Generally speaking, we live our lives trying to avoid making a mistake. Perhaps it is because we were brought up to do everything as perfectly as possible. Perhaps it is because we fear the consequences. Perhaps it is because we refuse to accept that we are imperfect beings.
Regardless of the reason, we have a constant nagging voice in the back of our minds asking us: “Are you sure you want to do this? What if it’s all a big mistake?”.
This mentality affects our work, our financial decisions, our sense of adventure and even our relationships. Sometimes, we even go as far as not taking any action in fear of screwing it up. The fear of mistakes makes us take less risks and leaps of faith, hindering our ability to live a full life.
But to quote a great captain, Jean-Luc Picard:
“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”
Life is full of mistakes. No matter how hard we try to minimise risk, life will always find a way to trip you up. Because we are not a time-travelling supercomputer that can see and predict every variable, it is impossible to make no mistakes. Ergo, it is okay to make mistakes, because to err is to human.
In fact, mistakes are not always bad.
A “mistake” such as the singer’s voice cracking on a live performance may make it a more special performance, because it is a sign the singer poured all of their emotion and energy into the song, rather than playing it safe to avoid a mistake.
Columbus discovered the Caribbean because he mistakenly thought that he could reach Asia by sailing due west of Spain.
Everyone has a story of getting lost while travelling and stumbling onto an unforgettable experience that they could not have possibly planned for.
Sometimes, we will look back on our life and realise that what we thought was a mistake back then turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because each and every mistake we made led us to where we are now.
Of course, some mistakes carry irreversible, dire consequences, such as drinking and driving, or falling asleep while a nuclear reactor fails (Three Mile Island accident). But outside of these, most mistakes in life are something that you can learn something and move on from.
Many people dream of finding “The One” – the perfect romantic companion who is destined to be with you. It is a dominant trope in stories, both old and new. Plato’s The Symposium contains a story about how Zeus split human beings in two to weaken them, so we are always searching for our other half. An old Chinese tale tells the story of the “red string“ – an invisible connection between two people created when they are born, that will eventually bring the two together in the name of true love. There are countless examples of books, movies and TV shows that reinforce the notion that we will all eventually end up with just the right person.
What makes The One so special? Typically, instead of a list of ideal features such as a certain personality or look, most people describe The One as someone who they can connect with, be understood by and feel completed by; someone who they can’t imagine not being with. People who believe in the idea of The One may picture a relationship where things are easy, because the other person will just “get” them and there will be no trouble in paradise. In short, The One represents a perfect relationship with the perfect person, tailored just for you.
But how realistic is the possibility of finding The One? If we look at it from a purely statistical point of view, the chances are infinitesimal. Not only does your match have to be born of your preferred gender, but they must live in the same space and time as you at some point in your life. Even if you happen to find this one person, you have to accommodate for whether you will even notice, let alone be attracted to, them since the qualities you are looking for may vary depending on what stage of life you are at. (Read this wonderful What If? article: https://what-if.xkcd.com/9/)
Of course, the whole point of The One is that despite all of these odds, the two of you are supposed to be brought together by some external force – fate, destiny, the gods, or whatever supernatural power you believe in. Then, it is said that the moment you set eyes on each other, you will feel an instant connection and true love will be born. Some people even believe that “if it is meant to be, it will happen without fail”. Because of this, some people test their relationship by stressing it, or will be more open to letting people go because they believe that if they are truly The One, then surely they will meet again and everything will be alright. This is explored in a short story by Haruki Murakami named On Seeing The 100% Perfect Girl One Beautiful April Morning.
(Bacchus and Ariadne by Titian)
However, as beautiful as the idea of finding The One is, it can be a dangerous – even toxic – idea.
The most obvious problem is that dreaming of The One sets unrealistic expectations. Even when they are with an amazing, supportive, kind partner, some people will consider them only 80% or 90% perfect. Because of the nature of human greed, we always want something better or greater than what we possess. This makes us less grateful for what we currently have and we fail to appreciate how lucky we are to be with our partner. We may even decide to end a relationship in search of greener pastures, only to regret it and remember that person as “the one that got away”.
On the other hand, people are so afraid that they might not realise that someone is The One that they make the classic error of the sunk cost fallacy. They think that they invested so much time in this relationship that if they leave now, they will forever lose the chance to live happily ever after. This often leads to unhappy marriages and even divorce, causing people to miss out on opportunities of finding someone that they will truly be happy with.
Similarly, because we feel the pressure of time passing by while others seemingly find their soulmates and happy endings, we end up feeling desperate. This desperation may push us into forcing relationships with people who do not share our values, treat us unkindly or generally incompatible with us. Some people will fake an encounter with a supposed soulmate, marry them and hide their problems and resentment, while struggling to put on a happy face for the rest of the world.
Another problem with believing in The One is the concept of fate. It is comforting to think that things are predetermined, but this also makes us lazy. What is the point of looking for the right person or fighting to make a relationship work when fate will just throw you The One at some point in your life? If you believe in fate, it makes you complacent and take less action. Instead of taking the leap of faith, communicating and trying to improve yourself, you think instead “it shouldn’t be this hard if they were The One” and give up. Believing that there is someone out there set aside for you is entitlement. Much like anything in the world, luck and probability will only take you so far. Good things will only come to you if you take action and make an effort.
The inherent flaw in the concept of The One is that it is a black-and-white, binary question: “is this person perfect”? The quest for perfection is as futile as a dog chasing its own tail. When the standard you are comparing everything or everyone is perfection, you are sure to be disappointed.
Furthermore, how can we demand a perfect person when we are not perfect ourselves? As we mature, our preferences and needs change with us. Is it not arrogant to think that we know ourselves so well that we can pick out someone that we think will be perfect for the rest of our lives at first glance?
The perfect partner is not someone that will understand our every action, thoughts and words, and cater to our every need. The perfect partner is someone who possesses qualities we value, have imperfections that we can accept and will communicate openly so that we can work things out with them. No human being is perfect, so every relationship needs to be fine-tuned, negotiated and improved on, which involves each person undergoing change, compromise and sacrifices.
This philosophy sets a much more realistic expectation on our partners and ourselves. We don’t have to be perfect or find someone who is perfect: we just have to find someone who is willing to work with us to become perfect for each other eventually. Someone who makes us happy, while helping us grow to be someone that can make them happy.
There is no one true “The One”. The One that matters is the one who – out of all the imperfect people out there – you chose because you find them awesome and want to try work with to build a happy relationship together, and they feel the same way about you.
The One is someone you made a conscious choice to round them up to The One.
What makes us “us”? This is a question that every person on Earth would have asked (or constantly asking) themselves at some point in their lives. We seem to be gripped by an instinct to be unique – to not only discover our identity but to express it to the world.
Our identity is manifested through how we interact with the world. Some people express themselves visually – colourful hair, a token accessory they always wear or a general “look”. Some people opt to express their uniqueness through what they say – such as having catch-phrases or being the witty, funny guy.
However, by far the most common way people show their identity is through their mannerisms – specifically those we display consciously. For example, some common traits people openly show are “being a hugger”, “always smiling” or “never swearing”. It is almost as if we set up intricate sets of rules for ourselves so that we act in a way that is predictable by people who know us well – a persona code, if you will.
This becomes interesting when the expected behaviour is not necessarily positive, such as when your friend is acting in a way that irks you, like saying something stupid or being overly affectionate. Well, it could be that they are purposefully doing it as per their persona code, knowing that it may not be received well. This seems illogical – why would you act in a way that hurts your image?
This is because our “trademark” – what makes us “us” – is a complex combination of our past experiences, present behaviour and our choices for the future. Due to this complexity, it is impossible to be a “perfect person”. So perhaps the reason that we cling to our mannerisms – whether they are good or bad – is that we would rather be a perfect “me” than a perfect person.
One beautiful April morning, on a narrow side street in Tokyo’s fashionable Harujuku neighborhood, I walked past the 100% perfect girl.
Tell you the truth, she’s not that good-looking. She doesn’t stand out in any way. Her clothes are nothing special. The back of her hair is still bent out of shape from sleep. She isn’t young, either – must be near thirty, not even close to a “girl,” properly speaking. But still, I know from fifty yards away: She’s the 100% perfect girl for me. The moment I see her, there’s a rumbling in my chest, and my mouth is as dry as a desert.
Maybe you have your own particular favorite type of girl – one with slim ankles, say, or big eyes, or graceful fingers, or you’re drawn for no good reason to girls who take their time with every meal. I have my own preferences, of course. Sometimes in a restaurant I’ll catch myself staring at the girl at the next table to mine because I like the shape of her nose.
But no one can insist that his 100% perfect girl correspond to some preconceived type. Much as I like noses, I can’t recall the shape of hers – or even if she had one. All I can remember for sure is that she was no great beauty. It’s weird.
“Yesterday on the street I passed the 100% girl,” I tell someone.
“Yeah?” he says. “Good-looking?”
“Your favorite type, then?”
“I don’t know. I can’t seem to remember anything about her – the shape of her eyes or the size of her breasts.”
“So anyhow,” he says, already bored, “what did you do? Talk to her? Follow her?”
“Nah. Just passed her on the street.”
She’s walking east to west, and I west to east. It’s a really nice April morning.
Wish I could talk to her. Half an hour would be plenty: just ask her about herself, tell her about myself, and – what I’d really like to do – explain to her the complexities of fate that have led to our passing each other on a side street in Harajuku on a beautiful April morning in 1981. This was something sure to be crammed full of warm secrets, like an antique clock build when peace filled the world.
After talking, we’d have lunch somewhere, maybe see a Woody Allen movie, stop by a hotel bar for cocktails. With any kind of luck, we might end up in bed.
Potentiality knocks on the door of my heart.
Now the distance between us has narrowed to fifteen yards.
How can I approach her? What should I say?
“Good morning, miss. Do you think you could spare half an hour for a little conversation?”
Ridiculous. I’d sound like an insurance salesman.
“Pardon me, but would you happen to know if there is an all-night cleaners in the neighborhood?”
No, this is just as ridiculous. I’m not carrying any laundry, for one thing. Who’s going to buy a line like that?
Maybe the simple truth would do.
“Good morning. You are the 100% perfect girl for me.“
No, she wouldn’t believe it. Or even if she did, she might not want to talk to me. Sorry, she could say, I might be the 100% perfect girl for you, but you’re not the 100% boy for me. It could happen. And if I found myself in that situation, I’d probably go to pieces. I’d never recover from the shock. I’m thirty-two, and that’s what growing older is all about.
We pass in front of a flower shop. A small, warm air mass touches my skin. The asphalt is damp, and I catch the scent of roses. I can’t bring myself to speak to her. She wears a white sweater, and in her right hand she holds a crisp white envelope lacking only a stamp. So: She’s written somebody a letter, maybe spent the whole night writing, to judge from the sleepy look in her eyes. The envelope could contain every secret she’s ever had.
I take a few more strides and turn: She’s lost in the crowd.
Now, of course, I know exactly what I should have said to her. It would have been a long speech, though, far too long for me to have delivered it properly. The ideas I come up with are never very practical.
Oh, well. It would have started “Once upon a time” and ended “A sad story, don’t you think?”
Once upon a time, there lived a boy and a girl. The boy was eighteen and the girl sixteen. He was not unusually handsome, and she was not especially beautiful. They were just an ordinary lonely boy and an ordinary lonely girl, like all the others. But they believed with their whole hearts that somewhere in the world there lived the 100% perfect boy and the 100% perfect girl for them. Yes, they believed in a miracle. And that miracle actually happened.
One day the two came upon each other on the corner of a street.
“This is amazing,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you all my life. You may not believe this, but you’re the 100% perfect girl for me.”
“And you,” she said to him, “are the 100% perfect boy for me, exactly as I’d pictured you in every detail. It’s like a dream.”
They sat on a park bench, held hands, and told each other their stories hour after hour. They were not lonely anymore. They had found and been found by their 100% perfect other. What a wonderful thing it is to find and be found by your 100% perfect other. It’s a miracle, a cosmic miracle.
As they sat and talked, however, a tiny, tiny sliver of doubt took root in their hearts: Was it really all right for one’s dreams to come true so easily?
And so, when there came a momentary lull in their conversation, the boy said to the girl, “Let’s test ourselves – just once. If we really are each other’s 100% perfect lovers, then sometime, somewhere, we will meet again without fail. And when that happens, and we know that we are the 100% perfect ones, we’ll marry then and there. What do you think?”
“Yes,” she said, “that is exactly what we should do.”
And so they parted, she to the east, and he to the west.
The test they had agreed upon, however, was utterly unnecessary. They should never have undertaken it, because they really and truly were each other’s 100% perfect lovers, and it was a miracle that they had ever met. But it was impossible for them to know this, young as they were. The cold, indifferent waves of fate proceeded to toss them unmercifully.
One winter, both the boy and the girl came down with the season’s terrible influenza, and after drifting for weeks between life and death they lost all memory of their earlier years. When they awoke, their heads were as empty as the young D. H. Lawrence’s piggy bank.
They were two bright, determined young people, however, and through their unremitting efforts they were able to acquire once again the knowledge and feeling that qualified them to return as full-fledged members of society. Heaven be praised, they became truly upstanding citizens who knew how to transfer from one subway line to another, who were fully capable of sending a special-delivery letter at the post office. Indeed, they even experienced love again, sometimes as much as 75% or even 85% love.
Time passed with shocking swiftness, and soon the boy was thirty-two, the girl thirty.
One beautiful April morning, in search of a cup of coffee to start the day, the boy was walking from west to east, while the girl, intending to send a special-delivery letter, was walking from east to west, but along the same narrow street in the Harajuku neighborhood of Tokyo. They passed each other in the very center of the street. The faintest gleam of their lost memories glimmered for the briefest moment in their hearts. Each felt a rumbling in their chest. And they knew:
She is the 100% perfect girl for me.
He is the 100% perfect boy for me.
But the glow of their memories was far too weak, and their thoughts no longer had the clarity of fourteen years earlier. Without a word, they passed each other, disappearing into the crowd. Forever.
A sad story, don’t you think?
Yes, that’s it, that is what I should have said to her.
Author Bernard Werber (the inspiration for this Encyclopaedia) posited the following theory: if we could see the future, would we not actively build towards a better future? Imagine a tree soaring high into the sky, stretching countless branches in all directions. The many branches of the tree branch off into smaller branches, which branch into even more smaller branches. At the end of each branch, there hangs a leaf. This tree is not a normal tree; it is a Tree of Possibilities that represents the flow of time from the beginning of the universe to the distant future. Each split in a branch represents the creation of two different futures due to a choice or a change, while a leaf represents the final future created from the cumulative effects of these changes. Thus, the Tree of Possibilities is the ultimate crystal ball showing all the pasts that could have been and all the futures that can happen.
Of course the Tree of Possibilities is a fictional model created in our imaginations. But what if we could actually make this tree? First, we would create an organisation of the greatest scientists, mathematicians, sociologists, psychologists, historians, philosophers, science fiction writers etcetera that represent the many fields of knowledge. These people are gathered in a location far from the reaches of governments and the media, where they can discuss without any interference. These specialists will debate over all sorts of topics, amalgamating their knowledge and intuition to generate a tree diagram as mentioned above. This is a diagram free from ethics, morals, laws, optimism, pessimism and individualism – the ultimate objective view of all possible futures that humanity and the Earth may face. The experts may agree with each other at times and disagree at times. There is ample possibility that their postulations are wrong. But none of these matter. The important point is not that the Tree is “accurate” or not, but that it is an extensive scenario database of all the paths humanity can walk on towards the future.
The Tree of Possibilities will have various conjectures such as: What if nuclear war broke out? What if artificial intelligence is perfected? What if chimpanzees reach the intelligence levels of human beings? What if we build cities on the Moon? However, the future is altered much more easily that you would think. Thus, there will also be branches representing much more trivial and ordinary (even bizarre) postulations as well: What if smoking is banned? What if the average age women gave birth is older? What if rhinoceroses were domesticated pets? What if pianos do not exist?
On analysing these numerous postulations, a branch bearing the leaf with the ideal future will be found. Ergo, we can choose to follow a path of least resistance, where all the choices we make will ultimately lead to that ideal future. Essentially, the Tree of Possibilities is a tool that is used to predict the future. However, it is not “fortune telling” as it is based on logic rather than magic and divinity to see into the future. The future the Tree tells is not a set “destiny”, but rather one “possibility”. Thus, instead of fearing the future like we do with fortunes, we would instead feel excitement over the potential of finding the ideal future. If the path we are currently on is fated to an unhappy ending, then we can simply jump onto a different path with the guidance of the Tree. Unlike fortune telling, which destroys all uncertainty and any other possibilities in the future, the Tree of Possibilities provides humanity with the greatest gift: dreams of a better future.
As you could imagine, the possibilities of the future are infinite so a drawn-out diagram of the Tree of Possibilities would take up extensive amounts of space. Ergo, the ideal form of the Tree of Possibilities would be a computer program. As computer programs only need sufficient storage space, it provides a perfect environment in which the Tree may grow. The program would generate a Tree based on the information provided by the scholars, drawing out each branch and leaf, while also calculating the effects of any action on each of the possible futures. If we further applied the engine used in chess programs to predict the next few moves, then we may be able to create a program that can calculate the ideal future and the path of least resistance for humanity.
My ideal future is this. There is an isolated island, far from any interference, with a large building. At the centre of this building, there lies a supercomputer running The Tree of Possibilities. The computer is surrounded by lecture theatres, conference rooms and residential areas. Thus, specialists of each field may come to stay and use their knowledge to water the Tree and foster it. This island will provide humanity with hopes and dreams, leading them towards the best possible future based on logic and imagination.
The Tree of Possibilities will radically change our day-to-day lives. One of the greatest weaknesses of human beings is the inability to see the long-term happiness and sacrificing it for short-term gain. However, if we were able to see precisely how our actions will affect the future, then would we not act differently? Armed with insight and foresight, people will understand what is best for the future, and instead of the current near-sighted attitude of only seeing the gain right before our eyes, they will act in the best interests of their children and grandchildren. Politicians will see how useless bickering over trifling issues is and instead focus on policies that take a while to show the effects (yet nonetheless important), such as environmental conservation. The Tree of Possibilities will help us make rational decisions to create a world that the future generation will be happy living in, without being swayed by emotions and selfish greed. And so, we will build towards a utopia.
The greatest weapon a person has is imagination that can build the future.
In the children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the protagonist is found trying out various porridges, chairs and beds until she finds the one that is just right for her. Because of this, the name “Goldilocks” has become a symbol for something that is “just right”. A Goldilocks economy is one where there is high growth but no inflation; a Goldilocks planet is one which is not too hot or too cold, making it an ideal planet for life; the Goldilocks effect is when success is achieved because something was not too great or too little.
The Goldilocks effect is a law of nature that is far more important than you would think. Nature always seeks consistency, as shown in the human body. For something as complex as life to exist, a cell must maintain its internal environment in a perfect, ideal state. French physiologist Claude Bernard observed that a cell’s internal environment does not change even with changes in the external environment, and commented that “The stability of the internal environment is the condition for the free and independent life”. This is the basis for homeostasis. Without homeostasis, life cannot exist and all living things put in all their effort in keeping homeostasis. Our body constantly strives to keep various factors such as pulse, blood pressure, oxygen saturation, temperature, blood glucose, electrolytes and numerous hormones etcetera in a stable range. One could possibly argue that the meaning of life is “to maintain homeostasis” – a rather cyclical argument.
To understand the importance of homeostasis, let us look at how changes in the external environment affect us. Our core temperature is maintained in a tight range around 36.5 degrees. If it is altered even a couple of degrees, we exhibit symptoms of hypothermia or hyperthermia. If the weather is too hot, we sweat to cool ourselves; if the weather is too cold, we shiver to raise our temperature. After a meal, we secrete insulin to lower our blood glucose, while we secrete glucagon when starving to raise our blood glucose. Failure of either system leads to either diabetes or hypoglycaemic shock respectively. Homeostasis is an extremely complicated and intricate self-repair system that cannot be imitated.
The Goldilocks effect can be applied beyond physiology to our lives. Everything in moderation; to go beyond is as wrong as to fall short. If we have too little money, it is a problem. If we have too much money, it causes other problems. Whether we work or play, doing too much or too little of either can be bad for us. Medicines become poison in excess and even love in excess becomes obsession. In the marathon that is life, if you run too fast you end up collapsing from exhaustion, while running too slow will mean you never get anywhere.
The secret to happiness lies in understanding what is “just right”.
Humans have a tendency to think in a black-and-white manner, leading us to fall into the trap of the Nirvana fallacy. This is when one compares the real world to some perfect yet unrealistic alternative, causing reality to pale in comparison. Thus, it causes us to believe that many things are not worth doing as they are insignificant compared to this alternative.
For instance, the notion of the drop in the ocean means that we tend not to do altruistic things as we believe that it will not make much of a difference in fixing poverty or cure the world of cancer. Not only does the fallacy apply to how we see the world, but it affects day-to-day life too. People are so afraid of not being able to achieve an ideal, perfect future so ironically they do nothing. This is a major reason procrastination happens, as the person believes that if they do something now, it will be inefficient. They then plan for a perfect opportunity to start doing work, and a vicious cycle begins. Thanks to this way of thinking, people often miss out on a great job opportunity or a lovely girl or a chance to change their life just because it was not perfect and did not live up to their expectations.
In fact, people often fail to see the small steps and only see the big picture. So if someone tries to make an improvement (e.g. going on a diet), others will ridicule that person by saying that going to the gym every week is not going to turn you into an Adonis, ergo it is pointless.
The Nirvana fallacy is also useful in debates. One can create a false dichotomy (that is, a black-and-white argument) and compare someone’s argument to an unrealistic argument. When someone makes a suggestion, you can attack it by pointing out one flaw and show how it is clearly not a perfect solution (even better if you provide an example of the argument failing). This will automatically disintegrate their argument. For example, if someone proposes a new idea, you may point out how someone may abuse the new system or provide a case when a similar idea failed. However, be warned that this method can easily be rebutted with common sense, so one must use it in a convincing way and distract the audience from the fact that it is absolutely ridiculous.
(The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, click for larger image)