In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright explains how training in certain areas changes us. “Training our instincts is like feeding our subconscious. It grants us more informed, helpful knee-jerk reactions, rather than blind and potentially damaging impulses.” For examples, Wright writes about the ways that experienced auto mechanics are diagnose vehicle problems in one area of an engine based on a signal in a different area of the engine and he writes about learning to cook in six months and having a new understanding and appreciation for raw ingredients that can be cooked together to make a meal. In isolated cases, things we don’t know about and don’t understand at all can become things that give us clues and slight insights based on our experience and knowledge.
Recently, Tyler Cowen interviewed Ezekiel Emanuel for his podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and I was struck by Emanuel’s efforts to learn and engage with something new each year. He has recently learned how to make his own jam and chocolate and in the interview talked about the insights and unexpected things that he has gained by trying something completely new. He doesn’t always stick with everything he learns and tries, but by applying himself in a lot of different areas, he picks up new perspectives, meets new people, and gains a new appreciation for something that was foreign to him in the past.
The lessons from Wright and Emanuel are things we should keep in mind and try to build into our own lives. When we only have a vague understanding or idea of how the world works, we are going to move through it making assumptions that are not warranted. We will act in ways that seem intuitively obvious for us, but our way of moving through the world may be as foolish as asking the French why they haven’t had an air tanker drop water on Notre-Dame. Ignorance can be quite costly in our own lives and in the negative externalities that we push onto the rest of the world, and as we become more responsible with relationships, families, and businesses that count on us, ignorance can be quite costly for the rest of society. Becoming aware of areas where we have no expertise and no training is important so that we can identify where we might have these knee-jerk reactions that won’t help anyone. Awareness of our ignorance can help us choose what we want to focus on, what we want to learn about, and what would help us become a better person for our society.
On the opposite side of the coin, as we become more expert in a given area, we will be able to better sense what is happening around us and make choices and decisions that we can’t explain but that work properly. It is something we should strive toward, but all the while we should recognize where our expertise falls short and how bad assumptions could harm us and others.
Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome in the second century and in his position became one of the most powerful people on the planet. But even in his position as emperor he was able to find ways to remain humble and to look at other men in a way that elevated them. He reminded himself of the areas where he needed to grow, and he focused on his own faults more than he looked for faults in others. He wrote about his beliefs of self-awareness in his book Meditations, giving us an insight into his practice of self-reflection.
When looking at himself relative to other people Aurelius wrote, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still though hast the disposition to commit them, though either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” He uses this section to explain that we can never elevate ourselves above others if we are truly practicing self-awareness and if we are able to open our minds to see the world from multiple perspectives, including the perspectives of those who we deem to be in error.
Aurelius is encouraging himself to recognize that he shared many of the same faults that he saw in other people, and he used this recognition to keep himself from making the mistake of placing himself on a pedestal above others. By not placing himself on a moral high ground and by not elevating himself beyond the rest of humanity, he was able to better understand the lives and decisions of those around him. He was able to recognize that he had the same desires and wishes to make decisions that he would criticize in others, and this awareness helped him to participate with others and connect with them in a deeper manner.
If we fail to build self-awareness into our lives then we will likely place ourselves above others and begin to look at only our successes relative to the shortcomings of others. This places us in a world were we can never have true relationships with those around us, and instead of being able to help others, our ignorance will push them away in a firestorm of hypocritical advice giving. Aurelius’ practice of self-awareness is something we can incorporate into our own lives to help us grow, and to help those around us grow.
In his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about overcoming obstacles by changing our perspectives and judgements surrounding the difficulties that we face. In his view, we are not directly affected by challenges and obstacles in our lives, but our mental state determines how we are limited or impacted. For Aurelius, how we will respond to and handle the obstacles that we do encounter is entirely up to our own decision making power. We choose to see something as negative and detrimental to us, and we react accordingly. In Meditations he writes,
“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now. But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost though not rather act than complain?”
This quote speaks to me because it becomes so easy to complain about or lives or parts of our lives rather than to take action to change our behavior or thoughts. What Aurelius is reminding himself in this passage is that we have the power to determine what our outcome will be when faced with a challenge, and we can take steps to achieve what we would like during struggles rather than complaining about what is in front of us.
We may not find the perfect solution to every problem and it may not seem that we are much better off after any particular challenge, but we can always grow and learn from our difficulties. Shifting our perspective helps us better understand the obstacles we face and gives us the ability to see the ways in which obstacle can help us grow. It is in our power to see what we do not like and to take steps to improve it. We can choose to complain and become cynical, or we can move forward, leaning into the obstacle and using it to help propel us in the direction we want.
Leadership is one of the ideas that Fred Kiel addresses in his business book Return on Character when he focuses on the importance of strong moral character for the CEOs and leadership teams of companies in todays competitive business world. Kiel employs the term virtuoso to describe those leaders who are able to display strong character while organizing a business and supporting meaningful ethical and responsible goals for their employees, communities, and shareholders. He chooses the term because maintaining a strong moral character takes practice and focus, and virtuoso, a term normally reserved for talented musicians and athletes, strongly represents the attention and development of high character leadership over time. Kiel writes, “Not only is leadership based on performance, but it is an art that requires disciplined practice as well as ability.”
I found this quote to be meaningful because Kiel is explaining that we need practice and development to become great leaders. There are certainly people I know who naturally seem to be great leaders, but what Kiel is explaining is that to be a truly virtuoso and impactful leader, one must focus and practice to hone not just their leadership skills, but also their character skills, and their moral judgement skills. Even those with great leadership talent will not be able to become as successful as possible if they are not able to refine their leadership talent and build it to become applicable in various settings. In the view that Kiel adopts in Return on Character, practice and self-awareness are key for any leader, including those who bring great natural talent to their position, because developing meaningful and trustful relationships is a key component of leading with strong character. A talented leader who is self focused and does not act with integrity to support those around them may reach business goals, but they likely will not be bringing their team with them in a way that will meet the goals of everyone within their organization.
Another powerful idea represented by Kiel and his quote above is the thought of deliberate practice and grit on the way to virtuosity in leadership. When we begin to think that leaders are not born as great leaders, and when we recognize that those with great character are not born with overflowing character, we can see both to be attainable in our own lives through dedicated focus and effort. I recently listened to the NPR podcast, Hidden Brain
, where the idea of grit, practice, and achievement was directly addressed. What they find, and what I am sure Kiel would support, is that those who can preserver, or display grit, are the ones who begin to display effortlessness in their areas of focus, and virtuous leadership certainly falls in line with this thought. Just as incredibly talented individuals such as Kobe Bryant became awe inspiring thanks to practice, we can grow and change to become exceptional with our moral character and leadership. We may not all start our on the same playing field in terms of talent (there may be Kobe Bryants of the leadership and character world out there) but we can certainly put in the focus and deliberate practice to ensure that our nature skill will not be the only thing that matters in our ability to lead and be morally responsible to those in our lives.
The next quote from Allison Vesterfelt in her book Packing Light is one that has proven to be hugely important for me recently. She wrote, “We can’t measure the value of our decisions based on outcomes.” This simple idea was true for Allison before she took her 50 state road trip, and over the course of her journey it held up. In my life this idea connects back to our American image of success, and the importance of money in determining success. Listening to a recent podcast, I can’t remember which podcast or who may have been the guest, the guest on the show said that we tend to make judgements about people and gage how successful of a person they are based on their income. He said that we do this not because it is the best metric of success, but because it is the easiest. Money he said is not always the right way to measure success, and wealth accumulation is not the best way to judge our value.
For Vesterfelt the quote represented the idea that we do not always have to make decisions on what actions we will take with an end goal in mind. For instance with this blog, I don’t have to worry about having followers and achieving any outcome, it is simply a place for me to reflect on what I have read, and process my thoughts as I revisit and write them. In my personal running, each run does not have to have a desired calorie burn level, and the end goal of running consistently does not have to be winning races. If I approach running as each day getting the opportunity to do something that feels good and that I enjoy doing, then in the end I will be more successful. Somehow this idea is easier to apply to the non-monetized aspects of our lives. I struggle daily with understanding the value of individuals, and seeing people as successful, even when their bank account, car, house, and clothes do not align with the American standard of wealth and success.