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Much of What You’re Going to Do or Say Today is Not Essential

Think about it.

If you’re a modern knowledge worker, odds are you're going to go to work, read some emails, reply to some emails, attend some meetings, grab a coffee, have lunch, attend another meeting or two, catch up on emails, and finally head home.

You’ll be busy from the moment you get to work until the moment you go home. When you do find a nook of time, you’ll likely be bombarded with beeping, dings, calls, and other people who only need a sliver of our time. After all, they too have something urgent to do. They too have a deadline.

After a long day, you'll come home mentally and physically drained. Eventually, you'll reach a tipping point and say enough is enough. The very next day you'll head into the office vowing to change things. You'll start to think about how to work more productively when, ding, a meeting invite pops up for an urgent meeting to decide the fate of a product.

The very next day you'll head into the office vowing to change things. You'll start to think about how to work more productively when, ding, a meeting invite pops up for an urgent meeting to decide the fate of a product.

It doesn’t matter that you haven’t done the work to have an informed opinion on the matter, it matters that you go and make some token contribution to the meeting.

The plan to work better flies out the window; any hope of sanity along with it.

If we can’t work smarter, we can work harder. So we end up redoubling our efforts, cutting out lunch and shortening meetings so we can fit more of them in.

Our response to finding ourselves stuck in the muck is to put our foot on the accelerator.

Part of the problem is that attending meetings has become some sort of corporate-machoism badge.

“Hey, you want to grab a coffee to talk about that really cool project I'm working on? I'd love to pick your brain?”

“Sounds great. How’s three Wednesdays from now sound? … Yea, I know, I’m so busy.“

Sure we do more busy work, but we're doing less real work. To get any real work done we come in early, stay late, or both. That’s the only way we can get some peace and quiet.

The paradox is that in an effort to do more, we end up doing less.

I’m not sure who first said it, but when you find yourself in a hole the best thing to do is stop digging. By failing to think about how we’re working, we only end up burning ourselves out.

There is another way to improve performance but it's a bit unconventional: Eliminate the bullshit.

Stop doing the busy work and start spending your time adding value to yourself, your clients, your co-workers, and your friends. Focus on what’s important and eliminate the rest.

Before doing anything, ask yourself, “is this necessary.” And if it's not necessary, ask yourself why you're doing it.

Of course, like anything on Farnam Street, I haven't come up with this idea myself. I shamelessly stole it from one of my friends, the eminent Marcus Aurelius.

In Meditations, he writes:

[M]ost of what we say and do is not essential. Eliminate it, you'll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself, is this necessary.

Ok, that makes sense. So why don't more people do this?

That's a good question.

While there are many reasons, this one probably carries a lot of weight.

“Worldly wisdom,” writes John Maynard Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money, “teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

No one wants to be unconventional. No one wants to be different.

More people should follow the advice of Aurelius — It's not that difficult, it's common sense. It just looks difficult because it's unconventional.

Why is evidence so hard for politicians?

Like most of us, politicians cherry pick data that agrees with our ideas and disregard evidence that might challenge those ideas.

Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks, explains:

So the Minister has cherry picked only the good findings, from only one report, while ignoring the peer-reviewed literature. Most crucially, he cherry-picks findings he likes whilst explicitly claiming that he is fairly citing the totality of the evidence from a thorough analysis. I can produce good evidence that I have a magical two-headed coin, if I simply disregard all the throws where it comes out tails.

Here is what politicians apparently cannot understand: it’s fine to make policy based on ideology, whim, faith, principles, and all the other things we’re used to. It’s also fine for evidence to be mixed. And it’s absolutely fine if your reforms aren’t supported by existing evidence: you just shouldn’t claim that they are.

Do Smart People Make Smart Teams?

You won't have to wait long for it to happen. At some point during a meeting someone will, in one way or another, suggest that the solution to this problem is to put a bunch of smart people together and let them figure it out. They want Magic. But do smart people make smart teams?

According to Thomas Malone, a professor of management and an expert in organizational structure and group intelligence at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, the average intelligence of the people in the group and the maximum intelligence of the people in the group does not predict group intelligence.

While your boss might want to get a lot of smart people in a group to solve problems, that doesn't necessarily make a smart group or offer better outcomes.

One question that comes to mind is whether group intelligence is correlated with qualities we intuitively think would be crucial indicators – things like group cohesion, satisfaction, psychological safety, and motivation. These factors, however, only moderately correlated with group success. It's not that these factors don't equal a smart group but rather that they have only some effect on a group's ability to solve problems.

Can you engineer groups that can problem-solve effectively?

Yes. First, seed them with caring people. Malone found that group intelligence is correlated with the average social sensitivity (measured by openness and receptiveness to others) of a group's constituents. In other words, the emotional intelligence of group correlates with the overall intelligence of the group. Since women, generally, are more caring people, this means that groups with more women tend to be smarter than groups with more men. As Malone put it: “more females, more intelligence.”

Sources here and here.

RelatedWhat does IQ Really Measure?

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Meditation: Why Bother?

Mindfulness in Plain English

Via the amazing Mindfulness in Plain English, which I'd recommend pairing with this guide to meditation.

Meditation is not easy. It takes time and it takes energy. It also takes grit, determination, and discipline. It requires a host of personal qualities that we normally regard as unpleasant and like to avoid whenever possible. We can sum up all of these qualities in the American word gumption. Meditation takes gumption. It is certainly a great deal easier just to sit back and watch television.

So why bother? Why waste your time and energy when you could be doing something else. We know that it can make you 10% happier but is that enough?

Why? Simple. Because you are human. Just because of the simple fact that you are human, you find yourself heir to an inherent unsatisfactoriness in life that simply will not go away. You can suppress it from your awareness for a time; you can distract yourself for hours on end, but it always comes back, and usually when you least expect it. All of a sudden, seemingly out of the blue, you sit up, take stock, and realize your actual situation in life.”

Sometimes it hits us. We're just barely hanging on while our life is flying by.

You manage to make ends meet somehow and look okay from the outside. But those periods of desperation, those times when you feel everything caving in on you— you keep those to yourself. You are a mess, and you know it. But you hide it beautifully. Meanwhile, way down under all of that, you just know that there has to be some other way to live, a better way to look at the world, a way to touch life more fully.

We know there is more to life. As if there is another layer that we haven't accessed yet.

You feel that there really is a whole other realm of depth and sensitivity available in life; somehow, you are just not seeing it. You wind up feeling cut off. You feel insulated from the sweetness of experience by some sort of sensory cotton. You are not really touching life. You are not “making it” again. Then even that vague awareness fades away, and you are back to the same old reality. The world looks like the usual foul place. It is an emotional roller coaster, and you spend a lot of your time down at the bottom of the ramp, yearning for the heights.

And so we blame ourselves, forgetting that we're human. This is the same malady that affects every human.

It is a monster inside all of us, and it has many arms: chronic tension, lack of genuine compassion for others, including the people closest to you, blocked up feelings and emotional deadness— many, many arms. None of us is entirely free from it. We may deny it. We try to suppress it. We build a whole culture around hiding from it, pretending it is not there, and distracting ourselves with goals, projects, and concerns about status. But it never goes away. It is a constant undercurrent in every thought and every perception, a little voice in the back of the mind that keeps saying, “Not good enough yet. Need to have more. Have to make it better. Have to be better.” It is a monster, a monster that manifests everywhere in subtle forms.

The same themes repeat throughout our lives: jealousy, suffering, discontent, and stress. They are in the music we listen to and the shows we watch. They are in our very nature.

If Only Syndrome

Life seems to be a perpetual struggle, an enormous effort against staggering odds. And what is our solution to all this dissatisfaction? We get stuck in the “if only” syndrome. If only I had more money, then I would be happy. If only I could find somebody who really loved me; if only I could lose twenty pounds; if only I had a color TV, a hot tub, and curly hair; and on and on forever. Where does all this junk come from, and more important, what can we do about it? It comes from the conditions of our own minds. It is a deep, subtle, and pervasive set of mental habits, a Gordian knot that we have tied bit by bit and that we can only unravel in just that same way, one piece at a time. We can tune up our awareness, dredge up each separate piece, and bring it out into the light. We can make the unconscious conscious, slowly, one piece at a time.

Human culture has taught us odd responses to the ever-changing landscape of our world. When things are positive we grasp.

We categorize experiences. We try to stick each perception, every mental change in this endless flow, into one of three mental pigeon holes: it is good, bad, or neutral. Then, according to which box we stick it in, we perceive with a set of fixed habitual mental responses. If a particular perception has been labeled “good,” then we try to freeze time right there. We grab onto that particular thought, fondle it, hold it, and we try to keep it from escaping. When that does not work, we go all-out in an effort to repeat the experience that caused the thought.

Then there is the other side of the mind where we have a box labelled “bad.” We try to push these experiences away. We ignore.

When we perceive something “bad,” we try to push it away. We try to deny it, reject it, and get rid of it any way we can. We fight against our own experience. We run from pieces of ourselves. Let us call this mental habit “rejecting.” Between these two reactions lies the “neutral” box. Here we place the experiences that are neither good nor bad. They are tepid, neutral, uninteresting. We pack experience away in the neutral box so that we can ignore it and thus return our attention to where the action is, namely, our endless round of desire and aversion. So this “neutral” category of experience gets robbed of its fair share of our attention.

What's the result? An endless treadmill of seeking pleasure and fleeing from pain, while ignoring most of what happens. And we “wonder why life tastes so flat.”

No matter how hard you pursue pleasure and success, there are times when you fail. No matter how fast you flee, there are times when pain catches up with you. And in between those times, life is so boring you could scream. Our minds are full of opinions and criticisms. We have built walls all around ourselves and are trapped in the prison of our own likes and dislikes. We suffer.

Suffering

Suffering is a key word in meditation. Its understanding is important.

The Pali word is dukkha, and it does not just mean the agony of the body. It means that deep, subtle sense of dissatisfaction that is a part of every mind moment and that results directly from the mental treadmill. The essence of life is suffering, said the Buddha. At first glance this statement seems exceedingly morbid and pessimistic. It even seems untrue. After all, there are plenty of times when we are happy. Aren’t there? No, there are not. It just seems that way. Take any moment when you feel really fulfilled and examine it closely. Down under the joy, you will find that subtle, all-pervasive undercurrent of tension that no matter how great this moment is, it is going to end. No matter how much you just gained, you are inevitably either going to lose some of it or spend the rest of your days guarding what you have and scheming how to get more. And in the end, you are going to die; in the end, you lose everything. It is all transitory.

That all sounds rather bleak when viewed through the lens of the treadmill that we're on. But there is another way to look at the universe.

It is a level of functioning in which the mind does not try to freeze time, does not grasp onto our experience as it flows by, and does not try to block things out and ignore them. It is a level of experience beyond good and bad, beyond pleasure and pain. It is a lovely way to perceive the world, and it is a learnable skill. It is not easy, but it can be learned.

Happiness and peace are really the prime issues in human existence. That is what all of us are seeking. This is often a bit hard to see because we cover up those basic goals with layers of surface objectives. We want food, wealth, sex, entertainment, and respect. We even say to ourselves that the idea of “happiness” is too abstract: “Look, I am practical. Just give me enough money and I will buy all the happiness I need.” Unfortunately, this is an attitude that does not work. Examine each of these goals and you will find that they are superficial. You want food. Why? Because I am hungry. So you are hungry— so what? Well, if I eat, I won’t be hungry, and then I’ll feel good. Ah ha! “Feel good”: now there is the real item. What we really seek is not the surface goals; those are just means to an end. What we are really after is the feeling of relief that comes when the drive is satisfied.

We want to end the tension between desire and aversion.

You can learn not to want what you want, to recognize desires but not be controlled by them. This does not mean that you lie down on the road and invite everybody to walk all over you. It means that you continue to live a very normal-looking life, but live from a whole new viewpoint. You do the things that a person must do, but you are free from that obsessive, compulsive drivenness of your own desires. You want something, but you don’t need to chase after it. You fear something, but you don’t need to stand there quaking in your boots. This sort of mental cultivation is very difficult.

Have we overdeveloped the material aspects of life at the expense of the deeper emotional ones?

Meditation

Meditation is intended to purify the mind. It cleanses the thought process of what can be called psychic irritants, things like greed, hatred, and jealousy, which keep you snarled up in emotional bondage. Meditation brings the mind to a state of tranquillity and awareness, a state of concentration and insight.

In our society, we are great believers in education. We believe that knowledge makes a person civilized. Civilization, however, polishes a person only superficially. Subject our noble and sophisticated gentleperson to the stresses of war or economic collapse, and see what happens. It is one thing to obey the law because you know the penalties and fear the consequences; it is something else entirely to obey the law because you have cleansed yourself from the greed that would make you steal and the hatred that would make you kill.

The more we understand the more flexible and tolerant we become. The more compassionate we can be.

Meditation is a lot like cultivating a new land. To make a field out of a forest, first you have to clear the trees and pull out the stumps. Then you till the soil and fertilize it, sow your seed, and harvest your crops. To cultivate your mind, first you have to clear out the various irritants that are in the way— pull them right out by the root so that they won’t grow back. Then you fertilize: you pump energy and discipline into the mental soil. Then you sow the seed, and harvest your crops of faith, morality, mindfulness, and wisdom.

Meditation sharpens the mind.

Meditation sharpens your concentration and your thinking power. Then, piece by piece, your own subconscious motives and mechanics become clear to you. Your intuition sharpens. The precision of your thought increases, and gradually you come to a direct knowledge of things as they really are, without prejudice and without illusion.

While these are great reasons they are only promises on paper. The only way to know if it's worth the effort is to see for yourself.

Why Fiddling With Prices Doesn’t Work

The fact is, if you don't find it reasonable that prices should reflect relative scarcity,
then fundamentally you don't accept the market economy,
because this is about as close to the essence of the market as you can find.

— Joseph Heath

***

Inevitably, when the price of a good or service rises rapidly, there follows an accusation of price-gouging. The term carries a strong moral admonition on the price-gouger, in favor of the price-gougee. Gas shortages are a classic example. With a local shortage of gasoline, gas stations will tend to mark up the price of gasoline to reflect the supply issue. This is usually rewarded with cries of unfairness. But does that really make sense?

In his excellent book Economics Without Illusions, Joseph Heath argues that it doesn't.

In fact, this very scenario is market pricing reacting just as it should. With gasoline in short supply, the market price rises too so that those who need gasoline have it available, and those who simply want it do not. The price system ensures that everyone makes their choice correctly. If you're willing to pay up, you pay up. If you're not, you make alternative arrangements – drive less, use less heat, etc. This is exactly what market pricing is for – to give us a reference as we make our choices. But it's still hard for many well-intentioned people to understand. Let's think it through a little, with Heath's help.

***

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Trust the Evidence, Not Your Instincts

In most workplaces a failure to consider sound evidence inflicts unnecessary damage on “employee well-being and group performance.” But Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton argue, in the New York Times, that it doesn't have to be that way:

Consider the issue of incentive pay. Many people believe that paying for performance will work in virtually any organization, so it is used again and again to solve problems — even where evidence shows it is ineffective.

Recently, New York City decided to end a teacher bonus program after three years and $56 million. As The New York Times reported in July, a study found that the effort to link incentive pay to student performance “had no positive effect on either student performance or teachers’ attitudes.”

But that bad news could have been predicted long before spending all that time and money. After all, the failure of similar efforts to improve school performance has been documented for decades.

Here is another example: Research has shown that stable membership is a hallmark of effective work teams. People with more experience, working together, typically communicate and coordinate more effectively.

Although this effect is seen in studies of everything from product development teams to airplane cockpit crews, managers often can’t resist the temptation to rotate people in and out to minimize costs and make scheduling easier.

For example, the National Transportation Safety Board once found that 73 percent of the safety incidents reported on commercial aircraft occur on the first day a new crew flies together.

Taking a look at what works requires re-thinking widely held beliefs:

When Google examined what employees valued most in a manager, technical expertise ranked last among eight qualities. Deemed more crucial were attributes like staying even-keeled, asking good questions, taking time to meet with people and caring about employees’ careers and lives.

Google found that managers who did these things led top-performing teams and had the happiest employees and least turnover. So Google is making many changes in how it selects and coaches managers, devoting particular effort to improving its worst managers.

A word to the wise: pointing out to your boss that the evidence says they are likely to be wrong is not a good career move. You'll have to come up with something more creative. And, the evidence says performance won't get you promoted.

Jeffrey Pfeffer and Robert Sutton are professors at Stanford and authors of “Hard Facts, Dangerous Half-Truths, and Total Nonsense: Profiting from Evidence-Based Management.”

A Technique for Producing Ideas

A-Technique-for-Producing-Ideas-9780071410946

In the foreword to James Webb Young's book, A Technique for Producing Ideas, Keith Reinhard asks “How can a book first published in the 1940s be important to today's creative people on the cutting edge?”

The answer lies in the question that inspired Webb's book, “How do you get ideas?”

Webb argues that the production of ideas is a process, just like production of cars.

… the production of ideas, too, runs on an assembly line; that in this production the mind follows an operative technique which can be learned and controlled; and that its effective use is just as much a matter of practice in the technique as is the effective use of any tool.

The formula is simple but not easy.

First, the formula is so simple to state that few who hear it really believe in it.

Second, while simple to state, it actually requires the hardest kind of intellectual work to follow, so that not all who accept it use it.

That's the same reason Warren Buffett has no problem sharing the secrets of investing in his shareholder letters (I recommend the real thing but if you're pressed for time you could do worse than the Cliff Notes version.)

Training the mind requires that you learn principles and method.

In learning any art the important things to learn are, first, Principles, and second, Method. This is true of the art of producing ideas.

Particular bits of knowledge are nothing, because they are made up of what Dr. Robert Hutchins once called rapidly aging facts. Principles and method are everything.

[…]

So with the art of producing ideas. What is most valuable to know is not where to look for a particular idea, but how to train the mind in the method by which all ideas are produced and how to grasp the principles which are at the source of all ideas.

Echoing Einstein, Webb believed that the key to creativity could be found in new combinations of old things.

With regard to the general principles which underlie the production of ideas, it seems to me that there are two which are important.

The first of these has already been touched upon in the quotation from Pareto: namely, that an idea is nothing more or less than a new combination of old elements.

This is, perhaps the most important fact in connection with the production of ideas.

[…]

The second important principle involved is that the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships.

Here, I suspect, is where minds differ to the greatest degree when it comes to the production of ideas. To some minds each fact is a separate bit of knowledge. To others it is a link in a chain of knowledge. It has relationships and similarities. It is not so much a fact as it is an illustration of a general law applying to a whole series of facts.

[…]

Consequently the habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

Young expands on the notion that combinations, and thus relationships and connections between ideas, are the key.

An idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements [and] the capacity to bring old elements into new combinations depends largely on the ability to see relationships. The habit of mind which leads to a search for relationships between facts becomes of the highest importance in the production of ideas.

The process he advises involves 5 steps.

While we will all be familiar with each individual step, it is more important to recognize their relationship and “grasp the fact that the mind follows these five steps in definite order.”

1. Gather Raw Material

Gathering raw material in a real way is not as simple as it sounds. It is such a terrible chore that we are constantly trying to dodge it. The time that ought to be spent in material gathering is spent in wool gathering. Instead of working systematically at the job of gathering raw material we sit around hoping for inspiration to strike us. When we do that we are trying to get the mind to take the fourth step in the idea-producing process while we dodge the preceding steps.

The materials which must be gathered are of two kinds: they are specific and they are general.

Part of this is what you set out to do when you create an idea and part of it is a life-long curiosity.

“Before passing on to the next step there are two practical suggestions I might make about this material-gathering process.”

The first is that if you have any sizable job of specific material gathering to do it is useful to learn the card-index method of doing it.This is simply to get yourself a supply of those little 3 X 5 ruled white cards and use them to write down the items of specific information as you gather them. If you do this, one item to a card, after a while you can begin to classify them by sections of your subject. Eventually you will have a whole file box of them, neatly classified.

The second suggestion is that for storing up certain kinds of general material some method of doing it like a scrapbook or file is useful.

You will remember the famous scrapbooks which appear throughout the Sherlock Holmes stories, and how the master detective spent his time indexing and cross-indexing the old bits of material he gathered there.

2. The Mental Digestive Process

What you do is to take the different bits of material which you have gathered and feel them all over, as it were, with the tentacles of the mind. You take one fact, turn it this way and that, look at it in different lights, and feel for the meaning of it. You bring two facts together and see how they fit. What you are seeking now is the relationship, a synthesis where everything will come together in a neat combination, like a jig-saw puzzle.

3. Unconsciously Process
Drop the whole subject and put it out of your mind and let your subconscious do its thing.

It is important to realize that this is just as definite and just as necessary a stage in the process as the two preceding ones. What you have to do at this time, apparently, is to turn the problem over to your unconscious mind and let it work while you sleep.

4. A-Ha

Now, if you have really done your part in these three stages of the process you will almost surely experience the fourth.

Out of nowhere the Idea will appear.

It will come to you when you are least expecting it — while shaving, or bathing, or most often when you are half awake in the morning. It may waken you in the middle of the night.

5. The Final Stage

It requires a deal of patient working over to make most ideas fit the exact conditions, or the practical exigencies, under which they must work. And here is where many good ideas are lost. The idea man, like the inventor, is often not patient enough or practical enough to go through with this adapting part of the process. But it has to be done if you are to put ideas to work in a work-a-day world.

Do not make the mistake of holding your idea close to your chest at this stage. Submit it to the criticism of the judicious.

When you do, a surprising thing will happen. You will find that a good idea has, as it were, self-expanding qualities. It stimulates those who see it to add to it. Thus possibilities in it which you have overlooked will come to light.

Still curious? Read A Technique for Producing Ideas.

Does being precociously fluent in English but teased on the playground indicate a dialectal problem?

David Foster Wallace in Consider the Lobster:

A SNOOTlet is a little kid who's wildly, precociously fluent in SWE—Standard Written English—(he is often, recall, the offspring of SNOOTs). Just about every class has a SNOOTlet, so I know you've seen them — these are the sorts of six-to-twelve-year-olds who use whom correctly and whose response to striking out in T-ball is to shout “How incalculably dreadful!” The elementary-school SNOOTlet is one of the earliest identifiable species of academic geekoid and is duly despised by his peers and praised by his teachers. These teachers usually don't see the incredible amounts of punishment the SNOOTlet is receiving from his classmates, or if they do see it they blame the classmates and shake their heads sadly at the vicious and aribtrary cruelty of which children are capable.

Teachers who do this are dumb. The truth is that his peers' punishment of the SNOOTlet is not arbitrary at all. There are important things at stake. Little kids in school are learning about Group-inclusion and -exclusion and about the respective rewards and penalties of same and about the use of dialect and syntax and slang as signals of affinity and inclusion. They're learning about Discourse Communities. Little kids learn this stuff not in Language Arts or Social Studies but on the playgroun and the bus and at lunch. When his peers are ostracizing the SNOOTlet or giving him monstrous quadruple Wedgies or holding him down and taking turns spitting on him, there's serious learning going on. Everybody here is learning except the little SNOOT—in fact, what the SNOOTlet is being punished for is precisely his failure to learn. And his Language Arts teacher — whose own Elementary Education training prizes “linguistic facility” as one of the “social skills” that ensure children's “developmentally appropriate peer repport,” but who does not or cannot consider the possibility that linguistic facility might involve more than lapirdary SWE — is unable to see that her beloved SNOOTlet is actually deficient in Language Arts. He has only one dialect. He cannot alter his vocabulary, usage, or grammer, cannot use slang or vulgarity; and it's these abilities that are really required for “peer rapport,” which is just a fancy academic term for being accepted by the second-most-important Group in the little kids life. If he is sufficiently clueless, it may take years and unbelievable amounts of punishment before the SNOOTlet learns that you need more than one dialect to get along in school.

The point is a little A+ SNOOTlet is actually in the same dialectal position as the class's “slow” kid who can't learn to stop using ain't or bringed. Exactly the same position. One is punished in class, the other on the playground, but both are deficient in the same linguistic skill — viz., the ability to move between carious dialects and levels of “correctness,” the ability to communicate one way with peers and another way with teachers and another with family and another with T-ball coaches and so on.

Still curious? David Foster Wallace is the author of Infinite Jest, A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, and The Pale King.

Important life lessons, courtesy of a Roman emperor

MA

An article I wrote for theweek.com, Important life lessons, courtesy of a Roman emperor, discusses a few of the lessons I took away from reading Marcus Aurelius' Meditations.

In addition to those thoughts, here is some bonus material for Farnam Street readers that didn't make the final article.

A common thread central to the philosophy of the meditations and documented in detail by Pierre Hadot, is the three “disciplines:” perception, action, and will.

“The discipline of perception,” writes Gregory Hays in the introduction to his new translation of Meditations, “requires that we maintain absolute objectivity of thought: that we see things dispassionately for what they are.” The second discipline, action, deals with our relationships with others. We need, in the words of Aurelius, “to live as nature requires.” The simplest way to understand this is to know that we were made for others, not ourselves. Nature is unselfish and we should be too. We should work towards something larger than ourselves, a collective good, while treating people justly and fairly. The third discipline, the discipline of will, encompasses our attitude to things that are not within our control. Acts of nature such as fire, illness, and even death, however unpleasant, can only harm us if we choose to see them that way. The same for the acts of others.

Attitude is important.

You may think that maintaining a positive attitude in the face of nearly impossible circumstances is impossible, but it is not.

“Objective judgment, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events.
That’s all you need”.
— Marcus Aurelius

In Man’s Search For Meaning, legendary psychiatrist and Holocaust-survivor Viktor Frankl, writes: “Everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

“Together,” Hay writes, “the three disciplines constitute a comprehensive approach to life.” Marcus Aurelius lays them out for us (in Meditations 7.54)

Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility [will]; to treat this person as he should be treated [action]; to approach this thought with care, so that nothing irrational creeps in [perception];

The three disciplines appear throughout Meditations. They are, in a sense, the heart of meditations.

Some subtlety (as in Meditations 8.7):

… progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions, making unselfish actions its only aim, seeking and shunning only the things it has control over, embracing what nature demands of it-the nature in which it participates, as the leaf's nature does in the trees.

And some more overtly (6.41)

“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible—or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.”

Meditations is a book I wish I had discovered earlier. I anticipate reading and reflecting on it often.