Humans are a beautiful but weird species. As evolved as we are, we still struggle with the simplest things like chaos and chance. Our brains are constantly trying to recognize patterns to create meaning and order to things that oftentimes are just… random.
This quest to find patterns in things has led us to see the world in threes, the smallest number of occurrences it takes for something to become, at least to us, a pattern.
When we see something the first time, it’s an accident, a thing of chance. When we see it the second time, it becomes a coincidence, something to pause and think about, but not enough to make us stop in our tracks. When we see something the third time, though, it becomes a pattern.
Because our brains are designed to see the third occurrence as a pattern, the number three has become more significant to humanity than any other whole number.
Omne Trium Perfectum - I find it quite poetic that it’s three Latin words that describe the divinity that humans have given to the number three. Translated to mean “everything that comes in threes is perfect,” it preaches that three is the number of completion, of perfection, of harmony.
When you look around our world, it’s hard to argue against this philosophy. The number three is everywhere and serves an important purpose in almost every aspect of our lives. It cuts across religions, traditions, and philosophies.
The best expression of this philosophy is in human life itself. One day we’re born, one day we die, and we live the rest of our lives in between - three. That life in between is also in three parts, or as we refer to it, three developmental stages - childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.
In most parts of the world, we also spread out our school systems into these three stages. In childhood, it’s primary education, when we become adolescents, it’s secondary education, and when we’re adults, it’s tertiary education.
You see, except in the phrase, beginning, middle, and end, the number three does not signify the end. It signifies the completion of the necessary. Yes, you can break down the developmental stages of life further, you can split education into more stages, you can create more than three. There would always be four, five, and six. But at the end of the day, when all is said and done, when push comes to shove, three is the least amount of options we need to make it make sense, to make it feel rounded, to make it complete.
Many religions around the world use the concept of threes. In Hinduism, there’s Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh. In Christianity, it’s God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Greek mythology, it’s Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades. In Judaism, there are three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
I could go on and on and on, but I’m sure you get the point.
These are religions from all over the world all ascribing a certain importance to the number three, long before they ever interacted with one another.
And it makes sense. Just look out into nature and you’ll recognize threes all around us. Look up into the sky and you see the sun, the moon, and the stars.
Before we discovered fire, there were only three fundamental elements available to us, earth, sea, and air. We observe the world in three dimensions, length, width, and height. We can move left to right, forward to backward, and up to down.
The objects we use every day, from the houses we live in, to the vehicles we use for transportation, whether it’s by land, sea, or air, all exist in these three dimensions - length, width, and height.
Even the way we perceive time is in threes - past, present, and future, beginning, middle, and end, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.
It’s no wonder that long before mathematics and physics were a thing, we could feel and understand the uniqueness of the number three in our world.
It is for these reasons that people from all around the world, raised on different beliefs and traditions all have that feeling deep inside their chest that the number three is just… perfect. The point where everything comes full circle, where everything before was incomplete, and everything after is simply an addition.
Think about it, the triangle is the first shape with straight lines that can close off. If your goal was to close off the shape, every other line is simply extra. To make anything stand without it being a balancing act, you need a minimum of three legs. Yes you could add four, five or six, but three, three is complete as it is.
The number three is the first and only number that is the sum of its previous numbers. There’s one, there’s two, and then there’s three, a combination of 1 and 2. It just feels complete. 1 is the beginning, 2 is the middle, and 3 is the end, the combination of the two that came before.
This attraction to the number three transcends religion, lore, and mysticism. It is also in the stories we tell, in the traditions we pass down to the next generation, in our fairy tales.
There were three little pigs who had to deal with the big, bad wolf. Goldilocks walked into the house of three bears and found three bowls of porridge, three chairs in the living room, and three beds in the bedroom.
The three blind mice ran up the clock, the three little kittens lost their mittens, there were three musketeers, and Genies always seem to grant three wishes.
Threes have been used in our stories for as long as we’ve been telling them. And it’s not difficult to understand why. The number three is the perfect blend of brevity, rhythm, and meaning.
It’s often the smallest unit that can include a complete message, tell a complete story, teach a complete lesson. It’s small enough to remember, but detailed enough to be impactful.
Because of this, three has become a powerful tool in storytelling, and most people use it in speeches to make them powerful, insightful, and memorable.
First, we give the speech a powerful title like “three habits for a successful life.” Then we divide the speech into three parts - introduction, body, and conclusion. Next, we use stories broken down into three acts, and sprinkle triads throughout our speeches to drive home the point even further. We say things like, “to be successful in life, you must be disciplined, determined, and persistent.” That sounded like a great idea, didn’t it?
It’s the power of three.
Even in movies, the number three is important. From the pre-production to production, and then post-production, the number three guides the entire filmmaking process, far more than you might realize.
When writing the story, the writers break it down into three parts - introduction, conflict, and resolution. When the movie goes into production, the director of photography uses the rule of thirds to make sure that each scene is framed correctly. They also need to make sure that the aperture, shutter speed, and ISO are nailed on so they get the perfect exposure.
The sound engineers aren’t left out. They have to use the 3:1 rule to prevent phase issues when recording with multiple microphones. Then once everything is perfect, the director yells, “lights, camera, action!” And on the third shout, the actors start reciting their lines.
When the director yells “cut,” everyone else’s job is done, except three. In the video editing room, the impact of a shot is dependent on the shot that came before it, and affects the shot that comes right after it. Three.
When producers and directors are talking about the movies they’ve just produced and trying to market it to the world, they fall back on the rule of threes in their speeches. “This movie is going to be impactful, insightful, and immersive.”
Once all is said and done, they go back into the studio to create two more movies, because everyone knows that all good movies come in trilogies.
The Godfather, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Back to the future, Toy Story. And we all know most television series go bad after their third season. It’s just the power of three.
“The English Language is a giant meme.” It’s been almost three years since I made that video and I still find new things about the language that keep reaffirming that statement. You see, the English language is too complex for no reason.
The truth is that all we really need to make a meaningful sentence is three words - subject, object, verb, in any order. “I want water,” “tree fell down.” With the right context, you would be able to completely understand what I mean when I say these sentences. Two words won’t quite work and four or more words is well, language just choosing to be complex for complexity’s sake.
However, even English cannot fight against the perfection of three completely. That’s why adjectives have comparatives and superlatives like big, bigger, biggest.
Let’s take a moment to look away from the English Language.
Have you ever tried to subscribe for a service online only to be greeted with the famous “three-tiered pricing?” Usually it’ll say something like “basic,” “advanced,” and “premium.” If you have, did you pause to think “Hmm, why are there almost always three options?” Why not two, why not four or five? Why, three?
First, I think we can all agree that the reason there is usually more than one offering is because we all do not have the same needs. So, by offering different options, these companies can satisfy the needs of multiple different customers at the same time.
Second, people like the ability to choose. We all like to feel like we’re making a decision when we buy something. So, the ability to choose, from something as simple as the color, to the number of features we need, helps to give us that feeling of control that we desire.
Third, three is the perfect number of options. Researchers from multiple universities discovered that having too many options affects our self-control. People who are faced with multiple different options often find it more difficult to stay focused, handle daily tasks, or even do something as simple as take their medicine.
The researchers had a bunch of shoppers record how much decision-making they had to do while they were shopping throughout the day. When they were done shopping, the researchers then presented these people with simple math problems for them to solve. The researchers discovered that the more choices the shoppers had to make throughout their shopping spree, the worse they performed on the math problem.
This might sound really scary considering how many choices we have to make throughout the day, but it only goes to show just how important the number three is yet again.
Three acts as the perfect number where we have just enough options to feel like we’re actually making a choice, but not so much that we get decision fatigue.
When you think about it, the importance of three only seems to become more glaring.
In sports, the number three is everywhere. In basketball, a shot made from far out gets you three points, in soccer, a win in a match gets you three points, 3 goals get you a hattrick, and winning three trophies in one season, a treble, or in consecutive seasons, a three peat, is considered one of the most prestigious things you can do. In professional wrestling, you pin your opponents on the count of three. In fact, the triathlon is a sport which consists of three other sports.
I can keep going on and on about threes, the number that has its branches in almost every aspect of our lives, its roots deep within our subconscious, its vines spread across languages, cultures, and walks of life.
I can keep talking about trees from morning, till afternoon, and then night, and I still won’t be able to exhaust all the beauty, mystery, and harmony in that number.
So next time you’re out in the world, remember this: “Omne Trium Perfectum - everything that comes in threes is perfect.”
- EE, MM