The Critical Value of the Absence of Nothing
Yesterday I did some writing about how to find the ideal number of something to possess. To do that, there’s a way to answer the question “how much is too much?” Now we’re going to take a slightly different angle and talk about the critical value of the absence of nothing. If that sounds a little weird, just unpack the words for a second.
If you go from not having something to having something, then you go from an understood value of zero to an understood value of 100% possession of available resources. Moving from having nothing to having something means that you gain 100% of the value of that item or idea. I’ll give examples here to illustrate.
But the point that I’m going to try to suggest is that as soon as you have options of any sort, the value of each option decreases proportionally. The ideal situation regarding value, concentration, focus, gratitude, and acceptance is always going to be comprehending that critical value when suddenly you go from having nothing to having the only available thing there.
Now, the examples!
Let’s say you’re hungry. You might even be starving. Ingesting any amount of any food will keep you from dying. The single most valuable thing that you can obtain is food. And the first food that is within grasping distance will literally be the value of life as opposed to death. It doesn’t matter if this food is a carrot, a scoop of ice cream, raw fish, hot sauce, etc. If there are any calories that you can get that will prevent you from starving, that particular food has the ultimate value for you.
Now let’s swap to a separate extreme. At a party, at a mansion, with the most exclusive guest list you can imagine, there are 15 different bowls of the world’s most expensive caviar laid out on the table. Each bowl is presented at a different temperature. Some person at that party has to look at those bowls of caviar and decide which one they want to taste and eat. The value of this spread of food is pretty close to zero. In fact, you might even see it as a negative number.
Whoever is doing the deciding has to figure out how to compare items, knowing that one of them is probably better than the others, or maybe there is one bowl that tastes dramatically more unique because of the situation, or perhaps there is some other variable at play. That person has to put focus and concentration on the meaning and value of excess to an absurdist degree. Each bite from each bowl of caviar could potentially save a child’s life somewhere in the world.
The cost of those 15 bowls of caviar, converted into money for food, might be able to provide free lunches for kindergartners at a low-income school for three months. And yet, the person who makes the choice of which caviar to eat in that particular instance cannot possibly be grateful for their situation. Instead, it will be a dissatisfying experience, because the context is universally devoid of meaning.
The value of that situation only increases if people who need that food are brought in to eat it. Luxury is necessarily the antithesis of value when it comes to the question of survival of a human based on calorie consumption.
Think of situations outside of these extremes, as well.
A child is hungry. You give them an apple. It is the only option. They take the apple and eat it, and it becomes 100% valuable. What if you gave that same child a choice between a red apple and green apple? It immediately devalues the situation. Because thought and preference are now involved, there is the potential for a mistake in choice. Extra energy needs to be spent picking between options, and there is the possibility that the wrong decision may be made. The apple that the kid eventually chooses is not worth the same as if there was only one option.
Now, you offer this same kid two apples. He takes them. And then another kid shows up. There are no apples left. The second kid asks the first kid if he can have one of the apples. To complete the entire value of the apple situation, the first kid would have to give the second kid the second apple.
But, what if the first kid says no? If the first kid says that they are both his apples, and the second kid can go fly a kite. What happens then? The value of the apples decrease. In a fixed system, if resources aren’t shared reasonably, the value decreases everywhere. Having more things means that everything that you have has less value.
It’s not always practical to split things down the middle. There are contextual differences between situations and people. If there are two kids and three apples, and one kid is twice the size of another, the maximum value would probably be that the larger kid gets two apples, and the smaller kid gets one.
Value is not a question of cost. It’s not a question of ownership. It’s a way to look at the entirety of a situation. It’s not how much someone spends. It’s not how much someone gains or loses. It’s about being able to analyze the number of things, and then recognize energy, intent, and rationality into the process of distribution.
People who want more apples, or want to keep more apples, when the situation dictates that value would be more appropriate with sensibly spreading things out, are decreasing their personal value.
At the same time, however, an item will lose value if there is no sort of exchange involved. When people establish a pattern of wanting things for free or expecting things for free, then the value of an item decreases. Again, this isn’t necessarily about cost. It’s almost about the value of the psychosocial energy of interactions.
If the kid mowed a lawn for half an hour in exchange for two apples, and then another kid came around and demanded one, it does not increase the value of the situation as a whole to just give it away. An effort was exchanged for something of value. Now the new kid needs to transfer something to obtain the full value of what they’re looking for.
If the lawn work is done, the exchange can even be a promise of doing something later. Or it could be an exchange of money. At that point, the right number of people have the right number of apples, and the value was determined contextually by the exchange of something of equal value.
Value does not have anything to do with fairness. It doesn’t have to do with history. It has to do with what makes sense at any given moment at present. And emotions can get wrapped up in the decision-making process, but if the situation feels wrong, there’s some evaluative measure that can always get fixed.
A kid gets two pairs of jeans for their birthday. The kid already has a few pairs of jeans. These are just new ones. Another kid comes around who is wearing a pair of dirty, torn up shorts. It’s cold outside. The value of one pair of jeans for this second child is huge. The value of any of the pairs of jeans that the first kid has is proportional.
The interaction that would have the most value might be something like this.
The second kid wants a pair of the first kid’s new jeans for free, just because he needs a pair of pants, and he wants that pair. The first kid would say no. The second kid would say that maybe he can do something of value for the first kid, but he doesn’t have any money, but he still wants the new jeans. The first kid can still say no.
The idea of optimum value doesn’t come from giving people what they want. It means exchanging something that they can provide for something that they need. This means that the first kid can arrange for the second kid to do something positive, even something as small as expressing gratitude for the situation, or promising to help someone out in the future. And in exchange for this, the first kid can give the second kid’s oldest pair of useable jeans.
The point is not to give someone something that they want, something that they desire, something that they think they deserve. Just because you have something doesn’t mean they get it. The point is to move your least valuable resource into a position where it becomes someone else’s most valuable resource. That is one way get the most out of any situation.
There are people figure out how to prey on other people’s idea of fairness. They manipulate people to empathize with them to gain things that they want without having to exchange any effort or energy for them. Those people break the system of ideal value just as much as people who have a thousand pairs of designer jeans in their closets so that they can take pictures of them, but never actually wear any.
Distribution of items. Distribution and increase in value. Exchange of energy for value. It’s all a big mishmash.
There will regularly be a difference between an ideal number of things (which gets answered with the how-much-too-much question) and the matter of the value regarding the absence of nothing.
Let’s use the example of houses. Perhaps for six months out of the year, you work on the West Coast. And six months out of the year, you work on the East Coast. Ideally, you might own two homes. Three homes would be too many. But two homes is just right.
Now, each of those homes has a proportional value, even though it is your ideal number. For someone with no home, each one of your houses has twice the value of what it has for you. So where each of your homes has a value of .5 to you, each of those homes has a value of 1 for someone who does not have a place to live.
In terms of value, if someone lived at each of your homes while you are not there, numbers increase across the board. And if that person does work in exchange for the ability to stay there, value increases more. If that person is paying money to stay there while you are not there, that value increases as well. But people who have empty houses are decreasing the overall value to themselves, and the greater world at large. There are always arrangements that can be made that will bring up the value of things that you have that are extra that would fit into the lives of others.
Let’s reset again for a minute.
If you have a dollar, and you go into a fast food restaurant, and there is one item that is on sale for a dollar, then you have achieved maximum value. If you have five dollars, suddenly there are more options. Now you have to think about things. Now you could be wrong. Value decreases for the money that you have, and whatever you buy will have less value as well. However, if for other people came into the restaurant after you, and exchanged positive energy and a smile, and you gave each of them a dollar, now you are back at maximum value. You got what you needed as the only available option, and so did all of them. Five people got food instead of one. No excess energy was spent comparing non-necessary items.
How about hot water? When is the last time that you took a cold shower? And not just sort of cold. But only using the cold knob on your shower. It is a pretty miserable experience. But, if that’s your only option, then that’s what you do. If the choice is between not taking a shower and taking a cold shower, then by taking the cold shower, you get the absolute value. And now one day, out of the blue, the hot water works. This will be the most amazing shower of your life. You have achieved absolute value again in the situation.
But your neighbor, as it turns out, has hot water all of the time. He expects it from his shower. He believes he deserves it. He thinks it is a right, not a privilege. And in fact, he complains loudly when the water doesn’t stay hot enough for long enough. He does not appreciate the hot shower because he always has it. He doesn’t regularly think of the exchange that he has to make to get.
So you and your neighbor have very different experiences. You have maximum value all the time. Cold showers are better than nothing. And then the one hot shower every blue moon – it feels like a piece of heaven. You appreciate every single one of your experiences. You are grateful to have the opportunity to absorb the critical value of the absence of nothing.
Your neighbor has a true luxury. And it doesn’t make him happy, ever. Expectations and attitudes make all of the difference.
You go to work feeling refreshed and grateful. Your neighbor goes to work wishing that the hot water would last for an hour instead of 50 minutes. Value does not come from having what you necessarily desire or believe to be yours by nature. The biggest value comes from the absence of nothing.
And it would be hard for your neighbor to restrict himself on purpose. He would be just as unhappy knowing that he had hot water but was turning it off anyway. He would be miserable because he would know that he is comparing this uncomfortable experience to one that is available to him just with the turn of the other knob.
Having options that way decreases the value. Now, if his hot water went out, was gone – if it was totally unavailable, then all of the value would come back. Restraint takes willpower. Restraint is still an option, and options reduce value. But if you set yourself up or find yourself in a position where options are not available, that’s where you’ll find the absolute value of any situation is going to sit.