Why Strangers Can Seem so Attractive – Free Ebook

The Incumbent Problem refers to the vast,
but often overlooked and unfair advantage

that all new people, cities and jobs have
over existing – or, as we put it, incumbent

– ones. The beautiful person glimpsed briefly
in the street as we step off the bus, the

city visited for a few days of holiday, the
job we read about in a few tantalising paragraphs

of a magazine; these have unwise tendencies
to seem immediately and definitively superior

to our current partner, our long-established
home and our committed workplace and can inspire

us to sudden and (in retrospect sometimes)
regrettable divorces, relocations and resignations.

5641625328_f50d7fbc77_bWhen we spot apparent
perfection, we tend to blame our spectacular

bad luck for the mediocrity of our lives,
without realising that we are mistaking an

asymmetry of knowledge for an asymmetry of
quality; we are failing to see not that our

partner, home and job are especially awful,
but that we know them especially well. Incumbents

are the victims of disproportionate knowledge.
They are generally no worse than anyone or

anything else, but as they are familiar, their
every failing has had a chance to be minutely

charted. The corrective to disproportionate
knowledge is experience. We need to mine the

secret reality of other people and places
and so learn that, beneath their charms, they

will almost invariably be essentially ‘normal’
in nature: that is, no worse yet no better

than the incumbents we already understand.
The solution to the incumbent problem is to

extrapolate from what we already know and
apply it to what we don’t yet. The most

plausible generalisation we can make about
unknown things is that they are likely to

be closer to what we’ve already experienced
than they are to being completely – and

bountifully – different. We should beware
of the injustices we unthinkingly visit upon

all the incumbent features and relationships
of our lives.

Our Wisdom Display cards explores what it really means to be wise and how we can strive to be more wise in our everyday lives.

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