Roughing It

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca encourages us to avoid living a life that is motivated by material possessions. He encourages us to recognize times when we desire more and more comforts and pleasures in our lives and to remember that we will never be satisfied with our things, and will always desire more.

 

An unfortunate reality for us humans is that the things we want seem to give us less satisfaction over time. We become accustomed to the heated seats in our new car, the large TV becomes normal, and the new espresso machine gets old and we stop thinking about how happy we are to have freshly  brewed coffee each morning. The question becomes, how can we be content with what we have and avoid landing in a place where we are never happy and constantly need to buy more stuff as if attempting to fill a hole in our lives?

 

Seneca has some advice, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “is this the condition that I feared?”” What Seneca advises is that we spend time going without any comforts. That we picture what total failure would look like in our lives, and live in that way for a short while to truly experience the loss of our comfort. In today’s world this may look like locking up our GPS watch and smartphone, wearing only our most junky tennis shoes for a few days, sleeping on the floor in the living room (as if we didn’t have a bed) with our oldest pillow and thinnest blanket, and eating just canned beans and rice for a few days.

 

Living with nothing for a short period of time may help us appreciate the things we take for granted in our lives. It also can help us see that all the comforts we rely on, that we were so excited to get at first and that we forget about over time, are not things that are essential to our survival. By remembering not to rely too heavily on these comforts, by seeing that we could live without them, and by roughing it for a little while, we can develop better relationships with our stuff.

The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.

 

In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.

 

Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.

 

This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.

 

Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.

Sunshine Blogger Award – Thanks to Just Bacon

Just Bacon nominated me for a Sunshine Blogger Award. This is a fun little informal award between WordPress bloggers. Go check out her blog!

The Rules for Sunshine Blogger

  • Thank the person who nominated you and provide a link back to him/her.
  • Answer the 11 questions provided by the blogger who nominated you.
  • Nominate 11 other bloggers and ask them 11 new questions.
  • Notify the nominees by commenting on one of their blog posts.
  • List the rules and display the Sunshine Blogger Award logo on your post.

I don’t really get around to following and reading other blogs, so unfortunately I don’t have anyone to nominate today.

Answering Just Bacon’s Questions

  1. Who is your favorite comedian?

I don’t know that he is a comedian necessarily, but Eric Voss runs the Youtube channel “New Rockstars” and he is hilarious in his Marvel movie breakdowns.

  1. Are you a righty or a lefty?

Right handed

  1. Can you pat your head and rub your belly?

Yes

  1. The ground starts to shake: what’s your first thought?

So a few weeks ago at around 1 a.m. a backpack fell off a hook in our closet and woke me up. I think I was already in the process of waking up (I usually go to the bathroom at roughly that time each night anyway) and I thought we were having an earthquake. I was really concerned for a few minutes and checked the USGS Earthquakes website when going to the bathroom once I decided the house was no longer shaking. It wasn’t until the morning I realized I had just been woken up by a falling backpack and not an earthquake.

  1. If you have a pet, what are some of the weirdest things you’ve ever said to it? If you don’t have a pet, what are some of the weirdest things you’ve said to yourself?

A constant refrain at my house is “I’m a dummy!” I make lots of dumb mistakes like putting the milk in a cabinet and not in the fridge.

  1. What’s your favorite part of your morning routine? (Other than hitting snooze and going right back to sleep.)

I never use the snooze button. In the mornings I wake up, make an espresso, write while waking up with coffee, and then exercise and I love it all.

  1. Have you ever started your own business? (And do you have any tips for new startups?)

I have not but I have a few ideas.

  1. If you had a baby koala, what would you name it?

Cassini after the spacecraft that used to orbit Saturn.

  1. If you had to choose, chicken or beef?

Eh ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

  1. Which would you be most comfortable doing in front of an audience on a stage: singing “I’m Gonna Be” by the Proclaimers or dancing the Cotton-Eye Joe to Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance”?

I don’t know what the song is from the first option, so I suppose the second one.

  1. If you had to choose: Coke or Pepsi?

Can I just have more coffee instead?

Egocentric Bias

I was reading an political science paper in an academic journal last night and came across a sentence that really stood out to me. The paper focused on the staffers who work for members of congress and whether they held accurate views of the constituents represented by the member of congress that they worked for. The paper finds that congressional staffers routinely misinterpret the views of their constituents, particularly overestimating just how conservative their constituents tend to be.

 

One reason given for the misinterpretation of constituent views was the opinions and ideology of the staffers themselves. In particular, egocentric bias may be pushing the staffers to see the views of their constituents in a warped light. The authors write, “Egocentric bias is a consistent finding in psychology that suggests individuals use  their own beliefs as a heuristic for estimating the beliefs and opinions of others.” In other words, we believe that people are like us and think the way we do.

 

In political science and in a democracy the implications of egocentric bias are huge. Our representatives could totally misinterpret what we think is good or bad, could totally fail to see what issues are important to us, and could support (or oppose) legislation thinking they were doing what we, their constituents, wanted. But really our representatives might end up acting against the wishes of a majority of the people they represent.

 

In our own lives, egocentric bias can also play a huge role. It may not seem like a big deal if we play some music from a speaker while hiking, if we don’t wipe down the machine at the gym, or if we wear that shirt with a funny yet provocative saying on it. After all, we are not bothered with these things and if we assume most people are like us then no one will really care too much. Unfortunately, other people (possibly a plurality or majority of others) may see our behaviors as reprehensible and deeply upsetting. We made an assumption that things we like are things that others like and that things that bother us are things that bother others. We adapted our behavior around our own interests and just assumed everyone else would understand and go with the flow. We bought in to egocentric behavior and acted in ways that could really upset or offend other people.

 

Egocentric bias is something we should work to recognize and move beyond. When we assume everyone is like us, we become less considerate, and that will show in how we behave. If instead we recognize that people are not all like us, we can start to see our world and our actions through new perspectives. This can open up new possibilities for our lives and help us to behave in ways that are more helpful toward others rather than in ways that are more likely to upset other people. What we will find is that we are able to have better connections with people around us and develop better relationships with people because we are more considerate and better able to view the world as they may see it, rather than just assuming that everyone sees the world how we do.

Desires

A frustrating thing about humanity is that we get tired of what we have pretty quickly. A new house, a new job, a new car all become part of our normal and fade to the background just a short time after we have them. The newness of the thing and the excitement it makes us feel disappear, and instead of appreciating what we have, it just exists with us as we start to look at other things we want.

 

This is part of the human mind that kept our ancestors striving for more and pushing to live better lives. Part of this mindset drove our evolution and helped get our species to the place we are at today. But in each of our individual lives, we can take this too far. Seneca, in Letters From a Stoic, has some advice with this in mind.

 

“Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them.”

 

We have all seen unnecessary and extravagant uses of money that seem more like showing off than anything else. What Seneca’s advice says, is that we should find a point where the use of money, the consumption of goods, or the continued accumulation of power just seems over the top. At that point of ridiculous extravagance, we should place a marker for ourselves saying no more. Over time, we should work to fit more things on the opposite side of that marker, constantly thinking about the things in our lives that are meaningful, help us live better, help humanity advance, or that just show off. The more we can be content without needing wealth to flaunt, the more we can live a meaningful life that we can enjoy. The limit we set can be at any point, which means it can be extremely extravagant, or it can be very modest. Learning to remember what we have and appreciate the things we have achieved and attained will help us as we place our marker which we do not desire to surpass.

Pessoa on Politicians

Fernando Pessoa was a Portugese writer in the 1930’s. I’m not sure if he was really involved with politics at all, but in The Book of Disquiet he had a short passage that I think describes politicians well. He writes,

 

“The government of the world begins in ourselves. It is not the sincere who govern the world but neither is it the insincere. It is governed by those who manufacture in themselves a real sincerity by artificial and automatic means; that sincerity constitutes their strength and it is that which shines out over the less false sincerity of the others. A marked talent for self-deception is the statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of  the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. to see clearly is to be unable to act.”

 

This post is not one to say negative things about politicians. Instead, it is a reflection on how humans behave. I want to focus in on the stories we tell ourselves and how we view reality. I think Pessoa is correct in his assessment of politicians. Sincere is defined, by a quick Google search, as “free from pretense or deceit, genuine feelings.” Politicians have many things on their mind at any given time and it is likely that they are never truly influenced by solely their own genuine feelings. At the same time, however, it is probably not fair to say that they never have true and meaningful feelings or beliefs. They likely try to hide any selfish motivations from even themselves, in an attempt to have pure motives for their decisions. But  they are not completely deceitful (in general) and insincere. They are humans, trying to do what they think is right, popular, and will bring good outcomes for society and for themselves personally. Their lives are a story, and they are constantly trying to write a good ending.

 

If you think about it, the assessment Pessoa makes of politicians is really just an assessment of humans in general. We all live like politicians, trying to craft a story that seems genuine and sincere about our lives and who we are, even if our actions, decisions, and behaviors are partially (or almost completely) self-serving. The politician is just an easy example of how humans behave in ways that appear contradictory. We should recognize that men are not angles, but we are (in most instances) not complete devils either. We have moments of genuine sincerity, but we are also capable of boundless deception. If we are careful and look at the world very clearly, we can see this play out in our politicians and in ourselves.

Being Content Without a Great Fortune

In Letters From a Stoic a passage from Seneca reads, “How noble it is to be contented and not to be dependent upon fortune.” Something I find myself returning to all the time is the idea that I am fine and complete on my own, without needing external validation from someone else to tell me that I have value. I can be successful, I can pursue my interests, and I can participate in society without needing someone else to tell me what I am doing is good. I don’t need someone else to tell me when I have become successful or if I am still not up to par. I don’t need another person to tell me that what I spend my time working on and engaging with is worthwhile.

 

The quote from Seneca reminds me of those efforts of mine to be ok with who I am and what I do. To be dependent on fortune is to be dependent on someone else for external validation and is to be continually striving to fill part of ourselves with things that will never fill us. The reality is that we don’t really need that much money in the United States to survive (compared to the life of mansions, porches, and Lululemon that we picture in our minds). We definitely need some money, and having a lot of wealth makes life a lot more bearable, but we don’t actually need as much as we generally pursue. At a certain point, buying a new sports car, buying a bigger house, wearing designer clothes, and mounting a huge TV on your wall becomes about something other than the thing you are purchasing. Those extravagant purchases beyond what is really necessary become a statement. They are a way for us to show the world what we have achieved and to ask someone else for their validation of our lives.

 

When I was getting to the end of my undergraduate career my motivations for my behaviors and desires became more clear to me. I started to see that I had placed expectations on myself that were driven by a need to impress my family. I wanted to land a job right after school that would make my uncle say, “Wow, good job, all that hard work paid off.” I wanted to buy a house that my mom would look at and say, “Very impressive!” And I wanted to buy a sweet classic muscle car that my brother would see and say, “Dude that’s awesome.” My entire mindset was focused on what I thought other people wanted me to be and achieve, and not on what I actually wanted to work toward or what I actually needed.

 

When we can be content with ourselves individually we can live a more peaceful life. When we can see that the external motivations on our life are made-up and likely can’t ever be achieved, we can start to focus instead on goals that are truly meaningful to us, rather than aim toward goals that are meaningful to someone else. Best of all, we can turn that attitude outward and become more accepting of people without requiring them to show us something impressive to deserve our love, friendship, and respect. This puts us in a more healthy place where we work toward creating value as opposed to working toward obtaining things and we place our own value in meaningful relationships and making the world a better place.

Blind Desires

I think we need to do a lot more coaching with young people, starting early in high school, to discuss careers, ambitions, goals, and what the world is going to expect from young people once they leave high school or college and begin to enter the work force. In the United States, once we complete our education (and sometimes before our education is complete) we enter the job market and a world where we compete for jobs and compete for status. Our world becomes centered around a career that takes up 40 hours of our attention and focus each week. When we are not at work we retreat to our homes where we try to show the world what we have and how special we are. The goal for many of us become increasing what we have to show our high status. We want to go upward, to earn more, to be more, and to have more.

 

But why do we share this desire? Who sat down with all of us to tell us that what we must do is push ourselves in our career and become wealthy to define ourselves as successful? Who told us to all want more and more things? Why do we all desire more expensive cars, bigger homes, and a more impressive title? I would suggest that these are generally blind desires that we organize our life around without deep thought as to where these desires came from.

 

We should sit down with young people to talk about pitfalls of following this traditional path. We should talk to young people about research which seems to indicate that social interaction can be as important for happiness as ever expanding wealth. We should talk about the importance of not just building up our own career, but of building systems and communities that can bring people together, rather than just building up ourselves to show off.

 

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “we are plunged by our blind desires into ventures which will harm us, but certainly will never satisfy us; for if we could be satisfied with anything, we should have been satisfied long ago.” I don’t think everyone needs to abandon capitalism, stop working, and give up all desires, but I think we should be more considerate when we think about career decisions and the work we spend our time with. If we decide that we need a big house, an expensive car, and X number of material goods to be happy, then we will make career and work decisions that trade off our time, flexibility, possibly our health, and our relationships with others so that we can have these things. We should turn inward to make sure we are not pursuing blind desires and we should re-focus ourselves and our lives in a way that will help us find more satisfaction without needing to constantly one-up ourselves and others.

Seneca on Riches

Do you actually enjoy the things that you have? Have you become accustomed to the things in your life and do you even notice them? Does your stuff frustrate you and do you worry over your stuff? Are you living in a way where the things that you have are an aid to your life and serve to constantly make you a little more happy, or as soon as you have something do you feel remorse for spending so much to get it, and when you see it are you reminded of the cost to own the thing?

 

In my life, there have been many things that I wanted, but that quickly became part of my status quo and forgotten. Things that required me to spend time maintaining them or that did end up making me as happy as I expected, causing remorse over my impulsive purchase. It is remarkable how quickly a new home can become normal, and how our wonders at having a home can fade into frustration when we have to keep it clean or when another Friday night rolls around and we have nothing to do and no where to go so we dejectedly sit around inside. We spend a lot of time working to make money and often end up buying things that quickly become our new normal and don’t provide us with a continual source and stream of satisfaction.

 

“He who needs riches least, enjoys riches most.” Seneca writes in Letters From a Stoic quoting Epicurus. It is when we become accustomed to the bounty from our wealth and success that we become dependent on our things. Those items which fade to our background and become the status quo start to be our masters, and instead of feeling grateful for having what we have, we just assume that having the thing is what life is supposed to be like.

 

One of the ways that I have been able to get away from these types of moods is by avoiding advertising. Everywhere you go and every time you watch something, somebody seems to be presenting you with an image of an ideal life. That life is always full of friends and laughter, but it is also full of new shiny stuff. We are constantly urged to buy a new car, a new fridge, a new coffee maker, better sheets, a better toothbrush, and each day we are exposed to ads for something new. Overtime, these advertisements push certain expectations for what a happy and successful life is supposed to be into our minds. By being aware of our stuff, our emotions, and the dizzying storm of advertisements we encounter each day we can push back against the feeling that we always need new stuff, and we can start to better enjoy the things we actually have.

 

The Disruptiveness of Political Amateurs

Our society is all about disruption. I am writing this from Reno, Nevada, a city heavily influenced by San Francisco and Silicon Valley tech culture. Today number of Silicon Valley firms are spilling into Northern Nevada to take advantage of our great weather, beautiful outdoors, and minimal traffic. Along with theses firms comes the mindset of disruption. New technology and companies upending the way we drive, the way we access healthcare, and the way we communicate. Even our current president, and the Democrats main primary challenger in 2016, was cry for disruption, and opportunity to shake up politics and bring about a new way of doing business from the Oval Office.

 

Brookings Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch is skeptical of this disruption, at least in the world of politics, and looks at why government exists and how good governance can be promoted in his book Political Realism. What Rauch finds is that the spirit of disruption in politics is actually nothing new. We have always had candidates who focused on a single issue that they wanted to change. We have always had activists who fought for a particular idea of what was good, often excluding concerns of other issues and areas. And ultimately, we have always had a political establishment to rail against and charge with fraud, corruption, lack of interest, and complain about as a out of touch with the will of the people.

 

What Rauch describes in his book however, is that politics is a long-term game. It extends beyond the current moment and exists in the future and in the past. Our decisions are shaped by what is politically possible and we use compromises as a tool to help us make decisions now that can be adjusted, rescinded, or strengthened in the future. What is important is not necessarily winning right now or introducing entirely new programs to completely tackle a problem today, but rather the importance lies in stability and positioning ourselves to constantly be able to improve and move forward. Our traditional system has done this with professional politicians who must please large and diverse groups of constituents. We have done this with compromise and a willingness to bend on principles to allow legislation to move through. As Charles Lindblom would describe it, we opt for incrementalism, slowly changing existing programs and policies because they already exist and have already been debated and implemented rather than spend all our time debating and fighting over new programs.

 

Contrasting this stable yet slow, lumbering, and apparently corrupting system is today’s vision of disruption. We want ideologically strong candidates who represent something greater than their own self-interest who will not bend on principles and will push for a great new society. This is a terrific vision, but it focuses on short term wins for the here and now at the expense of stability and long-term functionality. The system is composed of political amateurs, “Activists,” described by Rauch in his book as, “very different animals. They are less interested in extrinsic rewards than in advancing a public purpose, fighting for justice, experiencing the intrinsic satisfactions of participation. For them, issues are the essence of politics.” When the system is overwhelmed by the amateurs and activists, activity stops. Compromise is not possible and we cannot move forward with anything because we are all fighting for different ends. From time to time it may be necessary to flood a legislature with activists who represent a shift in the zeitgeist and will fight for things like racial justice, or a reduction in unnecessarily high taxes coupled with inefficient spending, or for a better healthcare system, but when this activist mindset becomes the norm, when every representative must be willing to die for their cause on every vote, the system cannot function and we cannot govern ourselves.

 

Sometimes the boring, the candidates who want office for the glory and not for the issue, and sometimes the flexible compromises are what we need for good governance. I would argue, and I think Rauch would agree, that most of the time these are the political leaders we need. They do not inspire great visions of a world where our political tribe dominates and where everything is about us and our priorities, but  they do work with others who are not like us and position the government to slowly move forward perhaps interrupted on occasion by groups that arise with strong preferences for a noble cause. Too many of these boring officials and we fail to meet the will of the people, but too few, and the system breaks and is open for demagoguery and encourages between-group meanness rather than between-group compromise.