Recognize Your Thinking When You Are Displeased

A great challenge for our society is finding ways to get people to think beyond themselves. We frequently look for ways to confirm what we already believe, we frequently think about what we want and, and we frequently only consider only ourselves and how things make us feel in the present moment. Shifting these mindsets in the United States is necessary if we are going to find a way to address major problems that impact the lives of every citizen, and in some cases impact the entire globe.

 

In his book How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie provides advice for people who want to better connect with others and have a greater impact with their lives. We are social creatures, and understanding how to improve our social connections with others is important if we want to be successful, take part in meaningful activities, and enjoy living with other people. Early on in the book, he provides a warning about how we will often fall short of the advice he recommends in the following chapters.

 

“You will probably find it difficult to apply these suggestions all the time. … For example, when you are displeased, it is much easier to criticize and condemn than it is to try to understand the other person’s viewpoint; it is frequently easier to find fault than to find praise; it is more natural to talk about what you want than to talk about what the other person wants; and so on.”

 

Remembering these points where our minds go astray is important if we want to avoid them. Most people probably won’t systematically make an effort to be considerate and to change their behavior towards others, but for those who do want to improve their social interactions and create new companies, groups, and social events that bring people together, remembering the points that Carnegie highlights as potential failures for being more considerate are important.

 

First, when we are upset or displeased with something, we will simply condemn others. However, a more constructive approach to improve the situation and treat the other person with more respect is to think about and try to understand why they did what they did and how they understand the world. We might not agree with their decision in the end, but hopefully we can find a point of common humanity from which we can have a better discussion than simply telling the other person who has upset us that they are an awful monster.

 

Second, finding ways to provide others with praise, thinking about what other people want, and understanding their viewpoints helps us have better conversations and develop better relationships. If we are engaging with other people in social endeavors then we will need to cooperate with them and hopefully work with them in some capacity for the long term. This requires that we find ways to motivate, develop real connections, utilize the strengths of others. To do that, we have to think about what others want and what motivates them. Allowing ourselves to be self-centered prevents us from doing this, and will lead to us criticizing those who we think fail to measure up, and ultimately won’t help us build great things. Thinking about the ways that our minds default toward this negativity will help prepare us to be more considerate and help us drive toward better outcomes for ourselves and our society.

The Process of Writing

I listen to lots of podcasts and have a handful of authors whose output I follow fairly closely. Those authors frequently discuss the importance of writing, their process, and what they gain from trying to write each day. One thing is clear from these authors, the process of writing helps with the process of thinking.

 

At the end of his book When Dan Pink writes, “the product or writing – this book – contains more answers than questions. But the process of writing is the opposite. Writing is an act of discovering what you think and what you believe.”

 

I have heard this a lot. That writing is something that helps take nebulous thoughts and organize them together. That writing is not taking the thoughts one already has and putting them down on paper, but that writing pulls disparate pieces that we didn’t always realize we were thinking, and combines them in a logical and coherent manner. We discover through research and close assessment of our mind what we think, and present that to the world.

 

For me, writing is a way to connect with the books that I read. It is a chance for me to revisit them and remember the lessons I learned and think again about the pieces of books that I thought were most important when I originally read them. For me, writing is as much re-discovery as it is discovery. I don’t pretend  that my writing is genuine and unique inspirations from my own mind, but rather reflections on why I found what someone else said to be important.

 

Generally, I believe that Pink is correct. I also think that writing is more than just a discovery of our thoughts, but a creation of our thoughts. Give students an assignment to write from a particular point of view, and even if they previously did not hold such a point of view, afterward they are likely to adopt that point of view. This is not so much idea and belief discovery, but belief formation. Part of our brains are rationalizing the words we put on the page, so to defend ourselves for writing those words. We may create new thoughts through writing just as we may discover thoughts and ideas that had already been bouncing through our mind. What is clear, however, is that writing forces the brain to be more considerate of the ideas that fly through it, and to create narrative and coherence between those ideas, organizing thought in new and more profound ways.

Charitable Advertisements

Charitable behavior says something about us. It is a way for us to advertise ourselves to the world in a discrete manner, so that everyone can see us and take away a message without us having to tell each person something about ourselves in a direct manner. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write in The Elephant in the Brain, “The most obvious thing we advertise is wealth, or in the case of volunteer work, spare time.”

It seems strange that we would use charity in this way. I hear arguments from time to time that we should just have higher taxes and use government systems and structures to address social problems. As a change to the current system, we could build more government agencies and provide more support for the kinds of programs and functions that we currently ask non-profits and charities to assist with. A frequent argument against this idea is that it would be inefficient and we couldn’t rely on government to consistently address the kinds of problems that charities and non-profits pop up to address. An argument that I don’t hear very often, but that I think plays a role, is that we would not be able to signal our generosity and extra wealth if we just expanded taxes and the role of government.

“In effect, charitable behavior says to our audiences, I have more resources than I need to survive; I can give them away without worry,” continue Simler and Hanson. The fact that our donations are often public and are often directed to causes that make us feel warm and fuzzy are evidence that we are not really using our donations to try to solve real problems. Asking the government to step in and play a bigger role might really address the problems that are out there, but it wouldn’t give us the warm fuzzy feeling we are looking for, and wouldn’t allow us to advertise to others about how charitable we are. This is why it is so hard to say no to people soliciting donations at grocery stores. We don’t know anything about the charitable cause they are asking us to support, but if we don’t take the chance to advertise how generous we are, we inadvertently advertise how inconsiderate we might be, or how little resources we have to spare. These little charitable behaviors end up being more about ourselves than about the good we are trying to do.

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.

About Being Mad

Marcus Aurelius in his philosophy of stoicism constantly made an effort to look beyond the surface and make deep considerations of people and events before he made any attempt to sort out what they meant. This practice allowed him to delay pressing judgement onto others and gave him the ability to think clearly about something before letting his opinion bias his thoughts.  Throughout his book Meditations, you see him apply this skill to many areas of life, giving us examples of how we can use deeper thought and the ability to control our impulsiveness in various relationships and situations. In the quote I wish to highlight today, Aurelius discusses our anger in situations where disputes may arise. He writes, “The dispute then, he said, is not about any common matter; but about being mad or not.”

 

This quote to me speaks about our often hidden decision in conversation and social situations to react to something by being offended and angry.

 

At a certain point in a discussion or debate we may recognize that our views conflict with those of another, and we have a choice of how to move forward. In our culture in the United States we do not do a good job of understanding how to meaningfully build conversation from differences of opinion, and we often default to the simple option, argumentative debate. When we begin to notice that our views do not match, something inside us triggers and we allow ourselves to become mad. We fail to be constructive in our discussion and allow our hot mind to push the conversation in a volatile direction. In terms of our discussion, we make the decision to become angry, and that decision derails the path of our conversation. At a certain point when this happens, we are no longer actually discussing the original point, but instead we have staked out our identify, fortified ourselves with rage, and shifted the discussion to something completely different: our moral superiority and right to be angry.

 

This reminds me of a quote from Aurelius that I previously wrote about on August 3rd, 2016:

 

“On a personal level, outrage makes us feel superior. By becoming indignant, we’re drawing a line in the sand and declaring ourselves to be on the right side of a given issue. We’re saying, ‘How horrible this situation is, and how capable am I of declaring right and wrong, and passing judgment on those involved!’”

 

We do not become angry with others or with situations because of the effect or impact they have on us, but rather, we become angry by our own choice. We use anger as a defense mechanism that barricades us on the side of righteousness and pierces through the shortcomings of others. Making the decision not to become angry at others allows us to look at people as rational human beings (meaning that they are making decisions based on their own perceived utility), and also allows us to remain humble as we constructively build our relationships and as we cognitively piece together the reality around us. Without developing this ability, we simply entrench our tribal nature, but in a way that is hidden from our consciousness, preventing ourselves from growing and being able to view the world from perspectives beyond our own.

 

As Colin Write wrote to start his book Considerations,

“Few of us take the time to consider.
     It’s not that we’re ‘inconsiderate’ in the sense that we’re rude or brash or one of the other myriad associations we’ve tacked on to the word over the years, but we are often ‘inconsiderate’ in the sense that we act while seeing the world from only one standpoint: our own.”

Unbiased

One of the benefits of an increased awareness and sense of presence that Marcus Aurelius wrote about in his common place book Meditations, is the ability to begin to see things without as much bias.  He wrote his book to remind himself of lessons and values that he wished to build into his life, and this helped him create habits of self-awareness, self-reflection, and presence of mind to remain grounded and focused on the most important parts of his life.  What Aurelius found, and what I think we all can experience when working on goals related to self-awareness, self-reflection, or focusing on the present moment, is that those habits open new thoughts and new perspectives for us. For Aurelius a life built upon these foundations provided an ability to see the world with less bias.

 

“Say nothing more to thyself than what the first appearances report. Suppose that it has been reported to thee that a certain person speaks ill of thee. This has been reported; but that thou has been injured, that has not been reported. I see that my child is sick. I do see; but that he is in danger, I do not see. Thus then always abide by the first appearances, and add nothing thyself from within, and then nothing happens to thee.”

 

Through a practice of honestly evaluating oneself combined with a focus on the present moment, Aurelius believed that we could begin to see the world in a more honest way. We can’t ever see the world from every perspective possible, and we can’t fully understand the thoughts and motivations of others, but we can separate our emotional responses and pulls from the events and actions of the world around us.  Before acting and making decisions about things that happen around us or happen to us, we can take a step back and evaluate our world without the filters that tend to shape our decisions.

 

To me what this looks like in practice is slowing down our decisions and recognizing when we are bringing our own bias into a conversation. Honest self-reflection will allow us to see where our biases impact our thinking, and self-awareness will help us to understand when those biases are determining the perspective through which we are interpreting the world. When a family member or friend says something to me that is not the most flattering, Aurelius would encourage me to look at more perspectives to evaluate whether that individual is intentionally trying to harm me, or if they are being honest about the way that I present myself.  The Emperor’s thoughts also manifest in our political lives where our ideology and party affiliation has been built into our individual identity.  We can listen to political observations or statements from people who are from the same party or background as ourselves and approve of what they say, but it is much harder to honestly listen to people who we know are from a different party or background as ourselves. Remembering Aurelius’ quote may help us to see they message without a filter pre-determining whether or not we think the individual or their message is right or wrong. This will allow us to increase our thought and be more considerate of the world around us.

The Practicality of the Present

In the book, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius offers us insight into the mindset of stoicism and shows us both how to practice stoicism and the benefits that it can bring to our lives. The power behind stoicism lies in shaping our thoughts, controlling our emotions, and giving ourselves the power to choose how we wish to behave in any given situation.  It requires ardent self-awareness and self-reflection to truly recognize how we are living and to adjust our lives, thoughts, and actions to better align.

 

Part of stoicism requires the ability to be fully present in any given moment so that you are conscious of your thoughts and deliberate in your actions. Aurelius writes,

 

“Wipe out the imagination. Stop the pulling of the strings . Confine thyself to the present. Understand well what happens either to thee or to another. Divide and distribute every object into the causal and the material. Think of thy last hour. Let the wrong which is done by a man stay there where the wrong was done.”

 

His passage is full of short stoic soundbites that reveal the importance of staying present, and the importance of controlling your mind as opposed to letting other people or other things shape your thoughts. He leaves it to the reader to imagine the benefits of his advice in this section, but it is easy to see that you can be more at peace when living in the present without your mind overflowing with fears of what the future holds or with grudges against those who have done wrong to you.  When you sort yourself into the present and become more considerate and clear regarding the world around you, it becomes possible for you to achieve more and build better perspectives of the world.

 

When Aurelius encourages us to put a stop to our imagination he is not encouraging us to leave all creative thought behind. What he is urging the reader (originally himself) to do is to avoid thoughts of the future that leave one full of fear or with specific desires.  Anticipating a future that one imagines to be difficult and unhappy may cause one to become depressed in the present. At the same time, imaging a future that is bountiful and rich may lead one to feel unnecessary pressures in the present to ensure that ones life lives up to the luxury imagined. In both cases, visions of the future can impact the decisions made in the present, affecting the way in which we approach our current tasks.

 

By staying present we avoid thoughts of what we cannot predict and reduce the amount of stress that we have.  We can leave our grudges behind by recognizing that a wrong can only be harmful to us if we carry it with us at every moment.  Making decisions in the present that we know will benefit us in the future will help to prepare us for the challenges we will face, but being focused on just the future may cause us to loose sight of where we are now, abandoning the life that sustains us on our way to our goals.

Valuable Possessions

Author Colin Wright tends to focus on the idea of perspective in much of his writing, often highlighting the importance of viewing the world from multiple perspectives. He discusses stepping outside your own expectations for the world and trying to understand the viewpoints of people in less fortunate situations than your own. He examines the ideas of people in other cultures and the thoughts of people in the past to help him better understand himself and the pressures he faces on a daily basis.  By adopting so many points of view and being able to see the world from multiple perspectives, Wright believes that we become more connected with the world, better able to connect with people around us, and more well rounded individuals.

In his book Considerations he writes, “I would argue that a well-curated collection of perspectives is one of the most valuable assets a person can possess. Not only does such a collection add richness to everyday life and present solutions to problems we didn’t know existed, it also provides the tools required to solve the big, heady, philosophical-and-hard-to-lock-down problems that all encounter at some point in our lives.”

I love this idea of perspective because it shows the importance of continual growth and learning. By living and accepting our single limited perspective, we allow ourselves to be isolated and unable to adapt as we move through the world with our lives constantly changing.  The adoption of a single view point shuts others out and does not allow us the ability to gain a greater understanding of our lives and the lives of those around us.

What Wright encourages is searching for new perspectives and constantly pushing ourselves by seeking ideas or experiencing cultures that challenge our viewpoint.  Seeking out information that reinforces our beliefs will not give us the same growth as finding information that challenges our perspectives and forces us to think more deeply about our perspectives.  Understanding that other people live with less, have different ideas of success, and face more challenges than we do can be a humbling experience. New perspectives may open us up to a world where we can make a difference in the lives of others, and it can help us have a greater appreciation and joy for our lives.  Living in a world with a singular perspective allows us to lose track of what is important in life, and can lead us in a direction guided by manufactured  ideas of success and happiness.