I remember, back in 2008, walking into my manager’s office at the investment bank I worked at for all of three weeks and proudly declaring that I quit. I had just come up with an idea for an internet business that I thought was going to earn me a full-time income within a few months. (It would go on to make about $400… total.)

I remember that summer, working tirelessly on my friend’s futon, watching my bank account fall deeper and deeper into the red, having idea after idea fall flat, being utterly convinced that I had just ruined my life.1

I remember that next winter, while being supported by a (very patient) girlfriend, coming up with an idea for a video platform, teaching myself how to code it, and actually believing I was going to be a millionaire within a year. (Spoiler alert: I wasn’t.)

I remember in 2009 the first time someone plagiarized me, thinking that my whole career was over. I was too dumb and broke to pursue any sort of legal threat. And I falsely believed that any good idea I came up with, someone with more money and more industry clout could simply steal it and profit off of it more than I ever could.

I remember in 2010, after moving back in with my mom, asking my friends to buy my beers when we went out because I had no money, and seeing the look on their faces as if someone they knew had just died.

I remember that same year, finally producing my first successful product and earning enough money to move out of my mom’s house for the second time, at age 26. It wasn’t enough to live off of in the US, but it was enough to live off of in Latin America, which is where I headed. In my mind, I was living the dream and nothing would ever be the same.

I remember how within three months I got homesick and flew home, wondering what the fuck I had just killed myself working the past three years for.

Looking back, I lived those years on an emotional rollercoaster. One month, I was up, thinking I was the next Steve Jobs. Two months later, I was pretty sure I was going to end up flipping burgers for the rest of my life. Then, some new spark of inspiration would come, a couple of things would go my way, and I was back to imagining myself as the internet King Midas, everything I typed turning to digital gold.

Those times were turbulent and stressful. Yet, what’s funny looking back, is that if you look at my actual progress, it was quite linear. In 2008, I made close to nothing. In 2009, I made about double what I made in 2008. And in 2010, I finally made enough to support myself (in Argentina).

If you graphed my expectations at the time versus reality, it would have looked something like this:

It took me a few years to recognize this pattern playing out in my life. And after a particularly dramatic month, I wrote a note to myself and put it on my desktop. It said:

I read that note every day for at least a year. It kept me sane. It kept me grounded. It kept me from doing some really, really dumb things. It was my double-edged happiness sword: while my misery was an overreaction, so were my hopes. Just as we tend to exaggerate the impact of our problems in life, we tend to overrate the solutions to those problems as well. It was a steady reminder that life’s successes and joys usually come in tiny increments, not tidal waves.

It might not be a coincidence, then, that 2011 was the year I “broke out” with my first successful book and the beginnings of this blog.

This sentence became a kind of mantra for me from 2011-2016.2 And in that period, I found it applied to many other areas of my life.

  • People I thought were mega-rad and “the coolest person I’d ever met” rarely were, actually. To my consistent disappointment, they were flawed, faulty human beings.
  • People I thought were terrible people, scum of the earth, also usually weren’t. They had a number of redeeming qualities if you took the time to get to know them.
  • Women I dated who I thought I was going to fall madly in love with, I usually didn’t. In fact, I got myself into trouble a few times vastly overestimating my connection with someone and diving in head first.
  • Fights with family and friends that I thought irrevocably separated us from each other and would cause us to never trust or love each other again usually blew over within a month or two and everyone apologized and hugged it out.
  • Things that went wrong on my travels—lost luggage, forgetting a beloved possession, wasting money on the wrong ticket, all things that I thought had ruined my trip—turned out to often be blessings in disguise.

Consistently, in each arena of life, things were rarely as bad as I thought; but they were rarely as good as I thought as well.

Lopsided Delusion

If you think about it, there’s a logic to this mantra: if we overestimate our positive emotions, then it would make sense that we overestimate our negative emotions as well.

Yet, I’ve found that many people seem to only overestimate in one direction, thus causing them to become emotionally “lopsided:”

  • People who understand that things are rarely as bad as they seem, but don’t understand that things are rarely as good as they seem. These are the delusionally positive people that I often warn about in my books. The inability to be realistic about the positive experiences interferes with their decision-making and sets them up for failure. These people often become “addicted” to their delusions of grandeur and are always in need of some great vision to attach themselves to.
  • People who understand that things are rarely as good as they seem, but don’t understand that things are rarely as bad as they seem. These people are bad at parties. They are unbearably cynical and their skewed attitude is both a cause and an effect of depression. These people suffer because they are incapable of fully appreciating what’s in front of them and/or they are constantly paranoid about how the latest threat is going to cause an end to life as we know it.

Obviously, the key is to be able to hold both realizations in our minds simultaneously. If our minds are poor at accurately predicting the effects of an event on our happiness, then they must also be inaccurate at predicting the effects on our unhappiness.

But people often avoid accepting both sides of this realization because they become attached to their lopsided views and make it part of their identities.

The delusionally positive person has identified as that person who is always doing something world-changing and, therefore, is hesitant to relinquish the idea that their actions are cosmically special.

The delusionally negative person has identified as that person who is always upset with the world and thinks everything is shit and nothing is ever going to get better, therefore they are hesitant to relinquish the idea that things may not be as bad as they seem.

There’s a satisfaction that comes with these lopsided mindsets. They make us feel special and different and subtly superior to others—as we convince ourselves that we are accurately seeing how good/bad things are and everyone else is mistaken.

But the truth is we’re all mistaken. It’s just that we hate admitting that about ourselves.

The Story of Politics

But there’s a problem. Oh, there’s always a problem.

The problem is that overestimating how good/bad things are is socially rewarded. It’s what motivates groups of people to come together and take shared action.3

This is why these lopsided views of reality are so common in politics. If you want to whip your political base into a furor, it’s far more effective to tell them that all of their worst fears are going to come true (and/or all of their best dreams are going to come true) than to tell them, “Well, it’s complicated. And look, we’re probably wrong about some things that we’re not aware of, and we’re going to have to compromise to get this policy passed.”

No one wants to hear that!  

Same thing plays out with the news media. Ask yourself, what’s going to get more viewers:

“A man was shot today in what was probably a personal dispute that none of us know the details of and given the sharp decline in gun-related homicides the past 20 years, we shouldn’t be too concerned about this. Here’s Tom with the weather.” 

Versus:

“A man was shot today. He was just a normal average, every day guy, like you and me. The perpetrator was evil—REALLY FUCKING EVIL! And there are more of them. Evil people everywhere. And they have guns. And they hate you. And your kids. And your grandma. Stay inside people! You could be next!” 

That’s right, the second one. Everyone watches the second one.

By indulging the lopsided delusion, it short circuits our ability to reason and stay grounded and gets us all worked up and holy shit, I need to watch more news—what if there are MORE evil people out there that I don’t know about!

No “Good” or “Bad,” Just “This”

Imagine our emotional reactions as occurring on a spectrum, bad on the left, good on the right.

This is what being delusional on both sides looks like:

Now, here’s a lopsided negative person:

Their emotional range is limited on the positive side but overactive on the negative.

Similarly, here’s the lopsided positive person:

Their range is limited on the negative but full on the positive.

Now, here’s our emotionally skeptical range — never too high, never too low:

I suppose what I’m arguing for here is to bring in the bounds of the range of your emotional intensity to both positive and negative events. To understand that good things, while good, rarely affect permanent change in one’s self or in the world, and similarly, bad things, while bad, rarely doom us to a life of misery or failure.

Okay, that sounds nice. But what if we bring this range in further?

This might be a person who is pretty much always even-keel. Nothing phases them too much, good or bad. There’s a lot to be said about people like this, although it can also be healthy for them to learn to let loose a little bit at times, depending on the situation.4

People who are unflappable in negative times are lauded as heroes. But people who are unflappable in positive times are generally looked down upon.

But I would argue that just because you do not overindulge positive or negative emotions, does not mean that you are unemotive. You can be totally reasonable in your positive/negative expectations of the world, yet remain highly engaged and emotive. It’s just that we tend to associate people who don’t overreact with total bores.

But what if we bring the range in even further? What if we bring the range in so tightly that the range is effectively zero?

You could call this “The Buddhist Argument,”—to attach absolutely no value to any positive or negative feelings—to see them all as infinitely meaningful and therefore equally meaningless.

A lot of people who first get into Buddhism confront this “zero spectrum” argument and are turned off by the idea. They imagine that it will turn them into a boring, robotic, automaton.

But, actually, the result is quite the opposite. The Buddhist Argument isn’t to get rid of all emotional reactions, it’s simply to get rid of the meaning we attach to our emotional reactions. 

It’s the recognition that every event is both infinitely positive and infinitely negative. It acknowledges that all beauty and creativity requires destruction and that all destruction can potentially result in beauty and creativity. There’s no possibility of one without the other.

And rather than experiencing a lack of joy or excitement, supposedly those who are able to achieve the “zero spectrum” nature of enlightenment will experience a boundless joy and beauty in every tiny experience, regardless of its apparent character.

So, in summary: less news media. More Buddha stuff.

Footnotes

  1. The idea that any 24-year-old could believe that they ruined their life appears laughable to me now, twelve years later.
  2. I kept it until The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck came out and shattered all expectations and performed far better than I could have ever imagined. It’s the only thing in my career to ever do so. Yet, ironically, in terms of life satisfaction, the book’s massive success also hasn’t been as good as I expected it to be. So I guess the mantra still holds true.
  3. I talk about this quite a bit in Chapters 3-5 of Everything is F*cked: A Book About Hope.
  4. Even-keeled people get a bad rep because often the reason they are even-keeled is because they’re repressing emotions rather than actually experiencing them. If this minimum range of emotion is due to repression, then it’s not healthy. If it’s due to a healthy understanding that things are rarely as good/bad as they seem, then that’s probably healthy.