Materialism vs. idealism. Being materialistic means you think money, status and image are more important than family, helping others or just having fun. It’s being excessively concerned with creature comforts and possessions rather than novel ideas, moral possibilities and intellectual paradoxes. In a meta-analysis of hundreds of studies, Dr. Tim Kasser concludes that materialism is associated with lower life satisfaction and higher anxiety and depression. People who worry about status drink more, smoke more and shop more. Materialism promotes strong feelings of economic uncertainty and emotional instability.
Idealism is essentially a philosophy that says ideas matter more than having or controlling. It’s an outlook that acknowledges our imperfections and seeks to comprehend these frailties through the lens of our thoughts, feelings and beliefs. Everything else is immaterial. Realism implies we are capable of understanding these limitations, which neurologists say we never can. Because we only perceive and infer, we can never know with absolute certitude. I call myself an optimistic empiricist and am highly motivated by idealism but often annoyed and misguided by materialism.
Stupid vs. Smart. As a general rule, I hold that people are not stupid. Although, at times, we are definitely capable and culpable of doing dumb things, as well as being purposefully stupid at times (as in “dumb can be smart”). That said, stupidity is a glorious teacher – in my simplistic view, the fastest way to get smarter is to embrace our inherent, often spectacular stupidity. As Daniel Kahneman shrewdly observes, we have an unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance.
Stupidity is not the opposite of intelligence. It essentially means being unfocussed, particularly about emergent information or clues that are consequential, if not crucial, to our well being. As Sherlock advised Holmes: “I see no more than you, but I have trained myself to notice what I see.” We recognize our stupidity after mistakes are made, not before. Fatigue, stress, the pressure of deadlines, chemical impairment or lack of preparation and foresight all make us more susceptible to errors in judgement. We only get smart after we are stupid.
Maturity vs. immaturity. In the work I do, I occasionally hear clients decry the lack of mature business acumen among their ranks. They both hope and search for this leadership quality, particularly in the context of younger, ascendant workers. Maturity only comes with age, defeat and accomplishment. It is the self-realization of what living fully with imperfections means. It manifests itself when we learn how to courageously accept our failures, inhabit the moment and plan for a more fulfilling and prosperous tomorrow.
Maturity comes from vulnerability. It’s knowing exactly what we are doing when we make important choices. It’s taking risks with the bigger picture in mind and acting on principles, not for immediate personal gain (which only makes us smaller) but for the common good. Maturity beckons us to be better every day, more patient, fluid and adaptable. It expects us to be less categorical and less puzzled or cornered by the machinations of others. It demands that we understand what is right and what is enough, not just in moments of convenience but also in accepting the consequences that follow. Immaturity, conversely, is knowingly making doubtful choices and deciding to continue living in the past or presuming that today represents tomorrow.
Order vs. Disorder. Science tells us all things trend towards disorder. (In physics, it’s known as the second law of thermodynamics.) Instability increases as systems lose their life force, degrade or dissolve. The cells within our body die and are then replaced, youthful faces wrinkle and hair turns grey, furniture gets dusty and coffee gets cold. Employees cut corners, ignore rules and make mistakes. Procedures break down and become inefficient. Services become outdated, thus less in demand. Client relationships fracture and enterprises fail. Anything that can be built eventually falls apart. Entropy is the measure of disorder. Successful companies continuously invest time and money to counter it. Anything less is negligence and results in more problems.
Disorder or dysfunction is not failure; it’s simply a default response to progress. According to Ralph Stacey, a guru on chaos theory, stability and control are illusory and temporary. Does this notion upset you? Imagine a world of perfection. Nothing would change. No one would get old. Nothing would break. That immaculate state of affairs would have little need for creative problem solving. What would your life purpose be if nothing required a fix? Without entropy – the measure of disorder – we would have little to do, never be amused or motivated to get better. We would never realize our potential. To paraphrase Steven Pinker, the ultimate purpose of life is surely to deploy our energy and our intelligence to fight back the tide of entropy. (I am indebted to Shane Parrish for allowing this seed to germinate in my brain.)