The Relative Nature of Things

During lunch the other day, I overheard a short segment of a conversation between two people.

“Yeah, I mean, things are bad, right?”

“For sure, but things have always been bad. Think about World War Two. You want to go fight for our lives. Storm Normandy on D-Day. Fuck that.”

I couldn’t help but smile and feel gratitude toward the individual making this statement. He was absolutely right. I don’t want to go storm Normandy. I expect most people would agree. His statement contextualized the troubles of the moment against those challenges of the past. The power of such a reflective statement is difficult to underestimate.

As compared to what

In his book The Madness of Crowds, Douglas Murray suggests posing the question “As compared to what” when someone presents a problem as being bad. This request for context provides two specific benefits that can help you evaluate the claim.

  1. It allows you to evaluate what the individual knows about the topic of concern. - If they are knowledgeable about the topic they are discussing, they will probably be able to provide some examples to compare the claim against. This helps you both contextualize the impact of this bad problem. Being unable to do gives you some equally valuable information. Whatever the case, knowing more about the individual making the claim can help understand why they believe what they stating.

  2. It opens the conservation up for a relative measure of comparison. - Statements about quality are usually very subject and closely tied to the experience of the individual. If you can place the statement on a scale relative to other ideas, you gain a more detached measure to evaluate. It enables you both to view the statement from a broader lens. To break out of your own attachment to the idea.

Make something of the comparisons

If you apply this question and realize that the bad thing being discussed is, in a historical or cultural context, the best it’s ever been, that doesn’t assume that it’s not worth striving to improve it. Much of progress comes from pushing the ideas at the front even further ahead. Yet we can not optimize everything. Choosing a specific pursuit comes with the opportunity cost of not being able to pursue something else. It’s our choice to make. It’s an important choice to make. The hope of applying this simply question is to ensure we are thoughtfully following the decisions that matter most.

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