Poet John Keats gives sage life advice

The world we live in is pretty damn complicated, beyond levels our brains are able to comprehend. To cope with this, we instinctively look for ways to simplify things in order to understand them. This has served us well throughout history and continues to do so but it comes at a price.

The complexity of all things means they are not easily defined. Everything falls on a spectrum. For example, size can range from a quark to a Universe and any point in between. Human beings exist at any point on an infinite number of spectra, which can be challenging to comprehend.

So we often define ourselves in ways that can be measured far more easily; exam results, achievements, jobs, our social circle, Instagram followers, Facebook likes, etc.

We do this because it’s easier. It doesn’t hurt our brains as much. But it is damaging. Why? Two main reasons:

  1. If you only pursue things that can be defined, you will not invest time in things that can’t be. And it may just be that activity without a defined outcome which makes you the happiest.
  2. It inevitably leads to comparison. We all know that comparing ourselves to others unhealthy, but at times it can be difficult not to. Learning not to define ourselves and others can help.

So how can I stop defining myself and others in this way?

A useful approach is to cultivate what the notable 19th-century poet John Keats termed ‘negative capability’ — “the willingness to embrace uncertainty, live with mystery, and make peace with ambiguity”. In other words, being able to live without the need to define everything and categorise people into one box or another. We should also appreciate that this need can stem from our own insecurities.

In the words of another notable poet, this one from the 21st-Century:

“Accept yourself.
You don’t have to prove shit to no-one except yourself.”
- Drake, Tuscan Leather (2013)