“Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.”
The quote is from a post-apocalyptic novel called “Those Who Remain” by the author G. Michael Hopf. One could be tempted to say that things must be this way – it is the circle of life.
If such a cycle did not exist, then there would not be any relationship between human experiences in the past, present, and future. Whether we think of an individual’s life, or the life of a society, we feel a compulsion to define it according to such a narrative structure. It not only makes sense to us, but it is deeply meaningful.
Without tough times, there would be no redemptive man. The weak man is the prerequisite of the strong man, and therefore, of the hero. This is a common mythological motif. The hero is at first weak and underdeveloped, but through a series of trials with difficult adversaries, he develops strength and skill, which he uses to bring a boon to his society, as outlined in multiple myths by Campbell in The Hero with A Thousand Faces.
The boon can come in the form of knowledge, or treasure, or periodic peace. The price for the triumph is that man must descend into the underworld.
But upon closer inspection, the superlative “strong men, easy times” or “weak men, hard times” is not only optimistic – it is equally pessimistic, if not more so. Not many try to become heroes, and of those who try, not many succeed – an idea we will shortly return to. The next issue is that it is not even realistic.
The Life of Pietro Perugino, Painter
How beneficial poverty may sometimes be to those with talent, and how it may serve as a powerful goad to make them perfect or excellent in whatever occupation they might choose, can be seen very clearly in the actions of Pietro Perugino. Wishing by means of his ability to attain some respectable rank, after leaving disastrous calamities behind in Perugia and coming to Florence, he remained there many months in poverty, sleeping in a chest, since he had no other bed; he turned night into day, and with the greatest zeal continually applied himself to the study of his profession.
After painting had become second nature to him, Pietro’s only pleasure was always to be working in his craft and constantly to be painting. And because he always had the dread of poverty before his eyes, he did things to make money which he probably would not have bothered to do had he not been forced to support himself.
Perhaps wealth would have closed to him and his talent the path to excellence just as poverty had opened it up to him, but need spurred him on since he desired to rise from such a miserable and lowly position-if not perhaps to the summit and supreme height of excellence, then at least to a point where he could have enough to live on. For this reason, he took no notice of cold, hunger, discomfort, inconvenience, toil or shame if he could only live one day in ease and repose; and he would always say—and as if it were a proverb—that after bad weather, good weather must follow, and that during the good weather houses must be built for shelter in times of need.Lives of the Artists, Giorgio Vasari
In pop culture, we are constantly told about the person who overcame all odds. The founder of Whatsapp was an Eastern European immigrant to the U.S who survived on food stamps while building his business. The most innovative companies are often built during economic recessions. The stories of rags-to-riches are so numerous, that one gets the impression that they are commonplace. But that is far from the truth.
These stories and their effects have resulted in a cocktail of cognitive fallacies (the narrative fallacy, hindsight bias, availability bias, and others). I do not want to use these biases indiscriminately – Hindsight Bias, Availability Bias, Narrative Fallacy and Survivorship Bias apply to these stories in different ways.
Availability Bias applies to the individual who extrapolates from the founder’s story that startup success is plausible.
Survivorship Bias applies to the journalist who “figured out” a relationship between hard times and success.
Narrative Fallacy and Hindsight Bias applies to the founder himself who created a backstory to “explain” why things worked out, and in retrospect, knew that he made the right decision. To clarify, narrative fallacy can be something like “I made the right move because I come from a small town that is uniquely suspicious of wishful thinking. This instilled a heavy dose of realism in my thinking.”
Hindsight Bias can be something like “When I had to decide whether I wanted to sell the company, I made the right choice, and I knew it at the time.”
There is a humorous thought experiment by psychologist Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness. Imagine that whenever you watched the news, and the winner of the national lottery was declared, you watched a follow-up segment, five minutes later, that called out the names of all the people that paid for a lottery ticket and lost. And for whatever reason, you were not allowed to change the channel. To make this more explicit, the TV screen would display nothing but the faces of every single loser (one after the other) for several hours.
Would that make people less optimistic about the lottery? Would people be less likely to play if they truly knew how unlikely it was that they would win?
Daniel Kahneman would name this bias WYSIATI (What You See Is All There Is) or The Availability Bias. People overestimate their odds of winning the lottery, or building a successful startup, because they are far more aware of success stories than they are of failures.
The heart warming stories we hear about those who made it against all odds are plentiful, but in reality – they occur rarely. The child who is born in a poor country is at a disadvantage when compared to the child who is born in a rich country.
But the relationship is not so clear when it comes to personal wealth. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in Outliers, there is an inverted-U relationship, where extreme wealth can result in self-destructive behaviors, so that the spoiled brat has as much chance at life success as the child who is born poor – not very high.
But when they began to make sovereignty hereditary, the children quickly degenerated from their fathers; and, so far from trying to equal their father’s virtues, they considered that a prince had nothing else to do than to excel all the rest in idleness, indulgence, and every other variety of pleasure.Niccolò Machiavelli
Gladwell’s inverted U corroborates the “Strong Men create good times” quote. Since, we know that an easy life can lead to decadence in an individual, some degree of urgency is required for someone to develop appropriate life skills.
On the other hand, we have learned from the psychoanalysts that childhood trauma can be a severe impediment in an adult’s life. The biological literature teaches us about the dangers of excess stress – the negative effects it can have on the growth of the brain, in addition to disrupting sleep, and the development of ulcers.
Let us return to the original quote which implies that if “things are bad now, they will soon improve” and if “things are good now, then soon enough, they will become bad again.” In this view, life is cyclical. There is no linear progress. Whereas the Mathew Principle tells us that the “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” It seems that the Mathew Principle, if allowed for a few exceptions, is a better description of reality than Hopf’s quote – in most cases.
This seems to be the case for countries too. The wealth of nations in the past, for example, are excellent indicators of what we can expect in the future – again, with a few exceptions. If circularity did exist, we would expect great empires to fall much faster than they do, and for undeveloped nations to rise much faster than they have.
As the lottery example teaches us, we are often blinded by survivorship bias. Hard times do not make people better. Few manage to do the unlikely and transcend their circumstances, that is why they are notable. They have managed to reverse the trajectory that was expected to befall them. But most men do not prevail under hard conditions, only a minority do – As The Pareto Principle would predict.
These men indeed make life easier for others in society. And it is true that tough times force people to develop vital skills, but there is a difference between extreme stress and positive stress. In Antifragile, Taleb makes the point that some things do indeed gain from disorder, but only when they are stressed optimally, if they are stressed more than that, they break. A muscle needs to be stressed to grow, but if stressed too much, it will tear.
We must now rephrase the original quote in the interest of accuracy.
“Hard times, if optimally gauged so as not to produce too much stress, create a few strong men, sometimes, who create good times, if the good times are excessively good, they create a few weak men, who create hard times, but mostly for themselves, and only sometimes.”
But maybe that’s not such a great story,