Inheritance

Your life contains many sets of scales, balancing many things. Very few of these scales will come out to be perfectly balanced in the great accounting at the end of your life. Be comfortable with that, because it’s virtually unavoidable. I’ve been giving a lot of thought to these “scales” lately.

Imagine a man dies in a great deal of debt to others. He’s borrowed a lot of money he hasn’t paid back, or he’s given I.O.U.’s for goods & services received that will now never be honored. Even if a part of him was genuine in his promises, he’s still overextended his credit (social or otherwise, formal or informal) and along that metric, has taken more from the world and his society than he’ll ever pay back. I don’t believe that every kindness has to be repaid (I certainly don’t think it’s valuable to try to “tally” your freely-given good deeds versus others’), but in the case of debts, repayment was expected, and so we might consider that a failing on the part of the man.

Now imagine a man on the other side of those scales. He lent freely and extended long credit terms on services he provided, even though he did track and expect repayment on those debts. When he shuffled off his mortal coil, he was owed a great deal from others. That means this man perished having done more for the world than the world did for him (at least along that metric). We might well consider this an admirable facet of the man’s existence.

You will never balance all of these scales completely. Your balance sheet will never be zero. The harms you visit on others, the harms visited on you, the kindnesses you offer, and the kindnesses you receive – these will never net out.

I’ve written before about the interaction between effort and luck, and how you can minimize luck’s impact on your life by maximizing your effort. It’s true, but lately I’ve been thinking about how so much of what we call “luck” is actually just other people’s effort.

For instance, I was incredibly lucky to have been born in the United States. As of this writing, it’s still hands-down, no-question the best possible place to be born in terms of opportunities and benefits enjoyed by those who were lucky enough to have done so (as it was when I was born, as well). I say “lucky” because it was outside of my control – I obviously didn’t pick where I was born. But just because it was outside of my control doesn’t mean it was outside of anyone’s control. My great-grandfather made the active decision to come here, and along with a few other people did their future descendant the great favor of allowing him to come into existence in some of the most fortunate circumstances imaginable.

Their effort, my luck.

Their scales might not balance. If you consider the far-reaching impact of their actions, my grandparents probably visited more kindness on others (present and future) than they ever received themselves. Even if you consider their immediate, selfish reasons for coming to the US and the success of that endeavor, it can’t compare to the benefit their later descendants would gain from their acts.

You can do that. You can’t balance your own scales; if you try, you’ll actually end up with far less benefit than if you didn’t try at all and just focused on the good stuff. Instead of worrying about being repaid for every kindness or repaying every harm, just focus on being kind and avoiding being unnecessarily harmed. That means that you’ll inevitably “lose” some of the benefit of your effort – but I’d rather get paid for 80% of a million dollar’s worth of work than get paid for 100% of a thousand dollar’s worth, you know? And a lot of the benefit of your hard work that you don’t capture can instead be captured by people you care deeply about – or would, if you came to know them decades hence. The investments you make now, the work you do today, can be the great fortune of your children’s children’s children.

Your effort, their luck.

Don’t repay harms; work to ensure others never suffer them. Don’t count kindnesses; commit them in great volume at every opportunity. Don’t repay honor with honor; be honorable even in darkness.

If “luck” is just how we define the things outside of your control, then don’t worry about your own. Instead, maximize your effort, and let someone else inherit their great luck from you. You may never meet them, but they’re thankful to you all the same.

Have a wonderful year, everyone.

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