Prescriptions Won’t Save You

Go to any bookshop and look at the titles. Most try to tell you how to live your life. “Follow this 3-step plan to be rich. Think this one thought to be happy. Wake up every day at this hour to find yourself.” The truth is: they won’t save you.

Most of these books and blogs give prescriptions. Prescriptions are specific instructions, exact recipes to follow. “Actionable tips.”

Many things work well with prescriptions. In crafts, for example, prescriptions are key. Musicians practice drills for years before they can come up with their own (good) stuff. Chefs first master others’ recipes, to internalize how each ingredient fits into a whole. Craftsmen of all kinds master well-defined tasks.

In most other areas of life, however, prescriptions don’t work. And they are usually the areas talked about in those books and blogs. Finding happiness, for example, or getting rich.

If getting rich was so straightforward that it could be summarized in a list of actions, everybody would have done it by now.

The person who gets rich does so because they are able to read the environment around them, and then provide value to that environment. It sounds straightforward, but in reality, where you are in the world matters. What people want matters. The market matters. Your skills in other areas matter. Everything matters. There are just too many variables. These are what I call “open systems.”

When practicing a craft, the number of variables is minimized. All guitars have six strings, and plucking this string this way will always produce this same note, on all guitars. These are “closed systems.” When you start, you roughly know what to expect. Follow the manual and you can build a skill. Sure, at the high level you can break the rules. But there are rules.

You can’t step in the same river twice. Similarly, you can’t step in an open system the same way twice. Someone telling you how they got rich, famous, or happy is just them giving you their winning lottery numbers. It’s not the same river anymore.

When someone gives you advice, be wary. Most things, you’ll just have to figure out on your own.

The Tao that can be told is not the true Tao.

Tao te Ching