On this page:
  • Quiet days
  • Learning life skills from philosophers
  • Reflecting on relationships for a good life
  • Reflections on Aristotle, ends, and leisure
  • In an imperfect world
  • Embracing Pollyanna

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.

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!

In an imperfect world

Quinn wanted to know how I respond to systemic injustice, wicked problems, and other things that are so far beyond individual scale that they tend to reduce people to helplessness.

I used to be paralyzed by these thoughts. I fumbled with class divides, marked as privileged by language and accent and access. I avoided relationships because I worried about the statistics showing discrimination against married women and mothers. I felt torn apart by guilt over being part of the brain drain, tempted to think of what-ifs.

I’m learning to pick my fights and focus on doing the best I can.

So, yes to… Even though it will probably be much harder to…
Pursuing my passion for code and writing, despite knowing that there are scary people out there Deal with such people if they make me a target
Blogging about what I’m learning, sharing whatever I can Contribute to open source code while at IBM (it’s doable, but there’s quite a bit paperwork ;) )
Both my husband and I keeping our names, and to always phrasing it as decisions we both make for ourselves Go with non-patrilineal naming for children
Promoting equality through avoiding deemphasizing motherhood and emphasizing parenting, valuing homemakers and caregivers, and appreciating people who choose not to have children Deal with gender-role assumptions, subtle professional discrimination against mothers, and ageism in technology careers
Managing my finances myself and resisting the pull towards consumerism get everyone to live below their means and manage their accounts reasonably
Microlending and encouraging entrepreneurship Get people to self-start, or solve systemic biases against the poor
Living as full a life as I can with W- Deal with the occasional biases against and the certain challenges of a relationship with a large age gap
Making the most of where I am and helping other people get started Move back to the Philippines and make a bigger difference there
Working reasonable hours at full capacity and investing in building a full life as well Change the work-life expectations for executives or startups

It isn’t about solving the world’s problems. It’s about facing the world lovingly, finding unknown depths of energy in yourself so that you can keep on going even if life challenges you.

Here’s something from people wiser than I am:

The bodhisattva vows to save all sentient beings, but that is not a
goal in the relative sense. The bodhisattva realizes that what she is
saying in that vow is completely impractical. You can’t really do it.
We see this from the mythical story of the great bodhisattva
Avalokiteshvara. He had a literal mind in the beginning. He took that
vow, “Until I save all six realms of existence, I will not attain
enlightenment.” He worked and he worked and he worked to fulfill his
vow. He helped beings, and he thought he’d saved hundreds of millions
of them. Then he turned around and saw that an even greater number
than he had saved were still suffering, and he had flickers of doubt
at that point.

At the beginning, when he took that vow, he had said, “If I have any
doubts about my path, may my head split into a thousand pieces.” This
vow came true at this time. His head began to fall apart. He was in
tremendous pain of confusion, not knowing what he was doing. Then,
according to the myth, Amitabha – a great buddha of compassion – came
to him and said, “Now you’re being foolish. That vow you took
shouldn’t be taken literally. What you took was a vow of limitless
compassion.” Avalokiteshvara realized that and understood it. Through
that recognition, he became a thousand times more powerful. That’s why
the iconographical image of Avalokiteshvara often has twelve heads and
a thousand arms. You see, once you take the meaning of saving all the
others literally, you lose the sacredness of it. If you’re able to see
that compassion applies to every situation, then compassion becomes
limitless.

… The path is what there is to work with, and that work is there
eternally, because sentient beings are numberless, and we have to work
with them eternally.

Trungpa, Gimian, and Kohn’s Work, Sex, Money: Real Life on the Path of Mindfulness (p73-74)

Sometimes it feels like the world rolls backwards faster than we Sisyphi can push it up. That’s okay. We get better and better at making little differences. We get better at making bigger and bigger differences. There’s no game over. There’s no happily ever after. There’s just the constant work and growth of being human.

Sometimes I roll backwards faster than I can push myself up. I forget something. I ignore someone’s needs. I make mistakes. But if I can keep focusing on small things I can do to move forward instead of trying to keep score over the entirety of things, then it’s easy to find the energy to start again.

The world also rolls forward, unexpectedly, through no effort of our own. Keep an eye out for those moments. The world is full of things that aren’t right, but it’s also full of things that are.

Embracing Pollyanna

Happy people are sometimes derided as unrealistic Pollyannas, other people’s way of bringing them down to earth. I’ve heard it from people who don’t yet understand how I can be so optimistic. The dictionary defines “pollyanna” as an excessively or blindly optimistic person. Curious about this, I requested Eleanor Porter’s book Pollyanna from the library. In the pages of this easy-to-read book, I discovered a philosophy similar to the one I live.

You see, Pollyanna’s life centers on the Glad Game that she plays – the game of finding at least one thing to be glad about in any situation. An orphan taken in by her stern aunt, she inspires the town and eventually her aunt into playing this game. Invalids are comforted, quarrels are patched up, life gets better all around. When she runs into her own challenges, the whole town pitches in to help her play the toughest Glad Game she’s ever faced.

I play something like the Glad Game too. Grew into it unknowingly, took it as my own. It becomes easier – almost instinctive – as you do it. In the book, Pollyanna says:

“Why, Nancy, that’s so! I WAS playing the game—but that’s one of the times I just did it without thinking, I reckon. You see, you DO, lots of times; you get so used to it—looking for something to be glad about, you know. And most generally there is something about everything that you can be glad about, if you keep hunting long enough to find it.”

The game I play isn’t quite the Glad Game, though. I don’t stop at being glad. I guess I play the Learn-Share-Do Game. What can I learn from this situation? How can I share what I’m learning? How will I respond – what will I do about this situation? This turns every joy and success into something greater, and every heartache into part of the story.

It’s a blend of the infectious optimism of the 11-year-old Pollyanna and the resolute freedom of the Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl, who wrote this:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

There is no shame in being a Pollyanna, on facing life with conscious optimism and deliberate gratitude. Optimism can be firmly rooted in reality, finding nutrients in its depths, using the rocks of life as anchors.

I play the Learn-Share-Do game. What game do you play with life?