To See Our Own Face

Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet is exactly what the title suggests. It is a disquieting look at the world around us, making us think, question the every-day, and second guess what it is we believe and accept. Pessoa dealt with sever depression, and writes about his challenges with depression in stark and honest terms. He pulls apart experience in a way that is unique to him, and makes us question the experiential sums of the filaments of reality that we perceive.

 

Included in the book’s translation by Margaret Jull Costa, is a short piece about seeing ourselves in the mirror: “Man should not be able to see his own face. Nothing is more terrible than that. Nature gave him the gift of being unable to see either his face or into his own eyes. 
    He could only see his own face in the waters of rivers and lakes. Even the posture he had to adopt to do so was symbolic. He had to bend down, to lower himself, in order to suffer the ignominy of seeing his own face.
    The creator of the mirror poisoned the human soul.”

 

We easily become self-obsessed in our world today. We can spend hours looking at just pictures of ourselves if we wanted to. We have so many ways to capture our image and post it where we want. We can place mirrors and reflective surfaces throughout our world, to constantly look at ourselves and dress up the outside answer to the question, “Who am I?”

 

In Pessoa’s mind, we were never supposed to look at ourselves from the outside to try to answer and define that question. His quote shows that he believes we ourselves cannot provide an answer to the outside question of who we are, and that it should be publicly shameful to try. To turn inward, to become self-obsessed is a curse. To remain ignorant of the self, to be focused outside oneself and to exist as part of the social group of others to which we belong is where the human mind was supposed to be. The mirror split us and our definition of self from that collection, and poisoned the mind by forcing us to always consider ourselves first. Our ancestors from whom we evolved could not look back at themselves with a clear view of who they were and wanted to be as an individual. It is only with human created technology that we can focus the light back at ourselves, and take control to define ourselves as the outward image that is presented to the rest of the world.

More on Hiding Our Motives

Deception is a big part of being a human being. If we try, we can all think of times when we have been deceived. Someone led us to believe one thing, and then we found out that something different was really going on the whole time. If we are honest with ourselves, we can also see that we clearly try to deceive others all the time. We make ourselves seem like we are one thing, but in many ways, we are not exactly what we present ourselves as being. Sometimes we truly are genuine, but often, we are signaling a particular behavior or trait to a group so that we can be accepted, praised, and get some sort of future benefit. In order to do this really well, we create stories and ideas about why we do the things we do, deceiving even ourselves in the process. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson wright in their book The Elephant in the Brain, “We hide some of our motives…in order to mislead others.”

 

This is not a pretty idea of humans, and expressing this idea is an admittance that we sometimes are not as great as we like to make everyone believe. This is not an idea that is popular or that everyone will be quick to admit, but I believe that Simler and Hanson are right in saying that it is a huge driving influencer of the world around us. I also don’t think that accepting this about ourselves ends up leaving us in as sad, cynical, and dejected of a place as one might think. Humans and our social groups are complicated, and sometimes being a little deceptive, doing things with ulterior motives at their base, and behaving in a way to signal group alliance or value can be a net positive. We can recognize that we do these things, that we are deceptive, and that we deceive others by lying about our motives, and still make a good impact in the world. The altruist who donates money to the Against Malaria foundation may tell himself and everyone he knows that he donates because he wants to save people’s lives, but truly he just gets a warm glow within himself, and that is perfectly fine as long as the externality from his status seeking behavior is overwhelmingly positive (looking in the mirror on this one).

 

If we don’t accept this reality about ourselves and others then we will spend a lot of time trying to work on the wrong problem and a lot of time being confused as to why our mental models of the world don’t seem to work out. In my own life, recognizing status seeking behavior, self-deception, and motivated thinking helps me to be less judgmental toward other people. I recognize that I have the same capacity for these negative and deceptive behaviors within myself, and I choose (as much as I can) to redirect these types of behaviors in directions that have the greatest positive social impact rather than in the direction that has the greatest personal benefit for me and my feelings. Ultimately, I encourage us to be honest about the fact that we are sometimes rather dishonest and to build our awareness in a way that is easy on ourselves and others for behaving as humans naturally behave, but still nudges us in a direction where we create positive externalities where possible from these ways of being.

Longing for Impossible Things

I currently have Fernando Pessoa’s book The Book of Disquiet (translated by Margaret Jull Costa) on my headboard for a little bit of reading before bed. The book was not published during Pessoa’s lifetime, but was compiled and published after his death. It is a collection of Pessoa’s inner thoughts existing as diary entries, reflections on his life, disjointed feelings, and a set of observations about the world. The book includes incredibly written and translated passages like the following:

 

“The most painful feelings, the most piercing emotions are also the most absurd ones – the longing for impossible things precisely because they are impossible, the nostalgia for what never was, the desire for what might have been, one’s bitterness that one is not someone else, or one’s dissatisfaction with the very existence of the world.”

 

Pessoa is incredibly honest with himself through his writing and he seems to be able to interrogate every emotion and every thought he has. He is so good at it that it painfully tears him apart as he is unable to distinguish between himself, the natural world, the stories he creates of how it all ties together, and his unending awareness of everything inside and outside of himself.

 

His quote above stands out to me because I find such incredible inspiration and power in dreaming of large and almost unattainable things. At the same time, giant and ambitious goals terrify me, and leave me almost paralyzed, too afraid to take action but afraid not to dream. I constantly dream of things could have been different, of the steps and actions I could have taken to truly be on a path toward the greatness I desire, and dissatisfaction seems to lurk around every corner if I look for it. But like Pessoa, I recognize how vain and fruitless this way of thinking can be. There is a fine balance in life between believing in the potential of the future, and being paralyzed between the danger, fear, and monotony of every day life. Understanding how absurd our thinking is and recognizing the fallacies of our stories seems like a way to navigate between our ambitious goals and our defeating self doubt.

 

Greater awareness of who we are and the stories we tell ourselves can help us understand if our goals meaningful enough to make great sacrifices for. Recognizing how our narrative drives us gives us the ability to push back against our self doubt and allows us to craft a new framework that is not as limiting for who we are and who we want to be. We can even get outside the story of our goals and see what small actions we can take to begin to make progress toward our goals, defeating the paralysis we may feel. The recognition of the power of our inner narrative is the one thing that Pessoa seemed to be missing, and it also seems like the one thing that could have helped to change his fear and paralysis.

Whats the Real Challenge

Yesterday I wrote about how easy it can be to solve the wrong problem. When we go to meetings, chat with someone during a lunch break, or are working in a group on a project, it can become very easy to start complaining about whatever thing happens to be annoying us at that moment. Whatever issue we just had to deal with can be a bit overwhelming and can come to dominate our thoughts. However, the issue we just dealt with may not actually be the big thing at the heart of our problems. We might be annoyed by the way a particular form is being completed by another person or by a team’s inability to come together to finalize a draft of a new project, but the real challenge may be something deeper and more significant. If we don’t access that deeper level, then we are not actually doing anything that will help us or our organization improve when we complain at a surface level about some annoyance.

In his book The Coaching Habit, Michael Bungay Stanier has a recommendation for us to get to this deeper level. Throughout his entire book he encourages us to be better listeners and to ask the right questions to get our conversations moving in the right direction. His advice to get to the big issue is to ask, “What’s the real challenge here for you?” Whether we ask this to ourselves or to someone we are coaching, the result is a more deep consideration of the situation that is leading to frustration or bad outcomes. Bungay Stanier describes the question this way, “This is the question that will help slow down the rush to action, so you spend time solving the real problem, not just the first problem.”

Bungay Stanier explains that we will always have multiple problems to deal with, but that not all problems are created equal. Some will be more pressing then others and some will stem from larger more structural problems. Asking what the real challenge is can help develop thoughts on the larger issues at the core. Adding the “for you” part of the question dials in on the specific details that are in the individual’s (or your own) control, as opposed to details that are too vague and general to be something we can address directly. It also helps the question be more personal and aim toward individual growth and opportunity.

The Coaching Habit helps us get beyond simple venting and complaining to have more constructive and thoughtful discussions. Learning to listen and understanding how questions can help shape the direction of our conversations is crucial for successful coaching and even for successful introspection. Understanding our real challenge and then helping others dial in on their real challenges can drive new growth and productivity.

Pointing Out What is Wrong

America has laws to protect whistleblowers within corporations and within government because we understand how important it is to shine a light on the negativity and unfair practices of those with impure motives. When we turn this idea toward society, however, we suddenly become quite disdainful of those who acknowledge and speak out against the lack of racial progress, equality, and fairness within our nation. In a system of capitalism there are winners and losers, and the American system of capitalism has a history of creating winners at the absolute expense of other people. This is what happened with slavery and was maintained through legally sanctioned segregation and discrimination with Jim Crow laws. The protections we offer corporate and government whistleblowers disappear completely when the light is pointed toward market failures that advantage one group over another or when that light is pointed toward things that we associate with positive parts of our individual identities. My belief is that this relates back to our tribal nature as human beings. Pointing out the flaws of corporations and government is an attack against the other team and against someone else with more power, but observing the inequities in social systems that benefit us is a direct attack against our tribe and against who we are. Criticizing the system that has helped us be successful individually is criticizing us and taking away from what we did to become successful.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats in his book, Between the World and Me, observes this phenomenon from the side of an African American living in a society that is in some ways divorced from reality in terms of opportunity, justice, and equity. He writes, “But part of what I know is that there is the burden of living among Dreamers, and there is the extra burden of your country telling you the Dream is just, noble, and real, and you are crazy for seeing the corruption and smelling the sulfur. For their innocence, they nullify your anger, your fear, until you are coming and going and you find yourself inveighing against yourself.” The idea that Coats shares in this quote is that any observation of racial injustice is frowned upon in our society, and that the only approach to racial observation that is allowed is a criticism of black culture.

 

Arguments suggesting that society is not established or operating in a way that extends equity and justice toward minorities are forbidden by a pervasive sense that they are wrong or that they are simply an excuse for failure. Many of the arguments and tensions in society today are related to this idea. Most people are not outwardly racist but instead unintentionally discriminate against minorities by failing to see where inequities exist, and then by challenging observations of inequities and labeling them as excuses meant to protect lazy people who fail to overcome obstacles and make smart decisions. Moreover, if we accept that black and brown people have faced greater obstacles than we have, we admit that we have had advantages that were not extended to others. This puts our idea of personal responsibility at risk because it becomes clear that our success is not completely dependent on our own greatness, hard work, and smart decision-making, but was helped along by simply having the right skin color and benefitting from a society that discretely favors white people at the expense of minorities. Not only does this take away from our success, but it questions the level of success we have achieved, forcing us to ask if we should have become even more than we are given the advantages we have experienced. The threat that white people face when asking whether society has truly been just and equal for minorities is a threat against them, against their responsibility for their own success, and against their achievements.

 

Our country fails to give any legitimacy to those who call out our injustices or to the claims they make, and punishes individuals who make such claims. We offer protections for those who shine the light on corruption in business (if it is a business we dislike or are afraid of) and government, but those who call out the injustices of society are scorned. They are pushed back and told the problem is not with society, but with the individuals who are being discriminated against or who have failed to become successful in the eyes of society because this response is easier and preserves the image that white people want to have about themselves. If we want to move forward and reach a place where we are more equitable, white people need to be able to drop their ideas of personal responsibility and success. White people must drop  their ego and accept that their success, or image of success, is not truly connected with who they are as a person or individual. Only if we change our relationship with personal responsibility and success can we begin to see the importance and value of extending equity to minority groups and the value of honesty in our reflections on racial equality within our country.

A Moment and an Experience

Senator Cory Booker wrote about a tenant leader and housing advocate in Newark that he met when he was part of the Newark City Council in his book, United. Booker met Frank Hutchins through advocacy work and events to help people living in areas of intensely concentrated poverty. Booker was with Frank during one of his last moments before his death and talking about the time he spent with Frank as cancer overcame him, Booker wrote, “When he looked at me it was as if his whole being was present and attuned to mine—it wasn’t just a moment, it was an experience.”

 

This quote brings me to an idea I think about frequently but don’t always manage to incorporate into my life in a meaningful way. Many of the books I have read focus on the idea of presence and being in the moment. An important component of being in the moment, one Booker truly understood and felt when he was with Frank, is a recognition of our emotions and allowing ourselves to truly feel and understand our emotions in the moment. Mindfulness allows us to think about how we are feeling and reacting to a situation, but it can sometimes take us away from the moment, and we can get caught up in our own thoughts to the point that we forget to experience the important moments where we are.

 

Booker’s time with Frank at the end of his life is an example of how to bring emotion into the present. Experience includes emotion and an awareness of those emotions, but it also involves being present in the moment. Booker did not just recognize his emotions but felt them and felt the enormity of the situation an was able to record and truly be present in the moment. When we are with others, we can be present and engaged by turning away from phones and screens and focusing on discussion and dialogue with the other person. Being present in this way involves truly focusing ones attention on the other person, and not on thoughts about how other people will think of us or thoughts of what we should or should not be doing, thinking, or feeling in the moment.

 

I am not the best at this even though it is something I think about often. I am working to improve and become better at understanding and feeling my emotions without being overcome by thoughts specifically about how I am feeling at any given moment. Becoming overcome with thoughts about how you are feeling and reacting takes you away from the present moment, where mindfulness helps you recognize your emotions and engage further in what you are doing at the moment.

Reflecting Your Inner Self

Without self-awareness I have found that it is easy to fall into a place where my actions do not hold to the values that I profess to live by. Even with self-awareness, I have found that there are still times where my actions fall short of what I think should be my ideal. Occasionally I know what must be done in a situation, but I desire the opposite, am held back by fear, or I am just too lazy to take action. There are times when virtues truly stand out, and times when they don’t shine through. A quick quote from Cory Booker may help explain what is taking place within me during these times. “The wold you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside you.”

My disconnect between my actions and thoughts is an example of my inner self being reflected on the outer world. I think my example branches away from what Booker’s quote truly hits at, but I think it is a useful place to start. Our actions show who we truly are inside, while our words and stories are used to tell ourselves and others what we want to hear. We may have ideals that we strive to live by and we may be able to inspire others with virtuous tales, but it is ultimately our decisions and actions that show who we truly are and what is truly important to us and driving our decisions.

Luckily for us (myself included) we can become more aware of our actions, reactions, thoughts, and habits to begin to change what we do and what it is within us that motivates and drives our behaviors. Focusing inward can show us what operating system has been guiding our lives. We can use reflection to examine our actions and determine whether we have actually been living up to the ideals we believe in. From this point we can begin to create change by first adjusting what is internal, creating an environment for what is external.

My other viewpoint on Booker’s quote, and I think the idea he was driving at more directly in his book United, relates to our perception of the world around us. A simple read of the quote is that if we are insecure in our life, we will see insecurities in the lives of others. If we are kind in our life, we will see kindness throughout the world.

Booker is sharing an idea that we perceive the world as a reflection of our inner character and opinions. We will somehow come to view the world the way we expect it. Our preconceived notions of the world, our biases, our desires, and other beliefs will be projected from inside our head onto the world we see and experience. If we choose to focus not on animosity but on love, we will see not just other people’s actions of love, but we will see where we can step in and be a force of positivity in the world. If we choose instead to be greedy and struggle for power out of hedonistic tendencies, then we will see others as motivated by the same forces, and we will see a word fraught with selfish competition.

Ultimately who we are inside is projected on to the world through our perceptions, and who we are inside is manifested in the world through our actions. Our internal values and goals shape the way we come to understand the world, which in tern shapes the way we act. We reflect our inner self through thoughts and actions.

A Relationship With Yourself

When we think about relationships, thinking about ourselves is easy. What do I want, what kind of person will make me happy, why is my partner acting this way toward me? We spend a lot of time thinking about ourselves and about what we want, but all this thought rarely leads us to actually reflect and get to know ourselves better. We spend a lot of time with our impulses, desires, and the things that satisfy us, but we don’t often take the time to truly know ourselves. Author Colin Wright believes that we must focus beyond our desires and what makes us happy to understand who we are deep down in order to become better people for the world and better people in relationships. At the end of his book Some Thoughts About Relationships he writes,

“Your most intimate relationship is, and should always be, with yourself. Acknowledge and maintain that foundation, then reach out into the world and help others do the same. Ensure that your sense of “me” is mighty so that your sense of “we” can follow suit.”

Inward reflection helps us understand our impulses, emotions, reactions, and expectations. When these remain hidden from us, we act in ways that are guided by thoughts that we do not always understand, and our life is likely to be out of alignment as we strive forward based on ideas and pressures that impact our lives without our knowing.  Getting to know these parts of ourselves helps us make better decisions and act more rationally in any situation.

Knowing who we are also means reflecting on the parts of ourselves that we try to hide from the world so that we understand not just the positive side of who we are, but also the negative side. The end of Some Thoughts About Relationships aligns with previous work from Wright. In Considerations he wrote, “Reach deep and acknowledge the dark parts of who you are, then sand smooth or sharpen those aspects of yourself, just as you would with any bad habit or misfit trait. It seldom serves us to conceal any part of ourselves, especially from ourselves.” The better we become at working through the negative parts of ourselves, the better we can empathize with others and connect with people facing the same challenges. In this way, our obstacles help us grow and help us aid others in their growth. A strong relationship with ourselves helps us better know humanity, and helps us connect with others on a more personal and meaningful level.

A Rational Relationship

Some Thoughts About Relationships is an exploration of how we live, behave, and interact with others. Author Colin Wright looks at what it means to build friendships and relationships with people in the modern age, and offers timeless advice and perspectives on connecting. He kicks off his book by bringing the idea of rationality into relationships, something most people probably argue is not possible. He writes,

 

“Being rational in relationships means that you acknowledge cause and effect, the possibility of iterative improvement, and the potential to pull apart and assess problems to find solutions.”

 

Not many of us in our marriages, friendships, business partnerships, or other relationships truly take the time to think about our relationships in a rational manner. It is hard to reflect on a relationship in general, and finding the time and ability to sit down with another person to evaluate a relationship and seek growth seems like a rarity. Wright’s suggestion is to build self-awareness into the relationship and to be able to stand back and look at reactions and decisions within the relationship to try to find better ways to move forward. This process involves self-reflection and awareness from both members of a relationship, and a willingness to accept emotions but not let emotions be the main driver of a relationship.
Another idea presented by Wright in the quote above that I think is rare in today’s world of relationships is a focus on iterative improvements. I recently took a course at the University of Nevada, Reno focused on government budgeting, and one of the key concepts in the class was the incremental nature of the government budget. Incrementalism was first described as a theory to explain growth and progress within government policy by Charles Lindblom in a journal article The Science of Muddling Through, and its role in budgeting was described in detail by Aaron Wildavsky in his book Politics of the Budgetary Process. What Lindblom and Wildavsky argued in their reviews of government, is that improvement is possible in small steps, and that growth is possible when we think about where we have been, what is available to us, and where we want to go in the future. This is understandable for budgeting, but probably not something we do in our relationships. Wright seems to suggest that we should think more deeply about our relationships and where we think we need to grow in our relationships to allow ourselves to take small steps toward improvement and growth. Wild jumps and changes in our relationships in this manner will likely seem improbable if we are looking to actually improve our relationships, just as wild changes and adjustments in government budgeting are too confusing and risky to be implemented. Rationally reflecting on our relationships can help us find avenues for growth and iteration to help us determine where to focus our time and energy with that other person.

Priorities

What is our time worth and what are our priorities with our time? Author Colin Wright encourages us to think about how we are using time and where we are focusing our time in his book, Come Back Frayed. The book is about Wright’s time living in the Philippines, and is very much an exploration of how he strives to live his life, the differences he has experienced across cultures through his travels, and the differences he has experienced in his reactions within various cultures. Wright strives for flexibility and greater freedom in his life, and his awareness helps him to be particularly perceptive of times when we are not in alignment with what we claim is important. In his book he discusses how our actions are what bring our priorities into the real world and he writes, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.”

 

I read Wright’s book a while back, and I had forgotten about this quote. When I look back on it now, I feel that I am forced to look into my own life and actions to determine if I am putting the right things in the right place. Am I choosing to take part in activities that I claim are important to me? Am I spending my time in a way that aligns with what I tell people is the most important? Are there activities that are sapping time from my day without me realizing that they are not aligned with the growth and future I desire?

 

The self reflection encouraged by Wright reminds me of a podcast I recently listened to. Design Matters host Debbie Millman interviewed Tim Ferris for her podcast, and Ferris said, “Any time I take off in a plane, I ask myself, ‘Would I be happy with what I’ve been doing for the last 24 hours?’” By reflecting on his last 24 hours and building in a set time for reflection Ferris is evaluating his life to see if his actions have aligned with what he finds important. Thinking about our last 24 hours and whether or not we are proud of that time is a great way to consider whether or not our priorities are focused where they need to be.

 

Wright’s quote also reminds me of a metaphor I have been using and recently re-evaluating regarding time. On 5/27/15 I first wrote about time and priorities in the sense of packing a suitcase. Julie Sheranosher on an episode of the Beyond the To-Do List podcast shared the idea that we have limited time in our lives, as we have limited space when packing a suitcase, and need to select the most crucial things to pack first. Making sure our priorities are set properly requires reflection on what is important in our lives, and consideration of how we can fit those things in our suitcase of life. We must decide what we bring with us and what we leave out when the suitcase is full. Recently, I have been hoping to update this model by thinking of our time and actions as a certain area illuminated by light. What we can focus on and put into action is in the illuminated area, and what is beyond our focus and attention is left in the shadows. Our focus and our actions reveal what our priorities are, while our self talk and stories to others outline what we think our priorities are. Only through awareness and reflection of our actions and decisions can we evaluate whether our talk and actions are aligned.