Are You Ignorant of Others’ Ignorance?

Imagine someone whose beliefs oppose your own: who they will vote for in the next election, whether Brexit should have happened, whether we should have a universal basic income, whether prostitution and drugs should be legal, whether pineapple belongs on pizza etc.

We think: “Wow! What a bigoted, unpleasant, intolerant person! How could they even possibly think that they’re right!?”

But when we respond like this, we are likely to become bigoted, unpleasant, and intolerant of their bigotness, unpleasantness, and intolerance. And in turn, when we voice our strong opinions across, they could become intolerant of our intolerance to their intolerance. And the cycle gets vicious and continues on. And then we start hating each other.

So how do we break the cycle?

As difficult as it may sound, it’s to lead with compassion and seek understanding. In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey’s fifth habit is ‘Seek to Understand, Then to Be Understood’. We see the world not as it is, but as we are – meaning that everyone sees a different picture of reality. A combination of the way that people were brought up and their environment creates a worldview that leads to different beliefs and opinions.

If we lead with curiosity instead of competition – if we begin to understand how their beliefs and opinions formed – it could make a little more sense why they would think that way, and also show the arbitrariness of their beliefs – there’s every chance that if we had the same environment as them, that we would believe most of the things they did too.

As tough as it is to accept, it’s much more conducive – as a default – to see that there’s a deeper reason that people think a certain way, instead of just labelling them as stupid, uneducated or ignorant. It would be a shame for us to be so ignorant of their ignorance.

Lessons in Stoicism: The Illusion of Control, and How to Deal with Adversity

Lessons in Stoicism is a book written by John Sellars that introduces the Stoic school of philosophy made famous by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus in the first and second century AD.

One of the main themes in Stoicism is the idea of control within one’s life. The Stoics asked themselves what they really control. The answer – the only thing we can control is our judgements. Although judgements are only a small part of the mind, the Stoics believed that because we can control our judgements, we are able to control what truly matters for our wellbeing.

So, if our happiness is based on our romantic relationships, career, possessions, appearance, or health, we are leaving our happiness in the control of external forces. Even though we can take actions to aid us to be successful in the categories above, we ultimately cannot control whether a partner loves us, whether a company hires us, whether possessions remain in our possession, and whether the body remains healthy. So make your goal simply to do the best you can.

Another tenet of the Stoic philosophy is how to deal with adversity in one’s life. Stoics believed that adversity is the stimulus that is needed to develop as a person, and that life wasn’t complete without facing any difficulties – that would be the real misfortune! Even so, the Stoics remind us not to seek out adversity and drama for the sake of it, it will happily come naturally in the timeline of our lives.

The Stoic philosophers practiced a technique called the premeditation of future evils. They thought about all the possible bad things that could happen in their lives – the death of a family member, loss of reputation and riches, loss of health etc. This may seem like a negative thing to do, but the Stoics found that when people avoided thinking of these setbacks, they were ill-equipped to deal with the reality of it when the time came. Entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk frequently thinks about what he would do if he found out his mother had died in a car accident – not only does it prepare for the probable event that his mother will die before him, it realigns him to what is truly important in his life.

Read more about Stoicism in some of Seneca’s most revered essays: On Tranquility of Mind, Consolation to Helvia, and On the Shortness of Life.

Ubuntu: Why There is No Such Thing As Self-Made

Ubuntu is an African philosophy made famous by leaders such as Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The word literally means humanity, and is often translated into “I am because we are”, or “humanity towards others”. There’s also a popular maxim in Ubuntu: “A person is a person through other people”.

The philosophy teaches the interconnectedness of humanity, and that it is for your benefit to help others. It’s a philosophy that fosters community, compassion and kindness.

In the Western world, we are keen to describe ourselves as self-made, or use the term to describe someone positively. But in reality there is no such thing. In the modern world, we can easily lose a sense of the fact that we are being helped all the time. If we go to the store, we are using money that somebody gave us, to buy food someone grew, made and packaged, using a car that somebody manufactured and taught us to drive, on roads somebody else built, stopping at traffic lights that somebody invented.

The growth of the population and the globalization of the culture makes it much more difficult to remember these things that we can be grateful for, based on other people’s actions. As Warren Buffett said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”

Ubuntu simply describes that we can’t speak without learning it from others, walk without learning it from others, or even think without learning to think from another human being. We learn how to be a human being through other human beings. Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in The Book of Joy: “After all, none of us came into the world on our own. We needed two people to bring us into the world.”

And that’s why there’s no such thing as self-made. I am because we are. Ubuntu.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck: Mark Manson’s Refreshing Take on Life

The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck is a book by Mark Manson, describing a counterintuitive approach to living a good life. Although counterintuitive, it actually makes a lot of sense. Here’s why:

Manson raises the idea that the self-help genre always fixates on what you lack. By dreaming of riches, the perfect intimate relationship, or a billion dollar business reinforces the fact that you don’t already have all those things. And giving too much of a fuck that you don’t already have those things is bad for your mental health.

Living a good life is giving a fuck about only things that are truly important, knowing that you’re going to die one day, choosing the values in life that mean the most to you, and living those values.

Manson then introduces the idea of the Feedback Loop From Hell. Because human beings have the ability to have thoughts about our thoughts, we can get into a right pickle when we compound our negative emotions. We are say sorry about saying sorry, feel sad about being sad, guilty about feeling guilty. We get angry at ourselves for getting angry, anxious about being anxious and the vicious circle gains momentum.

We need to understand that feeling negative emotions is okay, frequent and normal. But if we keep going round the vicious circle that is the Feedback Loop From Hell, it’s going to make it far worse. So how do you end the feedback loop? Simply: Stop giving a fuck that you feel bad. This short-circuits the loop and you can start again from a blank slate.

Once you accept the negative experience you are having, it in turn becomes a positive experience. And paradoxically, the desire for a positive experience becomes a negative experience. Knowing this, the plight of the world may just simply be that our expectations are too skewed to be happy.

Manson simply tells us: Don’t try. When you stop giving a fuck, everything seems to fall into place. If you’ve ever been in the Zone while doing a task, you’ll notice that you’re not really trying at all, you’re just doing it and the results are coming. When I work as a salesman, the more I try to get people to buy my product, the more they’re deterred from actually buying it.

The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of a struggle is a struggle. So our only option is to embrace the suffering and the struggle, and give less of a fuck about them. One of Manson’s most prominent ideas in The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck is the entitlement culture in the world today. Mediocrity is the new standard of failure, because at least if you’re terrible at everything you can tell yourself that you’re special and deserve to be treated differently. Entitlement culture means that we flip-flop between feeling amazing and feeling terrible (but at least we’re getting the attention that we’re looking for).

In a recent Paddy Power advert on TV, football manager Jose Mourinho describes how special he is and how special Paddy Power’s jackpots are. He then gets rudely brought back to reality when a taxi driver interrupts him mid-speech. “That’s not special, someone wins that jackpot every single day!” That’s how we should view our problems. They’re not unique. You’re not the only person in the history of the universe to have experienced the problem you’re going through right now. The person sitting next to you might be going through the same thing. You just didn’t care to ask because you were too self-absorbed in your pseudo-specialness.

Most of the problems we have are not only common, they have simple solutions too. The more that we debate our choices in our minds, the more blind spots we accumulate, when in fact if the same problem was translated to a third person and we’re tasked with giving advice to them about it, we’d say something along the lines of: “Shut the fuck up and do it.”

Manson suggests that happiness comes from you solving your own problems. Of course, the problems never end, it’s just about choosing better problems all the time. Solving the problem of finding a job you like brings the new problems of how you’re going to fit in with your work colleagues, how to meet the deadline you’ve just been given and how you can make a positive impact in what you do.

Manson brings some hard-hitting truths in the course of the book. Words like: Your actions don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. The vast majority of your life will be boring and unnoteworthy and that’s okay. We don’t actually know what a negative or a positive experience is in relation to the total timeline of our lives. The worst thing to ever happen to you could end up being the best. Instead of looking to be right all the time, look for things that prove we are wrong.

Manson tells us that meditating on mortality is one of the best antidotes for life. Avoidance of what is painful and uncomfortable is the avoidance of being alive at all. He quotes Mark Twain: “The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.” You too are going to die and that’s because you too were fortunate to have lived. Now shut the fuck up and do it.

Do Good Things Come to Those Who Wait or Are We Just Postponing Our Lives?

The way the world is right now, it’s so easy to wait. We kill time, watching each day go, hoping for a new season to arrive, or something arbitrary day to come before we allow ourselves to take a risk that we’ve been thinking about for a while.

We begin to think of the here and now as a preparatory period, yet, as Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” How would it feel for life to end and all you did was “prepare”?

Consolation to Helvia: Seneca on the Perception of Misfortune and Grief

Consolation to Helvia is a letter that Roman philosopher Seneca wrote to his mother while he was exiled in Corsica by Emperor Claudius. He ended up exiled for eight years after being accused of adultery by the new empress Messalina. His writing explains how he can take grace from his life situation, and gives his mother advice on how to deal with his ongoing absence.

Even though this it was meant as a private letter, it is filled with wisdom that is still applicable to modern life.

Seneca starts by acknowledging his misfortune, but understanding that his situation does have at least one advantage. It reminds me of a quote by ex-Navy SEAL Jocko Willink on why he says the word ‘good’ even when things seem bad: “It means you’re still alive. It means you’re still breathing. And if you’re still breathing, that means you’ve still got some fight left in you.” Seneca writes:

“Everlasting misfortune does have one blessing, that it ends up by toughening those whom it constantly afflicts.”

Seneca explains that there are different ways to deal with pain, and that one way is more desirable than the other:

“But just as recruits, even when superficially wounded, cry aloud and dread being handled by doctors more than the sword, while veterans, even if severely wounded, patiently and without a groan allow their wounds to be cleaned as though their bodies did not belong to them; so you must now offer yourself bravely for treatment.”

Seneca posits that happiness comes from within, not from the accumulation of material possessions:

“It was nature’s intention that there should be no need of great equipment for a good life: every individual can make himself happy… Prosperity does not elevate the sage and adversity does not depress him. For he has always made the effort to rely as much as possible on himself and to derive all delight from himself.”

Seneca explains that often the destruction that misfortune can bring to one’s life is proportional to how unexpected it was. He not only recommends to expect the misfortune, but to also be unattached to the riches fortune brings when things are going well, so that when things turn for the worse, strength of spirit still stays intact. He writes:

“Fortune falls heavily on those to whom she is unexpected; the man who is always expecting her easily withstands her… Never have I trusted Fortune, even when she seemed to offer peace. All those blessings which she kindly bestowed on me – money, public office, influence – I relegated to a place whence she could claim them back without bothering me. I kept a wide gap between them and me, with the result that she has taken them away, not torn them away. No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favours… But the man who is not puffed up in good times does not collapse either when they change.”

Seneca goes on to explain that his place of exile is not so undesirable – people move to Corsica of their own free will! He writes:

“You will find no place of exile where somebody does not linger because he wants to… Yet more foreigners than natives live here… Even this place has enticed some people from their homeland.”

Seneca champions the ability of humans to be able to adapt to changing circumstances, just as the rest of nature:

“How silly then to imagine that the human mind, which is formed of the same elements as divine beings, objects to movement and change of abode, while the divine nature finds delights and even self-preservation in continual and rapid change.”

Seneca poses that the two fundamental parts of existence are nature and the human mind, and that these two factors remain unperturbed no matter what happens in life. He also explains that there is no such thing as exile:

“The world you see, nature’s greatest and most glorious creation, and the human mind which gazes and wonders at it, is the most splendid part of it, these are our own everlasting possessions and will remain with us as long as we ourselves remain… There can be no exile within the world since nothing within the world is alien to men.”

Seneca then says that poverty can be a blessing in disguise for people who are seemingly addicted to their vices. This act of going ‘cold turkey’ isn’t out of choice, but at the end of the day it still stops the behavior. It’s to this point that I feel that the reason why the rich and famous get caught up in scandal so often isn’t because a lack of collective character, but simply that average people don’t have as many opportunities to engage in scandal as famous people do. Seneca writes:

“If he longs for [banquets], poverty even does him good: for against his will he is being cured, and even if under compulsion he does not take his medicine, for a time at least his inability to have those things looks like unwillingness.”

Seneca highlights that perception is paramount to contentedness. This is why some people that seemingly have it all commit suicide, leaving others perplexed as to how someone with so much can feel so bad that they end their own lives. Seneca goes on to explain that humans don’t need much to satisfy our nature, but by adding in greed we will never feel sated. He reassures his mother that he has more than enough in Corsica to support himself, even though he is exiled. He writes:

“How then can you think that it is the amount of money that matters and not the attitude of the mind? [Apicius] dreaded having ten million, and what others pray for he escaped by poison… Nothing satisfies greed, but even a little satisfies nature. So an exile’s poverty brings no hardship; for no place of exile is so barren it cannot abundantly support a man.”

Seneca writes of the phenomenon that people will always normalize their level happiness to their situation after time passes. Research has shown that the happiness of lottery-winners and quadriplegics both level off within three years of their respective life-changing event. Seneca writes:

“It is his fault, not nature’s, if he feels poor. Even if you give back all he has lost, you’ll be wasting your time; for once he is back from exile he will feel a greater lack compared with his desires than he felt as an exile compared with his former possessions.”

Seneca beautifully describes in a metaphor how the man longing for more and more possessions isn’t doing it out of need, but has in fact infected his soul with the disease of greed. He writes:

“Though he piles all these [possessions] up, they will never sate his insatiable soul; just as no amount of fluid will satisfy one whose craving arises not from lack of water but from a burning internal fever: for that is not thirst but a disease.”

Here’s another reminder from Seneca that our wealth is created by perception. One man’s rich is another man’s poor:

“So the man who restrains himself within the bounds set by nature will not notice poverty; the man who exceeds these bounds will be pursued by poverty however rich he is… It is the mind that creates our wealth.”

Seneca even suggests that the poor may in fact be happier than the rich, and that circumstances like travel and war acts as an equalizer for the gap between rich and poor:

“First consider that by far the greater proportion of men are poor, but you will not see them looking at all more gloomy and anxious than the rich. In fact, I rather suspect that they are happier in proportion as their minds have less to harry them. Let us pass on to the rich: how frequently are they just like the poor! When they travel abroad their luggage is restricted… When they are serving in the army, how little of their belongings do they keep with them, since camp discipline forbids any luxury!”

Once again Seneca mentions that misfortune is a teacher that can strengthen the soul for subsequent challenges in one’s life:

“If you have the strength to tackle any one aspect of misfortune you can tackle it all.”

So strong was a man like Socrates, Seneca explains how his grace transformed reality itself:

“Socrates went to prison… and his presence robbed even prison of disgrace, for where Socrates was could not seem a prison.”

Seneca also affirms the importance of self-love, and that hate is only validated if it is believed:

“No man is despised by another unless he is first despised by himself.”

Pretty much any worthwhile story is one of the protagonist conquering fear and displaying courage. Seneca knew this:

“For we are naturally disposed to admire more than anything else the man who shows fortitude in adversity.”

Seneca recognizes that embarrassment can be perceived worse than death itself. He highlights the importance of dying in a dignified way:

“I know some people say that nothing is worse than scorn and that even death seems preferable. To these I shall reply that exile too is often free from any kind of scorn. If a great man falls and remains great as he lies, people no more despise him than they stamp on a fallen temple, which the devout still worship as much as when it was standing.”

Seneca segues into his view on how to mourn and grieve. He describes the story of Rutilia and her son Cotta, which he hopes that his mother can emulate:

“They did not prohibit mourning but they limited it. For to be afflicted with endless sorrow at the loss of someone very dear is foolish self-indulgence, and to feel none is inhuman callousness. The best compromise between love and good sense is both to feel longing and to conquer it… Nor was [Rutilia] ever seen to weep after [Cotta’s] funeral. She showed courage when he was exiled and wisdom when he died; for nothing stopped her showing her love and nothing induced her to persist in useless and unavailing grief.”

Finally, Seneca reminds his mother that grief is better to be conquered than deceived through distraction:

“Sometimes we divert our mind with public shows or gladiatorial contests, but in the very midst of the distractions of the spectacles it is undermined by some little reminder of its loss. Therefore it is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it.”

Seneca’s writings always pack a punch in the thought-provoking subjects he brings up on how to live.

What was your biggest takeaway from Consolation to Helvia? Let me know in the comments below.

On the Shortness of Life: Seneca on How to Live and Die

On the Shortness of Life is one of the great texts of Stoic philosophy. It was originally a letter from Seneca the Younger to his father-in-law Paulinus. Almost 2000 years on, it’s amazing how relevant the content of his letter is to the problems we encounter in daily life in the 21st century.

It reads much like an essay, and is only about 30 pages long. I highly recommend it.

Seneca starts with a bombshell of a truism:

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it… We are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… So our lifetime extends amply if you manage it properly.”

He then invites us to contemplate how much time we spend really living, and how much time just simply passes by:

“Some have no aims at all for their life’s course, but death takes them unawares as they yawn languidly… It is a small part of life we really live. Indeed, all the rest is not life but merely time.”

Seneca writes that while time is our most precious commodity, no-one acts that way. He pleads us to take an objective look at how we have been living, and points at the maladies that can come from too much stress or boredom:

“Men do not let anyone seize their estates, and if there is the slightest dispute about their boundaries they rush to stones and arms; but they allow others to encroach on their lives… You will find no one willing to share out his money; but to how many does each of us divide his life! People are frugal in guarding their personal property; but as soon as it comes to squandering time they are most wasteful of the one thing in which it is right to be stingy… Come now, hold an audit of your life… Consider also the disease which we have brought on ourselves, and the time too which has been unused.”

Seneca reminds us that there is no way of knowing how long we will live, and that when people get told that they are dying is when they are shocked into living for the first time (reminding me of Heisenberg in the TV show Breaking Bad). He also points the finger at people who defer their happiness and fulfilment for an arbitrary year of their life that they have no guarantee of reaching:

“You are living as if destined to live for ever; your own frailty never occurs to you; you don’t notice how much time has already passed, but squander it as though you had a full and overflowing supply – though all the while that very day which you are to devoting to somebody or something may be your last… And what guarantee do you have of a longer life? Who will allow your course to proceed as you arrange it?… How late it is to begin really to live just when life must end! How stupid to forget our mortality, and put off sensible plans to our fiftieth and sixtieth years, aiming to begin life from a point at which few have arrived!”

However, Seneca does concede that it would take an extraordinary person to live their life without wasting any of their time. The difficulty of learning how to live (and die) takes a lifetime:

“But learning how to live takes a whole life, and, which may surprise you more, it takes a whole life to learn how to die… Believe me, it is the sign of a great man, and one who is above human error, not to allow his time to be frittered away: he has the longest possible life simply because whatever time was available he devoted entirely to himself.”

Seneca separates the act of living with just existing:

“So you must not think a man has lived long because he has white hair and wrinkles: he has not lived long, just existed long.”

Seneca provides us once again with food for thought. By meditating on our own mortality and by seeing the big picture of our lives, it would hopefully alarm us into living life with care:

“But if each of us could have the tally of his future years set before him, as we can of our past years, how alarmed would be those who saw only a few years ahead, and how carefully they would use them!”

Procrastination was something that people in Romans times suffered from too, and Seneca describes poetically how harmful it is. He highlights how important it is to be focused on what is in our own control, finishing off with a short command:

“But putting things off is the biggest waste of life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours… Live immediately.”

Seneca personifies time to give us a mental picture of how we can deal with it best. He also champions self-awareness and laments preoccupation with a very identifiable metaphor:

“So you must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it… Old age overtakes them while they are still mentally childish, and they face it unprepared and unarmed… Just as travelers are beguiled by conversation or reading or some profound meditation, and find they have arrived at their destination before they knew they were approaching it… the preoccupied become aware of it only when it is over.

Seneca warns that a life filled with vice will make a man fear his own memory. He goes on to inform us that the preoccupied are much too busy and foolish to take a step back to look at the past in order to create a better future:

“The man who must fear his own memory is the one who has been ambitious in his greed, arrogant in his contempt, uncontrolled in his victories, treacherous in his deceptions, rapacious in his plundering, and wasteful in his squandering… But all days of the past will come to your call: you can detain them and inspect them at your will – something which the preoccupied have no time to do.”

The dignity that a man meets his death is a sign of strength and virtue. It’s often seen in the hardened criminals that are awaiting Death Row. Seneca writes:

“So, however short, it is fully sufficient, and therefore whenever his last day comes, the wise man will not hesitate to meet death with a firm step.”

Seneca reminds us once again that we can control which direction our life goes even if we weren’t born in fortunate circumstances. Maternal death was much more common 2000 years ago, and Seneca’s grandmother died while giving birth to his mother. He writes:

“We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be.”

Seneca highlights the ever-present dangers of waiting, killing-time, and living in anticipation of a future event:

“Nor is this a proof that they are living for a long time that the day often seems long to them, or that they complain that the hours pass slowly until the time fixed for dinner arrives. For as soon as their preoccupations fail them, they are restless with nothing to do, not knowing how to dispose of their leisure or make the time pass. And so they are anxious for something else to do, and all the intervening time is wearisome: really, it is just as when a gladiatorial show has been announced, or they are looking forward to the appointed time of some other exhibition or amusement – they want to leap over the days in between. And deferment of the longed-for event is tedious to them… Their days are not long but odious: on the other hand, how short do the nights seem which they spend drinking or sleeping with harlots!… They lose the day in waiting for the night, and the night in fearing dawn.”

Seneca also describes that even when that future event comes, we then spend our energy worrying about when it will end. This reminds me of the Buddhist concept of impermanence, and the equanimity that can alleviate this suffering. He writes:

“Even their pleasures are uneasy and made anxious by various fears, and at the very height of their rejoicing the worrying thought steals over them: ‘How long will this last?’ This feeling has caused kings to bewail their power, and they were not so much delighted by the greatness of their fortune as terrified by the thought of its inevitable end.”

Seneca describes the misery that comes from ambition and achievement through willpower and labor alone, and the realization that it takes even more willpower and labor to keep the riches or status that they so craved:

“Whatever comes by way of chance is unsteady, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall… So it is inevitable that life will not just be very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They want to achieve laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile they take no account of time that will never more return.”

Seneca reminds us that there will always be problems no matter how rich or powerful you are:

“There will always be causes for anxiety, whether due to prosperity or to wretchedness. Life will be driven on through a succession of preoccupations: we shall always long for leisure, but never enjoy it.”

Seneca also articulates that plenty of people spend their lives doing other people’s tasks, oblivious to their own life:

“If such people want to know how short their lives are, let them reflect how small a portion is their own.”

Finally, Seneca describes the example of a old man businessman who doesn’t know how to retire, dying while still preoccupied with work:

“Disgraceful too is it when a man dies in the midst of going through his accounts, and his heir, long kept waiting, smiles in relief… Men find it more difficult to gain leisure from themselves than from the law.”

I found this moral essay beautiful to read, thought-provoking and incredibly wise. What was the biggest takeaway for you?