At the risk of sounding like someone who enjoys sniffing their own farts, let me say that one of my favorite observations in all of my writing actually has nothing to do with psychology or personal growth or philosophy. Many years ago I wrote an article about what I learned traveling all over the world where I made the observation that the best thing about a country is usually the worst thing about it as well.
Whether it’s the United States’ obsessive focus on business opportunity or Brazil’s spontaneous partying attitude or Japan’s excessive politeness—the things that make these cultures great are also their Achilles’ heel and, as a result, the root of many of their problems.
This is one of those things that I came up with as I was writing it but I’ve found it coming up in conversation almost constantly in the years since.
Because it doesn’t just apply to countries, it seems to apply to almost anything. The best thing about a company is usually also the worst thing. The best thing about a person is usually also the worst thing. The best thing about a film or television show is often also the worst thing.
The things that define our biggest strengths are often also the root cause of our greatest weaknesses.
This realization has not only been practical in understanding why so many people and groups behave the way they do, but I’ve also found it to be incredibly practical when dealing with myself and my own self-understanding.
Because my best traits are also usually my worst traits.
For example, I’m a very impatient person. Almost every mistake I make in my career or in my life, it’s usually because I jump to conclusions and I’m in a hurry to move on to the next thing. In school, I was the kid who would have received a perfect test score if only he had bothered to go back and check his answers. In my writing, most of my boneheaded statements have come because I was too impatient to do extra proofreads. In my personal life, I’ve failed to listen to people or deal with conflicts because I can’t be bothered to sit with them for what feels, to me, like an unreasonable amount of time.
Yet, my impatience has been a huge asset for me as well. It suits the life of an entrepreneur—I don’t care if it’s perfect, just ship it and find out if it’s good! It’s caused me to become comfortable with failure, embarrassment, and making mistakes in public. It’s also made me good at dropping bad ideas or moving on from wasted efforts without much regret.
I could give other examples from my own life. My propensity for becoming bored easily has motivated an insatiable curiosity. My tendency to fall into existential crises (and depression) has forced me to become incredibly introspective and philosophical. My ability to be callous and sort of a dick towards others has made me much more willing to be honest in difficult situations than most people.
These are all things that, at some point in my life, either caused me problems or caused me to feel a lot of guilt and shame about myself. These are also all things that, for certain periods of time, I wanted to change.
But, over the course of many years, I have come to recognize that these things are dual-sided—they are both the best and worst things about myself, the extreme outliers of my personality that give me advantages but also cause me problems.
And I think we all have outliers like this in our personalities. We all have that best thing that’s also the worst thing about ourselves. Perfectionism can be crippling, but it also makes people great at their jobs. Constant feelings of guilt can drive us into despair but can also make us incredibly sensitive towards the feelings of others. The list goes on and on.
The problem is that we generally assume we’re supposed to get rid of these worst things without acknowledging the corresponding best things. Or we’re supposed to adopt the best things while not also living with the worst things. We don’t recognize that these traits are a package deal—you take the good with the bad, the vice with the virtue, whether you want to or not.
For me, this realization has made the process of self-acceptance far easier. It has helped me to “know myself” and to understand and predict where problems in my life will come from.
And ultimately, I think this sort of understanding about oneself is a healthy approach to not only self-awareness and self-acceptance but also to understanding and accepting others. There are going to be areas in life where you’re better than most people. There are also going to be areas in life where you’re worse than most people. And chances are, those two areas are going to intersect in some way, they are going to be distant cousins with the traces of the same genetics running through both of them.
This concept has also recently come full-circle and helped me cope with mixed feelings about where I live.
Long-time readers know that I have long been critical of my own country. And in 2020, it’s really hard to feel good about living in the US.
What I’ve been trying to wrap my head around this year is that the same dynamism that has made the US the hotbed for technological innovation, economic growth, and the originator of so much culture and art that’s spread throughout the world, is the same dynamism that causes so much chaos, uncertainty, and unnecessary dysfunction. And that if I’m going to passionately embrace one aspect, then I should probably embrace the other. The same way I’ve learned to adore my wife’s perfectionism—even when it drives me insane—perhaps I should wholeheartedly embrace this dynamism and chaos of my country.
Embracing the worst with the best is, at its core, commitment. Commitment to a person, a place, an ideal—commitment to yourself.
Because it’s either this sort of acceptance or I will be doomed to a life of always avoiding the downside of every upside, the worst part of every best part. No matter where you go, there’s some cost, some pitfall waiting for you. Therefore, you might as well learn to appreciate the one you’re standing in.