Practical Philosophy

Things I Learned This Week #2

#1 – It is not what a person said, it is why they said it at that moment

I’m hunting for a flat to rent in London. The market is tough. Apparently it’s never been tougher.

Last week, one estate agent told me they had only 50 enquiries for a flat in Aldgate East. 50! Looks like I had no chance. However, the day after my viewing, the estate agent called me again and asked if I was still interested. Did she really have 50 bookings? Or was it a scarcity tactic?

In Never Split the Difference, Chris Voss says that it is not what a person says that you should pay attention to in a negotiation, but why they said it at that moment.

#2 – Focus on what is controllable, everything else is a distraction

I have started to notice how people often get effected by events entirely out of their control – like getting annoyed by badly parked cars, or by Boris Johnson, or the Tennis, etc.

One of the key doctrines of Stoicism is that of Perception. Essentially, we need to perceive what truly matters to protect our minds. The first thing we should do is to filter out what is entirely out of our control. Like getting pissed off by a parked car. That will never end and you will end up getting entirely derailed because you cannot control your emotions.

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius advised himself “Not to be overwhelmed by what you imagine, but just do what you can and should.”

Ignore the external – and focus inwards – on your thoughts which you can control.

#3 – Appreciate the moment

When you see a cat in the street, pet it. That’s one of the lessons from 12 Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson.

I remembered the lesson when I was walking with my parents in the park. I had a moment where I thought that in 20 years we may not be able to do this together as a family again. It really made me appreciate the present moment.

Then, we started talking about laundry and other worries of the future (where am I going to stay in London etc). It reminded me that oftentimes we forget to enjoy the moment and think about the past and future.

#4 – Agreeing to your emotions is a choice

Previously I had known that we had to control our emotions and always act with dignity, but when push comes to shove, it’s hard to know exactly how. It can feel like fighting your natural instincts.

Recently, I did a post on the stoic concept of Assent. The idea is that we should protect our minds by not always agreeing (assenting) to our first impressions.

The reason for this is that our impressions of events tend to combine (1) the objective event with (2) our subjective value judgement of it. For example, the waiter doesn’t smile it me is an objective event. My subjective value judgement may be that they don’t like me. That’s entirely in my head.

“What is outside my mind means nothing to it. Absorb that lesson and your feet stand firm.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

So when the combined impression comes to our evaluation. There is a moment where we can consciously say yes or no to it. Do we let it assent to our inner citadel? (our soul, so to speak). An interesting remark is that we are a collection of our assents.

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

My friend told me this is similar to what Buddha said. I guess it really is true that wise men throughout history tend to reach the same conclusions.

Practical Philosophy

Don’t Always Agree with Your Impressions

It is illogical and harmful to always accept our first impressions.

Previously, I posted about the the doctrine of Perception by Marcus Aurelius and how we tend to add an unhealthy portion of subjective interpretation into what we see around us.

In this post, I want to reflect on a similar and very practical doctrine from Traditional Stoicism that I read today: The doctrine of assent.

According to Ted Brannan, Philosophy and Classics professor at Cornell, the doctrine of Assent is “the linchpin of the Stoic system.” It is our ability to agree (assent to) or disagree with our own first impressions.

The flow of events

The best way to understand the doctrine of Assent is to picture the flow of our thoughts.

  1. Event – The circumstance that presents itself. e.g. A car cuts us off.
  2. Value Judgement – The judgement we make about the event. e.g. That driver doesn’t follow the rules. He is rude and a bad person.
  3. Impression – The combination of the event and your value judgement, presented like a ticket. e.g. The car cut me off + he is a rude and bad person.
  4. Assent – Your choice to either agree with or discard the impression “ticket” presented to you.
  5. Inner Citadel – Your mind, your soul, your character. The thoughts you let assent to your inner citadel make up who you are.

Protecting our Inner Citadel

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. You soul takes on the quality of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I believe that letting in accurate information may be different from letting in the right information. Why? Because it’s all too easy to get consumed by negative thoughts.

If I read the news in the morning, stories of murder, violence and the darker side of humanity effects me. Now I try not to read the news as often as I used to. I make an effort to protect my mind.

When we assent to negative impressions – cursing the world – cursing people – this colours our soul. We begin to see the world in a negative light. Small, innocent details reinforce our view that the world is bad.

Don’t accept the first impression

Hastily accepting our first impressions not only harms us, it’s illogical. The stoics argued that most impressions are a mixture of “what really happened” with a healthy dose of subjective judgements (which can get extremely subjective if not checked).

  • The man didn’t smile at me. – The objective event that occurs.
  • The man is rude. – My subjective interpretation of the event.

If I agree (assent) to this impression, I’m accepting it with circumstantial evidence that I couldn’t possibly know for certain. How can I know he is rude? Can I read his mind? Do I know his malicious intent?

It’s harmful and illogical to always accept first impressions as absolute truth. Check what you think before you let it assent to your inner citadel.

Practical Philosophy

Understand the Limits of Your Perception

“It is not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem.”

Gregory Hays, Foreward to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

The way that we perceive the world often causes us to become upset, angry and emotional.

That’s why the first of the three doctrines of Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is Perception. Fix the way you see things by separating the reality from your interpretation.

Jumping to Conclusions

It’s easy to jump to conclusions when something (or somebody) bothers you.

When I lived in Thailand, I remember several times where people would jump queues. It would infuriate me.

In one instance, I was in the checkout line, when an old Chinese lady walked right by me to the till. Barely holding in my contempt, I told her “I was here first.” She apologised and went to the back of the line. I was angry for hours.

To me, walking past me in the queue was her taking advantage of me. She thought she could run me over. She thought that her time was more important than mine.

Separating the Reality from our Interpretation

Marcus Aurelius was careful to separate perception into 2 parts:

  • What objectively happened
  • Our interpretation/judgement of the situation.

In this case, what objectively happened was that the old lady jumped past me in the queue.

However, it was my interpretation that she was deliberately taking advantage of me. This was a judgement I had made. A conclusion I had come to.

In the land of abstract interpretation, anything is up to our imagination. Maybe she didn’t understand the concept of queues. Maybe she didn’t see me. Maybe she didn’t see the queue at all. The truth is that I would never know.

“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 gds and feel hatred for the people responsible – or those you decide to make responsible.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

On Reddit, a user also gave another example perception gone awry. In this case, you order a coffee from a Barista. He takes your order, doesn’t say a word, makes it, and gives it to you. “He is a rude person” you think to yourself.

How Far Do We Go?

For the sake of our mental well-being and avoiding negative spirals, it’s wise to keep things objective. Avoid making drastic conclusions on small things.

This is a problem a lot of people have. They turn small things into big problems. In Discovering Personality, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson introduces us to the pyramid of abstraction.

We start at the bottom of the pyramid. This is where things are most concrete and “real”: the Barista didn’t talk.

Now you could leave it at that. However, once we start entering the realm of interpretation, things begin getting more abstract.

First, we can interpret the situation: He is a rude barista. Then, we may go further up the pyramid of abstraction – all baristas are rude. Then we may think that people in general are rude. Eventually, we may take this to indicate that society is bad.

If we don’t check ourselves, it is entirely possible to go this far up. How many people do you know who have a tendency to say things like”

  • “Oh this teenager is shouting outside… We are a broken society”
  • “Oh this item is broken… The Chinese can’t make anything good.”
  • “Oh this bank overcharged me… The bankers are out to get us.”
  • “Oh I made a mistake preparing lunch… I am a bad father.”

Whether you believe an interpretation to be true or not, you should ask yourself “How healthy is it to think this way?”

“You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Constrain the Problem to Its Objective Truth

The solution, according to Jordan Peterson, is to constrain the problem to the smallest thing it really is.

What specifically happened? OK, the bank over-charged you. OK, you messed up lunch. The is the reality.

Be careful when you are tempted to add your own impressions into the mix.

Whatever you do, don’t climb too far up the pyramid of abstraction and eventually condemn society.

In the end, we have to protect our minds.

Do not think the world is out to get you and create a personal hell for yourself. Don’t make something bigger than it really is.

“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Practical Philosophy

Never outshine the master

“When the party began, Fouquet was at the top of the world. By the time it had ended, he was at the bottom.”

Voltaire, 1694-1778

In The 48 Laws of Power, author Robert Greene teaches us an important lesson from history: Be careful never to outshine the master. Or, for that matter, anybody.

The Story

When Nicholas Fouquet, France’s Finance Minister, threw the best party France had ever seen, King Louis XIV seethed with jealousy. The day after the party, King Louix XIV imprisoned Fouquet on false charges, executed him, and then replaced him with a new (much more boring) minister.

The Lesson

Fouquet outshined the master. He did not realise that by shining so bright, he was making the king appear dull and was becoming a threat.

He did not realise that even a King had deep insecurities about being seen as the brightest, smartest, and most socially connected person in France.

Whether in a workplace or personal setting, it’s important to remember to not make other people look inadequate. Remember, people are driven by their emotions.

Instead, Robert Greene says it is wise to downplay your successes. “Oh, it wasn’t all that easy.” Control what you say.

Give credit to other people. Thank them for their advice and continued support. Be humble.

Practical Philosophy

It’s better to hunt in packs

Think of the grizzly bear. A solitary predator. Many years ago, people would pit bears to fight against tigers, and even lions. The bear would always win. It is perhaps the strongest land-based predator alive, except for one:

Humans. The ultimate hunters. Humans have been responsible for the extinction of every mammal in the last 126,000 years. Unlike bears, humans have historically hunted in groups, working together with tools to bring down larger prey.

Sports and business are similar to hunting. In football, the team works together to hit the target. In business, the people work together to build wealth.

So how do we measure our predatory instinct? According to Jordan Peterson, we can measure it with agreeableness. Agreeableness is how often we prioritise the interests of others over our own. The higher you are, the more you put others first. Jordan Peterson says is related to the maternal instinct – women tend to be higher in agreeableness.

On the flip side, the less agreeable you are, the more predatory you are in nature. You put your own interests first before others. At the extremely low end, low agreeableness is a great predictor of incarceration.

I’m low in agreeableness:

Now that’s not necessarily a bad thing. People who are less agreeable are more likely to get raises, for example. They ask for it. People who are too highly agreeable try to help others too much, and in the process don’t look out for themselves.

Taking the test and revealing my low agreeableness was quite enlightening – and amusing. For one thing, I work in customer success, which is all about helping other people. However, I think that this reveals that we need to work together. For me to reach my goals, I need to help my clients reach theirs. The same goes for working in a team versus going it alone:

It’s better to hunt in packs.

Practical Philosophy

Break monsters down

Sometimes we face problems that we don’t think we can solve.

“Oh, I can’t talk to her.”

“I don’t think I can give this presentation.”

“I am too shy to ask for a raise.”

In such instances, we are confronted by Chaos; the terrifying unknown and all of its possibilities. Our imagination conjures up scenarios of all the possible negative outcomes – rejection, humiliation, and so on.

In Discovering Personality, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson recommends a solution to dealing with the anxiety these situations induce. He says we should break down large problems into smaller, precise problems, and then voluntarily confront them.

Let’s look at the first problem, “Oh, I can’t talk to her.” Let’s break down the problem of asking out a girl into smaller challenges to build confidence. Could we talk to a stranger, perhaps? Could we smile at a stranger?

When we break down the problem, the monster shrinks. We shine a light into the darkness, and turn chaos into order. Things don’t seem so scary once we break them down into smaller problems. Focus on making incremental gains than giant leaps, just like when tackling procrastination.

Practical Philosophy

Don’t say too much

“It is even more damaging for a minister to say foolish things than to do them.”

Cardinal de Retz, 1613–1679

Growing up, we are often told to say what we think. However, this can often be damaging. Remember, words have unintended consequences.

When we feel the need to gossip, we need to stop and think of the consequences of doing so. Both from the outside (how can anybody trust talking to us if they know we gossip) and from the inside (how can we live with ourselves after doing what we know is wrong).

At its roots, the need to say everything we think results from a lack of emotional control. We really really really want to say something, so we do. We want others to make others laugh, create drama, and seem interesting.

I’m not saying we should bottle up our thoughts and feelings. Instead, I propose that before we say something, we should stop and think of the consequences first.

Practical Philosophy

Never lose your temper in public

When Napoleon publicly lost his temper, his minister Tellyrand rightly predicted “This is the beginning of the end.”

Losing your temper in public always looks ridiculous. It shows others that we cannot control ourselves – and a person who cannot control themselves is not worthy of respect.

The truth is: Anger always looks out of proportion.

In the heat of the moment it may feel like we are standing up for the right thing. However, other people around us have no idea on the background of the situation, or share the exact same feelings as we do. To others, it often just looks like some crazy angry guy unnecessarily losing his cool. Remember rage-quitters in Call of Duty?

Instead, a better way is to always be mindful of how your behaviour looks from the outside. Wear the crown and always act with dignity and self-respect. Be mindful and learn to control your own emotions, or let them control you.

Notes from The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene

Practical Philosophy

Wear the crown: always act with dignity and self-control

“Wear the Crown: place it above your head and assume a different pose – calm and assured, never doubting, never losing dignity.”

The 48 Laws of Power

When somebody insults us, do we lose our cool? When something obstructs our path, does it irritate us out of proportion? When we learn of some new office drama, do we join in on the gossip?

In the 48 Laws of Power, one of the laws is to “Wear the crown”. Think before you act and control your emotions by imagining how the a monarch would compose themselves.

How would Queen Elizabeth react to this? How would a King react? They would compose themselves with dignity and self-control. They would walk with confidence and with their head held high (a positive feedback loop). They would not let their emotions get the better of their judgement.

A monkey was carrying two handfuls of peas. One little pea dropped out. He tried to pick it up, and spilt twenty. He tried to pick up the twenty, and spilt them all. Then he lost his temper, scattered the peas in all directions, and ran away.

Practical Philosophy

Things I Learned This Week #1

1. Ask questions before you begin to learn a topic

The world is complex. We can’t understand absolutely everything without going mad.

So our brain has to filter what to learn and what to ignore. It does this using a “survive and thrive” filter.

Will this information help me survive and thrive? If yes, it must be important, so our brain prepares itself to learn it. If not, we don’t learn it, even if we try.

This is the premise behind inquiry-based learning, and a practical way of doing this is with the traffic light system from ICanStudy (a course about learning how to learn efficiently).

First, red light: Before I begin to read a chapter of a book or watch a lecture, I write down a list of topic questions I am curious about.

For example, with my Discovering Personality course, I was about to watch a lecture on Conscientiousness. I jotted down some questions I was curious about:

  • What is the overall meaning of conscientiousness?
  • How does my low industriousness score impact my career progress?
  • How can people with low industriousness / high orderliness get things done?

This primed my brain to be curious about answering these questions during the lecture.

Second, green light: During the lecture, try to answer those questions.

After this, you go back to red light; ask more questions, then green light, and so on.

In inquiry-based learning, your curiosity drives the learning process. This helps you pass your brain’s Survive and Thrive filter, so you learn what you hear.

2. Learn things in the order of your interest

Since we take in information based on our survive and thrive filter, it’s best to order your intake of information based on what interests you the most.

So instead of reading chapters 1, 2, 3 then 4, we may benefit from reading chapters 3, 2, 1 and 4. Whichever topics interest us at the time – since that is what we will actually take in. We want to aim for active rather than passive reading.

This combines well with inquiry-based learning, as described above. Write down your questions of what interests you, then look through the chapters to find the answers. Rinse and repeat.

3. If motivations are our goals, then emotions keep us on track

For the past few months, I’ve been studying in my spare time. To begin, I wrote down a list of strengths I wanted to build upon:

  • Communication
  • Understanding Psychology
  • Management
  • Customer Success

Why? Because successful people build their reputations around their strengths – so I need to build my strengths.

Building these strengths are my goals, and therefore, my motivations. This is according to Dr. Jordan Peterson in his Discovering Personality course.

Emotions, he says, are designed to help us steer ourselves towards reaching our goals. When we progress towards our goals/motivations, we feel happy. When we diverge from them, we feel unhappy.

4. We are driven by our personality traits

Why do we do the things we do? Why do I feel this way? Why do others see things differently to me? Well, according to Dr. Jordan Peterson, a lot of it is down to our personalities.

So what is a personality? When we are born and our early years of childhood, we develop personality traits. Personality traits dictate our “low resolution solutions to the world”. I like to think of them as our default set of responses. They are designed to help us respond to the world’s complexity.

When things go wrong, do we blow it out of proportion? Or do we take it and quickly move on?

When we disagree with somebody, do we speak up? Or do we prioritise their opinion over ours?

When we miss a deadline, do we feel deep shame or do not care too much?

In Discovering Personality, we are presented with 5 personality factors:

  • Conscientiousness – Our attitude to work and organisation
  • Agreeability – Prioritising others over ourselves
  • Openness to experience – Our attitude to intellectual pursuits and creativity
  • Extraversion – How much do we feel positive emotions?
  • Neuroticism – How much do we feel negative emotions?

Our personality traits are great predictors of how we feel and behave.

  • Conscientiousness is the second biggest predictor of success, behind IQ.
  • People who are too agreeable tend to secretly resent having to follow the wrong opinion of others.
  • People who are incredibly low in agreeability (the bottom percentile) are disposed to be predators or criminals.
  • Anxious and depressed people tend to have higher levels of neuroticism.

Realising that everyone has a different perception of the world is rather mind-blowing. We are all, literally, different beings. We see and feel the world differently.