Greater Fools and Sisyphean Compulsion

I’m perpetually interested in sticky ideas. Concepts that have a way of hanging on to your mind. You might get distracted by new, shiny ideas, but some just won’t let go of you. For me, Greater-Fool Theory and the plight of Sisyphus are two such ideas.

Sisyphus, king of Corinth, was cunning and confident. He managed to cheat death twice. But when he came to the underworld for the final time, Hades condemned him to an eternity of torment. His punishment? To roll a large stone to the top of a hill. Seems simple enough, but there’s a catch. Each time he neared the summit, the stone would roll back down to the bottom. And Sisyphus would have to begin his task again.

Greater-Fool Theory came to me through The Newsroom, one of Aaron Sorkin’s quixotic creations. “The greater fool is actually an economic term. It’s a patsy. For the rest of us to profit, we need a greater fool. Someone who will buy long and sell short. Most people spend their lives trying not to be the greater fool….someone with the perfect blend of self delusion and ego, to think that he can succeed where others have failed.”

Sisyphus is a greater fool. Through self delusion and ego he believes he will succeed in spite of past failures. So he rolls the stone up the hill again, because ‘this time it’ll work.’ But what if Hades was wrong and Sisyphus was right? What if Sisyphus did get that stone to the top of the hill? What if the story we’re told ended prematurely?

It’s not as far fetched as it seems. History is replete with such examples, greater fools who triumphed in spite of conventional wisdom and the odds stacked against them: Caesar at the battle of Alesia; Arminius against the Roman Empire; The American revolution; The Wright Brothers; Elon Musk; etc. But we only remember the greater fools who succeed. I wonder about those who failed. 

Despite historical memory’s penchant for success, the numbers point towards failure being the natural order. More than 90% of businesses fail. 40% of marriages end in divorce. 1 in 175,000,000 people win the lottery. In spite of the numbers, some people still bet on themselves. If you called those people delusional, you’d almost always be right. But some can’t help themselves.

Who were these people? Why did they fail? How did they live? Why did they keep going? Were they the right person at the wrong time, or vice versa? Were they the right person at the right time, but with the wrong network? Maybe they had everything going for them, but a flaw of personality resigned them to the historical dustbin. What happens when self-delusion and ego meets pathological self belief?

In his book, Good Reasons for Bad Feelings, Randolph Nesse looks at evolutionary explanations for mental illness. In a chapter focused on depression, he reiterates a hypothesis made by others that low mood can be adaptive. That is, it can increase your likelihood of surviving to reproduce, and your children doing the same. When we become depressed, we retreat from the world and look inward. We reconsider our goals and the future we’ve envisioned for ourselves. That process is aided by a phenomenon that makes people more realistic (accurate) in their assessments – depressive realism.

The less significant consequence of the hypothesis is that you realise where you’ve gone wrong and search for a new approach. The more significant consequence is accepting your goals as unrealistic – success is unlikely and the costs of continuing outway the benefits. You need to consider giving up and applying yourself elsewhere.

Society’s progress depends on people like Caesar, Arminius and the Wright Brothers – greater fools with sisyphean compulsion. But that progress has a cost. Some are destined to suffer. Those who succeed are few, and those who suffer are many. Our success is built upon the willingness of others to suffer for the potential prosperity of generations they’ll never know.

We remember those who try and succeed, but never knew those who tried and failed. Worse still, we mock those who aim too high and set themselves up to suffer. But if you don’t aim high enough, nobody cares if you hit the target.

When a person embodies the idea of a greater fool and has a pathologically disagreeable (fuck you!) personality, you get the true tragedy of Sisyphus. Someone who’s doomed to fail, but through naive hope is compelled to persist and suffer until they die. To quote Nesse, “The irony is deep: hope is often at the root of depression.”

~ The Critical Self

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