The Digest #47

Published on October 28, 2020

“There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.”

— Epictetus, The Enchiridion

The tired cliché of keeping a stiff upper lip sums up what most people think of when someone is described as a stoic. Based on this line of thinking, stoics mainly believe in enduring terrible hardships with equanimity. If bad things happen, they are to be endured quietly and unemotionally.

The idea that stoicism is deterministic, that little or nothing is within our control, has led to criticism of the philosophy as a false promise and an exercise in defeatism. A completely deterministic worldview can lead some people to give up entirely and sink into depression. Many others pursue various forms of short term hedonism which is inevitably only a temporary palliative measure.

Critics of stoicism do not usually deny that there are elements of wisdom in stoicism but often point out that many famous stoics were privileged members of the elite sharing little in common with ordinary people. The wisdom of Marcus Aurelius is immediately apparent to anyone who reads Meditations. Marcus faced enormous challenges in his life but he was a Roman Emperor and hardly a common man.

Ryan Holiday recently made the point that ancient stoics were actually far more diverse than modern stereotypes allow. Marcus was an emperor but ancient stoics ranged from elite rulers to men such as Epictetus who was born a slave. Holiday argues that far from being an out-of-touch elitist creed, stoicism actually originates from a culture of diversity and remains highly relevant today.

It is obvious that trying to influence what is truly out of our control is futile, and that getting upset about what we cannot change is no more productive than pounding sand. However, the difficulty is to properly identify whether a situation is within our sphere of influence. We do not want to submit to defeatism when it is within our power to improve a situation, but we also do not want to flail around pointlessly.

Life is finite. This is a simple reality that can no longer be denied when people in your own generation begin to succumb to diseases typically associated with old age. Every generation, at some point, starts to see its members die of natural causes, and often those who fall victim to early death have done all of the “right things” to preserve their health. 

Obviously, this does not mean that we should take a fatalistic attitude toward our health, but I prefer to frame good habits in terms of short-term benefits. Being physically fit improves my life on a day-to-day basis. Going running in the morning is highly correlated with whether today is going to be a good day or a frustrating one. What the implications are for my health in 2030 or 2040 remains unknown and not in my direct control, but today is in my control.

This is not an original insight. Marcus Aurelius and other stoics believed in focusing on the present moment. There are inescapable limits to our control over future events, especially when it comes to the distant future. But we have significant control over the present and no excuse to adopt a fatalistic attitude when it comes to how we spend our energy today

Human happiness is highly correlated with having a sense of agency, or influence over events in our lives. Stoicism counsels us to act with equanimity when faced with adversity but in no way precludes us from living our best lives in the present moment.

Building Good Habits

Positive reinforcement is important when it comes to establishing habits of any kind – both good and bad. In fact, most bad habits are formed because they provide important short-term benefits while only imposing long-term costs. 

James Clear is the author of Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad OnesI have not read this book yet but it is now on my list after listening to Clear’s recent interview on the Infinite Loops podcast:

One of the most interesting concepts Clear advocates is the idea that small changes in your life can compound dramatically over time. Although skills and habits do not necessarily grow exactly like compound interest, from a directional perspective we often only notice the benefits of new habits over longer periods of time. Small changes seem small from day to day but can be dramatic when viewed over the course of several months or a year.

In the podcast, Clear points out that we have many short periods of downtime every day and most of us “default” to a particular habit to fill up those random minutes. For many people, this might involve checking social media. But instead of doing something unproductive, if the “default” is to switch to something meaningful, if only for a few minutes, that could compound into significant progress. Clear’s “default” is to open up the manuscript of his book and work on it during moments of downtime. 

The following YouTube video is a good eight minute introduction into James Clear’s thinking on habit formation:

Reading 25 Pages Per Day

The idea of getting just one percent better every day reminded me of Farnam Street’s idea of reading a modest 25 pages per day:

With 10,000 pages a year, at a general pace of 25/day, what can we get done?

Well, The Power Broker is 1,100 pages. The four LBJ books are collectively 3,552 pages. Tolstoy’s two masterpieces come in at a combined 2,160. Gibbons is six volumes and runs to about 3,660 pages. That’s 10,472 pages.

That means, in about one year, at a modest pace of 25 pages a day, I’ve knocked out 13 masterful works and learned an enormous amount about the history of the world. In one year!

This approach works and I have been using it for years. What’s interesting is that when I read 25 pages, I rarely stop right at that point. Often, I read for twice as long. The key thing when it comes to habit formation is to start the habit and it can then take on a life of its own. For example, I read The Power Broker earlier this year in one month averaging just forty pages per day. The same approach is working well for Robert Caro’s four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson which I will finish by the end of November.

What should you read? For some ideas, consider a recent Farnam Street article containing advice from Harold Bloom.

Autumn Leaves

Paul Desmond is best known for his work as an alto saxophonist with Dave Brubeck’s Quartet as well as his composition of Take Five. Desmond’s interpretation of Joseph Kosma’s Autumn Leaves is a great example of his skill. Desmond, like too many other musicians of his era, suffered from poor health and died young at the age of 52 in 1977.

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The Digest #47
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