Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Choosing personal development instead of depression

I have never really understood people who advise those in deep trouble just to be optimistic, to become positive about their future, even if they are facing critical threats. How can individuals who are going through difficult times just turn their mood around from one day to the next? How on earth is it possible for someone who is getting hammered by life to become hopeful about the future, avid to take advantage of the next opportunity?

These profound psychological changes are extremely difficult. If someone wants to achieve a radical improvement of his state of mind and motivation, he is going to need a much more sophisticated philosophy.

I am not denying that, by applying certain methods and techniques, you can turn yourself into a more optimistic and effective individual, but such turnarounds demand precision work, and need to be done properly. It is not something that a person can accomplish by means of empty encouragement and wishful thinking.

The wrong way and the right way

In addition, we should not forget that people who are under lots of pressure tend to have diminished energies. For human beings, it is very stressful to fight against major threats and obstacles, and such struggles often cause people to lose their health, sanity, and life's savings. Indeed, it is not easy to turn a critical situation around, but it is possible to do it.

The best way to deal with circumstances that demand lots of psychological strength and personal initiative is to imitate those who have succeeded in similar cases, by extracting lessons from their stories, and applying those lessons to your life.

You could try as well to come up with those lessons yourself, but this approach is likely to demand substantial time. For most people, it is more practical to copy methods and tactics that have been successful in the past. If you adopt techniques that have been proven by experience, chances are that you'll be able to improve your situation in a short period of time.

Strangely enough, the rules for overcoming difficult situations have not been compiled by philosophers. In the works of Plato, Aristotle, and Leibniz, you are going to find little practical advice about how to surmount major obstacles.

Relevant and proven principles

Their writings can give you interesting insights into ethics and logic, but they are not going to show you how to improve your life here and now. If you are facing a critical situation, you need to have access to a body of principles that are relevant, practical, and proven.

The Roman poet Publius Ovidius Naso, Ovid for short, (43 BC - 17 AD) left to posterity a collection of principles about how to overcome difficult obstacles. Ovid devoted most of his life to transforming practical wisdom into literary beauty, and his powerful work turned him into one of the most beloved poets of Western civilisation.

What makes Ovid's writings so interesting is that they extract universal principles from endearing anecdotes and personal observations. Like all writers of talent, Ovid was a master of drawing general conclusions without losing sight of individual circumstances.

Most of Ovid's works revolve about the art of love, or what we in our century call “dating.” The concepts of love and dating were pretty much equivalent in ancient Rome, since the modern definition of romance was not created until the 19th century. For Ovid, the central question of love was how to find the right person of the opposite sex, and for this reason, he addresses his advice to individuals who are trying to surmount the obstacles on their way to romantic happiness.

However, one should not minimize the importance of Ovid's work by restricting its application to the field of dating. Ovid was a keen observer of human nature, morality, and social interactions. During the years he lived in Rome, he met hundreds of men and women from the middle class and the aristocracy, and was able to draw universal conclusions from their individual experiences.

Ovid's writings on the subject of dating provide extraordinary insights on the process of personal development and the pursuit of success. If you want to become more effective in surmounting difficulties, I strongly recommend you to pay attention to Ovid's advice.

Turmoil adds credibility

The fact that Ovid's life was not without turmoil only adds credibility to his recommendations. He was the scion of a middle-class family, and his father very much wanted him to become a lawyer. In his youth, Ovid received an extensive education in grammar, rhetoric, and law, an education that was meant to prepare him for a career in the law.

When he was in his early twenties, he defended dozens of cases before Roman courts, but his real passion was to become a writer. His public speaking before judges and juries was not sufficient to fulfil his intellectual ambitions. He wanted to compose beautiful texts that would remain extant for centuries, telling readers how to improve their lives.

Later on, when Ovid was in his early forties, he wrote the book that would make him immortal, the “Ars Amatoria,” a collection of stories and techniques about how to find love. Historical sources do not agree on the year when Ovid wrote this book. Some historians date the book's inception on the third year BC, while others argue that it was composed on the second year AD. In any case, by the time Ovid finished writing the text, he must have been in his early or mid-forties.

In this book, Ovid presents stories and anecdotes of men looking for girlfriends or lovers, explaining how those men managed to overcome difficult obstacles and attain success. Some stories in the book are funny, others adventurous, and others show how to overcome rejection, always underlining that one should never accept a defeat as final. The main message of Ovid's writings is that individuals can overcome incredible obstacles if they set their mind to it.

A strong sense of direction

“A man can only be measured by his ambitions,” wrote Ovid, stressing the importance of setting long-term goals, and having a strong sense of direction. Equally, he formulated the principle that “fortune favours the bold” or that “chance often helps the daring.” Ovid's sharp observations about success have become universal principles of personal development.

His contemporaries described him as an abstemious, slender, genial, lovable, and physically untrained man, who possessed an exceedingly large nose that earned him the surname “naso,” which means “oversized nose.”

Ovid started to write poetry when he was in his mid-twenties, and quickly earned a reputation of being able to condense universal truths in short, beautiful sentences. In the “Ars Amatoria,” he presents himself as an instructor that offers the readers the possibility to improve themselves. While the book's introduction states the goal of cheering and pleasing the reader, the truth is that the chapters' contents are unusually profound.

Despite an apparent superficiality, Ovid succeeds in turning little romantic stories into universal principles of personal effectiveness. For instance, his advice about how to deal with reversals is highly relevant for individuals who are going through difficult times. Besides, Ovid was fond of comparing love and war because he thought that the principles of winning in both types of activity are pretty much the same.

Ovid's training in the law also gave him a decisive advantage in writing philosophical poetry, since it enabled him to build his arguments in a logical and convincing manner that makes his ideas seem irrefutable.

Like the good lawyer and public speaker he was, Ovid loved to present his message from different perspectives, and provide arguments from different sources, so that the readers cannot fail to understand his recommendations, and feel motivated to put them into practice.

The driving principle behind Ovid's advice is that nothing is stronger a habit. “A wise man,” he wrote, “makes the effort to identify the moral values he wants to endorse, and little by little, acquire those values by practising them every day until they become second nature. Eventually, those values will become part of his personality, and he will reach a state of moral perfection.

The fundamental technique of personal development

The first technique of personal development recommended by Ovid is that a man should always be looking for success, always pushing ahead to improve his station in life. He should always be trying to increase his chances of getting what he wants, even if success seems unattainable in the present circumstances.

“Always try to maximise your opportunities,” wrote Ovid. “Keep your hook in the water all the time, since you never know when you are going to catch some fish.” This piece of advice, which is meant for a man looking for a girlfriend, also applies to anybody trying to achieve other important goals.

Whether your concerns are financial, medical, emotional, or professional in nature, it doesn't really matter. Even in the darkest hour, when everything seems lost, you should always be pushing ahead, trying to improve your situation.

Ovid's insight about the importance of continuous action is extraordinarily perceptive. Of all pieces of advice contained in his writings, this is possibly the easiest to implement, and the one that most people tend to overlook.

If you are sick, you should never stop trying to recover your health. If your business has gone bankrupt, and you've lost your life's savings, you should never relinquish the goal of rebuilding your fortune.

Always keep pushing ahead, since you never know which opportunity you are going to find around the corner. Always keep trying to overcome the obstacles that are blocking your progress, since you never know when those obstacles are about to give way due to a change in circumstances.

No reason for discouragement

Tempus exat rerum,” formulated Ovid in Latin, giving birth to a proverb that has been passed from generation to generation. This proverb can be translated in English as “time vanquishes everything” or “time overcomes every obstacle.”

Of course, every man is eventually destined to die. Death is going to set a final point to his ambitions, but this inevitability should not be a reason for discouragement, but an incentive to make the best of every hour.

The fact that time will eventually win the battle should reinforce your motivation to keep pushing in the right direction, so you can take advantage of every opportunity that arises along the way. Conversely, if you stop trying to win, you are likely to see your alertness weaken, your ambitions wane, and your energies dissipate.

To the question of when you should admit defeat, Ovid's answer is clear and straightforward: never. A man's attempts to improve his life, fortune, and professional recognition should never cease. His actions in pursuit of his goals should never stop, and he should always be trying to seize the opportunities as they arise.

“Endurance and persistence tend to deliver good results,” wrote Ovid, a philosophical statement that applies not only to romantic pursuits, but also to anyone trying to achieve difficult goals.

A factor of critical importance

Wise men know that, if they want to progress in life, they need to stay on track day after day, month after month, and all too often, year after year. Perseverance is of critical importance for anyone who wants to attain the maximum possible happiness.

Ovid demonstrated this trait of character all his life, from beginning to end. When the emperor Augustus determined in 8 AD to banish Ovid from Rome, the poet's life lost a great part of its sweetness. The imperial banishment forced Ovid to abandon his friends, property, and family, and relocate to the eastern border of the Roman territories, which at that time, meant the Black Sea.

Ovid pleaded with the emperor to reverse his banishment, but it was all to no avail. The imperial edict remained in force, and Ovid was forced to say farewell to his family and friends, who all felt pity for him, and wished him well in his new place of residence.

Constance, the town where Ovid had been banished, was so far away from Rome that it took Ovid six months to arrive. The small area where Ovid had been confined by the emperor's orders was located on the western shore of the Black Sea, a territory that nowadays belongs to Romania.

Like in the days of ancient Rome, Constance continues to suffer from a harsh climate, with freezing temperatures during the winter, and humid heat during the summer, the type of conditions that can rapidly undermine the health of anyone who has not been accustomed to them since infancy.

Historians point out that the reasons for Ovid's banishment are not clearly documented, but that his book “Ars Amatoria” must have played a major role in the emperor's decision to order Ovid into exile. At that moment, Ovid's writings were enjoying a high popularity, and the emperor must have tried to curtail that popularity by banishing the poet from Rome. Ovid had no choice but to accept the banishment, and relocate according to the emperor's orders.

Ovid's acceptance of his exile did not prevent him from continuing to write important works. When he reached the Black Sea, he immediately realised the difficulties of leading a normal life in such a place, where residents were frequently attacked by neighbouring tribes, in addition to having to deal with a chronic lack of supplies. Yet, Ovid did not grow discouraged. Once and again, he reminded himself of his own piece of advice, and stayed on track even in the worst circumstances.

Better than abruptness and harshness

A second recommendation included in the “Ars Amatoria” is that a soft approach should always be given preference over abruptness and harshness. As a general rule, more can be achieved in life by taking small daily steps towards a goal, than by making one swift overreaching attempt. “Very frequently,” observed Ovid, “success in romance develops as a consequence of a long-standing friendship.”

Indeed, large numbers of enduring romantic relationships arise from long-term acquaintances or friendships that, from one moment to the next, take a romantic tone. The virtues of courtesy, patience, and diplomacy constitute three essential assets for anyone who wants to achieve ambitious goals.

In your private and business life, you will be well advised to refrain from using force, or the threat of force, even in critical circumstances. Even if you have to deal with aggressive people, the best policy is usually to avert physical and verbal fights. In this sense, Ovid was fond of recommending the study of literature and history, as methods to render individuals more resilient, creative, and effective.

The principle that danger increases a man's skilfulness and eloquence has been predicated since Ovid first formulated it two thousand years ago, and it seems incontestable that this principle can particularly benefit individuals who are facing difficult challenges.

When you are surrounded by trouble, there is always the temptation to react angrily, and engage in verbal and physical fights. Such abrupt reactions lead to high tension, disaster, and devastation. In contrast, a wise man will always strive to avert violence, since he is aware of its terrible consequences. As a general principle, success is more readily achieved with friendliness and good manners than by making violent threats.

Choosing the right speed

“Wisdom,” wrote Ovid, “consists of doing things at the right speed, not too fast lest they precipitate, and not too slowly lest the opportunities ebb away.” Learn this important lesson and try to carry out your projects without rashness nor delays. A good measure of prudence can preserve your peace of mind, and prevent recklessness from ruining your chances.

The soft approach recommended by Ovid often leads to spectacular success. It is a technique that, when applied consistently, it practically guarantees positive results. If you can consistently practise it, you will be more likely to attain your goals. As Ovid put it so well: “nothing is softer than water or harder than a rock, and yet, water ends up eroding the hardest rocks.”

Never cease trying to advance your cause. Instead of giving up, you should keep trying once and again, even if you are facing seemingly insurmountable obstacles. “With patience and persistence, men can tame tigers and lions,” observed Ovid in the “Ars Amatoria.”

When looking for love or pursuing some equally important goal, you should be willing to make a thousand attempts if necessary. Similarly, if you are trying to overcome a severe sickness, you should be willing to try a thousand remedies until you get the results you need.

Asking for what you want once and again is crucial for seizing the best opportunities. If you fail to ask repeatedly for what you want, your message might not get through to the right person at the right moment, and you won't be able to get a positive reply.

Never hesitate to ask

“Never hesitate to ask,” recommended Ovid, “since most people are going to be glad your did. And even if they reply negatively, their words are not going to cause you any physical harm.” Individuals who get what they want in life are often those who have been pursuing their goals for a long time until they eventually met the right circumstances.

“Besides,” remarked Ovid, “the habit of asking repeatedly for what you want is going to increase your ability to put your thoughts into words.” People who are not afraid of speaking out frequently become good public speakers because they grow used to dealing with objections in a thousand different ways. Their constant practice is going to increase their self-assurance, and their ability to think on their feet.

Highly motivated individuals don't give up their dreams even in the face of severe sickness or other grievous problems. Even when those people are surrounded by trouble, and everything seems lost, they are going to keep asking for what they want, in the hope of turning their situation around.

Even when it seems that you have exhausted your resources, you should still keep asking for what you want. Don't be embarrassed to repeat your request a thousand times, as long as you can do it without antagonizing people or driving them crazy. It often happens that, through sheer persistence, motivated individuals can take advantage of unexpected changes, and turn the balance in their favour.

Not all soils are the same

What cannot be achieved under certain circumstances might become possible if those circumstances change, provided that you keep pushing and asking for what you want. As Ovid beautifully wrote: “Not all soils are the same, and not all crops require the same conditions. Where vines tend to grow high, wheat and olives are seldom going to ripe.”

If you keep asking for what you want, politely and without losing your composure, sooner or later you might find the right conditions for your projects, the environment that will allow you to thrive. If you are tilling a ground that's only suitable for vines, you are not going to be able to grow wheat or olives, but if you keep trying, you might eventually find the type of ground that allows you to achieve your goals.

When I say that you should ask a thousand times, I am not exaggerating. If you are facing particularly adverse circumstances, you might really have to ask a thousand times for what you want before you can actually get it.

A middle-aged man looking for a girlfriend in Australia, where there is a well-known shortage of women, might indeed have to try a hundred times before he gets what he wants. And a struggling actor trying to get a leading role in a Hollywood movie might have to go through a hundred auditions before he gets what he wants. Very few people are willing to ask a hundred times for what they want, even if the mere fact of asking can dramatically increase their chances.

Undoubtedly, the willingness to ask repeatedly for what you want requires high motivation and alertness. If you follow this strategy, which I strongly recommend, you are going to have to maintain a constant state of readiness.

Preparedness must accompany persistence

Individuals who succeed are typically those who, after getting a positive answer, immediately react and seize the opportunity, even if they have previously received a hundred rejections. “Your lamp can only burn brightly,” wrote Ovid, “if you have refilled the oil and placed a new wick.” Preparedness must always accompany persistence, since one has little value without the other.

If you continuously ask for what you want, but fail to seize the opportunities that present themselves, your energies and efforts will be wasted. A man who persists in his attempts must also persist in his preparedness. Those two elements are critical for attaining success, although unfortunately, few individuals are willing to adopt this strategy for a long period of time, sometimes years, even if this is justified by the size of their ambitions.

A third crucial aspect that Ovid mentions is the speed of your reactions. If you ask many people for what you want, and receive hundreds of rejections, but then you see someone hesitate before replying, that might be the critical moment that allows you to achieve your goal.

Even after having received numerous negative answers, it is in your interest to maintain the capacity to react immediately to promising opportunities. To illustrate this point, Ovid uses the metaphor of a fisherman who, in addition to keeping his hook in the water, needs to be able to hold fast immediately to any fish that is caught in the hook.

It doesn't make sense to make massive efforts to pursue your goals, if you are not able to react immediately and enthusiastically to good opportunities. A competent fisherman must be able, not only to catch fish, but also to pull them out of the water as soon as they are caught.

Failing to execute at the critical moment

By maintaining your ability to react quickly and effectively to opportunities, you will maximize your chances of success when the tide turns in favour. If you stay alert, you will be able to seize opportunities and obtain resounding victories. In life, too many battles are lost because people fail to execute properly at the critical moment.

Of course, you will get better results if you have access to the right people, but this doesn't mean that you should refrain from taking action when the conditions are less than ideal. “Ask at every opportunity,” wrote Ovid, “and never be ashamed of your persistence.” Do not be discouraged by the fact that you have to deal with less-than-ideal conditions, and look instead for ways to intensify your efforts.

“A man who wants to be successful, should choose the proper tools to accomplish his goals,” recommended Ovid. “Make sure that you use a blade to plough your land, oars to row your boat, and a sword to fight in war.” Being adequately prepared requires thoughtfulness, foresight, and the determination to leave as little as possible to chance.

Which are the best places and times to ask for what you want? You will gain knowledge of those through the experience you'll acquire in your repeated attempts. In the first part of the “Ars Amatoria,” Ovid explains that, if you want to become an effective hunter, you are going to have to devote many days to study the habits of your preys. It is only through observation that you will discover the best methods to achieve your goals.

If you progressively increase your knowledge of the territory, you will eventually reach a point where you know whom to ask with high probabilities of a positive reply. By asking a thousand times, you will be creating a thousand possibilities to learn what doesn't work, and how you can improve yourself.

When a heavy storm breaks out

Finally, Ovid provides us an usual piece of advice to increase our personal effectiveness. If you want to attain your goals with a minimum of opposition, you should adopt the habit of keeping your plans to yourself. The fewer details you provide to other people, the fewer the chances that they will try to obstruct or sabotage your goals.

“When a heavy storm breaks out,” observed Ovid, “a ship with broad sails is more likely to be wrecked than one with narrow sails.” What Ovid is trying to tell us is that, if you let malevolent people know about your plans, you will only be creating extra obstacles for yourself.

A man looking for a girlfriend can dramatically increase his chances by asking out a hundred women individually than by asking them out in a group. The unwritten law of nature is that people will often prefer to imitate someone else's behaviour rather than thinking for themselves. For this reason, the man in our example is more likely to succeed by asking a hundred women separately than by asking them all together in a group.

The quietness of your intent should not prevent you from being persistent, but only as long as you can stay away from tension. Asking a thousand times for what you want is a perfectly valid strategy, provided that your context does not render it ineffective. It's not a good idea to persist in places where you are being confronted with hatred or animosity. Your strategy should be to look for promising situations, while avoiding those that are obviously unfavourable.

If you make a lot of noise, you will only alert all kinds of envious people. Keep your plans secret from the world, and if you want to reveal them, then do it only to friends and allies, to individuals who are willing to lend you a hand. There is no reason to make strangers aware of your determination to succeed, since nothing is to be gained from such publicity.

A deep understanding of human nature

Ovid shows a deep understanding of human nature when he recommends utmost discretion. He was well aware of the resentment that entrepreneurial, relentless individuals tend to generate in envious people.

Sadly, it seems to be a part of human nature to envy those who try to improve themselves. In order to solve this problem, all you have to do is to keep your endeavours secret, but without going to the extreme of becoming a paranoiac.

During the last decade of his life, Ovid reproached himself for not having learned his lessons early enough, since that would have spared him the penuries of exile. Yet, in the letters he wrote from the Black Sea, he never ceased to recommend gentleness, prudence, and persistence as a way of life. Those letters were later compiled in two collections called “Tristia” (Sorrows) and “Epistolae ex Ponto” (Letters from the Black Sea).

Always a benevolent man

Listen to Ovid's recommendation, and always keep trying to achieve your goals. Always keep asking for what you want, if necessary, a thousand times. Yet, it is advisable that you go about your business as quietly and discreetly as possible, employing gentle words instead of abrasiveness and harshness.

As you take advantage of every opportunity to learn, your persistence will increase your skilfulness, and render you more eloquent. Of course, this should not prevent you from focusing your efforts on those situations that offer the best chances of success.

Ovid remained his whole life a benevolent man, even in his darkest hour, when he was exiled in Constance. Despite the hostile and brutish environment he encountered in the Black Sea, he still made many friends and gained the admiration of his neighbours.

To his credit, he never ceased writing poetry, of which he sent copies to his friends in Rome, and with time, he also became a celebrity in Constance. Despite the harsh conditions of his exile, his gentleness and thoughtfulness pleased the local governor so much that he granted Ovid a complete exemption from taxes. All in all, a non-negligible achievement for a man who had been banished to live at the very end of the civilized world.

[Text: copyright John Vespasian, 2014]

[Image by Alaskan Dude under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]

The 10 Principles of Rational Living

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

How to overcome fear by overcoming prejudice

Self-inflicted blindness is a widespread sickness. Those who suffer from it become blind to opportunity, wallow in their misery, and become incapable of looking beyond the obvious. Unfortunately, as it can be ascertained by anyone who cares to examine the question, millions of people are suffering from this condition.

Despite the fact that these people could take action to improve their situation, they remain passive and inert, waiting for someone else to solve their problems. This sad situation is not circumscribed to the population of a certain age or nationality. On the contrary, we are talking about a phenomenon that can be observed in all age groups and countries of the world.

If you want to witness how self-inflicted blindness works, you can take for instance the question of unemployment. At the time of his writing, in September 2014, the unemployment rate in Spain has reached 20%, and in some Spanish provinces, whose economies are particularly depressed, unemployment is as high as 25%.

The ravages of self-inflicted blindness

The percentage of the population who cannot find a job in Greece and in some parts of Italy is not far behind. And some other countries only manage to report lower unemployment rates because their statistics are made differently. For instance, in United States, people who have been unemployed for longer than a year are removed from the statistics.

In any case, it is incontestable that unemployment remains high in many areas of the world. Millions of people are affected by this problem. Day after day, month after month, and all too often, yet after year, they continue to search for jobs that are simply not available.

Unemployment has dire consequences, not only economically, but also all psychologically. Individuals who have been unemployed for a long time tend to lose their ambitions, qualifications, and self-respect. These situations are regrettable, but in many cases, what really aggravates the problem is the victims' self-inflicted blindness.

As I said, unemployment in Spain affects 20% of the population. At the same time, the unemployment rate in Norway is only 4%. Such a low rate is almost equivalent to zero in practical terms, since 4% amounts just to those who are between jobs, those who have just graduated from university, and a few more. When a country has an unemployment rate as low as 4%, it means that anyone seriously looking for a job is going to succeed in finding one.

There is never a good reason for passivity

Now, everyone who has studied physics at school is familiar with the principle that communicating vases always tend to achieve an equilibrium level. If two communicating vases are each filled with water to a different level, the water will automatic pass from the higher-filled vase to the lower-filled vase until the water level has been equalised in both vases.

The principle of equilibrium between communicating vases, which is well-known in physics, also applies to communicating markets. If you have a country where oil is very expensive, and a neighbouring country where oil is very cheap, the oil price in both countries will tend towards an equilibrium level in the long term, since traders are going to take advantage of the situation, and export oil from the cheap to the expensive country, until the price difference vanishes from the market.

In my example about the different unemployment rates in Spain and Norway, one should ask the obvious question: Why are the unemployed people in Spain not moving to Norway? Why do millions of Spanish people continue to look for jobs where there aren't any, while at the same time, they overlook the thousands of open vacancies that are advertised in Norway? This is an interesting question that the media rarely address.

Of course, you could argue that there is a linguistic barrier between Norway and Spain, since anyone desiring to work in Norway would have to learn Norwegian. Fair enough, but this is only partially true, since knowledge of Norwegian is only needed for 30% of the jobs advertised in Norway.

On many occasions, a good command of English is sufficient to perform those jobs, provided that the applicant possesses the required educational qualifications. Norwegian companies are constantly hiring engineers, graphic designers, software programmers, cooks, and truck drivers who don't speak a word of Norwegian. Anyway, even if an unemployed Spaniard had to learn Norwegian to get a job in Norway, that would be an investment that he would be able to recoup in a few months.

In this sense, the self-inflicted blindness seems all-pervasive when you realise that, Spain, a country of 35 million people, does not even have language schools that teach Norwegian. An unemployed Spaniard who decided to look for a job in Norway would not be able to find a language school, public or private, where he could learn Norwegian to facilitate his job search. How is it possible that millions of people have become so blind to opportunity?

The low cost of high opportunity

Besides, the distance between Spain and Norway is not that large. A flight from Madrid to Oslo takes about four hours. For someone who wants to improve his career opportunities, a four-hour flight is nothing. You can buy a plane ticket from Madrid to Oslo for a few hundred dollars.

Anyone determined to find a job in Norway would be certainly able to borrow sufficient money from his family and friends to pay for his flight, accommodation, and meals during his initial weeks in Norway. And anyone willing to make the effort would certainly succeed in learning Norwegian, with or without teachers.
I could give you dozens of similar examples that show that self-inflicted blindness is affecting large numbers of individuals all over the world. More often than not, those people have fallen prey to the human tendency to remain immobile, for instance:

  • People fail to change their lifestyle even if the change could cure their sickness.
  • They fail to get away from destructive relationships, even after it has become clear that those relationships have no future.
  • They also fail to move abroad even when there are unmistakable signs that a war is about to break out in their home country.

Self-inflicted blindness constitutes one of the main sources of human misery. It makes people poor, tired, and psychologically vulnerable. It deprives them of their opportunities and motivation, and renders them unable to find solutions to their problems. The nightmares caused by self-inflicted blindness are everywhere, but unfortunately, there are no signs that the situation is going to improve in the near future.

The problem is more serious and deeper than it seems at first sight. Since the beginning of civilisation, since human beings began to live in tribes, the cases of psychological passivity have increased exponentially. While individuals living alone cannot ignore that problems cannot be solved without taking action, people who become members of a tribe tend to replace their initiative by group thinking.

This process of psychological decay can be observed in any country, culture, or ethnic group. Its outcome is always lethal, even if the process can take thousands of years to unfold. Those who suffer from self-inflicted blindness will end out losing everything they have, despair, and starve.

A simple, but difficult solution

Luckily, there is a solution to this problem, even if it's difficult to implement. The solution has been tested and confirmed thousands of times during the last century. On every occasion where it has been tried, it has delivered good results. People who have adopted it have been able to solve their problems, and those who have ignored it have wasted their opportunities.

The first complete formulation of the solution was made at the beginning of the 17th century by the English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626). As we will see, Bacon was able to overcome different forms of self-inflicted blindness, figure out solutions to his problems, and implement them successfully in his professional and private life.

The three principal sources for understanding Bacon's philosophy are his “Essays” (whose first edition was published in 1597), his treatise “On the Advancement of Learning” (1605), and his manifesto “Novum Organum Scientiarum” (1620). The latter was subsequently expanded and republished under the title “De Augmentis Scientiarum” (1623).

Bacon wrote those three books during his busy professional life as a lawyer, public prosecutor, and member of the English Parliament. It was usual for him to spend ten hours working in his job, and then write for another two hours in the evening.

It was by exerting himself in this fashion that Bacon managed to write each of his books in only a few months. He was a man of action who took his time to consign his thoughts to paper in the hope of becoming a major philosopher, a goal that he deservedly achieved.

Inconsistency with reality

One of the central points of Bacon's philosophy is the theory of the idols. The best presentation of this theory can be found in the “Novum Organum Scientiarum,” which Bacon composed when he was at the top of his career as a lawyer and public administrator. Bacon defines the idols as “products of the human imagination that are inconsistent with reality.”

In this sense, you could very well replace the word “idol” by the words prejudice, delusion, or wishful thinking. When an individual falls prey to those idols, he does stupid things, and fails to take action to improve his situation.

Bacon classified the idols in four categories, namely, the idols of the tribe, the idols of the cave, the idols of the marketplace, and the idols of the theatre. This classification is largely irrelevant, since the different types of prejudice and delusion overlap each other. Nonetheless, it's interesting to pass review to Bacon's four categories because they typify the mistakes that are preventing millions of people from thinking logically.

By “idols of the tribe,” Bacon refers to forms of prejudice that affect almost every human being at some point in his life. In this category, Bacon includes all forms of false perception, wishful thinking, and illogical conclusions. The victims thereof tend to pay more attention to the delusions inside their minds than to the facts of reality.

People who suffer from this form of self-inflicted blindness are going to create imaginary worlds, where they can take refuge from reality. As a result, their delusions are going to prevent them from taking action, while their problems get increasingly worse.

In our example of the unemployed Spaniards, it seems clear that millions of them actually believe that the Spanish economy is going to recover in the near future, and create large numbers of jobs, even if this belief is so manifestly unrealistic that one could not find any credible argument to support it.

Nonetheless, millions of unemployed Spaniards remain convinced that a solution can be found in the near future: a solution coming from nowhere, based on nothing, and requiring no effort to implement. Sadly, the consequences of such unrealistic beliefs tends to be catastrophic: the victims become paralysed, and by the time they realize their mistake, they will have become too weak to recover.

The adherence to old-fashioned patterns

Under the category “idols of the cave,” Bacon groups the prejudices and logical errors that are unique to each individual. The term “cave” used by Bacon refers to Plato's myth of the cave, where Plato compares the human mind to a man living in a cave who only perceives the outside world through the shadows reflected on the cave wall.

Similarly, Bacon argued that individuals who adhere to dogmas and old-fashioned patterns tend to become victims of the idols of the cave. These victims can be recognized by their blind respect of authority, their narrow-mindedness, and their conviction that they can only succeed in life by imitating other people.

The blindness and passivity inflicted by the idols of the cave are almost incurable. When someone becomes firmly convinced that his only choice in life is to remain loyal to worthless ideals, no matter how crazy they are, it's extremely difficult to reverse his condition. Narrow-minded people rarely change their views, even after it has become obvious that those views are wrong. The idols of the cave tend to deprive their victims of the capacity to recognize mistakes.

In our example of the unemployed Spaniards, it seems that many of those are being victims of the belief that they would be worse off if they moved abroad to find a job. Such a belief is deeply irrational, since many countries in the world possess higher living standards than Spain. Regrettably, this prejudice continues to prevent millions of unemployed Spaniards from finding a job.

The prejudice is so ingrained that, even if you could convince these individuals to find a job in Norway, their narrow-mindedness would not allow them to adapt to the Norwegian lifestyle, language, and environment, with the result that, after a few weeks, these people would be quitting their job and returning to Spain. Unless they rid themselves of the idols of the cave, they are never going to be able to summon the determination they need to solve their problems.

Creating fear for the sake of fear

The third category of faulty ideas identified by Bacon are what he called “idols of the marketplace,” by which he meant the falsehoods that people pick up from their social and professional environments. In particular, Bacon stressed the danger of using words and concepts that have no existence in reality.

This phenomenon is known in philosophy as “the reification of the zero.” When a concept that has no connection to reality is invented, it only serves to confuse people, lead them to error, and waste their opportunities.

The reification of the zero is a problem that also affects unemployed Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians. It is only during the last hundred years that people have become obsessed with the concept of social integration, without realizing that such concept was virtually unknown in previous centuries.

Even as late in history as in the 1910s, it was possible to travel from country to country without a passport, settle down in the city of your choice, find a job, or start a business without having to meet any particular requirements, and without having to bother about your social integration.

Regrettably, social integration is a recently-created idol of the marketplace that is discouraging large numbers of people from moving from one country to another. As a result, the discomfort associated with emigration has been magnified to such an extent that many individuals have become paralysed.

In the case of our unemployed Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians, who should have been actively looking for work in countries such as Norway, the idol of the marketplace called “social integration” (or fear of social isolation) has created a psychological barrier that is preventing them from moving abroad to look for a job.

Such exaggerated fear constitutes a good example of an idol of the marketplace. While its victims are blowing the potential difficulties out of proportion, the truth is that it's neither too difficult nor too expensive to adapt yourself to living in a new country.

In the case of unemployed Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians considering to emigrate to Norway, the difference in salaries between Norway and those three countries is so large that the discomfort associated with emigration should prove an excellent investment for anyone seriously interested in finding a job.

Discarding prejudices and misconceptions

The last group of false beliefs identified by Bacon are “the idols of the theatre.” Bacon uses this term to refer to prejudices and misconceptions generated by culture and civilisation. This category includes superstitions, social myths, and erroneous generalisations.

Idols of the theatre typically prevent people from taking action in areas that could dramatically improve their lives. Superstitions tend to restrain people's initiative because they support the belief that it's practically impossible to venture beyond certain limits.

In the case of our unemployed Spaniards, part of the problem is that many of them are convinced that Spain is the best country in the world. If you believe this kind of superstition with respect to your country, it's no wonder that you'll feel reluctant to look for a job abroad.

The idols of the theatre come in many variations, but they all have the effect of instilling fear into people. The exaggerated concern generated by the idols of the theatre renders people passive, and blind to opportunity.

The best thing about Francis Bacon is that, in addition to providing theoretical solutions to self-inflicted blindness, he also put them into practice. On one occasion, he defined philosophy as the commerce of the mind with the facts of reality with the purpose of bringing into sight what is hidden. Truth is what reveals itself after false opinions have vanished into smoke.

Let false opinions vanish into smoke

Bacon had acquired in his infancy the habit of thinking for himself, since he only started to attend school after his 12th birthday. Before that time, he had been learning at home by reading books, listening to his tutor, and taking lessons from his mother, who was fluent in Latin and Greek.

By the time Bacon was sent to college in Cambridge (1573), he had already read dozens of books in English and Latin. This achievement, which seems incredible by today's educational standards, is not to be regarded as so extraordinary if you take into account that, by being educated at home, a child does not need to waste time every day commuting.

Nowadays, children often have to spend an hour a day commuting to school. This daily travel time represents a substantial amount of waste, which could have been put to better use, for instance, by allowing the children to read dozens of books at home.

When Bacon turned fifteen, his parents sent him to London to start training as a lawyer. Fifteen is a young age indeed, but that measure of youth was not unusual in the 16th century. Bacon was admitted as a student at the Grey's Inn, and began to learn about torts, contracts, civil and criminal procedures.

Despite his talent for legal studies, it took him six years to qualify as a barrister, since he interrupted his training to take up a succession of jobs in England and abroad. He eventually passed his exams, was admitted to the Bar, and started to look for a suitable job.

Tough beginnings due to inexperience

The beginnings of Bacon's career were tough, since he made all kinds of mistakes due to his inexperience. At that time in history, all high administrative positions in England were appointed by Queen Elizabeth. Bacon should have been aware of this, but he made the Queen mad at him by publicly opposing her plan for a tax increase. Of course, Bacon was right on the principle, but since he was still trying to establish himself, it was not clever of him to take the leadership of the resistance against the Queen.

The Queen did not forget Bacon's opposition, and effectively banned him from high public office. The employment ban brought Bacon into financial difficulties to such an extent that, in 1598, he was arrested for debts, taken to prison, and incarcerated for a short period of time.

During the next years, Bacon did everything possible to ingratiate himself with Queen Elizabeth. To his shame, he went as far as leading the prosecution for high treason against his former friend the Earl of Essex, who ended up sentenced to the maximum penalty.

After the fall of the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth was somewhat indebted to Bacon's legal expertise, but she did nothing to remove the ban that excluded Bacon from occupying high offices in England. As a result, Bacon had to wait until Queen Elizabeth's death to obtain a suitable job.

It was only in 1603, after the coronation of the new king, James I, that Bacon began to obtain appointments in line with his capabilities. During the next twenty years, he would be appointed Solicitor General, Attorney General, member of different high tribunals, and Chancellor of England. He became King James' close friend, trusted counsellor, and primary policy executor.

The metaphor of the bee

During those years, the busiest of Bacon's career, he continued to write about theoretical philosophy and practical wisdom. “A philosopher,” he formulated, “must not be like an ant that takes material from the ground and uses it without transformation. Nor should he resemble a spider that makes cobwebs out of its own substance. A philosopher should be like a bee that gathers material from flowers, and transforms it into something better.”

Bacon wrote hundreds of pages to record his philosophical reflections because he was convinced that “a man who reads can gain knowledge, a man who debates can gain clarity, but only a man who writes can gain precision.” If his essays, he passed review to the theories he had learned in Cambridge, and to the books he had read on his own, criticizing ancient dogmas, and proposing a new methodology to ascertain truth.

Bacon's love of philosophy, which consumed his evenings, did not prevent him from handling a heavy workload of legal cases during the day. As a judge, he passed many sentences, and prepared the way for reforming the English legal system. However, in his work, he not only made friends, but also accumulated enemies, some of them, like the Duke of Buckingham, extremely powerful.

Eventually, in 1621, the Duke of Buckingham pushed a faction of the English Parliament to bring charges of bribery against Bacon. The accusers were claiming that Bacon, in his position as judge of a high court, had accepted presents from litigants.

The destruction of a lifetime reputation

When Bacon was confronted with the accusations, he reacted calmly and cleverly. He assessed his chances of winning and losing, and discussed his conclusions with his friend King James. The result of that discussion is that Bacon became convinced that, even if he was convicted, King James would protect him from the consequences.

And that was precisely what happened. Parliament found Bacon guilty of bribery, and condemned him to imprisonment in the Tower of London, and to pay a £40,000 fine, a sum that exceeded Bacon's lifetime savings. The jail sentence was immediately executed, but just as Bacon expected, King James set him free after only a few days, and exempted him from paying the fine.

During the trial, Bacon admitted that he had accepted presents from litigants, as it was the custom in English courts, and that those presents should not be regarded as bribes. In civil cases, he argued, judges were often acting as arbitrators without receiving any fee for hearing the case, and any presents made by the litigants should be regarded as a legitimate source of income for the judge.

Bacon also argued during his defence in Parliament that, in his judicial decisions, he had never been influenced by any gifts received from litigants. To support this statement, he cited several instances where he had actually decided the case against the party that had given him a present. Nonetheless, Parliament did not stop until they had destroyed Bacon's reputation, and forced him out of his official appointments.

A new goal for a new life

At the time of his release from prison, Bacon was sixty one years old. Even after the £40,000 fine imposed by Parliament had been pardoned by King James, all that Bacon had left was a small estate in St Albans, where he retired to a life of reflection.

As a result, he was able to devote the last five years of his life almost exclusively to writing. He set himself the goal of formulating a manifesto that would refute the mistakes of ancient philosophers, and provide the basis of a new way of thinking, but the five years proved insufficient to accomplish such an ambitious project, and Bacon died of pneumonia in 1626.

His main contribution to philosophy is contained in his essay “On the Advancement of Learning,” published in 1605. I am talking about the method of induction, the practice of drawing conclusions from reality after having examined the facts, instead of basing those conclusions on preconceptions and second-hand sources.

A philosopher needs to overcome the apparent chaos of nature, and look for truth and order. A wise man learns to overcome his fears by looking at the facts, and discards the idols of the tribe, the cave, the theatre, and the marketplace.

It is only by focusing on reality that a man can overcome prejudice, falsehood, and superstition. “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed,” wrote Bacon to indicate that, if you want to achieve your goals, you have to see what actually works in reality, so that you can use the right principles to guide your actions.

Historians love to recount that Bacon died of pneumonia as a result of his having performed a scientific experiment to preserve meat with snow. One afternoon, when he was travelling by coach in the middle of the winter, he had the idea of getting out of the coach, taking snow with his hands, and filling a dead chicken to see if its flesh would remain uncorrupted as long as the snow didn't melt.

For a sixty-six year old who had never enjoyed a strong health, the experiment was extremely foolish. As a result of his playing with snow, Bacon got a severe cold, which became worse when he was subsequently lodged by a friend in an unheated room. Two weeks later, an acute pneumonia put an end to his life.

The real solution to the problem

Not all of Bacon's ideas are equally practical for overcoming self-inflicted blindness. The theory of the idols, for instance, can provide interesting insights, but those are difficult to apply in real life, since human beings, even in the best circumstances, are rarely free of prejudices, inconsistencies, and misconceptions.

If you examine your ideas and convictions to see if you should regard them as idols of the tribe, cave, theatre, or marketplace, you'll have to spend a large amount of time, and probably never reach a definite conclusion. Bacon's theory of the idols is a valid philosophical tool, but not something that you can use effectively on a day-to-day basis.

Fortunately, his essays, which went through three editions in his lifetime, provide us the critical element for overcoming self-inflicted blindness. The antidote to psychological paralysis is called audacity, which Bacon defined as “a man's ability to create more opportunities that he finds.”

Bacon's prescription is essential for overcoming discouragement and fear, irrespective of your age or profession. “You'll always lose much more by not trying, than by trying and not succeeding,” he wrote. And he was perfectly right. This piece of advice is the most valuable in all of Bacon's writings.

It is time to take decisive action

The unemployed Spaniards, Greeks, and Italians, who wallow in their misery are wasting their opportunities. Similarly, people who stay in destructive relationships are refusing to face the truth. And patients who suffer from self-inflicted sickness are lacking the determination to change their lifestyle for the better.

Audacity, the willingness to take bold action to overcome obstacles, is the cure to a large part of human misery. And it doesn't require a long explanation to demonstrate that, if you want to improve your situation, you have to take decisive action. This is the only way to solve problems effectively and relatively quickly.

Bacon himself showed great audacity in his professional and personal life, even if it took him a while to recommend this course of action in his writings. You can see Bacon at this best when he was 36 years old, and proposed marriage to a 20-year old wealthy widow, who on top of that, was a renowned beauty.

The widow rejected Bacon's proposal, something that he lamented for years, but this did not prevent him, after his 45th birthday, to marry Alice Barnham, a pretty girl who at that time was 14 years old. Apparently, she got to love Bacon so deeply that she was still mourning him twenty years after his death.

Individuals who lack initiative are going to profess an exaggerated respect of traditions and superstitions. Audacity, the ability to challenge constrains and create opportunities, is the answer that they should be embracing.

Theoretical debates can never solve anyone's problems. This is why you can learn more from Francis Bacon by looking at what he actually did than by reading his books. You must discard prejudice and narrow-mindedness, and instead, create your own opportunities, and let audacity become your driving force.

[Text: copyright John Vespasian, 2014]

[Image by o palsson under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/us]

The 10 Principles of Rational Living