Saturday, 15 December 2018

Christmas, a time to slow down in order to advance faster

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"You are a strange man, Ludovico," complained Alessandra Benucci. "You say that you love me, but you care as little for me as you do for your career." Ludovico Ariosto looked out of the window and did not reply immediately.

His new job as governor of Lucca was difficult and his salary meagre, but the beauty of Tuscany never ceased to astonish him every time he looked outside. "Sometimes, you have to slow down to prepare yourself for a long run," answered Ludovico, shrugging his shoulders. "Anyway, at this moment, this was the only job I could find."

"But you promised that we would get married soon," went on Alessandra, walking up to him and setting her hand on his shoulder. It was June of 1516 and, in three months, Ludovico would be forty-two years old. He turned around to face Alessandra and saw his promises reflected in her eyes.

"I am just asking you to have a little patience, my love," he said, taking in a deep breath. "We will be married as soon as I have saved enough money to lead a proper life." How often had he tried to explain that to her? A hundred, a thousand times? It didn't matter.

Ludovico had changed jobs often, always moving forward, working endless days only to be able to devote the nights to his passion. After years of efforts, he had just completed his poem "Orlando Furioso," although he was still planning to make some revisions.

"You should just let it stand as it is now, Ludovico," exhorted Alessandra. "Your poem is more than good, it is even more than wonderful! It is high time for you to publish it and work on something else. Why don't you write a comedy to please the Bishop? Or a song dedicated to the Duke?"

During the following eight years, Ludovico saved as much money as he could from his salary. Shortly after his fiftieth birthday, he fulfilled his promise and married Alessandra. The couple purchased a small farm near Ferrara, and retired to live there.

When Ludovico Ariosto published his poem "Orlando Furioso," only eighty six copies were printed. During his retirement in Ferrara, he never stopped revising the poem. It is believed that he rewrote parts of it at least two hundred times.

Little by little, the reputation of "Orlando Furioso" began to grow. By the time Ludovico was fifty-seven, his poem had been reprinted many times, and was already considered the work of a genius. Nevertheless, Ludovico continued to make revisions. After his death, Alessandra Benucci published the final version. It was absolutely perfect.


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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Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Confucius' recipe for the good life in four simple steps

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"A happy man is consistent in his steps, not disorderly," wrote Confucius in the year 510 B.C. Twenty-six centuries later, it remains a challenge to lead a consistent, well-balanced, happy life.

Technology has rendered human life less demanding in terms of physical effort, opening the door to endless choices, but the multiplication of choices has increased the risk of losing sight of our goals, and making colossal mistakes.

"Foolish men do things without knowing their purpose," remarked Confucius, "but chaos is not the way. Assess your options, find the right path, and walk it every day." From Confucius' writings, I have extracted the following four practical recommendations for leading a happy life.

Practical recommendations

First, define your long-term direction: Following the fashion of the day is unlikely to bring you peace of mind. You need to figure out what you want from life, your long-term goals, your lifetime priorities. No formula can guarantee happiness for everyone, but if you think of people you know who are highly satisfied with their lives, are they not without exception individuals who are pursuing consistent goals year after year?

Second, remember that activity beats immobility: "Fortune comes from turning promising ideas into reality by means of patient practice, day after day," observed Confucius. Passivity,
contradictions and endless hesitations were as much a waste of time in Confucius' times as they are today. Once you have defined your long-term direction, start walking the path. No matter how ambitious your goals may be, the best strategy is to take determined action. Start doing something today to move in the direction you've chosen. Even if the wind stands still for a while, a ship already motion will keep advancing.

Third, cultivate your strengths: Nowadays, you can learn almost anything you want, no matter where you live, but should you acquire knowledge at random? Should you spend years testing the waters of different pools until you find the perfect one to swim? Of course not. The easiest way to attain success and happiness is to cultivate your strengths. Know yourself, what you enjoy and what you dislike. Assess your abilities, choose a particular field, and develop your expertise. As Confucius put it, "learning requires no rank and knows no end." Yet, learning will prove more productive if you cultivate your best qualities. They will take you as far as you want to go.

Fourth, don't grow discouraged by obstacles: "The wise man does not fret, even if he sometimes must stand still for a while," remarked Confucius. Life is full of challenges, annoyances and inconveniences. It is normal to encounter some obstacles when you are moving forward.
From time to time, you'll be caught in traffic jams, misfortunes and disasters, so what? Occasionally, you will be unfairly criticised, so what? Getting discouraged by obstacles or by other people's folly is a waste of time. Keep trudging forward, keep working, keep building a better life for yourself.

Your time on earth is limited. Your best chance of attaining happiness lies in using your resources and opportunities efficiently. Define your long-term ambitions and pursue them with passion. Happiness results from purposeful motion, not from passivity. Become what Confucius defined as "a man of endless purpose, a man who never tires of learning." If you do so, you'll be on your way.


Image: Photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2018.

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

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Wednesday, 10 October 2018

Aristotle's formula for success and happiness

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Twenty-five centuries ago, Aristotle wrote about the principles of reality. His conclusions remain fully applicable in the twenty-first century. For those who don't have much spare time, Aristotle's teachings possess the great advantage that they can be summarised in a single sentence: "Identity and causality govern reality."

There is no way of escaping the principles of identity and causality. They apply to everything we do, and also to our perceptions and thinking. When we make mistakes, the reason always lies in our attempt to breach one of these principles.

We break the principle of identity when we imagine qualities that do not exist in reality. How often have you assessed a person, object or situation much too quickly, only to realise later how flawed your initial judgement was? We also tend to exaggerate problems when we grow overly emotional. Blowing problems out of proportion is an all too common phenomenon. I view exaggeration as the quintessential breach of the principle of identity.

Causality simply means identity in motion. It entails amongst others that, once you identify the true characteristics of an individual, you can predict how he will act in the future. Similarly, once you identify the essential characteristics of an organisation, you can predict with a large degree of certainty how it will act in the future.

The shortest path

Your understanding of identity and causality determines the success of your private and professional endeavours. Observing these principles constitutes the shortest path to prosperity and happiness. In business, individuals who respect these principles will be rewarded with increased efficiency and productivity. Conversely, those who act in breach of these principles are bound to suffer financial losses and personal tragedy.

Ignoring the characteristics of human beings and organisations, overlooking their identity, is tantamount to blinding your eyes. The result of self-inflicted blindness is predictable: you will make mistake after mistake, and those will be accompanied by failure, anger and depression.

Aristotle's principles are extremely useful for solving practical problems. Imagine for instance a manager who becomes aware that his employees are delivering erratic levels of quality. How can he apply identity and causality to solve the problem?

A wrong approach would be for him to implement immediately rigid quality controls across the board. Strict quality controls will do little good because the manager has not bothered to study the problem and identify the cause. Instead of addressing the real problem, the new quality controls are likely to alienate employees, and slow down operations.

A simple formula

The Aristotelian method demands observation and a rational assessment of facts. The manager in our example needs to check the facts, and ask the right questions: Why are quality levels erratic? Are employees using the right materials? Is every member of the team well-trained to do his job? Does the company's compensation system align employees' interests with the company's goals? Should the company redesign its production process? Is the company using the right technology?

Of course, the manager might make mistakes when he is trying to find the answers, but if he is using the proper methodology, his mistakes will be self-correcting. Identity and causality are offering him a proven system for reaching accurate conclusions. It is a system from which everybody can benefit. If you adopt the Aristotelian way of thinking, you will achieve your goals faster, with less effort and lower levels of stress.

Aristotle's formula is easy to remember. Check the facts. Think clearly. Be consistent. And if you discover contradictions, check your logic and correct the errors. Consistency is the key, not only to clear thinking, but also to success and happiness.


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

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

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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: