Illuminating the idea of striving without clinging

I suppose it was inevitable as I made an attempt to get more serious about meditaton this year that I would get exposed to some Buddhist ideas.  I haven’t sought them out (if anything I have tried to find a purly secular meditation approach), but as I said was probably impossible to avoid them entirely.  I don’t have anything against Buddhism per se – it just wasn’t my goal to learn about it as part of my developing meditation practice.

That being said, one of the ideas that came to me over the last year which has had a profound impact on my overall outlook, the lens through which I perceive my own actions and how to make them better is the idea of striving without clinging.  The basic concept seems to be that to acheive enlightnement (which I understand to be some combination of peace, happiness and knowledge of the way the universe works) you have to take active steps in that direction (i.e. striving) but you can’t get attached to the actual goal you are trying to reach (i.e. no clinging).

While the idea of striving without clinging is given as a persecription to acheive enlightment, I find it a good recipe to get almost anything done.  As I read The War of Art, I would say Pressfield’s message is all about learning to strive without attachment.  You have to want to accomplish something, but not want it so much that your ideas about how it should be when you are done keep you from ever getting started.  That is one of the secrets to breaking through what he calls “resistance”.

In what is becoming my standard practice, I am reading a few books right now and I came across a few quotes that shed some further light on this idea of striving without clinging.  Both are philosophy books, but otherwise they are quite different.  While striving without clinging is just a few words, its a pretty difficult concept to grasp, so anytime I see something that helps me understand it a little better, I think its worth noting and sharing.

The first quote comes from Erst Cassirer, in the The Myth of the State, in a chapter discussing the contributions of Machiavelli to modern political thought:

In the twenty-fifth chapter of The Prince Machiavelli explains the tactical rules for this great and continual battle against the power of Fortune.  These rules are very involved and its not easy to use them in the right way.  For they contain two elements that exclude each other.  The man who wishes to stand his ground in combat must combine in his character two opposing qualities.  He must be timid and courageous; reserved and impetuous.  Only by such a paradoxical mixture can he hope to win the victory.  There is no uniform method to be followed at all times.  At this moment we must be on our guard, again we must dare everything.  We must be a sort of Proteus who, from one moment to another, can change his shape.  Such a talent is very rare in men.

The second quote comes from Frederic Gros in A Philosophy of Walking in a chapter on Slowness:

The illusion of speed is the belief that it saves time. It looks simple at first sight: finish something in two hours instead of three, gain an hour. It’s an abstract calculation, though, done as if each hour of the day were like an hour on the clock, absolutely equal.

But haste and speed accelerate time, which passes more quickly, and two hours of hurry shorten a day. Every minute is torn apart by being segmented, stuffed to bursting. You can pile a mountain of things into an hour.  Days of slow walking are very long: they make you live longer because you have allowed every hour, every minute, every second to breath, to deepen, instead of filling them up by straining the joints.  Huttying means doing several things at once, and quickly: this, then that; and then even something else.  When you hurry, time is filled to bursting, like a badly arranged drawer in which you have stuffed thingswith not attempt at order.

Slowness means cleaving perfectly to time, so closely that the seconds fall one by one, drop by drop like the steady dripping of a tap on stone.  This strectching of time deepens space.  It is one of the secrets of walking: a slow approach to landscapes that gradually renders them familiar.  Like the regular encounters that deepend a friendship.  Thus a mountain skyline that stays with you all day, which you observe in different lights, defines and articulates itself.  When you ae walking, nothing moves: only imperceptibly do the hills draw closer, the surroundings change.

I still struggle to fully grasp the idea of striving without clinging since it seems such a contradiction. I struggle even more to practice it.  But I think Cassierer and Gros, each in their own way, have helped illuminate it for me just a bit more.

Maybe school isn’t such a great network builder after all

I made a brief argument in my last post about higher education, that it used to be good at three things: building a social network, access to unique knowledge and provinding certification.  I went on to point out that the first two had already been relplaced with things that do or soon will do a better job and that there is something on the way that might replace the third.  Today I found an article that points out, maybe it wasn’t so good at the networking side in the first place.

Jeffrey Tucker argues that there is something innate in the design of school that keeps students from being able to develop any real social captial.  My personal experience was exactly as he describes: build a group of friends for 4 years, then start all over, then do it again, then try to get a job.  It seems there must be a better way, and Tucker points to apprenticeship as one potential answer.  I think age mixing is another important aspect.  Peter Gray shows how age mixing is a key to learning for both older and younger students.  Tucker seems to agree:

If you look at the social structure of homeschooling co-ops, for example, younger kids and older kids mix it up in integrated social environments, and they learn from each other. Parents of all ages are well integrated too, and it creates a complex social environment. The parents know all the kids and, together, they form a diverse microsociety of mutual interests. This is one reason that homeschooled kids can seem remarkably precocious and poised around people of all ages. They are not being artificially pegged into slots and held there against their will.

The key to wisdom is calling things by their proper name.  Realizing that school has very little to do with education seems increasinlgy wise.

Could this pop the education bubble?

I found myself in a interesting discussion about a month ago with another guy about my age and two current college students.  We talked about a wide array of topics but at some point along the way we got on to the subject of their experiences as current college students.  I made mention of the idea that the patterns last seen in the housing crisis of 2008 are repeating themselves in higher education, namely debt that is too easy to acquire driving prices higher and making it too easy to too many people to make poor decisions.  The question we couldn’t answer was: what happens when that bubble pops?  In the housing bubble, the underlying asset was devalued and the government pumped in massive amounts of money to those companies deemed too big to fail.  What is the asset to devalue in the case of college education?

I’m still not sure of the answer, but I do think we’ll all learn what it is sooner rather than later.  Colleges and Universities have been loosing their grip on two of the three things that make them unique over the last few decades: the chance to form a world class network (see LinkedIn) and access to knowledge (see Google).  The one thing that has kept them going is the credential, aka the diploma, degree or certificate.  College enrollment has continued to climb (and debt along with it) despite the growing sense that its not worth the time or money for the simple reason that the only way to get most good jobs is by having that piece of paper.  Employers would love to find a better system, since they know that at best the paper tells them what the applicant was interested in and at worst all it tells them that the applicant can at least “show up” for two to four years.

Well, the monopoly on the credential may be coming to an end with start-ups like Praxis.  I ran into them a few years ago at a home school convention, thought it was an interesting idea, but didn’t really give it much more thought.  They came into my awareness again yesterday when I listened to the interview that one of their founding team members, Zak Slayback, did on the School Sucks Project.  In some ways, to continue the housing bubble analogy, what Praxis is doing seems a little like the tiny house movement: don’t worry about brand names, focus on what you need and don’t get into debt doing it.  I think Praxis, or something like it, will be the pin that pops the education bubble.  Like all bubbles (aka pyramid schemes) it’s the most recent ones to buy in that will pay the biggest price.

90 Second Book Review: Self Reliance

This book doesn’t need an intro, so I’ll make it short: Self Reliance was one of several essays written by American Transcendentalist movement.  Emerson is also sort of a Socrates to Henry David Thoreau’s Plato.

You can read it online for free, but the specific version I am reviewing here was put together by the Domino Project.  It puts passages from the original text together with excerpts from other authors and famous thinkiers throughout the ages that were trying to make the same point as Emerson.  I’ve read  it several times, but this was an interesting way to read it anew.

As the title implies, the focus of the essay is individuality.  Each time I read it, a new section speaks to me, and this time around it was this one, on the subject of travel as a means of “finding oneself” (spoiler: Emerson is not a fan):

The soul is no traveller; the wise man stays at home, and when his necessities, his duties, on any occasion call him from his house, or into foreign lands, he is at home still, and shall make men sensible by the expression of his countenance, that he goes the missionary of wisdom and virtue, and visits cities and men like a sovereign, and not like an interloper or a valet.

I have no churlish objection to the circumnavigation of the globe, for the purposes of art, of study, and benevolence, so that the man is first domesticated, or does not go abroad with the hope of finding somewhat greater than he knows. He who travels to be amused, or to get somewhat which he does not carry, travels away from himself, and grows old even in youth among old things. In Thebes, in Palmyra, his will and mind have become old and dilapidated as they. He carries ruins to ruins.

Travelling is a fool’s paradise. Our first journeys discover to us the indifference of places. At home I dream that at Naples, at Rome, I can be intoxicated with beauty, and lose my sadness. I pack my trunk, embrace my friends, embark on the sea, and at last wake up in Naples, and there beside me is the stern fact, the sad self, unrelenting, identical, that I fled from. I seek the Vatican, and the palaces. I affect to be intoxicated with sights and suggestions, but I am not intoxicated. My giant goes with me wherever I go.

This was an epic summer of travel for me and my family.  I spent all of 4 nights of June in my own bed, and two of those were for less than 6 hours.  We went to Russia, Ireland and New Hamsphire.  And I had business trips to Italy, Germany, China…and Detroit.  Emerson made me think more deeply about the motivation for the voluntary / non-work related trips.  Was I looking to learn something more about myself, or more about the world?  Upon reflection it was definitely the later, so my trips were Emerson-approved.

Emerson has a good point of course.  If you travel hoping to learn about yourself, you are destined to fail.  You have to have a good amount of self knowledge before you take that first step out of your door if you are going to be able to process all that you will experience when travelling through anything roughly approaching an objective lens.  Since everything you experience at home or abroad is perceived through the subjective lens of your personal experience and the narrtive you contstruct around it, having some idea about how that might color things will help you strip some of that away and see things on your travels as they truly are.  Without that, then you are likely to simply reinforce what you already think you know instead of learn something new about the world.

The passage that was paired with this selection is from Pythagorus, and I think the editors did a good job of finding the same idea expressed in a far more company fashion, two thousand years earlier:

No one is free who is not a master of himself.

Without moral support the very strength of a state becomes it’s inherent danger.

A few weeks ago I got home from an annual long weekend in southern Kentucky and immediately caught whatever illness that my wife and daughter had been dealing with in while I was camping.  It wasn’t any big deal really, but one night I woke up at around 2 in the morning with a raging sore throat so decided to get out of bed to have some tea.  It so happened that a book was sitting out on the table, and with nothing better to do, I decided to read a few pages.  2 hours later, I decided it was time to get some more sleep.

This quote is one (of many) that I thought worth sharing (emphasis added) given many of the things that seem to be bothering us all these days:

The desire to have “more and more” is just as disastrous in the life of the state as in individual life.  If the state yields to this desire, it is the beginning of its end.  The enlargement of its territory, the superiority over its neighbors, the advance of its military or economic power, all this cannot avert the ruin of the state but rather hastens it,  The self-preservation of the state cannot be secured by its material prosperity nor can it be guaranteed by the maintenance of certain constitutional laws.  Written constitutions or legal charters have no binding force, if they are not the expression of the constitution that is written in the citizens’ minds.  Without moral support the very strength of a state becomes it’s inherent danger.

– Ernst Cassirer, The Myth of the State

Syntopical podcast listening: why it’s so hard to have a real conversation these days

Despite the cooler fall weather, I’ve still had to mow quite a bit which means podcast listening time.  It’s not all bad though since of late I mostly work from home, which has cut down on my commute related podcast listening time, so about the only time I get to catch up on the 30 or so podcasts I subscribe to is when I’m rolling around on my Dixie Chopper.

As I headed out to the shop to mow last night I saw that two of my “regular listens” had relatively recent episodes, so I added them to my play next, hopped, on fired up, and started to mow.

First up was Episode #309 from Dan Carlin’s Common Sense show (Dan’s new site is very pretty, but I can’t figure out how to link to specific episodes, hence the link to the top level page…if you are reading this later, you’ll have to scroll to find it if you want to listen to the whole thing).

Dan said something that really resonated with me early in this episode when talking about the “envy” he feels for his mom and her book club.  I think perhaps one of the reasons I have been doing book reviews here is to share the things I have read and to try to start up a conversation with people that have read the same thing.  I too am interested in having a conversation about what the facts mean vs. what the facts are.  Dan’s point seems to be this: how can we have a conversation about meaning if we don’t share any common conception of “the truth”?

Here is an excerpt of the audio from where he makes this point (I assume it’s OK to post this…if not, then this section of the post will disapear):

The rest of this episode is fascinating, pretty much like all of them are, so I highly reccomend you listen to it all and suscribe to his cast.

Next up was Episode #449 from the School Sucks Project , which is part 2 of a two part conversation wth Julia Tourianski about a video she created about “50 differences between men and women“.  Before he got into the main discussion, Brett included a clip of audio from a 1984 interview of a former KGB agent, Yuri Bezmenov by G. Edward Griffen, a member of the John Birch society (which every time I hear, I can’t help think of this).  Here is an excerpt of that audio (same note as above…if exceprting / reposting is not allowed by SSP, then I will take this down):

Again, SSP is one of my “always listen” to podcasts so if you find anything in the clip above interesting, make sure to subscribe.  And if you are interested in more of what Bezmenov had to say, you can get an electronic copy of one of his books for free from

I can sort of see why Brett decided to include that given where the rest of the conversation with Juliana went, but I found the connection between what I was listening to from Dan just an hour earlier even more interesting.  No I don’t think the lack of meaningful discourse is due to some vast KGB conspiracy to undermine the US (“Мы вас похороним!”), but I do find it interesting that the inability to discern truth is the exact outcome that Bezmenov says comes from the demoralization stage.

But of course this could all be disinformation.  Who can really say?


90 second book review: Red Queen

Red Queen, by Matt Ridley, is another book that made it on my “to read” list somehow that I can’t quite remember, and came to be on my “to read” pile by way of Half Price Books. Since I can’t remember how I became aware of it, I also can’t remember what interested me about it initially or what I hope to get out it when I added it to my list. When I saw it on the HBP books shelf thought I recalled it was “on the list” and upon scanning the back and inside covers it seemed to fit in a genre of books that I typically enjoy: pop science.

Red Queen fits that genre to a tee, although it focuses on a domain of science that I have never felt particularly strong in: biology. I think I have taken a grand total of one biology course, my sophomore year of high school. I don’t recall doing particularly poorly…or particularly well. I also don’t recall being particularly interested. At least not as interested as I was in what I saw at the time as the “purer” science of physics and it’s close relationship with the maths. I somehow avoided biology as a college course altogether, yet here I found myself reading a nearly 400 page biology book. Strange are the path ways that self directed learning will take you sometimes.

The title of the book comes from Lewis Carroll’s character of the same name in Through the Looking Glass. In that story the Red Queen (not to be cofused with the Queen of Hearts in the first book) has a dialog where she explains that she has to keep running faster and faster just to keep in the same place since the scenery around her is accelerating as well. In mathematic, rather than literary terms, the story focuses on the idea of a zero sum game. Which is the claim that Ridley makes about evolution.

I have been giving more thought and study to evolutionary theory of late. Some of that is from my interest in one of the story lines in Sapiens: that cultural evolution through language and narrative, became a faster mechanism than biological evolution and that’s why we Sapiens rule the planet today. The rest of it comes from the opening of the Arc Museum just a few miles from my house. Suddenly the ability to succinctly state and defend the case for evolutionary theory has become much more relevant.

Ridley argues that rather than some of the traditional conceptualizations of evolution as a progressive, if not always linear process, it is in fact circular. At any given point in time, one branch of the evolutionary tree may be able to get ahead of its competition, but given time for enough random mutations and selection to occur, the leader is overtaken and the cycle begins again. Evolution may seem progressive if you pick specific start and end times, but taken as a whole, it never really gets anyone anywhere. He writes:

“Before ‘civilization’ and since democracy, men have been unable to accumulate the sort of power than enabled the most successful to be promiscuous despots. The best they could hope for in the Pleistocene period was one or two faithful wives and a few affairs if their hunting or political skills were especially great. The best they can hope for now is a good-looking younger mistress and a devoted wife who is traded in every decade or so. We’re back to square one.”

(NB: There are a lot of quotes like the above throughout the book. Ridley points out early on that he is not making any moral judgements about the behavior he describes. He is merely trying to describe the behavior as it happens and come up with a narrative that explains why that fits the facts. That’s called science.)

He bolsters his argument with theory after theory from a variety of different biologists (all supported with experimental evidence). The book is literally chock full of them, so I will just list a few that I found interesting here:

  • The early church was so obsessed with sexual matters for less heavenly and more earthly reasons. Namely, as a way to preventing private wealth accumulation and leaving more church coffers:

“It (the church) had little to say abut polygamy or the begetting of bastards, although both were commonplace and against doctrine. Instead it concentrated on three things: first, divorce, remarriage, and adoption; second, wet nursing, and sex during periods when liturgy demanded abstinence; and third ‘incest’ between people married to within seven canonical degrees. In all three cases the church seems to have been trying to prevent lords from siring legitimate heirs.”

  • Three of the things that many evolutionary theorists point to as being uniquely human my have evolved in parallel and were dependent on each other:

“Men keep an eye on their wives by proxy. If the husband is away hunting all day in the forest, he can ask his mother or his neighbor is his wife was up to anything during the day. In the African pygmies that Wrangham studied, gossip was rife and a husband’s best chance of deterring his wife’s affairs was to let her know that he kept abreast of the gossip. Wrangham when on to observe that this was impossible without language, so he speculated that the sexual division of amor, he institution of child rearing marriages and the invention of language – three of the most fundamental human characteristics shared with no other ape – all depend on one another.”

  • The development of our oversized brains (as compared to our ape brethren), and the resulting cognitive capabilities that make us unique, may have been an accidental outcome of sexual selection for youth:

“If men began selecting mates that appeared youthful, then any gene that slowed the rate of development of adult characteristics in a woman would make her more attractive at a given age than a rival. Consequently, she would leave more decedents, who would inherit the same gene. Any neoteny (the retention of juvenile features into adult life and which is also credited with allowing further brain development after birth) gene would give the appearance of youthfulness. Neoteny, in other words, could be a a consequence of sexual selection and since neoteny is credited with increasing our intelligence (by enlarging the brain size at adulthood), it is to sexual selection that we should attribute our great intelligence.”

  • The basic genetic programing that all modern men and women are walking around with:

“There has been no genetic change since we were hunter-gathers, but deep in the mind of the modern man is a simple male hunter-gatherer rule: Strive to acquire power and use it to lure women who will bear heirs; strive to acquire wealth and use it to buy other men’s wives who will bear bastards.”

“Likewise int he mind of the modern woman is the same basic hunter gatherer calculator, too recently evolved to have changed much: Strive to acquire a provider husband who will invest food and care in your children; strive to find a lover who can give those children first class genes. Only if she is very lucky will they be the same man.”

Beides a series of fascinating evolutionary theories, I came away impressed with the imaginations of the various biologists that came up with these theories. I have become aware of an entirely different approach to narrative construction that is more complex than the straightforward physics of force A applied to point 1 results in force B at point 2. Evolutionary narrative construction involves enough varied groups and and interests that a Game of Thrones writer would be well served by picking up a copy of this book for plot ideas.

Ridley knows that many of his ideas will be used by some to make political arguments on one side or another since he writes in the Epilogue:

“No doubt its (red queen evolutionary narratives) politicization and the vested interests ranged against it will do as much damage as was done to previous attempts to understand human nature.”

He shares his story anyway since having these stories is how we break out of the seeming pre-destiny of genetics. Our genetic “programming” may seem to some like an inescapable prison. I view it differently (thanks to Sapiens): the power of language and story has given us both the tools to become aware of our base level “programming”. With this awareness we can then write a new higher level “program” that over rides what our genetics tells us to do. Culture eats genetics for breakfast every day. We just have to decide what we’re cooking.

90 second book review: Tribe

Tribe, by Sebastian Junger, explores the ties that bind small groups together though the lens of men that go to fight and die for their country.  Tribe was an impulse buy for me.  I listened to an interview that Junger did on the Tim Ferriss podcast while mowing, pulled my iPhone from my pocket, did a search, “Buy Now” and two days later (Thanks Prime!) I was cracking it open.  Sorry to all the other books on my “to read” pile…sometimes something just catches my fancy.

I was hoping to get some insight into why tribes form and why they are important to human well being.  The subject of tribe has interested me since I first learned about the Dunbar number.  Part exploration, part lamentation, Tribe is not a deeply scientific work. There are no anthropologically verified per bonding models discussed.  There really isn’t any evidence to speak of.  There is however, plenty of anecdotal narrative, direct experience and some deep reflection on that experience.

Junger is probably most well known as the author of The Perfect Storm, which was made into a movie.  I first heard about him when I watched Restrepo, a documentary he directed that follows a group of soldiers through a deployment in Afghanistan.  Regardless of your views on the war in Afghanistan, you should watch and reflect on Restrepo (available on Netflix last I checked).

In Tribe, Junger is attempting to explain why those that we send to war to kill and die in our name are suffering the effects of PTSD in increasing numbers.  He starts with an exploration of the “going native” phenomenon of the early colonial days.  In the decades before the founding of the US, and for some time afterwards, there were numerous stories of white colonials leaving their cities, towns or villages and joining the local native american tribes.  There were even stories of people being taken by the tribes against their will, and after being “rescued”, returning to the tribes that had kidnapped them, drawn by something more than an early version of Stockholm syndrome.  What Junger points out about all of these stories, is that there are almost no examples of a native american leaving his/her tribe to live in a colonial city, town or village.

The conclusion that Junger draws from this is that there was something fundamentally better about the native way of life that even colonists that had never experienced it before immediately recognized when they saw it.  He argues that the natives live in a way that we are more adapted to from an evolutionary standpoint and that:

“First agriculture, and then industry, changed two fundamental things about human experience.  The accumulation of personal property allowed people to make more and more individualistic choices about their lives and those choices unavoidably diminished group efforts toward a common good.  And as society modernized, people found themselves able to live independently from any communal group.  A person living in a modern city or suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day – or an entire life – mostly encountering complete strangers.  They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.”

The rest of the book takes place in more recent history, from the big wars of the previous century through the present conflicts in the middle east.  Junger credits his very existence to war, tracing the series of events that lead his ancestors to move from here to there, driven on by wars or rumors of war.  He talks about his own refusal to sign his draft card when it arrived shortly after the end of the Viet Nam war and the conversation he had with his anti-war father that changed his mind.

Junger never served, but through a series of twists and turns eventually became a press correspondent assigned to various conflict zones.  So while he was never a “tigger puller” he has been in the line of fire (with nothing more than a camera and a microphone).  At one point in Tribe, Junger relates his own experience with PTSD, which first surfaces in the New York Subway.

“Suddenly I found myself backed up against an iron support column, convinced that I was going to die. For some reason everything seemed like a threat: there were too many people on the platform, the trains were moving too fast, the lights were too bright, the world was too loud.  I couldn’t really explain what was wrong, but I was more scared than I ever was in Afghanistan.”

Junger relates this experience as a launching point to talk about the increasing occurrence of long term PTSD in todays vets.  He points out a few factors which are contributing to it’s rise.

First, in very traditional (read: tribal) societies, war was always very close to home.  In most modern conflicts at least one of the armies (and almost always ours) is fighting far from home. As a result, the war fighters are the only once that experience the war first hand.  This asymmetry of experience between war fighters and those they leave at home leads to a feeling of separateness that pushes against the bonds of tribe that may have motivated them to go to war in the first place.

Next, he talks about studies which show those that are the most aggressive are actually the least affected by long term PTSD.  He concludes from this that overall we have become less aggressive.  I’m not sure whether he views this as an overall good or bad thing, but he does make pains to point out that it has left our soldiers less capable of dealing with the long term impacts of fighting.

Lastly, he focuses on the near instantaneous transfer from battle front to home front that modern soldiers experience due to the wide availability and use of air transport.  He relates stories of soldiers riding boats home after WWII, and the time that gave them to decompress and process what they had seen in the company of others who had seen the same before they were confronted with re-assimilating to the the home they had left to go and fight.  Modern soldiers can be on the front lines one day and mowing their lawn the next.

He concludes the book with some recommendations including using public holidays that used to mean something (anyone happen to know what we are memorializing on memorial day) as a chance for veterans to speak to their local community about their experience.  I do think that might do a lot to heal the unseen wounds many of these veterans as well as make those that decide to send them to war (or not oppose those that do) more awake to the realities of exactly what they are asking someone else to do in their name.

On the larger point about tribe, war and what we’ve lost in the modern world, I can understand where Junger is trying to go, but I think he misses an important connection and sequence.  While his assessment of the modern catalysts for the increased rates of PTSD is right on, he stops short of naming the root cause: war itself.  He can’t quite bring himself to reach the obvious conclusion that without war there would be no PTSD.  In fact he still sees war as having some redeeming qualities:

“If war were purely and absolutely bad in every single aspect and toxic in all its effects, it would probably not happen as often as it does.  But in addition to all the destruction and loss of life, war also inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty and selflessness that can be utterly intoxicating to the people that experience them.”

I have no reason to doubt that this is true.  But I have to ask is this the only or even the best way to inspire these ancient human virtues?  Does the means justify the ends?  Can war be considered just, or perhaps even valuable, since it makes those that fight in it courageous, loyal and selfless?  Is it worth it, even to the individual, to experience those virtues if in exchange they are faced with being more scared of a crowded space for the res too their life at home than they were on the battlefield? While Junger concludes correctly that a greater sense of tribe can heal those suffering from PTSD, I have to wonder if a greater sense of tribe could prevent the wars that create the need for healing in the first place?





90 Second Book Review: Stumbling on Happiness

I must admit that I don’t quite recall where I first heard about the subject of this quick review, but as has happened many times, that intergalactic portal that sorts through the thousands of books I’d like to read and picks the right one at the right time to send my way did its job and I found myself in its possession.  Dan Gilbert’s work falls into that interesting category that is blend of psychology, biology, evolution, anthropology and self help.  It’s extremely readable, which is a great asset since the message is so important.

When I’m done with this review, I will end up putting it on the shelf next to Haidt’s “Righteous Mind” which argues that rather than humans being Rational, we are actually “Rationalizing”, i.e. we apply a rational framework to our decisions post hoc as a way of telling ourselves and our friends a story about why we did what we did.  Haidt argues that this reversal of the commonly accepted cognitive process stems from basic evolution – it’s just the way we are wired.

Gilbert, in “Stumbling on Happiness” similarly argues that due to a series of evolutionary accidents our brains work in some particular ways that run counter to the stories we tell ourselves about how they work.  The rational animals story and the captains of our own ship story have been with us for a long time and its only now with the bright light of scientific inquiry are we learning that we may have been fooling ourselves.

While there are some detractors, many great philosophers will claim that happiness is the ultimate virtue, since happiness is sought as an end in itself, and not as a pathway to anything else.  In Stumbing on Happiness, Dan Gilbert constructs a compelling story about why humans are so bad at actually being happy.  Even better, he offers practical advice on what we can do about it.

Gilbert states his thesis early on:

We insist on steering our boats because we think we have a pretty good idea of where we should go, but the truth is that much of our steering is in vain – not because the boat won’t respond and not because we can’t find out destination, but because the future is fundamentally different than it appears through the prospectiscope*.
*(a made up word he uses to describe the mental “device” we use to predict the future).

Before Gilbert can describe why we’re so bad at predicting what will make us happy, he spends some time defining what happiness is, and just as importantly for a work attempting to take a rational approach, how we can measure it.  Gilbert spends a few pages discussing the fact that defining happiness is not that easy and one of the main reasons is that seeking is often seen a selfish or petty.  Thanks Puritans!  What he settles on is the basic idea that happiness is a subjective experience, so the person best situated to measure happiness of any particular individual is that individual themselves as long as you do as much as you can to control for the distortions caused by memory and social norms.

With a working definition and measures of happiness, the next three sections focus on the three failure modes of imagination which make it such a bad tool for predicting what will make us happy.  The first of these he calls “Realism” which refers to the fact that our imagination works so quickly, we often don’t even notice that what we are thinking is imagined.  This can lead to confuse imagined ideas with real ones.  Which leads to making decisions on things we think are true when they in fact aren’t…but we think they are.

The next failure mode of imagination he calls “Presentism” which argues in the opposite direction of the first failure by claiming that despite our ideal about imagination, it’s really not all that imaginative in that our imagined futures are very often extremely similar to our actual presents.  If Realism is all about the imagination working to well to be useful for accurate prediction, presentism is all about it not working well enough.

Gilbert calls the third and final imagination failure mode “Rationalization” which is all about how hard it is for us to accurately predict how we will think and feel about the future we imagine for ourselves once we get there.  Realism and Presentism keep us from being good forecasters about what will happen next and Rationalization seals the unhappiness deal by making sure we will most often be wrong about how we’ll feel about it on the off chance we happen to get lucky and correctly predict future events.  The basic idea of rationalization is that humans are way more resilient than most psychologists would give us credit for.

Gilbert provides the strongest evidence for this when he applies his objective happiness measurement to people that have undergone a specific tragedy (loss of a love one, terminal illness) and those who haven’t but that he asks to imagine how they would feel if they had.  Those that actually have had the experience are consistently happier than those that haven’t imagine that they would be if they had.  In short: we can get used to pretty much anything.

Fortunately, Gilbert doesn’t end his book here, on an “all is lost” tone.  He offers a way out, although he immediately says that he does this knowing that almost no one will take it.  Gilbert claims there is a simple way to see through the mirages provided by hind sight and foresight: find people that have recently, or even better are currently, doing what you are thinking about doing or have stopped doing what you are thinking about stopping and ask them how they feel.  You will likely feel the same.

However, this rescue comes with a caveat: most people wont chose this path due to what I have always known as the “special snow flake” argument.  “I’m special.”  “I’m different.”  “I’m complicated.”  Gilbert calls BS on these and a thousand other similar claims, at least when it comes to what makes us happy.  In the realm of happiness we humans are all more or less the same.  What makes other people you know happy will more than likely make you happy and vice versa.

Thinking about some big life change and not sure whether to pull the trigger?  Or already decided, but not started?  Find someone in your circle of friends, friends of friends, acquaintances, or even random people you search for on the internet that have done the same and ask them how they feel. Then relisten to what they tell you.  You’ll be happier for it.