Make Up Your Own Fiction

I am really fascinated by ideas of our personal narratives and how powerful the stories we tell ourselves can be. On some level I think we all understand this, and recently I have been thinking about the power of our narrative within political ideology. The Democratic Party seems to be criticized for creating a narrative where where people are hopeless and can’t make it without a little help. Conversely, the Republican Party seems to operate in a narrative where people can always pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they just try harder. I don’t think either of these simple narratives about how the parties treat people is really accurate, and it is not what I am actually writing about today, just a quick example of how narratives can drive so much of our beliefs and ideas.

 

A quote from Fernando Pessoa in his book The Book of Disquiet translated by Margaret Jull Costa shows the power of narrative, “The truly superior (and the happiest) men are those who, perceiving that everything is a fiction, make up their own novel before someone else does it for them…” What Pessoa is saying is that we can all recognize the power of narratives in our own lives, and create our own stories rather than try to live up to stories that other people have made for us. His ideas in this quote align with a lot of the Stoic ideas and thoughts that I try to live by. His quote acknowledges that we are under pressure from other people to be the person that other people want us to be and to achieve a picture of success created by someone else. Writing our own story, however, gives us the chance to be our own person and to pursue a life on our own terms.

 

“Since life is essentially a mental state and everything we do or think is only as valuable as we think it is, it depends on us for any value that it may have.” A painting is only as valuable as we decide it is. A car is only valuable if we all recognize it as such. Any given activity is only valuable if we decide it is a valuable way to spend our time. There are certainly things we can all recognize as more valuable than others based on the use, form, and function of the thing, but at the end of the day, nothing has inherent value just on its own unless we decide that there is a value attached to it. We should all be aware of the value we place in ourselves, the things in our lives, and how we live so that we can craft a story about who we are that creates meaningful value in our lives and in the lives of others.

A Critique of Our Current Markets

A lot of people today feel that capitalism is failing them. They feel left behind and they believe that the system is rigged against them. This will undoubtedly be a major driving factor in the next presidential election and there will be many candidates who offer their own diagnosis as to why people feel the way they do. A key reason, I believe, as to why people feel the system is failing them is highlighted by Colin Wright in his book Becoming Who We Need to Be. Wright addresses the way that many people seem to be creating businesses, making money, and becoming successful through trickery and rent-seeking behavior. He writes, “…this means that if we can find a clever way to extract money from the system, even if we don’t create anything of value, or we sap value from society in the process, we’re still doing it right.”

In a recent podcast episode for his show Against The Rules, Michael Lewis described the way that many financial companies exist not to serve customers better, but to operate in a way that makes money seemingly by fooling customers into making decisions that benefit the company without benefiting the consumer. I’m sure that for many of us, our healthcare or health insurance has felt that way. Also for a lot of us, we probably felt that we got a little ripped off on one of the first times we tried to purchase something on Ebay, and ended up not quite getting what we expected.

A lot of aspects within our economic system at the moment seem to reward people even if they don’t give us what we expected. There are incentives to create systems and products that sound clear, but end up being hard to access and ultimately don’t seem to make us or anyone except the seller any better off.

On our own, we all want to get the most money and reward from doing the least amount of work. At times it is true that we all want to bust our bums and do great work, but if we could just set something up where we made money no matter what and didn’t have to do any real work, on some level we would be happy. On an individual level this is not a big deal, but when it is combined, multiplied, and turned into a corporation it can become a problem for society, and that is what we are seeing in the national mood today. People sense that the system is not fair and doesn’t produce fair outcomes. The individual instance of being ripped off might not be the thing that makes them the most angry, but rather the fact that the system allows for people to pull out money and become successful without creating value makes people lose faith in institutions. At a certain level, no matter what our individual incentives are, we should recognize and accept that this is a bad way to operate long term, and we would be better off within a society that seemed to operate more fairly because it would create less anger and more stability on a societal level.

Overly Reliant on Outside Influences

One of the draws that I have toward stoicism is the idea that both good things and bad things will happen around me, but that I can always decide whether something is good or bad and how I will move forward from the good things and bad things that happen around me. My reactions are something I can control even if I can’t control the weather, the person who cut me off on the freeway, or the economic downturn that sinks my business. In stoicism, I have found a set of tools for objectively viewing the world and developing an inner ability of focus and calmness.

One of the authors who taught me a lot about stoicism is Colin Wright and his book Becoming Who We Need To Be is a somewhat stoic look at the forces in our lives that shape the people we are becoming and how we can respond to those forces to become people who are well equipped to do the important things to help society become a better place. In one chapter of his book, Wright highlights an idea that many companies, industries, and professionals in American society now operate on a business model based on making us feel small. The business model positions the company, coach, or set of coaches as the only thing that can take us from where we are to where we want to go. Wright references certain types of gyms, certain health restaurants, and in some cases our coaches, mentors, or guides from the self-help world. In his book he writes, “I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with self-improvement. … But I am saying that when we become overly reliant on outside influences, encouragement, and incentives in how we feel about ourselves, we open ourselves up to abuse and mistreatment. We open ourselves up to being manipulated.”

Business models that rely on customers becoming reliant on them put us in a position where we cannot walk away. Their goal may seem like it is to provide great kick-boxing workouts or to help motivate people to get in shape and make good decisions, but what is really happening is the development of a cycle of dependency and the development of personal identities that don’t operate without the business at the center providing the affirmation that one is living properly, doing the right things to be healthy, and taking the right steps for a validated life. Stoic philosophy turns this business model on its head by suggesting that we already have all the means within the faculties of our minds to be fulfilled. We don’t need to tie our self-value and self-worth to the praise of another person. It is not up to money, social status, or the number of mornings at the gym which determine whether we are living the right life. We have value by virtue of being a human being and we can use tools around us to improve our health, try to reach out goals, or build a community of like-minded individuals, but we don’t have to tie our entire identity and value as a human to these industries in order to define ourselves and become valuable and meaningful.

Rhythms and Routines

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Value as Human Being

Ezra Klein has had a few interesting conversations on his podcast recently that hit at the work we do and where we find value in our society today. On my way into work this morning, I was listening to an interview that Klein recorded with David Brooks. At one point Klein and Brooks discussed the shortcomings of our nation’s meritocracy, our system where the people who achieve the most, who become the most capable, and who have the right credentials and education are able to rise to the top. We align ourselves with people who are successful and claim that we are deserving of our success because we have put in the time to get an education and build the right experience to lead to where we are at now. Meritocracy is well aligned with our system of capitalism and ideally works to reveal who is worthy and deserving of praise and who is not.

 

What meritocracy misses, David Brooks argued in his interview, is any sense of moral or spiritual fulfillment. Meritocracy puts us in a position where we only find value in ourselves and others based on our achievements and outcomes. It narrows the scope of what is possible for us and our family. Any decision that does not clearly lead to a better economic position, a better career, and higher status is abandoned. Any friendships that can’t help us climb the social ladder or give us some future benefit are left behind. Praise and love are only given based on whether someone is working, what type of car they purchase, and what bumper sticker is on the back of the car. This works well with capitalism, but it doesn’t seem to work well in a cooperative society that depends on trust and love.

 

The biggest downfall of the system of meritocracy is that at any given time, our level of merit or success is not a permanent fixed quality. Success and status change. Basing our life and value on either will always lead to competition, frustration, and fear. “With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. We cannot put all of our faith in our accomplishments because we will find that we cannot be fulfilled with just our work and with just what we accomplish. If we look at ourselves and others as only being valuable and worthy based on the ideas in our meritocracy, we will look for things to critique all around us and we will fail to build meaningful connections in our lives.

 

Brooks argues that relationships are what give life meaning and make us feel fulfilled. If we can find a way to base our value as a human being on the fact that we are a human being who is capable of connecting with others in a social bond, then we can build more permanence into who we are and what we do. We can be more accepting of our failures and more honest about our success. Rather than defining us directly, our success can be something we share with those around us and something we use to help improve the lives of those around us. Our failures will no longer destroy our value as a person, and we can better accept and learn from our shortcomings, giving us a chance to be vulnerable and accept the support of those around us.

Blind Spots From Pride

“The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?”  This quote comes from Ryan Holiday and his book Ego is the Enemy. In the quote, Holiday is encouraging us to have enough self awareness to recognize the times when we are acting out of pride and when we are thinking so highly of ourselves that we do not clearly see our own shortcomings and the areas where we need to improve. Developing an awareness of our pride and being able to look at ourselves clearly is a powerful skill to cultivate to better connect with others and to learn and grow as we work toward our goals.

Feeling proud of ourselves is comfortable. After a good workout, when we receive praise at work, and when we buy that shiny new thing we had our eye on for a while, our pride steps in and tells us how amazing, hard working, and smart we are. People applaud our good outcome on a project, give our gym post a like, or turn heads as we drive down the street, and these reactions make us feel validated as though we are doing all the right things. Unfortunately, none of this truly matters and if we start to believe that all of these things define us and are what make us a great person, then we are building a false foundation to stand on. Our pride takes over and we begin to tell ourselves how amazing we are because of the praise and attention we have received which can be divorced from the actual value and positive impact we bring to the planet.

The danger here is that we become blind to what really matters. Focused on ourselves, we likely allow our relationships with others to wither, we likely miss the new market trends and opportunities, and we likely fail to recognize other areas in our life where we can improve ourselves to prepare for future challenges. Believing we are great sets us up to fail by making us overconfident in our own abilities. It takes away the focus on improvement and growth that tells us that we must put in extra effort on the small details and must cultivate strong habits that help us grow each day.

As Holiday writes in his book, being more humble about our successes, our abilities, and who we are will allow us to better engage in the important things in the world. When we recognize that we don’t know everything, don’t have all the skills necessary to stay at the top of the mountain in a changing landscape, and don’t have innate abilities that will never fail, we are more likely to treat those around us with more kindness and compassion and we are more likely to be comfortable with the daily work that helps us overcome the obstacles we face. Humility builds a self-awareness and an accurate sense of our strengths. Through this humble self-awareness, we can take a more measured approach to ourselves, our goals, and the actions we take each day. Learning to turn the ego off can also help us think about what truly matters and is important in our lives and in the lives of others. When you limit the ego, a new car is less appealing (or at least an overly expensive and luxurious new car is less appealing) and the possible uses of the money that you would direct toward the car are expanded. Without ego we can use our time, attention, money, and other resources to make a greater impact than we would if we allowed the ego to pursue its own hedonistic goals.

Pride and Ego

Ryan Holiday describes pride in his book Ego is the Enemy as a force that “takes a minor accomplishment and makes it feel like a major one.” It is the piece of us that ascribes our success to some essential character of our selves and hyper-inflates that piece around us. It is the sense that we are inherently something special because of our qualities and accomplishments.

 

The problem with pride Holiday explains by writing, “Pride blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. Most dangerously, this tends to happen either early in life or in the process-when we’re flushed with beginner’s conceit. Only later do  you realize that bump on the head was the least of what was risked.”

 

Some days I am proud of my writing. Some days I am proud that I just ate a simple and healthy lunch or that I did at least some type of exercise at the gym. These are minor accomplishments that build on each other over time to lead to positive lifestyles, and that is something I can find very comforting and take pride in. To me, it seems that the problem with pride is when we take these small things, and begin to boast and brag about them as though they set us apart from the rest of humanity. When we intentionally post a picture of us snacking on apple slices with peanut butter because we know we have friends who are currently at a bar. When we use seven hashtags in our gym post about how a fit life is somehow morally superior than sleeping in and having waffles. And when we fake-complain about how hard it was for us to publish a blog post 7 days in a row, we are taking the small things that can make life meaningful and elevating them (along with our ego and pride) to a level they don’t deserve.

 

Holiday presents pride to us as something that distorts reality, in the same way that many other elements of our ego do. It creates situations where your actions become the most important thing about you and about the category of people you belong to. Other people can only fit in with you if they also do these small and meaningless things that you take pride in. Pride says that someone can’t really be a baker if they don’t use specific cookware, that someone can’t really be a runner if they don’t have a new GPS watch and post to Strava, someone can’t really be smart unless they have graduated from college or gotten an advanced degree. Pride is a way of creating barriers between us and other people that don’t really exist. It gives us a reason to believe we are more special than others, and that as a result we can self-segregate into groups of people similar to ourselves and distance ourselves from the undeserving others.

 

None of these outcomes of pride are healthy, which is why there are so many warnings to avoid pride and remain humble. We can be proud of the small actions that drive our life in the right direction, but we should be aware of when we are bragging about those small actions and when we are trying to use those as justification to suggest that we deserve more than what we have or more than another person. We must do our best to include other people and remember that we can only do what we do and be who we are with the support of an entire society, so our pride must also include a sense of community and belonging with all people in our lives.