The Resourceful Life

I used to think of resourcefulness as a kind of practical intelligence, but I’ve recently started thinking of it as a combination of an energy state, an attitude, and an unexamined philosophy. A lived and embodied, but rarely articulated, Weltenschauung. Rarely articulated because the people living and embodying it are too busy being alive to indulge in the (let’s face it) slightly acting-dead game of articulating things.

It is the philosopher’s conceit that the unexamined life is not worth living. The resourceful person, by simply existing, gives the lie to that self-congratulatory belief. While some resourceful people certainly do lack the capacity for critical reflection (as do many philosophers), it is by no means the case that all of them do. Many can be provoked into critical reflection even if they aren’t naturally prone to it, especially when it serves a practical purpose in unlocking a more resourceful direction to head in. But they are fundamentally bored by critical reflection, judging it to be (often correctly) a cope for people afraid to live life fully.

So what is resourcefulness?

Resourcefulness is steady, patient, problem-solving persistence. A seemingly infinite capacity for a kind of trial-and-error that non-resourceful people would find impossibly draining and exhausting.

I’m not myself a particularly resourceful person, but under moderate stress, I can turn into one — for a while. I think my limit is about a month at a stretch, and then I need 11 to recover. Resourceful people seem to always be in this state (though when they do crash out of it, they often end up in the darkest pit of despair for a while).

A big part of resourcefulness, by definition, is of course a combination of imagination and attentiveness. You have to pay attention to an unsatisfactory situation to keep coming up with things to try. But there are many extraordinarily attentive and imaginative people who do interesting and creative work, but are not resourceful.

Ironically, this attitude hobbles creative ambition because invariably, bigger and more complex creative projects repeatedly hit phases where resourcefulness rather than creativity is called for. If you’re a painter creating a revolutionary new kind of painting involving a specific shade of blue, but then you find you’re out of that blue paint and it’s out of stock everywhere, you’re suddenly faced with a resourcefulness problem. Find more paint somewhere, or improvise a creative alternative. Being a genius visionary painter doesn’t help you navigate confused conversations with random suppliers of blue paint in China.

Such non-resourceful artists are easily disheartened by the overwhelming weight of everyday annoyances and practical problems of varying degrees of difficulty, and grudge any effort that must be devoted to them. To such people, the need for resourcefulness is a tax on life rather than a part of it. To them, while you’re being “resourceful,” you’re not living. I have to admit, I belong in this club about half the time.

Resourcefulness is a positive syndrome combining patience, conscientiousness, curiosity, attentiveness, and most of all energy. The adjective indefatigable comes to mind. Not only do resourceful people never run out of things to try, they seem to never run out of energy to actually try them. Again and again, often racking up dozens of failed trials before hitting upon a successful one.

It’s not that the raw energy is special. We’re not talking extraordinary or heroic levels of physical or intellectual stamina. Nor are we talking about the closely related concept of resilience — the ability to not let setbacks get to you. It’s not that the resourceful person has astounding willpower or emotional self-regulation. It’s that they somehow seem to retain the motivation to keep going for far longer than most people, without visibly trying.

This, I think, is key. If you’re gritting your teeth, fighting back depression and anxiety, picking yourself up and soldiering on, that’s heroic stamina and resilience. If it never even occurs to you to give up, that’s resourcefulness.

Most of us have a kind of meta-process going on in our head anytime we’re in a trial-and-error mode. At what point do I cut my losses and quit? At what point do I just toss this frustrating broken thing and buy a new one? At what point do I just give up on a plan entirely and choose to forgo something?

The resourceful person rarely asks is this worth it, because by a rarely questioned default, it always is. Resourceful people have extremely stable commitments to extremely stable goals and desires, by default. It’s not specific goals and desires. They’re that way about all goals or desires. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing.

When you consider that as a revealed Weltenschauung, a life-scale worldview and attitude, you could say that the resourceful person is one who has a remarkable level of faith in the idea that of course life is worth living. Unlike the philosopher who has to examine life to make it worth living, for the resourceful person, the answer is clear without any need for self-examination. The fully lived life is not worth examining.

To the resourceful person, if you want something, that’s part of living life, so of course it’s worth relentless trial-and-error to get. To want at all is to want life. There is an endearing sort of infinite-game firmware loop deep down somewhere. The point of the resourceful life is to continue playing. To continue wanting.

In a curious way, the superpower of the resourceful person is simply the ability to care deeply and unquestioningly about their own life. This is not the same thing as being selfish or narcissistic. In fact, many selfish and narcissistic people seem to constantly struggle with the question of whether their life is worth caring about enough to live.

It’s not that resourceful people can’t do the pragmatic math of whether or not something — right up to their own life — is worth it. It’s not that are unable to consider whether it’s cheaper to toss something and buy a new thing than to continue messing with it. If that’s a necessary kind of processing they can do it. Others might have to help them snap them out of the get-it-done mode briefly, and help them reorient. Then they’re off again, cheerfully being indefatigably resourceful in the new direction.

But it is important to note that snapping resourceful people into a reflective mode is not always a good thing to do.

Quite often, resourceful people are off chasing down a problem — like a show-stopping software bug or supply chain snafu — where their default of course it is worth it attitude is in fact the closest approximation to the right one. Anyone doing more shrinking, scarcity-minded cost-benefit analysis, and constantly evaluating the quit-or-not decision, is likely going dangerously wrong somewhere. The higher the stakes, the more these meta-processing second-guessing rational types are a liability to have around. Invariably, at some point they’ll manage to convince themselves the thing is not worth doing. Quitting behavior easily slides from strategic to addictive.

Often this is because as sunk costs rise, and you can’t actually justify walking away from them, it’s easier to just repress the fact that they exist and give up. If you bet the farm, you want to be relentlessly resourceful about making the bet pay off, and be on the lookout for quitting rationalizations based on dodgy philosophical math. The higher the stakes, the higher the chances rounding them up to infinity is the right answer, and rounding them down to zero as a write-off is self-deception.

In a sufficiently complex world, only the unreasonable people for whom all bridges are by default burned are going to get anywhere. Everyone else will always find a reason to quit, and never get to any of the weirdly worthwhile outcomes that defy philosophical cost-benefit analysis.

Obviously, resourceful people make great COOs, bug-hunting programmers, and entrepreneurs in the more “operator” mold. But those stereotypically resourceful people are kinda uninteresting. What interests me a lot more is people who are relentlessly resourceful in the larger game of ordinary life, outside of hero’s journeys. People for whom resourcefulness is not just a way of life but the very definition of it, with anything short of an of-course-it’s-worth-it attitude being some degree of deadness.

As the world gets ever-more complex, it’s the resourceful who increasingly inherit the future. Anyone who wonders too long whether life is worth living is increasingly likely to conclude that it is not due to the sheer difficulty of thinking about the question honestly. Only those who don’t bother to ask the question will ever choose life at all.

Of course, this is not to say resourceful people are superhuman. They’re not. The universe does not deign to always submit to relentlessly resourceful trial-and-error striving before even the apparently inexhaustible psychic resources run out. An overwhelming thing does not always stop being overwhelming just because you act like you’re unstoppable.

The universe is also full of strange impossibilities and constants. Even humans who act like perpetual motion machines eventually succumb to the second law of thermodynamics.

But to a first approximation, there is such a thing as a resourceful life that is not worth examining. And it’s worth living that sort of life even if you’re only able to do it for one month out of every twelve.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Resourcefulness is these indefatigable street kids in Bombay scraping together their own street shrine to their Gods:

  2. I’ve always been a resourceful person. Now that I’m older I’m more “armchair resourceful”. Thinking about your commentary, I think of raising kids as a bet the ranch move that stimulated a second wave of resourcefulness for me beyond making a career. Marriage seems like more of a bet half the ranch move. Being older for me still calls for resourcefulness, even if bet the ranch moves aren’t much of the focus anymore.

  3. “Getting things done” has always been a spine-chilling phrase to me. Nevertheless, when I roll up the sleeves and give in wholeheartedly to the get-things-done mode, I may eventually find it deeply satisfying (and exhausting). Of course, the fullfilment I receive varies depending on the nature of the task, the ultimate goal, and the motivation to be resourceful. But even day-to-day situations that require resourcefulness to get by, may be rewarding with a slight adjustment of perspective. I think that for the second-guessing, philosophical (and idle) types the trick is to deliberately find reasons to justify the situation to yourself, surf on the delusion for as long, and get the work done like an ascetic monk. Of course, this is too long of a process to follow on a daily basis, as more often than so you just need to throw yourself at the job without thinking of it too much and just burn all bridges out of self-aware precaution. In any case, although one may never be a natural, one can refactor his perspective to enjoy (at least for some period of time) the resourceful life. Afterall, perception-adjustment is the great asset of the thoughtful person.
    Although it was physically painful to listen to this while growing up, I have startet to succumb to my dad’s belief that “whatever you are obliged to do, you might as well enjoy it”.

  4. Yev Terentiev says
  5. Hi
    Immediately I recognized my mother in your description and so did she.
    She never, not even gives up, but keeps on going. With a High School education she worked her way to an executive position in the credit card business.
    She’s developed an expertise in solving problems. I’ve heard her stories about for instance the time she drove a stick shift without knowing how, because she had to.
    She is on the board of the college where she recently graduated, a degree she earned as an adult, because the academics on the board are smart but not problem solvers.
    She validates your analysis and even finds it interesting
    If she reads this comment I think she’ll agree

    • Carol Berman says

      Oh Howie,
      I agree. This is so powerful for me to have read. Thank you so much for sharing it with me.
      And, thank you for your comments. I’m blessed to have you as my son.

  6. Mayuresh says

    Nice article, Gurra. Very insightful. Its been a while, hope you are well. The article reminded me of this concept of self-renewal by John Gardner —

    I wonder whether the part about “as the world gets even more complex” is a constant in any age as one looks to the past period for comparison. Truth may be that this is how it always has been. John Gardner’s wisdom is from decades ago.

  7. In this model, how do the resourceful figure out what to work on?

    Not in a checklist kind of way, but in a strategic way, where you avoid a string of big but unrelated projects?

    P.S. Is the resourceful person a kind of 21st century noble savage?

  8. Ravi Daithankar says

    “What interests me a lot more is people who are relentlessly resourceful in the larger game of ordinary life, outside of hero’s journeys.”

    In this regard, I have often marveled at people who are able to tap into empathy as a resource. It boggles my mind, looking at the seemingly bottomless tank some people have when it comes to empathy. And I am not talking about the Mother Teresa types either, who although admirable, can be relatively easily explained. I am talking about the non-descript ones who you randomly come across every now and again, who are evidently in it for the Sisyphean journey, not the destination. Being able to generate a wholesome kind of joy out of a seemingly thankless, pointless toil sounds like a cheat code against the human condition. As an aside, one of the biggest axes I have to grind against social media is that it has brought a giant wrecking ball to that delicate, already rare psyche. But that’s a rant for another day…

    “In a sufficiently complex world, only the unreasonable people for whom all bridges are by default burned are going to get anywhere.”

    Why by default though? Because that is the only inevitable outcome after staying the course long enough? Sort of like “die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become a villain”?

  9. Other hallmarks of resourcefulness include embracing one’s problem as a blessing rather than a curse and treating both adversity and prosperity just as information or a piece of jigsaw in the puzzle to be solved.

  10. Thanks Venkatesh Rao
    Interesting read !
    Indeed life is about the aptitude and attitude , energy and endurance
    Resourceful life is a productive one .

  11. Zielinskip says

    “An overwhelming thing does not always stop being overwhelming just because you act like you’re unstoppable.”

    Not sure about this, wouldn’t you think that if you perceive something as being achievable it loses it’s insurmountable quality? The object of perception can’t have two states at the same time, yeah? Perhaps there is a cycling between perceptions and the average is what ends up being the overall experience.

  12. Ian Fleming’s novel On Her Majesty’s Secret Service opens in France with James Bond, dedicated ornithologist that he is, tailing a woman. The beach where he sits and watches her reminds him of seaside holidays, and, “It was all there, his own childhood, spread out before him to have another look at.” But after a moment he shakes himself out of it: “Today he was a grown-up,” and that’s it, we the reader—and presumably he—never return to his past (it‘s nice that Fleming has Bond use the child’s term “grown-up” for “adult” when talking to himself). “He was here, he had chosen to be here,” Bond tells himself. The past is relegated to its proper place: that which brought him to be the man who may please the gods today. He then “lit a cigarette, pulled his shoulders out of their slouch and slammed the mawkish memories back into their long-closed file.”

    Later in the story it is Blofeld’s undoing that he allows 007 as Sir Hilary Bray of the Royal College of Arms to rootle around in the past. Investigating genealogical avenues: Bond considers these “idiotic activities”.

  13. Sounds a lot like the growth mindset idea talked about by Carol Dweck.