We label other people frequently.
“Michelle is a huge gossip.”
“Mike is kind of a loner.”
“Denise is a real ‘type A’.”
Such simplifying descriptions help us predict the likely behavior of individuals with whom we interact by ascribing to them a fixed character which (we suppose) determines that individual’s actions. When applied to groups of people with one or more immediately presenting and distinguishing shared attributes, this simplification process produces the familiar racial, cultural, social, and sexual stereotypes. While such crude character models may be useful in guiding early interactions, they typically oversimplify and frequently inaccurately predict the behavior of others, who respond in ways that depend on complex inner factors and are also heavily determined by context and environmental priming.
That latter factor of external influence can also contribute to the opposite phenomenon, whereby labels over-determine behavior. When we label someone, that label guides our expectations of and interactions with him or her, which, in turn, influences his or her behavior. At the extreme, we accept and internalize the labels others give us and those we ascribe to ourselves as we observe our own behavior. I touched upon the trap of over-identification with one’s present professional title in a previous post. Individual over-identification with one or more character labels can lead to a fixed mindset that impedes learning and personal development.
However, psychological research suggests that the same process might be turned on its head. If we intentionally apply aspirational appellations, we can help motivate and sustain desired change in ourselves and others. That implication inspired me to reflect on names I might like to be called, labels which imply positive simplifying stereotypes, ones that are perhaps ill-fitting at present, but provide an appealing shape for me to grow into.
“Wisdom is the only true and unalloyed coin, for which all others must be given in exchange.” —Socrates
The word philosophy derives from the Greek philo and sophia, translating as ‘love’ and ‘wisdom’, respectively. At the most literal level a philosopher is someone who loves wisdom. Plato used the term to distinguish amateur wisdom-seekers like Socrates, who probed the eternal verities of truth, beauty, goodness, and unity for their own sakes, from the professional sophists who earned a living teaching their brands of argumentation without careful regard for underlying truth.
While I may not possess the profundity of those great early amateurs, I am inspired to imitate their example and attempt to live a thoughtfully examined life as my circumstances allow. Given my other life choices, that examination will be a freelance affair, in the sense of it being an independent, not education- nor professionally-related pursuit, though not necessarily in the sense that itself is a paid pastime. (However, at this stage in my career, I should hope that I am getting paid in part for whatever wisdom I have accumulated. Since I am presently self-employed, another level of meaning hides here.)
In the first draft of this section, I identified “nerd” as my desired label. Then I realized that for me, “nerd” is a fully actualized, not aspirational, self-stereotype, as the remainder of this reflection will amply demonstrate. While I wear the label with pride, “nerd” suggests a narrowness of intellectualism that I now seek to transcend. Though I only wish to deepen my commitment to the technical competence, scientific knowledge, and evidence-based inquiry that the nerd appellation implies, I also aspire to more fully embrace the intellectual domains of the humanities and their complementary modes of inquiry and appreciation, to embrace the “third culture” which integrates science and the arts, as I think a “lover of wisdom” should embrace all legitimate modes of knowing.
So I am using philosopher in its broadest sense, as a passionate truth-seeker and well-rounded intellectual, not necessarily a practitioner of the academic subject in which I earned my undergraduate degree, though the “big” questions in epistemology, ontology, ethics, as well as the rigorous, argument and evidence-based approaches of the field of study we now call philosophy remain absolutely central to my interests.
Where am I on the path to becoming a good freelance philosopher? I have no certain knowledge of appropriate metrics for a lover of wisdom, so answering the question in the abstract is challenging. In this self-examination, I’ll step further away from using Socrates as my exemplar, as I’m at present unwilling to launch into an extended conceptual analysis of ‘The Good’ qua philosopher. In this case I’m not trying to define a universal benchmark, merely establish a guidepost for my own development, which allows for a more modest and idiosyncratic analysis. In doing so, I’ll first draw a simple distinction between interior and exterior knowing. (Yes, I know I’ve made the classic metaphysical mistake of assuming a subject/object distinction, but it’s quite a convenient starting point.)
Interior/subjective: I’ve had an introspective orientation for as long as I can remember. From that, I think I have attained a serviceable degree of self-awareness. (At times too great of one for my own good, as when I paralyze myself from over-analysis of my actions or perseverate on some mistake). Regardless, heeding the Delphic injunction to “know thyself” comes naturally to me as an introvert and an only child. Building on this inclination, I’ve recently begun a few deliberate practices to increase my self-understanding. Last year I started a daily meditation and journaling habit. This reflective journal writing sometimes spills over into these navel-gazing blog entries. Around the same time, I also started a brief nightly self-assessment, recording some key ratings and reflections on the day. I was inspired to establish these habits from my study of the positive psychology literature. Being fascinated by how the mind works, reading popular works of psychology has been a long-standing interest of mine and a pastime which has helped to increase my self-understanding over the years.
Exterior/objective: I consider myself a life-long learner. While for the time being I’m pausing my formal education after two Masters degrees, I still find regular if less systematic and credentialed ways to deepen my knowledge. I love listening to philosophy, science, and business audiocasts. My ventures into “non-nerd” domains of inquiry usually start in some cross-over work of popular science which weaves in humanistic themes. However, at present, the fiction I consume is almost entirely restricted to the occasional movies and plays my wife and I enjoy together. We are opportunistic but fairly frequent theater-goers, enjoying classical theater, especially productions of Shakespeare, as well as thought-provoking contemporary plays. Outside of that, my exposure to fiction is limited to the odd sci-fi novel every few years (usually Neal Stephenson), a carry-over from my great childhood love of the genre, and the natural choice for a nerd.
What actions should I take to become a better lover (and hopefully, practitioner) of wisdom? While I am attracted to the label, I’ll not make any grand goals toward achieving this invented stereotype, for two reasons. First, though I feel a significant identification with it, “freelance philosopher” is still a vague aspiration rather than a concrete destination. Second, I have had much better luck taking “baby steps to better” than attempting giant leaps. So, I’ll start with a couple of modest process goals and see where they lead me.
|Continue the self-awareness and self-cultivation practices of reflective journaling and meditation.||Process : Continue||–|
|Broaden the intellectual content of my media intake by including in my “currently consuming” lineup of (audio-)books/-casts at least:
|Process : Start||2016-08|
The Benjamin Franklin quote that I opened this section with strikes home because time wasted can never be recovered. It is the one truly non-renewable resource. Intuiting this, I have studied and adopted time, task, and energy management techniques from a variety of sources, from Stephen Covey’s timeless First Things First to David Allen’s awesome Getting Things Done. Reflecting on the finite duration of my life led me to the revised aspiration of working to become a “Prolific Producer”. My growth goal lies in becoming more effective by “doing the right things” rather than more efficiently “doing things right”. That shift implies a strategic orientation rather than a tactical one, of thinking about the “why” of what I’m doing as much as the “how”. The journal entries I have devoted to thinking about what I aspire to in my life and this exercise of thinking about who I have to become in order to achieve those aspirations are steps in that direction.
That said, personal productivity is an area I must keep myself from pursuing beyond the point of diminishing returns. I can become obsessed with “being productive”, to the extent that it actually decreases my productivity by drawing me into meta-level rabbit holes of systems building, organizing, and planning-to-plan rather than executing, at which point I am prone to fret over my lack of productive output so much I can’t relax and recharge to restore my energy stores, a self-created trap which further reduces my productivity. Thankfully, reflective journaling and meditation, along with a recent emphasis on process goals over outcome goals, have been effective interventions in this occasionally vicious cycle.
|Analyze how I spend my time with regard to my values and aspirations & set appropriate change goals.
(I have already been recording and classifying how I spend my time, the analysis of which will be fodder for a future reflection.)
|Process : Start||2016-12|
But I knew intellectually that as embodied beings, physical health provides the foundation for our life action. And I knew that the quality of my life was impeded by my neglect of my body. While my immediate dissatisfaction was primarily related to body image and not health, I could see the path that I was on would in the long-term almost inevitably lead to disease and pain. So after college, I began to take steps to lose weight and improve my health.
Having cut mammals out of my diet entirely, I’ve come along way from regular indulgence in my former favorite meal of a patty melt and fries and am proud to be part of the National Weight Control Registry for having lost and kept off those 60 pounds. It’s been a long and slow path, and (in my sheltered, comfortable, “first world” life) one of the most difficult things I’ve accomplished.
My primary tools have been self-education and self monitoring. Reading The Hacker’s Diet prompted me to count calories, since my internal hunger signals did not seem to correspond to my body’s true caloric needs. I now have more than 5000 days of food logs in my custom Wellness Watcher database. My self-education on nutrition and health and subsequent dietary changes have brought the correlation of perceived hunger to intake in much closer alignment. My primary dietary modification has been minimizing (sometimes severely) highly processed and high-glycemic load foods, especially those containing sugars and grains, substituting non-starchy vegetables, fish and poultry proteins, and healthy fats from nuts, butter, and select vegetable oils. I’ve found these whole foods filling and nourishing without spiking blood sugar, which leads to self-stoking cycles of energy peaks and crashes (often followed by crash-induced refeeding), followed by increased fat storage from elevated insulin levels provoked by elevated blood sugar. More recently, I’ve found success in using intermittent fasting (basically skipping meals and eating in a shorter time window instead of every few hours) to break through long-standing fat loss plateaus.
I’ve also slowly made strides in regularly engaging in exercise, that second great pillar of health. While studies demonstrate that exercise doesn’t significantly improve fat loss, it is foundational for general health and longevity. Of particular interest to me as a self-professed nerd has been the recent research that exercise increases neurogenesis, improves cognitive function, and is associated with prevention of cognitive decline and dementia in aging. It’s also shown to be as effective as prescription drugs against depression. Harvard exercise expert John Ratey has likened exercise to “taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin”.
While my current cushy work-from-home arrangement has obviated the 11-mile round-trip bicycle commute I practiced most days at my last job, I have endeavored to maintain a baseline of physical activity. My goal has been to make exercise a habit, so that I don’t have to struggle to initiate. I have therefore made it a daily practice and worked it into my morning routine. Most days it’s very small, typically just two sets of superset free weight resistance training or held-to-exhaustion hatha yoga poses, cycling between major muscle groups. I opportunistically alternate (and some days supplement) this with aerobic exercise consisting of whatever chores present themselves: mowing the lawn with my manual push reel mower, digging garden beds, shoveling snow, bicycling to get groceries.
While I have lost and kept off a lot of excess weight and have gained the approval from my primary care physician for healthy biomarkers, I see myriad opportunities for improvement, as my self-education on the topic has far outstripped my will to change. To start, while resveratrol may do me some good, I would be well served to moderate my red wine intake to be consistent with my goal of profound productivity. In addition, while my love of cheese may prevent me from ever achieving the environmental, ethical, and (arguably) health ideal of an entirely plant-based diet, I am increasingly convinced that it’s at least time for me to take the next step on that path by limiting animal product consumption, with the eventual goal of phasing out poultry (with the probable exception of the annual ritual sacrifice of a Thanksgiving turkey). As importantly, given my mostly sedentary professional pursuits and personal proclivities, I know I need to move more, even in small ways, during the day, as is made clear by the research on the negative health impacts of prolonged sitting. Finally, I’ve been intrigued by the cancer-preventing potential and general prophylactic effects of extended fasting.
|Achieve & maintain 6-10% body fat||Outcome||2016-09|
|Continue to follow & refine low-glycemic/insulinemic diet||Process : Continue||–|
|Sit fewer than 4 hours/workday by more frequently utilizing my home office sit/stand workstation||Process : Stop||2016-10|
|Reduce remaining animal product consumption (dairy, eggs, fish, and poultry) to 3 servings per day total||Process : Stop||2017-01|
|Complete a 3-10 day water fast||Process : Stop||2017-06|
Eventually, I decided it was time to stop fearing failure and seriously start something. I am currently bootstrapping a web+mobile business-to-business software as a service company. This time, I will ship. That’s all I can promise. Wish me luck.
|Launch product publicly||Outcome||2016-10|
|Attract first paying customers||Outcome||2016-12|
|Achieve profitability or pivot||Outcome||2017-03|
|Increase log-able/on-task time to 30 hours/week||Process : Start||2016-09|
I have been drawn to the philosophy of stoicism since I was a child. I remember ordering through the mail a book containing the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. It was the “free gift, yours to keep even if you cancel” in a Time-Life Books series of Western classics. We couldn’t afford the entire series, so I diligently canceled after receiving my free first volume. I dipped into it, but at the time, most of the language and content was way over my head. My true stoic model as a child was not Marcus Aurelius, but Mr. Spock. My dad and I would regularly watch original Star Trek reruns on our 19” black and white TV. Of all the characters, I most admired Spock for his consistency and dispassionate devotion to logic and reason. When we studied ancient Rome in 8th grade social studies, I wrote a report on the stoics, citing Mr. Spock as a fictional future adherent of the philosophy.
I later became interested in the philosophical side of Buddhism after reading Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which I received as a graduation gift from a high school English teacher. While this work of popular philosophy opens with an author’s note disclaiming its contents as any sort of factual account of Buddhism (or motorcycle maintenance, for that matter), its treatment of both Eastern and Western philosophy intrigued me. (A re-reading after having taken an introductory honors philosophy course as a freshman in college absolutely electrified me, changing my worldview permanently, and has much to do with my “freelance philosopher” self-identification.) Over the years, I learned more about Buddhism from other sources, and understood more of the distinctions between its metaphysical claims, accreted mythic interpretations, and core psychological practices. It’s the latter than most interests me here.
Both the Zen Master (my original choice for this section) and the Stoic Sage achieve emotional equanimity through a process of disciplining the mind. Both recognize the attitude of attachment as a primary source of human suffering. Each tradition uses different, but I think complementary, techniques to overcome such self-induced suffering. The contemplative traditions within Buddhism emphasize meditation as a method to cultivate mindful awareness in order to overcome identification with one’s present thoughts and quell the dissatisfaction stemming from the ceaseless desire for one’s circumstances to differ from the expectations created by those thoughts. Stoicism emphasizes habits and practices akin to cognitive behavioral therapy in order to reframe one’s thoughts in constructive ways.
|Compute current daily Life Score self-assessment average and devise strategies for improvement||Outcome: Start||2017-01|
|Increase meditation practice to 2 sessions/day||Process : Start||2016-08|
|Practice daily mental contrasting with implementation intentions||Process : Start||2016-08|
What names do you want people to call you? Who do you have to become to live the life you long for?