Friday, 14 April 2017

The most frequent obstacle to personal growth -- and how to surmount it


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Few people know that sharks change their teeth all the time. New teeth grow on the back of a shark's denture, and then the teeth move progressively to the front side, until they are eventually discarded. Sharks have evolved into constant tooth changers for a reason essential to their survival: They need to keep their teeth sharp for hunting purposes.

If sharks were to lose their razor-sharp teeth, they would be unable to hunt, and it would not take long before they disappear as a species. We human beings don't need such sharp teeth, but we do need to think accurately if we want to thrive. We need to stay alert and proactive if we want to improve our lives. We need to pay attention to what's going on, draw logical conclusions, and implement them consistently.

Unfortunately, we stifle our personal growth all too often because we let emotions distort our perceptions, weaken our alertness, and undermine our understanding.We grow too rapidly discouraged when we encounter failure. We view setbacks too readily as final. We regard obstacles too quickly as insurmountable.

The underlying cause

The underlying cause for this problem --in fact, the underlying cause for our excessive willingness to give up-- is our tendency to think inaccurately,  fragmentarily, and short-sightedly. While evolution has led the shark teeth to grow constantly and automatically, it has not granted us the power to think accurately without effort.

We really need to push ourselves if we want to exercise this capacity, and surprisingly enough, we even have difficulties to remember in daily life the lessons taught by 4500 million years of Planet Earth history, and from the animal evolution in the latest 500 million years:
  •  Even nature can make mistakes in the sort term and have animals evolve into suboptimal shapes and functions, but in the long-term, it will correct those mistakes in an endless pursuit of perfection. Nature has no qualms about acknowledging errors, and reverting to previous shapes (e.g. fish developed legs and become reptiles, and then some reptiles discarded their legs and became snakes). Why on earth would you be reluctant to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes?
  •  Nature has no problems to apply in a new context solutions that have already proven successful in a completely different  context, even if those solutions seem unorthodox and weird (e.g. some species of turtles have developed beaks, similar to those of birds. The beaks make those turtles look weird, but they also make the turtles highly effective in their environment). Is your demand for orthodoxy preventing you from solving your problems, and accelerating your personal growth?
  • Nature tends to operate multi-dimensionally, allowing animals to accentuate useful shapes and functions, even if those are totally unrelated (e.g. while reptiles were learning to fly 300 million years ago, they were also evolving into warm-blood creatures). Is your tendency to think uni-dimensionally preventing you from achieving your goals in unrelated areas? 
Best chances of  success

I recently read the diary of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and I must tell you that I was not impressed by the depth of Beethoven's philosophical insights. Sure, the man was a musical genius, but an accomplished thinker was he not. I had assumed that excellent skills in one area mean excellent skills in other areas, at least in those that appear closely related, but I was wrong, totally wrong.

Indeed, I was making the quintessential mistake that frequently prevents our personal growth. I was thinking too linearly.  I was interpreting facts incorrectly. I was making unrealistic assumptions. Exercising our capacity to think accurately is a daily and never-ending challenge, but it is our best chance to maximise our creativity, innovations, and achievements.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of ancient mosaic; 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 four media interviews, just published:

Saturday, 1 April 2017

The puzzle of intellectual integration

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Have you ever wondered why so many people engage in patently counterproductive behaviour, the sort of behaviour that nobody can fail to view as foolish and irresponsible?

Consider these three examples: Individuals who routinely drive their car too fast, too dangerously, too aggressively. People who spend their earnings on frivolities, and fail to set any money aside for a rainy day. Persons who eat unhealthy food day after day, until they eventually fall sick.

Many of these people are bright, talented, and highly educated. They cannot fail to know that their behaviour is counterproductive: that they should not drive their car in ways that endanger other people's lives; that they should set some money aside for contingencies; that they should adopt a wholesome diet, and avoid unhealthy food.

And yet, these patterns repeat themselves on a large scale day in and day out: road accidents that should not  have happened, financial straights that could have been avoided, illness that could have been prevented.  

The key to solving the puzzle is a message that few people want to hear: intelligence is not enough, talent is not enough, education is not enough. All those factors remain inoperative whenever the human mind refuses to draw logical conclusions.

It is not enough to know arithmetic if you consciously or unconsciously refuse to put two and two together whenever the outcome becomes inconvenient. 

Life offers too many temptations to ignore the facts, too many occasions to deny uncomfortable truths. And yet, we all know that we will be better off in the long run if we push ourselves to do the right thing today.

The best way to protect yourself against those temptations is to adopt the habit of intellectual integration. If you adopt day after day the practice of accepting facts as they are, and drawing logical conclusions, you will spare yourself plenty of heartaches down the road. 

Intellectual integration is not a luxury, but the key to human survival, success, and happiness. Sadly, too many efforts are being devoted to look for excuses for counterproductive behaviour. Let us rather devote those efforts to doing the right thing from the start.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

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 three interviews, just published:
  

Monday, 13 March 2017

Do not let the 80/20 principle mislead you

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Personal development, as it is understood today, consists of a constant search for shortcuts: How to be more effective. How to be happier. How to earn more money. How to improve your relationships. How to learn faster. How to get ahead.

As a result, a new shortcut becomes fashionable each year: Psychoanalysis. Gestalt therapy. Positive thinking. The law of attraction. The placebo effect. New age. Spirituality. The power of pyramids. Mediation. Tibetan yoga.

If you have tried out any those shortcuts, you must have already figured out their limitations. Fragmentary philosophies lead to fragmentary results. Confusion engenders more confusion. You don't get the right answers by silencing the questions.

The 80/20 principle constitutes the ultimate shortcut. According to this principle, you can render your life more efficient if you focus on your 20% most critical activities. You can multiply your earnings if you concentrate on your 20% most productive tasks. You can be happier if you spend most of your time with your very best friends.

However, none of those shortcuts, not even the 80/20 principle, is going to tell you how to determine your lifetime goals, choose meaningful activities, and select your friends wisely. What would be the point of becoming more efficient at doing the wrong thing? Why would you want to advance faster if you don't know where you are going?

Do not let the 80/20 principle mislead you. Do not make your future success and happiness depend on the shortcut that happens to be fashionable this week. The only way to determine wisely your long-term goals is to adopt a rational philosophy. And the best way to reach those goals is to think for yourself.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

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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Friday, 3 March 2017

How animals make decisions, and mostly get them right


Millions of people are afraid of taking decisions. They agonize for years about things they know they should be doing, but cannot find the time to do. They wish they could gather the courage, the resources, and determination to get rid of old habits, and go into a new direction. They wish they could explore new avenues, but they seem unable to deviate from their routines.

Indecision and fear of the unknown are universal phenomena. To a larger or lesser extent, everybody is afraid of changing his habits, disrupting his life, and losing what he has. Yet, we all realize that we cannot grow without taking risks, making ourselves uncomfortable, and committing occasional errors.

I have found a solution to push myself over the line, and take those initial, risky steps that can lead to better things. This is a technique I learned from watching animals in nature. Look how young animals decide whether unknown food is good to eat, whether they can explore some new territory, or climb a higher tree.

They don't spend months agonizing about the possible negative consequences, the possible failure and ensuing ridicule. What they do is simply to take a small step, try out the new experience, and see what happens. They take a small bite of the new food, and look around nervously at the new territory. They quickly check out if the new thing is going to work or not. If the adventure proves promising, they go ahead. If it doesn't, they simply take a step back, and return to their old routine.

In my experience, this method can allow you to make 75% of your decisions quickly, and mostly get them right. You don't need to take huge, decisive steps, and put your livelihood on the line. You don't need to risk losing your family, your health, and your reputation. Leave those spectacular life-or-death decisions for movies, novels, and poetry.

High-risk adventures belong to fiction, and that's where they should remain. Human beings usually do better in life if they behave prudently and rationally. More often than not, you will do better if you take a low-risk approach, and increase your bet as you go along. And if the project doesn't work as you expected, you don't need to turn the bad experience into a big deal. Simply cut your losses, and move on.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of ancient Egyptian sculpture; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2017.

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

 
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A simple but effective way to protect your peace of mind

Here are the links to three interviews, just published, about my latest book "Thriving in Difficult Times: Twelve Lessons from Ancient Greece to Improve Your Life Today." 

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Chances are that your life will go through a major upheaval in the next years. Such disruption might be of a nature that you cannot imagine at present. New technology may render your job obsolete. Global competition could devalue your education. A major economic shift might put you out of business.

Substraction becomes addition

Luckily, there is a simple way to protect yourself. All you have to do is to adopt a frugal lifestyle. Reducing your present cost of living can be achieved in many ways, for example, by spending less money on food, lodging, transportation, energy, travel, entertainment, or insurance

The resulting subtraction from your present enjoyment will be more than compensated by gains in long-term security. Commit yourself to save regularly in order to create a margin of safety. Accumulated resources will allow you to face calmly any disaster that the future may bring.

A man who feels confident and serene makes more of his days than an anxious short-term thinker. Too many are those who live under the threat of a mounting pile of debt. They are paying a high price for giving away their independence in exchange for momentary pleasure.

The delusion of stability

Do not fall prey to the delusion of stability. Reduce your current cost of living and create a financial reserve for difficult times because, sooner or later, they will come. If you are undecided about what expenditures to cut, make a linear reduction of 5% in all your budgets and take it from there.

In addition, it is a good idea to have a back-up financial plan for unforeseen situations. For example, no matter how good your health insurance is, its coverage won't be universal. Similarly, your protection in the field of liability indemnity might be less than you think. What would happen if, due to some unfortunate event, you were to lose your protection altogether? Do you have a back-up plan?

Overspending is frequently caused by overconfidence. People feel sure that nothing bad can happen to them. They overestimate their strengths and underestimate their risks. They place their future at jeopardy in order to enjoy transient advantages that will be quickly forgotten.

You will be better off if you reduce your current costs. Aim at creating an emergency fund to which you can resort in times of need. Even a modest financial reserve can do wonders to alleviate misfortune or adversity. Discard the delusion of invulnerability and assess your risks objectively. Make the commitment to save at least 5% of your net income every month.

The psychological benefits

Furthermore, leading a prudent and modest lifestyle has strong can deliver important ethical benefits. Do you believe that all ethical decisions are equally valid? Are individuals who save to buy a home morally equivalent to those who gamble away their salary? Would you take a loan to finance your medical studies in the same spirit as you would borrow cash to purchase a recreational boat?

Rational values align decisions with reality, leading man to certainty and prosperity. In contrast, relativism wears man down by trying to justify arbitrary choices. Happiness needs to be sustained by facts, not by excuses. Personal well-being cannot be maintained by means of inconsistent behaviour.

Creating safety for yourself

Frugality goes hand in hand with logic and realism. You will enjoy life more if you reduce your living costs and create financial safety for yourself. Pick up pen and paper and make a list of ten items of expenditure that you can cut without any negative impact on your lifestyle.

Make more with less by adopting an entrepreneurial approach to life. If you are committed to search for better alternatives, you will find them. If you remain alert to better opportunities, you will seize them. Give priority to safety over short-term pleasure. Serenity and self-confidence will be the result. Reduce your costs and enjoy life more.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

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

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

 
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