Pessoa on Politicians

Fernando Pessoa was a Portugese writer in the 1930’s. I’m not sure if he was really involved with politics at all, but in his book The Book of Disquiet he had a short passage that I think describes politicians well. He writes,

 

“The government of the world begins in ourselves. It is not  the sincere who govern the world but neither is it the insincere. It is governed by those who manufacture in themselves a real sincerity by artificial and automatic means; that sincerity constitutes their strength and it is that which shines out over the less false sincerity of the others. A marked talent for self-deception is the statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of  the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. to see clearly is to be unable to act.”

 

This post is not one to say negative things about politicians. Instead, it is a reflection on how humans behave. I want to focus in on the stories we tell ourselves and how we view reality. I think Pessoa is correct in his assessment of politicians. Sincere is defined, by a quick Google search, as “free from pretense or deceit, genuine feelings.” Politicians have many things on their mind at any given time and it is likely that they are never truly influenced by solely their own genuine feelings. But it is probably not fair to say that they never have true and meaningful feelings or beliefs. They likely try to hide any true selfish motivations, even from themselves, in an attempt to have pure motives for their decisions. But  they are not completely deceitful (in general) and insincere. They are humans, trying to do what they think is right, popular, and will bring good outcomes for society and for themselves personally. Their lives are a story, and they are constantly trying to write a good ending.

 

If you think about it, the assessment Pessoa makes of politicians is really just an assessment of humans in general. We all live like politicians, trying to craft a story that seems genuine and sincere about our lives and who we are, even if our actions, decisions, and behaviors are partially self-serving. The politician is just an easy example of how humans behave in ways that appear contradictory. We should recognize that men are not angles, but we are (in most instances) not complete devils either. We have moments of genuine sincerity, but we are also capable of boundless deception. If we are careful and look at the world very clearly, we can see this play out in our politicians and in ourselves.

Staying Humble Out of the Spotlight

“I write this not for the many, but for you; each of us is enough of an audience for the other.” Seneca wrote in one of his letters captured in the book Letters From a Stoic. This quote was at the heart of yesterday’s post, but it is only one part of a larger post that I want to write about. Yesterday I discussed the way that we can have a big impact on a small group of people. I wrote about our desires to speak to the masses and how we change our conversations and communication styles when we try to write for infinite audiences as opposed to writing for a committed few. Today’s post is more about reflection and avoiding the spotlight to remain humble and honest with oneself.

 

Seneca continues, “Lay these words to heart, Lucilius, that you may scorn the pleasure which comes from the applause of the majority. Many men praise you; but have you any reason for being pleased with yourself, if you are a person whom the many can understand? Your good qualities should face inwards.”

 

Our society rewards those who can do rare and challenging work. If you have a unique ability to produce a painting that appeals to everyone and captures the moment, then you may be rewarded by selling your art at a high price. If you can out-run everyone else on the planet, you may be rewarded with some cash, a shiny medal, and a new shoe deal. And if you can write clearly and express your thoughts and ideas so well that everyone can understand them and learn from them, then you may be able to sell your words and ideas in a mass publication. We are all about rewarding hard work that most people cannot do. This is not a bad thing, but just part of how we evolved.

 

What can be a bad thing, however, is taking the fact that we can do something difficult and socially rewarded and then holding ourselves above others. Notoriety, skill, and wealth do not mean we are actually different from those who sleep in the streets. We are all human, and we should strive to find a commonality between us and others such that we find the same value in ourselves as we do in those that we might naturally want to scorn and look down upon. The best qualities are those that help us do great work for our own satisfaction and to align ourselves with values that expand human creativity, dignity, respect, and well being for all. Seeking attention and glory is dangerous because it creates a world that is entirely about us, often at the detriment of another.

 

We can strive for great work and if we receive wealth, attention, and applause we can enjoy and appreciate it, but we should not seek these things out for their own sake. They should be byproducts of our great work, and we should always be somewhat distrustful of them. Looking inward, we can appreciate our success without the need for applause from the outside.

The Scale of Our Pain

I usually have one of two feelings when I fly into a large city or walk through a large crowd of people. I either feel insignificant and tiny, recognizing that whatever I do will eventually fade into oblivion among a sea of billions of people. Or, I feel proud to be part of an incredible collection of brilliant and capable human beings, each experiencing the world from a unique point of view, each with our own desires and feelings, and all connected by our shared humanity. Regardless of which sensation comes to mind, both help me recognize that what is going on inside my head, the reality of the world that I have constructed for myself, is not the full scope of human experience and is nothing more than just a world inside of me. Whatever fears, doubts, plans, successes, and assumptions I have are not any more real than the same thoughts going through the millions of people that might be living in the big city that I am flying into.

 

Recently, an entry in Fernando Pessoa’s book, The Book of Disquiet, has given me the same type of feeling. In a section of Margaret Jull Costa’s translation, Pessoa writes about pain, and about how our pain can feel so infinite and overwhelming to us, yet at the same time be so small and insignificant within the scope of the universe. In 1933 he wrote, “To consider our greatest anguish an incident of no importance, not just in terms of the life of the universe, but in terms of our own souls, is the beginning of knowledge.” When we start to recognize that we are not the center of the universe and when we can acknowledge that the severity of our emotions and feelings do not make them more real or more important in the scope of the world, we can start to see more objectively and without a filter orienting everything around us.

 

“It isn’t true that life is painful or that it’s painful to think about life,” Pessoa writes, “What is true is that our pain is only as serious and important as we pretend it to be.” Anything in our lives can take on extreme meaning and value. At the same time, anything in our life can be tossed out without care. What we focus on, where we put our attention and energy, and what we decide to be important is what will become our reality. Pessoa recognized this through his extreme self reflection, and from this point he became aware of his own insignificance and how little his thoughts and desires truly mattered to the rest of the universe. Any pain that he felt is simply a pain that he felt at that moment. Any experience he had was fleeting, because he was not a permanent fixture in the universe and not something that overwhelmingly shaped the universe.

 

Seeing this in ourselves and becoming aware of who we are and where we exist in the world is important if we want to do the most good with the time that we have. If we choose to live completely within our own mind, then we risk living in a way where we put ourselves before all others. We will seek more and more and attempt to raise ourselves above others while decreasing the pain we feel. Alternatively, we can step outside ourselves and try to engage in the world in a way that will improve the interactions between us and everyone else. We can try to make the world a better place for other individuals to interact within, even if they are not interacting with us directly, and even if we don’t directly see a benefit to ourselves. The reason to live in this world is because it is a more accurate reflection of the reality we live within. Our brain will only ever perceive so much, and rather than making up stories about what it means, we can live in a world where we try to continually develop a more objective understanding of what we see and experience, so that we can do the most good.

 

Pessoa closes in writing, “Seeing myself frees me from myself. I almost smile, not because I understand myself, but because, having become other, I am no longer able to understand myself.”

More on the Goldfish Question

I am always surprised by how hard it is for myself, and really for anyone, to answer what sounds like one of the simplest questions that we could be presented with: “What do you want?”

 

We go through life with desires, pursuing the things that will make us happy, wake us up in the morning, and fill our stomachs. But when we really think about what we want in life, it can be a real challenge to come up with an answer. In my own life this has been a paralyzing question and the careful interrogation of myself and my life desires can really make me shake and bring about anxiety. I’m guessing that many people feel the same way, so we don’t spend a lot of careful time thinking through what we want, and as a result we don’t actually know.

 

Sure we all know when we want coffee or a doughnut or when we want a new car to one-up the neighbors, but these are just auto-pilot desires that we don’t have to spend a lot of mental energy dealing with. If we did, we might find that we don’t really want all these things to begin with.

 

In coaching situations, Michael Bungay Stanier loves to use this question. In his book The Coaching Habit he calls this question the foundation question and describes it this way:

 

“‘What do you want?’ I sometimes call it the Goldfish Question because it often elicits that response: slightly bugged eyes, and a mouth opening and closing with no sound coming out. Here’s why the question is so difficult to answer.
We often don’t know what we actually want. Even if there’s a first, fast answer, the question ‘But what do you really want?’ will typically stop people in their tracks”

 

At the beginning of the summer of 2018 I was struck by an idea from Robin Hanson, which he detailed in his book co-authored with Kevin Simler titled The Elephant in the Brain. Our conscious mind is something like a press secretary. It is handed a script to explain our actions in a way that looks good to the broader public and creates a virtuous narrative about why we do the things we do. I believe the reason we can’t answer the question about what we want is because it stumps our press secretary. What we really want is to be popular, do work that isn’t that hard but looks and sounds impressive, and we want to stand out to get positive social recognition which brings with it the possibility of dates, more money, and other perks. It is hard for our press secretary to spin that to come up with a virtuous reason for us to want these things.

 

If we spend more time thinking about what we really want and why, we can find reasonable goals and accept that part of why we want the things we want is because we are inherently self-interested. It is OK to desire the fanciest car on the block and it is OK to work hard for positive social recognition. What is not OK, however, is for our desire for these things to be hidden from ourselves and to push toward those things in a way that is ruinous for ourselves and others. By carefully interrogating our desires we can start to think about what we want and whether it is truly reasonable for us to desire these things. Rather than lying to ourselves and saying that we are really passionate about automobile performance, or that we really just like running and fitness, or that the extra space on the home addition is really just going to help our children, we should at least be honest with ourselves in why we want those things. Then, when we are asked the goldfish question, we can understand that we have some self-interests motivating our behavior, but we can also begin to select things that we want that won’t be self-defeating or leave us on a hedonistic treadmill. We can find desires that align with our values and find places where our desires are satisfying to who we want to be and align with well thought out values.

Self-Reflection and Seeing Your Place in the World

When we think of ourselves and who we are as people, we can easily fall into a trap where the best parts of who we are standout and shine, while the worst parts of ourselves are hidden in the shadows where we are not able to recognize them. We are rational beings, and we are so good at being rational that we can explain away almost anything. Our bad behaviors are never just our own bad behaviors but they are a result of someone else’s bad behaviors in the first place, and our bad habits really are not habits and they really are not that bad, and our lack of initiative on that thing we tell everyone we are working on is due to how hard we work on everything else and how busy we are. In the end, we paint a picture of ourselves in our mind that makes us really awesome. Our decisions are motivated by all the right reasons and we are on the correct side of any given political debate, parental decision, and freeway driving style.

 

Ta-Nehisi Coats grew up constantly questioning and challenging this instinctual way of thinking. In my last post I described his mother’s method of punishment when he got in trouble as a school child. His mother would make him sit down and write about his poor behavior and answer questions about why he was disrespectful, why his behavior was frowned upon by his teachers and by society, and why he thought it was ok for him to do the things that got him in trouble. He explains that all this writing did little to change his actual behavior as a child, but it gave him a unique skillset, the ability to look at the world, ask why it was the way it was and why people acted the way they did, and to then turn inward and ask if he himself acted the way that others did, and why he acted as he did. His mother built a sense of self-awareness in him that shaped his life and the way he understood the world.

 

What Coats found when he became more reflective of himself was a world that was not as innocent as many have believed growing up. Each time he got in trouble he was forced to recognize that he was not the perfect person that he wanted to see in the mirror. He was forced to acknowledge his shortcomings and negative instincts, and he began to make connections from himself and his behaviors to other people. About his reflective writing Coats writes, “Here was the lesson: I was not an innocent. My impulses were not filled with unfailing virtue. And feeling that I was as human as anyone, this must be true for other humans. If I was not innocent, then they were not innocent. Could this mix of motivation also affect the stories they tell? The cities they built? The country they claimed as given to them by God?”

 

We all act in ways that best serve ourselves, or ways that we think will best serve ourselves and our tribe. We shape the stories we tell about the nature of the universe to align with the lifestyle, the privileges, and the opportunities we have. This is part of our human nature, evolved over hundreds of thousands of years. When left unchecked, this part of us does not always lead to perfect outcomes for everyone. Our impulses may lead to tribal decisions that reflect discriminatory biases and our habits may disempower other people. If we cannot build a practice of self-reflection in our own lives, then we end up searching out and defending our decisions with information that is comforting to us, but not connected with the reality of our actions and the reality of the world that other people live within. Coats began to question the world around him because he understood his impulses and his own thoughts and behaviors. He understood why he got in trouble, and began to see that other people were not just the perfect individuals they presented as, but dealt with the same impulses and the same dark side that he dealt with. From this perspective, Coats could ask new questions of himself, his society, and how everyone built a shared understanding of who they were and where they came from.

The One Policy

In his book, Some Thoughts About Relationships, author Colin Wright discusses the way most people approach romantic marriages and finding a spouse to spend their life with. In the United States our culture is a little obsessed with the idea of “The One” or the thought that there is one person in the world that is the perfect custom tailored match to who we are.  Wright is critical of this vision and describes the reality of finding a partner.

 

“In real life, however, The One is a concept that isn’t just irrational, it’s potentially harmful. The idea that there’s someone out there who is customized to make you whole implies that you’re not capable of being complete on your own.”

 

I enjoy Wright’s thoughts of The One and his vision of completeness. I think it is important for us to always be authentic in who we are, and that includes being our complete self. If we cannot be a complete version of ourselves without being in a relationship and being with another person, then we cannot say that we truly know ourselves and we cannot say that we are truly stable. Self-reflection and awareness can help us better understand who we are and what we need, and can show us that we can be complete all on our own. If we cannot reflect on who we are and if we cannot be full people without another person, then we are going to be asking an awful lot of anyone else to be a complete person on their own and to fulfill us at the same time.

 

Wright is critical of The One not just because it is self-centered in the way that it uses other people to serve us while also being self-pitying in saying that we cannot become whole human beings on our own, but because it implies that relationships with anyone who is not The One are in some sense a waste of time. The concept of The One puts pressure on us to be somehow more than who we are, and it pressures us to doubt relationships and undervalue anyone we don’t think we will marry. We lose the ability to learn and grow within relationships, because we simply look for someone else to do all the growing so that we do not need to.

Do We Actually Want Our Goals?

In the book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright is honest about his goals and explains a feeling that I think is not well addressed by most people. Focusing on the times when the direction of our life seems to be able to shift, Wright comments on the difficulties and challenges of pivoting. He encourages us to reflect on our path and destination, and be prepared for moments when our path takes a sudden turn, and we find ourselves moving toward a new destination. At these times, when our course changes, he encourages us to ask why we were on our original path? What set our goals and built our motivation to reach those goals? What are the stories we have been telling ourselves as travel toward our goals? These self reflective practices dive deeper into who we are and what we want than we often allow ourselves to think, and they can help us be more flexible in our journey, and more aligned toward goals that actually help us get to a place where we belong.

 

Wright asks, “If one’s goals are suddenly within reach but one doesn’t take them, what does it say about one’s knowledge of oneself and the truth of those goals?” I interpret this quote in two ways. The first being that we are complacent and our goals are impressive, but not more important than the status quo in our lives. And second, that we strive toward goals that were never in alignment with what we actually wanted. Wright continues in the book to detail what the second interpretation means, and I will explore both briefly.

 

Tyler Cowen, a George Mason professor and author, is relentlessly striving to wake people from what he describes as the complacent class. He believes that people too often favor the status quo, don’t push for change, and don’t have a strong enough drive toward worthwhile goals. My first interpretation of Wright’s quote aligns with Cowen’s views on the complacent class. Sometimes our goals are out there and within reach, but we need to take uncomfortable steps and put ourselves in challenging positions to reach the goals.  We can achieve what we tell ourselves and others that we want, but we make excuses for why we can’t actually achieve our goals or why this moment isn’t the right time for us to take the tough steps toward our goals. When we stop and reflect, we can see how far we truly are from success and begin to ask what we can do to move forward. If we see that we can achieve our goals, but do not put in the effort to reach them, then we must assume that they are not important to us, and that we are more comfortable where we are. This can exist at a base level of an individual who says their goals is to get a job, but instead plays video games, or at the executive level with an individual who states that they want to be a CEO, but never steps forward when an opportunity arises.

 

The other view of Wright’s quote is that we are striving toward goals that other people have set for us, or that we have adopted to try to please others. It could be that the individual in my second example above has felt pressure to be a CEO because her parents always wanted her to succeed and challenge barriers in society, but she may feel perfectly in alignment with her current position and lifestyle. When we put goals in front of us that do not fit who we are and what we truly want, steps toward our goal will actually be a detractor from our overall happiness. When we see the way to reach out goal, and we recognize that we are procrastinating, we should reflect to determine whether our goal is something we actually want and if it is in line with who we are or want to become. If we see that it is, then we should lean into the obstacles that slow us down, but if not, we should redirect ourselves and find goals that better fit who we are as opposed to who others want us to be.

Redirection

Author Colin Wright reflects a lot of stoic principles in his writings, and in his book, Come Back Frayed, he echoes thoughts about the importance of self-awareness and self-reflection. He writes,

 

“Some people who take the time to explore who they are and what they want — not the stories they’ve been telling about themselves, to themselves, because it’s convenient socially and suits the image they’re trying to portray, but who  they actually are and what they truly want — find that they return to their lives with a re-magnetized compass. The direction in which they’d long walked wasn’t their North after all. Perhaps they’ll need to do some backtracking, explore new territory, eschew the familiar path they’d become comfortable walking in favor of something unfamiliar. Something that takes them through sparsely lit, maybe even completely uncharted and uncarved wilderness.”

 

Self-reflection can be much deeper and much more involved than what we often imagine. Constant evaluation of our actions, thoughts, and desires is challenging, but ultimately more rewarding than simply moving from moment to moment reacting to the world around us. Wright’s quote shows that the type of reflection needed to truly understand our path and ourselves goes beyond simply stopping every now and then to briefly think about where we are and why we are doing something. The reflection he writes about is a deep and continual practice, baked into each moment of our life in a practiced awareness.

 

I recently listened to an episode of the Rationally Speaking Podcast where host Julia Galef interviewed Tim Urban about rational decision making. Urban described the problems we face focusing for the long term, and described the easily distractible part of our brain as our “instant gratification monkey”, to represent the idea that we constantly lose track of our focus by taking the easy rout and indulging our impulses. When Wright describes the importance of self reflection, he is in part explaining the importance of building a system of reflection that is not driven by our instant gratification monkey, but is instead driven by controlled mental processes. A practice of self reflection as described by Wright will help us learn more about who we are, and will also help us overcome the impulsive nature of our instant gratification monkey.

 

Ultimately, by continually focusing on who we are, who we are becoming, and what stories we tell ourselves and others, we can begin to ensure that our path and actions are in true alignment with the person we want to be. Focusing beyond ourselves and striving to become more aware of ourselves and how we interact with the world will help us find ways to better use our time, wrenching control back from our instant gratification monkey, and will help us navigate new waters on our journey.

Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.

Ultimate Strength

Author Ryan Holiday writes that his ultimate inner strength is his will, and he dives into what that means in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. He explains that our will stretches beyond simply our desire to do something or the degree to which we want something, and looks at will in the context of stoicism and our every day lives. Holiday writes, “Will is fortitude and wisdom — not just about specific obstacles, but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it.” In this context our will is driven beyond the world of sports or promotions where it is analogous to hard work or grit, and it becomes transformed to an internal power plant that generates strength to persevere in all aspects of our lives during challenging times.

 

For Holiday, our will is a decision that comes from our mental ability to focus and reflect on our lives, which means that it is under the control of our conscious mind. Our actions, efforts, and energy can be shaped by other people and contribute the obstacles we face, but our will can be external to those events, influenced only by our own thoughts, perceptions, and self-awareness. By taking control of will, we can build it into our own lives to power our own engines.

 

Stoicism is helpful in building will since it focuses on self-reflection and self-awareness to shape our perceptions of the world. Recognizing the power of opinion and perception helps us take control of our mind, and allows us to focus our actions on our goals with intentionality. The will that Holiday explains results from the mental fortitude that develops when we realize that the only thing affecting our mind is our own thoughts and opinions.