Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Turnaround: Moving from hesitation to determination

When I was a kid, I never really got to believe what I was told about success. Life seemed to have many more tracks that the one that was being officially preached. There were too many interesting destinations and I saw no justification why only one of them should be correct. In fact, I reasoned, how could anyone dare to formulate a model lifestyle that all people were supposed to follow at all times?

In search of wisdom

The tenets of the success philosophy were simple and have changed little ever since: failure is scary, so work hard and don't fall behind; keep it safe and don't take risks; don't be different and stay with the group; it is better to be warm with the majority than being left alone in the cold; and above all, you should avoid fundamental doubts and never question what everybody else is taking for granted.

Reality, however, soon proved my doubts justified. For starters, I never met anyone who could be considered really successful according to the demanding standards that had been preached to me. Secondly, whenever I met people who called themselves successful, I found them so lacking in wisdom that I felt pity for them.

At that point, I began to realize that the kind of people that fascinated me never felt into the standard success category. The artists I liked were usually struggling or just getting by. The philosophers that I appreciated were far from being famous and wealthy. The movies I loved had no violence, no stars, and no special effects. What was that supposed to mean?

The original question

The years passed and, reluctantly, I embraced part of the official philosophy of success, although my conversion was uncertain and superficial. It did not take long before the old doubts came back to visit me, in the beginning every week, then every day, and finally, every night.

Whenever I made a pause and took the trouble to look around, the original questions returned to hunt me more strongly than ever. Human life seemed to be made more of dishevelled threads than of steel frames. The people I liked best had managed to strike a balance between their ultimate purpose and their immediate attachments.

In my eyes, determination without benevolence turns a person into a jerk rather than a success. Motivation without consideration makes people reckless and empty. Ambition without resilience results in anxiety. Engagement without perspective leads to intolerance. Definitely, I told myself, this is not the way to happiness.

Then one day I happened to read a biography of Charles Darwin (1809-1882), the English naturalist that formulated the theory of evolution through slow variation and adaptation of animal species. Since its inception, Darwin's theory has opened more wide-ranging discussions in society than any other idea in history.

Before reading about Darwin's life, I had assumed that he had come up with the theory of evolution at some point during his scientific expedition to the Galapagos, that he had quickly published his results, and that he had enjoyed for many years the prestige and wealth arising from the subsequent controversies.

The decisive step

I was as wrong as you can be. Darwin's life story was much less glorious than I had expected, since it shows a man who had only moved towards success with utmost shyness and insecurity. In Darwin's actions, I found more hesitation than determination; in his doubts, I saw the reflection of my fundamental questions; in the middle decades of his life, I saw more risk aversion than entrepreneurship.

If failure is the equivalent of immobility, I concluded, then a good part of Darwin's life consisted of failure. Believe it or not, the man who is reputed to be one of the greatest scientists in history, procrastinated for fourteen years before publishing his theory. It is believed that Darwin's hesitation came out of his fear of criticism, although other factors may have also played a role.

Whatever the reason, the fact is that Charles Darwin might have died before taking the step to make his theory public. Apparently, by the time he turned 35, he had already put his thoughts in writing, but he only took the initiative to make his conclusions public when he was 49 years old, that is, fourteen years later. I suggest that you stop here for a second and ponder what you are planning to do with the next fourteen years of your life.

What is even more amazing is that Darwin was only prompted to publish his theory out of the fear of seeing another scientist come out first with a book on the subject. Only when Darwin received a letter from Alfred Russell Wallace in 1858 did he realize that, for him, it was going to be now or never.

Wallace had come up with the same theory while doing research in the Malay Archipelago and, in his letter, he had presented a summary to Darwin. After fourteen years of paralysing doubts, Darwin swiftly made up his mind, prepared his notes for publication, and took the decisive step. All his fame and success come from that critical step, for which it took him fourteen years to gather enough courage.

Harbinger of success

Darwin's story made me wonder if failure and hesitation, instead of being the inhibitors of human success, should not be rather viewed as the harbingers, almost the prerequisites of any substantial achievement. Maybe, I thought, although failure is disruptive and scary, we can only appreciate its meaning when we place it in a long-term context.

Failure changes our way of thinking and our future actions, often turning us into wiser and more successful human beings. Indeed, failure is frightening, but only to a certain point. That's the point at which each of us is given one more chance to turn our lives around.


Image by Martin Pettitt under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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

The Philosophy of Builders

Friday, 2 October 2015

The low-cost approach to personal development

Many universities and colleges offer courses to improve your learning effectiveness. In those sessions, usually spread across several weeks, you will be taught to define your goals, to get organized, to be disciplined in your studies, to take notes, underline the main ideas, and review constantly what you have learned.

Learn fast and inexpensively

Judging by the results, one might wonder if those courses work that well. The number of drop-outs from colleges and universities is still substantial. Wasted resources and wasted time. What a pity, people lament, but can the situation be improved? If we take a look at adult vocational training, the situation is somewhat better, but still far from ideal.

Indeed, there is plenty of room for improvement, but this is the kind of problem that cannot be solved by preaching. If conditions are going to ameliorate, this will happen only as a result of personal example. With good reason, people tend to believe more what they experience themselves than what they are told.

Let me tell you a story that illustrates how effective learning can take place at minimum cost. Moses Maimonides was born in the year 1135 C.E in Cordoba, in the south of Spain. His father was a rabbi and possessed at home a few dozen books about Jewish law, medicine, and Greek philosophy.

With very limited resources

During his infancy, Moses Maimonides, together with his older brother David, received many hours of instruction from his father, although that cannot be compared to the thousands of lessons that contemporary children receive at school. What is amazing is that, with very limited resources, Maimonides absorbed knowledge like a sponge.

His brother David began a jewellery business and Maimonides also took some part in it, at the same time that he devoted a share of his time to writing a General Commentary on Jewish law. His writings were based on the books that he had read, to which he added his own reflections.

The jewellery business had its ups and downs, but Maimonides continued researching and writing during his twenties and early thirties until he finished his commentary, which today, nine hundred years later, is still considered one of the major scholarly works on Jewish law.

The family moved to Egypt in search of a better life, but a catastrophe was soon to wipe out their resources. Maimonides' brother, David, died in a shipwreck, taking down with him all the family fortune. Stranded in Egypt with no money, Maimonides opted for trying to make a living as a physician, using the medical knowledge that he had acquired in Spain.

As of 1165 C.E., during his thirties and forties, Maimonides practised medicine in Alexandria, the main port in the north of Egypt. His success was so astounding that, although Maimonides was a Jew, Sultan Saladin appointed him physician to the court. That entailed regular obligations and, every morning, Maimonides went to the royal palace to give medical consultations to the royal family and court officials.

Using time wisely

In addition, every afternoon, he ran his private medical consultation at home, both for the Jewish and Islamic community. As though this was not enough work, every evening, he tried to devote some time to read philosophy and to continue writing.

By the time he was 50 years old, Maimonides had completed his second major work, the "Guide for the Perplexed," an extraordinary intellectual attempt to reconcile religion with Aristotelian logic. The book had a major impact in later Western thinkers and, nowadays, in the 21st century, it is still in print.

This was just the end of the second period of his writings, since later on, he began to produce texts about medicine, including a commentary on the aphorisms of the Greek physician Hippocrates. How did Moses Maimonides managed to accumulate such an extensive knowledge in different areas? Here is the explanation that I can put forward:

  1. Enormous curiosity to learn things that he considered interesting.
  2. Getting hold of a few good books in the areas of knowledge that he liked.
  3. Reading those books many times, year after year, making his own notes.
  4. Taking every opportunity to learn from experts and ask questions, driven by his curiosity.
  5. Concentrating on different fields of knowledge one after the other. In the case of Maimonides, he focused his research and writings, sequentially, on the areas of law, for about twelve years, then on philosophy, for about another twelve years, and finally, on medicine.
  6. Learning from mistakes and making corrections as he went along.
You may argue that such rules of learning were good for someone living nine centuries ago, but that they have become obsolete in our time. Modern schools and universities, such as those in the fields of law and medicine, impose strict requirements on which subjects are to be covered by students.

Although the environment and demands have changed, I submit that the principles of accelerated learning have remained the same. Curiosity, personal motivation, and a few good books is all it takes to get started. For those who possess the knowledge, passing formal exams has never been a problem. Other elements, such as working experience, can be picked up as you go along.

A method that works

The ultimate proof of the self-study method was provided by Maimonides himself. He got married when he was 50 years old and, soon after, he had a son, whom he named Abraham. The kid read at home the same books that Maimonides had read and, already as an infant, he began to assist his father during his medical consultations.

When Maimonides died in 1204, he was 69 years old. By that time, his son Abraham, who had just turned 19, had already acquired such a reputation as physician that he was also appointed to a position in the royal court. Apparently, the system of learning had worked its wonders once again, but the story does not stop here.

During the following decades, Maimonides' grandson and the son thereof also learned the same profession at a young age and, later on, practised medicine very successfully. During the 13th and 14th centuries, they belonged to the most famous physicians of Egypt.


Image by Leshaines123 under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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

The 10 Principles of Rational Living

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Sometimes, it's better to shrug your shoulders and move on

When someone is looking look for a job, he sends his resume around, replies to advertisements, and finally, he gets invited to interviews. Being the employment market what it is, candidates are rejected in nine out of ten cases. A week after the interview, they receive a phone call informing them that another applicant has been chosen to fill the open position.

Arbitrary decisions

Sometimes, there is a good reason why another person has been selected for that post, but a certain element of randomness influences a large proportion of hiring processes. On many occasions, the choice cannot be rationally justified and one should not waste time trying to figure out mysterious reasons that do not exist.

An element of arbitrariness is not foreign to those cases, as it happens in countless human activities. Why did you buy this make of car and not that one? Would you repeat that purchase today? How did you come to choose your family doctor? Do you remember how you met each of your best friends?

What is surprising is people's reaction to failure and rejection. Chances are that the candidate who has not been selected for a particular job will get to hear from his family and friends that he should improve his attitude, manners, clothing, hairdo, and who knows how many other aspects.

Salesmen who go through a difficult period also get served a menu of motivational speeches and meetings to discuss their attitude. In other professions, such as sports, acting, or management, the story runs a parallel course. The problem, you will be told, is in how you see the world.

The wisdom of action

Well, luckily, this is not true. Motivation and attitude play a certain role in performance, but their importance should not be overemphasized. If you pause to think for a second, you will realize that the professionals whom you most trust don't seem to be excessively driven or motivated.

What you expect primarily from your doctor, lawyer, plumber, or car mechanic is not that they are greatly inspiring, but that they do a good job and deliver competent service. Action is what we want to see. Service is what we want to receive. Predictable, rational action is one million times more valuable than attitude and motivation.

Action is the essential factor that gets things done, sold, and delivered. The candidate who has not been selected for the job should not spend too much time wallowing in self-recrimination about what he could have done better. If he can draw some useful lesson for the future, so much the better, but in most cases, a failed interview was just a sale that didn't close.

Closer to success

Don't devote your worthy hours to speculating about undefined psychological factors, arbitrary theories, and nonsensical advice. Professional salesmen know that, given enough time and effort, they will find more customers. Watching, hoping, and talking seldom help. Only relentless effort can bring you closer to success.

Athletes are motivated when they compete, but in the end, it is their past training what usually determines who will win the race. Instead of speculative advice, choose the wisdom of rational action. Let others wonder if the world should be this or that way. Move on, redouble your attempts to reach the place you want to be, and let your actions speak for themselves.


Image by Gidzy under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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

Rational living, rational working

Friday, 25 September 2015

On becoming unbreakable: How normal people become extraordinarily self-confident

On becoming unbreakable: How normal people become extraordinarily self-confident
by John Vespasian

Becoming emotionally unbreakable is a primary skill for achieving happiness. This book presents the principles of psychological strength, together with stories of people who have used those principles:
  • How did Joseph Abbeel survive the Napoleonic wars, and manage to start a new life? 
  • Which crucial success principle was discovered by the Ancient Roman poet Ovid? 
  • How did Buffalo Bill cope with his tremendous financial mistakes? 
  • How did William Turner protect himself against negative criticism? 
Their stories will show you what to do when you are confronted with severe problems, even when everything seems lost. This book aims at making you highly resistant to adversity. Its principles will enable you to move on with your life despite difficulties, obstacles, and setbacks.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1 - Refuse to listen to pessimistic messages
Better opportunities can be found
Practise this great philosophy every day
Imagine a happy outcome
Surviving and thriving against all odds
There is plenty of light in the darkness
A method for preventing serious mistakes
The search for a balanced perspective

Chapter 2 - Never stop asking for what you want
The power of universal principles
A man should be measured by his ambitions
When obstacles seem insurmountable
In praise of a polite, courteous approach
A simple technique for increasing your self-assurance
The fisherman and the hook
When a heavy storm breaks out

Chapter 3 - Learn to rely primarily on yourself
Penniless and uneducated, but determined
Surviving a major crisis without a scratch
Without resources and social connections
Looking for possibilities of advancement
A particularly unimpressive man
Choose a consistent strategy
A machine that functions under any kind of weather

Chapter 4 - Keep trudging forward
Decisiveness in the face of adversity
How to thrive after having your reputation trashed
A man makes a big mistake and loses his savings
Six lessons that you should never forget
An embattled man regains his peace of mind
Never make a promise you don't intend to keep
The immense value of having a tough skin

Chapter 5 - Be relentlessly entrepreneurial
Talent development makes fear disappear
A popular theory that is completely false
How to flex your psychological muscles
A poor communicator becomes a brilliant instructor
Observe the facts, and draw your own conclusions
Resilience multiplied by a factor of ten
A major mistake and a major lesson

Chapter 6 - Identify the crucial elements
A virtue that goes hand in hand with self-confidence
Don't be more cautious than you need to
A dominant paradigm blown to smithereens
Adopt a straightforward approach
Protect your privacy so that it protects your sanity
Misunderstood and vilified, but still a winner
Keep your margin of safety during bad times

Chapter 7 - Protect yourself from predators
Making an unusual career choice
The courage to call things by their names
Beware of stories that are too good to be true
Shun impracticality and waste
Holding a wolf by the ears
The essence of civilized behaviour
Stay away from ethical decay
Take this course of action when you make mistakes

Chapter 8 - Adopt a realistic approach
Here is a down-to-earth philosophy
The great advantage of having clear ideas
Like a rock that breaks the waves
How to judge people and events accurately
Striving for a well-measured proportionality
Beware of caring more than you should
Make sure to avoid these gigantic mistakes

Chapter 9 - Don't be blinded by false arguments
The question nobody dares to ask
Dealing with widespread passivity
The adherence to worthless dogmas
Social myths and superstitions
Beginning is tough, but obstacles can be surmounted
A highly productive second life
It is time to overcome self-inflicted blindness

On becoming unbreakable: How normal people become extraordinarily self-confident
by John Vespasian

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Using every opportunity for personal development

The 16th century was a period of extraordinary conflict and violence. Disputes about religious and territorial matters divided the population in factions engaged in continuous wars, persecutions, and torture. Luckily, not everybody fell prey to the dominant ideas of the time and a few men taught us lessons that we should strive to keep always present in our mind.

A career transition

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

After learning Latin, the most widespread language at that time in Europe, and receiving some basic training in jurisprudence, Montaigne spent more than a decade as secretary of different legislative councils and courts of justice in the south of France.

Later on, he resided for a while in Paris, but he was clever enough to realize that his natural aversion to lies, flattery, and pretence made him unsuitable for a lifelong career as civil servant. When he turned 38 years of age, in the middle of one of the worst periods of religious conflict in France, he decided to abandon his career and retire to a farm in the south of France.

The necessary effort

What followed during the next 15 years was a memorable attempt at living life according to nature and common sense. Everyday, Montaigne would devote the necessary effort to his farming activities, but not with the purpose of expanding his wealth, but simply to ensure his subsistence and that of his family.

For the rest, Montaigne set himself the goal of reflecting about the good life and writing down his thoughts as he went along. Surrounded by the books that he had accumulated in the previous decades of his life, he wrote continuously during his forties and early fifties.

Tolerance and moderation
While his neighbours in the south of France took sides passionately in favour of some ideological faction or other, Montaigne always called for moderation, pleaded for peace, and recommended tolerance as the best policy to ensure good human relationships, prosperity, and dignity.

Montaigne's essays were published in successive compilations, which he corrected and edited further, until he was happy with the result. The principles of common sense, prudence, tolerance, moderation, and learning from experience, permeate his whole writings, from beginning to end.

Since the 16th century, other thinkers have tried to establish the principles of the good life, but few have equalled Montaigne's erudition and literary skills. For those who, in our age, seek to learn how to live in accordance with Nature, Montaigne's essays are, more than four centuries after his death, still a delight to read.


Image by Mr Guilt under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under

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

The 10 Principles of Rational Living