying that shitty bosses or government intrusion or sexism or racism are not real things. I’m not saying they’re made up. Some threats are made up, but some of them are very real. But I do think that in most cases they simply tilt the already uncertain and difficult terrain of life further against you. The lion’s share of the blame for the status of your life is probably still on you.

Complaining to your friend about something that’s keeping you from your dreams gives you a short, quick hit of good chemicals in your brain. Deeply examine the issue and you realize that 1) ultimately the onus is on you to act and 2) acting probably involves taking some risk, and the randomness of the universe ensures you don’t know it the risk will pay off. That does not give you a spurt of good chemicals, but something more akin to a punch in the gut.

But it’s the truth. We all have a terrifying freedom.