A rather marvellous angle on life came by email a few weeks ago…
I’ve shared it with half a dozen people; and in passing nice to remember (even as the world seems to barrel towards hell in a handcart) at no other time in history could you have got this knowledge – via a friend of a friend, across an ocean and the English Channel, and then on to me – in but a handful of days….
There is still much to be thankful for in the modern world.
So what’s the story?
In 1999, Carole Holahan and Charles Holahan, psychologists at the University of Texas, published an influential paper that looked at hundreds of older adults who early in life had been identified as highly gifted.
The Holahans’ conclusion: “Learning at a younger age of intellectual giftedness was related to … less favorable psychological well-being at age eighty.”
The Holahans surmise that the children identified as gifted might have made intellectual ability more central to their self-appraisal, creating “unrealistic expectations for success” and causing them to fail to “take into account the many other life influences on success and recognition.”
And this is compounded by:
…abundant evidence [which] suggests that thewaningof ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically.
Just think of professional sportspeople….
Consider professional athletes, many of whom struggle profoundly after their sports career ends.
Tragic examples abound, involving depression, addiction, or suicide; unhappiness in retired athletes may even be the norm, at least temporarily.
This is nicely summed up by Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former Formula 1 driver:
“Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,”
This is sooo right…
“For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line.”
“His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead.”
“In this case, there will not be life after success.”
The author Arthur C Brooks calls this the ‘Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation’:
The idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to the height of professional prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige.
I think I suffered a bit of this in my current job… From self-appointed ‘brain of Britain’ to hard pressed General Factotum in one simple apparently duff career move.
Still the great advantage of life is time.
There’s lots of time if you use it well. Time to think and time to learn. I’ve learnt a lot; and finally – having left my rather unhappy job last week – I’ve had some time to think on a happy family holiday.
And I return to this article again…
One thing I’ve learned working at a top university, is everyone is constantly competing to demonstrate what thearticle says British psychologist Raymond Cattell defined (in the early 1940s) as fluid intelligence:
The ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower.
It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s.
Cattell’s work suggests a smarterfocusfor thesecond half of one’s working (and actual) life is ‘crystallisedintelligence’:
Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past.
Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom.
Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.
And herein lies theanswer to the later career – let go of being thesharpest, smartestand fastest; and develop wisdom instead.
The antidote to worldly temptations isVanaprastha whose name comes from two Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest.”
This is the stage, usually starting around age 50, in which we purposefully focus less on professional ambition, and become more and more devoted to spirituality, service, and wisdom.
This doesn’t mean that you need to stop working when you turn 50—something few people can afford to do—only that your life goals should adjust.
Vanaprasthais a time for study and training for the last stage of life,Sannyasa, which should be totally dedicated to the fruits of enlightenment.
As we age, we should resist the conventional lures of success in order to focus on more transcendentally important things.
This suggests leaving behind:
Résumé virtues which are professional and oriented toward earthly success. They require comparison with others.
And making the benchmark ‘Eulogy virtues’ which…
…are ethical and spiritual, and require no comparison.
Your eulogy virtues are what you would want people to talk about at your funeral.
“He was kind and deeply spiritual”
“He made senior vice president at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles“
And if this is the goal of thethirdphase of life – I’ve made some progress.
In my leaving dos from the endof the 1990s through the 2000s people might well have said: ‘He made Director at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles.’
But at my most recent leaving do last Thursday, I signed off by thanking a wonderfully diverse audience (which wholly represented the community I am proud to have been part of) for helping me to become: “a kinder, gentler and better person.”
And thanks to them; I have.
These are the crystallised fruits of the challenging but ultimately rewarding last three and a half years.
The particles that make up these elements were created 13.8 billion years ago, during the Big Bang. Humans extract these elements from the earth, heat them, refine them. As they work, humans breathe in airborne particles, which deposit in their lungs. The materials are shipped from places like Vietnam, South Africa, Kazakhstan, Peru, Mexico, Indonesia, and India, to factories in China. A literal city of workers creates four tiny computing chips and assembles them into a logic board. Sensors, microphones, grilles, and an antenna are glued together and packaged into a white, strange-looking plastic exoskeleton.
These are AirPods. They’re a collection of atoms born at the dawn of the universe, churned beneath the surface of the earth, and condensed in an anthropogenic parallel tothe Big Crunch—a proposed version of the death of the universe where all matter shrinks and condenses together. Workers are paid unlivable wages in more than a dozen countries to make this product possible. Then it’s sold by Apple, the world’s firsttrillion-dollarcompany, for $159 USD.
For roughly 18 months, AirPods play music, or podcasts, or make phone calls. Then the lithium-ion batteries willstop holding much of a charge, and the AirPods will slowly become unusable. They can’t be repaired because they’re glued together. Theycan’t be thrown out, or else the lithium-ion battery may start a fire in the garbage compactor. They can’t be easily recycled, because there’sno safe way to separatethe lithium-ion battery from the plastic shell. Instead, the AirPods sit in your drawer forever.
But more than a pair of headphones, AirPods are an un-erasable product of culture and class. People in working or impoverished economic classes are responsible for the life-threatening, exhaustive, violent work of removing their parts from the ground and assembling them. Meanwhile, people in the global upper class design and purchase AirPods.
Even if you only own AirPods for a few years, the earth owns them forever. When you die, your bones will decompose inless than a century, but the plastic shell of AirPods won’t decompose forat least a millennia. Thousands of years in the future, if human life or sentient beings exist on earth, maybe archaeologists will find AirPods in the forgotten corners of homes. They’ll probably wonder why they were ever made, and why so many people bought them. But we can also ask ourselves those same questions right now.
Why did we make technology that will live for 18 months, die, and never rot?
I have mixed feelings about Extinction Rebellion; but thanks to Sir David Attenborough, having seen albatrosses feeding plastic to their chicks – you have to think we need to change our ways.
At my grand age it’s kind of embarrassing to lack the conceptual apparatus to fix one of your deep-seated weaknesses; but as you say these things are improved by understanding, application, repetition and changing your internal narratives. Your Assertiveness tape is a revelation! Thank you for what you do Chris – it’s terrific.
He kindly wrote back
What a great message – thanks John!
One of Chris’s top tips is when you get something wrong or make a mistake (which we all do, all the time) then FIDO is your new best friend.
As Chris himself points out, ‘Learn from it’ might be better than ‘Forget it’ but LIDO isn’t quite as good as FIDO. For my part I thought I might like ‘Move On’ more than ‘Drive On’ – a bit less ‘bulldozing’ – but LIMO is hopeless…
But the pièce de résistance fell into place this week, thanks to my belated opening of a Christmas gift from a very great friend…
It’s a bit sweary as the title suggests, but Mark Manson is certainly onto something… in a nutshell if we give a f#ck about too many things then we’re not giving enough of a f#ck about the things that matter. Simple.
So now, I have the version of FIDO which works for me. Forget ‘learning from it’ – I think about stuff to much already… The mongrel version of FIDO which has become my trusty companion this week, is the one which plays to my Northern roots and stops rumination dead in its tracks:
F#ck It and Drive On.
Conceptually nudging ‘drive’ into the cheery form of ‘barrelling’ or ‘bowling along’ through life – it’s working like a charm!
Here are some of Chris’s very handy ‘mantras’ which he sent through last month:
“During my assertiveness training day I have various catch-phrases, or mantras, and I hope that people will pick up on at least one of them and keep it in mind when they are dealing with difficult situations. Here is a list of all of the ones that I personally use (with brief explanations):
“Nobody can push me into the ‘not OK’ box”
We all have a tendency to move from being OK about ourselves to being not OK, and if you are not OK about yourself then you will find it more difficult to interact productively with others. Being OK doesn’t mean “better than the other person” – just OK with yourself. And other people will sometimes try to push you into the not OK box, when they try to make you feel guilty or accuse you of being selfish when you are standing up for yourself and your own rights. Or if you’ve made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. And it’s not up to anyone else to decide whether you are a good person, it’s up to you.
“We teach people how to treat us”
If you let people treat you badly they will keep on doing it. And even in small cases, for example the boss who can’t delegate or who solves people’s problems for them, will be brought more and more problems to solve. So if you keep on being treated badly, especially if it’s by more than one person, then ask yourself if there is something you are doing to encourage them.
“It’s never too late to go back”
If you are taken by surprise, maybe by a verbal attack or perhaps a request for something, and you give in, and you are kicking yourself afterwards thining “I should never agreed to that” or “I should never have let him get away with that” or “I know what I should have said, if only I’d been a bit quicker” then remember, you can always go back and say “I’ve been thinking about what you said earlier, and I’m not happy with it / I’m going to change my mind etc”. It’s great to know that you have as long as you need in order to think of a suitable reply.
“I don’t have to justify how I feel”
I joke that I regret teaching my wife this one, but the truth is that I think everyone should use this phrase. If you don’t want to do something and you are being pressure with “But why not??” then this can be a good response. You are entitled to your feelings, and that’s an end to it.”
Man or woman, royal or republican, political or organisational – anyone who leads or seeks to should reflect on this…
Josef Pieper once again makes the truth limpid – in order for there to be justice, there must be authority; but when that authority is vested in a person, if they are bad there is nothing that can stop injustice.
This perhaps explains the state of the world today – there aren’t too many ‘just rulers’ about…
Of course it’s not easy:
The lesson here is: political nous and worldly wisdom i.e. ‘prudentia‘ and ‘temperantia‘ (self management) might get you there; but if you take a position of responsibility ‘guarding justice’ is your job.
Whew, I’ve been hard at it recently. And as so often: intractable problems, helping people who are struggling and taking on more than I should; all of which have taken their toll.
But also – as increasingly often these last ten years – I’ve caught myself just in time…
Flagging, tired and increasingly irascible, I had the good sense to book this Friday off and as I texted to a great friend, here’s what I did with it:
For my part I walked the hound and then slept from 9.30am to 11.40am with the dog by my side, and then again from 2.30pm to 5.50pm similarly. I feel a deep basin of fatigue has been considerably drained. My biggest problem in life has always been that I need more sleep than most people.
I also coughed the other truth about myself last weekend – I like people; but they tire me out. And very very helpfully, I have been excused some social outings subsequently.
Which reminded me of this – written eight years ago…
I’m more cave than cathedral I increasingly think. I need more sleep and more time alone than most people:
I imagine Aristotle, like the Acropolis, as more Cathedral. The reclusive poetEmily Dickinsonwould be more cave.Montaigne, perhaps old Paris; earthy rumbustious streets and deep reflective catacombs.
I’ve been toying withNietzsche’s idea that our ‘will to power’ is either expressed in the real world or forcibly turned in.
For him, we create a complex inner life in proportion to the scale of our drive we cannot express externally. It’s an interesting thought.
Complex interesting people tend to have a good deal of both – rich inner lives and fulfilling outer ones. But not always. Nietzsche credits civilisation with curbing the capacity to express our animal instincts externally – driving them inwards. This unexpressed energy drives our inner lives – our conscience, guilt and creativity.
I think regularly about the balance of inner and external. I don’t feel I have the ‘will to power’ for a full ‘Cathedral’ in the external world. Too much competition, conflict, one-upmanship and strife in seeking grandeur. I fear I’d lose my health, precious time with my family and my happiness if I allowed a ‘grand projet’ or personal aggrandisement to consume me.
Talking to a friend – who is a decade older than me – this week, I felt a bit guilty. He has real fire in his belly for systemic reform, transformational change and the great debates of public policy. I said I’m just not attracted to any of that right now.
We talked about using our talents and our responsibility to improve the lot of others…
He started his career as a lone residential social worker – on a tough housing estate. Beer bottles bounced off the cage that surrounded his outpost all night.
That’s where his fire still comes from. It drives him to want to improve the scaffolding and superstructure of the nation’s health and social care system.
I don’t have that. I’m more a family chapel with a good sized intellectual cellar. My projects are more local and small scale – my family, the people around me.
But never say never. The world is an unpredictable place.Gaudi started withlamp postsandsquat schoolhouses, so I suppose you never really know what you might build one brick at a time.
I spoke to two different people this week about ‘red energy’ and ‘blue energy’; and I couldn’t remember when I’d first noted the difference. So I had a look back in time… turns out it was in this very month in 2011…
Funny when you look back how themes recur, because in one of those conversations I was talking about Josef Pieper – and the balance between the four cardinal virtues of Prudence, Justice, Courage and Temperance.
As it was yesterday, so it was in 2011 – sometimes it’s good to look back; but not in anger.
I’ve been working in the USA this week – same language, quite different working cultures. Still Brits talking to Americans is easy enough. But add Germans, South Africans, Sudanese, Cameroonians, Central African Republicans, French, Colombians, Turks, Japanese and Koreans – and an age range from 18 to 70 and you have plenty of difference to accommodate.
The very different people I was working with cared about very different things. They wanted to talk about different things and wanted to do different things. My job was to facilitate and find a collective conclusion. Enough to give me a thumping headache. But not this time. Why?
Usually on overseas work trips the combination of travel, missed sleep, wall-to-wall meetings, some sort of set piece event to speak at and produce an outcome from – plus lunch meetings and formal dinners – gives me a throbbing headache by 3pm on day one. It then goes on to throb the whole time I’m away. But this time, no headache. Why? Mainly thanks to an Aristotelian virtue – drawing my courage a little more from confidence than fear.
When I first read: “Courage is the mean between confidence and fear” it didn’t seem a particularly significant insight. My first thought was Aristotle was on about ‘courage’ in the sense of ‘fight or flight’ – there was after all a lot of fighting in ancient Greece. Given the clank of metal and the clash of swords is rarer these days, I didn’t think much about Aristotelian courage – one for the battlefield I thought. Who knows whether I’d stand and fight or run into a hail of bullets. Hopefully I’ll never find out. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I see Aristotle’s point with ‘courage’ is as much about motivation as action.
I’ve come to realise that from school to university to the bigger world of work, I’ve used fear of failure as my prime motivation to perform. And it has always worked. Fear failure, worry the detail, think of what might go wrong, fire up the adrenaline, run flat out on intellectual broadband and the job gets done – and well. But at what cost? Stress, tiredness, raggedness, fraught, strung out and brittle.
So, thanks to Aristotle, once, a few months ago, when I started to feel the rising tide of anxiety and the throb of the vein in my head – the feeling of spotting and galvanising myself for another tough challenge – I stopped myself. I stopped myself from firing up my fear generator: what might go wrong, might I fail, what will people say, will I look like a duffer – and the killer: will someone say I did a bad job?
Instead I fumbled in my kitbag for something else – confidence. This could go well, I know how to do this sort of thing, I’ll be fine, who’s better than me to do this – and if someone says I did a bad job, so what, I’ll learn from it. The first few times I tried to do it I’d readily flip back to fear. I’d have to concentrate hard to find the courageous ‘golden mean’ with confidence. But with practice I’m learning how to plug in and stay more connected to confidence. And the courage to do new things with a smile flows from there.
As Aristotle said:
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence [arete in his words], then, is not an act, but a habit.”
To help me form the habit, I’ve started to think of Aristotle’s courage as a choice between two different forms of energy. One is red, electrical, crackling and spitting like lightning or charge sparking from a Tesla coil – fear. The other is blue, pure, unwavering like a beam of laser light – confidence.
Both work. Both help me get the job done. But the red form is hot, sparky, volatile and the toxic by-products pollute my environment. The blue form is cool, reliable and powers me with clean reusable, renewable and sustainable energy.
In the USA I was running on ‘blue energy’ – better mastering myself, enjoying the experience more, enjoying the different people, performing and getting the job done. No headaches, heartaches, worries or lost sleep. I came home quietly pleased, quietly satisfied and with a spot more confidence to draw on.
Day to day courage, like the battlefield kind, is the mean between confidence and fear. Developing Aristotelian virtue and excellence is simply developing good habits. And, I’ve come to realise, what is at stake, is developing the courage to live a confident happy life – not one haunted by the spectre of constant fears, real or imagined.
I was talking this week about ‘chucking some random numbers’ at my career; which I think some people listening thought might be bit reckless.
But in fact what I have in mind is well grounded in computer science.
Going back and listening again to ‘Algorithms to live by’ out walking the dog today, I was reminded that there are excellent design, creativity and evolutionary reasons to ‘chuck in’ a bit of randomness…
After all, life is all about optimisation.
Being randomly jittered, thrown out of the frame and focused on a larger scale, provides a way to leave what might be locally good and get back to the pursuit of what might be globally optimal.
But there are (and should be) limits:
The cult classic 1971 novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (real name: George Cockcroft) provides a cautionary tale. Its narrator, a man who replaces decision-making with dice rolling, quickly ends up in situations that most of us would probably like to avoid.
I remember flirting with The Dice Man in the 1990s – and it’s a young man’s game… Later on in life there’s much more at stake.
But maybe it’s more about how, and how much:
If the Dice Man had only had a deeper grasp of computer science, he’d have had some guidance.
‘Algorithms’ says there are three golden rules; first, from ‘Hill Climbing‘:
Even if you’re in the habit of sometimes acting on bad ideas, you should always act on good ones.
Second from the ‘Metropolis Algorithm’:
Your likelihood of following a bad idea should be inversely proportional to how bad an idea it is.
You should front-load randomness, rapidly cooling out of a totally random state, using ever less and less randomness as time goes on, lingering longest as you approach freezing. Temper yourself—literally.
And that’s that the original Dice Man did too:
Cockcroft himself apparently turned, not unlike his protagonist, to “dicing” for a time in his life, living nomadically with his family on a Mediterranean sailboat, in a kind of Brownian slow motion.
At some point, however, his annealing schedule cooled off: he settled down comfortably into a local maximum, on a lake in upstate New York.
Sometimes you need to know when you’re in a good place:
Now in his eighties, he’s still contentedly there. “Once you got somewhere you were happy,” he told the Guardian, “you’d be stupid to shake it up any further.”