The Insidious Cultural Relativism of Failure
In which we ponder about the strategy of our own life choices and how they can look to others depending on various factors often hidden and illegible.
I come from a family of entrepreneurs. Money, investing and returns are things that were in the air growing up. Although, for some reason I can’t fully explain, I was never very much attracted to them. They felt useful, even to young eyes, but they always felt like a tool to me, a means to an end, not an end on itself. Not everybody in the family felt that way. For some, return on investment was an objective measure of success and often became a proxy for life meaning and personal worth. It feels like a psychologically convenient metric: it appears objective, easily comparable and has the wonderful property of compounding. Properties most other measures of self worth appear to lack.
Unfortunately, there are toxic side effects to this mean-making modality. The most obvious is that investment failure ends up being perceived as personal failure. Those unable to distance their own sense of self from the financial outcome of their actions come to perceive any financial threat as a personal threat, any financial risk ends up being perceived as a personal risk. This happens independently of the absolute value of the enjoyed financial comfort. Nowhere this is more insidious than around the perception of failure.
One classic way to model innovation and development is a walk on a hilly terrain immersed in a thick fog. The fog constrains us to estimate the local gradient, but prevents us from comparing to further away terrain. The most obvious strategy to achieve higher ground is to move in the direction of the part of our surroundings with the steepest slope. This strategy is generally called “gradient ascent” and guarantees that we will find ourselves eventually on the top of a hill. But also pretty much guarantees that this hill will not be one of the highest peak of the terrain because it is extremely unlikely that our journey started at the base of the tallest peak and right where a smooth gradient went all the way to the top.
Posed in these terms, this all feels benign and emotionally neutral. Lots of innovation around machine learning, in fact, revolves around different kind of abstract terrain walking strategies.
What’s tickling me these days about this is what happens when the climb also has deep emotional meaning to the climbers and how that might end up influencing their climbing strategies.
If our sense of self is linked to the height we were able to climb (just like the sense of self worth becomes entangled with financial worth) once we reach the top of the hill we risk becoming stuck. Once we rich the top of the hill, any further height improvement demands a decrease in height. We have to walk down the hill in order to hope to find a taller one. But how can we do this if we can’t distance ourselves from the personal value such height represents? Why would we reduce our own personal worth on purpose as a way to hope to find more of it somewhere else? What if we can’t find a higher one and regret having abandoned this one? And what if we can eventually find a way to distance ourselves from it but others in our vicinity that depend on it can’t?
To those that have not being able to climb as high, and possibly envy the height we were able to achieve, walking explicitly down from hill we spent years climbing feels absolutely bonkers.
Still, to those that can’t achieve distance between their sense of self-worth and the financial outcomes of their actions (for whatever reason) the most natural climbing strategy is destined to result in globally poor outcomes.
There is also another important factor: how the people around us that end up informing and shaping our own behavior feel about the rarity of hills.
In an environment in which everybody believes hills are rare and hard to find, deciding to descend a hill we spent years climbing appears insane, a basic failure to understand reality. The most important question they might ask us when they see us doing it is “why?!”
On the other hand, in an environment in which people believe hills are plentiful and potentially very tall, descending a hill feels more reasonable, even if it’s hard for them. Their main focus of inquiry will be on “how?!”
In the end, the exact same climbing strategy seems to be perceivable with all shades of from “courageous” to “aimless”, from “inspiring” to “failing” depending on things like how others that surround us are able to distance their own sense of self-worth from the height reached and from their own estimation of the rarity of height.
I wonder how much emotional friction would be dissipated if these dynamics were to be made more legible.