The Dumpster Fire Fallacy

I noticed a trend emerging this holiday season:

  • 2020 dumpster fire gets 22 million hits on Google
  • Dumpster fire Christmas ornaments go viral
  • Dumpster fire replaces yule log.
  • Netflix show with a big old dumpster fire on the thumbnail and lots of celebs ripping on 2020

Everybody seems to enjoy watching a good ol' dumpster fire raging onward. The wind howls and flicks the flames as the smoke billows higher and higher. Even better if you throw it on wheels and roll it down a big hill.

It's the kind of self-deprecating humor that makes coping with the isolation, fear, and depression that much easier. It's a unifying banner to rally under.

And for these reasons, at a surface level, the dumpster fire is a great theme for the year. But there is a better one.

Because the dumpster fire is also a beacon of hopelessness. Reactive, short-term thinking, rather than long-term planning and execution. While the fire is mesmerizing to watch, the smoke is heavy and dark, suffocating.

If 2020 felt like a dumpster fire to you, its only your fault. And while its easy to sit back and watch the fire rage on, opportunity is in the air. You just can't see it through the thick, dark smoke.

Consider this quote from Charles Dickens in the opening pages of A Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

Forget the dumpster fire. The real theme for this year is A Tale of Two Cities.

Not geographical cities, per se, but two schools of thought. Two breeds of motivation.

For many it was the worst of times: loneliness, isolation, depression, death. For some, it was the best of times: cranking out more content, helping more people, and making more money than ever before.

Many foolishly plunged deeper into the social media rabbit hole to be sedated. Others dedicated themselves to a new hobby, learning a language, an instrument, or a skill. They wrote, thought deeply, and gained wisdom.

And for many of us, it still hasn't sunk in. I remember saying in April that I couldn't imagine the quarantine lasting through May. And here we are, incredulous.

It's easy to focus on the darkness, but there are many shining lights.

And depending on how you respond to these events, it can be a spring of hope, renewing your strength and resolve, or it can be the dead of winter.

Consider how Isaac Newton reflected on his experience during the Bubonic Plague. He was 23 years old in 1665 when Cambridge University closed due to the plague.

He stayed at his family’s home and embarked on what he later called the most intellectually productive period of his life. He studied, learned, and developed his theories so that when he returned to Cambridge in 1667, he was made a fellow within 6 months and a professor in 2 years.

It was at this family homestead that he first developed his theories of gravity, optics, and wrote his first papers on what we now call calculus. And he went on to become one of the most influential scientists and philosophers that the world has known.

This quarantine was his age of wisdom, his spring of hope. He called it, "the year of wonders."

Ever year since I started in entrepreneurship, I would spend several days around the new year creating lofty goals, building a system to track them, and reflecting on the previous year. I would always think to myself, "this is going to be the year that everything clicks for me."

And yet every year would pass, I read more books, bought more courses, but never got closer to my goals. I never actually started a business.

I was optimistic about the future, but I spent more time focused on what to do rather than how or why to do it. I just wanted to be "successful."

In his book, Zero to One, Peter Thiel divides future thought into four categories. I have summarized these into my own words as they relate to our current dilemma:

  • Indefinite Pessimists: Life is going to suck forever. So it does. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • Definite Pessimists: We need to make money today so that we're prepared to weather the coming crash.
  • Definite Optimists: The future is here. I have a vision that I'm going to bring to the world.
  • Indefinite Optimists: This time will pass. The world will get better.

The majority of biz op advice is aimed at people who are definite pessimists or indefinite optimists. New opportunities and secrets that promise to reveal quick ways to make money online are perfect snares for those desperate to make money quickly. Selling the dream of lifestyle and abundance to someone who wants more than anything to believe that it's inevitably in his future is even easier.

Thiel argues that definite optimism is what drives creation, or as he calls it, going from zero to one. The greatest technological advances in history were made by definite optimists, and the growth of the United States over it's first 200 years was a result of definite optimism.

And so you must adopt this mindset. You must take responsibility for bringing your vision of the future into today's world.

But in a sense of survival, indefinite optimism prevails. Concentration camp survivors from WW2 recounted that some people would hear whispers, rumors that their rescue was eminent. They convinced themselves that the war would end in exactly 2 weeks and placed all of their hope in being rescued on that date. These people eventually died after their hopes were repeatedly crushed. The survivors were those who maintained hope. Who found meaning and purpose in their current circumstances.

And so the best path forward is to marry the two. Take every opportunity to bring your vision to reality, despite the circumstances. Don't keep wishing and hoping for different circumstances.

This is what Jim Collins calls "the Stockdale Paradox" in his book, Good to Great:

You must maintain unwavering faith that you can and will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, AND at the same time have the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Going into 2021, there is an opportunity to take advantage of the situation we're all in. In all likelihood, we'll still be living in a state of weaponized fear, isolation, and strife 12 months from now.

It's okay to take a moment to observe the dumpster fire and laugh about how crazy this year was. But don't wait around for 2021 to be better. Don't linger in the smoke.

2021 will only be better if you make it better. Choose to make it a year of wonders, an age of Wisdom, a season of light.

The best of times.

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