What Doesn’t Happen

John Doe
5 min readJan 5, 2021

Hard times create strong men, strong men create good times, good times create weak men, and weak men create hard times.

— G. Michael Hopf

Whether this holds in all cases is unclear, but it seems to make sense as a pattern that occurs over generations. I’m sure there are strong men who grew up in good times and weak men who grew up in hard times — let’s not get caught up in the semantics of the quote because I think what Hopf is saying is very interesting.

The first question that comes to my mind is, why do good times (generally) create weak men? Perhaps good times don’t provide the challenges that are necessary to build character, but that doesn’t really pan out. There are plenty of people who grew up in good times and grew from athletic pursuits. There are plenty of people who achieved feats during good times that require persistence, patience and intelligence.

In order to answer that question, we need to understand what differentiates good times from hard times. The meaning of “good times” and “hard times” are clearly left up to interpretation, but I’m going to say that the difference between the two are the presence, or lack of, certain problems that we’ll call “hard-times problems”. Hard-times problems are problems that are invisible during good times but that people work furiously to escape from during hard times¹. Hard time problems can be problems that face every generation, like manipulative family members, violence, and addiction, or problems that pop up once every hundred years, like famine, plague, or communism. Hopf’s quote seems to be referencing the types of problems that face every generation.

What’s important here is that good times are characterized by a lack of problems and not by the abundance of benefits².

Back to the first question that we were trying to answer: why do good times (generally) create weak men?

“Strong men” are those who have been through “hard times” and emerged on the other side having successfully overcome the problems of hard times. When the raise a family, they do their utmost to protect their kids from these problems³. Their kids (“weak men”) grow up during “good times” unaware of the problems their parents helped them avoid and thus end up discovering them too late, creating “hard times” again.

Breaking the Cycle

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.

— The Big Short

There are known knowns, known unknowns, unknown knowns, and unknown unknowns. In the category of known knowns, there are truly known knowns and “what you know for sure that just ain’t so”.

The most dangerous types are things that you “know for sure that just ain’t so” and unknown unknowns. Both types have the ability to completely blindside you by virtue of their “blindspot” nature — you never look for things that you “know for sure that just ain’t so” because you know for sure, and you never look for unknown unknowns because you don’t know where to look for them.

In order to break Hopf’s good times bad times cycle, you need to go out of your way to check your blindspots, like you do when switching lanes. This means re-testing known knowns and actively seeking out unknown unknowns.

Knowledge of past hard-times problems are handed down through the traditions and folklore of different cultures. This knowledge is also handed down through old books (religious texts, classics) and older people. These are good places to start.

A simple way to get yourself to re-test known knowns is to frame what you know in terms of bets⁴. Instead of saying, “I want to marry her since she will be a good mother and never cheat on me”, say “I bet the next 18 years of my life and my children’s sanity that this woman will be a good mother”. With the stakes being make explicit, you’ll probably be more motivated to re-test what you “know” about her, however you go about doing that.

As for seeking out unknown unknowns, your best friend is randomness. Throw a dart at the map, roll the dice, or flip a coin if you’re making decision. If you’re in a chaotic time in your life, go along for the ride instead of resisting.

Doing new things does not count since you knew about these new things before hand, so they were actually known unknowns.

Notes

[1] Many cultures overcame this issue by embedding the knowledge of hard-times problems into the stories and traditions that were passed down from generation to generation. From a visitor’s point of view the culture’s traditions don’t make any sense because none of the people practicing the traditions can explain why they work. But that’s the entire point of the traditions and stories — you don’t need to know how they work in order to reap the benefits, all you need to do is practice them and pass them down to your children. Samzdat has a great post about this sort of cultural knowledge.

[2] One way many people differentiate between good times and hard times is through money — during the hard times, we were broke, and during the good times, we were financially well-off. You could argue that, under this interpretation, good times are characterized by an abundance of money as opposed to a lack of problems. However, the main value of having more money is that you get to avoid more problems, whether that’s health problems, stress problems, inconveniences, etc. Sure, having more money does allow you get a Mercedes, but the main value of having more money does not lie in the Mercedes but in the fact that you never have to worry about your power being cut, or your bills not being paid, or that you won’t be able to get surgery if you need it.

[3] Which leads us to the phenomenon where kids appreciate their parents more as they get older. Living at home, kids are only aware of their grievances against their parents, but as they get older, they gain a better understanding of what “hard-times problems” their parents shielded them from.

[4] Annie Duke, Thinking in Bets: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uYNsSeYjkp4&t=1s

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John Doe

Processing information, stacking concepts. Writing this down so I don’t keep thinking about the same things over and over again