“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”
That is a quote from G. Michael Hopf’s post-apocalyptic novel “Those Who Remain.” It is saying about a circle of life, that things must work this way.
Not only makes sense to us, but the quote also has deep meaning for us. There would be no relationship between human experiences in the past, present, and future if such a cycle did not exist. We feel compelled to define an individual’s life, or the life of a society, in terms of such a narrative structure.
There would be no redemptive man without tough times. A strong man comes from a weak man. As outlined in multiple myths by Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a weak man can eventually become a hero. A hero is initially weak and underdeveloped. But through a series of trials with difficult adversaries, he develops strength and skill, which he uses to help his society. This is a common mythological theory.
The aid from a hero can be a treasure, knowledge, or regular peace. A man should fall into the underworld if that’s what it takes to claim a victory.
However, the quote “strong men, easy times” or “weak men, hard times” is both optimistic and pessimistic. Only a few people would try to be heroes, and even fewer succeed to be. Some change their mind while they’re trying to be heroes. Not many people believe that there can be a hero, some people even think that it is not even realistic.
The Life of Pietro Perugino, Painter
The actions of Pietro Perugino demonstrate how beneficial poverty can be to those with talent, and how it can serve as a powerful goad to make them perfect or excellent in whatever occupation they choose. After leaving disastrous calamities behind in Perugia and coming to Florence, he remained there many months in poverty, sleeping in a chest because he had no other bed; he turned night into day, and with the greatest zeal continually applied himself to the study of his profession.
Pietro’s only pleasure after painting was to always be working in his craft and constantly painting. After painting had become second nature to him. And because he was always afraid of poverty, he did things to make money that he probably would not have done if he hadn’t been forced to support himself.
Perhaps wealth would have closed the path to excellence for him and his talent in the same way that poverty had opened it for him, but need spurred him on because he desired to rise from such a miserable and lowly position—if not to the summit and supreme height of excellence, then to a point where he could have enough to live on. As a result, he paid no attention to cold, hunger, discomfort, inconvenience, toil, or shame if he could only live one day in ease and repose; and he would always say—as if it were a proverb—that after bad weather, good weather must follow, and that houses must be built for shelter in times of need during the good weather.Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari
We are constantly told in popular culture about the person who defied all odds. We’ve heard so many rags-to-riches stories. Whatsapp’s founder was an Eastern European immigrant to the United States that survived on food stamps while building his company. Stories about how the most innovative companies are frequently formed during economic downturns. These kinds of stories are considered to be common. However, sometimes it’s just not true.
The rags-to-riches stories and their consequences have resulted in a mix of cognitive fallacies including the narrative fallacy, availability bias, hindsight bias, and others. Many kinds of biases – Availability Bias, Hindsight Bias, Narrative Fallacy, and Survivorship Bias all apply in different ways to these stories.
The Survivorship Bias refers to the journalist who “discovered” a link between adversity and success.
Availability Bias refers to the person who concludes from the founder’s story that startup success is possible.
Meanwhile, the founder experienced Narrative Fallacy and Hindsight Bias because he created a backstory to “explain” why things worked out and, in retrospect, knew he made the right decision. To be more specific, narrative fallacy can be expressed as “I made the right decision because I come from a small town that is uniquely suspicious of wishful thinking and this filled my thinking with a heavy dose of realism.”
An example of hindsight bias is the thought, “When it came to deciding whether to sell the company, I made the right decision, and I knew it at the time,”.
Daniel Gilbert, the author of Stumbling on Happiness, has an entertaining thought experiment. Imagine that whenever the winner of the national lottery was announced on the news, a five-minute follow-up segment called out the names of everyone who paid for a lottery ticket and lost. And you were also not permitted to change the channel for whatever reason. To emphasize this, the TV screen would show nothing but the faces of each person who lost the lottery for several hours.
Would people be less likely to play the lottery if they knew how unlikely they were to win? Will this make people less optimistic about winning the lottery?
People overestimate their chances of winning the lottery or launching a successful startup because they are far more familiar with success stories than failures. This is what Daniel Kahneman would call the Availability Bias or also known as WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is).
The stories we hear about those who succeeded against all odds are plentiful are so heartwarming, but in reality, they are rare. When compared to a child born in a rich country, a child born in a poor country is at a disadvantage.
When it comes to personal wealth, however, the relationship is less clear. According to Malcolm Gladwell’s book, Outliers, there is an inverted-U relationship in which extreme wealth can lead to self-destructive behaviors. Therefore, the rich kids have the same chance of success in life as the poor kids, and that chance is relatively low.
When they began to make sovereignty hereditary, the children quickly degenerated from their fathers, and instead of attempting to equal their father’s virtues, they believed that a prince’s only duty was to outdo everyone else in idleness, indulgence, and every other variety of pleasure.Niccolò Machiavelli
The inverted U relationship theory by Malcolm Gladwell supports the quote “Strong Men Create Good Times.” The theory concludes that developing appropriate life skills requires some urgency because an easy life can lead to depravity in an individual.
Psychoanalysts, on the other hand, have taught us that childhood trauma can be a major obstacle in someone’s life. In addition, biological studies warn us about the dangers of excessive stress, including the negative effects it can have on brain growth, sleep disruption, and ulcer development.
If we look back to Hopf’s quote, it implies that life is cyclical. It means that if “things are bad now, they will soon improve,” and it also means that if “things are good now, they will soon become bad again.” That means there is no such thing as linear progress because everything is turning around in a circle. On the other hand, the Mathew Principle states that “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” With a few exceptions, in most circumstances, the Mathew Principle appears to be a better depiction of reality than Hopf’s quote.
Mathew’s principle appears to be true for nations as well. If the circularity as mentioned in Hopf’s quote did exist, we would anticipate large empires to fall much faster than they do, and poor states to flourish much faster than they have. However, the truth is that the wealth of nations in the past is a great forecast of what we might expect in the future.
As the lottery experiment demonstrates, survivorship bias frequently blinds us. People are not made better by adversity. Few people are noteworthy for doing the unthinkable and transcending their circumstances. They have managed to deviate from the path that was predicted for them. However, as The Pareto Principle predicts, only a few men succeed in difficult circumstances.
These few lucky men truly make the lives of others in society simpler. And, while it is true that difficult circumstances force people to develop necessary skills, there is a distinction to be made between acute stress and beneficial stress. Taleb argues in Antifragile that some things benefit from disorder, but only when stressed optimally. But if stressed excessively, they break. For example, a muscle needs stress to grow, but too much stress causes it to rip.
That being said, to make it more accurate, we must now rephrase the original quote:
“Hard times, if correctly gauged so as not to induce excessive stress, develop a few strong men, occasionally, who create good times; and if the good times are excessively great, they make a few weak men, who create hard times, but largely for themselves, and only sometimes.”
But perhaps that’s not such a good narrative might people want to hear.