An old friend sent me this card for my birthday last week; he asked me what I thought of it…
Here’s what I said:
Age and kindness will triumph over youth and ambition old friend.
I’m up to my neck in my new job, but strangely have come to realise I have lost my fear.
Many years ago you helped me; with an exercise which taught me I had treachery in me but also had compassion, care and kindness. You helped me tip over the right way (and I’ve seen so many who haven’t) and for that I owe you everything.
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.
Talking to my daughter about her friendship angst this morning, I advocated she try a welcoming smile.
I told her about the nice lady at work who told me about the cold snap in Romania and how it’s threatening the cherry trees; people are tending fires to gently waft smoke through the branches to protect the cherries. We both wished them well.
This lovely encounter grew from simply smiling, on three occasions as she made me a latte; and the smile developed into an exchange and then a conversation.
Let’s see how my eldest gets on – I suspect it might take me than a smile with this ‘friend’.
I’m reading a rather terrific book about letting go of anxiety and fear and tapping into your own energy.
More of this anon, but one of the many useful reminders is nearly everything that happens to us, in truth, is outside of our control. This means there are only two options, try to resist, control or avoid life – or roll with it.
This week (like so many) looked on Tuesday morning (after an enjoyable but tiring bank holiday) like wave after wave of bother, problems, egos, unreasonable demands, risks and stressors; culminating in large forum event – at which I would have to orchestrate, perform and keep the whole show together.
So it was; but by (largely) surfing along on the top of it all and not fighting it (and myself) I got through it just fine. By saving the energy on worry, avoidance and fear – I got it all done quite happily.
As King Canute amply showed, there’s little point trying to stop the waves; may as well get up on your board and ride ’em.
My old friend sleep. I need it so much, I never get enough of it and I never do enough to make sure I do. But I have improved in a few areas… to earplugs I’ve added eyepatches and from last week a booze curfew at 9pm.
All the book and all the sage advice in them can’t help me when I’m tired. Without my sleep I’m hopeless; with it I’m smiling and surfing along.
For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia: peace and freedom from fear and aponia: the absence of pain and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends.
Following Alain de Botton’s lead, I think of this as seeking ‘The Garden’; an idealised Mediterranean retreat surrounded by carefully selected friends, passing days in contemplation -with occasional breaks for olives, bread, jamon y queso and other light delights…
But working and family life – especially the middle years – aren’t quite like that are they.
And given I’ve taken Aristotle as my guide, his ‘good life’ comes with a much higher bar; what I’ve come to think of as a life of ‘public virtue’.
Here’s a list of 11 things an Aristotelian life of public virtue requires, in a blend of my words and his; re-found last week looking at those ‘to do’ lists from 2010:
A life of Public Virtue
Courage: does my courage suitably balance fear and confidence?
Temperance: am I self-indulgent or unduly ascetic?
Liberality: am I generous, profligate or mean?
Magnificence: do I visibly give my time and money to good causes?
Pride: am I vain or unduly humble; do I step forward or stand back from noble actions and undertakings?
Honour: am I sufficiently ambitious or am I too unambitious?
Good Temper: am I good tempered, irascible or too meek?
Friendliness: am I friendly, obsequious, a flatterer or quarrelsome?
Truthfulness: am I boastful or mock-modest about my achievements?
Wit: do I sparkle or am I dull?
Friendship: am I generous in my friendship, a loner or spreading myself too thinly?
Tough tests these.
Based on this higher Aristotelian standard, I’ve pushed myself this week: more courage, less obsequiousness and ‘mock-modesty’ – and a spot of irascibility too; telling a couple of people to b#%%€r off.
In sum: standing for, standing against; and not just standing by on some things which need to be better.
Public virtue requires a bit of courage and a bit of oomph; a public life can’t always be a peaceful one free of fear and pain.
Good also to remember, this week of all weeks, what US ‘Founding Father’ John Adams had to say on the importance of public virtue:
Thinking back to my youth, I remember the sounds and smells of a steam-filled Sunday Roast kitchen at a great pal of mine’s house. Lamb, gravy, two types of potatoes and usually two pudding pies; fit for a King.
And always in the background there’d be Nat King Cole, Sinatra and Louis Armstrong on the radio. 25 years on and that era of music always transports me back to a Lancashire kitchen.
Bittersweet then to hear of Teddy Mac (above) the ‘Songaminute man’ who at 80 has advanced Alzheimers, but still belts out a show tune in the car with his son, like in his holiday-camp pomp as a Butlin’s redcoat.
Terry Jones the former Python has gone the same way we learn this week. And there but for the grace of God go us all.
But the uplifting story of Teddy Mac – whilst clearly no fairytale for his family – at least reminds us that the best memories and probably the most durable are often the simplest: a great tune, a tasty meal, a happy moment.
I’ve bought his rendition of “You make me feel so young” on iTunes; it makes me smile, and the proceeds go to Alzheimers research. I’ve also bought a copy for my pal, whose mum’s kitchen I’m sure I heard it in – it brings back happy memories.
I shared Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s “Stations on the road to freedom” with an old friend this week.
I bought a copy of Bonhoeffer’s Ethics, when I was searching for a famous quotation – which is actually by Martin Niemöller. Niemöller was arrested in 1937 by the Nazi authorities and survived first Sachsenhausen and then Dachau concentration camps.
Niemöller’s famous statement, reminds us that sometimes if you don’t take a stand, there may be no-one left to stand up for you:
“In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”
Bonhoeffer didn’t survive the war. His ‘Stations on the road to freedom’ were written in Tegel prison before his death at the hands of the Nazis.
His words really speak to me. But they have a few bits where God intervenes as the ultimate answer. Those bits aren’t for me. So with a gentle edit, here is my secular version of Bonhoeffer’s four stations.
Secular “Stations on the Road to Freedom” after Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
If you set out to seek freedom, then learn above all things to govern your soul and your senses, for fear that your passions and longing may lead you away from the path you should follow. Only through discipline may a man learn to be free.
Daring to do what is right, not what fancy may tell you, valiantly grasping occasions, not cravenly doubting – freedom comes only through deeds, not through thoughts taking wing. Faint not nor fear, but go out to the storm and the action, trusting in those commandment you faithfully follow; freedom, exultant, will welcome your spirit with joy.
A change has come indeed. Your hands, so strong and active, are bound; in helplessness now you see your action is ended; you sigh in relief; so now you may rest contented.
Come now, thou greatest of feasts on the journey to freedom eternal; death, cast aside all the burdensome chains, and demolish the walls of our temporal body, the walls of our souls that are blinded. Freedom, how long we have sought thee in discipline, action, and suffering; dying, we now may behold thee revealed.
As I said in an email to my good friend:
“I’m doing ok on 1) Discipline and 2) Action, haven’t a huge amount to complain about on 3) Suffering by global standards, and I’m still in the prime of life – albeit number four will get us all in the end.”
“That and the greater number of protons which have cascaded across membranes in my body than there are stars in the observable universe in the time it has taken to write you this, are my thoughts for the day.”
I’m somewhere between half and two thirds down the ‘road to freedom’. Important, amid all the ‘action’ to remember that; and enjoy the ride.
Is there anything more annoying than egos. We all have them; but some people more than others.
I like to kid myself I don’t have a big ego. I probably do, but my saving graces are: I’m not bothered about being right, I’m not bothered about power for its own sake and I’d be quite happy with a quiet life.
Not so other people. I suppose I’ll have peace when they nail the box lid down on my old bones; and I’m in no rush for that – but this week has been a right old ball-ache. And all because of egos.
Thank goodness for the comforts of family. Children are usually pleased to see you, and my other half has rallied round.
As I often say at work though, apparently humankind had two stand out strengths on the savanna plain: stamina and overarm throwing. Keep jogging after problems and eventually they fall to the ground – if you can avoid all the people throwing stones…
On an exceptionally relaxing family break (with the in-laws last week) I had an epiphany; floating for the first time in my life in a hot tub…
If I feel like I have no time… if I’m often tired… if work (as Aristotle predicted) is “absorbing and degrading my mind”… and there’s no way out until my middle 50s… what’s the solution?
The solution, requires a lot less C2H6O in it. Yes alcohol is terrific: a mood enhancer, a relaxer, a taker away of social inhibitions – it helps me (in the right circumstances) to be the life and soul of the party; or at least not a party pooper.
But alcohol is also rubbish: a low grade tranquilliser, a duller of the senses and a bringer of a fuzzy mouth and an even fuzzier head. And there’s the alcohol rub – it leaves you doped, dulled and dozy, and at times downright poorly.
I came to me, as I lolled in that hot tub – at this stage in my life and work, I haven’t got enough time to be regularly tranquillised, dulled and fuzzy; still less to be feeling below par.
The opportunity cost of pouring that glass of red or a cheeky prosecco is a welcome numbness; but also a decline in judgement, self-control and useful activity…
I begin to graze the fridge and sweetie cupboard, as my expanding waistline testifies. And since starting my new job I’ve been more and more attracted to the tranquillising effect… and that’s not good.
So the antidote to less time; is to consume less C2H6O.
A weekend into my new regime, more jobs were getting done, more of the things I know are good for me – reading, cooking, washing, learning languages, domestic innovations, getting to bed earlier, exercise, cups of tea, hanging out the washing, sitting in the garden.
This week at work, I have carried all before me, with a combination of good cheer and industriousness. As well a packing in 10 hour days and a stack more exercise.
Not that most of this wouldn’t have got done before; but I’m far less tired, I haven’t eated half a kilo each of cheese and chocolate en route and I just feel better.
And so to the second half of my epiphany – if less alcohol is one good move, on what should I spend the time and energy dividend? I’ve bought a book on Machine Learning and algorithms to see what computer science and coding can offer a modern life…
A life is, after all, just developing our own ever-improving Bayesian algorithm: as we see more, do more and learn more. Assuming we’re not sleeping off a heavy night that is.
But I’ll not be saying no to booze full stop. Oh no!
When there’s a fun to be had; people to enjoy a drink with and a reason to celebrate – bring it on. It’s just the routine quaffing I need to tackle.
Or as my new Machine Learning book suggests:
If Situation = Social|Drink
If Situation = Kitchen|Don’t
The simple question is Alcohol or Algorithm?
If there’s no good reason to be drinking, I’ll be trying not to – so I can have more time for thinking and learning and doing new stuff.
“For Arendt, action constitutes the highest realization of the vita activa, via three categories which correspond to the three fundamental activities of our being-in-the-world: labor, work, and action.
Labor is judged by its ability to sustain human life, to cater to our biological needs of consumption and reproduction.
Work is judged by its ability to build and maintain a world fit for human use.
Action is judged by its ability to [manifest] the identity of the agent and to actualize our capacity for freedom.
Although Arendt considers the three activities of labor, work and action equally necessary to a complete human life, it is clear from her writings that she takes action to be the ‘differentia specifica’ of human beings.
Action distinguishes [us] from both the life of animals (who are similar to us insofar as they need to labor to sustain and reproduce themselves) and the life of the gods (with whom we share, intermittently, the activity of contemplation).”
Nuff said. I made myself a little flowchart last Sunday to remind me, which still seems on the money…
In the face of setbacks, troubles and ugliness; don’t ruminate – act.
In the presence of success, progress and beauty; act – but don’t forget to contemplate too.
First discovered in dogs and then in humans, Wikipedia takes up the strain here:
Research has found that human reactions to a lack of control differ both between individuals and between situations. For example, learned helplessness sometimes remains specific to one situation but at other times generalizes across situations.
An influential view is that such variations depend on an individual’s attributional or explanatory style. According to this view, how someone interprets or explains adverse events affects their likelihood of acquiring learned helplessness and subsequent depression.
For example, people with pessimistic explanatory style tend to see negative events as permanent (“it will never change”), personal (“it’s my fault”), and pervasive (“I can’t do anything correctly”), are likely to suffer from learned helplessness and depression.
If you want to bounce back fast from setbacks and beat the blues, Martin Seligman’s book and the thesis of learned optimism are well worth a read. It’s certainly working for me.
I’m ruminating less, and actively breaking up permanent, pervasive and personal interpretations of bad situations when I hit them…
I’m regularly reminding myself:
“It’ll pass”, “it’s just one part of my life”, “it’s not me that’s causing this.”
And directing myself – and others – toward action, not helplessness:
“Ok but what can we do about it right now”, “OK if we can’t fix that, what else can we fix” and “if anyone is going to make this better we can, so let’s have a go.”
I feel a lot better, and people around me do too. It transpires the main benefit of pessimism is you predict the future better.