Advice from Isocrates

In Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday includes a quote from a teacher in Athens named Isocrates around 374 B.C. who wrote a letter to a young man who had recently lost his father. Holiday includes several lines and pieces of advice from Isocrates, and one that stood out to me when reading Holiday’s book is the following, “Be slow in deliberation, but be prompt to carry out your resolves.”

 

Yesterday evening I attended a community group with my wife, and the ice breaker to start off was, “what is something you don’t often approach with an eternal perspective that you should.” I chose a light answer of traffic and other drivers who annoy us while driving, but others said things like career choices, money decisions, and other important decisions that can weigh us down and make our lives stressful. The quote from Isocrates reminds me of the ice breaker from last night in the sense that we should be more thoughtful yet deliberate in our actions. Thinking with an eternal perspective means to think about the meaning and value of a choice or decision today relative to the entire arc of humanity. It requires introspection, being honest about your choices, and trying to think not just about yourself but about those around you who will also be impacted by your decision. This is exactly what Isocrates was encouraging for the young man in his letter.

 

The advice from Isocrates contained another element beyond careful and honest consideration of our choices. To be prompt in carrying out our resolves requires that we be firm in the decisions we make and deliberate in our actions to realize our decisions. I have seen in myself a thousand instances where I have made a decision to follow a course of action, only to be slow in starting on the path I decided would travel. Inevitably, the longer I delay action and the slower I am to take the steps that I decided I would take, the more likely it is that my decision is forgotten and that I do nothing. Whether it is cleaning my garage, starting a new club to read academic journal articles, or double checking our finances to set up a surprise date night with my wife, I am often slow to do what I told myself I wanted to do, and frequently I don’t carry out the great plans in my head. The advice from Isocrates is very practical for our daily lives. Slow down our judgement and reactionary tendencies, but once a decision has been made, put full and deliberate efforts forward to bring those decisions to life.

The Absurdity of Thinking We Know What is Happening in Another’s Mind

We make claims all the time about what other people are thinking and feeling and about the motivations, beliefs, and desires of others. We can maybe be right about some large things and the study of psychology has given us insight into a lot of patterns of the brain, but to think that we could ever really understand what is happening in the mind of another person is beyond nonsense.

 

This fallacy starts with our misunderstandings of our own brain and our own consciousness. We like to think that there is a single actor in our brain, observing the universe, directing our actions, and making sense of the world in an objective and rational manner. What everything seems to indicate, however, is that this experience of our consciousness does not align with reality. People often fail to act in a way that is in their rational best interest. We are driven by the stories that we tell ourselves, giving rise to prejudices and allowing us to be swayed by our self-interests. When meditating we see just how hard it is to focus on a single thought, even if we try our best to make our conscious mind think about our breath and not the candy jar on our co-workers desk. In all of these situations, our thoughts seem to be a bit beyond our control, a bit random, and heavily influenced by factors that we perceive or imagine even if they don’t exist.

 

When we look inward at our own mind we begin to see just how jumbled our own thoughts and consciousness can be. When we truly work to improve our mind, we can build our self-awareness, look at the world more objectively, and start to recognize patterns of our own thoughts and behaviors, but this is hard work and reveals a confusing set of contradictions within ourselves. Indeed, as Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness, “If you want to know your own mind, there is only one way: to observe and recognize everything about it. This must be done at all times, during your day-to-day life no less than during the hour of meditation.”

 

To know our mind is to recognize the times when our mind is not what we think or imagine it to be. And if we cannot even know our own mind without constant study and evaluation of what we are thinking and believing, then how can we ever claim to understand another person’s mind, even for a second? We can hide things from ourselves, fail to recognize the reality of the world around us and of ourselves, and we can develop false beliefs in our thinking. This is true for each one of us, and for everyone else around us. When we think of other people, of their desires, habits, actions, fears, and their general mindset in any given situation, we must remember that they are as complicated as we are, and that we cannot possibly understand what is happening in their mind.

 

When I think of this, when I read Hanh’s quote about self-awareness and how difficult it is to know ourselves, I remember to judge people less harshly, to slow my thinking down, and to first interrogate my own mind before assuming something about the mental state of another person. This is not easy to do, and it undoubtedly leads to a place where I think to myself, “well the world is hard and this person is influenced by many things and feels many fears and pressures, so their actions and behaviors can to some extent be deemed understandable.” This works well when I am confronted by a grumpy person in line at the bank or a jerk driving next to me on the freeway, but it is less that satisfying when thinking about people who commit serious crime (an area I don’t have solid thoughts on right now), or people who seem to antagonistically oppose beliefs that I find important and noble. What I can say is that remembering how challenging it is to know myself helps me be more empathetic with others and view what they say or do in a less attacking and critical light. In personal relationships and in the office this is a great skill to cultivate, because it stops me from assuming I know what is happening in another person’s mind, and reminds me that they may not even have their own thoughts fully understood.

Cory Booker on Cynicism

Being Cynical is easy. Being Cynical is also dangerous and damaging. Toward the end of his book United Senator Cory Booker reflects on the cynical state of politics and society today, and what it means for individuals and for the nation to be as cynical as we are today. Booker writes, “cynicism about America’s current state of affairs is ultimately a form of surrender; a toxic state of mind that perpetuates the notion that we don’t have the power to make a difference, that things will never change.” When we don’t take action to be involved in our city, when our knowledge of politics (or anything else) is only cursory, and when we fall into a habit of not looking beyond our own perspective, we begin to think everyone is like us, and we accept the easy cynical story. Booker, in United, challenges inaction, challenges cynicism, and challenges the idea that only bad people are involved in how government and society operates.

 

I study Public Administration at the University of Nevada, Reno and it has forced me to focus on the realities of government, which is that there are a limited number of resources available for society, and somehow we must decide who gets what, when, and how. Any time you think about the way the world operates and begin to consider the world, the word ‘should’ undoubtedly pops up, indicating that you are making a judgement statement about your beliefs of the world. I don’t use belief in the religious sense of the word, your opinion and worldview could be shaped and reformed by objective empirical data to a large degree, but ‘should’ indicates political preference, ideology, and what you think would work best for an individual or collection of individuals in a situation. The important thing about the word “should” is that there is almost never 100% clear evidence that the suggestion following it is the only answer. When dealing with limited resources we must make political decisions, meaning that we must write down our “should” and our perspectives influence how we decide what is the most important.

 

Cynicism fails to recognize what is happening when the word “should” is introduced into discussion. It assumes there is an easy answer, and assumes that resources are not constrained and that we do not have to make difficult decisions that undoubtably give some people more resources or access to resources than others. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we are looking at a shell of any given situation and seeing what we want to see. We look for the negative and criticize what is in front of us. Being cynical is not about finding the errors and problems in a given situation and looking for a solution. Instead it is about propping ourselves up and placing ourselves on the right side of a moral divide, in much the same way that we use outrage to feel better about ourselves.

 

Booker is critical of cynicism, arguing that it takes our power away from us when we need to take more action on our own. Rather than recognize that we can band together to improve the world, cynicism looks at the status quo and assumes that we cannot make a difference. It is the result of what Tyler Cowen calls the “Complacent Class” that does not want to put in the effort and focus needed to make a change in the world. Cynicism allows “should” statements to exist in isolation within the brain, never challenged by new facts, and never actually introduced to the world. When we allow ourselves to be cynical we accept complacency when the world needs action and initiative. Cynicism is self-perpetuating, and fighting it off is a struggle, but if we want to grow individually, and if we want to see the world improve, we must understand that our world view will always be incomplete, that other people will have different motivations and will make mistakes, and that it is only by our actions that we can change the world for the better, even if our actions will be infinitesimally small in the course of history.

Humble Teachers

Senator Corey Booker gives us an insight into the people he sees as mentors and role models in a brief paragraph in his book United. Throughout his book, Booker talks about the people who have made an impact in his life, and almost all of them were citizens trying to make a difference in their local community. These individuals were impactful not because they wanted power, control, or notoriety, but because they truly cared about their community and the people around them. Regarding the people Booker learned the most from, he writes, “you reap what you sow; for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; cause and effect. Humble people teach us this and more. They are great masters, the best of whom I have found are not on television, not at a university, and not elected to any office. They do not preach sermons, give lectures, or dispense orders. They do. Without fanfare, they do the best they can, with what they have, where they are.”

 

Booker’s message is one I think needs to be shared more broadly with people and youth in society. It is often easy to look at problems, think that someone should do something, and then sit back and make excuses for why we are not the people to try to make a difference. We don’t have much time. The problem is not really our responsibility. We don’t know who to talk to about the problem. And we don’t know what our first step would ever be.

 

Instead of focusing on the problems in tackling the problem, if we shared a community wide message of each of us doing the best that we can where we are, we could begin to make a difference. The perspective we usually take is that the issue is too big and our actions are too small to matter. This perspective can be shifted to say that we can start, we can try to do a little bit with what we know, and we can take action based on good intentions. Our efforts may not be perfect, but at least we can begin to move the ball and build momentum. Focusing locally can help us find new directions for improvement and can help us start to tackle the challenges that impact not just us, but everyone. We don’t need to do something with the intent of being noticed and appreciated. We can take action because we know it will make the world a better place.

 

If we look around and try to find people who are already doing this we can learn and find new ways that we can get involved and make a difference. These individuals can lead and mentor through their actions, and their focus and thought process can be absorbed to help us become better people and make positive impacts on our communities. Booker learned this by living with people in low income high rise communities and by working with local people trying to make a difference for the people where they lived. Great knowledge can be gained from professors and lecturers, but a certain wisdom can only be achieved by being active and surrounding oneself with people who truly care about making the world better.

Hope

Senator Cory Booker has an interesting thought about optimism and the future. He believes that you can’t simply look forward to the positives of the future and that you can’t ignore the negatives of the present that may persist into the future. What you must do, according to Booker, is be honest about the negativity that you wish to change and set out to make the world better through actions and deliberate choice. Intentional actions to drive toward a better world is what Booker calls hope, and it is about more than just believing things will be better one day. For Booker, hope is believing that one can struggle against the negativity, learn, grow, and make the world a better place. He writes, “Hope is the active conviction that despair will never have the last word.”

 

The power of Booker’s hopefulness lies in its practical manifestations in the real world. On an interview of the Ezra Klein Show, and again in an interview with Tim Ferris, Booker spoke about the word “optimism” and explained that optimism falls short of Booker’s ideas of hope. He sees optimism as empty beliefs that things will get better, leaving out the important decisions and efforts of the individual to make thing better. If one simply assumes the world will move in the right direction without looking at the specific areas that need to change, then one will never have a plan or roadmap to reach that better future. A positive outlook of the future needs to have more than just blind faith that one day things be great, it needs action items that one can relentlessly pursue to improve the world. This is the hope that Booker describes as a participant driven optimism.

 

Hope for Booker is the belief that one has the power to make the world a better place through awareness and action. If you fail to see what negativity exists, if you fail to think about how you could change what you dislike and understand to be unjust, if you fail to acknowledge the pain and suffering of now, then you won’t be able to live in a way that fights against such forces. Booker continues, “It does not ignore pain, agony, or injustice. It is not a saccharine optimism that refuses to see, face, or grapple with the wretchedness of reality. You can’t have hope without despair, because hope is a response.” Hope is the ability to look at the world, visualize a way to improve it, and take steps toward a better future. Hope does not run from the negative of the world today, but looks at the negative more closely to understand where it came from and how it can be overcome.

New Avenues for Movement

One of the ideas in Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is developing a focus on other people and things beyond ones-self and one’s immediate wants and desires. Holiday follows stoic principles to build a more purposeful and meaningful life, and one of his strategies is to think more deeply about others. He encourages present mindedness in our thoughts, but in a way that is reflective and understanding, beyond a presence that is concerned about what we have, what we want, and what others have that we do not. By applying this type of thinking to the challenges we face, Holiday give us a new vision of obstacles, the difficulties we face, and how our challenges relate to other people. He writes, “Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some intractable or impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think: If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?”

 

This quote shows the importance of thinking beyond ourselves when we are faced with obstacles. The easy thing to do when we are stuck and unable to see potential solutions is to give up and complain about how unfair our situation is. What Holiday argues is a productive response to being stuck, is to stop thinking about ourselves and how limited our possibilities are. By shifting our focus of the problem away from our own “stuckness” and instead thinking of what we could do to help those who are in similar situations, we give ourselves new pathways forward. They may not be the pathways we originally envisioned, and they may not lead to the same destination, but they do move forward.

 

The crucial idea in Holiday’s quote is that thinking of others allows us more growth through deeper reflection. This mindset provides an opportunity for us to develop deeper connections with other human beings through the struggles we share. We likely will not find ourselves in situations that are truly unique to only us. Others have certainly been in our shoes at some point, and many more will experience situations similar to ours in the future. Thinking about what would have been helpful for ourselves, and creating ways to share our experiences, attempted solutions, and successes allows us do something meaningful at a point where none of our actions seem important.

 

This thought process gives us a new direction and new goals. we likely will have to shift our aim and pursue new actions to try to implement ideas that benefit others, but in doing so, we abandon our stuckness, and open doors for others. We experience new energy through acts that do good for others, and we create new opportunities for ourselves that we could not have predicted had we not been creative during our struggles. Holiday’s simple idea gives us an oblique approach to forward growth and a more meaningful life for ourselves and those around us.

Pressing Forward

In his book The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday presents advice based on principles of stoicism developed by ancient Greek philosophers. When it comes to our life journey and reaching the level of success we desire, Holiday gives us a window into what we must do to achieve our goals. Holiday writes, “If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities  that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.”

 

The message from Holiday’s quote is that we must be able to persevere in challenging times and that we cannot just be great when things are going our way. We need to be wise and take advantage of the good fortune that we have in our life, but we must also be able to recognize ways in which we can press forward when we face adversity.

 

When challenges face our country, our company, or household, or just ourselves, we can look forward to find a way to build a path that makes us more resolute. Holiday’s book stems from the idea that adversity and struggle help us develop new skills and reach higher levels of fulfillment beyond anything else in our lives. Action when times are easy can take us far and make us feel great, but we will never be as successful or impactful in our lives if we only learn how to take action and drive toward success when the path is easy. Holiday’s message is to become aware of the difficulties and obstacles we face, and to use those to propel our growth and help us become better versions of ourselves.

Courage

In the book The Obstacle is the Way Author Ryan holiday has a great quote about courage and action reading, “We talk a lot about courage as a society, but we forget at its most basic level it’s really just taking action — whether that’s approaching someone you’re intimidated by or deciding to finally crack a book on a subject you need to learn.” I enjoy this quote because it is not just a trite saying that we use in situations where we know we need to take action to do something, or where we know we should take a risk and put ourselves out into the world.  The quote from Holiday shows that we can have courage by simply deciding to act, especially in challenging situations.

 

When I think about taking action on things I often dream about, I don’t always think about courage, in fact, courage is probably the last thing I think about. I consider whether or not someone will ever respond  to an email or phone call and I usually procrastinate on reaching out to someone for as long as possible before finally putting words down in an email or punching the numbers into my phone. When I think about courage in Holiday’s view, I better understand what is going through my mind during those moments, and I think I may be better able to adjust in those moments simply by saying that I had courage to act, rather than criticizing myself for having delayed action for so long.

 

Holiday is definitely correct in his reflection on the way society thinks about courage. We currently love superhero movies (at least I do and I’m going to assume anyone reading this is like me and enjoys them as well) and our idea of courage is displayed and possibly shaped through the story of the heroes in our movies. The courage to stand up against a bully, fight a foe in a glorious battle, and speak out against injustice are the forms of courage we are familiar with and can identify in real life people like firefighters and veterans. The problem with this courage is that it is in many ways out of reach for most people. Looking at courage as Holiday does shifts the way we use the word, and makes courage more accessible to more people in their daily lives.

 

Simply speaking with someone you have been avoiding or that is not part of your group is an act of courage. Emailing someone with decision making power and letting them know that you have a great idea or observation is an act of courage. Even a decision to step away from a comfortable night of television to be involved in a class, art project, or community event is an act of courage that we should recognize. These examples are just actions pulled from the perspective Holiday illuminated, but I’m sure there are more acts of courage running through your mind. Ultimately the thing to remember is that courage does not have to be something defined by heroism, but rather by simple action, by the decision to do something, even if it is small, and the fortitude to cary out that action.

The Right and Wrong Perspective

“The difference between the right and wrong perspective is everything,” Ryan Holiday writes in his book, The Obstacle is The Way. “Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.” In the two quotes above Holiday lays out his thoughts for the importance of the systems we build for looking at the world. Stepping beyond our initial view of the world and learning to adjust our perception is incredibly important in the world today. Limiting our views and entrenching ourselves in our single perspective creates a reality for us that is not shareable nor understandable beyond ourselves to those with different experiences, beliefs, and views.

 

Holiday’s quotes feel very timely for me given the recent election. Our country has become increasingly polarized and there seems to be a great disconnect between those living in rural and urban areas. I’m afraid not that we have different opinions, but that we are not cultivating the ability to see the world from multiple perspectives, and that we are not striving to to better understand the other half of the country that does not live the way we do. When we limit our perspective and don’t seek a greater understanding of what others believe, we cut ourselves off from a large number of people. It becomes easy to hide behind those who share our views and we fail to even talk to those who are different from us.

 

In his writing, Holiday approaches our ability to change our perception as a tool for adapting to life’s many challenges. We can become more productive by thinking about the work we do from a different angle, and we can learn to better appreciate any given situation when we can focus on the present moment. For Holiday there are two parts of perception that shape the way we experience the world. We have the context of our lives that connects our view with the larger world, and we have our individual framing which is our determination of the meaning of a given event. We decide what something means according to our world view, and our entrenched perspectives on the specifics determine how that thing fits in with our daily actions and individual reactions.

 

Expanding on the idea of perspective as discussed in our daily lives makes me think about Amanda Gefter and her quest for ultimate reality in her book that I recently read, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn. Gefter is a science journalist and author, and she explains how she built a career for herself reporting on physics. What she and her father have spent their life focusing on as a hobby is the search for ultimate reality, the search for the truest building block of the universe that may be the foundation for all of physics.  Ultimately, what she and her father found is that to the best of our understanding right now, there is no ultimate reality. Our perspective truly is everything. Where we are in the universe, how we choose to view the universe, and what we choose to look at determines the reality of the physics around us. Stepping outside the universe and taking a god’s-eye view of everything causes physics to break down, and ruptures reality. Change your frame and you lose gravity, divide atomic and subatomic particles far enough and you reach a possible eleven dimensional field of vibrations where there is no actual physical thing, accelerate yourself to the speed of light and time ceases to exist.  The physics and reality of our world only seem to work from our single perspective where we view the world and assemble our own information. There is no ultimate reality that can be agreed upon by everything, and there is no gods-eye view that can help us find “truth”. If this is true in the world of physics then it can be applied to our lives, and we can begin to understand that we never have an answer to the right way of doing things, we only have our perspective and how we choose to understand the world given the framework and understandings that we have built and adopted from our slice of the universe.

Activity Versus Passivity

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius believed that we existed on this planet to be active, creative, thoughtful, and engaged with the world around us.  At multiple points in his book Meditations he reminds us the value of action in our lives and the value of striving to work toward something.  Toward the end of his book brings up the idea directly stating, “Not in passivity, but in activity, lie the evil and the good of the rational social animal, just as his virtue and his vice lie not in passivity, but in activity.” In this short quote he is showing that on our own and without engaging the world our existence is a void. His thoughts in this quote can be better understood when looking at his view of the work we do (regardless of what that work is) which is summed up in a previous quote that I wrote about, “In the morning when though risest unwillingly, let this thought be present—I am rising to do the work of a human being. … Or have I been made for this, to lie in the bed clothes and keep myself warm?—But this is more pleasant.—Dost thou exists then to take thy pleasure, and not at all for action or exertion? … and dost thou not make haste to do that which is according to thy nature?”

 

Combining the first quote from above with Aurelius’ outlook on work and human nature helps us see that he believes we are destined to be engaged social beings that strive to accomplish the work that is in front of us and asked of us.  We are not meant to simply keep our bed warm and to exist in isolation in our own comforts.  We may be unwilling to take action in our lives and may simply want to enjoy passivity, but we will not find our meaning in passive moments.  We can build ourselves up in a positive manner only through action, Aurelius explains, but our action also presents the option and chance for negativity.

 

Aurelius interestingly seems to favor the chance for us to be evil and to face danger and peril as opposed to being comfortable and disengaged from the world while passively lounging in our bed.  In his explanation we simply do not exist, neither in good terms not bad, when we don’t engage the world. We don’t have the ability to show the world our virtue if we don’t engage, but we also hide the parts that are evil. Keeping any part of ourselves to just ourselves and not the world, Aurelius would argue, is selfish and against human nature. In his view we should strive to fulfill ourselves as humans by action, even if that produces both positive and negative results. I think Aurelius would further develop the idea of our action leading to both good and bad by encouraging us to focus our thoughts and reflections back upon ourselves, so that we can understand whether we are using our talents in a positive way for ourselves and society, or if we are simply advancing ourselves at the expense of others.