Tag: Thought and Opinion

How to Live on 24 Hours a Day: Arnold Bennett on Living a Meaningful Life Within the Constraints of Time

“We shall never have more time.
We have, and have always had,
all the time there is.”

***

Despite having been published in 1910, Arnold Bennett’s book How to Live on 24 Hours a Day remains a valuable resource on living a meaningful life within the constraints of time. In the book, Bennett addresses one of our oldest questions: how can we make the best use of our lives? How can we make the best use of our time?

Bennett begins by reflecting on our counterintuitive tendency to value money over time. This is a topic which has been discussed as far back as the Stoics, and more recently by the financial independence movement. He writes:

Newspapers are full of articles explaining how to live on such-and-such a sum…but I have never seen an essay ‘how to live on 24 hours a day.’ Yet it has been said that time is money. That proverb understates the case. Time is a great deal more than money. If you have time, you can obtain money-usually. But…you cannot buy yourself a minute more time.

Next, he urges people to realize what a wonder it is that our daily allocation of time appears anew each time we wake:

The supply of time is truly a daily miracle. You wake up in the morning and lo! your purse is magically filled with 24 hours of the unmanufactured tissue of the universe of your life! It is yours.

Bennett’s original audience consisted of working people of slim means, used to structuring their lives around money. For this reason, he uses money as a metaphor for time, to make the abstract concepts seem more real:

You cannot draw on the future. Impossible to get into debt! You can only waste the passing moment. You cannot waste tomorrow, it is kept from you.

You have to live on this 24 hours of time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect and the evolution of your immortal soul. It’s right use…is a matter of the highest urgency.

Perhaps one of the starkest and most memorable lines in the book is this:

We shall never have more time. We have, and have always had, all the time there is.

Bennett strongly encourages his readers to pursue their dreams, even if they fail. When we listen to the regrets of the elderly and dying, they invariably lament on what they neglected to do, not what they did. It is, however, the trying which matters, the journey which fulfills us:

A man may desire to go to Mecca… He fares forth…he may probably never reach Mecca; he may drown before he reaches Port Said; he may perish ingloriously on the cost of the Red Sea; his desire may remain eternally frustrated. Unfulfilled aspiration may always trouble him. But he will not be tormented in the same way as the man who…never leaves Brixton.

There is no magic bullet, no secret way to find more time. We see the desire to find one today, as people chase time management techniques which promise to free up more hours in the day:

I have found no such wonderful secret. Nor do I expect to find it, nor do I expect anyone else to find it. It is undiscovered… there is no easy way, no royal road. The path to Mecca is extremely hard and stony and the worst part is that you never get there after all.

This could be discouraging but it's not. Bennett encourages us to focus on how we can use our time to improve ourselves, stating that it is never too late:

You can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.

The idea that you can reinvent yourself each hour of the day is liberating. We get stuck in ruts and tell ourselves that we cannot change because we are too old, too young, too poor, too tied down. These are only excuses. They absolve us from responsibility. Bennett reminds us that just as money can be spent on anything, so can time. And, as Seneca reminded us, most of us fail to understand time until it's too late.

Bennett foreshadows modern research on habit change and personal development, which urges people to start small:

Beware of undertaking too much at the start. Be content with quite a little. Allow for accidents. Allow for human nature, especially your own… a glorious failure is better than a petty success.

Having set the stage, Bennett begins to discuss exactly how much time his audience has available to them. It is a simple fact that most of us believe we work for far more hours than we do – the average person’s estimate of their work week is out by 20 hours. Most workers are only productive for 3 hours a day. (the rest is spent on social media, gossiping and so on.) You can indeed get more done by working less.

You say your day is already full to overflowing. How? You actually spend in earning your livelihood – how much? Seven hours on the average. And in sleep, seven? I will add another two to be generous. And I will defy you to account for me the other 8 hours on the spur of the moment.

We all know the odd feeling of time passing without us noticing. We have all looked up on a Sunday evening, baffled as to where the day went. We have all arrived home at 6 pm and found that by the time we make dinner and shower, it is suddenly midnight.

Looking at the example of the average office worker at the time, Bennett reflects on our skewed attitude to work. We view our hours at work as our day and the rest as a margin. (Another example of how we fail to understand time.)

He persists in looking at the hours from 10 to 6 as ‘the day’ to which the 10 hours proceeding and the 6 hours following are an epilogue and prologue … this general attitude is illogical and unhealthy.

Next, Bennett laments the practice, ubiquitous of the time, of spending the morning commute reading the newspaper. We can apply his statements to the newspapers modern equivalent: social media. No doubt you have seen pictures of the past where a train carriage is full of people reading newspapers. Today the buses and subways are full of people on their telephones.

You calmly and majestically give yourself up to your newspaper. You do not hurry…your air is the air of a leisured man, wealthy in time, of a man from some planet where there are 124 hours in the day…I cannot possibly allow you to scatter such precious pearls of time with Oriental lavishness. You are not the Shah of time.

If you have ever known someone who complains of being time poor, yet scrolls Facebook with all the ease of a cat watching dust particles, you can doubtless relate to Bennett’s frustration. The number one question I receive from readers is how can I find more time to read? There is a simple answer but it involves tradeoffs that most of us are unwilling to make. It means putting reading and learning and growing ahead of the immediate gratification of social media. To waste vast swathes of time mindlessly consuming the day’s information is a bizarre concept to anyone who shares his attitude. Depending on the activity, The Red Queen of time is indeed formidable.

(In case you're wondering how I square this view of time squandering on newspapers with the fact you're reading a wesbite right now, allow me to explain the difference. Newspapers are focused on things that change. You can't run fast enough to keep up with this world and yet while you may think it's valuable the information you receive is full of noise. Farnam Street focuses on helping you learn things that don't change over time — It's an investment. What you learn today becomes the scaffolding to solving tomorrow's problem.)

Bennett describes the average person’s evening which has changed little in the last century.

You are pale and tired…in an hour or so you sit up and feel you could take a little nourishment. And you do. Then you smoke, seriously, you see friends, you potter, you play cards, you flirt with a book, you take a stroll, you caress the piano…by jove! A quarter past eleven.

Replace seeing friends for texting them, cards for video games, a book for a movie, a stroll for a trip to the gym and that is how most of us spend our evenings. Worn out by work, we flirt between whichever diversion seems interesting, dumping it when it begins to require focus. Then, suddenly it is time to sleep. Another day is over. But tomorrow will be different, right? Not without a concentrated effort, it won’t.

Bennett remarks on how different our evenings are when we have something specific to do and urges us to find specific diversions more often:

When you arrange to go to the theatre (especially with a pretty woman), what happens? You rush…you go. Friends and fatigue have been equally forgotten and the evening has seemed so long…can you deny that when you have something definite to look forward to at eventide, something that is to employ all your energy – the thought of that something gives a glow and more intense energy to the whole day?

Next, come some specific instructions on how we should spend our evenings. Bennett, echoing Machiavelli's ideas, suggests employing an hour and a half each evening for cultivating the mind, which still leaves 45 hours a week for errands, adventure, and seeing friends. This is a practice which we can all employ if only we'd stop the mindless diversions of Netflix and Snapchat and exchange the time for a concentrated effort on something meaningful.

My contention is that those 7 and a half hours will quicken the whole life of the week, add zest to it, and increase the interest which you feel in even the most banal occupations.

The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatsoever happens to us outside our brains, since nothing hurts us or give us pleasure except within our brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on inside the mysterious brain is patent… people complain of the lack of the power to concentrate, not witting that they may acquire the power if they chose…mind control is the first element of a full existence.

Bennett advocates an exercise which has much in common with mindfulness meditation, an idea which had yet to reach the country:

When you leave your house, concentrate your mind on a subject (no matter what to begin with.) You will not have gone ten paces before your mind has skipped away under your very eyes and is lurking around the corner with another subject. Bring it back by the scruff of the neck. Ere you have reached the station you will have brought it back 40 times. Do not despair. Keep it up. You will succeed.

As a subject to focus on, he recommends the works of the Stoics, which is still an ideal choice for personal study.

How can we, a century later in a somewhat different world, take Bennett’s advice?

It’s quite simple. His messages are uncomplicated, despite being wrapped up in his somewhat difficult to understand prose. For starters, we can stop viewing our work as our lives and learn to distinguish the two or intertwine them. We can plan specific pursuits for our spare time, rather than flitting it away. We can take stock of how much free time we actually have and where it is going. Then, we can structure those hours and minutes to ensure they are used for something meaningful. We can stop using all our spare time to consume stimulating information that changes quickly and focus on things that last. Instead, we can set aside blocks of time (guarded well) for working on our minds.

Unsurprisingly, the best way to improve ourselves is by reading. Books enable us to add the lives of other people onto our own. They are the most effective means humanity has found of making our lives meaningful, no matter how little time is available.

If you're looking to expand on these ideas, other books on the same topic which compliment this one include On the Shortness of Life by Seneca and Martin Eden by Jack London.

Rich Thinking Versus Poor Thinking: Why it Matters

“Thought is the original source of all wealth, all success, all material gain,
all great discoveries and inventions, and of all achievement.”
—Claude M. Bristol

***

One of the most controversial chapters in Brian Tracy’s book, Get Smart!, is “Rich Thinking versus Poor Thinking.”

In that chapter, he shares a series of simple ideas you can learn and apply. While I fundamentally disagree with much of the gross over-simplification, there are veins of excellence that we can use to add to our mental toolkit.

(Pause for a second before we continue. Just to be clear, this isn’t an article about going from zero to a million in a lifetime. No clickbait here. No, this article is about giving you tools you can add to your mental toolbox.)

The Role of Mindset

Best-selling author Og Mandino says:

There are no secrets of success. There are simply timeless truths and universal principles that have been discovered and rediscovered throughout human history. All you have to do is to learn and practice them to enjoy all the success that you could desire.

Sounds a lot like what we’re trying to discover.

Fearing Failure

A lot of us do things not to succeed but to avoid failure. This is what Elon Musk calls the fundamental problem with regulators. Tracy writes:

Because of destructive criticism in early childhood and mistakes they have made as adults, they are paralyzed by the fear of making a mistake, of losing their time or money. Even if they are presented with an opportunity, they go into a form of paralysis.

Their fear of failure causes them to create all kinds of reasons not to take action. They don’t have the time. They can’t make the minimum investment. They don’t have the necessary knowledge and skills. Like a deer caught in the headlights, they are paralyzed by the idea of failure, which causes them to never take any action at all.

As it happens, most fortunes in America were started by the sale of personal services. The people had no money, but they had the ability to work hard, to upgrade their skills, and to become more and more valuable. As a result, more and more doors of opportunity opened up for them.

Fearing Disapproval and Criticism

This relates to our fear of criticism and disapproval, which results in approval-seeking behavior. And when we’re seeking approval and acceptance, we’re more likely to think conventionally. And when we think conventionally, we're unlikely to get above-average results.

We don’t want to look different. As a result, we stop learning and growing.

***

“I will study and prepare myself and someday my chance will come.”
— Abraham Lincoln

Tracy writes:

To achieve something you’ve never achieved before, you must learn and practice something that you’ve never done before.

If you’re learning something universal you’ll always have an opportunity to practice what you learn.

Putting all of this together becomes tricky.

Often we have the courage to think and act differently, we mentally prepare ourselves for the critical feedback and then we dip our toe in the water only to find it’s not to our liking.

This is where persistence comes in.

Most of us are simply unwilling to sacrifice in order to succeed. We want our cake and we want to eat it too. Most of the people I know that are incredibly successful have suffered some setback that they had to overcome. A lot of people would have given up. Only they persisted. (Of course, there are plenty of people that persist and fail too.) I’m generalizing a bit here but the people who look for the nearest exit when things get tough are usually the ones with the average results.

Something-For-Something

There is only one type of relationship that is sustainable over a long period of time and that's one where everyone wins. Tracy writes:

Rich people are always looking for ways to create value, to develop and produce products and services that enrich and enhance the lives and work of other people.

They are always willing to put in before they take out. They do not believe in easy money or something for nothing. Rich people believe that you have to justly earn and pay for, in terms of toil and treasure, any rewards and riches that you desire.

Poor people lack this fundamental understanding, the direct relationship between what you put in and what you get out. They are always seeking to get something for nothing or for as little as possible. They want success without achievement, riches without labor, money without effort, and fame without talent.

Poor people gamble, buy lottery tickets, come to work at the last possible moment, waste time while they are there, and then leave work at the first possible minute. They line up by the hundreds and thousands to audition for programs like American Idol, thinking that they can become rich and famous without ever having paid the price necessary to develop the level of talent and ability that enables them to rise above their competitors.

One of the great secrets of becoming wealthy is to always do more than you are paid for. If you do, you will always be paid more than you’re getting today. And there is no other way.

Go the extra mile. Be willing to put in far more than you are taking out. There are never any traffic jams on the extra mile.

Fear can often keep us mediocre. We don’t risk being wrong.

Getting rich isn't as simple as changing your mindset. However changing your mindset can go a long way to changing the way you see the world. And when you see the world differently you can behave and respond differently to the stimuli around you. When you do that, you have the potential to outperform.

Blog Posts, Book Reviews, and Abstracts: On Shallowness

We’re quite glad that you read Farnam Street, and we hope we’re always offering you a massive amount of value. (If not, email us and tell us what we can do more effectively.)

But there’s a message all of our readers should appreciate: Blog posts are not enough to generate the deep fluency you need to truly understand or get better at something. We offer a starting point, not an end point.

This goes just as well for book reviews, abstracts, cliff's notes, and a good deal of short-form journalism.

This is a hard message for some who want a shortcut. They want the “gist” and the “high level takeaways”, without doing the work or eating any of the broccoli. They think that’s all it takes: Check out a 5-minute read, and instantly their decision making and understanding of the world will improve right-quick. Most blogs, of course, encourage this kind of shallowness. Because it makes you feel that the whole thing is pretty easy.

Here’s the problem: The world is more complex than that. It doesn’t actually work this way. The nuanced detail behind every “high level takeaway” gives you the context needed to use it in the real world. The exceptions, the edge cases, and the contradictions.

Let me give you an example.

A high-level takeaway from reading Kahneman’s Thinking Fast, and Slow would be that we are subject to something he and Amos Tversky call the Representativeness Heuristic. We create models of things in our head, and then fit our real-world experiences to the model, often over-fitting drastically. A very useful idea.

However, that’s not enough. There are so many follow-up questions. Where do we make the most mistakes? Why does our mind create these models? Where is this generally useful? What are the nuanced examples of where this tendency fails us? And so on. Just knowing about the Heuristic, knowing that it exists, won't perform any work for you.

Or take the rise of human species as laid out by Yuval Harari. It’s great to post on his theory; how myths laid the foundation for our success, how “natural” is probably a useless concept the way it’s typically used, and how biology is the great enabler.

But Harari’s book itself contains the relevant detail that fleshes all of this out. And further, his bibliography is full of resources that demand your attention to get even more backup. How did he develop that idea? You have to look to find out.

Why do all this? Because without the massive, relevant detail, your mind is built on a house of cards.

What Farnam Street and a lot of other great resources give you is something like a brief map of the territory.

Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg! Check out the re-enactors, the museum, and the theatre. Over there is the Revolutionary City. Gettysburg is 4 hours north. Washington D.C. is closer to 2.5 hours.

Great – now you have a lay of the land. Time to dig in and actually learn about the American Revolution. (This book is awesome, if you actually want to do that.)

Going back to Kahneman, one of his and Tversky’s great findings was the concept of the Availability Heuristic. Basically, the mind operates on what it has close at hand.

As Kahneman puts it, “An essential design feature of the associative machine is that it represents only activated ideas. Information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist. System 1 excels at constructing the best possible story that incorporates ideas currently activated, but it does not (cannot) allow for information it does not have.”

That means that in the moment of decision making, when you’re thinking hard on some complex problem you face, it’s unlikely that your mind is working all that successfully without the details. It doesn't have anything to draw on. It’d be like a chess player who read a book about great chess players, but who hadn’t actually studied all of their moves. Not very effective.

The great difficulty, of course, is that we lack the time to dig deep into everything. Opportunity costs and trade-offs are quite real.

That’s why you must develop excellent filters. What’s worth learning this deeply? We think it’s the first-principle style mental models. The great ideas from physical systems, biological systems, and human systems. The new-new thing you’re studying is probably either A. Wrong or B. Built on one of those great ideas anyways. Farnam Street, in a way, is just a giant filtering mechanism to get you started down the hill.

But don't stop there. Don't stop at the starting line. Resolve to increase your depth and stop thinking you can have it all in 5 minutes or less. Use our stuff, and whoever else's stuff you like, as an entrée to the real thing.

(P.S. If you need to learn how to focus, check this out; if you need to learn how to read more effectively, go with this.)

Arthur Schopenhauer on the Dangers of Clickbait

German Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788–1860) influenced some of the more prominent minds in the world. His writings and lessons traverse time and discipline. Schopenhauer confronted similar problems with media to the ones we face.

We live under a constant onslaught of content that is not meant to live beyond the moment in which it appears.

Weaving together two of his essays, “On Authorship” (from The Essays of Schopenhauer: The Art of Literature) and “On Reading.” we can see that he foresaw the problem of clickbait in terms of its distraction from what’s important and how we can fend it off.

Let’s first turn our attention to Schopenhauer’s beliefs on the two kinds of authors and their motivations:

[T]hose who write for the subject’s sake, and those who write for writing’s sake. The first kind have had thoughts or experiences which seem to them worth communicating, while the second kind need money and consequently write for money. They think in order to write, and they may be recognized by their spinning out their thoughts to the greatest possible length, and also by the way they work out their thoughts, which are half-true, perverse, forced, and vacillating; then also by their love of evasion, so that they may seem what they are not; and this is why their writing is lacking in definiteness and clearness.

The author has a moral duty to not cheat the reader. You could write about how our media demands this cheating. For example, the 24-hour news cycle broadcasts only for the sake of filling up time and generating pageviews. It has changed our definition of ‘news.'

The author is cheating the reader as soon as he writes for the sake of filling up paper; because his pretext for writing is that he has something to impart. Writing for money [is], at bottom, the ruin of literature. It is only the man who writes absolutely for the sake of the subject that writes anything worth writing.

(There is an argument to be made that media fragmentation and low barriers drive down the monetary value of success. If this were true, it is possible that people will once again begin to create for the value of the activity and not the dollars.) We should only read good books. More than read them we should re-read them.

What an inestimable advantage it would be, if, in every branch of literature, there existed only a few but excellent books! This can never come to pass so long as money is to be made by writing. … The best works of great men all come from the time when they had to write either for nothing or for very little pay.

The problem is these bad writers, offering little timeless value, monopolize the time and attention of people that could be otherwise spent on more profitable pursuits.

They are written merely with a view to making money or procuring places. They are not only useless, but they do positive harm. Nine-tenths of the whole of our present literature aims solely at taking a few shillings out of the public’s pocket, and to accomplish this, author, publisher, and reviewer have joined forces.

The fact these views consume us underpins why our views are so shallow. Remember, Schopenhauer was writing at a time when people valued deep work and attention in a way we no longer do. As an audience it is easier to skim the surface of the volume that is available.

Oh, how like one commonplace mind is to another! How they are all fashioned in one form! How they all think alike under similar circumstances, and never differ! This is why their views are so personal and petty. And a stupid public reads the worthless trash written by these fellows for no other reason than that is has been printed today, while it leaves the works of the great thinkers undisturbed on the bookshelves.

We often forget the existence of words is no statement on their truth.

Incredible are the folly and perversity of a public that will leave unread writings of the noblest and rarest of minds, of all times and all countries, for the sake of reading the writings of commonplace persons which appear daily and breed every year in countless numbers like flies; merely because these writings have been printed today and are still wet from the press.

This is where the art of not reading comes in. We have a choice, even if we refuse to exercise it. Schopenhauer offers us guidance on what to read.

Remember rather that the man who writes for fools always finds a large public: and only read for a limited and definite time exclusively the words of great minds, those who surpass other men of all time and countries, and whom the voice of fame points to as such. These alone really educate and instruct.

Furthering this notion, he adds:

One can never read too little of bad or too much of good books: bad books are intellectual poison; they destroy the mind.

Which can equally apply to the websites and articles that consume us. Before we know it, we develop a Pot-Belly of Ignorance.

Inverting the problem Schopenhauer suggests “in order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and that the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.

If you're looking for ways to filter out the noise consider Peter Kaufman's idea of the three buckets of knowledge and Nassim Taleb's lindy effect.

 

At Some Point, You Have to Eat The Broccoli

It's a wonderful idea to try to find a set of systems and principles that “work better” for big swaths of your life. Better habits, better mental tendencies, better methods of inquiry, and so on. We're strong advocates of this approach, believing that good thinking and good decision making can be learned the same as a good golf swing can: Through practice and instruction.

So, read the below with this caveat in mind: Constant learning and self-improvement can and must be done for great life results.

Now, with that out of the way.

The problem with the search for self-improvement methods, including the kind of multidisciplinary thinking we espouse, is that many, perhaps most of them, are a snare and a delusion for most people. And there's a simple reason why: They won't actually do it. 

Think about it. Isn't that the most common result? That you don't do it?

For example, we heard from many people after we wrote a piece late last year on Reading 25 Pages a Day, a little practice that we think would benefit almost anyone in creating a very desirable reading habit.

What we suspect, though, is that even of the subset of people who felt so strongly about the idea that they contacted us, only a minority of them followed through and maintained to the habit to this day, ten months later.

Why is that? A huge part of it is Homeostasis: The basic self-regulating feedback loops that keep us repeating the same habits over and over. Predictable forces that keep us from changing ourselves, just as some forces keep us from changing organizations. (Or any self-regulating system.)

The failure to follow new systems and habits (mental or physical) follows this basic formula:

  1. A system is proposed which makes the adherent think that they can live life a healthy life “without eating any broccoli.” (Whether intended by the author or not.) You see this over and over: Money-making schemes, exercise-habit formation routines, 4-hour workweek promises, new cultural principles for businesses, and so on. Promises that lead people to think “healthy eating with no broccoli,” so to speak. An easy fix.
  2. Potential adherent to the “broccoli-free” system buys into the paradigm, and starts giving it a try.
  3. Potential adherent realizes very quickly that either (A) The broccoli must, indeed, be eaten, or (B) The system does not work.

Now, with regards to the 25-pages a day “system” we outlined, we were careful not to make a “no broccoli” promise: All we said was that reading 25 pages per day was a habit that almost anyone could form, and that it would lead them far. But you still have to do all the reading. You have to do the thing. That's the part where everyone falls away.

We suspect that some people thought it would be easy to read 25 pages per day. That the pages would essentially “read themselves”, or that the time to do so would spontaneously free up, just because they starting wanting it.

This is never, ever the case. At some point, to be healthy, you do need to suck it up and eat some broccoli! And for many days in a row. Or, more to the point: The “failure point” with any new system; any method of improvement; any proposed solution to a life problem or an organization problem, is when the homeostatic regulation kicks in, when we realize some part of it will be hard, new, or unnatural.

Even a really well-designed system can only cut up the broccoli into little pieces and sneak it into your mac-and-cheese. A popular examples would be a fitness system whereby you do one pushup a day, then two pushups the second day, then three the third day, and so on. It makes the habit digestible at first, as you get used to it. This is plenty smart.

But eventually, if you're going to hang on to that habit, you'll have to do a whole lot of pushups every day! You can't just go back to plain mac-and-cheese, no broccoli. When the newness of the “one day at a time” system wears off, you'll be left with a heaping portion of broccoli. Will you continue eating it?

The point is this: When you're evaluating a proposed improvement to your life or to your organization, you must figure out when and where the broccoli will get eaten, and understand that you will have to sacrifice something (even if it's just comfort) to get what you want. And if anyone ever promises you “no broccoli,” it's probably a sham.

Remember that anything really worth doing is probably hard work, and will absolutely require you to do things you don't currently do, which will feel uncomfortable for a while. This is a “hard truth” we must all face. If it was easy, everyone would already be doing it. 

***

Let's take the example of learning how to give better feedback. What could be a more useful skill? But actually doing so, actually following through with the idea, is not at all easy. You have to overcome your natural impulse to criticize. You have to get over your natural ego. You have to be very careful to watch your words, trying to decipher what will be heard when you deliver feedback. All of these are hard things to do, all of them unnatural. All will require some re-doubling to accomplish.

Thus, most people won't actually do it. This an Iron Rule of life: Biological systems tend towards what is comfortable. (Yes, human beings are “biological systems”.)

But this Iron Rule is a problem and an opportunity wrapped together. As the saying goes, “If you do what everyone else does, you'll get what everyone else gets.” If you can recognize that all things worth doing are hard at first, and that there is always some broccoli to be eaten, you are part of the way toward true advantageous differentiation. The rest is self-discipline.

We “go back” on our habits when they aren't truly formed yet. We think we’re there, but we’re really not — we’ve just been fooled by our sensory apparatus.

And the real and comforting truth is that you might really start liking, and even get used to eating, broccoli. Eating potato chips and candy will eventually feel like the uncomfortable and unnatural thing.

And that's when you know you've really got a great new discipline: Going back would feel like cutting off your hands.

20 Rules for a Knight: A Timeless Guide from 1483

“Often we imagine that we will work hard until we arrive at some distant goal, and then we will be happy. This is a delusion. Happiness is the result of a life lived with purpose. Happiness is not an objective. It is the movement of life itself, a process, and an activity. It arises from curiosity and discovery. Seek pleasure and you will quickly discover the shortest path to suffering.”

***

The quest to become a knight has occupied many over the years.

In 1483, Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawke of Cornwall was among 323 killed at the Battle of Slaughter Bridge. Foreseeing this outcome, Sir Thomas wrote a letter to his children in Cornish outlining the Rules for a Knight — the life lessons Sir Thomas wished to pass along to his four children.

The severely damaged letter was adapted and reconstructed by Ethan Hawke, after the family discovered it in the early 1970s in the basement of the family farm near Waynesville, Ohio after his great grandmother passed away.

Or, so the story goes.

The resulting book, Rules for a Knight — in reality a work of fiction — began over a decade ago. Why a book about knights? Hawke explains:

“I’ve just always loved the idea of knighthood,” he said. “It makes being a good person cool. Or, aspiring to be a good person cool.”

And so Hawke started applying the chivalry to his own household:

My wife was reading a book about step-parenting, and this book was talking about the value of rules, so we started saying, well, what are the rules of our house? And you start with the really mundane, like eight-o’clock bedtime, all that kind of stuff. And then, invariably, you start asking yourself, well, what do we really believe in? So I started riffing on this idea of ‘rules for a knight.’ Like, what does the king decree, you know? I wrote it out—the idea was we were going to put it on the wall, in calligraphy. Like, these are the rules.

The work stands alone as a blueprint of civilized growth and self-improvement, the path to becoming a humble, strong, and reliable gentleman (or lady). The ideas mostly come from “other knights,” including Muhammad Ali, Emily Dickinson, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Mother Teresa, as Hawke credits them on the acknowledgment page.

rules-for-a-knight

“Tonight,” Sir Thomas Lemuel Hawkes of Cornwall begins, “I will share with you some of the more valuable stories, events, and moments of my life so that somewhere deep in the recesses of your imagination these lessons might continue on and my experiences will live to serve a purpose for you.”

20 Rules for a Knight

1. Solitude

Create time alone with yourself. When seeking the wisdom and clarity of your own mind, silence is a helpful tool. The voice of our spirit is gentle and cannot be heard when it has to compete with others. Just as it is impossible to see your reflection in troubled water, so too is it with the soul. In silence, we can sense eternity sleeping inside us.

2. Humility

Never announce that you are a knight, simply behave as one. You are better than no one, and no one is better than you.

3. Gratitude

The only intelligent response to the ongoing gift of life is gratitude. For all that has been, a knight says, “Thank you.” For all that is to come, a knight says, “Yes!”

4. Pride

Never pretend you are not a knight or attempt to diminish yourself because you deem it will make others more comfortable. We show others the most respect by offering the best of ourselves.

5. Cooperation

Each one of us is walking our own road. We are born at specific times, in specific places, and our challenges are unique. As knights, understanding and respecting our distinctiveness is vital to our ability to harness our collective strength. The use of force may be necessary to protect in an emergency, but only justice, fairness, and cooperation can truly succeed in leading men. We must live and work together as brothers or perish together as fools.

6. Friendship

The quality of your life will, to a large extent, be decided by with whom you elect to spend your time.

7. Forgiveness

Those who cannot easily forgive will not collect many friends. Look for the best in others.

8. Honesty

A dishonest tongue and a dishonest mind waste time, and therefore waste our lives. We are here to grow and the truth is the water, the light, and the soil from which we rise. The armor of falsehood is subtly wrought out of the darkness and hides us not only from others but from our own soul.

9. Courage

Anything that gives light must endure burning.

10. Grace

Grace is the ability to accept change. Be open and supple; the brittle break.

11. Patience

There is no such thing as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. A hurried mind is an addled mind; it cannot see clearly or hear precisely; it sees what it wants to see, or hears what it is afraid to hear, and misses much. A knight makes time his ally. There is a moment for action, and with a clear mind that moment is obvious.

12. Justice

There is only one thing for which a knight has no patience: injustice. Every true knight fights for human dignity at all times.

13. Generosity

You were born owning nothing and with nothing you will pass out of this life. Be frugal and you can be generous.

14. Discipline

In the field of battle, as in all things, you will perform as you practice. With practice, you build the road to accomplish your goals. Excellence lives in attention to detail. Give your all, all the time. Don’t save anything for the walk home.The better a knight prepares, the less willing he will be to surrender.

15. Dedication

Ordinary effort, ordinary result. Take steps each day to better follow these rules. Luck is the residue of design. Be steadfast. The anvil outlasts the hammer.

16. Speech

Do not speak ill of others. A knight does not spread news that he does not know to be certain, or condemn things that he does not understand.

17. Faith

Sometimes to understand more, you need to know less.

18. Equality

Every knight holds human equality as an unwavering truth. A knight is never present when men or women are being degraded or compromised in any way, because if a knight were present, those committing the hurtful acts or words would be made to stop.

19. Love

Love is the end goal. It is the music of our lives. There is no obstacle that enough love cannot move.

20. Death

Life is a long series of farewells; only the circumstances should surprise us. A knight concerns himself with gratitude for the life he has been given. He does not fear death, for the work one knight begins, others may finish.

The rest of Rules For a Knight goes on to explore these ideas in greater detail. Despite its fiction status, the book is a timeless meditation on self-improvement and what it means to be a parent.