Self-improvement as I use that phrase here is the process of becoming, by effort, just a little better today than one was yesterday, with the prospects of being just a little better tomorrow than one was today. Is this a viable core value? What does it involve?
Like freedom, though the phrase may sound good, it’s not for everybody. Some people just don’t go for “self-help” or think much of the industry they associate with the “law of attraction” and other New Agey “woo-woo” stuff. (I’ve written about the LoA here.) Such folks see it as nothing more than an effort to separate people from their money. And frankly, there are “gurus” out there who fit this description perfectly!
The ancient Stoics, however, surely do not. They might just be the first philosophers who were consciously interested in improving themselves and the lives of those around them, just ordinary people — “commoners” — who became their students, disciples, and proteges. Their lives and their writings that have survived indicate a viable philosophy of nature that merges well with what the best in self-improvement thinking has to offer. Hence the interest in Stoicism that exists today.
It all began with the ancient Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium, who had lost everything in a shipwreck off the coast near Athens. He had to start over again from scratch — completely.
He could have ended up a beggar on the streets. He probably wouldn’t have lasted long.
Instead, he chose a different path. He involved himself in the intellectual life of the place where he had fortuitously ended up. Doubtless he encountered Platonists, Aristotelians, Sophists, others. At some point he developed doubts about the viability and usefulness of what all were saying. He elected to forge his own path and became a philosopher, lecturing from a painted porch in the town (the word Stoic comes from the Greek word stoa meaning porch).
Borrowing a few ideas from the Cynics (example: Diogenes) who rejected conventional definitions of wealth, power, fame, in favor of a simple life free of cumbersome possessions. In the hands of the early Stoics, this led to a the idea of life of virtue lived “in accordance with nature.”
Early Stoicism emphasized three areas of philosophy: physics, logic, and ethics. Although volumes of writings have been lost, what we’ve discerned is that for the early Stoics, physics was the study of the world and its workings. Logic focused on our best thought about how the world worked. Ethics then considered what we ought to do, how to live a virtuous life, given what our best thought tells us about how the world works. Later Stoics such as Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius emphasized the third, and for good reason: arguably it is the most difficult of the three.
Today you’ll find armchair philosophers in Silicon Valley who claim to be practicing Stoics. I can’t vouch for the quality of their thought, but for the past several years now Ryan Holiday (not associated with that crowd) has been cranking out interesting books developing aspects Stoic thought.
I’ll consider just one here — what seems to me the central proposition of Stoicism. We’ll then see how it develops and how it applies to self-improvement as a core value.
Epictetus puts it thus (this is from his Enchiridion, or Manual):
There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.
He then counsels: focus your attention on what is within your power. Let go of the rest, in the sense of attempting to control it.
In other words: there is that which I control directly. I can control when I wake up in the morning by setting the alarm. I can decide to undertake a specific morning routine. I can control how many cups of coffee I have with breakfast. I can control whether I set about doing something useful on my computer first thing, such as researching and writing an article, or whether I take the easier route and just check email or scroll on Facebook.
You can also control what you read online, choosing to read certain things while avoiding others. You can choose to control your emotional responses to what you read.
Everyone reading this has a similar range of things within their — your — control.
If you say you do not, that you have no choice what time you wake up, you are lying to yourself. Everyone has the capability of setting an alarm to get up at, say, 6 am, to work on a priority project.
If your problem is then hitting snooze, the solution is not that hard. Put your phone out of reach from your bed. Put it across the room. Or jack up the volume and leave it on a table in the hall outside your bedroom. Those actions taken the night before will force you to get up to shut the thing off. Let the annoyance (if annoyance it is) energize you. It will be easier just to stay up. The point is, you have these options.
There are things not in your — our — control. Sometimes you’re going to get sick no matter what. I arm my immune system each morning with an arsenal of vitamins and minerals, but every so often, something gets through my body’s defenses and I “catch cold.” What I do about the cold, how I react emotionally, and how I choose to take care of myself to minimize its effects, is then within my control.
I may own my condo, but I do not control the community fee on it — which pays for the upkeep of the building where my wife and I live. Nor do I control the fact that I have to pay a property tax. Arguments as sound and solid as stainless steel that “taxation is theft” aren’t going to make the property tax go away. I have the power of selling the place and going back to renting if this becomes too much. I do not have the power to determine the array of hoops to jump through in order to do this, although I have the power of asking which will cause the least stress and tailor my actions accordingly.
I write articles, and though I am going off current events when writing the bulk of them — I do not control those, obviously — I control what goes into the articles: how they are argued, what lines I draw, etc. I have no control over the response, or even if there is a response (sometimes there isn’t). I have a visible track record online. I have no control over whatever reputation this has generated (if it has generated one at all outside those who know me personally).
I can apply for a job I might want. The things I can control: the degree to which my CV is polished and tailored to the job description, the way the cover letter is written (if there is one), whether I include a photo, etc. The things I cannot control: the response at the other end to whatever I send, whether it be enthusiastic reception (ha!) or bland indifference.
We can control our thoughts if we try. We cannot control the thoughts of others. We can control our actions, up to a point. We cannot control the actions of others without restraining them physically (generally not a good idea!).
We cannot control the bulk of events going on in our overall environment, human or otherwise.
If all this seems ridiculously obvious, that’s because it is: on paper.
For how many people gripe about the weather? How many loudly curse the guy who cut them off in traffic? How many complain about their boss or coworkers (or spouse or kids or roommates)?
What has been accomplished? Has it stopped raining, or being cold? Did the guy you cussed at even notice? Does your boss or coworker really care about you personally? Your spouse might, but sometimes spouses have their own personal realities, too. Even more so with offspring, roommates, so on.
Far better, is it not, to refrain from trying to control what you cannot control — by reacting thoughtfully instead of emotionally? Reacting Stoically, that is.
It takes practice — more than you might think. But simply by adopting this one Stoic principle and making learning to practice it a priority item, you are engaging in self-improvement: perchance as a core value(?). Do it, and you will change your life.
We can usefully distinguish our world — as persons — from the world. Our world is everything we can affect or which affects us in one way or another, much of it directly and immediately. The world is everything else: what politicians hundreds of miles away do, what goes on in Russia, the latest mass shooting, etc. The primary difference lies in realizing that none of us is the center of the universe: another obvious point and easy to grasp intellectually but devilishly difficult to practice with any consistency. You’re at the center of your world; that guy who cut you off in traffic is at the center of his world, and you’ve no idea what is going on in his world, only that whatever it is, you’re not a part of it.
There is nothing wrong with having informed opinions about what goes on in the world, so long as we maintain a sense of perspective because there is so much we don’t know. The proper Stoic attitude would seem to come down to: get informed, take your stand based on what information you have and where it seems necessary. Support causes that are clearly just and right, but do not assume you can affect more than you are able.
The ancient Stoics certainly believed in taking stands. They took stands within the bounds of how the world really operates, and how human nature works. The world operates as a system — many systems, actually. Human nature involves many systems as well.
There is, of course, much more to be said, but this post, like its two predecessors, is intended as an overview and not a comprehensive effort. Were this intended to be more comprehensive, we would get into the specifics of Stoic virtues. But keeping in mind that this is a springboard to bigger and better things to come, I will develop three final points which might be helpful.
First: philosophers far wiser than I have concluded that the Aristotelian man the rational animal is so oversimplified as to be useless. We are not rational beings who happen to have emotions; we are emotional beings who happen to be able to reason, with all this implies. Our first premises — our basic worldview — is accepted emotionally, not rationally. There can be no “ultimate rational grounding” for reason itself, since this would be arguing in a circle. For David Hume, reason was the slave of the passions. That, too, oversimplifies, but grasps the basic idea that our reasonings, as he put it, are grounded in the sensitive, as opposed to the cognitive, part of our nature (A Treatise of Human Nature, Book I, Part IV).
What this implies (among other things) is that persuasion is not merely arguing on facts or evidence coupled with logic, but touching the emotions of one’s audience. The applied psychology of learning how to do this is an art and a science — and I suspect that all successful marketing in an “advanced” civilization relies on the marketer’s instinctive knowledge of how to do it (understanding, for one thing, that consumers tend to buy on emotion, not reason).
Second: systems are the one factor unifying our world with the world. What are systems? Entities made up of multiple parts or components, integrated and interdependent in various ways, operating together and reaching an outcome. Systems are everywhere, all around us and inside us, all the time. We participate in many. When we use them properly, they drive our outcomes. The human body is a system; so is a business corporation; so is a government agency; so is the U.S. economy. Systems run the gamut of existence from the micro level — cells, molecules, atoms, subatomic particles, it seems to be systems “all the way down” — to the macro level — the ecosystem, planetary systems, the solar system, the galaxy, galactic clusters, the universe itself (?), suggesting systems “all the way up”!
What we are most interested in are systems in the sense of having a system, one which will get you from point A to point B, from the physical action of turning off that alarm, to getting you in front of your computer (or whatever device you work with) and first priority project of your day without wasting time you won’t ever get back. These we might call behavioral systems. Some call them habits. Our word ethics comes from the Greek word ethos which means habit.
Third: there are numerous ways we can use this information to make the initial definition of self-improvement more specific. Better how? We can be better speakers, but it is probably more important to be better listeners. We are social beings (Aristotle got this right, and the Stoics agree with on this point). All of us can distinguish our world — my world — from the world, in the sense that my world is the totality of what I care about, ranging from loved ones to personal goals and values: all those things that are important to me, including the centrality of my importance to myself.
And by the way, we can get better at anything if we choose to make it a priority. By gaining more knowledge, more skills, more of what is now called emotional intelligence, we can gradually increase the range of those things within our control — a point Epictetus does not emphasize. The caveat, of course, is always to use what we learn and can do wisely. We don’t want to just be better ourselves. We want to help others be better as well. If they want help.
Sometimes all it takes is reaching out. Success coach and entrepreneur Darren Hardy sometimes tells the story (and I am going from memory here) of the woman in a grocery store checkout lane who was obviously having a bad day. Her face was taut and hair somewhat disheveled. Her kid was being a brat. She was having trouble with her credit card, dropping things out of the disorder of frustration, and generally acting harried, telling her kid to shut up as she wheeled her cart out of the store.
As the story continues, the woman in line behind her followed her out into the parking lot, got her attention, told her she had something for her, and handed her a card the size of a regular business card. The card had just two words engraved on it. The harried woman looked at it and burst into tears. After getting introduced, having a conversation, and sharing a hug, they ended up exchanging phone numbers so they could keep in touch.
What were the two words on the card?
Object lesson: all of us are important to ourselves (the alternative may be a sign of mental illness), and that leads to a principle that should drive self-improvement: acknowledging that everyone wants to feel important: to be noticed, heard, understood; to feel needed, and be significant; to believe they are making (or can make) a difference — in a word, to matter.
The logical, moral, and eminently practical thing to do is acknowledge this, and work with it.
Dale Carnegie probably wrote the first fully modern self-improvement manual with his How To Win Friends and Influence People (orig. 1937) His key to what became an instant bestseller: recognize the above, and act accordingly. For extroverts, this might be easy. For introverts, less so, but we introverts just have to work harder at it. Returning to a thought at the outset, I’ve often wondered if some of the cynicism about self-improvement is a cover for laziness: the recognition that this is a core value intended to pull us out of our comfort zones. Many people are sufficiently happy in their comfort zones, or say they are, and that’s okay, because as I also observed, this is not for everybody. The entire concept of core values is probably not for everybody. But you know who you are.
But some reflection on why you prefer your comfort zone to doing something to grow and be better at being human seems to me an inquiry worth pursuing.
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