Crystallised Fruits

A rather marvellous angle on life came by email a few weeks ago…

Click image for original article

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.”

But why?

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 the waning of 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 the article 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 smarter focus for the second half of one’s working (and actual) life is ‘crystallised intelligence’:

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 the answer to the later career – let go of being the sharpest, smartest and fastest; and develop wisdom instead.

Brooks continues:

The antidote to worldly temptations is Vanaprastha 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.

And how?

Vanaprastha is 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.

As in:

“He was kind and deeply spiritual”

not 

“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 the third phase of lifeI’ve made some progress.

In my leaving dos from the end of 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.

I’m now happy to turn the page.

σοφία

  

As modern Greece struggles with its economic problems, it’s worth remembering: there isn’t a decent concept for living we don’t have the Greeks to thank for.

With help from Wikipedia, try: 

Prohairesis – προαίρεσις

The ‘moral character’ or prohairesis, was brought to the world by Aristotle in the eminently readable Nicomachean Ethics (which first inspired this blog five years ago). Prohairesis is the capacity to reflect, and not be carried away by what our senses serve up.

For the stoic Epictetus, life is all about prohairesis; separating what we experience from how we choose to feel about it:

“Remember that what is insulting is not the person who abuses or hits you, but the judgment that these things are insulting.”

“So when someone irritates you, realise that it is your own opinion that has irritated you. Try, therefore, in the first place, not to be carried away by the impression; for if you once gain time and respite, you will find it easier to control yourself.”

Prosoche – προσοχή

In the Platonic Academy, prosoche referred to the discipline of “attention” – noticing the judgements that we make about ourselves and the world. 

Once observed, the next step is observing whether or not these judgements are in ‘conformity’ with the reality of our situation; and correcting them as needed so as to maintain appropriate behaviour and equilibrium (ataraxia). 

Prosoche is broadly equivalent to the Buddhist disciplines of ‘mindfulness’ as developed through meditation.

A Greek ‘prosoche’ poem sums it up: 

Give me the Serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Areté – αρετή

For Aristotle, bravery is the first virtue. It came up at work this week. 

It is, quite simply, consciously choosing to walk the difficult tightrope between fear and courage:

“A brave man is one who faces and fears what he should for the right reason, in the right manner and at the right time. A brave man performs his actions for the sake of what is noble. Those who err by excess with regard to this virtue are called rash, but one who is exceedingly fearful is called a coward.”

“Men who show courage because they are optimistic and they think they will win are not brave, because they do not act for the right reasons, and when the situation does not turn out well, they end up being cowards.”

“Men who are ignorant of danger are also not brave, but only appear to be so because they have no knowledge of the danger.”

Prohairesis, Prosoche and Areté: character, consciousness and choice, all come together in sophia σοφία; the title above, and Greek for ‘wisdom’ – the root of philosophy φιλοσοφία philo-sophia.

Whatever the state of their οἰκονομία (economy), Greeks deserve our enduring thanks; for all they invented in the life of the mind.

Crystallisation

At the core of Aristotle’s account of ethics and virtue is ‘Prohairesis’ – the central moral character.

I increasingly think of it like a copper sulphate crystal growing on a piece of thread. When you do the classic school experiment, knotted threads provide the core around which a copper sulphate crystal can form, from a saturated solution. But you often get several smaller crystals and imperfections in the main one.

In my thesis, the central moral character forms – like a copper sulphate crystal – when choice and actions start to cohere around a central narrative of who we are and what we stand for. The sub-crystals are alternate versions of ourselves and the imperfections are just that – out of character behaviours, foibles and failings.

Last week I gave a talk where I owned up to once having ‘presentational positions’ on most aspects of work. They were largely free floating from any common ethical foundation. I had ethics ‘in the mix’, but no core crystal.

Expedience, presentational benefit and plausible deniability were as likely to inform my public utterances as beliefs, values or virtue. Not these days. I have Prohairesis – a central moral character which, on my better days, informs and guides my choices.

But to meet Aquinas’s test of virtue I have one major challenge left – slowing down. Talking to a friend at the weekend it transpires that one of the strengths of ‘clever’ people is they are quick. This means they can quickly weigh options and decide on the best action. But the challenge to ‘capable’ people as they progress in life, and into more complicated situations, is to use this processing capability to judge more wisely – not more quickly.

Aquinas has it that a man can make ‘good’ or ‘bad’ moral choices without any guiding core moral character, but they cannot be truly ‘virtuous’ without ‘Prudentia’ – practical wisdom – as the unifying prism. As Herbert McCabe says deliberation should be long and considered, action sharp and decisive. Sometimes I am too quick to decide.

I have Prohairesis forming in a nice crystal on the thread of my life. I’m not bad on Prudentia these days either. But like copper sulphate crystals these things take time to grow, so I should take my time too.