The first self-archetype is merely the subset of James’ blooming, buzzing confusion that we classify into our mind’s “I.” It is extraordinarily hard to redraw this boundary later in life. Hallucinogenic drugs, intense stress, sensory deprivation chambers, or the rigors of meditative practice are usually required.
Venkatesh Rao, Tempo
Freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose.
Kris Kristofferson, “Me And Bobby McGee”
John Patrick Mason: Your “best?!” Losers always whine about [doing their] best. Winners go home and f*** the prom queen.
The Rock (1996)
This is going to be one of those abstract, philosophical posts. Consider yourself warned. However, portions will tie in rather neatly with investing. So you may want to stick around. I’m also going to try to write with as much clarity as possible here, because the concepts I want to explore in this post are fundamentally weird. In order, they are:
- Identity functions as a psychic prison.
- To have any chance of escaping the psychic prison of identity, we must to cultivate the ability to redraw the boundaries of the self.
- Therefore, freedom is, at a fundamental level, the ability to participate as a principal in the process of creative destruction.
Let’s start at the beginning.
The Psychic Prison
There’s a well-known quote from the book (and movie) Fight Club: “the things you own, end up owning you.” The idea is that over time you settle into a pattern of consumption. You stagnate within this pattern. After a while, it is impossible to determine whether you define your pattern of consumption or whether your pattern of consumption defines you.
I’ll take this a step further and suggest the following: the thoughts you think, end up thinking you. That is to say, you think your “self” into existence.
We’ve all met someone who’s chronically negative. That person who’s always put upon, who’s always sick, who’s always short on cash or the victim of sinister forces outside her control. That person who spends her life lurching from one crisis to the next. At times it seems as though she’s the physical manifestation of negativity and misfortune in the world.
It seems that way because it’s true. That person truly is a physical manifestation of negativity and misfortune. While plenty of her misfortunes may well be beyond her control, she’s also co-creator of the misery in her life. She has chosen to define her life with negativity. Now, she may not see this as a choice. (In fact, she almost certainly does not) Stuff just happens to her. But allowing yourself to fall into the posture of a chronic victim is itself a kind of choice.
The thoughts you think, end up thinking you.
You are the co-creator of your lived experience.
If you find yourself attracted to value investing, and you come to identify strongly as a “value investor,” in addition to whatever financial returns you generate that identity probably gives you a sense of meaning and maybe even a sense of community or belonging (if you don’t see Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting as a form of religious pilgrimage I’m really not sure what to tell you). Your value investor identity also frames your worldview a certain way. It limits your worldview in certain ways. This can be a liability, if your value worldview is fundamentally misaligned with the prevailing market regime. In this case your identity may well turn out to be a form of maladaptation.
A static identity locks you into particular patterns of thought and behavior. These patterns are relatively straightforward for others to identify and exploit, whether in business, politics or investing.
This lock-in is what I mean by psychic prison.
Escaping The Psychic Prison
Escaping the psychic prison of identity is straightforward but not easy. All you have to do is redraw the boundaries of your identity.
This lies at the heart of zen practice, adjacent to the idea of non-attachment. After years of practice, a zen master might be able to completely erase his attachment to self–a process that might trigger a complete mental breakdown for someone unprepared for the experience. What might this feel like? Having not experienced the feeling of complete dissolution of self, I’m hardly qualified to describe it.
Fortunately, complete dissolution of the self isn’t required to break out of the psychic prison of identity. All that’s needed is the ability to consciously rewrite the boundaries of identity.
Meditation is one way to practice this. Another is acting.
Our value investor might begin working on his escape from the limiting aspects of that identity by play-acting at growth or momentum investing. This doesn’t mean completely abandoning the tenets of value investing. It merely means cultivating the ability to view the world through someone else’s eyes. It’s merely about wearing the mask of a growth investor. At least to start, anyway.
The things you own, end up owning you.
The thoughts you think, end up thinking you.
The masks you wear, end up wearing you.
Ultimately, there’s no difference between you and the masks you wear. You are the masks you choose to wear. For some this is a frightening possibility to consider. Particularly from a metaphysical perspective. However, it’s also empowering.
Remember, you get to choose the masks you wear. That’s the point of this post.
The Nature Of Freedom
True freedom is freedom from an arbitrary or externally defined definition of self. It’s engaging in the process of creative destruction.
Personal freedom is engaging in creative destruction at the level of the self. Economic freedom is engaging in the process of creative destruction in the external world. When I say engage in I mean engage in as a principal, as a force acting on the world around you. Like it or not, we’re all subject to the process of creative destruction. The difference between freedom and slavery is agency.
This is the reason I included that quote from The Rock at the start of this post. It cuts to the very heart of what it means to be free. Free people manifest their will in the world around them. Losers whine about doing their best.
The archetype of the chronically negative loser described at the beginning of this post is especially grim. Here is a person who cannot even rise to the level of whining about doing her best. All she can do is whine about being a victim.
By contrast, by this definition, Frederick Douglass was probably freer as a slave than most nominally “free” people are today. It’s not an accident that one of Douglass’s most famous sayings is the statement that “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” There is a reason slave owners did not want their slaves to learn to read.
In this spirit I’ll close with an excerpt from Douglass’s speech, “Self-Made Men,” which I recommend you read in its entirety.
I am certain that there is nothing good, great or desirable which man can possess in this world, that does not come by some kind of labor of physical or mental, moral or spiritual. A man, at times, gets something for nothing, but it will, in his hands, amount to nothing. What is true in the world of matter, is equally true in the world of the mind. Without culture there can be no growth; without exertion, no acquisition; without friction, no polish; without labor, no knowledge; without action, no progress and without conflict, no victory. A man that lies down a fool at night, hoping that he will waken wise in the morning, will rise up in the morning as he laid down in the evening.
Faith, in the absence of work, seems to be worth little, if anything. The preacher who finds it easier to pray for knowledge than to tax his brain with study and application will find his congregation growing beautifully less and his flock looking elsewhere for their spiritual and mental food. In the old slave times colored ministers were somewhat remarkable for the fervor with which they prayed for knowledge, but it did not appear that they were remarkable for any wonderful success. In fact, they who prayed loudest seemed to get least. They thought if they opened their mouths they would be filled. The result was an abundance of sound with a great destitution of sense.
4 thoughts on “The Psychic Prison”
“Therefore, freedom is, at a fundamental level, the ability to participate as a principal in the process of creative destruction”
I only arrived at this same idea because I wanted to win in life more than I wanted to have a high opinion of my own brilliance (which took a close second to wanting to win in my decisioning hierarchy).
I found early-ish on that a dogmatic approach to the ideals I was attracted to – libertarianism, capitalism, agnosticism, value-investing, contrarian investing – was hurting, not helping me win at life, with “winning” defined as having a full life comprised of true friends, honest business and financial success, and peace of mind.
Once I took a more Aristotelian approach (it’s stunning how much he got right so early in man’s philosophical history), everything got better – my friendships, my business and financial success and my peace of mind. But it is a harder approach because absolutes are easier to process and understand than the grey area of balance, constant revision and relativism (i.e., philosophical and personal creative destruction).
There’s also this: most people who engage in philosophical discussions – about life, markets, relationships, etc. – will think less of you / will call you inconsistent (wishy-washy) because, in my opinion, it is easier for them to deal with you if they can put you in a category.
So be it – I have been bashed because of my “inconsistent” thoughts or for “hedging” my views or (this one I got recently) my mealy-mouth approach – but that’s a small price (maybe no price) to pay for having found true friends, honest success in business, reasonable financial achievement and a decent measure of peace of mind.
All that said, until reading this piece, I never realized that I practice personal creative destruction, but since I believe knowing what you do and how you do it is enhanced by calling those things (all things) by their proper names, I’m betting this knowledge will only help me.
Thanks for taking the time to share this lovely comment, Mark. I am also sometimes criticized for “inconsistency” and “hedging.” Totally agree with your view that it’s a small price to pay.
I recently rewatched The Prisoner, and this post reminds me of the revelation at the end of the series that Number 1 (the head jailer) is really Number 6 (the eponymous prisoner).
It’s right there in the opening credits voiceover, if you add a comma:
“Who is Number 1?”
“You are, Number 6.”
I had never heard of this show before reading this comment! I love the metaphor.