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.

Truth and Change

Holding on to a belief so tightly that you will not allow yourself to see the world from different view points can be a dangerous thing.  Marcus Aurelius recognized how damaging it can be to stand firm in our convictions without allowing our decisions and beliefs to be based on reason over our desires to be right.  In his book Meditations the Roman emperor wrote, “if any many is able to convince me and show me that I do not think or act right, I will gladly change; for I seek the truth by which no man was ever injured.  But he is injured who abides in his error and ignorance.” What Aurelius is showing is that he is open to viewpoints and ideas that are different from his own, and that he is willing to change his beliefs if there is sufficient evidence to do so.

 

The challenge we face today is how our identity is fundamentally tied to the views and beliefs that we hold. I imagine this is not a new phenomenon in human experience, but in our culture today we often tie our political, spiritual, and social views to our identity, making our opinions more salient and rigid.  When we develop a belief today, we build our lives around it and use that belief to express who we are.  The tribes we belong to and who we see as viable partners (in everything from marriage, to business, to sports) becomes in one way determined by who is like us, and who has beliefs and viewpoints that most closely match our own.  We understand that it is a negative for society if we organize our tribes based on our racial identity and in many ways we strive for diversity to eliminate the importance of our racial identity, but for things that are less visible, we often times cheer for those who are unchanging, and we denigrate those whose identity seems to change.

 

I believe the increasing salience of identity based on behavior and belief is dangerous for our society. When we lock ourselves in, and define ourselves based on our interests, views, beliefs, and inclinations, we limit our possibilities and we limit not just our own progress, but often times the progress of the societies to which we belong.

 

It is hard to recognize at first, but our society does not want us to live in the gray and seek truth. What our society wants, now that we are not able to define who we are and who is part of our group based on race, is that we wear our unwavering identity on our sleeves so that others know how to think about us, and so that we know how to think about ourselves relative to others.  Two of the most clear examples from our culture of identity becoming arbitrarily tied to beliefs and preferences in a way that serves to define us and prevent our beliefs from changing are in the worlds of politics and sports.  In both cases switching teams can be catastrophic and lead to criticism from not just the group to which you originally belonged, but also from the group to which you joined.  In politics we expect our politicians to have firm beliefs that do not change over time, and if we see a candidate switch sides or switch beliefs we call them a flip-flopper and suggest that they will do anything to get the vote.  In sports, fans who change the teams they root for are often called band-wagon fans, and rather than following the teams who perform the best and rooting for the teams who win the most, we are encouraged to pick one team to root for with loyal support regardless of whether or not they are competitive, well managed, or even entertaining.

 

In both of these areas we are better off as individuals and as a society if we allow ourselves to change and to not be defined by specific ideas.  Like Aurelius, seeking truth in politics, and understanding that we may be unconsciously seeking only information that aligns with our previously held belief, can help us overcome ignorance and logical fallacies.  In sports, we can be free to express ourselves in a more dynamic way, and we may have a lower blood pressure while watching games.  There is no reason that any field needs to be tied so strongly to our identity that we are unwilling to change or interact with others who do not see the world as we do.  Becoming dynamic in our identity is a challenge that means we must abandon our belief in dichotomies, since the majority of the world cannot be approached from a black and white perspective. If we do not allow our identities to shift and change with reason, then we will never live in the gray, which is where life truly takes place. We will never allow ourselves or our society to expand and progress in a way that accepts and welcomes everyone uniformly.

Good Fortune

In stoic philosophy being able to control your emotions is a central focus since it allows you to make better decisions, interact in a more sociable manner with all people, and to see the world from better perspectives through a process of reflection and controlled decision making.  Thinking about our thinking and thought process is how we begin to develop control over our emotions, and it allows us to shift our reactions and feelings to better handle situations.  Throughout the collection of his writing in the book, Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius provides us with examples of situations where greater awareness, reflection, and emotional temperance can help us become better people. When facing adversity Aurelius writes, “Remember too, an every occasion which leads thee to vexation to apply this principle; not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.” In writing this he shows how a shift in thinking and focus can help us move from feeling anxious or dejected to hopeful and proud. Learning to control our emotions and shift the way we feel can help us move forward and advance in situations where we would rather shrink and shy away.

Aurelius’ quote is very inspirational to me because it shows that we can choose how a negative situation will affect us.  We can take a bad situation and always change our perspective to see ways in which we can move forward and take away something positive.  I don’t think that Aurelius would encourage us to jump straight to this mindset in any tragedy, we are human and will still feel those emotions, but over time we can move from negative spaces following any tragedy and build better emotional feelings and thoughts.

I find that Marcus Aurelius’ quote above is the most impactful and useful when applied to the small negatives and social situations that we face every day. It is easy to allow small frustrations to build and become major stressors in your life. We all face challenges and annoyances every day which make us bristle despite their petty nature or their small impact on our lives.  What we can learn from stoicism is that we have a choice in how we react to these daily annoyances, and we can childishly complain, or we can pause and decide to nobly bear the situation knowing that it does not truly impact our life.  Shifting our focus in this way can allow us to be more magnanimous toward people around us, it can improve our health as we drop our blood pressure and avoid fits of rage, and it can also give us the opportunity to present the world with the best version of who we are.

Reviewing Good and Bad

Marcus Aurelius has a great way of thinking about the events which occur throughout our lifetime and the way in which we react to those events. Part of the stoic philosophy involves rational thought before emotional action, and through reflection Aurelius explains what he thinks of the way we often look at good and bad events in the world. He writes, “…good and evil should happen indiscriminately to the good and the bad. But death certainly, and life, honor and dishonor, pain and pleasure, all these things equally happen to good men and bad, being things which make us neither better nor worse. Therefore they are neither good nor evil.” What is great about the way that Aurelius looks at the events that happen in our life is that he does not dwell on whether they are overall positive or negative, and he does not fret about why good things happen for bad people or why bad things happen to good people.  His thoughts are filled with a level of realism and pragmatism that we don’t often build into our own lives.  He takes the world as it is, and  tries to identify how to best move forward given the situation and experiences that we all face and share.

 

What I like about Aurelius’ quote, which is an idea he brings up throughout Meditations, is the focus on the perspective that we bring to all of our experiences and the idea that we are constantly trying to judge and keep track of our life.  We can spend time and mental focus worrying about why good or bad things happen to us, and we can continually judge our experiences as good or bad, but ultimately, this thought does not get us where we want to go. What we see as either positive, neutral, or negative can be interpreted in widely different ways by people with different social economic status, racial backgrounds, and experiences.  What we may perceive as a positive event in our life could be a tragically negative event in the life of another person.  Rather than spending time ascribing a positive or negative qualifier to anything that happens in our life, Marcus Aurelius would argue that we should think of how an event impacts our lives and the lives of others, and we should move forward from that event in way that is guided by reason so that we can better grow and participate in society.

 

I think that Aurelius’ ideas parallel nicely with Bob Berg’s ideas about relationships from his book The Go Giver. Berg wrote about how we view what happens in relationships and what we expect to get our of relationships. When we enter a relationship, be it personal, sexual, business, or any other form, our expectations and desires will influence how well we connect with another.  If we can approach a relationship without worrying about whether something was good or bad for us, and without judging everything in terms of how it relates just to us, then we can grow and connect better with others. Berg writes about being selfless in relationships and avoiding the mental accounting of keeping track of the good that you receive verses the good that the other receives.  He writes that a focus on making sure each event is equally matched for both partners by another event of reciprocal value will eventually pull you apart.  When you can understand that good and bad things happen to you both equally, you can focus your relationship on the other person and what your goal is together.

Tolerate Ignorance

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about how we should think about those around us to become more benevolent in our thoughts and actions. Specifically, while writing about the way we think of and speak of others who are not as educated as us, he introduces an idea of compassion that is not seen very often in our society today.  When we think about those around us we often paint a negative image of those who have different points of view or seem to have very limited knowledge regarding a particular subject.  We enjoy laughing at others and we enjoy putting them down (usually not to their face). Aurelius writes that he learned a key skill from Sextus, “to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.”  This skill that Aurelius learned translated into the way he thought about others and the jumbled beliefs that arise from a lack of true study of any given subject.

 

Aurelius truly believed that everyone was acting in a way that made the most sense to them. He saw everyone as doing the best that they could to disentangle the world and understand it better, even if that meant that they were relying on faulty reasoning or were guided by misinformation.  His argument is that we should not shame others for holding beliefs that we do not agree with or that we see as counterfactual.  By tolerating ignorance we avoid falling into rage and anger and we do not elevate ourselves beyond others.  When we understand that others are trying to focus their lives in a way that seems the most logical to them, then we understand why they may be ignorant in the ways that they are. Building this perspective also helps us to see that we are not any better than others and that we have our own fields where we are misinformed and ignorant of the true functioning of the world.

 

In our world today we share videos making fun of people that are uneducated, misinformed, or are acting in ways that seem primitive to us.  When we do this we are subconsciously grouping ourselves and reverting back to a tribal mentality. We belong to a camp of more sophisticated people, while the people who we find ignorant belong to a camp of primitive savages. We may get a laugh, but we are not recognizing the value of others while we are asserting our own superiority.  Often times we attack the individuals we laugh at for being misinformed or ignorant rather than asking ourselves how they came to hold the beliefs that they have cultivated.  When we can shift our focus through a practice of tolerance and understanding, we can create safer institutions for sharing positive information, build better connections between ourselves and the portions of society we do not agree with, and help everyone progress in a more meaningful manner.

Confirmation Bias: A Hindrance to Quality Decision Making

Fred Kiel addresses his ideas about disciplined decision making processes in his book Return on Character which focuses on the ways in which leaders with strong moral character make greater impacts on the companies they lead than do leaders with weak moral character.  Part of Kiel’s idea regarding these strong moral leaders is that they have worked on processes of self reflection, and they are able to control the quick emotional side of their brain in favor of the slow, deliberate, and rational part of their brain.  By understanding that their immediate reaction may provide valuable intuitions and by slowing down their decision making process to use reason over emotion, these leaders can make better decisions that help improve the lives of everyone, not just themselves.

 

While discussing this decision making process Kiel also mentions the idea of confirmation bias. He hits briefly on the idea that we find information that confirms thoughts and ideas that we had already developed which in our mind proves our thoughts correct.  Rather than seeking information that challenges our preconceived notions, we look for news stories, data points, and other people who see things the same way.  When we succumb to confirmation bias we begin to build a capsule of likeminded individuals around us that shields us from opposing thoughts and ideas.  The danger here is that our ideas could be wrong, impractical, morally shallow, or just not as advantageous for growth and progress as we think they are.  If we can become comfortable with shifting perspectives and learn to discuss other view points, then we will become a more well-rounded individual.

 

By striving to avoid confirmation bias leaders can make better decisions and be more connected to their employees, customers, and competition.  They can become more adaptive and better predict how the world in which they operate will change, giving them an advantage in moving forward. When leaders succumb to confirmation bias they have only one option for success, and if it does not pan out they will not have the flexibility and varying perspectives to turn the situation around.

 

When we incorporate multiple perspectives we can actually better develop our own perspective.  We can begin to add new parts and pieces to our ideas helping them become more robust.  The goal of finding new perspectives should not be to stockpile our own ammunition against those perspectives, but to better understand why others see the world in those differing manners so that we can better connect with them and better adapt to suite not just our own needs, but everyones.  To truly avoid confirmation bias you must seek out other information which conflicts with your thoughts, and you must digest that information from multiple perspectives.

A Complex Model of Human Beings

Throughout his book Return on Character, author and character researcher Fred Kiel talks about the complexity of human development, the complexity of our interactions with others, and the complexity of creating a model to understand how we grow into the people and decision makers that we become. In the book, social science research is brought in to help describe human behaviors, but for Kiel the studies don’t fully explain who we are. He approaches the science and discoveries accepting that they explain aspects of our decisions, but he seems to have a belief that there often seems to be a disconnect between our experiences and the results of science. Hinting at the multidimensional context of our lives, Kiel suggests that we are too complex for all of our decisions and interactions to be explained by one general theory. Regarding research he writes,

“Ongoing research is helping us more fully understand the nature of who we are as human beings and how our basic human nature supports the genetic predispositions and life experiences that determine who we are as individuals. We can use these new findings to embrace a model of human nature that describes us as capable of becoming mature, complete individuals, not just self-focused rationalists—a model that supports organizational life in all its rich complexity and celebrates the deep and meaningful connection between who we are and what we do.”

Kiel is showing a shift in thinking about people and is looking at us from a perspective of individuals tied to a community with varying degrees of commitment and responsibility.  He is showing that our research is beginning to accept human beings as more complex social beings with individual desires and motivations, which is not easily built together with one single model of humanity.

Understanding that there is not one model for how we relate to others and act during our lifetime seems to suggest that we have the power to shape ourselves and who we become by managing our reactions to the world around us and by understanding our social connections. Kiel supports the idea that we can change ourselves in relation to our society while at the same time our society and culture, especially our close relationships, can have an impact in changing our lives.  Human behavior is not set in stone, and we have the power to shape our behavior and seek out cultures and environments that support the decisions and behaviors we desire.

What We Set Out to Find

In his book The Go Giver Bob Berg tells a story that relates back to positive ideas about business and the sales side of business.  It is often hard to picture positive things coming from a work and business environment, especially when companies and executives are portrayed as greedy and selfish.  In his book, Berg lays out a better platform for looking at and understanding business contexts. He talks about the importance of developing relationships of trust within our professional lives, and acting with integrity as a genuinely nice person to others.  His cornerstone idea rests with treating other people well, and providing more in value than you receive in payment. In other words, Berg is focused on giving more than asking and taking.  Hi book explores how the idea of giving can lead one to become very successful, especially at points where we need to rely on others for assistance.

 

Throughout his book he dives into multiple themes and ideas, and one idea that resonated with me was his thoughts on perspective.  Berg writes, “See the world as a dog-eat-dog place and you’ll always find a bigger dog looking at you as if you’re his next meal.  Go looking for the best in people, and you’ll be amazed at how much talent, ingenuity, empathy and good you will find.” What Berg is identifying her is the importance of what we are focusing on and trying to perceive.  Our perspective can be limited to only the negative aspects of any place that we are at, which will only lead to the continued flood of negative thoughts and perceptions. Berg continues, “Ultimately, the world treats you more or less the way you expect to be treated.” He is showing us how confirmation bias can affect our workplace, and how disastrous it can be if we are not aware of the thoughts that we build.

 

What Berg explains in his two quotes is the idea of perspective and expectations shaping our experiences.  Our presumptions and prejudices will change the way we interact with others, which will be noticeable to them, and in the end our attitude will shape the way we are treated by those with whom we interact.  A negative mindset will prevent us from connecting with those around us or in our community and will lead to others having negative thoughts about us. In his book, Berg explains that a positive perspective can help us become successful because it changes the expectations we have about our work, and allows us to reach for new possibilities.

Sacrifices: Money & Well-being

Peter Singer provides us with an alternative way of looking at money and the sacrifices we make in his book The Most Good We Can Do. He suggests that we change the way we look at money and begin to better understand our relationships with money.  Ultimately, what is suggested is that we begin to devalue money and it’s importance in our lives relative to other finite resources that we may give up in exchange for the opportunity or the ability to make more money. Singer writes,

 

“Money, however, is not an intrinsic good. Rather than saying that something is a sacrifice if it will cause you to have less money, it would be more reasonable to say that something is a sacrifice if it causes you to have a lower level of well-being, or in a word, be less happy.”

 

What he first establishes in his quote is the idea that money is not a given and set construct of the human experience. It is a social measurement used to organize people into an economic system, and it is a byproduct of many social factors including, hard work, luck, creativity, and progress.  Singer explains money as something separate from our own happiness and our true experience. This has the effect of moving money to a secondary tier in our lives rather than a primary goal.  By seeking out a lifestyle that provides us with more well-being, flexibility, and happiness, as Singer’s quote suggests, we can adopt a lifestyle where our money is a secondary goal that follows in line with our efforts.

 

His quote does not seem to suggest that money is not important or that we should adopt vagabond lifestyles that don’t require us to work or earn money, but it simply makes money less of an important factor.  If we focus on what will help us be more happy we can move in a direction that may not be as lucrative in the long run, but may provide us with greater flexibility and comfort, which will have a positive impact on our well-being and that of our families.  He is almost suggesting a direct approach to well-being with an oblique approach to wealth building, which is more or less the opposite of the way most of us think. We often set out on a direct path to earn more and make more, which we believe will make us happier. Happiness is sought after in an oblique manner because our primary goals are greater wealth and greater consumerism with the hopes of building happiness. Singer would argue that we should seek well-being and understand sacrifices in terms of values outside of money to reach a lifestyle that is comfortable and productive. In this view, once we reach that level, the money will suffice and our lives will be more enjoyable and based around things that add more value to our lives than stress.

Loving Your Child and Others

Peter Singer address some of the criticism of the philosophy surrounding effective altruism in his book, The Most Good You Can Do. He writes that effective altruists are criticized from a parenting standpoint when they focus on the importance of the lives of every child and not just their own.  This point of view for effective altruists expands beyond valuing all children within a neighborhood, community, or state as being truly equal, and looks at all children across the globe as being equal. It is a challenging idea because of the bias we accept in providing as much as possible for our children to ensure that they have every advantage possible in life. Part of our culture values the idea of being able to provide everything our children want, and we see being unable to meet their desires as a lack of success.  This has created a mindset for many individuals where we should not sacrifice our children’s desires, even if that means we are going to try and bring the quality of life for other children to an equal level. However, for an effective altruist, all lives are equally important because all lives can face the same suffering and can also potentially produce the same good for the world. When it comes to the love an effective altruist would show his of her child, Singer writes,

 

“Critics of effective altruism often suggest … that there is something odd or unnatural about being moved by the “strictly intellectual” understanding that a child in Pakistan or Zambia is just as valuable as your own child.  But … Loving your own child does not mean you have to be so dazzled by your love that you are unable to see that there is a point of view from which other children matter just as much as your own or that this perspective is unable to have an impact on the way you live.”

 

What Singer seems to be arguing is not that all effective altruists focus more on other children than they do their own children, or that they love their own children less than other parents love their children. Singer is suggesting that effective altruists have access to perspectives that many others never consider.  Being able to see the world from additional perspectives may not change the way they feel toward their own child, but it may help to change the way they feel about children across the world who they will never see.