This is the first essay in a four-part series named "Cycles" during which we are going to examine the mechanics of growth. The main focus of our journey will be the exploration of a generalized philosophical framework, rooted in observable reality.
Most can agree when I say that any beginning is hard. Depending on who you are going to ask they might even say that a beginning constitutes the hardest stage, when it comes to growth, overall. This naturally rings true for anyone involved in business ventures, software development, athletic sports, construction and even arts.
If you happen to have grown a plant in your lifetime you're aware that not all seeds get to sprout. Some remain dormant inside their solid encapsulation for seemingly no reason. It takes good selection, a certain set of favorable conditions, a lot of energy and a minor component of randomness, if not outright chance, to successfully go from a mere (conceptual) precursor to the actual (material) inception of the plant and beyond. This stage in growth is, generally speaking, always accompanied by uncertainty on the one hand, doubt on the other, expressing itself through the nagging question whether or not an expectation of return on the energy invested up to that point is justified, and at last, depending on the subject at hand, sometimes even fear.
The statement above certainly applies to this very essay, if I am going to be honest about it. After all I have no way of telling from the get go if I have captured your attention, maybe even piqued your curiosity in those two paragraphs or not.
And by that extent there is inevitably some doubt involved as to whether the choice of words (selection), the presentation and layout (favorable conditions) and the ca. 30 minutes it took me to assemble the first two hundred words (energy invested) of what I conceptualize as a profound, insightful and by chance even thought-provoking piece of writing is going to materialize as such. Given how you're still reading on I can only assume that bringing fear into the mix is a rather unnecessary, probably even irrational exercise.
So, for now, consider this seed planted but keep in mind that there is a lot more energy involved until we break through the metaphorical encapsulation that is the concept and sprout towards the manifest foundation, the root, for our journey to a deeper understanding on growth. For such is the nature of the beginning.
It was the end of February 2018 when I went to visit a friend of mine. And so did the other two of my closest friends. It became somewhat of a tradition that the four of us would meet up (at least) once a year and enjoy ourselves, share our progress and the general outlooks on life. I'm certain most of the readers can relate one way or another.
I've met up with one of the guys halfway through, before we headed to the final destination by train, so we had a bit of time to exchange the aforementioned outlooks and perspectives on the state of things. Seeing how the year before was a highly transformative one for me - one of great efforts being met with great rewards and great courage resulting in greater encouragement - it is just fair to say that over the span of 365 days I had depleted most, if not all, of my energy for the sake of excessive study, the honing of skills and deep-diving into interests for which I couldn't have made time prior to quitting my full-time job mid 2017. All of this has, objectively speaking, resulted in more personal growth than I had the luxury of attaining in all the years past my graduation combined.
The cost of which can be described with constant feelings of unrest and - for lack of a better expression - operating 'out of sync'. None of this is to be confused with being unhappy, it was quite the opposite of that, but eventually that progression at that pace, at that time, came to be mind-numbingly exhausting to say the very least.
Famously, February 2018 was a time when, after a sharp decline of 70% from the all-time-high just two and a half months prior (roughly $20,000, down to ca. $6,000), the vocal majority involved in the Bitcoin markets would go ahead and justify their denial about what would unfold in front of them for the rest of the year (and beyond) based on the merits of the quite impressive performance during that month (Bitcoin climbing its way back to and peaking at about $11,000).
Of course we assume hindsight to be 20/20, yet you can take it to the bank when I say that at the time it was indeed the majority indulging in great denial about the losses, that they most probably incurred, and misconstruing a strongly pronounced bulltrap (the price rallying upwards for a 100% gain from its former lows) as a signal that things would just go "back to normal". Which in that context means parabolic.
To drive the point home let's just say that calls for $33,000 per 1 Bitcoin by July of the same year were made unironically. And yes, that was after the 70% drop.
My friend went ahead and asked me what my personal outlook on the market would look like, to which I responded that we're undoubtedly going to see a prolonged phase of a market-wide sell-off all the way down to $3,000, the same outlook I provided to my clients at that time.
Naturally, the reaction (on his behalf and on behalf of my clients) was disbelief or rather an unwillingness (in a few cases inability) to entertain the possibility where the better part of the gains made during 2017 would be put to the test this intensely.
I then proceeded to let him know that I was about to go on vacation to Southeast Asia for a month.
It was at that point hard times would go into full effect.
Now you may have noticed that the introduction is all about the beginning and that small excerpt of my early 2018 is all about things coming to what appears to be an end. Both phases I consider to be hard times, some might argue that endings are harder than beginnings, but that really is beyond the point. What matters is that hard times create strong men which is just to say that there is a point in time when assumed resilience is being put to the test, dead wood being burnt and at the end of it raw substance remains, from where the cycle may commence again.
Taoism emphasizes doing what is natural and "going with the flow" in accordance with the Tao (or Dao), a cosmic force which flows through all things, binds and releases them.
We have established that any beginning is accompanied by Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt - commonly abbreviated as FUD - and if we're looking at the counterpart, the ending, we're quick to notice that it can equally be characterized by FUD. The only apparent difference seems to be the ability to overcome FUD in the beginning and giving into it in the end. This leaves us with a common denominator through which we can apply a measure to growth.
I am by no means a strongly religious person, though I do find value in the archetypes outlined in various popular belief-systems. Most, if not all, of these systems come with a strong emphasis on the notion that there is a superior and transcendent force defining worldly fates. We don't have to assume this force to be sentient (in a similar way that human life is sentient) to appreciate the underlying wisdom of the general observation. One which implies that all things move along a common thread, from which they may deviate individually but may not actually fully break away from the path in a sustainable manner. This, highly deterministic, way of looking at things goes to show the dangers of being in denial. Taking denial to the extreme would constitute full blown cognitive dissonance, meaning not to engage observable reality, as it pokes you right in the face, for the sake of either comfort or perceived stability. After all, things have always been this way, right?
Right! And they will remain the same until they are not going to anymore, forcing anyone entrapped in cognitive dissonance to face the gruesome force of hard times coming to fruition. No facade is strong enough to withstand the test of time. In actual growth only true and truthful substance may remain. Dead wood, or hollow structures, will be burnt off.
Highly static and monolithic structures are always quite prone to erosion. The force in question, causing the erosion, comes with a current that you may feel inclined to fight. This can work out as long as the current doesn't come with overwhelming intensity and as long as the resources at your disposal allow for it. One is well advised to accept the fact that this is merely buying (valuable) time before the current intensifies further and eventually forces you into a showdown, which you are going to lose out on if you haven't used that time to either adept or to fortify the core substance.
Developing a sense for said current allows you to put the necessary measures into place well in advance of hard times materializing. This takes an above average level of awareness and does by no means exclude you from the actual exposure to the current itself.
A strong man (and this definition goes far beyond the physical attributes) is aware of these mechanics and prefers to keep himself in a position where he is able to act in advance instead of putting himself in a place where he is constrained to reaction only. Sun Tzu, and many other notable strategists, understood the implications of this as the element of surprise, which can provide a massive strategical advantage to the one utilizing it to his benefit and reek havoc on the receiving end.
Hard times are usually characterized by scarcity of resources and heightened levels of awareness among all participants. Those that invest their expendable resources into the solidification of the core substance during hard times are always favored by the elements of chaos, which naturally define these phases. Those that have no core substance to begin with are swept away as push comes to shove.
In March 2018, two days after the get-together with my closest friends, I went on to board a plane to Bali, Indonesia. As mentioned before, my overall state was one of exhaustion and complete lack of balance and focus. While I was able to fully enjoy the material progress made up to that point, the spiritual side of things was kind of dwindling. So I addressed that by leaving all work at home, packing my bags rather spontaneously and reducing my exposure to the ever accelerating data-highway to a bare minimum, often times leaving my mobile phone at the hotels we stayed at while we were roaming the island and visited a vast amount of temples, beaches and other interesting sights. About one week in the unrest was practically gone, my focus was sharpening again and the appreciation for the most basic things was in an uptrend to say the least. You wouldn't be able to tell the difference that changing the physical environment you reside in can make just by exercising the thought. The experience itself, the exposure to the actual current, is where you're going to extract the essence of it all. I made it a stated object of mine to incorporate that essence into my very own self and given the positive effects up to that point, I continued on my journey to reestablish a real sense of balance.
At the end of the second week, right as the celebration of the Balinese New Year (referred to as Nyepi among the locals) was around the corner, I headed out to a smaller Island nearby. Roughly two hours in a speed boat later I landed on the beach of a place that very much felt like a living and breathing time capsule from 30, maybe even 60 years ago. The first sentence right off the boat to me was a "Welcome home!" by a somewhat shady looking local. I had a slight chuckle at that expression and after a short exchange with the guy (one of money vs. mushrooms), the friend who accompanied me on the trip and I went on to check-in on our home stay. It was quite impressive to see the day-to-day business of this jungle taking place on bicycles and the occasional horse carriage. That was some seriously lived deceleration even compared to Bali, which was quite relaxed when it comes to attending business in itself.
While I was fully aware of the benefits such an environment would have on my stated goal I could not help but to kind of hate the place all throughout the first day. It might be that hate is too strong a word to describe the vibe I got but I hadn't had the same feeling of appreciation that instantly manifested itself when arriving on Bali, so naturally there was some disappointment. I think my exact description was "this place is godforsaken". Adding to the disappointment was the realization, later that night, that the mushrooms I've bought per the advice of my buddy were pretty much impotent. I had no experience with any sort of psychedelics up to that point and I wouldn't have put much emphasis on gaining any either. The disappointment of my friend over that non-trip that night was a little more pronounced and the mood was at a bit of a low point. It was time to call it a day and head back to the home stay.
The next morning, after enjoying myself some breakfast and a cold shower, I decided to rent myself a bicycle and to go and explore the whole island. The merciless heat of the sun and the sport-like activity of moving my ass around on a bicycle on sandy ground through the jungle and the beach had me sweating like mad. The whole act was excruciating and exhausting, I was getting dirt and sand everywhere and while in any other circumstance this would have been more than enough reason to complain and feel disgruntled I became happier and more satisfied with accepting the challenge to go for the full circle around the island. With every step on the pedal that feeling of satisfaction intensified little by little. And lo' and behold, right as I have traveled about two thirds of the way, a sign grabbed my attention in passing that said "Turtle Beach Boys Get High And Chill" with a squiggly looking mushroom drawn in chalk next to it. What an interesting turn of events, I thought to myself, and kept cycling on to make the remaining stretch. After this two hour journey I arrived back at the home stay and headed for another, much needed, shower.
I've sat down to rest for a bit, exchanged a few words with my buddy while leaving him out of the know about my little discovery and setting up a bit of a surprise to alleviate the former disappointment with some extra "wow". So an hour or so later we both got ourselves some bicycles and headed to the bar at Turtle Beach. After some bitching and moaning we finally made it to the destination and made ourselves comfortable while enjoying the view to the neighboring island and the ocean. We got ourselves some level-5 (the maximum offered) cocktail and let things go their way.
What followed that afternoon was a profound shift in perspective in regards to the material pane being the center stage of forces colliding. It was under my first (and to this date only) influence of psilocybin when it appeared to me that "as above so below" translates amazingly well to my pursuit of balance. A lot of this trip had my thoughts circling about the persistence of duality in all worldly matter(s). And this became manifest in my psychedelic experience, where the skies and the ocean indeed became one, and furthermore they always have been one, by the water that bound them. In the process I came to acknowledge - and in fact appreciate - the realization that perception based in absolute rationality must eventually introduce quite artificial limits to the very same perception.
That is not to say that these limits don't serve a very legitimate purpose. Frankly speaking these limits are representative of our inherent need to tune into the common frequency of our environments, physical and social alike. A need so basic that we normally don't approach it with much consciousness at all. All of this happens at a subconscious or even instinctive level.
Based on this frequency we can rather freely pursue a path in either resonance or dissonance to that frequency. A concept quite similar to the one I have highlighted before on the example of being in denial as the balance of powers shifts right in front of you. One might note that existing in dissonance to the base frequency requires great effort and a lot of energy to be sustained. Much like swimming against a current that you have no control over whatsoever.
While existing in resonance to the base frequency, being in-tune with your surrounding if you will, is something you can only accomplish by having a strong enough grasp of that frequency to begin with. From that point onward it's just surfing the wave until it breaks, which you can do quite effortlessly and without having to add too much energy of your own to the mix. It really is a matter of balance and wisely choosing the waves you're going to surf . The timing aspect should remain an afterthought, in an effort to resonate and the primary concern when you choose to go against the greater current.
It was at that time that I have fully let go of the doubt, accepted and embraced the fact that uncertainty is to remain from start to finish, on whatever that greater journey of mine would be and by experiencing a very visual play of the Yin and the Yang (and all worldly forces for that matter) doing their thing, all without me having too much say about any of it, fear became a concern of last resort.
And it was at that time that I got feel 'in sync' again, lasting well beyond the experience itself.
And by doing so, I did in fact achieve (personal) growth.
The basic presupposition is that one has to understand growth as a dynamic that can be expressed both in positive and in negative terms. Minimalists would point to this idea through an axiom that states "less is more". Any structure, that has true and truthful substance to it, can withstand negative growth all the way down to its core without being threatened on an existential level and remaining fully operational during the process.
It is this part of the growth cycle that determines the underlying strength of whatever entity is being put to the test. Facades, smoke and mirrors, any trivialities and fluff tend to vanish during this stage, leaving one with either an appreciation of what actually is or a massive disappointment about what is not.
Antifragility is a property of systems that increase in capability, resilience, or robustness as a result of stressors, shocks, volatility, noise, mistakes, faults, attacks, or failures.
It is a concept developed by Professor Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book, Antifragile, and in technical papers. As Taleb explains in his book, antifragility is fundamentally different from the concepts of resiliency (i.e. the ability to recover from failure) and robustness (that is, the ability to resist failure). The concept has been applied in risk analysis, physics, molecular biology, transportation planning, engineering, Aerospace (NASA), and computer science.
One can observe the validity of the general idea here in the nature of seasonal plants, in the human immune-system, in markets, in personal hardships one has (to) overcome, throughout various stretches in history, the balance of powers, decentralized and centralized networks alike, the list goes on.
Incorporating these observations into your very understanding of how (positive) growth is not exactly an exponential function but much rather relies on phases of compression, deceleration and reduction (negative growth) to sustain itself, greatly helps to become more at peace and much less in denial about hard times taking place if the greater shift in the current has made itself known to you. To also understand that positive growth and negative growth are not exclusive to one another and basically are extents of an underlying, unified (and unifying) process, I also consider as non-trivial. The ability to give into FUD when it is opportune and to overcome it as it serves as nothing less than a distraction is another defining characteristic of strength and a measure to the current that resembles growth itself.
It is at that point that you gain the opportunity to become the stronger man, one that is allowed to act, one that is not easily swept away by the forces of chaos as they unveil all sorts of surprises that might exploit the vulnerabilities in your preconceptions, the greed that you may have become accustomed to and the overall lack of willingness to perceive things based on a macro scale, that might have set in as good times allowed you to focus only on the growth taking place in the short-term.
Given how well you are able to put the implications to all of this into effect you are either sooner or later going to be able to determine the strength guiding your actions.
And it is at that point that strong men can create good times.
A few days, and many hundred words later, that metaphorical seed of ours has peaked through its shell, set root in the fertile soil around it and here we are, taking a thorough look at what appears to be the general idea of a stem. Not quite there yet. Far away from ripe fruit hanging from its branches. But very much a scion that,given enough time and care, some stress testing and a splash of fertilizer every once in a while, may grow into a strong and sturdy tree.
May good times be ahead to make it so!