We Have Nothing to Prove; We Have Everything to Prove: Life is lived forward but is only understood in retrospect.

John Cousins
February 7, 2023
8 min read
Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash

You are special.

Calculations of the probability of you existing are all over the Internet. They all come out with very skinny odds. Suffice it to say the odds of us being alive approach zero.

You and I are radically improbable events. Our existence is truly a miracle. Think about that as often to keep from falling into the trap of being frustrated by mundane setbacks.

When we pay extra attention to the ordinary, it becomes extraordinary. Nothing in our experience is ordinary.


By being here, you deserve to be here.

De facto, you have nothing to prove. Relax and breathe deeply.

Which leaves us with a question: what should we do with this precious gift?


Don’t ask life what the meaning of life is. Life asks us. Life asks us, “What is the meaning of your life?” And life demands our answer.

Rather than asking, “What’s the meaning of life?” Viktor Frankl says life asks us — and it is only by taking responsibility that we can craft our answer.

Our job is to act and create. It’s not fruitful to ask the Universe what our purpose is. The Universe asks us, and we answer with our acts and works. Do things, and your truth will reveal itself to you.

Don’t waste this one precious life overthinking the meaning of existence or distracted by frustrations or shiny objects.

From now on, you need never wait outside confirmation of your thoughts and ideas. You think the truth. You belong to the Universe. Your significance will remain obscure to you but assume that you are fulfilling your role here when you apply yourself to converting your ideas to others’ highest advantage.

Make gifts and send them out on errands. The good you do never ends with you. It ripples into the future.

Photo by Fabrizio Chiagano on Unsplash

You have everything to prove.

It’s a Zen koan:

We have nothing to prove, and we have everything to prove.

Photo by Faye Cornish on Unsplash

It’s a paradoxical anecdote, a riddle, to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.

It describes the tension that we must seek to balance. It’s how we navigate the path of life.

To live a good life is to walk a fine line. That’s what makes life so challenging. Just as the tension between discipline and freedom must be balanced, leading a quality life requires finding equilibrium in the many seemingly contradictory qualities, between one extreme and another.

Life is navigating a balanced path between many opposites. All these things in their proper proportion are beneficial. When we get out of balance and lean too far to an extreme, we get in trouble.

The wise ancients were well aware of the path and the traps.

The Hopi word Koyaanisqatsi means “life out of balance.”

Life is a constant vigilant recalibration of balance.

Photo by Gustavo Torres on Unsplash

The philosopher Hegel called this struggle the dialectic method.

Aristotle called it the golden mean. The middle way of balancing extremes.

Aristotle described moral behavior as the mean between two extremes — at one end is excess, at the other deficiency. Find a moderate position between those two extremes, and you will be acting morally. Everything in moderation, including moderation. (“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.” -William Blake).

This simple recognition is one of the most powerful tools a person has. With this in mind, we can more easily balance the opposing forces and pursue life with maximum effectiveness.

We have to find balance along multiple spectrums with extremes at either end. We have to balance them all simultaneously, like keeping spinning plates in the air. It’s a multidimensional linear algebra optimization problem.

Let’s unbundle this dichotomy into some of its multidimensional parts.

Lead but also follow

Stand firm for your convictions, but be ready to heed advice.

The concept of strong opinions, loosely held, is that you can have convictions and beliefs, but assume that you will happily change your mind in an instant if new data suggests you are wrong. Probability theory calls this is being Bayesian.

A Pivot is where we change our old hypothesis to create a new one and try to prove that this new hypothesis is correct. The Persevere approach is where we keep trying to prove our old (existing) hypothesis or belief. We design new experiments or improve past tests and see if those work.

Startup culture calls it Persevere or Pivot. It’s a take on the scientific method.

There is an art in knowing when to pivot and when to persevere.

“In matters of principle, stand like a rock; in matters of taste, swim with the current.”

- Thomas Jefferson

Be confident, but not cocky.

Confidence is contagious. Overconfidence causes complacency and arrogance and sets you up for failure.

Calibrating the right amount of confidence is tricky. Often mistaken, but never in doubt, is not where you want to be.

Being too eager opens us to error and careless mistakes. Cultivate reserve and structured thinking. Don’t fall in love with your first idea.

Here is what two Charleses have to say on the subject.

“Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.”

-Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

“The problem with the world is that the intelligent people are full of doubts while the stupid ones are full of confidence.”

- — Charles Bukowski

Social scientists have studied the phenomenon described by Charles and Charles. It is known as the Dunning-Kruger Effect after the two researchers who codified the tendency.

The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes the tendency for people to misjudge their abilities. People with less than average abilities tend to overestimate their actual skills, while those with higher than average abilities tend not to realize how much better they are. Some people are too stupid to know how stupid they are, while smart people assume most can do what they can.

Here are a few more insightful quotes to help gain a sense of the extremes of this dichotomy.

John Cleese of Monty Python fame says, “Stupid People Have No Idea How Stupid They Are.”

The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.

- W. B. Yeats The Second Coming

Charlie Munger calls it the Circle of Competence, “Knowing what you don’t know is more useful than being brilliant.”

As Dirty Harry said, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”

Be courageous but not foolhardy.

“Courage!” he said, and pointed toward the land,

- Alfred Lord Tennyson The Lotus Eaters

Life is hard. To keep on keeping on is an act of courage.

We can choose courage, or we can choose comfort, but we can’t have both at the same time. When we choose to dare greatly, we agree to get our asses kicked.

Many times, the bravest thing we can do is to show up.

Woody Allen said, “80 percent of success in life is just showing up.” And the other 20 percent of success is following up.

It takes courage to grow up and become who you indeed are.

Be willing to take on risk and mitigate the risk factors you can. Think probabilistically, in bets.

Without risk, there is no reward, but don’t be reckless.

Success or failure, it’s the courage to continue that counts.

What is more mortifying than to feel that you have missed the plum for want of courage to shake the tree?

Logan Pearsall Smith

Be competitive but a gracious loser.

“Comparison is the death of joy.”

- Emerson

Have room in your life to be happy about the success of others.

Be attentive to details but not obsessed by them.

The Deity is in the details, but don’t micromanage.

Be explosive but have endurance.

Life’s a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself and avoid burnout.

Drive and ambition can be powerful motivators. They can also lead to burnout.

Carpe Diem is Latin for seizing the day.

Seize the day but also practice patience.

A garden metaphor

I have noticed that plants suddenly seem to shoot up after languishing for weeks at the same small size in my garden. An experienced gardener told me that many plants initially do most of their growing and development in the roots underground. Only when they have a well-developed root structure, do they begin the above-ground explosion. We should be so wise.

Festina Lente is Latin to make haste slowly.

Be humble but not passive.

I would rather have failures that make me humble than successes that make me arrogant.

Practice self-control and restraint.

Cultivate the ability to control your ego and listen to others. Active listening is a superpower. Be quiet but not silent.

Be calm, but not a robot.

We must learn to control our emotions. If not, how can we expect to control anything else? Someone who loses their temper loses the respect of others and subtly, themselves.

Few situations — no matter how greatly they appear to demand it — can be bettered by going berserk.

- Melody Beattie

It takes twenty years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. Think about that, and you’ll do things differently.

On the other hand, we need to cultivate empathy.

Actively listening to an individual’s experiences can help you to cultivate empathy in your daily life. Be Non-Judgmental. Creating a space that is free of judgment is the first step to understanding another’s situation.

Be logical but not devoid of emotions.

Leonard Nimoy wrote a book of poems called, “I am not Spock.” He was trying to find this locus of balance.

To Conclude

We have nothing to prove, and we have everything to prove.

Use this path as a daily quest to be in touch with your inner spirit and to pay deep attention to everyday life. Believe. Believe that something special is on the horizon.

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John Cousins
Author, Entrepreneur, & Teacher

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