Sunday, April 16, 2017

On Stoicism: A Guide to the Good Life

Those who know me might understand why so much time has passed since my last blog, it’s been a tough year!  Through it one pleasure (of many) I could count on is my bicycle commute which virtually guaranteed an hour of audio-book reading five days a week.  I'd seen Stoicism mentioned in Ryan Holiday’s Ego is the Enemy and The Obstacle is the Way so I searched for a book on this philosophy.  

Good books on Stoicism are hard to find!  Finally I stumbled across A Guide to the Good Life by James B. Irvine.  I liked it so much that I listen to it twice through and then bought a copy to mark up.  This entry is mainly a summary of that book, of that philosophy, as explained by the author.

Stoicism fell from the public eye when philosophers began emphasizing theory at the expense of lifestyle wisdom -- Socrates had taught both.  Modern psychology’s emphasis on exploring all emotions runs counter to some of the Stoic methods, and the term “stoic” itself has taken on a meaning that is less than attractive.  Besides, people today tend to think they don’t need a life goal (and by default become what Irvine calls “enlightened hedonists:” basically, sophisticated pleasure-seekers).
The core idea of Stoicism is summarized by Irving this way “Stoicism … is a cure for a disease. The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear and various other emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence." (p 238)  Thankfully, unlike the original Stoic philosophers Irving doesn’t refer to Zeus to explain how these emotions were embedded in us.  He looks no farther than evolution which, through natural selection, built emotions into our psyche for the purpose of survival and reproduction.  Evolutionary psychology is fascinating.  But the world has changed and the impulses that once helped don’t serve us well anymore.  Fortunately, one of the tools evolution has given us is rationality and we can hijack that  to reset our own life goal.  Our life goal doesn't have to be reproduction (in a primordial world, no less).  Stoics recommend, insead, tranquility.

Tranquility is not the only goal possible.  Hedonists seek to maximize pleasure and something like this is probably the default goal of most everyone. We're pleasure seekers because in geologic time the things that gave us pleasure steered us in ways that increased survival and procreation.  “Enlightened hedonism” today uses rationality to weigh long and short term pleasures and costs but in the end, he who has had the most pleasure wins.  The Cynics’ goal was virtue, harmony with nature and to reach this they advocated rejection of all conventional desire.  Stoicism is in between: not ascetic, not hedonistic.   Their goal is virtue and tranquility.  Tranquility is a goal of Buddhism and Epicurianism too.

Unlike Cynics who strive to eliminate desire the Stoics try to minimizing negative emotions, and to live a virtuous life.  Virtue and tranquility go hand in hand -- both rely on rational thought.  Irvine focuses on tranquility and explains how Stoics learned to increase it.

The Roman Stoics Irvine highlights are Seneca, Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius who was the  Roman Emperor from 161 to 180.  Each of these contributed something to the philosophy and most of them were exiled. Some were killed for being philosophers.  According to Irvine Descartes was a Stoic, so was Henry David Thoreau, but for the most part the philosophy waned as philosophers turned to theory, the public felt no need for a philosophy of life, psychologists emphasized methods that ran counter to Stoic ones, and religions pressed competing ideas too.   But here are some highlights of the book.

This is one of the core techniques.  We are set up psychologically to swing from desire to desire, satisfying one, forming the next, and so on.   Each time we attain a desired object we are rewarded but the psychological boost soon flattens and we pursue the next desire. Irvine observed that people often go to the mall not because they need something but in hopes to stimulate a desire which they can satisfy for that dopamine boost.  We are insatiable; instead of trying to satisfy desired endlessly we would do better to manage them. What makes it worse – and where negative visualization comes in – is what behavioral economists call hedonic adaptation: We place more value on things once we own them.  If you find $500 that’s nice, but if you lose $500 that’s very bad.  If you think you won the Academy Award for Best Picture and then learn it was a mistake you’re absolutely worse for the experience.  In effect, then, we are driven to acquire, we take our acquisitions for granted, and when we lose them it is an outsized blow.

So what do Stoics do about this?  One major exercise is negative visualization, that is, periodically imagining losing something before it happens.   It’s not actually worrying, it’s contemplation.  Doing this can inoculate ourselves so when the pet actually dies or the teapot breaks … well we sort of knew it might be coming and that hurts less.  We’ve reduced the negative impact of grief.  If this sounds like a grim practice, notice that it’s not constant.  The poignant example Irvine offers is now and then imagine the death of your daughter… that makes actually being with her so much sweeter.  If she were to actually die but you had appreciated her fully in life, and had recognized her impermanence, you may not only suffer less grief but less regret too.  And, there’ll be more joy in seeing her every day she’s alive. 

Stoics also recommend what Irvine calls voluntary discomfort: sometimes taking on a loss or suffering purposefully -- not in a masochistic way but an instructive one.  Reading this I was reminded of when I told my dentist before what was in essence a root canal that I would like to do it without anesthetic.  I wanted to experience extreme pain without actually suffering harm.  Doing this has several benefits: it inoculates one against the full shock when actual hardship occurs, it widens one’s zone of comfort, it helps us appreciate what we do have, and we gain confidence that we can bear what life might deliver.  The flipside, also recommended, is voluntarily abstaining from pleasurable things now and then, just to take on a healthier perspective.

There are other tools related to negative visualization like imagining that the bad things that happen to other people have happened to you, or trying to see bad things that happen in a more cosmic perspective.

The serenity prayer suggests we accept the things we can’t change, change the things we can, and have the wisdom to know the difference.  I’ve heard that all my life, but it was a bit eye opening to look just a little deeper.   Nothing in the past can be changed, it’s over. Then what is the use of all regret, it’s just a useless negative emotion!  We can still learn from the past, but that realization certainly takes the sting out of it.

More strangely, though, is that we can’t actually change the present instant either – the one we live in.  As soon we take an action that present has past.  Therefore, if we follow this line of reasoning, there is no anxiety or unhappiness about the way things are, in an immediate sense.  That’s very calming too, and it’s related to negative visualization:  we can't then entertain thoughts on how things right now could be better.

And then there are those things over which we have some but not complete control -- Irvine's simple example is a tennis match.  As much as you’ve practiced, as well as you play (both are things you can control) … you don’t control the skill of your opponent and therefore you can’t control the outcome of the game.  If you set a goal of winning the game and you lose it you will be disappointed.  Even if you win you likely will have suffered anxiety along the way.  Stoics recommend not trying to win the game, but rather set an internal goal … “playing your best.”  That goal you can control completely.  You can lose the match and still feel satisfied and accomplished.  Opponents can become, in essence, teammates. Becuuse there's less distraction during during the game, you're likely to play better and may well succeed and win. 

Other lessons relate to what we think of others and what they think of us.  Insults are interesting in this regard.  They’re not really injurious in themselves, like a punch in the face would be.  But they hurt only because of what we make of them. The advice?  It’s very clever.

First, consider the source; if it’s someone whose opinions you don’t respect, their insult can probably be dismissed out of hand. Irvine suggests considering it like a dog snarling at you – you might do well to make a mental note of it but you don’t go through your day worrying about the fact that the dog doesn’t like you!  But, if it’s someone you respect or someone who is well-informed about the topic at hand, perhaps you’ve found a teacher. 

Second, if the insult is true and obvious, then it’s just a statement of fact.  I’m bald … ok, so?   But if it’s not true perhaps it should be corrected, but not in anger… more like a parent correcting a child's bad behavior. It can be done kindly.

Third, if you choose to respond, the best way is often with humor because that can erase the intended sting.  Self-deprecating humor is best as it can send an ironic message of confidence when the insulter intended the exact opposite effect.  If the quick wit that can require is not not at hand, maybe don’t respond at all.  Either way you signal your disregard for the person's opinion rather than take them on.

Already we know that negative visualization can diminish grief because in a sense you’ve already seen the loss coming.  But one can also practice retrospective negative visualization, that is, imagine not having had the thing you've lost in the first place.  In essence, “be happy with what you have had.”  If grieving the death of a loved one you also might do well to wonder how much pain the person would have wanted you to suffer.  When someone else is grieving, the Stoic advice as expressed by Irving was don’t catch the grief, but you might feign grief if it makes them feel better.  Personally, I think actually sharing the grief, even if briefly, could be a good thing -- also a form of voluntary discomfort. 

In any case, although it's a negative emotion they say the griever should grieve.  Seneca wrote to a friend “Let your tears flow but let them also cease, let deepest sighs be drawn from your breast, but let them also find an end.” (p 154)  Here the Stoic advice runs against popular grief therapy which often advises lingering much longer in grief and to fully embrace it.

Anger is not only “anti-joy” but also is also irrational.  “Reason,” Seneca advises, “will never enlist the aid of reckless unbridled impulses over which it has no authority.” (p 160)  Feigning anger can serve a purpose -- signaling that you are likely to act irrationally (and therefore are unpredictable). But actually abandoning reason by way of anger is not recommended.  

So how do you reduce anger?  Resist thinking the worst of people, don’t get so comfortable that you’re easily angered, and notice how much more the anger causes your own suffering than the trigger for the anger itself did. Notice that with anger, we punish ourselves.  Attempting to view the offense from a more cosmic perspective can diminish its effect.  And if you can, turn anger upside down by finding humor.   Laugh. And, importantly, apologize later … that matters.

Fame should be avoided -- we basically should be indifferent to social status, they say.  Irving paraphrased Epictetus: “If we make it our goal to please others, we will no longer be free to please ourselves.”  Just as insults and criticism don’t have to infect us with negative emotion, we should become impervious to praise and compliments too.  It’s a slippery slope, relying on others in this way; better to set the internal goals.  Interestingly, luxury is a bit different (although various Stoics apparently disagreed on how much one should enjoy it).  Basically, wealth can be a fine thing as long as you control it – and not it you.  Its dangers include not being prepared to lose it and the loss of one's ability to enjoy simpler things.    

It makes sense that Stoics are often wealthy.  They set internal goals that can result in external successes just the same, and they are happy with a simple lifestyle.  In other words they may well earn an excellent wage and not spend nearly as much as others.

An interesting short chapter dealt with exile -- probably because most of the Stoics mentioned were exiled, sometimes repeatedly.  From the unflappable Stoic perspective exile is just a change of place.  Irvine brought this home by comparing exile to being “banished” to a nursing home, a fate many do still suffer today.  He explains, using Stoic principles, how one near the end of life might suffer fewer and less intense negative emotions and still find joy, if they know how.

The book is nicely written, appears to be an excellent synthesis of the original Stoic literature with modern applications.  Nicely indexed and well referenced.  The audio edition is nicely read.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

On Getting Organized

I'll start this personal essay by admitting that I'm just not very well organized by nature.  I'm a geographer; I specialize in place and location so you'd think I'd have some pretty good organizational skills at least at navigation.  And I do have a very strong  mental compass, but unfortunately it's poorly calibrated.  I'm sure we're traveling west but we're going south. I'm certain we should turn left -- but no, it's right.  I've written about this before -- my great humiliation -- and that kind of thing happens too often. I also lose my keys, forget people's names and sometimes go downstairs to get something just to wonder what it was.  I once even thought someone had stolen our car, because our parking place was empty as we drove past ... in our car.  "Where's the Volvo!!!?" is now a family joke.  But I do keep trying.  

Link Here
For example I read book recently called The Organized Mind; Very interesting NYT bestseller, with a lot of nice insights.  I started it in a coffee shop and  read a few chapters before I realized I'd left my phone in the washroom.  So that's me.

I've listen to several audio courses on my half hour bike commute and one was on memory. There are different kinds of memory, I learned, and they use different parts of the brain.  One type is echo memory, like the vague recollection that someone has asked you where their book is.  "huh?  what? oh it's in the living room." Vision also echoes for a second or two -- that helps our brain create fluid surroundings from a series of visual snapshots.

Link Here
Then there is procedural memory. This is the kind that lets children pick up the rules of language, this is what we often use to drive.  It's muscle memory, learning by doing.   Flashbulb memories are the kind that are suddenly stamped in your mind --- the car accident, the breathtaking view, the rude remark, the epiphany -- that sort of thing.

Then there's episodic memory, this is "memory" in everyday language.  What did you have for breakfast, what did Ms. X say today, where did you set your binoculars, and so on.   When people age, I learned, they often lose their episodic memory before the procedural memory goes.  They won't remember what they had for lunch but they can still play the violin.  And though our memory parts work independently they collaborate to form a conceivable story line. If there's a gap or contradiction, they make things up.  According to Dan Kahneman (I'm paraphrasing), the mind is a machine designed to find shortcuts. Kahneman and Tversky were the fathers of Behavioral Economics.  He wrote Thinking Fast and Slow.

So what does this have to do with organization?  We can use the different parts of memory to our advantage. For example, there's a trick called "method of loci," which has been around for a couple thousand years, in which you visually attach things you want to remember to a fixed procedural sequence.  That sequence might be a familiar routine 1) waken 2) brush teeth 3) dress, 4) feed cats, 5) make coffee, etc. Each of these conjures up a different physical location.

Let's use it. To remember five grocery items, go through the rooms.  Imagine being awakened with a splash of milk to the face, brushing your teeth with celery, finding a bucket of ground beef in your closet, instead of a cat eating at the bowl, it's a  big loaf of bread on legs.  Stir your hot coffee with a cheese stick and see it soften and melt.  The sequence can go on and on ... eat breakfast, get coat, go to garage, get in car ...  each location provides a "hook"  for a robust visual memory.

It was another course, mental math, where I learned about the "major system" for remembering numbers.  The main idea is that words are more meaningful than digits, so you turn the numbers into sounds.   0 =s, 1=t/d, 2=n, 3, m, 4=r, 5=l, 6=g/ch/sh, 7=k, 8=f/v, 9=p/b, and then turn the sounds into words. The phone number: 367-8212 becomes "magic fountain.". People who are good at this memorize a noun and verb for every two digit number, maybe three.  01=seat/sit 58=leaf/love 74=car/cure.. Then you can put together sentences quickly. I found a few Android apps for this.

The best memory hack was this, however: Half of remembering is learning it in the first place.  If you want to know where your keys are, remember to always put them in the bowl.  A place for everything, and everything in its place. The same principle -- half of remembering is learning -- works in the abstract too.  Let's take the example of  names.  Imagine a group of strangers meeting, six people in all, you're one.  Each shares their name once -- that's five short moments, just at the same instant you may be trying to make a good first impression.  "Hi I'm Justin Devinberg." ... Whaaa? Everyone might as well throw their business cards in the air.  But you can prepare in advance to catch them.  "I'm Eileen Goodwin" [OK... she leans to one side because of a short leg, and that's good, because it's a circular race and she'll win.]   There, but that took a few seconds.  If you need more time, you can buy it.  When I tell someone my name and they ask me "Is that Eric with a c or a k?" I can pretty much guess I am being processed. 

But there's so much more to organization than remembering things, names, and numbers.  I picked up a new and popular book called The Life -Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo,  a Japanese woman with a bad case of OCD.  She talks about hurrying home from school as a girn to tidy up her siblings' closet. She's horrified by soap residue on a shower rack. She recommends touching your stored clothes now and then to reassure them that you care.

But she also has some good ideas, one is folding all your clothes in rectangles and filing them in
My actual drawers.
drawers, but upright, like books.  I've done it, even to socks, sweaters and underwear. You can see everything you have when they're not piled up and flopping around; and it's very democratic -- every item has an equal voice. And there is no "off season" box in the basement because there's more room.  This is because you apply another critical principle: if it doesn't bring you joy, get rid of it. She recommends applying this to clothes, books, papers, and mementos -- in that order.  She also talks about jewelry and kitchens, never mentions workrooms, tools, or digital files, but the principles are easy to transfer.

It was surprisingly easy to go through my stuff. I found I had been wearing some clothes I don't like just to save wear and tear on those I do like. Gone.  I'd been keeping some mementos that had lost their meaning or even brought me pain, not joy.  Gone.  My book collection contained whole sections I was done with, and which had no sentimental value.  Gone.  Bag it up, move it out, but don't let anyone pick through it first, Kondo says, because they might want you to keep something for their own sentimental reasons, or because they just don't understand what's going on: you're getting orkondoganized.

Try this one: look at your stuff -- if you found that in the alley, would you bring it in?  If not, maybe it belongs in the alley. And that's not even Kondo; I came up with that one myself, years ago.

Technology is so useful for organizing.  One tool I've adopted is Microsoft Access, although others would do as well.  This is a "relational" database with which you can take any number of tables of information and link them together with a shared unique field which is simply an ID for that row of information.  That's why, say, student ID, neighborhood name, Census tract number, etc are so useful; they can reach out and shake hands with any other table containing that same information.  And if Joe can shake with Sally who can shake with Sue, then Joe can talk with Sue as well.  I have linked tables for faculty, students, courses, and schedules ... and with a button now I can generate reports: when a particular class was last taught and by whom and what was the enrollment, with percent attending on a sample day and a summary of student course evaluations ... bam.   What different courses did a particular faculty member ever teach, and its average enrollments when taught daytime, or night ... bam.  Checkbox the courses a new advisee might find most interesting and print out their description, frequency and usual term its offered ... bam. How well does this draft schedule satisfy every major -- daytime/nighttime students, graduate and undergraduate? ... bam.  What are the enrollment trends in the last 10 years, for all courses combined serving one major concentration? ... bam.

Some databases just don't lend themselves to handshakes -- they have no linking field. But you might still be able to map them if you have street address, zip code, an intersection, latitude/longitude, police beat, City ward, or any other geospatial identifier. And if you can map it, you can use location itself as the linking field -- it can shake hands with that.  So all the data in a table that contains street address can now pour over into the table that contains police beat.  You can calculate new information too: distance from, number within, area, length, buffer zones, average values of something in x for all the x's inside each area of y. And this is the easy stuff.  GIS is the sandbox where databases that didn't know each other, can meet and play. 

There is nothing like a map to organize information than includes some sort of spatial marker.  Like some of these I've linked below. I basically make maps all the time.  

Interactive Org Chart, try it!
My maps have evolved such that I now also make flow diagrams and charts, which in a sense are maps in a different dimension. They are linked in the appendix.  One is a spiral showing five years of work that goes into one university budget.  There's one that identifies amazing complexities in the hiring process for part time faculty members. There's is a circular calendar showing a full cycle
Student view of college
 of department chair duties.  In another, I offer an alternate policy on the making of policies, elsewhere I suggest a more efficient way to update course schedules, and here's two of my favorites: top left #1: an interactive full-university organization chart. Rather than the traditional top-down org chart, with one person at the top of a pyramid, this one puts each employee into center stage, surrounding them with their supervisors and direct reports.  Cooler still, I think is #2 to the right: an organization chart from the student's perspective: there's
Constitution Explained (a video)

academics, support services, extracurricular activities, etc. Step in and follow your interests.  Both of these are prototypes, because they were well ahead of their time -- but that's another story.

Maybe my best traditional flow diagram is of the Faculty Constitution (explained in a video to the left); it's an unreadable, convoluted set of articles, that parse out like this.  And a close read suggests, to me at least, ways to improve it.

This brings me to the best and deepest organizational tip for today.  It's an organization
system called Getting Things Done, created by David Allen in 2001.

The basic idea is that you clear your mind by downloading all the "actionables" into an elaborate to-do list, with all then tags and features you could imagine -- and a robust retrieval system that might contain a search tool you've designed like this: "What can I do, when I'm in my office, in 10 minutes time, on project X, sorted by priority."  Or "who did I ask an important question more than a week ago, to which they didn't reply, and get me that email please."  My GTD copy was old; Allen was talking about physical file folders in desk drawers, rolodexes, etc., but I searched for a 3rd party app and found plenty.  I settled on one called IQtell, by Ran Flam circa 2013 because it's super robust, very customizable, inexpensive and they have great support. I wrote a blog about it when I started; I like it even more now.    
Now that I've been using the system for awhile, I gave a little talk on GTD and IQtell to colleagues at the Faculty Research and Creative Activity Symposium  this year. Finding my paper sandwiched between "“Extinction by by hybridization? A probable fate for a native cattail species" and "Using worms to understand human neurodegenerative diseases" I personally invited friends who I know are busy and might like the program.  And I was right. Mostly they were too busy to attend.  But a half dozen sent regrets and for them I packaged up my presentation, added some live parts, and posted it on YouTube. Someone apparently shared it with others who shared it again and this video has had more than 1,000 viewers in just a couple of months.  For me, that's viral.

I had an interesting conversation with my son recently, who is 22 and becoming nuanced in political skills and group dynamics.  He's like me in being naturally absent minded -- let's say distracted -- and although the messes he leaves around don't bother me so much, they do bother his mother. We talked about the unspoken communication between people -- things like body position, eye contact, and the welcoming pauses in conversations. They're obvious when you think about them, they are hugely influential, but generally go unnoticed. And while we were talking about this, another obvious/subtle communication occurred to me.  When you exit a room, you may leave traces of yourself behind, and these continue to remind people of you.  "Let's say you leave a tidy place when you go back to college," I suggested to him.  "Every time we walk past your bedroom it'll sing your praises. "He's neat!  He's clean! He's organized! He's considerate!  He's respectful!  He's appreciative!  He likes his room!  He likes us!"  And that will go on for months with no further effort on your part..

Leave this behind and it represents you for months or more.
So I thought that conversation went well, and I took a look in his room after dropping him off at the train station. What exactly was the room saying about him?   I couldn't quite tell; it had it's mouth full, maybe I didn't want to know. So I took this picture and then went all Kondo on it: I cleaned it myself, No big deal... but I've learned that while some people don't care much about a mess, everyone seems to be ok with order.