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.

Ryan Holiday’s Anti-Ego Mantra

Ryan Holiday includes three sentences in his book Ego is the Enemy which he calls a mantra, “Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push  through failure with strength, not ego.” Holiday reads a lot, and this mantra that he has developed comes from the lessons he has learned from truly great men and women. He explains that everyone faces challenges and great difficulties in their lives, and that without checking ones ego, no one can rise to the top or become the best that they can be.

 

Aspiring and seeking out of ego is the drive to be better than others and the drive to be recognized for selfish reasons. There is a difference between being great at a what we do and pursuing greatness because we want to fully apply ourselves and bring the best version of ourselves to our lives versus trying to be great to show off. When we recognize that the praise of others is hollow and that our value as a person is based on more than what we accomplish and what awards other people give us, we can be more authentic, build a life based on relationships, and find more fulfillment.

 

For the ego, success is defined by what other people want and what other people think is impressive. The ego clamors for attention and status, constantly trying to one-up everyone else. The ego wants to be the best, to show off the best car, to show off the biggest house, and to flaunt what one has achieved. For the ego, what brings success is not as important as the attention and adulation that success brings. Achieving success without ego requires that we focus on solving problems in our lives and in the lives of others. We may become financially well off, but that is never the purpose and is not what defines our success. Great people find success by aligning themselves and their mission so that they can perform their best and make a meaningful impact wherever they are.

 

The ego fears failure because anything less than a perfect outcome takes away from the legitimacy of the ego. Any imperfection, flaw, or vulnerability is a potential crack in the shell of the ego, and as a result those who become successful with their ego will deflect all criticism and place the blame for failure elsewhere, so that it cannot damage the ego. If you do not bring ego with you on your journey, then you can embrace failure in a way that helps you learn, grow, and become stronger. The ego is fearful of mistakes and of being seen making mistakes, but when we push the ego aside we actually look closely to identify even our small mistakes to see opportunities where we can make improvements and grow.

 

Holiday’s mantra is a quick guide to finding a balanced pathway toward success. At each step the ego throws us off and opens us up to exploitation, fear, and distortion. We cannot aim toward a future driven by what we think will impress others, unless we want to live in a world where we never feel fulfilled. We cannot bring ego with us on our quest for success, or we will only find a finish line that continually moves back as we approach it and an appetite to show off that can never be satisfied. When we do fail, which we will at some point, our ego will deflect the failure from ourselves and undoubtedly damage relationships and the organizations we have been using as vessels for success. This is why recognizing and abandoning the ego (or at least trying to keep it from being our main driver) is important if we wish to have a fulfilling life that makes a difference in the world.

Work and Identity

On a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show podcast, Klein interviewed two journalists to talk about the central role that our work now plays in our lives. For many people, work is becoming increasingly important as a way to define oneself and as a way to give life meaning. I have seen reports and experienced in my own life that we have fewer close friends, fewer social groups, and fewer organizations outside of work that we participate with. The work we do ends up taking on more importance and more space in our lives as our lives outside work becomes less fulfilling.

 

One of the big problems we can face in this type of world is with the way we value ourselves. Having a kick-ass job ends up being the determining factor as to whether we are meaningful and valuable, and it can end up putting us in a place where we make bad decisions and can’t enjoy who we are without achieving success in work. Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy wrote about what happens when how we value ourselves as a person is connected to our work, “The problem is that when we get our identity tied up in our work, we worry that any kind of failure will then say something bad about us as a person. It’s a fear of taking responsibility, admitting that we might have messed up.”

 

Our egos want us to have great jobs and be impressive to everyone around us. When this becomes the only thing that gives us meaning and determines our value, we can’t take chances because a failure reflects onto us. Rather than allowing a failure to be an attempt at something new, the result of multiple factors, and driven by an unpredictable economic climate, failure is viewed almost as a moral shortcoming on our part. Our ego can be so fearful of failure that it drives us to bad decisions and drives us away from taking responsibility for our actions when failure occurs. Rather than learning, we deflect, and try to position ourselves as a victim. As a society we will need to move to a place where our work is still important, but where we have fulfilling lives outside of work. Existing under this pressure where we define ourselves by the work we do will take away from the richness of life and shut out people who may not be greatly positioned to contribute economically, but still have value by virtue of being human beings and can connect with us and others in meaningful ways that will help us find fulfillment as a society. We can still work hard, but we should find additional ways to value ourselves and our time.

A Clear Picture of Success

In 2017 I wrote a piece about an idea from Colin Wright in his book Come Back Frayed. In our lives, the primary yardstick we use to measure our success, Wright explains, is often a monetary yardstick. We look at our bank account, the funding levels of the organization we are a part of, and how much we make each pay check and determine whether our lives have value and are meaningful based on how much we make. Colin Wright was one of the first authors who helped me be aware of how frequently I judged myself and others based on income, or cues related to income (how fancy is someone’s car, what shoes does someone have, do they live in a wealthy neighborhood?).

 

Wealth and income, however, are both impacted by a number of forces beyond the control of a single individual and both people who we hold in high esteem and people who are self centered and morally questionable can become fantastically wealthy through either hard work or dumb luck. Therefore, judging someone based on wealth and income is an incomplete measure of another person. Wright was one of the first people to express this in a way that really connected with me, and I found the idea again in the writing of Ryan Holiday and Marcus Aurelius. In a long quote from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, he writes,

 

“You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail.
    How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” “Ambition,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do … Sanity means tying it to your own actions.””

 

We cannot expect that in our lives everything will go well and we will live up to the external yardsticks we use to define success. If we expect a certain number of followers, likes, or shares then we are deciding the value of something based on the perceptions of other people and whether something randomly becomes a hit. If we decide that we are only successful if we have enough money to buy a new Tesla, we are putting ourselves in a position where we may compromise on being a good human being in order to obtain enough money to purchase something that we think will tell people that we are valuable and successful. We give control of ourselves to other people when we live this way. Our happiness is not our own, but a yo-yo string controlled by the opinions of our social, work, and family networks.

 

Changing our definition of success to measures internal to who we are is more healthy and reasonable. Pursuing a craft, hobby, or passion for self-fulfillment is different from pursuing a goal for reasons of obtaining greater wealth, respect, and admiration from others. Those things may come from living well, but when they are a result of good work and arrive obliquely through our efforts to do our best at what is in front of us, they will be more rewarding and less tied to our definition of who we are. This can give us the opportunity to live on our own terms, content with the person and lifestyle we pursue.

A Failure to Connect During Bad Times

Adam Smith lived from 1723 to 1790 and is best known for his economic principles and writing. A quote from him, on the nature of humanity, is included in Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy to open a chapter that immediately follows a page with some simple art and the words, “To whatever failure and challenges you will face, ego is the enemy…” The quote from Smith is, “It is because mankind are disposed to sympathize more entirely with our joy than with our sorrow, that we make parade of our riches, and conceal our poverty. Nothing is so mortifying as to be obliged to expose our distress to the view of the public, and to feel, that though our situation is open to the eyes of all mankind, no mortal conceives for us the half of what we suffer.”

 

A funny thing about humanity is that we seem to think that everyone else is happy all the time and doesn’t face the same challenges, obstacles, depression, anxiety, or general discomforts that we face. We try hard to present a happy and fun life to the outside world, but often we are dealing with our own challenges and fears that we hide away. We face the world on our own in times of stress but go out of our way to broadcast our achievements during times of joy. In his quote from over 200 years ago, Smith recognizes our urge to show off the positive and hide the negative in our lives, and he goes beyond that to show how we assume that other people could not even understand our suffering.

 

This aspect of humanity was with us over 200 years ago when Smith wrote his quote, and today with social media always at our fingertips, it has become dangerously supercharged. It is easier than ever to curate the perfect online life that we show to everyone we know, and this pushes us to become even more isolated when things don’t go right. The feeling that many of us have is that we can only be loved if we have the perfect job, the perfect work/life balance, root for the right sports team, drink the right coffee from the right place, put together the cutest planters, cook the most unique dinners, and brush our teeth with the right toothbrushes. Anything short of the perfectly curated life feels like it needs to be hidden from the rest of the world and deepens isolation.

 

We are afraid to open up to other people about the areas where we fall short of the perfect life. We receive so many likes for our “proud dad” social media brags, our new home photos, and for our tropical vacation pictures that it feels as though we can only connect with people if we have those things to share. Somewhere along the line we forget that other people also experience negatives and we fail to connect with them to discuss what we are challenged by and what we would like to do to change our situation. Because we don’t open up with others about our struggles we are all forced to go it alone, assuming that no one would understand our pain, and feeling worse about not being perfect. This was true during Adam Smith’s lifetime and it is heightened in our technologically connected world today.

 

Holiday would argue that we behave this way because our egos cannot let us be seen as vulnerable, scared, weak, or unsure about ourselves and the world. We feel pressured to always be on top of things and to always be ready to take the world on. We go out of our way to show how well we are doing to boost our ego, and that is what ultimately drives us into further isolation when we don’t feel good about our lives. This sense of being overwhelmed will only grow if we cannot open up about it and be honest about where we are with the people around us. What we will ultimately find if we do go against our natural ego urges is that more people face the challenges we face than we expect, and there is more love in opening up than in hiding away and only presenting the good moments of our lives. The ego wants us to take a path that furthers isolation whereas putting the ego aside will actually help us progress and improve our lives.

Pretending We Know Everything

A few years back I was in a health policy and administration class at the University of Nevada, and a recent graduate was presenting a lecture. At one point in her lecture, she talked about stepping into a role at a local hospital and working with a leader at the hospital who openly admitted to her that they were hesitant to work closely with doctors at the hospital because they did not want to be in a position where they were not the smartest person in the room. It is rare that someone opens up like this to any of us, but when someone does open up like this, we can use it as a moment to reflect on what ways we share the same insecurities, fears, habits, or ideas that we try to hide from everyone. In this case, a successful lead executive felt smart and successful, but didn’t want to be around brilliant doctors who may suspect that they were an impostor, someone who was not as smart as they wanted everyone to believe, and as a result not as competent as their job required.

 

It is easy to understand why this person may have been so afraid of not being seen as the smartest person in the room, but it is dangerous for anyone to believe they are smarter than they are, that they already know it all, and to actively avoid situations where they may encounter something they are not familiar with and don’t understand. Ryan Holiday addresses this issue in his book, Ego is the Enemy, when he writes, “With accomplishment comes a growing pressure to pretend that we know more than we do. To pretend we already know everything. Scientia infla (knowledge puffs up). That’s the worry and the risk-thinking that we’re set and secure, when in reality understanding and mastery is a fluid, continual process.”

 

Our egos want to preserve a picture of us that presents us in the best possible light. As a result, the more success we achieve, the more likely we are to try to restrict ourselves to our own areas of expertise. Stepping beyond our comfort level, applying ourselves in new and unfamiliar terrains, and taking new chances creates the fearful possibility for the canvass of our perfect life to be torn in half. Rather than striving for more, we try to entrench what we have and protect the perfect presentation of ourselves.

 

What Holiday continues to write about in his book is that this mindset of self preservation ultimately becomes our ruin. The ego which wants to puff itself up and believe that it knows everything  puts us in a place where we can be surpassed and where we fail to grow and adapt to changes around us. Rather than helping us maintain our success, the ego actively helps other people and an evolving world sap success away from us.

 

What is worse, our ego likely makes us blind to the process. We vindicate our existing knowledge, habits, and self preservation by lying to ourselves about how smart and competent we are. We tell ourselves we already know what we need, we already figured out how to be the best, and we start to believe those lies and tell everyone what we think we already know. Somewhere, deep down, we may know that we are faking it, but we try to hide that from everyone (including ourselves) and make sure we are only in situations where we are the smartest person in the room. We tell ourselves we are great and create a dreamland around us that preserves the ego while sacrificing progress, growth, and sustained excellence. If we truly want to achieve those things in the long run, we must be aware of this tendency and its destructive power and actively move beyond this mindset.

Plan To Be Resilient

The most well designed systems have back-ups. Major buildings have back-up power generators, sports teams have back-up athletes, and companies have back-up computer drives. The reason  that all these back-up exist is because plans fail, infrastructure breaks, and people make mistakes. Designing the best building, coaching the best team, and creating  the best company requires that we think about what will happen when things go wrong, so that we can bounce back quickly, stay on track, and make sure the lights stay on. If back-ups are part of the best teams, buildings, and companies, shouldn’t they also be part of our plans when we try to design and create the best possible lives for ourselves?

 

Michael Bungay Stanier thinks so. He quotes Jeremy Dean’s book Making Habits, Breaking Habits in his own book The Coaching Habit to talk about how to build resilience into your plans and goals for changing habits. We already know that the best engineers and the best designers and planners of buildings, boats, and barbecues expect that things will go wrong and that you will need back-ups to make sure your building power is not gone for good, to make sure your boat can still get you out of the storm, and to make sure your grill doesn’t blow up. It is important to see that no matter how well we plan our own life, we will still need back-ups so that when things go wrong our life doesn’t explode and leave us without a way to come back together.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “Plan how to get back on track. When you stumble–and everyone stumbles–it’s easy to give up. … What you need to know is what to do when that happens. Resilient systems build in fail-safes so that when something breaks down, the next step to recover is obvious.”

 

In my own life I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I will do to be resilient. I spend a lot of time thinking about how awesome I am and how I am obviously going to crush-it and achieve my goals the first time. I spend less time thinking about what I am going to do to still be successful or achieve my desired outcome if for some reason my initial plan does not work out. What I end up doing for myself, without recognizing it, is failing to set myself up to be resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles.

 

This is not the first time I have written about the benefits of thinking ahead to the challenges and roadblocks that we might face on our journey. I have written about Richard Wiseman’s recommendation that we look ahead and anticipate the road blocks that we will face on our journey. By expecting challenges and then writing about how we will overcome those challenges, we are planning to be resilient. Rather than looking ahead and just expecting easy success and wins, we can look ahead to the obstacles we must overcome and build a plan to reach those. When we fail, which we know we will, we can have a plan in place so that we only fall one rung on the ladder, and don’t land on our butt at the bottom, paralyzed and unable to restart our climb.

Failure in School

Everyone knows it is important for children to be successful in school and to grow to be more thoughtful and successful later in life. One of the challenges with the current school model that Ta-Nehisi Coats points out in his book Between the World and Me is the way in which our education system is designed for a specific culture with specific expectations for specific students. Those who match the culture and who have the right support from parents and teachers find success, but those who don’t fit with the culture of the schools, who don’t have support from parents, and who don’t have safe environments are left behind. Our individualized culture, focused on self-reliance and self-responsibility often looks at schools as though they are an equalizing force, giving each student an equal opportunity to grow and succeed, but Coats views schools differently.

“The society could say, ‘He should have stayed in school,’ and then wash its hands of him,” Coats wrote about the system he found him self in as a child. The great equalizing power of school, was an equalizing of blame, moving the responsibility for success or failure from society on to the individual. This meant that the child whose parents worked two or three jobs, the child whose parents dealt with substance abuse, and the child who had to walk home along dangerous streets was now on equal footing with the children in gated communities with parents who could afford to stay at home and pay for private tutors. In this model it is not the parents, not the society, and not the culture of the school that are responsible for whether kids learn and grow, but rather the children themselves who bear the responsibility of success in school.

When we criticize those who do not complete school and resign them to low paying jobs, poor housing, and exclude them from society, we are reducing their future based on factors they could not control growing up. For me it seems unreasonable to ask so much of a person at such a young age, to demand that they not make mistakes and demand that they become more than human before they are 18. For Coats, it was unreasonable to demand academic success from young children who lacked the support and guidance of parents, who had to learn in schools that  did not accept the culture of the child, and who have to navigate the tough social realities of concentrated poverty. The most challenging part of the system, as revealed by Coats, is the idea that school was a great equalizer, and that after someone failed in school, they could be forgotten by society.

How Close Together Success and Failure Can Be

Ta-Nihisi Coats, author of Between the World and Me, reflects on his childhood and how close he was at many points in his life to stumbling down the wrong path. Coats grew up in a rough part of Baltimore and had to make daily decisions that could push his life in the wrong direction or help him stay afloat. As a young black man Coats remembers the challenge of making these daily decisions and describes how these decisions physically manifested in his life. Making the right decision was not always clear, and making the wrong decision (or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time) often resulted in physical harm. The challenge for Coats was that the right and wrong decisions were never clear. Many times the wrong decision led to physical harm and pain, but oftentimes, so did the right decision.

“What was hiding behind the smoke screen of streets and schools?” Coats asked. “And what did it mean that number 2 pencils, conjugations without context, pythagorean theorems, handshakes, and head nods were the difference between life and death, were the curtains drawing down between the world and me?”

Coats described the importance of being tough and understanding how to navigate the streets where he grew up. Even well intentioned children could unintentionally cross the wrong child or the wrong person on the street corner, and even worse, if their parents had issues with dangerous people in the neighborhood, then so did the children. Not shaking hands the right way with the right people and not being able to give the right head nod to the right guys could place ones life at risk, no matter how well one did in school. With such an imminent threat of danger in the streets, the world of number 2 pencils, abstract education principles, and distant payoffs from education were too hazy to be taken seriously. Survival became the main goal, and survival required a set of skills that did not align with the world of education created by the people outside the ghettos.

All of this created a world where Coats and his friends constantly had to walk a fine line between success and failure. The inability to focus in class and build the mental skill set needed to find a good job later in life put their futures in risk, but at the same time, the inability to understand the streets and protect oneself put ones current life at risk. Few could ever navigate this world by shutting out the negative of the social world around them to excel in school, but all were expected to do so, and many would go on to be criticized for not successfully navigating such treacherous terrain from elementary through high school. A wrong step, a few bad grades, an unintentional insult to the wrong person, and success (or even life) could be taken away from Coats and the children he grew up with.

Interdependence

Senator Cory Booker starts the epilogue to his book United with a quote from Mahatma Gandhi, “Interdependence is and ought to be as much the ideal of man as self-sufficiency.” Throughout his book he focuses on the connections that everyone in the United States shares simply by being an American. We are connected to those generations that came before us and the decisions they made, and we are connected to the generations that will come after us and those who will live with the world we create. Our lives are dependent on one another in ways that we cannot always imagine or understand, but when we focus on our connections we can begin to see how important it is to live intentionally and recognize how our choices impact others.

 

In the United States self reliance and personal responsibility are emphasized far more than interdependence or social reliance. When we talk about success we are quick to look at the ways that we have achieved greatness on our own and we are quick to provide examples of  individuals producing great value and reaping great reward. It is our individual spirit and our industriousness that we look at when we think about how we succeed. The situation and the environment are often left out of the equation in favor of the obstacles we had to overcome and the smart decisions we had to make. When we look at what a successful person is, we focus completely on the person, assuming that the person is great entirely due to their own actions and hard work. This translates back into the world in which we live, and we look at successful and famous people and assume there is something special about them or that they are worthy of praise because they achieved wealth, status, and fame through hard work and an innovative spirit. In some way, we elevate their moral standing, their intelligence, and their character simply because we see them as successful.

 

When thinking about failure on the other hand, we find many excuses that push responsibility away from us, onto the situation, onto other people, and onto random events. Our personal responsibility seems to diminish as soon as things are not going our way. We hold self-sufficiency as our goal, and push toward it, and any failure seems to indicate that we are somehow less than an ideal version of ourselves, so we find ways in which our failure or lack of success is not an indication of our self-sufficiency. Yet at the same time, when we see people who ask for money, or are out of shape and are not as financially well of as we are, we blame the individual and begin assuming that they have deficiencies in character and work habit that have led to their less than ideal situation.

 

A more healthy world view would be one similar to Gandhi’s. We would recognize that our success is not simply a matter of our own great decisions and actions, but rather the consequence of our choices within an environment that in many ways shaped the actions and options available to us. Our success or our failure would be dependent on the lives of those who came before us and the systems, norms, and culture they left behind. Shifting how we think about where self-responsibility fits with success can change the way we think of others, helping us see value in all people, and not just those who have achieved notoriety and wealth.

 

When we step outside the personal responsibility bubble we can begin to see that our actions and decisions matter a lot, not just for our own success but for the well being of everyone. We can begin to see that we had assistance from people and factors that we could not control or predict, and it helps us to become more connected with those around us.