Slumps

“Slumps are normal,” writes Dan Pink in his book When, “but they’re also short-lived. Rising out of them is as natural as falling into them. Think of it as if it were a cold: It’s a nuisance, but eventually it’ll go away, and when it does, you’ll barely remember it.”

 

Pink’s quote about slumps ties back to stoic philosophy in many ways. Stoicism encourages us to focus on the present moment and avoid ruminating over the past or fearing for the future. When we are in a slump, we are in a sense doing both of those things. We are thinking of a future without creativity or the possibility of things being better, ultimately zapping our energy and ability to put forward a meaningful effort in the present. We are also thinking of a past that held more promise than the present moment, and wondering why and how the energy of the past disappeared. What we are not thinking of is how we can use our present moment to make improvements and take steps that meaningfully improve our current situation.

 

The slumps that Pink focuses on are the midpoint slumps in projects that we engage with in work type situations. His advice and reflections on slumps, however, can carry over into many areas of our lives. A slump in a school report or business project parallels slumps that we might feel in middle age or even just in the middle of a work-week (fitting for me to be writing this on a Wednesday morning).

 

“If you’re feeling stuck in the middle of a project, picture one person who’ll benefit from your efforts. Dedicating your work to that person will deepen your dedication to your task.”

 

The problem with a slump is that we are focused inward and fixated on a past that was better and a future we fear will be even more bleak. Changing our perspective to think about how we can make a difference for someone else shifts our thoughts back to the present moment, as stoicism encourages, and gets us to think beyond our own problems and concerns. It forces us to ask what we are doing with our brain power and efforts now, and how we can use the resources available in a way that maximizes our impact for the world around us. Helping others can be inspiring, and it can serve as a spark to help us overcome slumps in business, school, and life. It changes our motivation and helps us imagine a future that can improve over our past. Thinking of how we can help others isn’t just wishful thinking, it is practical thinking about the ways we can be better in the present moment and helps get us through our own slumps.

Don’t Run Out To Meet Your Suffering

I’m not sure what it is about American culture today, but we seem to be really good at worrying about almost everything. We fear lots of uncertainties and spend a lot of time uptight about things that might go wrong. While a  certain level of worry is ok, being what encourages us to use calendars, set reminders, and buy life insurance, we often slip into continual dread and fear that everything is going to crash.

 

“How often has the unexpected happened!” Writes Seneca in Letters from a Stoic, “How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering?”

 

The first line of the quote above is where many of us seem  to live our lives, at least when we are dealing with fear and anxiety. We worry about the wrongs that could happen and about the misfortune that could strike at any moment. Ruminating in this state has the power to push us into depression, ruin our health, and deteriorate our relationships, potentially even bringing about the terrible outcomes we originally feared.

 

But that is not all of Seneca’s quote. What we believe is certain to happen often isn’t. What we predict won’t always come to pass, and while sometimes that may be a huge negative, there is no reason to live within that negativity before it has reached us. We shouldn’t run forward and live with what we fear will happen, or live with the fear the something we terrible will unexpectedly happen before it has. Don’t run out to meet your suffering.

 

Seneca continues, “Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.” 

 

All we have in life is the current moment. We can generally anticipate the range of things that will happen in the next moment of our lives and we can build smart plans for the future, but we live in the here and now, not in the past and not in the future our minds are planning. The good that we hope for may play out, but things may also go poorly. If we constantly live ahead of our current moment, we will be distraught by the possible bad things that could happen. Seneca encourages us to remember that the good and the bad might not come, and that as a response we should lean toward being hopeful and use the current moment to try to shape a positive future. Don’t be stuck ruminating over the negative what-ifs of the future and ultimately ruin where you are right now.

Considering Death

I’m only in my late 20’s, and while I recognize that one day I will die, I am still in the somewhat invincible feeling stage of life. It is easy to think that life will always continue on as it has, and thinking about death and a world existing without my conscious thought is not pleasant. However, I believe that remembering our impermanence on this planet is important if we want to use our time to meaningfully contribute to a world that is better when we leave than when we arrived. Despite being young, I still try to consider death.

 

This is a notion that is common among stoic thinkers today and was presented in writing by Stoic thinkers like Marcus Aurelius and Seneca a couple thousand years ago. By reflecting regularly on their own mortality, these stoic thinkers were able to develop clear senses of the importance of their lives and the actions they took. They could be more considerate in how they lived and how they approached each day.

 

In Letters from a Stoic Seneca writes, “death, however, should be looked in the face by young and old alike. We are not summoned according to our rating on the censor’s list. Moreover, no one is so old that it would be improper for him to hope for another day of existence.”

 

Planning is important in our lives, but not as important as ensuring that in the present moment we are making the most out of the faculties available to us. In any given moment, we could fall victim to tragedy, and while the universe itself may not care and while the world will continue to spin, stoics argue that we should live in a way that will make our absence noticed. That is not to say we should strive for fame, glory, or riches, but that we should strive to live in a way where we make meaningful contributions to the world to help it become a better place for ourselves and for others.

 

Seneca continues, “every day ought to be regulated as if it closed the series, as if it rounded out and completed our existence.” Each day, and any given moment of a day, can be useful and meaningful. If we think about ourselves as always having a chance to do good later, we won’t make the most of each day. If instead we think about how we can be complete in the moment, we can begin to shift our choices and design our lives in ways in which we make an impact in all that we do.

 

Focusing on death changes the way we approach each day and changes the way we design our lives. It helps us to think about our contributions to the world, and to build habits that help us become the best possible versions of ourselves. Remembering and acknowledging our mortality allows us to grow and get things done today that we might not achieve if we did not consider the possibility of our time on this planet being so short. We shouldn’t fixate solely on death and our mortality, but remember that our time is bound, and that if we want to live meaningfully, we have to live accordingly in each moment.

The Case for Doubting Oneself

Our actions always make more sense to us than they do to others. To us, what we do and why we do the things we do fit in with an internal narrative that is always running through our head and playing out in our lives. We understand the world in a way that is logically coherent based on our experiences and perceptions of the world.

 

The problem for each of us, however, is that our experiences, perspectives, and perceptions are woefully inadequate to actually understand the way the world operates. In Letters from a Stoic, Seneca includes a short piece that explains how we should think about our thinking given these inadequacies of our mind:

 

“Crates, they say, … noticed a young man walking by himself, and asked him what he was doing all alone. I am communing with myself, replied the youth. Pray be careful, then, said Crates, and take good heed; you are communing with a bad man!”

 

The point here is not that the youth is actually a bad person, but it is that the narrative and story within our own heads is misleading. It makes judgments and assumptions based on limited, often biased information and creates stories that it claims to be true. We are tricked into believing the falsehoods of our own mind, and if we give our mind too much trust, it can lead us astray.  The advice from Crates conveyed by Seneca is to recognize that our minds are not wholly trustworthy, and to be careful when we are consumed by our own thoughts.

 

In my own life, I have found it to be helpful, but at times almost paralyzing to recognize how little information my mind actually has when it is making decisions and reaching conclusions. I find that I often doubt why I feel a certain way about another person or an event, and that I often pause to consider the information my mind is acting on before I do something, even when my actions or the outcomes are trivial. Occasionally this puts me in a place where I feel that I cannot take action, because I cannot entirely support my reason for doing or believing (or wanting to believe) something. On the whole, however, I feel that it does make me a more considerate person. I recognize times when I want to be outraged at something, just to signal to others how virtuous of a person I am that something outrages me. I often find that I want to complain about others, just to raise my own status, and I try my best to pull back from those urges. These are positive notes stemming from my self-awareness induced hesitation, but my hesitation also leads to situations where I am not as outspoken or decisive as I should be. As an example, I should probably be more outspoken about the importance of climate change legislation or science in general. I am not as willing to take a visible stand in an effort to say that, regardless of policy or party/identity, the behavior and language of our president is unbecoming of the nation’s chief executive and unacceptable in our public discourse (ever here is another example of me hesitating to be as direct as I think I should be).

 

A recognition that the mind cannot possibly observe, analyze, and act on every piece of information available is powerful in being a more thoughtful and considerate person, but it can be paralyzing in negative ways. When we pause to think while others impulsively act, we give away some of the power we gain through self-awareness. The bombastic who dominate conversation through impulsive outbursts have an advantage in controlling the narrative when we hesitate to be more thoughtful in our discourse. We would all rather be the rationally calm individual in our lives, but it feels that the ignorantly loud person will always dominate the conversation when we choose this approach. I think we should nevertheless strive for greater self-awareness and calmness in our thinking, and as a society we need to do a better job of recognizing the importance of these skills, so we can be better at socially rewarding individuals who can control their impulses.

Countersignaling Today Through Clothing

I’m a big fan of stoicism and I also try to think about the recommendations from The Minimalists in my daily life. I try not to let material goods control me, and I try to stay away from overtly status seeking behavior. I try to be pretty content with an average used car and try not to feel a need to have very expensive clothing. I think these are meaningful ways to live and approach life, but part of what I might be doing is a substantial amount of countersignaling.

 

Tyler Cowen writes about this kind of countersignaling in his book The Complacent Class. He writes, “American’s at the top have become the experts in countersignaling, because they don’t feel they have to impress anyone. Everything is now casual, because the new aristocracy of talent enforces all the conformity that is needed.”

 

I started at a Bay Area tech company after college. We all wore hoodies and only a couple of our top sales executives ever wore slacks or a suite. The emphasis was never on what you owned or how you dressed, but on how smart you were and how many impressive ideas you could come up with. This came pretty natural to me, and it aligns with the stoic and minimalist ideas I frequently engage with.

 

At the same time, I think it is valuable to pull everything apart to look at my behaviors more closely. I hate the time and energy that goes into dress clothes. I like the relaxed feel of casual wear and the fact that I can easily pack casual clothes in a gym bag without them becoming a wrinkly mess. I’m uncomfortable with expensive clothing, knowing that I could use the $140 for a solid pair of dress slacks on more meaningful causes than just me looking good. From many standpoints, I think the shift toward casual dress is a good thing, for worker health, comfort, and for how we use resources.

 

Simultaneously, there is still a lot of signaling that is going on with the way we dress, even when we are dressing casually. It says, “I’m so good I don’t have to worry about looking the part—my work speaks for itself.” Dressing casually says, “The older generation that set the rules is irrelevant, we are defining things how we want.” In some senses these signals are direct attacks against the generations that came before us and built the business world and culture that allowed my generation to come along and invent innovative tech. There is something dismissive in the attitude presented and something that might be more inclusive for younger more diverse workforces, but simultaneously prejudiced against older workers. In the end, I think the trend is a good one, at least if it can live up to its inclusive potential. Slacks, dress shirts/shoes, and ties are terrible, and we shouldn’t have to suffer through them and spend all our free time and money hassling over our clothes. We should be comfortable with a minimal set of clothing, and focus on doing great work. Simultaneously, we should be respectful of the business culture that helps us be professional and get good work done. Somewhere in the middle lies a reasonable blend of both, and all along the spectrum is a lot of signaling and countersignaling.

Sabotage Information

“Our minds are built to sabotage information in order to come out ahead in social games.” In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about the ways in which we act out of our own self-interest without acknowledging it. We are more selfish, more deceptive, and less altruistic than we would like to admit, even to ourselves. To keep us feeling good about what we do, and to make it easier to put on a benevolent face, our brains seem to deliberately distort information to make us look like we are honest, open, and acting with the best of intentions for everyone.

 

“When big parts of our minds are unaware of how we try to violate social norms, it’s more difficult for others to detect and prosecute those violations. This also makes it harder for us to calculate optimal behaviors, but overall, the trade-off is worth it.” As someone who thinks critically about Stoicism and believes that self-reflection and awareness are keys to success and happiness, this is hard to take in. It suggests that self-awareness is a bigger burden for social success than blissful unawareness. Being deluded about our actions and behaviors, Simler and Hanson suggest, helps us be better political animals and helps us climb the social hierarchy to attain a better mate, more status, and more allies. Self-awareness, their idea suggests, makes us more aware of the lies we tell ourselves about who we are, what we do, and why we do it, and makes it harder for us to lie and get ahead.

 

“Of all the things we might be self-deceived about, the most important are our own motives.” Ultimately, however, I think we will be better off if we can understand why we, and everyone else, believe the things we do and behave the way we do. Turning inward and recognizing how often we hide our motives and deceive ourselves and others about our actions can help us overcome bias. We can start to be more intentional about our decisions and think more critically about what we want to work toward. We don’t have to hate humanity because we lie and hide parts of ourselves from even ourselves, but we can better move through the world if we actually know what is going on. Before we become angry over a news story, before we shell out thousands of dollars for new toys, and before we make overt displays of charity, we can ask ourselves if we are doing something for legitimate reasons, or just to deceive others and appear to be someone who cares deeply about an issue or item. Slowly, we can counteract the negative externalities associated with the brain’s faulty perceptions, and we can at least make our corner of the world a little better.

Will We Lose Conversations?

With the internet social media world we live in, you can always find the perfect niche community for your interests. I love podcasts and like geology and there is a perfect show for me: The Don’t Panic Geocast. I enjoy stoicism and thoughts about overcoming obstacles and I can literally find forums on Reddit all about Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way. In many other areas of my life I am able to find the perfect group of strangers online who share my interests, want to talk about the things I want to talk about, and share the same general worldview and background as me. This is fantastic for me personally and I am very comfortable listening to the geology podcast and reading about stoicism, but if I only engage in these communities then I risk losing my ability to communicate beyond these small niches.

 

Colin Wright describes his fears of a world where conversation becomes impossible in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. He writes, “One of the fundamental challenges we’ll face in the coming years, I think, will be figuring out how to have conversations … about anything and everything. How to have discussions about important things and relatively mundane things, and how we might have those conversations with a shared understanding that we’re trying to achieve the same thing, even if that might not immediately appear to be the case.”

 

The fear that Wright has is that we will become so accustomed to communicating within our own sub-communities that we won’t be able to have real conversations outside our groups. The words we use and the definitions we attach to those words will begin to shift and overtime will signify who is part of the group and who is not part of the group. Sometimes this will be obvious to both insiders and outsiders, but sometimes it won’t be obvious to either, and conversation will break down as each side fails to recognize that words are not being use in the same way. Similarly, certain things will become running jokes within a circle (like ice is a mineral in the Don’t Panic Geocast community) and we will make references that either intentionally or unintentionally leave other people out. This might help with bonding for our small group, but it can be alienating to people outside our group and can drive wedges further between our niche communities and the outside world.

 

If we end up in a world where we become so enclosed within our niche communities that we can’t have any real conversations beyond them, then we face a lot of negative consequences as a country and planet. Pragmatically working to solve problems may take a back seat to trying to enhance the status of ones community, or ones place within the community. Shared meaning could break down, preventing us from having real discussions about real values and priorities. If we cannot come together and step beyond our niche communities then we won’t be able to avoid identity politics and we will feel more isolated in the real world even if we feel deep connections with our online communities.

Roughing It

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca encourages us to avoid living a life that is motivated by material possessions. He encourages us to recognize times when we desire more and more comforts and pleasures in our lives and to remember that we will never be satisfied with our things, and will always desire more.

 

An unfortunate reality for us humans is that the things we want seem to give us less satisfaction over time. We become accustomed to the heated seats in our new car, the large TV becomes normal, and the new espresso machine gets old and we stop thinking about how happy we are to have freshly  brewed coffee each morning. The question becomes, how can we be content with what we have and avoid landing in a place where we are never happy and constantly need to buy more stuff as if attempting to fill a hole in our lives?

 

Seneca has some advice, “Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “is this the condition that I feared?”” What Seneca advises is that we spend time going without any comforts. That we picture what total failure would look like in our lives, and live in that way for a short while to truly experience the loss of our comfort. In today’s world this may look like locking up our GPS watch and smartphone, wearing only our most junky tennis shoes for a few days, sleeping on the floor in the living room (as if we didn’t have a bed) with our oldest pillow and thinnest blanket, and eating just canned beans and rice for a few days.

 

Living with nothing for a short period of time may help us appreciate the things we take for granted in our lives. It also can help us see that all the comforts we rely on, that we were so excited to get at first and that we forget about over time, are not things that are essential to our survival. By remembering not to rely too heavily on these comforts, by seeing that we could live without them, and by roughing it for a little while, we can develop better relationships with our stuff.

The Bounds of Opinion

“Nature’s wants are slight; the demands of opinion are boundless,” writes Seneca in Letters From a Stoic. Nature is indifferent to humans. The world exists and life exists upon it, but the world doesn’t seem worried about what life flourishes, how it flourishes, and what life does. It simply carries on and life must react to what happens across nature.

 

In our lives we have an extreme number of desires, of thoughts about good and bad, and of preferences for one outcome over another. All of our desires, our fears, and our thoughts lead to expectations about how we think the world should be, but nature is not aware of our beliefs of how it should operate. We bring to the world a complex set of ideas, and they are continually batted around as if they were meaningless.

 

Seneca’s quote above is about recognizing that there is no reason that the world should be a certain way, and there is nothing that makes the world conform to the beliefs and views that we have. There is an unlimited number of ways to want the world to be, and while in a sense the way we view the world determines how it seems to us, there is something that seems to be separate about the world. It operates on its own, even if our views and decisions make it seem to behave one way or another. We can work toward different outcomes, we can strive for something different, and we can attempt to actualize our preferences, but ultimately it is all just opinion built upon an indifferent world.

 

This is not a nihilistic sentiment or something we should feel discouraged by. What it means is that the universe exists and we have come to exist within it with the ability to manipulate and change parts of it. We have great opportunity to use what the universe contains and we are limited by only our imagination, the laws of physics, and the initial conditions of the big bang. We can’t change the laws of physics or the initial conditions of the big bang, but we can always change our imagination and thoughts, and we can always learn more about our universe and what is possible within an indifferent nature.

 

Bringing this down to an individual level, we can take pressure off ourselves by recognizing that there is no perfect way that we or anything else ought to be. The universe does not care. We are matter that is cognizant of its own existence and from our self-recognition flows the ability to examine and perceive so much more than just the matter within ourselves. From us flows the ability to create the reality we see around us and to create the opinions, thoughts, ideas, and preferences that we bring to the world. It is up to us individually to recognize the opportunity we have and to act accordingly.

Desires

A frustrating thing about humanity is that we get tired of what we have pretty quickly. A new house, a new job, a new car all become part of our normal and fade to the background just a short time after we have them. The newness of the thing and the excitement it makes us feel disappear, and instead of appreciating what we have, it just exists with us as we start to look at other things we want.

 

This is part of the human mind that kept our ancestors striving for more and pushing to live better lives. Part of this mindset drove our evolution and helped get our species to the place we are at today. But in each of our individual lives, we can take this too far. Seneca, in Letters From a Stoic, has some advice with this in mind.

 

“Fix a limit which you will not even desire to pass, should you have the power. At last, then, away with all these treacherous goods! They look better to those who hope for them than to those who have attained them.”

 

We have all seen unnecessary and extravagant uses of money that seem more like showing off than anything else. What Seneca’s advice says, is that we should find a point where the use of money, the consumption of goods, or the continued accumulation of power just seems over the top. At that point of ridiculous extravagance, we should place a marker for ourselves saying no more. Over time, we should work to fit more things on the opposite side of that marker, constantly thinking about the things in our lives that are meaningful, help us live better, help humanity advance, or that just show off. The more we can be content without needing wealth to flaunt, the more we can live a meaningful life that we can enjoy. The limit we set can be at any point, which means it can be extremely extravagant, or it can be very modest. Learning to remember what we have and appreciate the things we have achieved and attained will help us as we place our marker which we do not desire to surpass.