Pieper on Prudence

Josef Pieper turns out to be my kind of ethicist: straightforward, practical and direct.

What he sets out on ‘prudence’ (aka Thomas Aquinas’s prudentia or ‘practical wisdom’) chimes entirely with what I think ‘good’ looks like in working life.

Here’s what Pieper has to say:

The first prerequisite for the perfection of “prudence” is providentia, foresight.

By this is meant the capacity to estimate, with a sure instinct for the future, whether a particular action will lead to the realization of the goal.

But foresight is often something you ‘feel’ and can be hard to explain to young idealists, literal-minded folk and powerful ideologues.

A reasonable sense of what will work (and won’t) is like a sixth sense. It’s not about ease or difficulty; it’s a ‘felt sense’ of a workable path through.

As Pieper points out:

At this point the element of uncertainty and risk in every moral decision comes to light.

In the decisions of which by their very nature prudence is concerned; with things concrete, contingent, and future (singularia, contingentia, futura) there cannot be that certainty which is possible in a theoretical conclusion.

Then he quotes Thomas Aquinas.

“Non potest certitudo prudentiae tanta esse quod omnino solicitudo tollatur.”

The certitude of prudence cannot be so great as completely to remove all anxiety.

As Pieper rightly says:

A profound statement, this!

He goes on:

Man, then, when he comes to a decision, cannot ever be sufficiently prescient nor can he wait until logic affords him absolute certainty.

If he waited for that, he would never come to a decision; he would remain in a state of inconclusiveness.

The combination of a ‘felt sense’, the difficulty of unpacking the many factors and years of experience which underpin it – and the inevitable risk it may not turn out to be right – is what prudentia feels like, I believe.

So what to do? Pieper concludes:

The prudent man does not expect certainty where it cannot exist, nor on the other hand does he deceive himself by false certainties.

And, after all, as a man of faith Pieper suggests hope springs eternal:

The decisions of prudence receive “practical” assurance and reinforcement from several sources:

  • from the experience of life as it has been lived;
  • from the alertness and healthiness of the instinctive capacity for evaluation;
  • and from the daring and humble hope that the paths to man’s genuine goals cannot be closed to him.

In sum, Pieper makes a strong case for: thought, listening to your instincts and to others, timely action, accepting anxiety – and the ‘daring and humble’ hopefulness of pursuing genuine goals.

Prudentia is not a bad guide for working and family life.

Heat and Pain

Much disquiet at work this week, some of it highly practical; more of it to do with how people are feeling.

My contribution was to characterise my job as seeking and feeling operational ‘heat and pain’ and checking in with everyone that we think it’s proportionate and justified.

If all you do is react to ‘heat and pain’ you never change anything. But if you create too much of it – or create it needlessly – you can do a lot of damage and stop helpful progress dead in its tracks.

In one exchange I pointed out to someone the importance of ‘bedside manner’… Telling someone the facts of how badly broken their leg is – and how you’re going to screw bolts into it in five places – may have seemed to them the most important thing… but people also want you to rub their hand and show them you care.

In the big rooms, where ‘big people’ talk ‘big decisions’, all to often any sense of how it ‘feels’ and what ‘heat and pain’ it’s causing is absent.

I felt out, explained to people and fixed a lot of heat and pain this week – especially with a big heave on Friday. I’ll fix some more next week.

That’s the job.

Jar Mitzvahs

Knitting together from several sources: it’s well worth celebrating life’s small moments of joy…

A friend of Tim Ferriss recommends a ‘Jar of Awesome’ – a Mason Jar (as above) into which everyone in the family drops little paper slips, to celebrate small happinesses…

Not sure that would work in our house. I think we’d be arguing with each other and scrumpling up each other’s slips of paper in no time.

Plus ‘Awesome’ may be overstating it. Small blessings, kindnesses and happy moments are more up my street.

As so often Chris Croft is a voice of practical good sense. He recommends a small notebook to jot down happy moments through the day; then recap and write three more at bedtime.

So I’ve now got a list on my iPhone titled ‘Jar Mitzvahs’, my virtual jar-cum-notebook of daily moments, and memories, and things to be thankful for.

And as Chris Croft suggests I’ve found some recurring themes…

…cooking, activities with the kids, chucking stuff for the dog to fetch, sunshine. But there are also a few I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t written them down… kind words, being appreciated and just rubbing along with folk at work.

Happiness isn’t that complicated; it breaks out every time you clear the clouds from your head.

Brevity

brɛvɪti – noun

1. Concise and exact use of words in writing or speech.

(Concision, succinctness, economy of language, shortness, briefness, pithiness, incisiveness, crispness, compactness, compression.)

2. Shortness of time.

(Transience, transitoriness, ephemerality, impermanence; e.g. “the brevity of human life.”)

As we process through life, there is ever more we have seen; and a good deal more we have done. It’s easy to forget how much.

Indeed there’s good evidence that’s why older people struggle to remember things – not necessarily cognitive decline; just more to sift through in the back catalogue of the mind.

Still, looking at someone’s CV the other day, I was in sympathy with Marcus Aurelius’ advice:

Don’t be a person of too many words and too many deeds….

The encapsulation of anything – and certainly a person’s CV – should be readily achievable in no more than two pages.

And reflecting on life with perhaps my finest friend this week, Marcus Aurelius’s fuller advice is also well put:

“Don’t act grudgingly, selfishly, without due diligence, or to be a contrarian. Don’t overdress your thought in fine language. Don’t be a person of too many words and too many deeds…. Be cheerful, not wanting outside help or the relief others might bring. A person needs to stand on their own, not be propped up.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 3.5

Enough said.

Hard Work

I’ve not been enjoying work recently; but it could be worse…

Here are some stats on how the rest of the British workforce feels about the daily grind:

According to research by YouGov, 37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world. Half (50%) say their job is meaningful, and 13% are unsure.

At least I get over this hurdle. Stuff I do, and make possible, does make a difference to thousands of people; and potentially to many many more. I tick this box.

Men (42%) are more likely to say their jobs are meaningless than women (32%).

In a week where we learned men are invariably better paid, why are men more gloomy? The hormones we have, the expectations society sets or the jobs we disproportionately do?

Whatever the causes, I’m on the right side of this one too.

Despite this, most people with ‘meaningless’ jobs say it’s unlikely they will change jobs in the next 12 months (53%, compared to 35% who say they might change jobs).

I’m in the 35% here. Never say never, I say…

I’ve moved sectors, countries and jobs plenty of times; so although the grass is usually no greener, it always pays to keep your feelers out – if only to feel you have options and skills people want.

The survey also asked if British workers find their jobs personally fulfilling, and a similar portion (33%) say they do not. 63% say their job is fulfilling, although only 18% say it is very fulfilling.

I scrape into the 63% here – my work is not very fulfilling, nor does it feel like the very best use of who I am and the skills I have; but hey you have to get over yourself a bit don’t you. As my son once famously said “it’s not all about you Dad.” Cheeky monkey.

As for explaining myself to others…

Many introductions at social occasions begin with a conversation about work, but only 49% of British workers say they’d be proud to tell someone about what they do when meeting for the first time. 8% say they’d even be embarrassed, 41% say neither.

…I usually start embarrassed but end up more proud. Education is the Lord’s work; even if academia can be a fractious and frustrating place.

Compared to many, I’ve not got that much to complain about. It helps to be reminded of that by the travails of others.

Showtime

A night to remember last evening, at surely the greatest musical of our times – ‘Hamilton’.

We’ve been humming it and singing it all day (as we have for the last two years). But apart from the lesser known Founding Father’s tale of the (once) almost unlimited possibilities of America (as his final words bill it “that great unfinished symphony…”) Hamilton’s other message is the transcendent importance of time.

Alexander Hamilton lives like he’s running out of it; the other main protagonist, Aaron Burr ‘waits and he waits’.

As for me, absolutely shattered at the end of last week, I returned to “The Big Book of Happiness: 87 Practical Ideas” for solace and some new impetus.

Good old Chris Croft reminds us the external world is fickle (As George Washington cautions twice in Hamilton, no one decides ‘who lives, who dies, who tells our story), so the only resources we really have are money and time.

Separately, another excellent post from Eric Barker slam dunks the idea that anyone can multi-task well. I’d persuaded myself I can. But no… Multi-tasking Barker highlights, is just a rather ineffective and inefficient ‘dopamine rush’.

So, balancing the choice between work, money and time, my conclusion is: I’m working too hard and somewhat ineffectively; disproportionately meeting the needs of others, and not my own.

My Easter epiphany is to realise time is my most precious resource – and I’ve been being pretty careless with it. Looking on the bright side, it’s good to clock it.

The magic of Hamilton helped.

Maximus

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live.”

“Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store.”

“Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.” —SENECA

Having dabbled and somewhat discarded it once before, I’m greatly warming to Stoicism…

The Daily StoicbyRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman: offers a year’s worth (in 366 date-stamped, bite-sized nuggets) of: “wisdom, perseverance, and the ‘Art of Living’: from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.”

I find a nightly dose is a great way to take the good advice on board… As the foreword sets out:

Stoicism was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.

But over the centuries, knowledge of this way of thinking, once essential to so many, slowly faded from view.

Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. Indeed, it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.”

To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.”

I have to say that’s where I’d largely left Stoicism; an argument for detachment and disengagement. But as ‘The Daily Stoic underlines:

What a sad fate for a philosophy that even one of its occasional critics, Arthur Schopenhauer, would describe as “the highest point to which man can attain by the mere use of his faculty of reason.”

Channelling my ‘inner Buddhist’ and combining it with Aristotle’s worldly Ethics, I now see things very differently. Stoicism is basically the best of both, applied to the secular world…

Holiday and Hanselman agree:

It has been the doers of the world who found that it provides much needed strength and stamina for their challenging lives… as a practical philosophy they found Stoicism perfectly suited to their purposes.

Born in the tumultuous ancient world, Stoicism took aim at the unpredictable nature of everyday life and offered a set of practical tools meant for daily use.

Our modern world may seem radically different than the painted porch (Stoa Poikilê) of the Athenian Agora and the Forum and court of Rome.

But the Stoics took great pains to remind themselves that they weren’t facing things any different than their own forebears did, and that the future wouldn’t radically alter the nature and end of human existence.

One day is as all days, as the Stoics liked to say.

They continue:

Making its way from Greece to Rome, Stoicism became much more practical to fit the active, pragmatic lives of the industrious Romans.

As Marcus Aurelius (above) observed:

“I was blessed when I set my heart on philosophy that I didn’t fall into the sophist’s trap, nor remove myself to the writer’s desk, or chop logic, or busy myself with studying the heavens.”

Instead, he (and Epictetus and Seneca) focused on questions we continue to ask ourselves today:

“What is the best way to live?”

“What do I do about my anger?”

“What are my obligations to my fellow human beings?”

“I’m afraid to die; why is that?”

“How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?”

“How should I handle the success or power I hold?”

Stoics frame their work around three critical disciplines:

The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us)

The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end)

The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)

Master these and you master yourself and your world:

By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity.

In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective.

In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.

Far from sombre and sober, Stoics believed:

That by strengthening themselves and their fellow citizens in these disciplines, they could cultivate resilience, purpose, and even joy.

The Daily Stoic Stoic offers some down to earth Roman ‘Maxims’ to add to La Rochefoucauld’s French fancies.

In what has been a very trying week at work, this one certainly helped:

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38

But the best and most useful maxim this week, came to me by text message from my old boss:

Worthy of Maximus that one.

The Lancaster

In years gone by I used to liken one of my old colleagues to a WWII Lancaster bomber.

You could always rely on her to slowly but surely drone towards the required organisational target; drop her bombs all over it, and chug back over the North Sea – usually with a rueful smile, half a wing blown off and one of her engines misfiring.

In that era I fancied myself more the de Havilland Mosquito: fast, accurate – but lightly armoured; the ideal pathfinder.

Now I realise it’s my turn to be the Lancaster pilot.

Thankless (and at times seemingly pointless) long lonely missions; flying through the dark; constant flak and regular strafing; searchlights hunting you down; uneven inexperienced crews – no sooner back from one mission before back in the cockpit again toward another improbable and impregnable target.

But the penny dropped the other week; this is what my kind of job now is. A big operational job is much more Bomber Command than fast reconnaissance and precision bombing with an expert co-pilot.

Resilience, calm under fire, keeping a crew intact and in the sky; and taking it one day at a time are the thing. The Lancaster wasn’t the prettiest machine, but it got the job done.

This footage I found – from the cockpit radio of a Lancaster on two raids in 1943 – is a sobering listen. There’s plenty of tension at 20,000 feet, but spare a thought for the destruction down below.

Makes my modest troubles seem small beer indeed; it took something special to fly a Lancaster.

Exocets

I texted the person I’m slowly turning into late last night:

“Phew wee – a really stretching week… grievances, gross misconduct, controversial and risky things to land before Xmas and much change being imposed.”

“I suspect like you at a similar stage – I am strangely both deeply affected and also somewhat distant in my reaction to all this – it matters and it affects me; but much of it is not my doing and not in my gift to change.”

“A dawning of a more realistic sense of personal responsibility and the limits thereof?”

Maybe so.

I also have fought off the desire to compete, undermine and fight back in the face of many provocations these last weeks. And this is a lesson well learned…

As I also admitted to my pal:

“One of the bigger lessons of recent years was that firing two Exocets into an adversary’s hull damaged me below the waterline more surely than it did them.”

It has been hard; but I’ve largely managed to let go of a week of days packed without pause with relentless interpersonal aggro.

As I sit here listening to happy tunes in the school carpark (having chosen to save my eldest from a cold walk home from dancing) I have refound my equilibrium, equanimity – and the all important inner peace.

It gets the blood up; but Exocets just aren’t worth firing.

Re-wiring

Talking to a nice person at work this week, as we descended several flights of stairs; she said:

"Yes John, but you're about the most positive person I've ever met."

I nearly tripped and fell down the remaining stairs… As I subsequently texted to one of my finest friends:

And a good week it has indeed been – against all the odds!

Which goes to show why being more positive and following my new motto: trust the universe to provide an answer – is a goodie.

Still, another marvellous former colleague of mine (now working in a real zoo; not just a human one) offered an even better motto to end the week…