Lets Consider Our Standards for Life

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “Let us try to maintain a higher standard of life than that of the multitude, but not a contrary standard; otherwise, we shall frighten away and repel the very persons whom we are trying to improve.”

 

On an initial quick read, this quote seems to be saying, live better than the masses but don’t act like you are better than everyone else. That’s good advice that has been said so many times that it is basically useless. We already all believe that we are morally superior to other people and we are especially likely, according to Robin Hanson in an interview he gave on Conversations with Tyler, to say that our group or tribe is morally  superior to others. If you give the quote a second thought however, you see that there is a deeper meaning within the idea being conveyed.

 

The first thing we should consider is what it would look like to maintain a high standard of life. In his same letter, Seneca advises that a high standard of life does not mean that one wears the nicest possible toga or that one has silver dishes laced with pure gold. A high standard of life is not about maintaining exorbitant material possessions. Advertising in the United States would make you think differently. A high standard of life is advertised to us as driving the finest sports car, demanding the best possible wrist watch, and having exquisitely crafted faucets. Seneca would argue that these things don’t create a high standard of living, but just show off our wealth. I would agree.

 

A high standard of life, Seneca suggests and I would argue, is a well ordered life in which we can live comfortably but don’t embrace the mindset that it is our possessions that define our success and value. A high standard for life means that we cultivate habits which help us be more kind and considerate. We pursue activities and possessions that help us be more effective, less impulsive, and allow us to better use our resources and intelligence.

 

Maintaining this version of a high standard of life can have the same pitfalls we may associate with the Real Housewives of LA if we don’t give thought to the second part of Seneca’s advice. Maintaining high living standards can lead us to selfishness and self-serving decisions if we don’t think about other people and how we operate as a society. Seneca’s advice is about becoming a model for other people and helping become a force that improves lives by encouraging and inspiring others. This idea was echoed in Peter Singer’s book about effective altruism, The Most Good You Can Do. Effective altruists want to direct their efforts, donations, and resources in the direction where they can have the greatest possible positive impact on the world to help the most people possible. One of the ways to do that is to inspire others to also strive to do the most good they can do. No one would follow an effective altruist who gave away all their money and lived a miserable life. But someone would follow an effective altruist who gave a substantial amount of their money to an effective and meaningful charity and still lived an enjoyable and happy life.

 

Our high standard of living in the end should be one that drives us toward continual improvement. A life that makes us more considerate, more thoughtful, less judgmental, and less impulsive. It should encourage others to live in a way that helps them be happier and healthier, rather than living in a way that suggests that having expensive things and showing off is what life is all about.

Rhythms and Routines

I started a new job a few months back and my commute time has doubled. I was already driving a good distance across Reno, NV (I know it is not LA, San Francisco, or Washington DC but it was still not fun), and now I am driving about twice as far to our State Capitol in Carson City to work for the Legislature. My drive time is now about an hour both ways, for a total of two hours of commuting daily. In addition, where I work has less amenities in the office, which means I need to bring more, prep more, and plan more with what I eat and what I need for the day. What this new job has created for me, with new limitations on my time, is a daily routine where my entire day feels like it is in a time crunch and where I need to be on point at every second if I want to fit in everything and be prepared to have a successful day at work.

 

I am leaning very heavily into my daily routines now. I wrote in the past about Colin Wright’s thoughts on routines in his book Come Back Frayed and Michael Bungay Stanier’s views on habits in his book The Coaching Habit. Today I have another quote from Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. Right now I am relying on a particular rhythm to help me be successful and live life the way I want to live. But, the rhythm I am building right now does not have to be permanent. I do not need to live this way forever and I can choose whether I want to maintain this rhythm and let it dictate my life, or whether I want things to change. About our rhythms and routines, Wright includes the following, “Many of us fall into rhythms relatively early in life, and then decide, either consciously or subconsciously, that the rhythm we’ve come to know is the totality of life. This is it. This is how things are. The evidence of me experiencing life in this fashion seems to be supported by the hypothesis that this is how life is meant to be; the only way it can be. But this isn’t the case.”

 

I know I can change my daily routine and I’m sure future jobs will necessitate a change in my routine, but a bigger question for me to think about is whether I want to change the general rhythm of my life or whether I want to continue with the general orientation of current life. I try to exercise daily. I try to do a lot of reading, especially during my lunch break, and I try to write each morning. Many of my evenings end up being spent with my wife watching tv, especially if we eat, but none of these pieces of my routine have to be a constant part of my life forever. For me, and for anyone else, little experiments in life are always possible. I could decide that I want to try something different from running or spin biking and try a boxing gym for workouts. I could decide that I don’t want to pursue reading any further and try doing things that are more social and engaging. And at an even bigger level, I could decide that I don’t need to live in a house and could find a small apartment, spend less money on my living arrangement, and take a more flexible job closer to home with different hours to open up different parts of the day.

 

What is important to remember, and what Wright is saying in his quote, is that life is flexible and full of possibilities. We don’t have to settle into any one particular way of living and we can try on different life styles. Just because we were raised a certain way, just because we happen to find ourselves relying on (or simply falling into without noticing) specific routines does not mean that our lives have to be set in one particular way from now until we die. We can have great success and achieve a lot of goals within our routines, but by shaking them off and experimenting, we might find new avenues of life that resonate with us on a more profound and meaningful level, or we might just find a renewed passion for something in life that we did not know could give us meaning and value.

Embrace Your Life

 Yesterday I listened to Tyler Cowen’s latest episode of his podcast Conversations With Tyler in which he interviewed Karl Ove Knausgard. In typical Tyler Cowen fashion, the interview went all over the place, with in-depth questions about Knausgard’s writing, influences, and thoughts on a variety of topics. Early in the interview Cowen asked Knausgard about writing and having children and how his writing has changed with kids. Knausgard talked about the ways in which having children has taken away some of the mysticism and rituals surrounding his writing and forced him to learn to write at any time in any situation.

 

So often in our lives we have things that we like to do and want to make sure we do, and we end up building our own rituals around those things. In my own writing, I wake up much earlier than what is really necessary, make coffee, turn on just a single light, and write by myself in my quite house while I drink my coffee. When I go to the gym I have my phone and my headphones and I listen to specific music (Mid 2000’s/2010’s LA rap) and I wear certain shoes. I know people who prep for big sports events (that they are watching not that they are competing in) by purchasing certain foods, wearing certain clothes, and doing certain activities to set up the atmosphere for the game. All of these rituals create a world around us that we enjoy and are comfortable within, but these worlds are in a sense our own withdrawn fantasy worlds, and we likely cannot keep them together for ever.

 

Knausgard explains to Cowen that his writing was ritualized in this way before he had children, but that once he had kids, his writing could no longer occupy a fantasy space. He had to learn to adjust to the world and adapt his writing to fit into his new life with kids. His lesson is that writing cannot only take place in certain ritualized settings or it will never be done at all, and that adjusting out of our ritualized space is not a bad thing.

 

In a quote from the episode he says, “I think the best advice I ever got —  to accept everything that happens. So if you have many children, it’s a good thing. If you don’t have children, it’s a good thing. You have to embrace it because that’s your life. That’s where you are, and writing should be connected to that —  or painting or whatever it is.” I really enjoy this quote because it shows that we cannot judge life to be good or bad based on our rituals, our experiences, and our predetermined ideas of what makes a life good, bad, valuable, or meaningful. We must accept what happens in our life and find the best way to move forward with what we have. Life packs our suitcase for us, and we must make do with the items packed for our journey. In this spirit, Knausgard explained that writing went from something he only did in certain contexts to something he had to learn to do whenever he had a moment available. It took the magic and mysticism away from the process of writing, and it freed him to write more frequently and consistently, allowing him to actually be a more prolific writer after children than before children.

Criticism and Ego

“The art of taking feedback is such a crucial skill in life,” Ryan holiday writes in his book Ego is the Enemy. If we are honest with ourselves, which is hard and uncomfortable, we see that we are not quite as great as we like to believe and we don’t exist in the center of an important world as we also like to believe. Critical feedback, not just flattery but true critiques of our work, effort, and actions is important if we actually want to be effective and make a positive impact on the planet.

 

“The ego avoids such feedback at all costs, however,” Continues Holiday. “Who wants to remand themselves to remedial training? It thinks it already knows how and who we are — That is, it thinks we are spectacular, perfect, genius, truly innovative. It dislikes reality and prefers its own assessment.”

 

Hearing feedback and truly accepting feedback are two different things. Many of us, I know me in particular, will hear positive feedback and flattery and feel great about ourselves. We will walk around with our head held up and begin to see the world in terms of all things we deserve and have earned. Negative feedback (again if you are anything like me) puts us on the defensive. Our brain starts to work double time to disprove the negative feedback. Our excuse generator kicks into gear and the negative feedback we received is discredited by a host of factors that are outside of our control and contributed to the the negative outcome, performance, situation, or behavior. In this typical model of taking (or not taking) feedback, we adjust the world to be what we want it to be. We take credit for the good things that happen around us while discounting our contributions to the negative. We enjoy the positive feedback and praise of others while deflecting the negative feedback and criticism about ourselves.

 

If our goal is simply to enjoy life and reduce friction for ourselves as we move through the years this this strategy is fine. Life is a challenge and living in a comfortable reality (or at least desiring such an existence) is fine. If however, we want to contribute to the world in a meaningful way, we need to live outside the comfortable false existence that our brains seem to crave. If we want to participate in politics, if we want to create a company, if we want to be civically focused in our community, we have to see the world clearly, and that means that we have to see our place in the world clearly. Getting beyond our ego and accepting critical feedback is a key piece of seeing the world clearly and understanding the world as it is and not as our brain wants it to be. We will not grow if we only receive positive feedback, and studies of children praised for good performance show that kids are less daring and less likely to work hard and perform well when praised for a good performance. Receiving feedback about working hard and being able to learn from areas where the outcome was not as great as it could be is what helps us develop and grow. Being comfortable with criticism and being able to accept that we have shortcomings is crucial for being engaged in the world and taking steps to improve the world we live in.

Living With Others

I often think about status and about how we act to try to increase our status. When human beings were evolving and we lived in small tribes of 50 to 250 people, status mattered quite a bit. Higher status people were able to reproduce and pass their genes along, while lower status people were not able to reproduce and pass their genes on. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in their book The Elephant In The Brain, we evolved to be status seeking machines, constantly aware of our status relative to others.

 

Today, this drive for status can be dangerous and drive us to act in ways that are more harmful toward ourselves and others than we often realize. Housing is an example that is coming to mind for me right now. Pressures to show our success lead to desires for houses with big common spaces for entertaining, even if we only host a party once every two years, and many people live with mortgages that max them out to afford the extra (and unnecessary) home space. In a race for status and signaling our wealth and importance, we are often willing to strain our finances to move up the social ladder.

 

What is worse, is that status is relative. For me to have more status among my co-workers or a group of friends, other people must necessarily lose status. Someone with more status than me will undoubtedly feel their status diminish if my status rises and begins to equal their status. The work we accomplish, the success we achieve, and the people we are, can fade away when we focus on status, and many of us we have experienced the desire to destroy another person’s life to either maintain or enhance our status.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh thinks this is a problem in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Hanh discusses the ways that meditation can help us live a more mindful and intentional life, and specifically, he writes about the ways that we can improve our relationship and values. Writing more about actual life and death he says, “We can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of other’s lives is necessary for our own survival.”

 

His advice is something we should apply to our selves when we think about and recognize our drive for ever greater status. At a certain point, we have to recognize how much our actions, thoughts, and decisions are driven by status, and we have to find a way to value ourselves outside of our relative status position. By doing this, we can live at ease with others and it will no longer be necessary to tear someone down for us to rise on the social ladder and feel better about ourselves. It is not necessary for us to ruin another person’s reputation and destroy their social status for us to live a full and meaningful life. Just as we should value the other person’s physical life, we should value the other person, and allow them to pursue status while we focus on providing real value to the world.

Mindfulness Enables us to Live

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote the book The Miracle of Mindfulness to share his thoughts, experiences, and lessons learned from a life of practicing mindfulness. He details the benefits of living a more mindful life, describes techniques to bring mindfulness into our lives, and presents our daily consciousness in varying perspective to highlight the importance of mindfulness as we move through the world. For Hanh, mindfulness helps with living an intentional life and gives one the ability to be more calm and collected and less reactive to the world and all of its stressors.

 

“Mindfulness is at the same time a means and an end,” Hanh writes as he describes what mindfulness should really mean to us. Mindfulness is a tool that helps us think more deeply and clearly about our life and the decisions that we make. A practice of mindfulness helps us recognize when we are working toward our goals and when we are distracted from them, and hopefully helps us identify ways to get back on track. Mindfulness also is a state where we are more productive, thoughtful, and peaceful with ourselves, a goal that we all share as we work to be happy and fulfilled. In this way, mindfulness is an end state that we desire, but also a tool to help us improve our lives and reach our goals.

 

Hanh goes further and describes mindfulness as more than a goal to work toward or even a tool to help us increase our self-awareness and perception. Mindfulness, Hanh describes, is in some ways our real lives. He writes, “But mindfulness itself is the life of awareness: the presence of mindfulness means the presence of life … Mindfulness frees us of forgetfulness and dispersion and makes it possible to live fully each minute of life. Mindfulness enables us to live.”

 

In the past I have written about routines and habits, examining my personal conflict of living effectively with a routine that aids me in health and productivity while simultaneously making me feel as though my life is on autopilot, slipping past me beyond my control. Mindfulness is a way to bridge the conflict that I experience. Becoming a mindful person means that you practice self-awareness and work toward building self-control in your actions and habits. Rather than setting yourself to autopilot, mindfulness brings you to the present moment and helps you focus on what truly matters and how you are using every moment. When you fully experience the present, because you are self-aware and are thinking of what you are doing now, Hanh argues, life will not fly past you in a rush that you cannot remember. Instead, you will be able to take steps to be intentional with how you live, and you will develop the capacity to be cognizant of how you travel through each moment in space and time.

Profound Connections

“Profound connections exist between all; interdependency so manifest that perceived separation is a delusion.” Senator Cory Booker writes to start one of the chapters in his book United. Throughout his book, Senator Booker examines the way society is organized, the relation between personal responsibility and to social responsability, and how truly dependent we are on everyone else. We do not exist in a vacuum and no matter how much one may try, we cannot live isolated lives away from other people. We depend on those around us, often much more than we realize.

 

The idea that we are connected drives Booker’s political ideas and shapes the way he approaches the people he represents, the neighborhoods he has lived in and represented, and who he has looked to as role models and mentors. Throughout his book however, he tries to show that recognizing and understanding the power of our connections is important not just for politicians, and not just for professors or people on television, but for everyone, every day. The collective understanding of how much we need each other and the ability to empathize with those around us who face challenges is diminishing as we become absorbed by social media which shows us what we want to see and allows us to share the highlights of our lives, creating misrepresentative online versions of ourselves. In an age of technology and hyper connectivity, we have become less aware of how truly connected we have always been, and how dependent on others our lives have always been.

 

Booker’s quote is important because it runs against our tribal nature. Human beings seem to be able to associate with only a few hundred people at most, a mental hangover from our tribal ancestry. We are constantly, whether we recognize it or not, looking for those who are like us, finding groups that think like us, act like us, and believe the things we believe. We create random borders and develop identities for those living within those borders. Without realizing it, we assign good qualities and traits to the group within our border and negative qualities and traits to the group beyond our border.

 

If instead we bring awareness and reflection to this “us versus them” mental process, we can begin to see how dependent we are not just on the people within our border, but on the people beyond our borders. We can begin to see that we all share one planet, and share more as humans than typically recognized. The connections that run through humanity don’t stop at the gate of a neighborhood, at a freeway exit, at a national boarder, or even on the shores of a continent. We are deeply connected by the entire planet and by years of evolution. Tribalism in our ancestry has geared us to ignore these connections, but just below the surface our connections exist, and the more we search the more we see that we are all united.

Quarrels

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with a quote from John F. Kennedy, “So let us not be petty when our cause is great. Let us not quarrel amongst ourselves when our Nation’s future is at stake”

 

The first couple of paragraphs of the chapter that starts with this quote from Kennedy introduce Booker’s dad and his diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. Booker writes about the incredible courage shown by his dad in the face of such a devastating disease, and what it meant for Booker to watch his dad fight through Parkinson’s while Booker was campaigning for the Senate.

 

It is easy to be caught up in the day to day relationships we have with the people around us and to focus on our interactions with people at the office, our neighbors, and our family without thinking about a bigger picture and the greater context we find ourselves within. When our perspective is narrowed, it can be easy to allow simple quarrels to shape our behaviors and actions and it can be easy for us to be tossed around by our emotional reactions to small things. Our daily interactions with others begin to take on more meaning than they warrant as we imbed meaning to meaningless actions and behaviors.

 

The quick story about Booker’s father and his fight against Parkinson’s brings Kennedy’s quote to life. It shows us that our lives are worth more than the quarrels we allow to drive our behaviors and out reactions to people and the world. When we loose sight of how important our lives are (not in the sense of galactic or history shaping importance) we allow the unimportant and petty to drive our experiences. When we step back and understand that this life is all we have, that our perceptions and experiences are all we have, we can become more self-aware of our behaviors and the way we use the precious time we have in our life.

 

Each action on its own may not shape the direction of our nation’s future, but our actions do shape the direction of our lives. Allowing petty disagreements and jealousies to shape the way we go about our lives prevents us from seeing that we have great opportunity simply by being alive in this century. As Colin Wright wrote in his book Act Accordingly, “You have exactly one life in which to do everything you will ever do. Act accordingly.”

Building a Purpose

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw,

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Acting toward meaningful purposes is not easy and there is always a fear of the hard work, planning, and other people that will be part of the journey. Only by overcoming these initial fears and getting involved in the world can purpose and meaning be sparked in life.

The quote that Booker shares opens a conversation about a man named Frank Hutchins who was a longtime housing advocate and tenant organizer in New Jersey when Booker met him. In the story Booker explains that he dedicated himself to understanding people and helping them find true meaning in their life. Booker recalls his hero, and though he did not die as a hero surrounded by millions of people, he focused his life on something meaningful and impacted thousands of people though many likely never knew who he was.

By focusing on your wants and desires you miss the opportunity to do something meaningful to help improve the world for other people. You may find great success, live comfortably, and have lots of things, but wealth alone does not provide an answer for the purpose question. Only our actions and connection with the world can answer that question. I am not religious, but my wife is and I frequently go with her to community groups and church services, and even within Christianity purpose is built on the actions and connections we have with a world. Those actions and connections are guided by scripture 2,000 years old, but they are natural human tendencies that surely pre-date the idea of a monotheistic god. Developing relationships with others and working to make the world a better place, putting aside hedonistic tendencies and short term thinking was a focus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, and was so important that it became part of the Christian bible. It is so important yet often so paradoxical that Booker found the need to explore the idea in his life and book, and in our own lives we are still surprised by the idea.

A Theory of Others

How much do we value other people, and how much should we value other people? At the core of ethics lies this question, and philosopher Peter Singer addresses it in his book The Most Good You Can Do. Singer refers to Canadian philosopher Richard Keshen’s ideas to build his vision of what ethics look like in an age of reason and tackles questions of how we should think about other people. In his book Singer writes, “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and their well-being matter as much as our own.”

 

This piece of advice is very similar to the Golden Rule, but with one notable distinction. The Golden Rule puts us at the center, focusing on how we want to be treated, and then expanding outward. Singer’s foundation for an ethical person starts with other people and a recognition that the lives of others are just as important in the world as our own life. It builds on common humanity and pushes past areas where see human ethics frequently fall short such as, tribalism, merit, and perceived responsibility. If we cannot start from a place where we accept that other people’s lives are as valuable as our own, we cannot move forward with truly equitable ethical foundations.

 

Singer’s ethical base also reminds me of childhood developmental studies and Theory of Mind, which focuses on a young child’s early recognition that other children and people have thoughts and feelings. This recognition builds until we are able to perceive, predict, and interpret the thoughts, feelings, and ideas of others. From our own consciousness we can begin approaching other people as if they are rational conscious individuals just like us, even though we can never see their consciousness or prove that they have thoughts just like we do. Ultimately, Theory of Mind, a recognition of conscious thought in other people (often also projected onto other living and even inanimate objects around us) begins to shape the ethical foundation of our life.

 

This seems to be built into Singer’s worldview through recognition and reflection of life and consciousness. On a recent episode of Sam Harris’s podcast, Waking Up, guest Yuval Noah Harari discussed Rousseau who said, “I think, therefore I am,” but he was critical of Rousseau’s fictitious “I,” or the self  created by Rousseau out of nowhere and built on in story. Harari explained that the conclusion Rousseau should have reached is simply, “Thought exists, therefore thought exists.” This view does not diminish the reality of our consciousness, but helps us understand that the “I” discussed by Rousseau is simply the story that thought creates. We know that thought exists so it is not unreasonable to believe that others can think, and if others think and can build their own story to create a fictional “I,” then Singer’s ethical foundation still exists and is perhaps bolstered as we recognize the stories we tell ourselves and  as we accept that our thought is in no way fundamentally different from the conscious thought of others which gives rise to our imaginary “I.” Ultimately, we must realize that we are limited in how we experience the world and that others experience the world in the same way. Increasing our ability to think of others and interpret the stories they create for themselves helps us to further our ethical thinking and behavior.