Why Life’s Not Fair, and How To Thrive in Spite of It

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

In chemistry, there is something called entropy.

It’s the tendency of any system to increase its own amount of disorder whenever it gets a chance. Take a set of gas molecules, contained in a box. As soon as you open the box, the gas molecules will spread as far as they can.

In the same vein, the only thing holding the molecules of your coffee mug together is the energy that’s been embedded into it in the form of applied heat.

Drop it on the floor and it’ll be happy to increase its entropy in the form of a whole bunch of shards.

However, your broken mug would never spontaneously reassemble itself. You have to force a decrease in entropy, an increase always happens naturally.

This is also one of the reasons that time can only move forward. I found this idea in Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time.

In biology, there is something called evolution.

The term evolution can be translated to “unfolding,” meaning it describes how things change gradually when there’s no specific plan. Evolution is an antifragile process. It gets stronger from stress and setbacks. Think of a hydra: for every head you cut off, two grow back.

But in order to do so, its parts must be fragile: individual specimens die all the time, serving as feedback for the mechanism as to which traits work, and which ones don’t.

For example, if a city is plagued by too many pigeons, catfish will suddenly start hunting them. That’s a fish, eating a bird! Eventually, the pigeons will figure out how to avoid the fish, but to do so, a few birds must die — and that’s not fair.

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I found this idea in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile.

In business, there is something called the power law.

It says that whoever’s number one in a market will usually reap 10x, sometimes 100x the rewards of who’s in tenth place. The reward-ratio is skewed.

On Google, the first organic result gets 20%-30% of all clicks.

Almost 30% of all ice cream sold is vanilla. Chocolate comes in second, but accounts for less than 10%.

In a venture capital fund, the top investment will yield a better return than the entire rest of the fund combined.

At Peter Thiel’s Founder’s Fund, Facebook outgunned every other investment. Palantir, the second-best investment, returned more than all the others combined (aside from Facebook), and so on.

Business often really is a winner-takes-it-all game and that’s not fair. I learned this idea from Peter Thiel’s Zero to One.

So no, life isn’t fair.

However, none of this is a cause to worry, because what is fair is that we’ve all been given the same mental equipment, the same capacity, to accept life’s imbalance.

Once you’ve realized life’s not fair, all that’s left for you is to look at the entire spectrum of possible actions you can take and say:

“Which of these will make today better?”

Life will always be unfair, and some of these inequalities we will never be able to change. Mo Gawdat is a great example of using perspective and reaction as a tool to deal with that.

He went from losing his son to sharing their idea of happiness with the world, and he acted fast, because among all his possible choices, he saw this to be the best one.

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Whatever pain, grief and sorrow life has caused you, that pain is entirely self-inflicted. Once you realize that, life will never be the same.

We all have a chance to make this realization.

And I think that’s pretty fair.

“Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it.” — Charles R. Swindoll