Sunday, 16 September 2018

The most difficult decision you'll ever make

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Giacomo Raffaelli discovered his passion for drawing when he was a kid playing in the streets of the Trastavere district in Rome. His father died in 1765, when Giacomo was only 12 years old, leaving him no other choice than take a job at his uncle's quarry.

Work at the quarry was all-consuming, and Giacomo had no time to devote to drawing, but he found an opportunity to get closer to art when he was 15 years old.

One afternoon, while Giacomo's uncle was away, a priest walked into the quarry and requested a quotation for coloured stones to repair the medieval mosaics at Santa Cecilia Church. Giacomo made a quick calculation, offered a good price, and received the commission. As of that day, he began to learn everything he could about mosaics.

It did not take Giacomo long to start a business of his own by offering his services to churches to repair old mosaics or lay new ones. The drawing abilities required by mosaics were modest, since most scenes consisted of geometrical decorations, flowers, and animals.

Year after year, Giacomo longed to land a commission for a large mosaic that would let him display his artistic talent, but that was not to be. At night, he would spend hours by the fire making preparatory drawings for grandiose projects, but the costs of European wars had dried out the funding for new mosaics.

The mosaics business slowed down during the French invasion of Italy, and Giacomo took to spending whole days at home making drawings for his future masterpiece. With the drawings in hand, he made tours of churches and monasteries, trying to obtain a commission for his project, a twenty-meter long mosaic representing the Garden of Eden.

Dozens of rejections

Giacomo made attempts for nine years, and collected 82 rejections from places as far away as Ravenna and Aix-en-Provence. Only in December 1809, the Church of San Giovanni Laterano showed interest in a scaled-down version of the Garden of Eden project.

However, the price offered by San Giovanni Church was so low that made it almost impossible for Giacomo to break even, let alone make a profit, precisely at a time when he needed money. He had recently married Simonetta Cappella, a petite 32 year-old Venetian widow.

Still, the commission from San Giovanni Church would give Giacomo a unique opportunity to make a name for himself and gain recognition as an artist. Giacomo was close to his 57th birthday. Was it worth it for him to take such a risk? Or should he rather concentrate on his profitable mosaics-repair business?

An opportunity

A visit from a captain of the Imperial Dragons in January 1810 took Giacomo by surprise. "Emperor Napoleon is in Rome, and wants to discuss a commission with you," announced the captain.

Excited by the prospect of a major commission, Giacomo collected his drawings of the Garden of Eden, and followed the captain to a villa in the Pallatino.

Emperor Napoleon greeted Giacomo warmly and, by means of an interpreter, explained that he had seen the high quality of Giacomo's work, and that he was planning to give Giacomo a commission for a large mosaic at the Minoriten Church in Vienna.

"I will be marrying the Duchess of Parma this summer," went on Napoleon. "The mosaic will be my wedding present." Giacomo then tried to show his Garden of Eden drawings, but the Emperor shook his head. "The Duchess has already chosen a design for the mosaic. She wants to have a copy of Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper. Can you do that?"

Napoleon's request made Giacomo's heart stand still for a second. The Emperor was offering him a large commission just to make a copy of an old painting! Just to copy another artist's work! When Napoleon mentioned the price, Giacomo asked the interpreter to repeat it. It was a real fortune, more money than Giacomo had ever made in his whole life.

The Emperor had not expected to see Giacomo hesitate. What was that man thinking? Any other artisan in the Empire would have immediately accepted such a generous commission. "I need a day to think it over," replied Giacomo after taking a deep breath.

A difficult choice

Giacomo returned home, only to find a priest from San Giovanni Church waiting for him. "Cardinal Mazzelli wants to know if you accept the commission for the Garden of Eden mosaic," inquired the priest. "Otherwise, the money will be used to make repairs in the apse."

That night, Giacomo had a long discussion with Simonetta. Their first child was on the way, and
Napoleon's offer was twenty times higher than Cardinal Mazelli's. "Take the Emperor's commission, Giacomo," concluded Simonetta. "You will have other opportunities later to do the Garden of Eden."

Giacomo knew that Simonetta was lying, but he loved her so much. What if he never had another chance to prove himself as an artist? What if he consumed his life making silly decorations and reproducing other artists' works? He spent the night contemplating his Garden of Eden drawings, but in the morning, he accepted Napoleon's commission.

The mosaic at the Minoriten Church in Vienna made Giacomo Raffaelli a rich man. He lived comfortably for another twenty-six years, and had five children with Simonetta.

In our days, the mosaic reproducing Leonardo DaVinci's Last Supper can still be admired in Vienna, although its colours have somewhat faded. Since it is just a copy of another artist's painting, it has never attracted large crowds. In fact, most people living in Vienna don't even know it exists.

Giacomo Raffaelli never got another opportunity to carry out his Garden of Eden project. When Giacomo died, the project remained undone. Most likely, it will never be done. The preparatory drawings for the Garden of Eden project were purchased by a collector in 1838 and, still today, they remain in private hands. Those who have seen the drawings say that they are astonishingly beautiful.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2018.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books   

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Here are the links to three audio interviews recently published:

Tuesday, 28 August 2018

Why clear, rational preferences are essential to achieving and keeping happiness

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How would you rate your current level of happiness? If you are already experiencing the highest levels of personal satisfaction, let me congratulate you. Fact is that most people aren't. My next questions is slightly more sensitive. If you were to assume for yourself a life expectancy of 90 years, at what level of happiness are you aiming to spend the rest of your life?

Individuals who are already having a great life tend to worry about how they are going to maintain their happiness in the coming decades. In contrast, people who are rating themselves as unhappy tend to hope for a better future. The crucial question for them, of course, is how to make their dreams come true.

In any case, if achieving and keeping happiness is a long shot, it pays to aim as close as you can. How can you make sure that you are moving in the right direction? Through the years, the following three principles have helped me sharpen my focus. They may be of interest to you.

1. Clear preferences make happiness more easily attainable

People have different ideas of what it means to be happy, but this does not mean that random events possess the capacity to improve your life. More often than not, random factors will only create confusion and irritation.

Happiness is composed of specific experiences that human beings desire to have. Well-being is a positive event, something that we really wish to experience, and keep experiencing. It is a place where we want to be, and a place where we want to stay.

In this respect, I strongly encourage you to draw a detailed picture of your ambitions, so that the picture can serve you as compass while you are walking through life day after day. The sharper your picture, the better decisions you will make, and the faster you'll move in the right direction.

2. Happiness involves the avoidance of undesirable events

At the very minimum, happiness demands the postponement of death for as long as possible. What other negative elements do you need to keep away in order to stay happy? Make the list as long as you need. Pain and sickness should be amongst the first things to avert. The same goes, for most people, for poverty and discomfort.

Your compilation of negatives won't be complete until you have added names of particular individuals, or at least, identified which types of persons you dislike. The purpose of this exercise is to make you conscious of which elements you consider incompatible with happiness.

Few people are actually aware of everything they dislike. Beyond trivialities ("I don't like to eat boiled vegetables"), they won't be able to name the type of environment, physical and psychological, that they rather avoid. Again, the sharper the picture in your mind, the better you will become at steering away from unpleasant things, places and people.

3. Happiness requires a strong sense of direction

This third aspect is often overlooked. Lacking a sense of direction is the equivalent of trusting luck to make you happy. Random events might occasionally make you happy, but most of the time, they won't. If you don't know where you are going, if you don't know what you want from life, you will inevitably feel lost, vulnerable, and confused.

Clarity of purpose gives individuals targets to achieve and paths to follow. The human mind, our ability to think logically, is preeminently teleological ("teleo" means "goal" in Greek). We feel, think and act on the basis of goals that we give ourselves, on the basis of a sense of direction that we develop through experience.

Steps taken in the right direction are likely to improve the quality of your experiences, at least in the long term. Your life should flow towards your objectives, even if those objectives are as imprecise as "I like doing this" or "this is the kind of place I want to live in." Steer your days accordingly, so that you pursue specific or semi-specific goals, while at the same time, you keep negative events at bay.

Whatever your present situation, achieving and keeping a better future is going to involve steady work. Most people are able to motivate themselves for a short while, but they are quick to give up when they meet the first difficulties. Don't be one of those who can only motivate themselves for very short periods.

Draw a sharp picture of your future, as sharp as you can, and let that vision provide you with a clear, strong, steady sense of direction. Only consistent, rational ambitions can sustain the long-term motivation that allows individuals to reach the highest level of happiness.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2018.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books   

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Here are the links to two audio interviews recently published:

Wednesday, 8 August 2018

How to face a painful loss without giving up hope for the future

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No matter how hard you work or how motivated you are, bad luck is going to hit you sooner or later. Maybe someone acting negligently or mistakenly will cause your misfortune. Maybe you will become a victim of a shift in the economy, or of some random accident. Adversity just happens.

It is not easy to recover your peace of mind when life has turned dramatically for the worse. Difficult periods will test the validity of your philosophy, and rightly so. Can your convictions help you regain serenity? Are you able to face a painful loss without giving up hope for the future?

Some psychologists recommend groundless optimism as an emotional defence against adversity. If you try out their recommendation, you will see that it doesn't work for long. In fact, you will only be wasting your time.

The human mind, for as long as it remains healthy, cannot sustain beliefs that are not anchored in reality. Self-manipulation, instead of creating joy, will only lead to bitterness, errors and confusion. Stay way from fabricated emotions.

The first step

What is the first step to improve your mood when the world seems to be falling apart? My recommendation is that you should focus on reality, and on reality only. Forget about empty positivity and gratuitous cheers because they won't do you any good.

What you need to do is to look hard at your problems, analyse and measure them. In order to recover, you first need to assess the damage, and take inventory of what you have left. An analysis of your situation should allow you to identify the real trouble, the real cause behind the adversity that has hit you. The problem might be as easily to identify as some common sickness, or the loss of a job. Or it could be an exploitative relationship or a wrong career, factors that are not so easy to detect.

Whatever the affliction, it is essential that you separate the actual problem from your emotional reaction. You worrying about bankruptcy is not the same as bankruptcy itself. Make an effort to distinguish the facts from the folklore around the facts. Unless you are in jail still for a long time, or suffering from terminal illness, you can turn around most situations. Yet, you first have to size up the problem in its real proportions.

You have to stay real, reasonable, objective. Human beings possess an innate inclination to exaggerate misfortunes. Such exaggerations will frequently grow to a ridiculous extent. Our emotions, if left unchecked, will automatically magnify our problems.

The rational response

The rational response to adversity begins with reducing difficulties to their actual size. Do not be overwhelmed by seemingly unavoidable catastrophes that might occur in the future. If you can predict a problem, chances are you can do something to solve it, or at least minimize it. Force yourself to drop exaggerated concerns, so that you can concentrate exclusively on the issues at hand.

Severe sickness is destructive and unpleasant, but you might still have many years left to enjoy life. A loss of employment or reputation will reduce your current income, but nothing prevents you from giving your career a new direction. There are countless options you can explore to rebuild your finances, reputation, and social life.

To recover your peace of mind, you don't need to become artificially optimistic. What you need to do is gain true perspective. Rationality is the path to serenity, recovery, and happiness. Can you appraise your concerns realistically, look at the next decades, and muster enough strength to shrug your shoulders? Try to say "so what?" and mean it. Chances are that you still have plenty of time to do great things in life, enjoy your days, and thrive in your chosen career. Once you get rid of exaggerated emotions, you are on your way.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books   

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Here are the links to five audio interviews recently published:

Monday, 23 July 2018

A cure for pessimism -- Why you should practise Aristotle's advice every day

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More often than not, the desire to achieve ambitious goals immediately and easily is going to prove unrealistic. Important things, such as building your career, investments and personal relationships, demand substantial time and effort.

If you are feeling stressed because of your slow progress, remind yourself that it makes no sense to put pressure on the wrong places. Some things in life take as long as they take. The process of reaching ambitious goals is to be enjoyed day by day, not viewed as a waste of time.

Substantial skills, like learning a foreign language, require months or years of effort. Yet, the investment in effort, time and energy to pursue long-term goals is worth it. In life, you have plenty of time to find your own way. If you think that this is not the case, you may want to check your priorities.

"Some talents are innate, but others can only be acquired through practise," wrote Aristotle in twenty-five centuries ago. "The movement of animals is governed by the law of cause and effect, but the essential characteristic of human beings, rationality, can only be developed by choice." Are you aware of your choices and priorities? Are those rational and well-aligned with each other?

Slow progress

Rationality and alignment, personal or societal, should not be taken for granted. Centuries of decay followed the fall of the Roman Empire. For generations, fear replaced rational discourse as the primary means of human interaction. In many fields, knowledge remained inaccessible to the great majority of the population. As a result, life expectancy dramatically decreased.

Conditions only improved in the thirteenth century. The transition from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance opened a wide range of opportunities for talented individuals. Towns attracted tradesmen and merchants, who manufactured utensils, made clothes, and built houses.

In Italian cities, like Florence and Venice, the wealth created by entrepreneurs created a market for artists.
In the time of the great Renaissance artists, such as Botticelli and Michelangelo, upward social mobility became possible for an important segment of the population.

Problems and obstacles

In our days, despite problems and obstacles, our opportunities for personal development have multiplied to the extent that they are practically endless, making it easier for all of us to explore our fields of interest, grow in knowledge and skills, and find our own path.

Millions of men and women are now enjoying levels of prosperity that would have been unthinkable for the wealthiest prince in the Middle Ages. The Internet and global markets are opening new opportunities to entrepreneurship. We are living in a period of economic growth that offers countless opportunities for each person to build a better future for himself.

Ours is the century of the empowered individual. We inhabit a world where businesses can be started with negligible upfront investment, where innumerable doors are open to personal initiative, giving us plenty of opportunities to find our own way to success and happiness.

A cure for pessimism 

If you feel short-changed in any way, make a pause and look at things with perspective. If you are lucky enough to live in an industrialised country, you will not lack chances for personal development.

In moments of pessimism, remind yourself that digital media are decreasing our educational costs, that thousands of job openings are available on line, that inexpensive software apps are making our lives easier, and that the cost of starting a business remains low in many jurisdictions. Chances are that you have more opportunities than you think.

"Materials and substances are not enough to produce change," observed Aristotle. "The fact that something can be transformed, does not mean that it will. Without activity, there is no motion." 

Let us devote our days to staying in motion in the direction of our choice. Let us transform the assets and skills we have into something more valuable. Let us seize the opportunities, and turn ourselves into a motor of change.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2018.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books 

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here is the link to an audio interview just published:

Saturday, 7 July 2018

What should I do with my life? That's a question young people ask themselves all the time

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What should I do with my life? That's a question young people ask themselves all the time, especially when they have to choose a career. Adults will also ask themselves a similar question when they are considering embarking on a new career, starting their own business, or moving to a new city or country.

If you adopt a rational philosophy, the answer is straightforward. It does not matter much where you start your new career, business, friendships or relationships. What matters is the overall sense of direction, the overall motivation and drive. Let those define the details, so that you only have to worry about the great lines.

By all means, do not be afraid of selecting a demanding career as long as you stay away from narrow, negligible markets. What you want is a career, business, and social relationships that lead you to crowded markets, to places where there are plenty of new potential customers, investors, business partners, and friends.

As long as you avoid minuscule markets, you will do well if you operate rationally, that is, with steady persistence and motivation. This is why, before embarking on a long-term venture, you should make a pause, and assess how your project relates to the eight fundamental human needs. Here is a check list you can use. If you stay centrally or marginally within these eight markets, chances are that you will do very well.

1. Food: The objectives of new food technologies are to increase productivity, quantity, quality, and speed of delivery. Can you build your new career or business in this area? Population growth, in particular in developing countries, is requiring higher agricultural outputs at lower costs. In addition, consumers in industrialised countries are demanding higher quality. Research and development efforts in the food industry are focused not only on production, but also on distribution. Improved packaging and logistics are as important as improved agricultural techniques. Still today, large amounts of food are ruined during transportation and storage. If you can find a way to earn a living in any of those market segments, you can develop a successful career decade after decade.

2. Health services: In addition to the development of new patentable drugs, massive efforts are being devoted to improving hospital management. Pilot projects carried out in the last decade have shown that a better organisation of resources can slash patients' waiting time and hospitals' operational costs. Even if you are not a physician or scientists, there are plenty of opportunity to earn a living in health-related industries. Human beings will always be willing to pay good money to live longer and stay healthier. If you choose to develop a career in this area, you can also profit from low-cost training opportunities on-line.

3. Housing: The last decade has led to overbuilding in some countries. At the time of this writing, you can still acquire houses for a low price in some areas of Greece and Uruguay, just to name two examples. Thus new construction should concentrate on the most profitable segments of the market. Pre-manufactured housing is still underdeveloped in many countries, and can be expected to grow in our century. Without having to be an architect or engineer, there are plenty of opportunities to make a living in the housing market. I know personally some people who are earning high incomes as real estate agents just because they have chosen to work in hot housing markets. Will you consider relocation, so that you can also profit from high-growth career opportunities?

4. Clothing: The internet has changed how the fashion industry operates. The separation of design and production is bound to accelerate during the next decades with an emphasis on increased speed. It is conceivable that, very soon, the time that elapses from design to consumer purchase is reduced to a few days. If you feel affinity for fashion, colours, and human relationships, you may feel at home in the rag trade. Fortunes continue to be made by opening chain shops that appeal to a particular segment of the market. As the population grows wealthier, individuals are willing to pay more for clothes that fit their individual style and size, and clothes that incorporate the reliability of high-quality brands. Either in design, production o sales, opportunities are virtually limitless.

5. Communication and transportation: Ubiquitous internet access will continue to affect how we work, drive, and communicate. The capabilities of mobile phones are already surpassing those of laptop computers, improving our productivity and quality of life. Whether you want to design apps for mobile phones, or earn a living in anything related to transportation, hotels, holidays or event organisation, you will need persistence and imagination. Theme hotels are becoming hot because people are willing to pay more for unique experiences. The same goes for special theme holidays. If you like travelling or communications, you can find a niche in this huge market, even if you are not a engineer or software developer.

6. Culture and entertainment: Better digital audio and video technology will continue to increase the world's cultural output. Our century is already multiplying the world's choice in films, songs, books, and podcasts. What we have seen during the last decade is just the beginning. If you have any kind of creative urge, this might be the perfect market for you. You no longer need a large company behind you (such as a large record company) to launch your career as musician or entertainer. The market grows every year, and will continue to grow exponentially. Once people have covered their basic needs, they are more than willing to devote a good part of their income to entertainment. Will you take advantage of this major trend?

7. Financial services: The gap between professional and personal money management continues to diminish year after year. The quality and speed of financial information should increase further in the next years. Improved trading platforms on the internet are opening additional market segments to individual investors, leading to more transparency, and reducing their investment risk. If you have been investing for years for your private needs, will you consider doing that professionally. Money-management has become a global business. Once you have acquired the necessary skills, it does not really matter where you live in London, Paris, Frankfurt, New York, Shanghai, or anywhere else. If you have a quiet, analytic personality, money-management might be the perfect business for you, the perfect environment in which to build your career.

8. Legal and protection services: Pre-paid legal plans and litigation insurance, which have become successful in some countries, will continue to expand in the next decades. Conflict-resolution services should also experience growth in our century, since more companies are discovering the effectiveness of mediation and arbitration in commercial disputes. Protection and security markets are also growing exponentially, not only in terms of services, but also in terms of products, often composed of hardware and software. Even if you are not a lawyer, this market offers limitless opportunities to develop products and services, also with the advantage that those can be easily (with minor adaptations) rolled out in different countries and languages.

Irrespective of your choice of business or profession, those eight markets will determine your future. In fact, there is very little else in terms of large markets outside those eight areas. Our desires will always revolve around those eight domains because they meet the principal needs of what it means to be human. Those eight markets can be improved and enhanced, but they cannot be ignored. If you are about to choose a new career or business, make sure that you stay within those eight crowded markets.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2018.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books 

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here is the link to an audio interview just published: