When I was a PhD student in organic chemistry, I remember this guy showing up one day and making a strange request. He asked me to perform a distillation for him with very specific instructions but he did not want to tell me what these instructions were. I was puzzled and when I asked him what he would need it for, he answered “the philosophers stone”.
At this point, I took another look at this guy. He was in his forties, was overweight, wore a vest and had a superficial smile on his face. He seemed “off”. While observing him, I was wondering how someone could end up like that.
Judging from the “ingredients” he told me about, whatever he was trying to accomplish, it was not going to yield any meaningful results. In fact, the distillation was so simple that he could have easily done it in his kitchen but for some reason, he chose to visit a university laboratory.
Don’t get me wrong: If he wants to do this then he should. Maybe all my knowledge about life and chemistry up to this point was wrong and he actually has found “the philosophers stone” (whatever that is) but here is the bigger issue:
- He clearly had no financial means and from our conversation he expected to become rich and immortal from obtaining the stone (no, he did not seem schizophrenic, on drugs or psychotic)
- He has wasted at least a few decades on magical thinking because he was in his forties by then
- He has a loosing strategy because the success in convincing a chemistry student to do something forbidden in the lab (for free) is almost zero while he could easily hire a private laboratory to do the same task (or do it himself)
So, now you might be asking why I am telling you this story. I was sitting at my computer while he came in and the whole interaction took maybe 10 minutes at most. So, why is this story significant?
This story is one of my favorites because it illustrates a very important immaturity (or character flaw): The expectation that a solution can be found in a singular event as opposed to gradual progress.
This type of thinking is seductive to our immature self because it removes the responsibility for improvement. It protects our immaturities while promising us the fruits of progress.
It is also true that this approach can work….for a little while. You can win the lottery and gain financial means without ever having to learn about markets and business but the problem with these rare events is that they are extremely unlikely and that if you have not built something yourself, you will likely loose it again.
Imagine a €1,000,000 lottery winner who has been drinking beer every evening and works a factory job to then go “Well, now I will start a business and begin with strategic investments.”
To have this happen is like winning the lottery twice in a row. He will likely loose all of this money after one year and then go back to square one.
Back to the story: After I have looked at him puzzled, I simply told him “No.”. He was persistent and kept asking but I did not budge. I had to tell him to leave and let him know that I will call the guards if he doesn’t leave the campus entirely.
That was the end of it.
Now, whenever I see that someone puts all of his hopes in some future event that is supposed to make him rich, healthy, successful or famous then I always tell this story and conclude it with:
“Dont be that guy.”
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