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On Aristotle and talking to people about troubles

After reflecting on how I’d like to respond to people who want to talk about their challenges and how I want to discuss mine, I’ve been thinking a little bit more about the approaches that I favour and why.

Despite my faith in friends and availability of support groups or forums for pretty much any situation one can find yourself in, I tend to work through things independently. Sometimes I talk to W-. Even then, it’s often retrospective: “I worked through this-and-this dilemma. This is the decision I’ve come to because of these reasons, but I’d love to hear your thoughts in case I missed something.” I’d rather talk to people about the good stuff.

When it comes to other people talking to me about stuff they’re going through, I assume they’re smart and have tried things, so I ask questions about the obstacles they’ve run into. I like focusing on getting over barriers because this is one thing that other people can actually help with. You might get stuck on something because you don’t know where to start, don’t have the skills or experience for it, or because it intimidates you. Other people might be able to map out an easier way for you, directly help you (hooray for comparative advantage), or share how it’s really not that scary if you focus on doing X, Y, and Z.

While reading D.P. Chase’s translation of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, I came across this passage on what to share with your friends when you’re going through challenges:

But [friends'] presence has probably a mixed effect: I mean, not only is the very seeing friends pleasant, especially to one in misfortune, and actual help towards lessening the grief is afforded (the natural tendency of a friend, if he is gifted with tact, being to comfort by look and word, because he is well acquainted with the sufferer’s temper and disposition and therefore knows what things give him pleasure and pain), but also the perceiving a friend to be grieved at his misfortunes causes the sufferer pain, because every one avoids being cause of pain to his friends. And for this reason they who are of a manly nature are cautious not to implicate their friends in their pain; and unless a man is exceedingly callous to the pain of others he cannot bear the pain which is thus caused to his friends: in short, he does not admit men to wail with him, not being given to wail at all: women, it is true, and men who resemble women, like to have others to groan with them, and love such as friends and sympathisers. But it is plain that it is our duty in all things to imitate the highest character.

So if you’re sad, it can help to have company in your sadness, but that might cause your friends to feel sad as well. Be strong, if you can.

It would seem, therefore, that we ought to call in friends readily on occasion of good fortune, because it is noble to be ready to do good to others: but on occasion of bad fortune, we should do so with reluctance; for we should as little as possible make others share in our ills; on which principle goes the saying, “I am unfortunate, let that suffice.” The most proper occasion for calling them in is when with small trouble or annoyance to themselves they can be of very great use to the person who needs them.

That’s probably going to be my approach to getting by with a little help from my friends: to figure out, perhaps, if there are small things people can do that could have a big impact, and to focus on those instead of on commiseration. As for when people approach me, or when I notice friends in difficult situations, I will try to keep this in mind:

But, on the contrary, it is fitting perhaps to go to one’s friends in their misfortunes unasked and with alacrity (because kindness is the friend’s office and specially towards those who are in need and who do not demand it as a right, this being more creditable and more pleasant to both); and on occasion of their good fortune to go readily, if we can forward it in any way (because men need their friends for this likewise), but to be backward in sharing it, any great eagerness to receive advantage not being creditable.

… to see the opportunity to be kind, where kindness might be cooking a good meal, giving a person a hug, or helping out in ways that take advantage of our different skills and experiences.

Weekly review: Week ending July 25, 2014

I’ve been going to more of these small get-togethers. I finally got around to hosting one here, too! I’m curious about this process of getting to know people better. I think I’m now more comfortable with conversation than I used to be, particularly if I preempt the “What do you do?” question by asking “What are you interested in?” This often leads to conversations about cooking, gardening, philosophy, and so on.

I used to feel slightly odd about small talk as something that didn’t really move forward–slight variations on a theme, again and again. Something is changing. Maybe I’m becoming more patient? Better at appreciating the little things? Worth reflecting on.

In other news, I made Japanese curry from scratch today, following this recipe. Mm! I’ve been making progress in terms of runinng and exercise too.

My consulting client needs some extra help over the next month or two, so I might nudge the balance a little more towards work. I want to keep writing, exercising, cooking, reading, and spending time with people, so I’ll probably try ~21 hours, but not ~40. Last week was about 25.5 hours and I felt like my brain was a bit fuzzy. Reading and writing feel like they expand my time; biking, too. Less time reading blogs, then. Time to tweak things…

Blog posts

Link round-up

Focus areas and time review

  • Business (34.0h – 20%)
    • Earn (25.6h – 75% of Business)
      • E1: Train TR
      • E1: Finish transition video draft
      • E1: Work on second video draft
      • Earn: E1: 2.5-3.5 days of consulting
    • Build (2.0h – 5% of Business)
      • Drawing (0.0h)
      • Delegation (0.0h)
      • Packaging (0.0h)
      • Paperwork (1.5h)
    • Connect (6.3h – 18% of Business)
  • Relationships (8.8h – 5%)
    • Attend Paul’s party
    • Attend potluck
    • Discuss F2
    • Have coffee with Andrew
    • Host party
    • Attend Nadia’s party
    • Make ratatouille at Hacklab?
  • Discretionary – Productive (11.4h – 6%)
    • Emacs (1.4h – 0% of all)
      • Record chat with Harry Schwartz
    • Fix website
    • Follow up on Canadian citizenship
    • Call CIC to find out what’s going on with my citizenship application
    • Writing (1.5h)
      • What’s in your handbook?
  • Discretionary – Play (14.3h – 8%)
  • Personal routines (23.1h – 13%)
  • Unpaid work (14.6h – 8%)
  • Sleep (61.8h – 36% – average of 8.8 per day)

Learning from frugal lives of years past

I’ve been reading a lot about early frugal living. I read Henry David Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and I followed a link in a blog post to Ralph Borsodi’s This Ugly Civilization (1929) and thence to his Flight from the City (1933, during the Great Depression – particularly poignant bits in the chapter on security versus insecurity). Both authors provided detailed breakdowns of their expenses and descriptions of their methods, fleshing out philosophies of simple living. There’s much that I don’t agree with, but there are also many ideas that I recognize and can learn even more from. I’d probably get along with the authors, and their mental voices will be handy to keep in my mind. I found both of them somewhat more relatable than Ralph Waldo Emerson in his essays, but I’m sure Emerson will yield additional insights on re-reading.

Both Thoreau and Borsodi emphasized the freedom you get (or keep!) by minimizing your wants. Thoreau wrote, “… for my greatest skill has been to want but little.” Borsodi points out the artificiality of many desires as products of a factory-oriented culture that must have people buy the things that factories produce. By questioning your wants and becoming as self-sufficient as you can be, you free yourself from the restrictions many other people have. In a way, it’s a follow-up from what I’m learning from Epictetus. I like how the Greeks tend to be more about living in society instead of going away from it, though.

Homesteading is a big thing for both Thoreau and Borsodi. I’m not particularly curious about exploring homesteading at the moment. City bylaws ban keeping chickens, and I still struggle with garden productivity. The city is all I know so far. W- and J- both have reasons to be here. Besides, the Toronto Public Library system and a decent, reliable connection to Internet are doing amazing things for my learning at the moment. Perhaps someday, but not now. In the meantime, despite Borsodi’s disdain for the stock market, I like the fact that it’s doing well. The gains are much less than Virginia Woolf’s five hundred a year (about US$45,000 these days; mentioned in A Room of One’s Own), but I don’t need that much to live well, anyway. Still, I’m going to keep working on some skills for independent living (cooking, sewing, repairing, making, etc.), since I can do that wherever I am.

Onward!

Don’t worry about your tools in the beginning: Avoiding premature optimization

“What tools should I buy?” “What platform do I start with?” “What’s the best option out there?” Geeks have a special case of analysis paralysis at the beginning of things. We try to optimize that first step, and instead end up never getting started.

Here’s what I’m learning: In the beginning, you’re unlikely to be able to appreciate the sophisticated differences between tools. Don’t bother spending hours or days or weeks picking the perfect tool for you. Sure, you can do a little bit of research, but then pick one and learn with that first. If you run into the limits, that’s when you can think about upgrading.

Start with something simple and inexpensive (or even free). If you wear it out or if you run into things you just can’t do with it and that are worth the additional expense, then decide if you want to get something better. I do this with:

  • Food: We start with inexpensive ingredients and work our way up as necessary.
  • Shoes: Upgraded from cheap to medium.
  • Bicycles: Still on the first bicycle I bought in Canada, since it was enough for me.
  • Ukeleles: Glad I just bought the basic one, since it turns out it’s not quite my thing.
  • Knives: Okay, we splurged on this one and started with good knives, since I piggybacked off W-’s experience and recommendations.
  • Drawing: I tried the Nintendo DS before upgrading to a tablet and then to a tablet PC. For paper, I tried ordinary sketchbooks that cost $4.99 on sale, and have been happy with them so far – although I might downgrade to just having a binder of loose sheets.

Don’t worry about what the “best” is until you figure out what your actual needs are.

There are situations in which the cheapest or the simplest might not be the best place to start. You can easily get frustrated if something is not well-designed, and some inferior tools like dull kitchen knives are dangerous. That’s a sign that you’ve run into your choice’s limits and can therefore upgrade without worry. Yes, it might waste a little money and time, but you’ll probably waste even more time if you procrastinate choosing (more research! more!) and waste more money if you always buy things that have more capacity than you ultimately need. You can tweak how you make that initial decision–maybe always consider the second-from-the-bottom or something like that–but the important part is getting out there and learning.

Becoming the sort of person I want to be

There are three major shifts that I’m struggling with:

  • becoming a person who can tolerate more pain in order to achieve certain goals, such as fitness
  • becoming a person who can easily enjoy people’s company and appreciate what’s interesting about them
  • becoming a person who can make longer-term commitments, trusting that things will work out

Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth making these changes. Maybe I should just go with how I bend, building on strengths instead of fiddling with weaknesses. If I follow that principle, I might instead:

  • look for ways to make the most of the things that come easily to me
  • explore the shifting connections around ideas and conversations instead of focusing on specific people
  • maximize freedom, flexibility, and agility

The first set of paths seems harder than the second, but will it work out for me better? Taking the easy way still leads to lots of interesting possibilities and less wasted energy. On the other hand, trying difficult things can expand my confidence and help me challenge artificial limits. Also, I tend to over-estimate how difficult things are, and I tend to be more adaptable than I expect. So if the first set of changes is better for me (based on the reasons given by philosophers and learned from other people’s lives), it might make sense to give those a good try–at least for a number of years.

Let me take a closer look at each of those shifts to see if I can puzzle out what I’m struggling with and how to transform that.

Becoming a person who can tolerate more pain in order to achieve certain goals, such as fitness

I still feel anxious at the prospect of combined pain and stress, like the way I seized up after spraining my ankle in a krav maga class. On the other hand, I feel okay with the slight discomfort of the gentle running program that W- is helping me with and the Hacker’s Diet exercise ladder I’m doing. I’ve dealt with some pain along the way to working on other things. Most things are not supposed to hurt a lot (otherwise you’re doing it wrong), but a little wobbliness is understandable.

Taking the long view helps. I remind myself that pain has so far been temporary and that memory is thankfully fuzzy about stuff like that. Gradually, as my strength and tolerance improves, I should be able to take on more and more.

Becoming a person who can easily enjoy people’s company and appreciate what’s interesting about them

I’m okay with people. I like them as an abstract idea, and I get along with people online and in real life. I probably just have to get out more, ask more questions, share a little more of myself in conversation, and become more comfortable with having people over.

Becoming a person who can make longer-term commitments, trusting that things will work out

Seeing the difficulty that people have in transferring leadership roles and knowing my own inconstancy of interests, I hesitate to take on longer-term commitments or bigger roles. Maybe this is something I can learn, though. I’m surrounded by opportunities and role models, so it’s as good a time as any to pick this up. For some of the bigger decisions, I find it helpful to learn from other people who have dealt with similar things before.

What would be some triggers for switching strategy and following what’s more natural for me? If I’m not making any progress or if I notice myself being consistently unhappy, that might be a good sign that I need to reconsider my plans. In the meantime, I’m making very slow progress, but it does seem to get easier and less scary each time I try this.

Learning from things I like: Books about applying advice to your life

I’m fascinated by books about applying advice to your life. “Stunt memoir” seems to be the phrase for it – or gimmick book, or schtick lit. (This post lists lots of examples.) Part self-help book and part memoir, these are usually broken up into one chapter per principle, applying research or time-tested ideas to everyday life. Book titles are often long multi-parters where the second part refers to the adventure or lists an incongruous combination of techniques. The authors illustrate principles with struggles, successes, and epiphanies, and then eventually make their peace with the advice. Oddly enough, chapters tend to fit rather neatly into the usual three-act story structure – the storyteller’s craft at work.

A year seems to be a common size for these experiments, often divided into one principle per month: long enough to test ideas and write a decent-sized book for print. I think that one principle a month looks manageable for readers, too: not so short that you won’t see changes, and not so long that you’d get bored or discouraged.

Here are some examples:

I imagine that writing such a book is good for self-improvement even if no one else ever buys or reads it, so any sales are a bonus. I wonder what the process of writing that kind of a book is like: how to organize notes into a narrative, how to push yourself beyond what’s easy.

There are lots of experiments I could run along those lines:

  • Self-tracking: focusing on quantifying different things per month, bringing in research as well. Time, finance, productivity, mood, habits, fitness, food, learning, thinking, relationships, others
  • Practical philosophy: paying close attention to ancient wisdom and applying that to daily life
  • Behavioural economics and psychology in daily life: rationality, decision-making, etc.

Still, I want to be careful about the kinds of things that have rubbed me and other people the wrong way A month is not that long, and sometimes these books feel a little… shallow? Like someone’s going through the Cliff Notes for a deep idea, trying out a few things, and then calling it a day. As if someone’s just going through a checklist, crossing off different techniques. There’s also that consciousness of privilege, and the self-absorption of memoirs. That said, I write about my reflections a lot on this blog, so… maybe? I tend to think of it more as “Ack, there’s so much I still have to figure out; if I post my notes, maybe someone will take pity on me and share their insights (or possibly recognize something that they might find useful in theirs)” rather than “Here, learn from my life.”

So… I don’t know. On one hand, I like the “I’m figuring this out too” approach compared to the didactic awesomer-than-thou feel of many self-help books. On the other hand, I’m not keen on the “My life is incomplete and unhappy; I must search outside for ways to make it better.”

What’s at the core of the things I like about these kinds of books?

  • Translates research or principles into everyday actions: There’s a lot of good stuff buried in scientific language, abstract concepts, or even self-help books. Sometimes it’s hard to imagine applying those ideas to real life, and seeing someone go through the process (recovering from mistakes and all!) can help.
  • Pays attention to things we often take for granted: We do many things repeatedly and with little attention. If we look closely at them, we can get better. For example, if we think about a principle and relate it to how we want to communicate, make decisions, or use our time, we’ll often find things that we can tweak and turn into new habits.
  • Shares the struggles and the little celebrations: Self-help books can feel a little too pat with all their success stories. I relate a little better to stories along the lines of “Yeah, this was hard to learn, but here’s how I picked myself up and tried again. Here are some things that made it a little easier for me until I got the hang of it. This is what encouraged me to keep going, and now here I am. Maybe this can help you too.”
  • Connects with people who are even more dedicated to the topic: Some books sprinkle in quotes from researchers and authors. Some books include conversations with specialists. Some books delve into subcultures of people who are even more passionate about the principles and have lots of insights to share. I like the last type most of all; it’s like having an excuse to meet and learn from geeks of other persuasions.

Maybe less stunt-ish, then? I’m not thinking of these as radical changes to my life (“Oh, I only have to do this a month at a time, for a year”), but more like gradual improvement. I can always try things informally, and then stitch the essays together into a book. It might not be as impressive as spending one contiguous year focused on something, packaging this up for other people’s entertainment and perhaps inspiration, but we’ll see where it goes. =)