“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”” - David Foster Wallace
As David Foster Wallace went on to say, “the most obvious, important realities are the ones that are hardest to see and talk about”.
One needs a strong change in the environment to be able to see the most fundamental and undeniable things.
In the case of the fish, there are two ways in which the two young fish could learn about the water.
One, some other wiser fish could explain to them what water is.
Second, they could be taken out of the water for a few seconds and then put back in. This way, they would suddenly learn about water. This is a much more profound and bigger lesson, one that they will have months and years to reflect upon and understand all its implications. They will end up understanding the incredible impact that water, and in particular, their water, has in their life, even though they didn’t know about water at all before.
Water in the socioeconomic ladder
We all have a starting point on the socioeconomic ladder of life. In my case, I was born in a position where there were billions of people below me and a lot of people above me (but less than below me).
Through my life, I have been able to escalate several levels of the socioeconomic ladder. As with a fish in a radical change of environment, I have gotten a lot of knowledge and perspective from this movement. I have learned that the current position on the ladder is one thing and the path that one has followed to reach that position is a completely different thing and can be either:
- A somehow constant path
- Massive growth
- Massive decline
There is a type of critical learning that only a path of substantial growth rewards you with: the expanded sharp perspective. The expanded sharp perspective is never given, it’s only earned through movement up the ladder, the same way one would gain it when going up on a hill.
Someone could be dropped on the top of the hill and get the same views as someone else who has reached the top hiking. On the surface, it sounds like both people are getting the same output. But the truth couldn't be more different, on so many levels.
A view from above is not the same as the expanded sharp perspective. The expanded sharp perspective is simultaneously having an expanded view AND knowing all the details beyond what one is seeing. It’s macro and it’s also micro. The person that has walked the path can see sharply beyond the limits of the eye, because the experience is already within.
And the expanded sharp perspective is what the fish gains when it’s pulled out of the water and then makes it back in again.
One of the things I’m most grateful about my growth through the socioeconomic ladder is having earned this kind of perspective.
Why? From less to more important, here are my reasons:
1. Immediate insights about success and privilege
It’s easy for me to recognize when someone successful has been extremely privileged for most of their lives. I want to be clear: there is nothing inherently wrong with that. To me, it’s only an optimization problem: professionally, I want to be around inspiring people that I can learn the most from. And the best teachers, mentors, and leaders are the ones that have had massive growth. Yes, the absolute position on the ladder matters, but the formula would be incomplete without how much delta did you make. Considering the water you were thrown in early in life, how difficult was it to reach your current position?
2. Helping others escalate the ladder
By walking the path of radically changing my environment through growth, I have a detailed understanding of how a big delta happens. And because of that, it’s easier to help others make progress and grow as well. This is especially true if the other person is at a point that I have grown through: the level of understanding and relatedness is hard to match.
3. Be aware of my own limitations and lack of understanding
My expanded sharp perspective is not limitless. Understanding the limitations in perspective of the people on the levels that I have grown into made it very clear that I was once the person on the other side. And that today, there is a certain point beyond my starting point where I don’t have an expanded sharp perspective. I grew up in an environment surrounded by many immigrants that had crossed the border into the south of Spain. They had traveled for months through Africa on a deadly journey, leaving their families behind and losing many friends along the way. They arrived at a place where I thought they had absolutely nothing. But I was so wrong. They had earned a massive expanded sharp perspective, among many other things. Only by being in that place, they had already escalated many levels on the socioeconomic ladder. They were in the same geolocation that I was in, with less than I had, but they had grown much more than I had. They knew about water the way the wise fish did; I was the young fish that had no idea about it.