Category Archives: reflection

On this page:
  • What’s in your handbook?
  • Quiet days
  • Learning life skills from philosophers
  • Developing opinions
  • Reflecting on relationships for a good life
  • Reflections on Aristotle, ends, and leisure

What’s in your handbook?

Ancient philosophy was designed to be memorized, so that it could be “at hand” when we are confronted with tumultuous situations like the one Stockdale found himself in. … The students wrote these maxims down in their handbook, memorized them, repeated them to themselves, and carried them around–that’s the point of a handbook, so the teachings are procheiron, or “close at hand.”

Philosophy for Life and other Dangerous Situations, Jules Evans (2013) – p116

Oh! Hence handbook – something small that you carry with you to guide your actions or remember principles when the craziness of life messes up your mind. This got me thinking about what might be the beginnings of my handbook: the little ideas that run through my life. Here are some.

  • Happiness is a response. Happiness isn’t something you buy or pursue, nor is it something that happens to you or that someone gives to you. This feeling of well-being comes from how you decide to respond to the world.
  • It’s just stuff. A common refrain when we’re donating things to the thrift store, passing up on purchases, cleaning up after something breaks, and so on.
  • It is what it is. Work with it.
  • Life is short. Before, nothingness. After, nothingness. We know people for such a short time. This is okay; in fact, it makes life sweeter.
  • Life is long. There’s lots of things to learn, and you’re going to run into similar situations again and again. You don’t need to sweat over making the absolute best decisions, since you’ll probably be able to try out different options. Still, giving things a little thought helps, because you can reap the benefits over time.
  • “Enough” is in the mind. You have enough.
  • Celebrate small steps. Because they’re fun!
  • Everything is part of the story. Especially the tough parts. They make the story interesting.
  • Build on your strengths. Situations can often be transformed into similar situations that take advantage of your strengths instead of hitting your weaknesses. Likewise, you can translate your strengths into new ones.
  • See the third way. When you think something is the only way, or when you’re stuck with the dilemma of one or another, step back and see even more approaches. You don’t have to accept the way the problem is framed; look for creative solutions.
  • Choose what to assent to. Be careful about what you let into your brain. For example, just because advertising is compelling doesn’t mean you have to be compelled.
  • It’s okay to be weird. Life is a grand experiment. If you zig when other people zag, you might feel weird, but don’t worry – there are lots of people zigging in the grand scheme of things, too.
  • Everyone’s learning. Everyone messes up. Everyone has bad days. Everyone has awesome moments. Practise loving kindness.
  • Share. Your memory is fuzzy and life is short. Get things out of your head and in a form that might help other people, and you could be pleasantly surprised by how it comes back.
  • A safety net helps you fly. It’s worth weaving a strong net so that you can take risks.
  • Everything will be okay. Things always work out, although sometimes it takes some time, action, or perspective.
  • Cats will be cats. There is no point in getting upset over out-of-the-litter-box thinking, throwing up, etc. Just tidy up and enjoy the purring and the fluffy cat-ness. The same can be said of much of life.
  • How wonderful can it be? Let that be your guiding question. Make life better.

Ask me again in five years and I’ll probably have added a few more. What’s in your handbook?

Quiet days

I set aside Tuesdays and Thursdays for consulting. Fridays are for meetings and getting together with people. Saturdays are for spending time with my husband or having the rare party, and Sundays are for cooking and chores.

Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays are discretionary time. I could spend those days working. My consulting clients would love to have more time, and there are all sorts of other things I could work on as well.

I’ve been making myself find good uses of that time on my own, though. Depending on the projects I’m focusing on, I might spend those days coding, drawing, reading, or writing. Lately, I’ve been working my way through a stack of philosophy books from the library. Histories give me overviews and show me the relationships between thinkers, while treatises give me the context for all these quotes that have been floating around.

Hmm. Maybe that’s what fascinates me about philosophy at the moment. I’ve picked up bits and pieces of wisdom through quotes and summaries. Now I want to learn more about the context of those sound bites and the thought processes behind them. I want to reflect on the maxims, choose the ones I want to apply to life, and learn how to observe and improve. At some point, I’ll probably feel that I can learn more from experience than from books, and then I’ll jump back into the fray. In the meantime, it’s amazing to be able to condense centuries of thought into afternoons of reading. Not that I fully understand everything, but there’s enough to spark awareness and recognition.

I’m not particularly interested in the big questions of metaphysics, epistemology, or logic. Ethics, maybe–small “e” ethics, not as much the Ethics of What Everyone Ought To Do. I want to get better at choosing what’s good for me and doing it. The ancient Greeks have a lot to say about that, and some of the later philosophers also do.

I’m not an entrepreneur, or at least not yet. I’m using this space and capital to improve myself (or at least theoretically improve myself) instead of building a business. I’m not even focused on learning a marketable skill that I can list on my résumé, although I’m sure my interests will turn towards that at some point. In the meantime, it feels good to lay the groundwork for more clarity and better decisions.

What’s the next step? Well, since I’m interested in applied philosophy, that probably means testing these ideas out in everyday life. On the personal side, there’s living simply and thoughtfully. On the social side, maybe practising more loving-kindness. I don’t think I’m cut out to be a pure philosopher, so I’ll likely use my time to learn, code, write, and draw. I wonder what I’ll be curious about after I build a good foundation in this area. Useful skills, perhaps? Design and aesthetics? Business? We’ll see.

In the meantime, I’ll give my mind enough space to unfold questions and learn from the notes that people have left for us.

Learning life skills from philosophers

Ancient Greeks hired philosophers to help their sons develop various skills, such as rhetoric and politics. I might not have that same kind of tutor now, but through books, conversations, and contemplation, maybe I can teach myself a little. It’s like having an imaginary board of advisors with different perspectives that I can draw on, a technique that Napoleon Hill describes in depth in “Think and Grow Rich”.

It might help to ask myself; What are the life skills I want to learn, and which philosophers might be able to help me along those journeys? Let me take a look at some of the things I’ve already learned so that I can sketch out the next steps in that trajectory.

Equanimity: From Epictetus, I learned to focus only on what I can control: not what happens to me, but how I perceive and respond to that. I’ve also been learning about detachment from things I don’t control. Why fear death? And if one doesn’t fear death, why should one fear anything lesser? I’d already found it easy to take responsibility for my own happiness and outlook, but learning from Epictetus gave me a clearer way to see all those little decisions I make about how I see the world.

Self-improvement: From Aristotle, I’m learning to allow myself to use my leisure time to improve as a person. I occasionally worry that I should be spending this time building businesses and developing marketable skills, but I’m willing to experiment with Aristotle’s assertion that philosophy is a worthwhile use of leisure time. I’m also learning that virtue is a muscle that you can exercise. As you get better at finding good activities that you enjoy more than activities that get in the way of your long-term happiness, and as you get better at wanting what’s good for you instead of what’s bad for you, virtue will become more natural. For example, I’m working on enjoying exercise and hanging out, and I’ll work on appreciating art someday.

What else would I like to learn?

Getting along with people: I like this quote I came across in Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness:

“Fundamental happiness depends more than anything else upon what may be called a friendly interest in persons and things. … The kind that makes for happiness is the kind that likes to observe people and finds pleasure in their individual traits, that wishes to afford scope for the interests and pleasures of those with whom it is brought into contact without desiring to acquire power over them or to secure their enthusiastic admiration. The person whose attitude towards others is genuinely of this kind will be a source of happiness and a recipient of reciprocal kindness. … To like many people spontaneously and without effort is perhaps the greatest of all sources of personal happiness.

… The secret of happiness is this: let your interests be as wide as possible, and let your reactions to the things and persons that interest you be as far as possible friendly rather than hostile.”

I like a few people spontaneously, and others with some effort. If I can identify the things that are getting in the way of my appreciation of other people, use Epictetus’ teachings to detach myself from those hidden fears and anxieties, and use Aristotle’s exercises to eventually prefer things that are good for me, I think I’ll be able to appreciate people more. =)

Developing a better appreciation of people is probably a good next step to focus on. It seems kinda weird to think of it as a skill to improve, but we take all sorts of things for granted (and our corresponding mediocrity as a given) when they’re really skills one can learn.

Developing opinions

How do I develop opinions? What is good to develop opinions about? How can I improve this process?

I’ve been working on teaching myself design. Good designs and bad designs both take effort to implement, so I might as well focus on good designs. I can read all the usability guidelines I want, but I need an aesthetic sense in order to bring things together into a coherent whole. Hence the need for opinions.

Lots of other areas benefit from opinions, too. Opinions can speed up decisions, save time and money, and help me appreciate subtleties. I’d like to form useful opinions while still being open to changing my mind in the face of good arguments or new evidence.

I don’t have a lot of strong opinions. I tend to take things as they are, see the value in multiple viewpoints, and not get too attached to things. I can identify and let go of decisions that don’t matter that much to me. In university, I nearly flunked my classes in literature. Art and music are still pretty opaque for me, although I do have a fondness for representational art and self-referential or otherwise punny music. Even when watching movies, I rely on IMDB reviews and TVTropes pages to shape my appreciation of what I’m watching.

W-, on the other hand, has a surprising breadth of well-informed opinions about things like kitchen knives, bicycle frames, and other areas. He has had quite a head start, though, so I don’t feel too bad.

Anyway, I have a lot of catching up to do. I want to set some parameters on my opinion-forming, however.

  • I want to still be able to enjoy simple things. I don’t want to refine my palate to the point of feeling that I need luxury goods, particularly if this involves artificial distinctions instead of true value. So it’s permissible to develop an opinion about different kinds of lettuce that I can easily grow or get from the supermarket, but I’m not likely to spend several hundred dollars on a brand-name purse.
  • I want to be flexible in my opinions. I should be able to acknowledge situations where the opinion is inapplicable and consider alternatives.
  • I don’t necessarily have to have an original opinion. It’s totally all right to follow other people’s opinions. As much as possible, though, I’d like to be able to articulate the reasons for my opinions (even if I’m choosing someone else’s position). In the beginning, I’ll probably lack the words and self-awareness, but I’ll get there if I keep explaining things to myself.

Okay. It seems that there are four stages in my opinion development:

  1. Anything goes. No opinion on these things yet.
  2. Do some quick research and pick a recommendation.
  3. Go deeper. Compare several approaches. Critically think about them. Pick one approach or synthesize several.
  4. Go a little further from the crowd. Come up with my own hypotheses and test them.

1. Anything goes: There are a lot of things I don’t particularly care about. I’m willing to take other people’s recommendations on them or follow my general principles. For example, I don’t have a strong opinion about most of the ingredients we buy from the grocery store, so I usually pick the lowest unit price and then move up from there as needed. Decisions that have low costs (time, money, attention, risk, etc.) generally stay in this category, although I occasionally invest time in thinking about things based on the frequency of the decision.

2. Quick research: I read a lot, and I’m comfortable digging through whatever research I can find online. Many of my decisions are in this category. I do a quick search to see what other people are saying or bring up points from books I’ve read, and we use those ideas when choosing an approach. W- knows a lot about comparison shopping, and I tend to be the one with notes for communication, personal finance, and education. Sometimes I turn these into blog posts as well, especially if I can follow up with the results of applying that opinion.

3. Going deeper: Sometimes research doesn’t turn up a clear answer, or I have to do the work in putting things together myself. I often request several books on the same topic from the library, reading them all over a couple of weeks so that I can see their overlaps and disagreements. Since it’s easy to forget key points and it’s easy to fool yourself into thinking you’ve made sense of something, writing and drawing help me a lot.

4. On my own: Some things are so uncommon, I can’t easily find relevant research. For example, I’m not the only one who’s done some kind of a semi-retirement experiment at an early age, but I don’t think I’ll find any books or online communities that already have reflections on all the questions I have. For topics where I’m on my own, I have to break things down into smaller questions that I might be able to research or test. Then I can write about what I’m learning, come up with ways to experiment, and share my reflections.

In terms of process, I tend to form most of my opinions by reading, writing, and trying things out. I rarely talk to other people in order to get their opinions about something, aside from the occasional people-related question where I’m curious about the approaches they’ve used. I don’t debate my opinions since I’m hardly ever interested in arguing with people. There’s no changing other people’s minds, anyway; only presenting approaches and helping them change their mind if they want. Ditto for me – people might disagree with something I write about, but I’m more likely to acknowledge a difference in opinion than to change my mind unless I really want to.

So, what do I want to get better at forming opinions about?

I’ve already mentioned design as one of the areas I plan to focus on. Philosophy is another: forming opinions about how I want to live and what I will do. Developing opinions on exercise will involve trying things out and paying close attention to how I feel.

I could probably work on my opinions about business, too. Reflection might turn up more opportunities that are in line with my current interests.

In terms of tech, I can become more opinionated about good programming practices, patterns, and frameworks.

Some consumer things are probably worth developing more opinions about because of their cost or frequency in my life. It may be good to develop an opinion about bicycling.

Cooking is a good area for opinions, since it’s all a matter of taste anyway. I can learn more techniques, get better at those techniques, and try different recipes. It might be good to develop opinions about gardening (particular cultivars? gardening practices?), although I’d probably need to develop the skills and infrastructure to start plants from seed first. Maybe start with salad green types? That’ll have a faster growth cycle, and I can also test things by buying different kinds of greens from the market.

Do I want to continue with my current process? Are there ways I can improve it?

One easy step for improving my opinion-building process is to capture more of it as blog posts. If I write about opinions as I’m forming them, I benefit from the explanation and the review. Other people might be able to share tips, questions, or ideas. There are lots of little opinions and opinions-in-progress that I haven’t shared on my blog yet. It could just be a matter of making blogging even more a part of my thinking process.

I can experiment with talking to more people while I’m forming opinions. I should probably be careful with that, though, since advice is a funny thing.

It might be interesting to be more explicit about the assumptions and hypotheses related to my opinions.

Hmm… Is this something you’ve thought about? How have you improved your opinion-forming processes?

Reflecting on relationships for a good life

Following up on my reflections on Aristotle, I’ve been thinking: what kinds of relationships can help me build a good life, and how can I help others in turn?

Aristotle distinguishes among relationships for utility, pleasure, or virtue. I have friends whose company and conversation are agreeable. There are a few whom I would go out of my way to help. I’d like there to be more of the last category. Getting to know acquaintances more will probably turn up a few, and I’ll likely bump into more with time and familiarity.

I get along the best with people who are positive, self-efficacious, and temperate. I’m biased towards people who are confident and articulate. This probably means I’m missing out on appreciating otherwise awesome people. I feel a little odd and uncharitable that I don’t feel that kind of appreciation about lots of people – I can wish them well and be nice to them, but there’s something missing there. C’est la vie, I suppose. Something to work on from my end, or perhaps to accept. Anyway, Aristotle says it’s quite rare to have good friends.

It would be interesting to have a lunch or dinner club of maybe six to eight people, meeting once a month or so. What kind of conversation would help us grow? Maybe something like “Here’s what I’ve learned so far about life; here are the things I’m figuring out; I need help with this; I can help with that; let’s make a difference in this; what did you think about that?” Different perspectives on the same things, similar perspectives in different situations… Many things are improved by conversation.

What would I bring to something like that, and to the individual friendships that comprise it? The basics might be location, food, organization. I tend to be cheerful, rational, and research-oriented. I’m getting better at sharing what I think, and at structuring and doing small experiments to learn. It might be interesting to connect with other people who like taking a step back, thinking about stuff, and then stepping back in and doing things.

If I found such people, though, would I share what I’ve been thinking about? I’m biased towards writing online instead, since the asynchronicity lets me think at my own pace. Online, I can reach more people and receive more insights. When I’m in conversation, I tend to listen to what’s going on in people’s lives instead of talking through what I’m trying to figure out. I prefer groups because of variety and lack of obligation (I don’t have to carry as much of the conversation), but I also tend to step back even further into the background – I guide the conversation with questions instead of adding my own tidbits. So there’s probably work to do there too. I wonder what a well-running potluck club would look like…

Hey, wouldn’t you know it… There’s actually a book called The Philosopher’s Table: How to Start Your Philosophy Dinner Club. Requesting it from the library.

Anyway, how would I need to develop in order to bring more to and get more from conversation? It might be interesting to ask about my friends’ lives, and share more from my life (more like “Here are some odd things I’ve been learning; maybe they’ll be useful to you” rather than “me me me me”). I can practise that even without major changes. I can also invite people to things and check with them more often to see if they have plans. Maybe people might even be up for trying a few months of this dinner club thing.

Reflections on Aristotle, ends, and leisure

What are the ends I pursue, and how do I pursue them?

I agree with Aristotle in that my ultimate end is happiness. For me, happiness is more along the lines of equanimity or tranquility: being able to appreciate the good parts and being confident that I can weather the tough parts. From stoicism, I understand that things aren’t good or bad in themselves; it’s more about my responses to those things. So for me, a good life is one where I can respond as I want to and as I should.

More specifically, what would that good life look like, and what are the goals I want to strive towards?

One easy goal to plan for is a good financial foundation. It’s easier to act freely when you’re not worried about food or shelter. I also work on keeping frugal, moderate tastes and a detachment from things. “It’s just stuff,” W- and I say as we drop things off for donation or resist buying more things.

I value learning, too. I like feeling concepts click together, learning how to build more complex things. I particularly like it when I can use what I’m learning to save time, especially when I help other people avoid repetitive, mechanical work.

I enjoy learning and working the most when I can create something distinctive that takes advantage of an unusual combination of skills or experiences. For example, I like the social business consulting that I do because it’s uncommon for people to be interested in large organizations, collaboration, workflow, change management, data visualization, programming, and design. I enjoy working on Emacs or on self-tracking because both lend themselves well to idiosyncratic questions and personal curiosities.

I’ve been self-consciously writing about leisure for what feels like too many days now. I’m trying to figure out how I want to spend my time, since that’s a decision I’m going to make repeatedly over decades. My answers will change over the years, too, but if I think about it a little, I might be able to make better decisions.

Most of the time, we think of relaxation and recreation as ways to recharge ourselves so that we can get back to work with more energy. Aristotle prizes the contemplative life, where you use your leisure time not just to amuse yourself, but to improve.

What does that mean to me, though? For example, I could spend some time learning languages, or developing my drawing skills, or picking up a new technology. There’s so much more to learn about all sorts of other subjects. An easy answer to the question “What shall I do with my time?” might be to volunteer, but I would also want to do that with deliberation. What will help me grow, and what’s just a nice-to-have?

Let’s say that I don’t know enough to choose those topics from the beginning. How can I get better at observing myself and learning from how I use my leisure time? What would make a difference when I look back over a long life?

One of the things that has helped me a lot and that I’d like to get very good at is the ability to notice (as the Less Wrong community phrases it) that I am confused, and to explore that confusion. Reading helps me notice the gaps and find words to describe things, and writing helps me start to untangle the knots. If I keep getting better at this, then when I’m much more experienced, I might be able to spot opportunities for growth, catch myself before I make mistakes, and also help friends think through their own lives.

Learning various skills (tech, DIY, cooking) helps improve my self-efficacy. I can make more things myself, and I can imagine more things too. Besides, it’s fun, and occasionally economically useful.

I’m still not as keen on conversation and friendship as I probably should be, at least according to Aristotle. I enjoy conversations with W- most of all. I like the mix of practicality, growth, and whimsical puns. On occasion, I enjoy conversations with other people, especially those I think well of and want to support. Other times, I talk to people for variety and social exercise. I’m comfortable with that because I’m not trying to be popular, entertaining, or entertained. I don’t mind taking my time with the slow collection of interesting people I can learn from and help.

I can use my leisure time to learn how to prefer things that are good for me. For example, I’m working on that exercise habit. I’m sure that once I’ve gotten into the swing of things, I’ll be able to enjoy it – I just have to stick it out until then. I have much to learn about music, art, design, and literature, too.

I think a good life is one where I have the space, awareness, and control to respond to life the way I want to, and that I’ve learned to want what’s good for me. I’d like to be able to say, looking back, that I’ve deliberated on how I wanted to live and that I’ve lived pretty darn close to what I decided. We’ll just have to see how it all works out!