Thursday, October 15, 2009

Epictetus the Life Coach

Barbara Ehrenreich has a new book out about the perils of positive thinking, and it highlights a growing counter-movement in the self-help genre. Studies suggests all those 'Think to Win!' books are actually harmful to your health. Books like The Little Gold Book of YES! Attitude or The Secret are all about you getting you to be positive all the time to achieve, well, anything. Tony Robbins, Joel Osteen, Martin Seligman, Nathaniel Branden, all preach the power of positive thinking. Like methamphetamine this is invigorating at first, enervating in the end. Research has shown that depressed people are actually more realistic about their abilities than optimists. Woody Allen's joke about the secret of happiness being abject stupidity is funny because it's kinda true (as most jokes are). That just depresses me further.

The problem with optimism is that it's blatantly incorrect: we aren't all above average in everything, things do not always get better, and we can't always get what we want. The problem with realism is that by itself it is depressing, a demotivator that does not elevate.

As an altnernative to the Charbydis of Realism and the Scylla of Optimism, I present Stoicism, via Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, Book II, part 1):

Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together

Now, this at first seems rather banal: don't sweat mean people. But this is actually quite important, because frustrations with people, not nature, causes most of our grief. Most of what causes people angst are not exogenous constraints of no one's fault, but rather, when people do things that seemingly are intended to harm you: someone cuts you off in traffic, privately belittles your contributions to colleagues. Recognize there are things you can control, and those you can't, and this include other people's actions: learn the difference, and don't worry about things you can't control (aka the Serenity Prayer).

If you remember that most people are mean out of ignorance and you can't really control that, you take their slights without offense. You still have to manage them, but you don't let these people anger you. Somehow, thinking about other's intentions raises hackles much more than any non-conscious constraints. This makes you more effective, and more pleasant to work with, because one of the most endearing qualities is someone with a thick skin.

As a practical matter, living one's life like Marcus Aurelius generates huge amounts of win. One must not merely love a select few people, but work with many one is much less fond of in a productive way. Modern life is intrinsically social, so either teach people or endure them. Accepting the sad fact that every day, some of our interactions will involve petty insults and slights, sometimes by colleagues and bosses, is much more constructive than either mooning about it (realism) or thinking it doesn't happen (optimism). If you replace annoying people's intent with poorly endowed assumptions or logic, an inanimate obstacle, it is not merely more fruitful but less stressful. Your lack of drama will be appreciated by those around you, even those who really don't like you, and winning them over is a good thing.

It's too bad 'The Classics' are so out of favor (no longer an AP course for high school). Their civilization created many great things, and lasted a lot longer than our 'Modern Times'. Sure, they didn't have soap, toilet paper, or buttons, and believed in slavery and supernatural forces, that's too much hindsight. If you consider that Archimedes figured out Pi to 5 significant digits using Roman Numerals, and look at their roads and aqueducts, I have the sense we have accumulated more knowledge, but aren't nearly as smart as those guys (the Idiocracy effect). If you look at the Bible or modern philosophy, or witty quotes, you can often see it's premonition in works of the Stoics.

"Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them." ~Epictetus

"Everything is right for me, which is right for you, O Universe." ~ Marcus Aurelius

"How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life!" ~Marcus Aurelius

"Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of those applauding hands." ~ Marcus Aurelius

Good ideas are worth repeating, and they not only make you appear smart, they actually make you smarter! A good stoic is not afraid of death, pain, or misfortune, only in not doing your best, losing your patience or your discipline. The virtues and true pleasures available to any man are available to every man (note Epictetus was born a slave, Aurelius an Emperor).

I don't think it is a complete philosophy of life,as I'm not into asceticism or radical fatalism, but like a flea market I can take what I want, and there's a lot there.


Aaron Davies said...

Do you know, I think that's the first time I've ever seen Nathaniel Branden mentioned for anything other than having a really bad breakup with Ayn Rand?

zby said...

That's really nitpicking - but why would Archimedes use Roman numerals and not his national Greek ones?

Eric Falkenstein said...

I have always called 'em roman numerals. I suppose others call em greek numerals. Like soda and pop, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Eric, I don't think they taught classics in your school either! Zby is right, Archimedes was Greek & they did NOT use Roman numerals, whatever YOU call them!

Greeks had a number system based on their alphabet with alpha=1, beta=2, gamma=3 etc.... This is obviously different to the Roman system.

You're right in your general point though - it's amazing they got to Pi (a greek letter!!) at all, let alone to multiple decimal places.

Anonymous said...

The classic Greeks weren't the only advanced ancients. The big ancient centers of math development were ancient Babylon (Iraq), the Indus River Civilization (Includes parts of Afganistan and most of Pakistan), Alexandria Egypt and then Ancient Greece.
Proving that Idiocracy might be the most prescient movie ever. That was a great flick. Now leave me alone, I'm bating.

Diogenes@Sinope said...

Actually, the Stoics weren't really into asceticism, that was more the Cynics. Seneca was a very wealthy man, as was (obviously) Marcus Aurelius. Material goods are preferred indifferences that you would rather have then not, but aren't a necessary component of a well-lived life. Just realize that all your toys are just toys, I suppose.

I also don't think they thought of themselves as radical fatalists, since they definitely believed in free will. Their idea, again, is that the sorts of thing that may happen is beyond our control, and when we get upset at these things, it implies we have a mistaken belief about what we can control. This is not to say you do nothing when bad things happen, but that it is counterproductive to throw a hissy fit.

Joe said...

Tom Wolfe's wonderful novel A Man in Full drew extensively and explicitly from Stoic philosophy (one of the primary characters stumbles across a book about Epictetus and becomes a "born again" Stoic, if you will). I highly recommend it for a thoroughly enjoyable introduction to Stoic thought.

Jim Glass said...

The problem with optimism is that it's blatantly incorrect

Maybe that's not a bug but a feature, as shown by the fact that the overconfident have been selected...
The puzzle about overconfidence is its ubiquity. Many studies have shown that most people have an exaggerated sense of their own capabilities, an illusion of control over events and an invulnerability to risk ... We are all overconfident in one way or another.

But how can such a condition have evolved when the consequences of overconfidence can lead to the destruction of communities and the catastrophic loss of life?

That’s a mystery that many experimental psychologists have wrestled with but now Johnson and Fowler say they have the answer.

By creating a mathematical model of the way overconfident individuals compete against ordinary individuals, they show that there is a clear advantage in overconfidence.

In fact, if the potential reward is at least twice as great as the cost of competing, then overconfidence is the best strategy. Overconfidence is actually advantageous on average, because it boosts ambition, resolve, morale and persistence...

Overconfidence is the best way to maximise benefits over costs when risks are uncertain...

But it is Johnson and Fowler’s predictions that are most worrying.

Their model implies that optimal overconfidence increases with the magnitude of uncertainty. So the greater the risk, the more overconfident individuals should become.

Well, we were all overconfident during the Cold War about avoiding a nuclear exchange, but it worked out anyhow (so far).

Perhaps there are some implications from this for financial markets.

No argument with your observations about valuing the classics.

Anonymous said...

Echoes of Robert Ringer from the 1970s -

In his classic book, Winning Through Intimidation, Robert Ringer described his theory of "sustenance of a positive attitude through the assumption of the negative." He proposes that if you assume the worst will happen, you can prepare and be ready for anything. When you assume the negative and later find that the person you are dealing with is honest and lives up to his or her commitments, think about how pleased you will be.

Life Coach Directory said...

Hi There,

This is a great read but I am really having a tough time siding with the authors against positivity.

It is a pretty well established fact that people thrive in environments where positive comments outweigh negative ones 3:1.

I honestly believe that there can not be too much positivity in someone's life. Inevitably no matter positive you are you are going to encounter a negative force. It never hurts to build a well of happiness to battle this!

Once again, thanks for the great read. Hope my comment added to the discussion!



Willem said...

Your Blog Topic Made me think of this book. Eric, you may want to pick it up for a read.

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book

The four agreements are these: Be impeccable with your word. Don't take anything personally. Don't make assumptions. Always do your best.