The First Step

萬丈高樓從地起 - maan zoeng gou lau cung dei hei - "ten-thousand measure high building from soil begin" - "the tallest buildings start from the ground" - "Every skyscraper stands where once was bare earth." (Chinese proverb)

If you're wondering what that has to do with steps, most people have translated this proverb as "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

It's kind of interesting that the Western version of that is about you personally doing a thing all by yourself that benefits nobody but you... and the Eastern version is about a major project no one person can do alone which results in something stable and permanent for the benefit of many. This is kind of the big difference between SLIM Jim and FAT Jack.

Originally, I wanted to quote the old proverb about how it's better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, but it turns out that while everyone is more or less agreed that this is a Chinese proverb and probably from Confucius, nobody uses this saying in China. In fact, when asked for a translation, both Mandarin and Cantonese speakers regard the request as strange and observe quite pointedly that this phrase does not sound like something anyone in China would say so they have tried to translate it but probably not done so very well.

The kinds of things that resonate for the Chinese don't resonate as well for Western sensibilities. Who really knows where Adlai Stevenson got the proverb he used to discuss Eleanor Roosevelt in 1962? We live in a world where certain sayings are promulgated as Chinese every day. One interesting one I came across in my search was "kill a chicken before a monkey." What the fuck does that mean? Some of them are just scenes: "a frog in a well shaft seeing the sky" or "a flea on the top of a bald head."

But the one which really struck me was "dream different dreams while on the same bed." What does this mean, exactly? Does it mean you should or shouldn't do that? Does it just mean people do, for better or for worse? And that, funnily enough, relates perfectly to what I was going to write about.

The first and most critical element of being a badass is to Believe you can be a badass.

There are a lot of people who will say that I found the quote about dreams - dream being another word for belief! - because God wanted me to, or the universe did, or it was in the stars, or whatever. And they say that for one and only one reason: because they believe it. There is absolutely no evidence as to why. They just believe, and they're going to integrate that to their worldview and proceed as if it were true.

The real truth, of course, is that your brain matches patterns and connects dots. When I am looking for a Chinese proverb to go with my blog post, I am going to find one, because I will not stop looking until I do. Not that I'm saying God and the universe and the stars necessarily have nothing to do with the brain working that way, since fundamentally the elements that make up my brain demonstrably came from the stars which obviously make up the universe and maybe that's the way God meant it all along.

But whether this is a cosmic accident or some sort of master plan or something in between is completely inscrutable to us (by Gödel's incompleteness theorem), so the only thing that comes in to play there is not evidence, but belief.

It is not about the bed you are on. It is about the dream that you dream. If you lie on a bed of the finest goosedown and satin sheets, dreaming that you are nothing more than the SHIT with which you have been covered all your life, you are going to be significantly less badass than a guy lying on a cardboard box in an alley dreaming that he is absolutely the baddest motherfucker on the planet.

That's why that man can go out and be happier tomorrow. He's operating entirely out of his beetle brain, wandering randomly around the city asking for spare change, no real rhyme or reason to his actions. But he will almost certainly have a pretty good day.

But the guy on the feather bed will go to work, race around like a madman, stress out until he gives himself an ulcer... and go home at the end of the day thinking "my life is SHIT." As he eats a USDA choice steak in his formal dining room, wearing a bespoke Savile Row suit, preparing to go watch his 80 inch plasma screen TV for an hour or two before going back to his goosedown and satin... where he will dream of the SHIT his life is.

What you believe matters. It's not about whether there really is a God, or whether the universe really does respond to your desires, or whether astrology really is a science. Even a fictional belief is better than nothing.

Of course, we're going to extend that somewhat tomorrow...