I’m a strong believer in doing less.

I’m always thinking about what else I can eliminate: “What’s going on around me that I can do without?”

The reason I do this is because I believe in “less is more.”

You call it corny, but most of us have it all wrong.

Some time ago this quote by Thich Nhat Hanh crossed by:

“Many people think excitement is happiness. When you are excited you are not peaceful. True happiness is based on peace.”

I believe there’s a really important message in that. One most of us could use.

Especially in this day and age where all of our senses are continually overloaded with low-value noise.

Everyone’s always looking around. Looking for the next exciting thing that happened, or might have happened. Most of the time nothing that actually matters happens happens.

We’re pushed towards this paranoid “what-is-everyone-else-doing?” thinking:

What did so-and-so post on Facebook, twitter, instagram,.. today?
What’s on the news this morning, afternoon, evening?
What’s on the blogs?
In the magazines?
Did I get any new e-mail?

And sure, we’re all supposed to keep ourselves informed on what’s going on in the world, right? But ask yourself honestly what the hell you are going to do with all of this information?

As sociologist Paul Lazarsfeld wrote:

“The interested and informed citizen can congratulate himself on his lofty state of interest and information and neglect to see that he has abstained from decision and action. In short, he takes his secondary contact with the world of political reality, his reading and listening and thinking, as a vicarious performance … He is concerned. He is informed. And he has all sorts of ideas as to what should be done. But, after he has gotten through his dinner and after he has listened to his favored radio programs and after he has read his second newspaper of the day, it is really time for bed.” 

The worth of information is in what you do with it, the action that sprouts out of it. You’re not going to get quizzed afterwards. And if it’s really that important, someone will eventually tell you.

There’s so much noise that demands we turn our view outward. At the other person. External.

The noise demands that we give it the one thing we have least of – our most valuable asset: time.

While, if happiness depends most on what’s inside us: our thinking, inner peace, tranquillity – we should be doing the opposite of looking for more and more outward noise.

We should turn to ourselves – inward.

Marcus Aurelius’ guidance on reaching tranquillity/happiness comes to mind:

If you seek tranquillity, do less.

Or (more accurately) do what’s essential.

Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.

Because most of what we say and do is not essential.

If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity.

Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

Marcus Aurelius,
Meditations Book Four, Paragraph 24

“Is this necessary?” might be one the most important questions you can ask yourself.

Continually asking why you do or say something might be the most productive thing you can do. Because most of the time you will realize that you probably shouldn’t do it anymore.

It’s probably just best to skip it because it’s not meaningful. It has zero value.

Another take on this subject I got out of an old interview with Henry Miller. Henry, when asked about the value of work:

I don’t think what is called the work of the world – this everyday work – that gets glorified, I don’t think that it’s really so important.

I think it would be much much better if people were told to be lazy – to shake the job, to enjoy, to relax, not care, not worry. I think we would get all that work done in some other way.

We are creating this work – not because it has to be done – but because we are busybodies and we do not know how to swim on the river of life. And we prefer a kind of senseless insect-activity to a genuine activity which may often be no activity. 

I don’t say to be quiet, to do nothing, I don’t say that at all. But I do say it should have sense, it should have meaning – what we do.

And the greater part of what we do everyday has damn little meaning.

Henry Miller,
A Conversation With Henry Miller

This is also one of the reasons why I have discarded all the reading of productivity books. Reading these books is actually a paradoxical activity. It’s paranoia-inducing. These productivity gurus got it all wrong.

What they are about is fighting procrastination as if it were a bad thing. While procrastination is actually a good thing.

Procrastination is nature telling you that you don’t want to do this.

That’s why it should be used as a compass telling you that this thing you’re doing is not worthy of your time and you should get rid of it. It’s not essential. Not the other way around.

Nassim Taleb calls this feeling “the soul rebelling against entrapment.”

It is not doing more that we should be worrying about all the time, it’s doing less.

This is what Nassim Taleb feels is the meaning behind being a civilized person. From his book of aphorisms:

You will be civilized on the day you can spend a long period doing nothing, learning nothing, and improving nothing, without feeling the slightest amount of guilt.

On Chance, Success, Happiness, And Stoicism
The Bed Of Procrustes

Then, more than the ability to always do more and say more, this might be the one thing we all struggle with – and therefore should ultimately strive for – the most:

To do nothing at all.

Bukowski in Love Is A Dog From Hell, his collection of poems from 1974-1977:

 

there is a loneliness in this world so great

that you can see it in the slow movement of

the hands of a clock.

 

people so tired

mutilated

either by love or no love.

 

people are just not good to each other

one on one.

 

the rich are not good to the rich

the poor are not good to the poor.

 

we are afraid.

 

our educational system tells us

that we can all be

big-ass winners.

 

it hasn’t told us

about the gutters

or the suicides.

 

or the terror of one person

aching in one place alone

 

untouched

unspoken to

 

watering a plant.

 

I just finished the book that I’ll recommend to everyone this year.

It’s called Seeking Wisdom and author Peter Bevelin tries to cover exactly that:

How does one reach the state of “wisdom”?

The book is largely based on the philosophy of the second hand man of super-investor Warren Buffett, Charlie Munger.

His theory is that “the best way to achieve wisdom is to learn the big ideas that underlie reality. […] Even people who aren’t geniuses can outthink the rest of mankind if they develop certain thinking habits.”

Buffett describes Charlie as the thinking machine behind the empire he built up at Berkshire Hathaway. Author Peter Bevelin talks of Munger as “a man whose simplicity and clarity of thinking is second to none.”

In short, I’d say that the book is about these things we know – or think we kind of know – but need to be reminded of every once in a while. We need to remind ourselves of these principles so we can actually use them to guide our thinking. Actually using the stuff we learn is the goal of information right?

If you’ve read and enjoyed the works of Daniel Kahneman (Thinking Fast And Slow), Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan, Antifragile), Robert Sapolsky (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers), Robert Cialdini (Influence), Stoic philosophy (Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus),… you will definitely enjoy this book.

Munger on why it’s important to process and master second-hand information to guide your thinking:

I believe in the discipline of mastering the best that other people have ever figured out. I don’t believe in just sitting down and trying to dream it all up yourself. Nobody’s that smart.”

Below you find a summary of the list of 28 principles from behavioral psychology – mistakes, misjudgments, cognitive biases – you can use to improve your thinking, that were discussed in Seeking Wisdom.

1. Mere Association

We move towards stimuli we associate with pleasure an away from those we associate with pain.

We tend to dislike people who tell us what we don’t want to hear even when they didn’t cause the bad news, i.e. kill the messenger. This gives people an incentive to avoid giving bad news.

Individuals are neither good nor bad merely because we associate them with something positive or negative.

Encourage people to tell you bad news immediately.

Past experiences are often context dependent.

Create a negative emotion if you want to end a certain behavior. If you want someone to stop smoking, one way could be to show them what they stand to lose.

2. Reward And Punishment

“The iron rule of nature is: you get what you reward for.
If you want ants to come, you put sugar on the floor.”
– Charlie Munger

Give people what they desire (or take away something undesirable) and their behavior will repeat.
Give they something undesirable (or take away whay they desire) and their behavior will stop.
In the beginning, rewarding (or punishing) is most effective when it is administered without delay and each time the behavior is repeated.
Once behavior becomes learned, variable rewards strengthen the behavior.

“The chains of habit are too weak to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.”
– Samuel Johnson

After a success, we become overly optimistic risk-takers. After a failure, we become overly pessimistic and risk-averse.

Good consequences don’t necessarily mean we made a good decision, and bad consequences don’t necessarily mean we made a bad decision.

This automatic association to what worked in the past causes people to under-react to new condition and circumstances.

Praise is more effective in changing behavior than punishment. It is better to encourage what is right than to criticize what is wrong.

Set examples: “We do not improve the man we hang: we improve others by him.” – Michel de Montaigne

“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding it.”
– Upton Sinclair

Warren Buffet on business goals:

Goals should be:
(1) tailored to the economics of the specific operating business
(2) simple
(3) directly related to daily activities

Reward individual performance and not effort or length in organization. Reward people after and not before performance.

Don’t let money be the only motivation. If we reward people for doing what they like to do anyway, we sometimes turn what they enjoy doing into work. The reward changes their perception.
The key is what a reward implies. A reward for our achievements makes us feel that we are good at something thereby increasing our motivation. But a reward that feels controlling and makes us feel that we are only doing it because we’re paid to do it, decreases the appeal. Blase Pascal said: “We are generally better persuaded by the reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.”

Have systems that make it hard for people to get away with undesirable behavior. Make undesirable behavior costly.

An example of a really responsible system is the system that the Romans used when they built an arch. The guy who created the arch stood under it as the scaffolding was removed. It’s like packing your own parachute.(Skin In The Game/Neck On The Line ~ Nassim Taleb)

3. Self-Interest And Incentives

People do what they perceive is in their best interest and are biased by incentives.

“My doctor gave me 6 months to live. When I told him I couldn’t pay the bill, he gave me 6 more months.”
– Walther Matthau

People who are rewarded for doing stupid things continue to do them.

Studies show that teachers help students cheat on standardized tests when their jobs or pay increases depend on the outcome of the tests.

“Whose bread I eat, his song I sing.”
– German proverb

How can we change people? Since the risk of losing is more motivating than the chance of gaining, we stand a better change changing people if we appeal to their fear of losing something they value – job, reputation, status, money, control, etc.

Changing people affects their motivation, feelings of responsibility, and tendency to reciprocate. It is better when people act out of their own free will.

Understand people’s motivations. Money, status, power, envy?

People’s interests are not only financial. They could also be social or moral. For example, public embarrassment, social exclusion, conscience, shame or guilt may cause people to stop some undesirable behavior.

“Do not train boys to learning by force and harshness, but lead them by what amuses them, so that they may better discover the bent of their minds.”
– Plato

It is better to convince people by asking questions that illuminate consequences.

4. Self-Serving Tendencies And Optimism

We can’t all be better than average.

People tend to put higher probability on desired events than on undesired events.

Experiments show that when we are successful (independent by chance or not), we credit our own character or ability.

When we fail, we blame external circumstances or bad luck. When others are successful, we tend to credit their success to luck and blame their failures on foolishness.

“If the only tool you have is a hammer, you approach every problem as if it were a nail.”
– English proverb

Experts love to extrapolate their ideas from one field to all other fields. They define problems in ways that fit their tools rather than ways that agree with the underlying problem.

“An optimist is a person who sees a green light everywhere, while the pessimist sees only the red stoplight. The truly wise person is colorblind.”
– Dr. Albert Schweitzer

How well do you know what you don’t know?

“It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”
– Charlie Munger

Focus on what can go wrong and the consequences. Know how you will handle things when they go wrong.

Consider people’s actual accomplishments and past behavior over a long period of time rather than first impressions.

5. Self-Deception And Denial

We deny and distort reality to feel more comfortable, especially when reality threatens our self-interest.

On gurus:
We believe something is true because it sounds believable or we want to believe it, especially with issues of love, health, religion, and death. This is one reason why people follow gurus. They encourage followers to trust their hearts and forget their heads.

When the cost of denial is worse than the benefit of facing reality, we must face reality.

6. Consistency

The more we have invested in our behavior the harder it is to change.

We behave in ways that are consistent with how others see us. If people label us as talented, we try to appear talented whether or not it is true.

“What the human being is best at doing is interpreting all new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.”
– Warren Buffett

We are most consistent when we have made a public, effortful or voluntary commitment. The more public a decision is, the less likely it is that we will change it.

In the low-ball technique, the salesperson gives the customer an incentive to enter into an agreement with the intention of changing the terms to the seller’s advantage.

In the labeling technique, people try to get us commited by first applying a label to our personality or values that is consistent with the behavior they want us to take.

Foot-in-the door technique:
How do people seduce us financially, politically or sexually? They makes us agree to a small request, so small no one would refuse.

When people get us to commit, we become responsible.

How do we get people to take inner responsibility for their actions? Make it voluntary. We take responsibility for our behavior in cases when we are interanlly motivated by satisfaction or interest, when we feel in control, and when we are free from incentives or outside pressure.

If we can get people commited in advance, they tend to live up to their commitment.

Be self-critical and unlearn your best-loved ideas. Search for evidence that disconfirms ideas and assumptions. Consider alternative outcomes, viewpoints, and answers. Have someone tell you when your thinking is wrong.

7. Deprival Syndrome

One reason why horse races, bingo and these things have always been so popular is because of all these near misses. Frequent near misses are like small reinforcements and make us want to try again and again.

“All these feelings. And it has no impact whatsoever.”
– Warren Buffett

We want and value more what is scarce and unique.

How do we create demand? Create competition.

Know your goals and options. Ask: Why do I want this?

“Captain Cook served sauerkraut to the officers, but not to the men. And then, finally he said, ‘Well, the men can have it one day a week.”

8. Status Quo And Do-Nothing Syndrome

Deciding to do nothing is also a decision. And the cost of doing nothing could be greater than the cost of taking an action.

Remember what you want to achieve.

9. Impatience

We are impatient in the short run and patient in the far away future.

Consider both the short and long-term consequences of a decision. Weigh present good/bad against future good/bad. Short-term suffering may lead to long term pleasure.

10. Envy And Jealousy

“Man will do many things to get himself loved;
he will do all things to get himself envied.”
– Mark Twain

It is people similar to us we envy most.

“There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich”
– Charles P. Kindleberger

Studies show that how happy we are is partly determined by where we stand in relation to similar others.

As long as you achieve your goals, it shouldn’t matter if someone else does better.

Studies show that it matters whether we believe that others deserve their success.

“The best way to avoid envy is to deserve the success you get.”
– Aristotle

11. Contrast Comparison

How we value things depends on what we compare them with.

Evaluate objects and people by themselves and not by their contrast.

12. Anchoring

“I always set low targets to exceed expectations.”

Consider choices from a zero base level and remember what you want to achieve.

Adjust information to reality.

13. Vividness And Recency

Information we receive directly, through our eyes or ears has more impact than information that may have more evidential value.

Information that moves us emotionally makes us pay greater attention to the event itself than to its magnitude. Statistics rarely spark our emotions. An individual face and name will.

Sometimes we believe an event has increased in frequency because we see it more. But the media may only cover it more.

We give too much weight to information we’ve seen, heard, read or experienced most recently.

Accurate infomation is better than dramatic information. Back up vivid stories with facts and numbers.

Ask: is it relevant?

14. Omission And Abstract Blindness

We often both choose and reject options that are of a more striking or complex nature over average ones.

Consider missing information. Know what you want to achieve.

15. Reciprocation

Whenever someone does something for us we want to do something back.

We make a concession to people who have first made a concession to us.

People don’t want to feel indebted. We are disliked if we don’t allow people to give back what we’ve given them.

A favor or gift is more effective when it is personal, significant, and unexpected.

Give people what you want in return from them. Ask: Assuming others are like me, how would I like to be treated if the roles were reversed?

16. Liking And Social Acceptance

“The deepest principle in human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”
– William James

We like people who compliment us – true or not – and make us feel special.

“Talk to a man about himself and he will listen for hours.”
– Benjamin Disraeli

People believe we have the same personality as those we associate with.

Create an external common threat or an opportunity for mutual gain.

Asking a favor of someone is likely to increase that person’s liking for us.

“He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.”
– Benjamin Franklin

17. Social Proof

“If 40 million people say a foolish thing, it does not become a wise one.”
– Somerset Maugham

Since everybody else wants it, we assume there has to be a reason.

We trust testimonials from people that we see as similar to us.

“What the wise do in the beginning, fools do in the end.”
– Warren Buffett

“I’d rather be wrong in a group than right by myself.” (Sheeping)

Ponzi-schemes.

We have a tendency to not act in situations where we are uncertain if there is danger and when we don’t feel individual responsibility. Also when we want to avoid embarrassment and when we’re among strangers. The more people, the more reduced we see our own responsibility.

A bystander to an emergency is unlikely to help when there are other people around.

When we are uncertain, we have a tendency to look at people around us to see how they react. If others don’t react, we interpret that as evidence that it is not an emergency.

Pluralistic ignorance: “Since nobody is concerned, nothing is wrong. It can’t be an emergency.”

Diffusion of responsibility: The more people there are, the less personal responsibility we feel.

So, how should we act if we are involved in an accident in a public place and need help? We should be specific. “You there, in the blue shirt. This is an emergency. Please help me!”

“Gentlemen, I take it we are all in complete agreement with the decision here. Then, I propose we postpone further discussion of this matter to give ourselves time to develop disagreement and perhaps gain some understanding of what the decision is all about.”

“The masses have never thirsted after truth. They turn aside from evidence that is not to their taste, preferring to deify error, if error secude them. Whoever can supply them with illusions is easily their master: whoever attempts to destroy their illusions is always their victim.”
– Gustave Le Bon (The Crowd)

Conditions of uncertainty and exclusive similarity strengthen the principle of social proof.

“It is easy in the world to live after the world’s opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own: but the great man/woman is he/she who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Wish to everyone here for 2014: the preservation of the most important and most threatened human asset: MENTAL CLARITY.
#vianegativa” – Nassim Taleb’s new year’s resolution tweet

Disregard what others are doing and think for yourself. Ask: does this make sense?

“Have the courage of YOUR knowledge and experience.
If YOU have formed a conclusion from the facts and if YOU know YOUR judgment is sound, ACT ON IT.”
– Benjamin Graham

Seek out alternative points of view and encourage people to openly disagree. Appoint someone in the group to question things and point out risks and pitfalls.

When all are accountable, no one is accountable.
=> Be specific. You. Do. It.

18. Authority

Titles, possessions, rank, uniforms, or a nice suit and tie.

Experts are sometimes more convincing when we don’t understand them.

Blind obedience is sometimes a way to rationalize dumb actions.

Evaluate the truth of a statement on the basis of its underlying facts, without regard to the authority’s personal qualities or social status.

An authority may have an interest in persuading you to believe something that is in their interest. Always consider:
– reliability
– credibility
– sensibility
– bias

To insure their trustworthiness, authorities often mention weaknesses before strengths and prove information that seems contrary to their interests. This technique is often used by salesmen and negotiators.

19. Sensemaking

By finding patterns and causal relationships we get comfort and learn from the future.

When trying to make sense of what has happened, we construct a plausible story or explanation that fits the autcome. But there are many ways an event or behavior can later be understood.

The danger of relying on case-based stories: Stories may be selected to prove something and may give us a delusional sense of clarity.

History is explained by what has survived into the historian’s present. Not all sources survive.

We seem to have a tendency for romanticizing past achievements.

We like it when people tell us what the future will look like. It reduces uncertainty.

A test is reliable if it gives about the same result when repeated assuming the test measures a characteristic that is stable over time.

In the 1980s, some businessmen bought some branded stereo speakers and packed them into a truck. They parked the truck behind a dorm at Harvard and started whispering “Pssst… Hey! You wanna buy some speakers?” They never said that the speakers were stolen but passersby assumed they were. They therefore had to be a bargain. The businessmen sold out in no time. Even if the speakers cost a little more than they did in the local store.

We love stories and story-telling. Good stories and drama get out attention. They give meaning to event. We rationalize decisions and justify choices by telling ourselves comforting stories. We use stories to understand, remember and make sense of events.

After an event a story is created so that the event makes sense.

20. Reason-Respecting

“Excuse me, I have 5 pages. May I use the Xerox machine BECAUSE I have to make some copies.”

When people ask us for a favor we are more likely to comply if they give us a reason – even if we don’t understand the reason or it is wrong. Often it isn’t the reason itself that is important, but the way the reason is phrased. Sometimes the word “because,” without a sensible reason, is all that matters. We want explanations and the word “because” implies an explanation.

Even if they don’t understand the your reason, they’ll be more likely to comply.

If we don’t understand the meaning of an idea, we don’t use it.

We learn better if the use of ideas and patterns are illustrated through pictures and simple, clear and vivid real-life stories.

People can’t be persuaded by what they don’t understand.

Tell them so they understand WHY a specific action is needed, WHAT the expected objective is, and WHY you think the action is right.

21. Believe First And Doubt Later

We are not natural skeptics. We find it easy to believe, but difficult to doubt. Doubting is active and takes effort.

We first believe all information we understand an only afterwards and with effort do we evaluate, and if necessary, un-believe.
=> Un-believing takes effort.

The more distracted or pressured we are, the more likely we believe in something we normally would find dubious.

22. Memory Limitations

Emotional events are better remembered than unemotional ones. That is why we learn better if information is tied to a vivid story. Learning is also tied to mood. We learn better in a positive mood. That is why teaching should be performed in a way that creates powerful positive emotions among students.

Studies show that it is easy to get a witness to believe that they saw something when they didn’t. Merely let some time pass between their observation and the questioning. Then give them false or emotional information about the event.

Childhood memories are unreliable and influenced by fantasies and suggestions.

Keep records of important events.
=> Remember events right. Write stuff down.

23. Do-Something Syndrome

“Being busy all the time is a form of laziness.”

“Man finds nothing so intolerable as to be in a state of complete rest, without passions, without occupation, without diversion, without effort.”
– Blaise Pascal

“You will be civilized on the day you can spend a long period doing nothing, learning nothing, and improving nothing, without feeling the slightest amount of guilt.”
– Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Don’t confuse activity with results.

What do you want to accomplish?

“There is no use running if you’re on the wrong road.”
– Warren Buffett

24. Say-Something Syndrome

“If you have nothing to say, say nothing.”
– Mark Twain

“Awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.”
– Socrates

“I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”
– Publilius Syrus

25. Emotions

Studies show that when we are in a state of more rational calm, we underestimate how we will feel and act when we experience intense emotions.

When we feel sad, which often reflects helplessness and loss, we may want to change our circumstances so we feel better. This may cause us to overpay for something or buy things we don’t need.

When we make big decisions, we could compare our expected feelings with those of people who have similar experiences today. In that sense, we are not as unique as we think we are.

Ask: Is there a rational reason behind my action?

When we have just gone through an emotional experience, we should hold off on important decisions.
=> Sleep first. Then decide.

26. Stress

When we feel stress the concentration of cortisol rises in the bloodstream. One effect of cortisol is to suppress the workings of our immune system. This makes us more vulnerable to diseases. Stress also counteracts the production of insulin (the hormone that produces blood sugar), causing the process of repair to slow down. Studies show that emotional stress creates longer recovery times in our bodies and may be more harmful to our health than non-emotional stress like physical exercise.
=> Distress vs. Eustress

Studies show that people who perceive themselves to be in control over a stressful situation experience less stress.
=> Stoicism

Stress can be controlled by our attitudes.

“It is not stress that harms us but distress. We need challenges. Without stress there would be no life… Complete freedom from stress is death.”
– Dr. Hans Selye

“I’ve suffered a great many catastrophes in my life. Most of them never happened.”
– Mark Twain

27. Pain, Chemicals And Diseases

Drugs, stimulants, and depressants distort our senses.

28. Multiple Tendencies

“When you get two or three of these psychological principles operating together, then you really get irrationality on a tremendous scale.”
– Charles Munger

“Most social acts have to be understood in their setting, and lose meaning if isolated. No error in thinking about social facts is more serious than the failure to see their place and function.”
– Solomon Asch

Zimbardo prison experiment: Often when we are in a role, we tend to act as others expect.

“Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked two moons in his moccasins.”
– Indian proverb

People may change their behavior merely because they are being observed.

Anonymity can create destructive behavior.

We should view our assests in terms of their entirety. A dollar is a dollar independent of where it comes from.

We treat people like we expect them to be.

Assume that a new teacher is told that half of the class has high IQs and half low IQs. The teacher is given the names of the supposed intelligent kids and the supposed not so intelligent ones. In reality, someone has randomly selected the two groups. By the end of the year, the experimental premise will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.The kids the teach thought had high IQs will be doing better than the kids with supposedly low IQs. This has been demonstrated in studies of elementary school students. Teachers taught much better when they expected a lot from their students.

Some Final Advice From Charlie Munger

Follow these three pieces of advice from Charlie Munger:

(1) You can learn to make fewer mistakes than other people – and how to fix your mistakes faster when you do make them. But there’s no way that you can live an adequate life without making many mistakes. In fact one trick in life to get so you can handle mistakes. Failure to handle psychological denial is a common way for people to go broke: You’ve made an enormous commitment to something. You’ve poured effort and money in. And the more you put in, the more that the whole consistency principle makes you think, “Now it has to work. If I put in just a little more, then it will work.”
(2) Two-track analysis:
First, what are the factors that really govern the interests involved, rationally considered?
Second, what are the subconscious influences where the brain at a subconscious level is automatically doing these things – which by and large are useful, but which often misfunction.
One approach is rationality. The other is to evaluate the psychological factors that cause subconscious conclusions.
(3) Take all the main models from psychology and use them as a checklist.

“He who knows men is clever;
He who knows himself has insight;
He who conquers men has force;
He who conquers himself is truly strong.”
– Lao-Tsu

“The tradition of always looking for the answer in the most fundamental way available – that is a great tradition and it saves a lot of time in this world. You have to learn to have what people call ‘assiduity’. Well, I’ve always liked that word – because to me it means that you sit down on your ass until you’ve done it.”
– Charlie Munger

“Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
– Marcus Aurelius

What happens to you does not count.

What you think happens to you… counts.

From Seeking Wisdom:

Studies show that a placebo can improve a patient’s condition simply because the patient expects it will work. Clinical evidence shows placebos to have physical effects on the brain, just as drugs do.

Studies in Sweden show a placebo activates the same brain circuits as painkilling drugs.

If people expect something to go wrong with their health, it often does. Negative expectations can influence our bodies and cause symptoms that over time may cause our body harm.

Beliefs have biological consequences — good and bad.

Therefore you should aim at controlling your beliefs.

If you know what you want you could even use them to your advantage.

Align them with your goals.

Re-think your beliefs.

Are they pushing you forward and up.
Or back and down?

Eliminate, not add

January 26, 2014 — Leave a comment

Constantly in life be like the sculptor.

Cut out what you don’t need.

Progress exists in elimination, not addition.

Ask yourself: “What can I eliminate?”

Not.

“What can I add?”

Addition doesn’t always add something.

Subtraction often does.

I used to read a lot of self-help books.

How-to-become-awesome-like-me motivational crap such as Think And Grow Rich and Tony Robbins’ stuff. I even watched the DVD of The Secret.

I dropped all of that stuff off at a second hand bookstore. Hoping for the Universe to help me reach my goals, just didn’t do it for me.

Two years ago I started looking for something more, someone who had it all figured out and – like some of us find it in religion – could show me the way. I needed something to hold onto.

What I needed was someone to teach me how to live.

I needed a filter – a funnel in which I could throw the crapload of situations, possibilities, people, products, emotions around me – that would teach me were to direct my attention to and what to ignore.

I was looking for a guide to truly live MY LIFE.

And that’s exactly what I found in this tiny little book a Roman Emperor wrote 2,000 years ago: Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Throughout his life Marcus Aurelius wrote down his thoughts in his personal notebooks. He just wrote for himself so there wasn’t meant to ever be a book, but I’m glad someone took his notes and started making copies because it taught me:

  1. We all struggle with the same problems and have been for ages
  2. You actually can control how you react to what happens to you

This book opened doors for me that I didn’t even know existed, but more importantly it made me shut the doors that I didn’t know could be shut.

Even though the book is only 160 pages long, its content will last you a lifetime. It impacts my way of thinking 24/7.

Reading a paragraph or two can be compared to a 60 minute massage for your soul. Reading the whole thing will make you a better person.

This isn’t a book to be just read though, it’s a book that is meant to be practiced, even memorized initially. Everybody’s always talking about how hard their last workout was, but working out your body is peanuts when you compare it to training your thinking. It’s the hardest training I’ve ever done. And as we’re all competing in this every day, you better start warming up.

To make clear why this book is so important to me I need to make a quick side step and share a story about a person I met recently:

Some months ago I made a trip to Oslo. I travelled there to attend a 2-day seminar with Ido Portal. Ido is often called Master Of Movement. Even though he hates to be called that, it kind of sets the tone for what he does: he’s a teacher, practicer and student of movement in a – what he calls – holistic way.

In Oslo, Ido talked about the lifelong search for self-dominance when it comes to movement. He implies that for him his goal is to have control over his body: to not be controlled by his body. He mentions that he will probably never succeed at this, but that this is exactly the reason why it’s worth striving for and why it is worthy of daily study, practice and reflection.

The reason why I mention Ido in this post is that the phrasing “self-dominance” actually perfectly fits with what Marcus Aurelius aimed at with his Meditations: his aim was to be in control of his thoughts: to not be controlled by false perceptions all the time. That’s why he made it a daily practice, wrote down his thoughts and was a student of the Stoic school of philosophy.

To use a metaphor Marcus uses in the book: he did not want to be like the puppet – being jerked around in all directions – all the time.

And just as Ido struggles every day and needs to practice his body meticulously, Marcus tells us to practice self-dominance of the mind every time a situation presents itself.

Below you find 14 ways in which Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations influenced my thinking:

On having the choice to control your thoughts

Your ability to control your thoughts – treat it with respect. It’s all that protects your mind from false perceptions – false to your nature, and that of all rational beings. It’s what makes thoughtfulness possible, and affection for other people, and submission to the divine.

Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.

To be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it.

To shrug it all off and wipe it clean – every annoyance and distraction – and reach utter stillness.
Child’s play.

Nothing has meaning to my mind except its own actions. Which are within its own control. And it’s only the immediate ones that matter. Its past and future actions too are meaningless.

You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.

What are you doing here, Perceptions? Get back to where you came from, and good riddance. I don’t need you. Yes, I know, it was only force of habit that brough you. No, I’m not angry with you. Just go away.

Why should we feel anger at the world?
As if the world would notice!

You can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.

On using very detailed objective representation to keep your head clear from false perceptions

Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood.
Perceptions like that – latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time – all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust – to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.
Pride is the master of deception: when you think you’re occupied in the weightiest business, that’s when it has you in his spell.

On the importance of work

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?
– But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best as they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
– But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that – as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota.

Do what nature demands. Get a move on – if you have it in you – and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.

Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?

On constantly reminding yourself that you’ll be dead soon to motivate yourself

Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able – be good.

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.

On doing and wanting only what’s essential

If you seek tranquillity, do less. Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

Love the discipline you know, and let it support you.

Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them – that it would upset you to lose them.

On learning and anti-learning from others

Look into their minds, at what the wise do and what they don’t.

The best revenge is not to be like that.

When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion.
Or remove the compulsion, if you can.

This advice from Epicurean writings: to think continually of one of the men of old who lived a virtuous life.

On handling setbacks

Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it – turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself – so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.

Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.

On travel

People try to get away from it all – to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.
By going within.
Nowhere you can go is more peacful – more free of interruptions – than your own soul.

On not giving a fuck about what other people think

Enter their minds, and you’ll find the judges you’re so afraid of – and how judiciously they judge themselves.

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.

Ignoring what goes on in other people’s souls – no one ever came to grief that way. But if you won’t keep track of what your own soul’s doing, how can you not be unhappy?

To care for all human beings is part of being human. Which doesn’t mean we have to share their opinion. We should listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? He bears in mind what sort of people they are – both at home and abroad, by night as well as day – and who they spend their time with. And he cares nothing for their praise – men who can’t even meet their own standards.

That sort of person is bound to do that. You might as well resent a fig tree for secreting juice.

They haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t dimished your ability to choose.

You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves?

Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.

Isn’t it yourself you should reproach – for not anticipating that they’d act this way? The logos gave you the means to see it – that a given person would act a given way – but you paid no attention. And now you’re astonished that he’s gone and done it.

It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.

On giving mental space only to what’s important

You need to avoid certain things in your train of though: everthing random, everything irrelevant. And certainly everything self-important or malicious. You need to get used to winnowing your thoughts, so that if someone says, “What are you thinking about?” you can respond at once (and truthfully) that you are thinking this or thinking that. And it would be obvious at once from your answer that your thoughts were straightforward and considerate ones – the thoughts of an unselfish person, one unconcerned with pleasure and with sensual indulgence generally, with squabbling, with slander and envy, or anything else you’d be ashamed of thinking.

The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.

To live a good life:
We have the potential for it. If we can learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference. This is how we learn: by looking at each thing, both the parts and the whole.

On believing in yourself

Not to assume it’s impossible because you find it hard. But to recognize that if it’s humanly possible, you can do it too.

On fame and reputation

Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.

So many who were remembered already forgotten, and those who remembered them long gone.

People out for posthumous fame forget that the Generation To Come will be the same annoying people they know now.

On fear

Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions – not outside.

On being a good person

To stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one.

Learn to ask of all actions, “Why are they doing that?”
Starting with your own.

Characteristics of the rational soul:
Self-perception, self-examination, and the power to make of itself whatever it wants.
It reaps its own harvest, unlike plants, whose yield is gathered by others.

The despicable phoniness of people who say, “Listen, I’m going to level with you here.” What does that mean? It shouldn’t even need to be said. It should be obvious – written in block letters on your forehead. It should be audible in your voice, visible in your eyes, like a lover who looks into your faces and takes in the whole story at a glance. A straightforward, honest person should be like someone who stinks: when you’re in the same room with him, you know it. But false straightforwardness is like a knife in the back.

When you start to lose your temper, remember: There’s nothing manly about rage. It’s courtesy and kindness that define a human being – and a man. That’s who possesses strength and nerves and guts, not the angry whiners. To react like that brings you closer to impassivity – and so to strength. Pain is the opposite of strength, and so is anger. Both are things we suffer from, and yield to.

Yesterday I started reading How To Fail At Almost Everything And Still Win Big. It’s a book on how to become successful by exposing yourself to failure all the time. The books’s written by Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert – the cartoon.

In the book, Adams explains how from a young age he saw “failure as a tool, not an outcome”: kind of like yanking at a slot machine in the casino again and again, until you win the lottery.

I know that the title makes the book sound like a load of self-help crap (and most of it is), but I did like his take on goal-setting:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goals is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach that goal – if you reach it at all – feeling as if you were short of your goal. In other words, goal-oriented people exist in a state of nearly continuous failure that they hope will be temporary. That feeling wears on you.

Goal-oriented people exist in a state of continuous presuccess failure at best, and permanent failure at worst if things never work out. Systems people succeed every time they apply their systems, in the sense that they did what they intended to do. The goals people are fighting the feeling of discouragement at each turn. The systems people are feeling good every time they apply their system. That’s a big difference in terms of maintaining your personal energy in the right direction.

The system-versus-goals model can be applied to most human endeavors. In the world of dieting, losing twenty pounds is a goal, but eating right is a system.

A goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it in the future, it’s a goal.

My proposition is that if you study people who succeed, you will see that most of them follow systems, not goals.

Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. He was imprisoned in concentration camps during World War II. He survived his time as a prisoner and afterwards wrote down his experiences in Auschwitz in his book Man’s Search For Meaning.

The book consists of two parts: in the first part Frankl talks about what life in a concentration camp was like and in the second part he discusses the theory he developed on finding meaning in life; logotherapy.

A lot of books have been written about World War II and concentration camps, what’s remarkable about Man’s Search For Meaning however, is that the author actually went through the experience of concentration camp life himself – and moreover found something meaningful to keep him going there. As Frankl writes in the introduction:

To attempt a methodical presentation of the subject is very difficult, as psychology requires a certain scientific detachment. But does a man who makes his observations while he himself is a prisoner possess the necessary detachment? Such detachment is granted to the outsider, but he is too far removed to make any statements of real value. Only the man inside knows.

One of the greatest lessons Frankl teaches you in his book, is that even in the worst conditions man has the ability to find a meaning:

In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain, but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom.

Below you find some of the different ways Viktor Frankl has distinguished to find meaning, starting with the most important one: love.

Frankl on love:

A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by some many thinkers. The truth – that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of man is through love and in love. I understood how a man who has nothing left in this world still may know bliss, be it only for a brief moment, in the contemplation of his beloved.

On the power using humor to save one’s soul:

Humor was another of the soul’s weapons in the fight for self-preservation. It is well known that humor, more than anything else in the human make-up, can afford an aloofness and an ability to rise above any situation, even if only for a few seconds.

I practically trained a friend of mine who worked next to me on the building site to develop a sense of humor. I suggested to him that we would promise each other to invent at least one amusing story daily, about some incident that could happen one day after our liberation.

On having a choice during suffering:

The experiences of camp life show that man does have a choice of action. There were enough examples, often of a heroic nature, which proved that apathy could be overcome, irritability suppressed. Man can preserve a vestige of spiritual freedom, of indepencence of mind, even in such terrible conditions of psychic and physical stress.

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.

The sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him – mentally and spiritually.

“There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”
– Fyodor Dostoevski

The last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom – which cannot be taken away – that makes life meaningful and purposeful.

If there is a meaning in life at all, then there must be a meaning in suffering. Suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.

On courageous suffering:

Most men in concentration camps believed that the real opportunities of life had passed. Yet, in reality, there was an opportunity and a challenge. One could make a victory of those experiences turning life into an inner triumph, or one could ignore the challenge and simply vegetate, as did a majority of the prisoners.

It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future. And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task.

Emotion, which is suffering, ceases to be suffering as soon as we form a clear and precise picture of it.

Those who know how close the connection is between the state of mind of a man – his courage and hope, or lack of them – and the state of immunity of his body will understand that the sudden loss of hope and courage can have a deadly effect.

On the importance of having a goal in one’s life:

Any attempt to restore a man’s inner strength in the camp had first to succeed in showing him some future goal. Nietzsche’s words, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how,” could be the guiding moto for all psychotherapeutic and psychohygienic efforts regarding prisoners. Whenever there was an opportunity for it, one had to give them a why – an aim – for their lives, in order to strengthen them to bear the terrible how of their existence.

“I have nothing to expect from life any more,” What sort of answer can one give to that?

What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected form life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimalty means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and fulfull the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.

No one can relieve him of his suffering or suffer in his place. His unique opportunity lies in the way in which he bears his burden.

A man who becomes conscious of the responsibility he bears towards a human being who affectionately waits for him, or to an unfinished work, will never be able to throw away his life. He knows the “why” for his existence, and will be able to bear almost any “how.”

Not only our experiences, but all we have done, whatever great thoughts we may have had, and all we have suffered, all this is not lost, thought it is past; we have brought it into being. Having been is also a kind of being, and perhaps the surest thing.

Before going on to the second part of his book – his theory on finding meaning in life – Frankl talks about the behavior of the guards who imprisoned him and the inmates he lived with during his time in concentration camps. He then goes on to distinguish two races of men:

Human kindness can be found in all groups, even those which as a whole it would be easy to condemn.

From all this we may learn that there are two races of men in this world, but only these two – the “race” of the decent man and the “race” of the indecent man. Both are found everywhere; they penetrate into all groups of society. No group consists entirely of decent or indecent people. In this sense, no group is of “pure race” – and therefore one occasionally found a decent fellow among the camp guards.

In the second part of his book, Frankl describes logotherapy: his theory on finding meaning in one’s life. He starts of with the reason why “meaning” to him is the most important thing a person has to look for in life:

A statistical survey of 7,948 students at 48 colleges was conducted by social scientists from John Hopkins University. Asked what they considered “very-important” to them now, 16% of the students checked “making a lot of money”; 78% said their first goal was “finding a purpose and meaning to my life.”

There is nothing in the world, I venture to say, that would so effectively help one to survive even the worst conditions as the knowledge that there is a meaning in one’s life. There is much wisdom in the words of Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”

By way of his work as a psychiatrist he explains what mental health really entails and why it demands a certain degree of tension, of stress – eustress:

Mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become.

I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium, or as it is called in biology, “homeostatis,” i.e. a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather a striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task. What he needs is not the discharge of tension at any cost but the call of a potential meaning waiting to be fulfilled by him.

After discussing the role of tension in our lives when striving for a certain meaningful goal, Frankl deliberates the one thing most of us are struggling with – the act of finding this meaning in our lives and some of the consequences of giving up the search:

Having shown the beneficial impact of meaning orientation, I turn to the detrimental influence of that feeling of which so many patients complain today, namely the feeling of the total and ultimate meaninglessness of their lives. They lack the awareness of a meaning worth living for. They are haunted by the experience of their inner emptiness, a void within themselves; they are caught in that situation which I have called the “existential vacuum.”

Sundays neurosis: that kind of depression that afflicts people who become aware of the lack of content in their lives when the rush of the busy week is over and the void within themselves becomes manifest.

Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure. That is why existential frustration often eventuates in sexual compensation. We can observe in such cases that the libido becomes rampant in the existential vacuum.

Next, Frankl goes on to describe “meaning” as something personal, there is no universal meaning – there’s only your meaning, it’s unique, one of one – something only you can answer:

The meaning of life differs from day to day and from hour to hour. What matters, therefore, is not the meaning of life in general but rather the specific meaning of a person’s life at a given moment.

One should not search for an abstract meaning of life. Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment. Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone’s task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it.

Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible.

Following his description of the uniqueness of the meaning in our lives, Frankl philosophizes on the essence of existence and differentiates three difference ways to find meaning in life:

Being human always points, and is directed, to something, or someone, other than oneself – be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter. The more one forgets himself – by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love – the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself.

We can discover meaning in life in three different ways:
(1) by creating a work or doing a deed;
(2) by experiencing or encountering someone; and
(3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering.

On finding meaning in life through love:

Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.

On finding meaning in life through suffering:

In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.

It is one of the basic tenets of logotherapy that man’s main concern is not to gain pleasure or to avoid pain but rather to see a meaning in his life. That is why man is even ready to suffer, on the condition, to be sure, that his suffering has a meaning.
But let me make it perfectly clear that in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering – provided, certainly, that the suffering is unavoidable. If it were avoidable, however, the meaningful thing to do would be to remove its cause, be it psychological, biological or political. To suffer unnecessarily is masochistic rather than heroic.

Ultimately, in Man’s Search For Meaning, Frankl takes up life’s transitoriness and the need for man to take a stand, a stand which he has the power to determine for himself.

Frankl makes a case for “a tragic optimism” in any situation that will allow him to find meaning in life and will eventually lead to something we all wish for in our lives – happiness:

Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to “be happy.” Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation.

As to the causation of the feeling of meaninglessness, one may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning. To be sure, some do not even have the means.

Vergil Den in The Simple Man’s Burden talks about how “nothing taps into your sense of pity like a story of a wealthy old man, dying and without family, wishing he had done things differently.”

In the book Den uses the poem Richard Cory by Edwin Arlington Robinson to state his point:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,

We people on the pavement looked at him:

He was a gentleman from sole to crown,

Clean favored, and imperially slim.

 

And he was always quietly arrayed,

And he was always human when he talked;

But still he fluttered pulses when he said,

“Good morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

 

And he was rich, richer than a king,

And admirably schooled in every grace:

In fine, we thought that he was everything

To make us wish that we were in his place.

 

So on we worked, and waited for the light,

And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;

And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,

Went home and put a bullet through his head.

At the bottom of this post I embedded one of my favorite Fight Club scenes where Tyler Durden uses death as a motivator as part of his human sacrifice project.

The last few weeks I’ve been rereading the books that have had the largest impact on my way of thinking – and found that a lot of them discuss the importance of realizing that you could be dead soon in order to start living true to yourself. I wrote about six people who used this technique to create remarkable lives here some months ago.

Below there’s some passages that I’ve passed through recently on the subject.
 
Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations says the following:

Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able – be good.

Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.

Stop whatever you’re doing for a moment and ask yourself: Am I afraid of death because I won’t be able to do this anymore?

 
Malcolm X in his autobiography:

Anything I do today, I regard as urgent. No man is given but so much time to accomplish whatever is his life’s work.

 

He who fears death will never do anything worthy of a living man. But he who knows that this was the condition laid down for him at the moment of his conception will live on those terms, and at the same time he will guarantee with a similar strength of mind that no events take him by surprise. For by foreseeing anything that can happen, as though it will happen, he will soften the onslaught of all his troubles, which present no surprises to those who are ready and waiting for them, but fall heavily on those who are careless in the expectation that all will be well. There is disease, imprisonment, disaster, fire: none of these is unexpected – I did know in what riotous company Nature had enclosed me.

 

And Nassim Taleb on not using death as a motivator:

For so many, instead of looking for “cause of death” when they expire, we should be looking for “cause of life” when they are still around.

 
Here’s the scene in the Fight Club paragraph in the book, below you find the scene in the film:

Listen, now, you’re going to die, Ray-mond K. K. K. Hessel, tonight. You might die in one second or in one hour, you decide. So lie to me. Tell me the first thing off the top of your head. Make something up. I don’t give a shit. I have the gun.

Fill in the blank. What does [Raymond Hessel] want to be when he grows up?

Go home, you said, you just wanted to go home, please.

No shit, I said. But after that, how did you want to spend your life? If you could be anything in the world?

Make something up.
You didn’t know.
Then you’re dead right now, I said. I said, now turn your head.

Death to commence in 10… 9… 8… .
- Tyler Durden, Fight Club (Chapter 20)