Creative Destruction: Learning how to die

Change is not easy is it?

I like to try new things and grow just as much as anyone. I’ve started a business (which failed), started a blog, art, a meetup and more. You might say I’m doing alright, even call me brave. Yet despite all this, there are parts of my life where I have barely moved, hardly made any headway.

Master Yoda, 'You must unlearn what you have learned.' (1)

We often think that in order to grow we need to accumulate something. Just add to what we have already. This is why we always seem to want more. More income, possessions, status etc.

But there is an aspect to growth that’s more unpleasant, less talked about and less visible.

To make progress we need to destroy, not just create.

Eric Schumpeter popularised the term ‘Creative Destruction’. According to him it’s a ‘process of industrial mutation that incessantly revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one”

He was talking about economics. But it applies to far more.

History of destruction

‘you must be ready to burn yourself in your own flame; how could you rise anew if you have not first become ashes?’

Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra

History shows just how much we depend on destruction for change to take place. Old objects get cast aside, buildings get knocked down, homes remodelled, stuff gets thrown away.

It’s how we have arrived at where we are today. Our history can be seen as a path of destruction. This can be seen most of all in science. With discarded theories such as an Earth-centric cosmos, astrology, Newtonian physics, that disease is caused by ‘bad air’ or a miasma. These and so many others have been left behind on the scrapheap of discarded ideas.

In our mental landscape of ideas we question, doubt, point out flaws and debunk ideas. By refuting the bad ones we are left with the good stuff. A mental filtering if you will.

It’s about creating uncertainty, of bursting people’s bubbles, especially our own. But it’s also a process that can nver stop, becuase we can never be sure our current answerd are the final.

It’s giving up on habits so that we may adopt better ones.

In a societal sense, it’s why sceptics, contrarians, rebels, and radicals are around. By questioning the accepted wisdom they help us shed the superfluous and incorrect ideas we can focus on the useful ones.

It’s also part of the work of building and creation. Learning what doesn’t work. Thomas Edison said he found out how not to build a lightbulb. ‘I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work’ – Thomas A. Edison

Another is the making of art when asked Michelangelo supposedly said of his sculpture of David, ‘It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.’

Not forgetting the editing process used to create this post and all the others! Removing what is not necessary.

In biology your own body is dying piece by piece, cells die and get replaced the new cells.

Or how about a more practical example:

Think of the proverbial needle in a haystack. The best way to find the needle is not to search the whole haystack. The best way is to remove from the stack that which is not the needle, i.e. the hay. Making that stack smaller, making the job easier.

To do it the other way without such removal would take far longer.

Think of it as a chain. You know the saying, ‘a chain is only as strong as it’s the weakest link’. To improve the chain to don’t strengthen the strongest links, that wouldn’t work, the chain would still break at its weakest point. Instead, you strengthen, replace or remove the weak points in the chain so it becomes stronger.

Creative destruction is the idea that there are two sides to the change coin, and destruction is one of them.

There is no greater impact of this than in our personal lives.

Our thinking needs to change

‘Waking up to who you are requires letting go of who you imagine yourself to be.’ – Alan Watts

Whilst it includes physical possessions, toxic relationships and dead-end jobs. Most of all it’s the ideas we have in our head. Which can be described as ‘possessions’.

Those false, erroneous ideas which hold us back through fear.

Our thinking can be twisted so that our conclusions can be blatantly false. We can think we’re a fraud. That ‘nobody like me’, I’ll never be a success’, or that we are no good, we’ll never get better.

Recognising these thoughts as mistakes and casting them aside are the critical steps to success. So the causes of our suffering and unhappiness are loosened, minimised even discarded.

The Far eastern attitude towards growth places a greater emphasis on destruction. In Hinduism Shiva is the God of destruction. The snake is a symbol of this becuase it sheds it’s skin.

Growth is natural, spontaneous unless an obstacle prevents it. This then lends itself to the obvious solution. Remove what’s in the way and growth will naturally take place. Like a gardener that does some weeding, or pruning. So it’s more about the clearing of obstacles than the attainments of goals.

It’s very different from the western idea that growth only takes place when intention is used, choices are made, work is done.

In Buddhism, it’s the process of Enlightenment. In this religion, the problem is ignorance, which is dispelled by knowledge.

It’s also given that we are all basically good and that what prevents us is we’re being led astray by illusions and falsehoods. The path of enlightened then is a destructive process.

Like a dirty window that obscures the sun, we have to wipe away the dirt to let the light shine out of us.

It’s a clarity of perception. Seeing the world and ourselves more clearly. Knowing the rules of the game.

I tell you it’s an amazing feeling when you don’t have to think or worry about things that are unimportant.

Some of my happiest moments occurred when I recognised the mistakes in my own thinking.

The wonderful feeling of liberation because you’re no longer a slave to those ideas. Possibilities open up, horizons expand, and excitement begins because you understand there’s one less thing holding you back.

Our lifestyle and society needs to change

‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’ – Heraclitus

It’s not just our minds that needs to change. But how we run this planet. Right now the world is run by economic standards. Consumerism is the key because it gets the economy moving and raises prices. Yet it’s the constant spending that also fills up our houses with stuff we don’t need, and when we throw it away it fills up landfill sites or pollutes the environment.

This accumulation of possession is our desperate attempt to ‘keep up with the Jones’s and maintaining a certain status. Or we just shop for things because we’re bored.

There is a growing backlash against this sort of lifestyle. Frugal living, Minimalism, whatever you want to call it. It’s the idea that we buy stuff because we need it not because it makes us look good, or that it fills up space.

Such a lifestyle can allow us to downsize, living in smaller houses with less stuff. Fewer possessions mean less work, fewer things we need to repair, replace, maintain or dust of. There’s plenty of advice out there. From a smaller wardrobe, home office, furniture, and food shopping.

Speaking of food, gluttony is supposed to be a deadly sin. So this habit of accumulation can perhaps explain the obesity crisis. A lifestyle to counter it is also advocated by some. Intermittent fasting is having longer periods of time in the day where we avoid eating. think of it as a minimalistic style of nutrition. It follows in some religions practices the idea of periods of fasting.

In improving skill and performance there is Deliberate Practice. Here it’s the intentional effort to develop skills by focusing on those areas where we are weakest. Attending to our weak areas means we can raise our whole game.

All this change in our personal lives and society is, therefore, a matter of learning to let go. You might call it all this ‘learning how to die’.

To learn how to die means the willingness and practice of testing your possessions, (which include habits and ideas) and casting aside those that are no longer help you.

Think of it as a chain. You know the saying, ‘a chain is only as strong as it’s the weakest link’. To improve the chain to don’t strengthen the strongest links, that wouldn’t work, the chain would still break at its weakest point. Instead, you strengthen, replace or remove the weak points in the chain so it becomes stronger.

Learning how to die

‘Every time I learn something new, a little of the old gets pushed out of my brain. Remember that time I took that wine making course and forgot how to drive?’ – Homer Simpson.

It’s the beliefs and ideas we hold to be true are what makes us what and who we are.

The ideas we hold, the perceptions we have of the world are so important because they affect our behaviour, attitudes, and how we understand the world.

To find the good life, to be a better person involves not so much a path of finding yourself, but more a method of giving up the baggage you carry, i.e ‘self’-destruction.

It’s the skill we need to work on most of all.

Progress takes place by getting rid of the obstacles like your fears and beliefs. Flawed assumptions, mistaken conclusions and erroneous reasoning.

Things fall apart and get recycled into new designs. The molecules that make up your body once existed inside a star, the earth beneath our feet. We are recycled matter. Destruction is what makes space for new growth to occur. Yet we tend to focus and lionise creativity more because it not so unpleasant as destruction.

This is because we think to keep a ball rolling we need to keep pushing, but instead the ball is already rolling, all we need to do is keep the path ahead clear, remove obstacles and keeping to the path.

In life, it means giving up on those things that hold you back and stunt your growth or distractoin that lead you astray. Regularly sell things you no longer need, otherwise, they will take up space. A good ‘spring clean out’ will help ensure your life is not cluttered with unwanted junk. The same applies to your mind. Get rid of ideas that no longer work for you.

Which allows your own natural desire for change and growth to take place and find your direction.

This is the skill of Discernment is the ability to separate the wheat from the chaff. It’s one of the most important skills we all need to develop. Success is not possible without it. A shortfall here means we spend too much time and energy on tasks that will not lead to our goals.

The process of shedding the delusions, falsehoods that cloud our minds. Seeing the truth. Freeing oneself from the prison that contributes to our suffering.

We progress far more by what we leave behind than what we take on board.Discarding the useless, the untrue, the unknowable. It;s we we gain something from letting go and why scepticism has had such massive effect on the world by helping us see the bad ideas we need to let go of. Nassim Taleb calls this ‘Via Negativa’

I call it ‘the dreams in which i’m dying‘, It’s also how we learn because our minds change and brains change through old unused connections are lost and new connections between neurons are made, Neuroplasticity. It’s also how Buddhism describes the path, seeing and letting go of the illusions we are prone to.

We read books on self-help and personal growth. But too much of this advice is on what we need to acquire not on what we need to leave behind.

It’s why failure can be more useful than success. You raise your game by tackling your shortcomings not by practising what you’re already good at.

Remove that which is not you, which doesn’t work, which is not the truth, that won’t help, what you don’t want, that gets in the way.

Such things a far easier to notice.

It’s in those moments when reality doesn’t meet our expectations. Where there’s a mismatch between the ‘map and the terrain’.

When faced with such doubt do we hold onto the ideas and go with what reality is telling us, or do we hold onto the idea regardless?

The answer is we should let go of the ideas.

Why is it hard to let go?

‘There is no knowledge won without sacrifice’ – Jane Hirshfield, poet

This ethos of destruction as necessary can be problematic. We’re afraid to let go of things, we feel we’re losing something important. We cling to possessions as if in a death grip. Even when those possessions have long since lost their usefulness and have become dead weight.

We hold on to them because it’s what gives us a sense of security and identity. An illusion yes, but it makes us feel better. It’s a habit of trying to lock things into stasis. To know that we have something we can rely on.

What makes destruction, letting go so unsettling it because it creates uncertainty. Without the familiar ideas, possession, people around us, we feel disorientated. We use these things like signposts telling us where to go and what to do.

When we arrive home, we do ‘home things’, when we see our spouse, we do ‘partner things’, at work when we arrive we do ‘work things’.

Without such triggers to our minds, we feel a little lost. Remember what it was like when you lost someone close, or you moved home. There were times when your performed habits that were no longer required.

Our minds work on familiarity to form habits.

We metaphorically want to lay down the train tracks before we roll over them. We try to ‘lock the future in’ as a way of getting rid of the inherent uncertainty of trying new things.

It’s our nesting instinct. We need to feel safe and secure and the way too that is to cling to what we know.

It gives our lives meaning too. We know who we are, because of our possessions. Like the story of our past.

To be born into new possibilities means we have to give them up, which courts uncertainty, danger, and doubt. It’s the fear and the trembling of existence.

Change and growth require such risk and sacrifice. This slow continuous circular process of death and rebirth.

I have had to do my own fair share. Even having experiences that I feel was the embodiment of those moments. A few times I have had those moments with I have been struck by trembling fit, with feeling very cold suddenly, which transformed into laughter, euphoria and unbridled joy with tears streaming down my smiling face.

I call these moments, ‘the dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had’. In those moments I felt a piece of me died. A fear that has held me back became a little smaller.

The cold I feel always happens when I feel fear, I associated it with the chill of death. Yet from that fear, a joy a passion for life arrives that leaves me with tears and a smile.

This is just one example of me letting go. Of learning how to die. To find peace and accept what is done and know the past doesn’t define our future.

We have to let go of those things that prevent our happiness, success and fulfilment.

What should we let go? A whole lot of things it turns out.

  • Being right
  • Being the centre of attention ( or not if you’re an introvert)
  • Knowing the answers
  • Feeling safe
  • Having a plan
  • Being certain
  • Feeling you should be a certain way
  • Your old self
  • Knowing who you should be
  • Knowing what to do
  • Believing the world should be a certain way
  • Being perfect
  • Fear looking like a fool
  • Fear of failure
  • Fear of success
  • And much more

‘We all need to be reborn in life at least once. The problem? It’s continuous, and it hurts.’

Richard Collison

We seem to spend so much time at war with war with ourselves. Caught between a desire for safety and desire for novelty and change.

We are our own worst enemies and we spend so much time getting in our own way. Chasing after things that don’t matter. Worrying about things that we can’t change, collecting possession we don’t need.

And by golly do we suffer for it! (and so does everyone else). Worse still the planet also suffers under our inept stewardship.

To be reborn is to be born in pain. It’s the agony and ecstasy of our lives. It’s seeing more clearly, life expands, the heart feels more. To love life and the world becuase it’s become a more enchanted place.

‘Every act of creation is first an act of destruction’ – Pablo Picasso

To grow and change we need to find the courage to give up on those things and allow space for the new to take its place. It’s probably the hardest thing we can ever do yet that suffering is part of life and growth.

We don’t need to care so much about so much. Instead, focus on the stuff that matters and ignore the rest.

‘The greatest moments of growth I’ve experienced were not the ideas that I adopted, but the ones I let go’ – Richard Collison

What we need to do is learn to suffer in a different way. Not the fearing of change but the greater fear of stagnation.

To find the happiness and fulfilment we seek means giving up on some long-held ideas. Ideas that are preventing our growth.

We have to let them go.

We have to learn how to die.