Thursday, 16 January 2020

Finding peace of mind in difficult times: the daily practice of serenity and common sense

The 16th century was a period of extraordinary conflict and violence. Disputes about religion and territory had divided the population in factions that engaged in continuous war, persecution and torture. Luckily, not everybody fell prey to the dominant ideas of the time. A few good men have taught us lessons we should strive to keep always in mind.

The French writer Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) is one of the most interesting personalities of that period. We would probably have never heard of him if he had been more successful in his original profession, or I should rather say, if he had attempted to become more successful.

After learning Latin (the most widespread language in sixteenth-century Europe) and receiving some basic training in jurisprudence, Montaigne spent a decade working as a public official in the legislative council and courts of justice in southern France.

Subsequently, Montaigne moved to Paris to pursue better employment opportunities, but after a while, he realised that he had made a mistake, a large one. His natural aversion to lying, flattery and pretence was in fact making him unsuitable for working as a public official in the centre of power. He just could not stomach the kind of tasks he had to accomplish because he was clever and sensitive enough to see the consequences.

A radical change of lifestyle

Montaigne did not last long in Paris. He had intended to further his career as a public official, only to realise that he was in the wrong place, that he had no desire to keep working in that field. Thus when he turned thirty-eight, he did something that none of his friends or family members was expecting: he gathered his savings, quit his job, and abandoned his profession altogether. He had grown totally and completely fed up with his lifestyle.

After handing in his resignation, Montaigne purchased a small farm in the south of France, and retired to lead a modest and quiet life. As he traversed the countryside on his way from Paris to the farm, he could see the damage, personal and material, arising from the religious conflicts that were devastating France. In the name of God, people of different Christian denomination were slaughtering each other.

Montaigne's life and writings revolve around peace of mind, specifically, about how to maintain your serenity in times of widespread conflict. The lessons you can learn from reading Montaigne's biography will find immediate application today in the twenty-first century, when millions of people can barely sleep at night due to worry, anxiety and stress of all sorts.

What followed during the next fifteen years after Montaigne's retirement was a memorable attempt at living according to nature, at practising serenity and common sense every single day. Every morning, Montaigne would devote the necessary efforts to his farming activities, not with the purpose of expanding his wealth, but simply to ensure his own subsistence and that of his family.

For the rest of the day, Montaigne had set himself the goal of reflecting about the good life and writing down his thoughts as he went along. Surrounded by books he had accumulated in previous decades, he wrote every evening during his forties and early fifties. If you write four pages a day, as he seemed to have done, you will soon produce enough material for several books.

The key to prosperity

While his neighbours in southern France were taking sides excitedly in favour of one religious faction or another, Montaigne always called for moderation. Day in and day out, he kept pleading for peace and recommending tolerance as the key elements for ensuring prosperity. Without tolerance of other people's ideas, there is no way to maintain human dignity. Live yourself and let other people live as they please. Do your own thing and do not interfere in how other people choose to live their lives.

Prudence, tolerance and moderation constitute the key messages of Montaigne's philosophy. He wrote more than a thousand pages, one essay after another, which he then published himself in compilations. Through the years, he kept correcting and editing his essays further until he was happy with the result.

The principles of common sense and learning from experience permeate Montaigne's writings. Since the 16th century, other thinkers have also tried to formulate the principles of the good life, but few equal Montaigne's erudition and literary skills. For those who, in the twenty-first century, are seeking to live in accordance with nature, Montaigne's essays are still a delight to read.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here are the links to three audio interviews just published:
  1. John Vespasian interviewed by Jackie Pick on "The Jackie Daily Show" about how highly-effective pople deal with disruptions.
  2. John Vespasian interviewed by Geoff Currier on "The Geoff Currier Show" about rational living.
  3. John Vespasian interviewed by Rodney Mathers on "Journey of Hope" about how highly-effective pople deal with disruptions.

Tuesday, 17 December 2019

Say goobye to insomnia: The rational approach to sound sleep every night of the week

Sleeping pills have become an everyday accessory in modern society. In Europe or America, Asia or the Middle East, rare is the bathroom closet that does not contain some pharmaceutical product to induce slumber. The solution has become so commonplace that few dare to question it any more.

How did we arrive at such widespread social acceptance of chemical dependence? Certainly not because sleeping pills are providing a fully satisfactory solution to the problem. If given a choice, the great majority of insomniacs would prefer to address their condition without chemical substances.

Sleep difficulties, like any other problem, can be treated by addressing its cause or its symptoms. Herbs and pharmaceuticals are focusing on the symptoms of insomnia. Their goal is to replace the natural process of falling asleep by chemically-induced slumber that will last a few hours.

Addressing the cause of insomnia is a much more demanding undertaking, since it is going to require introspection and commitment to personal growth.

The most common causes of insomnia

Contrary to what you might have heard, most people have little trouble figuring out why they cannot sleep well. Leaving aside environmental aspects such as noise or an uncomfortable bed, these are the four most common causes of insomnia:
  1. An unpleasant job: An occupation that is too boring or too demanding, that demands long hours, involves high risk of redundancy, excessive fatigue, continuous travel, aggressive supervisors, nasty colleagues, a low salary, poor prospects for the future, and so on.
  2. Financial worries: Excessive debt, investment losses, imminent mortgage foreclosure, risk of bankruptcy, difficulties to collect from debtors, negative cash flow, being involved in litigation, or simply being poor.
  3. Family or personal conflicts: Those could arise from a spouse with antagonistic interests, betrayal, exploitation or abandonment, dealing with hostility or discrimination, social isolation, or lack of friends who share the same values.
  4. Health problems: No wonder that people will encounter sleep difficulties if they are facing heart surgery, awaiting results of critical tests, getting weak as they grow old, suffering from debilitating illness or invalidity, being extreme overweight or underweight, and any other serious medical condition.

At any given time, you might be going through one or several of the above-mentioned situations. Since problems tend to compound with amazing speed, you will never lack excuses to resort to sleeping pills. Nevertheless, in each case, you will be better off by using philosophy to achieve serenity.

Is there a remedy for insomnia?

The antidote to insomnia is peace of mind. No other alternative can address successfully the cause of sleep difficulties. All other options have failed. Serenity is the only one that works. What is the process of acquiring and maintaining peace of mind? Which steps should you take?

Eliminating anxiety and stress permanently is equivalent to modifying the structure of a house. You can only carry out such fundamental change if you proceed carefully and little by little. If done properly, the change should not weaken the building. After the change, the resulting edifice will offer a safer environment to live and rest.

Dozens of self-help books are proposing auto-suggestion as the key to achieving success in life, but if you try it out, you will see that it does not work for long. Self-delusion is unsustainable and will not put an end to insomnia. Sleeping well is a direct consequence of achieving peace of mind, which must come from truthful thinking and consistent action.

The best way to attain serenity

For this reason, I submit that the best way to attain serenity and have a sound sleep at night comprises five elements:
  • Identify your most important problem and write it down.
  • Find out who has solved a similar problem satisfactorily and how he did it.
  • Study the solution, adapt it to your life, and make a detailed plan.
  • Start implementing the plan right away by taking the first step.
  • Keep walking the path, and remind yourself daily that you are on the right track to a better life.
Let me illustrate the process with an example. Imagine an individual who has been recently diagnosed with cancer. Doctors have told him that his illness is still at an early stage. He has sufficient time to explore different treatments, and good prospects of recovery. Nonetheless, upon hearing the news, his anxiety mounts and he has difficulties to sleep at night.

For the concerned person, the situation leaves little doubt about what the most important problem is. Taking sleeping pills, assuming that they are not contraindicated for cancer, may help him get a few hours of rest, but will not reduce his preoccupation during the time he is awake.

A rational approach to peace of mind

The rational approach starts with gathering information about available treatments, reading success stories, and if at all possible, talking to some people who have recovered. As soon as a troubled person has chosen a path of action with reasonable chances of success, he will begin to turn his worry into hope.

As he learns more details about possible treatments, he will shape a plan to recover his health. After gathering the necessary information, he will know what to do, for how long, and the results he can expect. He will envisage real improvement and his mood will improve. His positive anticipations (based on a feasible plan) will increase his self-confidence.

The formula against insomnia is crystal clear: Make a solid plan, implement it day after day, track your results, and make adjustments as necessary. You will be equipped with higher levels of self-reliance, with self-confidence benefiting all areas of your life. The feeling of certainty, of knowing where you are going, will reduce your stress, and naturally help you rest better at night without any sleeping pills.

Does it sound difficult? No wonder, because few endeavours are as demanding as changing the fundamental patterns of your life. If you want to achieve victory over insomnia without resorting to sleeping pills, I am afraid you will have to face effectively the key problems in your life, whether those are of medical, financial, or other nature. May your success be quick and uncontested so that, after a while, you will recall your temporary insomnia as just another milestone in your personal growth.


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here are the links to several audio interviews just published:
  1. John Vespasian interviewed by Brian Price, Jennifer Gligoric and Tammy Geerling on "Leafy Podcast" about how highly-effective pople deal with disruptions.
  2. John Vespasian interviewed by Mike Wagner on "The Mike Wagner Show" about rational living.
  3. John Vespasian interviewed by Anthony Smith on "Changing World" about rational living.
  4. John Vespasian interviewed by Asyraaf Fero on "Focus on Winning" about becoming extraordinarily self-confident. Part 1 of 3.
  5. John Vespasian interviewed by Asyraaf Fero on "Focus on Winning" about becoming extraordinarily self-confident. Part 2 of 3.
  6. John Vespasian interviewed by Asyraaf Fero on "Focus on Winning" about becoming extraordinarily self-confident. Part 3 of 3. 

Tuesday, 12 November 2019

There is no way to improve your life. Change is impossible. Or maybe not.

Millions of people spend their days trying to convince themselves that change is impossible. They feel trapped in their profession, job, spouse, friendships, and financial obligations. The feel constrained to the extent that any attempt at improving their situation seems doomed to fail. While they remain passive, life is passing them by. Eventually, they give up all hope of amelioration.

There are many reasons that explain why someone will experience the feeling of being totally driven by external events, but those reasons are not going to hold water for long. Pressures will come and go, but you can keep moving forward if you possess a strong sense of direction. You will change for the better if you know what you want. You will get things done if you keep pursuing your objectives persistently and realistically.

If you look around, you can find a million justifications for doing nothing. A million justifications for defeatism and immobility. However, those justifications will not resist a close scrutiny. Once you start taking steps in the right direction, you will see those justifications fall apart quickly and irreversibly. Do not let them make you feel powerless.

Thirteen examples from real life

The truth is that, every year, thousands of people are undertaking to change their lives profoundly. Changes can be tangential or fundamental, low-risk or decisive, reluctant or resolute. What really counts is that you have taken decisions and are carrying them out. Once you start walking, you can go a long way.

Difficult or not, individuals will do what they have to do if they are convinced that it's their best option. Here are some examples of changes that people are undertaking in order to improve their lives:

  1. Sell their house in the city, move to a village, and build up a whole new existence there. Or move to live on the coast. Or in the mountains. Or in a different country.
  2. Drop out of their current circle of friends from one day to the next, and seek out new friends with values and interests more aligned to theirs.
  3. Go through their kitchen, throw away unhealthy food, and commit to purchasing exclusively wholesome items in the future. No more excessive calories. No more junk food.
  4. Look for a job in a field unconnected to their previous experience, just because they feel fascinated by that field. Do not listen to naysayers who are trying to keep you immobilised.
  5. Buy a bicycle and ride it every day for an hour. Do not listen to those who are telling you that it's so difficult to find time to exercise. Block out the necessary time. Do it every day. Turn exercising into a routine you cannot do without.
  6. Unplug their television set, give it away, and never spend another minute watching TV shows. You will draw much more from life if you allocate your time judiciously. Do not waste your evenings and weekends on mindless entertaining.
  7. Learn a foreign language and find a job in another continent, in a city where you don't know anybody. The experience can massively increase your self-assurance, professional success, and happiness level.
  8. Cancel their affiliation to an organisation that has been part of their lives for decades, and cut their links with former associates. If you want to build a new life, you will first have to clean the desk. You will first have to through the ballast overboard.
  9. Sell their possessions (including also their car), move to a tax heaven, and change their nationality. Read stories of people who have done so. The phenomenon is more common than you would have thought. Low-tax and low-cost countries are more numerous than you would have considered.
  10. Throw away all tobacco and alcohol at home, and never purchase or consume those again. No more hard liquor. Goodbye to an unhealthy lifestyle.
  11. Start up their own business during evenings and weekends, while keeping their present job. Grow their business until the earnings will allow them to quit their job.
  12. Read about nutrition, learn to cook healthy food, and lose the excessive weight they had accumulated over the years.
  13. Tell their spouse that they want a divorce, move to another place, and start building a new life.
These cases are not as rare as you may think. People who are embracing major personal changes come from all walks of life. Middle-aged or old, male or female, they will hesitate long until, one day, they make the big decision.

Their determination to take a new road will frequently antagonise their family and friends, but so what? In order to change your life and improve your future, you will first have to escape other people's expectations of immobility.

How to gather the necessary courage

It takes lots of determination to embark on this sort of journey. More often than not, what prompts individuals to change their lives is the realisation that their time on earth is limited. Such a realisation may happen suddenly as a result of major illness, or little by little, when people have progressively outgrown previous constraints.

When was the last time you revised your long-term objectives? What aspects of your life do you wish to improve in the next five years? Taking a few days off to reflect might be all you need to get started.

It's high time to step out of unsatisfactory routines. It's high time to embark on major changes and take unconventional paths. Once you make the decision, you are on your way. Let me wish you a successful (although not necessarily smooth) transition.


Image: Photograph of ancient sculptures. 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

Saturday, 5 October 2019

Factors that contribute to career success: Why excessive prudence and modesty are fundamentally wrong

Studies have identified many factors that contribute to career success, but so far, nobody has been able to build a convincing model to predict an individual's future, or how much happiness a certain profession will bring him. In case of doubt, people opt for safe choices. This is why you will seldom hear career counsellors recommend professions that may lead to unemployment.

Routine advice aims at achieving social insertion. Risk is regarded as a problem, safety as the solution. Of course, career recommendations based on conformity are never going to inspire students to become daring adventurers, artists or innovators. The problem though is that fearful advice is going to prove wrong more often than not. In times when markets are demanding creativity at all levels, excessive prudence and modesty are fundamentally wrong. In fact, I suspect they are wrong in all circumstances. Let me tell you a story that drives my point home.

In the year 1820, the acclaimed sculptor Bertel Thorvaldsen travelled from Rome back to his native city, Copenhagen in Denmark. Thorvaldsen was then fifty years old and at the pinnacle of his fame. During his stay in Copenhagen, he talked to many aspiring artists, giving them generous advice and encouragement.

When Thorvaldsen returned to his hotel one night after a reception in his honour, he was told that a boy had been waiting for him all day. Intrigued, Thorvaldsen looked around the hotel hall, and found a poorly dressed kid asleep on a chair.

He walked up to the boy, shook his arm gently, and whispered to him: "It's late, kid, go home." Startled, the boy opened his eyes and jumped to his feet. "I was waiting for you, Herr Thorvaldsen. I have been waiting for you all day."

That must true, thought Thorvaldsen, since the boy looked so exhausted and hungry that it was pitiful to see him. "I wanted to ask you for advice on my career," the kid went on. "I cannot decide whether I should become a novelist or a poet."

Out of compassion, Thorvaldsen ordered a glass of warm milk for the boy and listened to his story. It was a heartbreaking tale. When the boy turned ten, he had lost the striking voice that had earned him praise and a small income as a singer in his home town. As of that day, he had joined the thousands of unemployed teenagers that roamed the streets of Copenhagen.

"This is why I have thought of becoming a writer," the boy explained shyly, taking three ruffled pages out of his pocket and handing them over to Thorvaldsen. Strangely enough, the idea of asking a sculptor for literary advice seemed to fit the boy's pathetic situation.

Thorvaldsen devoted a few minutes to reading the text, and was appalled to see that it contained dozens of grammar and spelling mistakes. It was obvious that the boy had no chance of becoming a writer. Even if it was cruel, it was better to tell him the truth right away, so that he could at least learn some trade.

"What is your name?" asked Thorvaldsen, giving him back the pages. "Hans-Christian," replied the boy full of hope. "Hans-Christian Andersen." A silence ensued, as Thorvaldsen searched for the least hurtful way to express his judgement.

Thorvaldsen stared at Hans-Christian Andersen for a long while as he remembered his own ambitions as a young man, many years ago, but of course, his situation had been completely different. Thorvaldsen took a deep breath and shook his head. "Look, Hans-Christian," he began, "I don't know how to tell you this."

At that moment, Andersen nodded and gave the sculptor a crazy smile. That was what he had been waiting for. He was about to hear the words of encouragement that he needed so badly. He was sure that an artist of the calibre of Thorvaldsen would be immediately able to recognize his talent, and point him in the right direction.

"What do you think, Herr Thorvaldsen, should I become a novelist or a poet?" he asked again, this time full of confidence. Fascinated, Thorvaldsen looked at the boy's bright eyes, and realized how foolish he had been. "I have no doubt, Hans-Christian," he answered softly, "that you will become both."


Image: Photograph of classical painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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

Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter

Here are the links to two audio interviews just published:

Sunday, 1 September 2019

Everything faster, everything better: Three productivity techniques you can use in everyday life

Human beings have an innate tendency towards efficiency. The pursuit of maximum output with minimum effort is in our genes. Even children, as soon as they can verbalise their thoughts, begin to demand better results. They will progressively evolve from the passivity of babies to the search of short-term benefits typical of adolescents. Yet, their search will not stop there. As they become adults, they will start to think long-term, that is, if they really become adults.

Unfortunately, techniques that deliver good results in certain environments can lead to poor outcomes elsewhere. We steadily try to improve things, get more beneficial outcomes with less effort, but it's difficult to identify universal prescriptions enabling us to do everything faster, everything better.

Once we reach adulthood, most of our attempts to improve performance will take place in the realm of work. Industrial management researchers have been studying successful companies since the nineteen fifties, trying to identify the keys to outstanding performance. We can profit greatly from the conclusions have they drawn if we turn them into habits, if we grow alert to opportunities to work faster, consume fewer resources, and achieve our objectives with less effort.

The problem with the main three recommendations in the field of productivity is that they are not easy to integrate. At first sight, the may even seem contradictory. It takes substantial effort to implement them consistently in your work and private life, but if you do so, you can draw immense benefits.

Few individuals possess the self-discipline to perform a little bit better each day, not only in their profession, but in all areas. I am talking about cleaning your home faster, cooking healthier food more efficiently, getting in shape with less effort, and so on. Let's take a look the three main lessons from productivity studies, and see how to implement them in everyday life.

No more bottlenecks

First recommendation, the removal of bottlenecks. This is the most basic recommendation to enhance your productivity. When something is not going well, you need to identify the obstacle and remove it. When a process is operating slowly, you need to figure out which step is critically slowing down the whole chain.

It is rarely self-evident or easy to find the key issue. In fact, most people will not even bother to look for it. They will complain about difficulties and delays without really understanding the problem. If you find the bottleneck and remove it, you will achieve immediate improvements, but then of course, another bottleneck will arise elsewhere. Improvement never ends. Productivity can always be increased. You can keep making your results better in all areas, day after day, year after year.

Fewer mistakes

Second recommendation, doing similar tasks together, in batch form, so that you can perform them faster and commit fewer errors. Manufacturers have adopted this approach a long time ago. As long as the demand is roughly stable, they can keep producing similar items in batch form, using the same materials and manufacturing processes. In your everyday life, you can adopt this technique for instance for answering emails. Instead of checking your email in-box randomly during the day, it's more efficient to do it once or twice a day, at a fixed hour, and handle all incoming messages together.

Jumping from task to task is usually a bad idea. If you check your email in-box twenty times a day at irregular intervals, you will inevitably spend extra time reading and filing messages, typing answers and wondering what to do next. It is much more efficient to perform similar tasks together. The same goes for cleaning the house, cooking, ironing, washing your car, doing exercise, or whatever other tasks men and women do regularly. Do not spread your attention and energies too thin. Concentrate your efforts on similar tasks, and get them done quickly and flawlessly.

Less stress

Third recommendation, carry out activities in a continuous flow, that is, with a minimum of interruptions. Try to reduce dead time between tasks, wasted efforts caused by disruptions. Truth be told, it is difficult to achieve continuous flow in any kind of process, industrial or professional, let alone in activities of private nature. However, continuous flow can deliver massive gains in quality, increased serenity, and cost reduction. It obviously requires a lot of planning, a lot of forward thinking, but the payoff can be gigantic.

The opposite of continuous flow is "chasing" items, that is, breaking your tasks abruptly or putting them on hold because you have to chase some missing item, some missing input or missing instruction. People who fail to think ahead will spend huge efforts chasing missing items. That's a complete waste of time, but one that cannot be removed through improvisation.

The more you chase, the more stressed you'll get, but are you willing to make the effort of organising your activities today, so that you will achieve continuous flow in the future? Imagine if you could perform your work each day without having to chase missing items. Imagine if you could cook your meals easily because you have all ingredients at hand. Or if you could always rely on your car because you have performed preventive maintenance at regular intervals.

I always tell people to start by removing the bottlenecks on their way because the improvements will be immediately noticeable. It will seem like magic. You just remove one bottleneck, and you'll enjoy the benefits right away. Working in batch form requires more time investment, and the improvements won't be visible so quickly, even if they prove large. However, if you do want to become highly productive in all areas, you should pursue a lifestyle of continuous flow. It will not only bring you better results, but also increased happiness.


Image: Photograph of ancient Egyptian painting. Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2019.

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: