Thales of Miletus, considered the first true philosopher in ancient Greece, lived a simple life.
We know him today for his application of early scientific principles to the study of nature. In a way, he was the intersection that caused mythology to diverge away from a world of facts.
Naturally, there is little he had to say that is considered profound today, but for the time he lived in, his approach was nothing short of revolutionary. When he talked, people listened.
According to legend, however, as his appeal grew, so did the noise of his critics. What could a man of such humble origins tell them about how the world worked, they wondered. Surely, if he knew what he was talking about, his wealth and his success would speak for itself.
Much of their irritation with Thales came from him shunning such worldly desires. They had a point, too: Can you really criticize something that you haven’t experienced for yourself?
Thales, the story goes, then set out to make his case. Using his observational knowledge of astronomy, he rightly predicted that one of the years would have a particularly favorable climate for olives to grow on olive trees. The winter before harvest season, he made his bet.
By hiring away all of the olive presses before the harvest, he became the single point of distribution for the machinery needed to collect the fruit, making a fortune in the process.
He didn’t have much money or any visible form of leverage before this, but he did have a theory based on his tested knowledge and that, apparently, paid off in an indirect way.
When people began acknowledging his worldly success, he simply went back to his old, simple way of being. The only difference this time was that no one dared to doubt him.
Second-order effects carry the reward
Like most parables of historical figures, there is as much chance that the story of Thales is grounded in myth as it is in reality. That, nonetheless, doesn’t stop it from being useful.
There are a few points we can take away here. The obvious one concerns itself with virtue and Thales living what he preached. Another is the value of knowledge and understanding how to think well enough that the theories we rationalize translate into practice.
The most interesting illumination, however, which connects to the other two but is more foundational, is the fact that everything has both an intended and an unintended side-effect.
Thales never cared about being wealthy and successful – things we think of as the reward – but his intention to learn and to understand the world paved a way there regardless. Granted, he walked away when he got there, but the connection between the two matters.
Most of the things we want – this could be said to include our pursuit of happiness, too – are arbitrary cultural constructs which have changing definitions. They have no fixed point, and they don’t represent a universal, timeless emotion or feeling or value or way-of-being.
Even if we, ourselves, define success and happiness at some point, there’s still nothing concrete to grasp because we live in a world of constant change, making them arbitrary.
Any attempt to acquire such rewards, then, is misguided. You can’t intend to wake up living a perfect life in a year, hoping that your goals and the 10 steps you laid out will get you there, because your expectancy of what that perfect life is fluctuates as you interact with reality.
The best things in life are byproducts. They are almost never intentional first-order effects, but unintentional second-order effects. They emerge as a consequence of just doing what you ought to do in a way that is valuable and meaningful over a sustained period of time.
In Thales’s case, maybe wealth brought him new conveniences, and that was nice, but his appreciation of the simple life was born from not minding whether the reward was there or not, which in turn likely enabled him to enjoy it in a healthier and more balanced way.
The most direct way to get what we intuitively want is to let it go and keep moving.
Orienting yourself in what is disorienting
Most of us think about the future a lot. We make plans, we consider, and we compare. Many of us, in fact, live in this imagined thought-game more than we do in the reality around us.
This is a natural human instinct, one most people need to engage for survival. But in order to make sense of this thought-game, we do something that damages us: We use the arbitrary words – like happiness and success – and their association with imagined events to orient us.
Not only do we live in a made-up world, but we use that made-up world to guide us in reality, centering it on made-up definitions of words that don’t have concrete definitions.
We can’t deal with the fact that the future is unknown and disorienting, so we create all this in our mind as a reference point. For the most part, it does fine, but at its core, it’s a thinking pattern that can only lead to dissatisfaction because the predictions we make are often poor.
In his book Obliquity, economist John Kay makes the case that complex goals in complex systems – which very much applies to us as humans – are best achieved indirectly.
Most rewards are byproducts, yes, but there is another caveat: Due to the uncertainty we face when dealing with the future, the only way to orient ourselves in the right direction is to self-correct towards some roughly undefined point while focusing on something else.
To make optimal decisions, an agent has to force their attention onto what they can control, which usually has nothing to do with happiness or success or any other worldly desire.
This means that much of the imagined future we construct is a waste of mental energy and resources, because the only place where you can control something is right now, in reality.
To orient ourselves in a disorienting world, we need to forgo our fixation with what’s defined.
We live in an interconnected reality, one in which the effects of actions produce externalities that can’t always be predicted. There’s more to life than knowing that two plus two is four.
The fable of Thales is telling because, once we extrapolate from it, it’s a reminder that there is usually more going on around us than we intuitively think, and we should respect that fact.
Every choice we make, every action we take, and every effect we produce ripples to create second, third, and fourth-order effects that leave unintended byproducts. Often, it’s these byproducts that surprise us by giving us an answer we didn’t even know we were looking for.
It makes sense that we chase arbitrary definitions of success and happiness, and it makes even more sense that we try to define them for ourselves when we realize this, but broken down, the whole enterprise still fails because these things are simply coping mechanisms.
They provide a reference point in an imagined future which offers orientation in the present. This is, naturally, valuable, but taken too far, it leads towards a game of disappointment.
Complex systems are unpredictable which makes complex goals difficult to design. Rather, a better way of interacting with reality is by focusing on what can be controlled moment-to-moment, adjusting our orientation as we figure it out, letting the externalities play their part.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to be better or that it’s not worth fulfilling any of our desires. All it means is that the best things in life don’t always respond to attention.
If we learn to focus on what we simply ought to do, quite often, the rest takes care of itself.
Want to think and live smarter? Zat Rana publishes a free weekly newsletter for 30,000+ readers at Design Luck.