John Shirley on Self-awareness Being a Flashlight

“Mistakes often escape our eyes,” meditated Montaigne in his Essays, “but it is the sign of a poor judgement if we are unable to see them when shown to us by another. Knowledge and truth may dwell in us without judgement, and judgement also without them; indeed to recognize one’s ignorance is one of the best and surest signs of judgement that I know.”

Indeed, self-awareness is ruthlessly hard. The ability to step outside of yourself to view your behavior objectively requires a profound level of humility, a willingness to change your mind, and the difficult challenge of thinking about our thinking. Perhaps one of the greatest skills that enriched my own life was the daily but difficult practice of being self-aware. Whether driving in traffic or standing in a long line or wanting to quit in the middle of an exercise, these tiny moments are perfect places to tune in, become aware of what we’re telling ourselves, and learning to overcome our default reactions that lead us into egotism, entitlement, or straight-up self-delusions.

John Shirley, an American writer of fantasy and science fiction, admonished to the younger generation in Take My Advice: Letters to the Next Generation from People Who Know a Thing or Two, to practice self-awareness [emphasis mine]:

“If you have to walk along a dark mountain path, don’t you prefer to have a flashlight to shine on the path ahead? I would suggest that it is possible to have that flashlight in life all the time. What does a flashlight give us? Light.
That is, a flashlight sheds light. It is like the faculty of attention—if we turn our full attention to something, we learn more about that thing. We are seeing it with more light. Our attention is our ‘flashlight.’ So it’s all about how much and how fun an attention we consciously bring to life. This quality of attention doesn’t make us hesitant, or slow to decide, particularly—just as the flashlight doesn’t make us hang back on the trail. So, how do we get to the better quality of attention? With attention! That is, we turn our attention on our attention; we start by trying to see how we don’t pay attention. We sort of keep that light on ourselves. ‘Know thyself’ has been an honored ancient teaching, and it’s still a cornerstone of the world’s greatest philosophies. If you watch yourself honestly, in a detached way—not guilt-tripping yourself when you screw up—you gradually learn where it was that you were just blundering along, reacting sort of mechanically, and being asleep even as you were in your waking day. Another way to make this happen is by returning your whole attention to the present—to what’s happening now, in this moment, and this moment, and on—within yourself and around you.”

One of my professors in psychology said to the class, “You all have the capacity to be self-aware, but many of you will never attain it.” I thought that was, well, very grim. I imagined all the times that I was unbearable, foolishness, or selfish, and me being unaware of it, going on with my life without understanding the consequences and effects of my actions.

The challenge that’s often missed is simply learning to pause. Something happens, like getting cut off on the road, and you immediately flail your arms and curse. But why? Hasn’t this happened before? Haven’t you done this to others, unknowingly or not? Then we enter a store and give the clerk an attitude because of that past event—without ever realizing that we’re being harsh because we were treated harshly.

Roman philosopher Epictetus once said that a good philosophy is, “Self-scrutiny applied with kindness,” meaning you must learn to face yourself, to admit mistakes, to learn from them, and to let that awareness motivate and change you. Self-awareness is the catalyst for change. Without the awareness of our actions and thinking, we can never correct them, learn from them, and grow because of them.

Take My Advice is a wonderful read, filled with contrarian and often sound advice. See my piece on 99u about self-awareness and habit change, Epictetus on how philosophy fosters self-awarenessSeneca on self-awareness, and Bruce Lee’s moment of self-awareness and how it inspired his “be like water” philosophy.

Adam Smith on Human Nature and Our Desire to Be Both Loved and Lovely

“Our basic human need to be understood, respected, and missed when we’re gone doesn’t get satisfied easily,” said Seth Godin in The Icarus Deception. “As a result, when genuine connection is offered, it’s often taken.” And perhaps the greatest connection one could ever feel is love—the feeling that someone understands you, wants you, cares for you, and ineffably, would die for you. What is it about being loved or being seen as lovely that seduces us? Why do we, unknowingly or not, chase after it?

Adam Smith, a Scottish moral philosopher and pioneer of political economics, is best known for his two classical works: The Theory of Moral Sentiment and An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. In the former, Smith discusses the elements of human nature—self-interest, irrationality, the pursuit of happiness, fame, wealth, and more—and tells us what a good life is and how to achieve it. While The Wealth of Nations gave birth to the field of economics, making Smith famous, The Theory of Moral Sentiments was nearly forgotten—until recently.

Russ Roberts, author of How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life: An Unexpected Guide to Human Nature and Happiness, dives into Smith’s unrecognized book and unearths the gems of wisdom on human nature and the many pursuits we endeavor in our lives. Because the book was written during the 18th century, the wisdom could be easily lost due to confusing and outdated language—which is why Russ Robert takes individual gems, polishes them, and helps the reader understand what Smith was saying about our nature. Among the variety of topics discussed in the book, the core is focused on our desire to be loved and lovely.

Adam Smith said:

“Man naturally desires, not only to be loved, but to be lovely; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of love. He naturally dreads, not only to be hated, but to be hateful; or to be that thing which is the natural and proper object of hatred. He desires, not only praise, but praiseworthiness; or to be that thing which, though it should be praised by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of praise. He dreads, not only blame, but blameworthiness; or to be that thing which, though, it should be blamed by nobody, is, however, the natural and proper object of blame.”

And Russ Robert continues:

“The first part of Smith’s summary of human desire—that people want to be loved—seems pretty straightforward, although Smith doesn’t mean loved the way we mean it today, as connected to romance and family. He means it in a fuller sense. He means that we want people to like us, respect us, and care about us. We want to be appreciated, desired, praised, and cherished. We want people to pay attention to us and take us seriously. We want them to want our presence, to enjoy our company.”

Perhaps the most obvious reason for this profound desire is that humans are hardwired for social connection. What we do, say, invent, create, or share is so deeply rooted in our biology. There are many ways we fulfill this desire, for good and ill.

A great example of this is our cultural admiration for celebrities or similar statuses. Adam Smith knew about this way before any celebrity gossip was considered “Breaking News”:

“. . . upon coming into the world, we soon find that wisdom and virtue are no means the sole objects of respect; nor vice and folly, of contempt. We frequently see the respectful attentions of the world more strongly directed towards the rich and the great, than towards the wise and the virtuous.”

Roberts shares a fascinating example of this:

“Much of Leigh Montville’s autobiography of Ted Williams is a meditation on what celebrity was like in the 1940s and 1950s. And it turns out to be not much different than it is today.
Montville tells the story of the time that Jimmy Carroll, a friend of Williams’s, borrowed Williams’s car, a distinctive Cadillac Coupe de Ville, for a date. Carroll and the date pulled into the parking lot of a restaurant and were confronted by a policeman. What was Carroll doing driving Ted Williams’s car? It turned out that all the cops in Boston knew the car. After Carroll convinced the policeman that he wasn’t a thief, the policeman had one more question. Could he sit in the car while Jimmy and his date had dinner? Sure, Carroll said. When Carroll came back out to the car, there were six policemen sitting in Ted Williams’s car. The first cop had called five buddies to share the thrill.
What was the thrill, exactly? How can celebrity transform an inanimate object into a glamorous object of desire? It’s one thing to love your watch for its accuracy even when you don’t care about being on time. But to love sitting in a car because someone famous has sat there before you and will sit there after you? Is it because you’re doing something few others are able to do? Is it because it somehow links you to someone who is gloriously skilled? Or is it a function of being one degree of separation from someone who is loved, that adored, that admired? No doubt part of the thrill is being able to tell someone you sat in Ted Williams’s car. But why does anyone care?
Something inside us reveres those who are revered. We idolize those who are idolized. We love those who are loved. Part of it is an awe for excellence.
Maybe Smith’s insight into our desire to be loved is part of the answer. Somehow, being near people who are loved is exhilarating. Celebrity was addictive in 1940. And it was addictive in 1759 in a world without television, radio, or YouTube. Smith’s insights into the celebrities of his day are just as timeless as his insights into money and gadgets. Who were the celebrities of Smith’s day? Many were nobility or the hangers-on at court, people who had inherited money and notoriety or who curried favor with the nobility. Some were his contemporaries. Others he knew from history. He didn’t think much of those who achieved fame simply by currying favor with the great and powerful.

So how do we overcome our own foolishness, avoid worshipping false heroes, and truly embark on the path of happiness? Adam Smith called this the impartial spectator, synonymous for what we call our conscience. He said:

“He is a bold surgeon, they say, whose hand does not tremble when he performs an operation upon his own person; and he is often equally bold who does not hesitate to pull off the mysterious veil of self-delusion, which covers from his view the deformities of his own conduct.”

Russ Robert continues:

According to Smith, our behavior sometimes falls short of our ideals not because we’re bad people and not because our self-interest outweighs our benevolence, but because we don’t realize we’re not living up to our ideals. It’s hard to say which idea is more depressing—that we fail to be lovely because we aren’t lovely or because we’ve fooled ourselves into thinking we are. We not only hide our deformities behind the mysterious veil of self-delusion—we transform our deformities into virtues. That’s how hard it is for us to face the impartial spectator.”

In short, self-awareness is ruthlessly hard. To simply become aware that we’re sitting in a celebrity’s car and having this false sense of meaning or pride is extremely difficult because the desire to be seen as lovely or loved is deeply rooted in our nature. It’s happens quickly and emotionally, not logically and slowly. Not only do we do this with celebrities, but with objects as well—clothing, jewelry, cars, homes, and more.

Smith believed that the path to fame and fortune is a path to avoid. A life of virtue and wisdom was considered far more fruitful and important than a life of false pride, excess, and consistently trying to please those that really don’t matter. Smith says with tough love:

“Are you in earnest resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent? There seems to be one way to continue in that virtuous resolution; and perhaps but one. Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return; never come within the circle of ambition; nor ever bring yourself into comparison with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half mankind before you.”

Adam Smith’s insights into human nature is timeless and worthy of rumination. Written in the 1700s, Smith’s understanding of our self-delusions and human desires is so relevant and timely to today’s cultural attitudes and beliefs, it often feels like it was written months ago.

(H/T to Niki Papadopoulos for sending this fantastic book.)

What is Practical Wisdom and Why Do We Need It?

Wisdom, said Maria Popova, is knowledge that matters. It has both a practical and moral component to it that knowledge does not. Not only does wisdom enrich our lives by ushering us to act wisely, it simply makes the world a better place.

The Greek philosopher Plato believed that wisdom was theoretical or abstract. Aristotle, his pupil, disagreed and said that wisdom was available to all, a kind of moral compass that guides our thinking and behavior. He then distilled his ideas in his book Nichomachean Ethics. To champion human happiness, to flourish, Aristotle believed that wisdom was not for theoretical debate but for practical application.

Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe, authors of Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing, distilled Aristotle’s ideas on virtues and practical wisdom and how it applies to our lives [emphasis mine]:

“Practical wisdom is akin to the kind of skill that a craftsman needs to build a boat or a house, or that a jazz musician needs to improvise. Except that practical wisdom is not a technical or artistic skill. It is a moral skill—a skill that enables us to discern how to treat people in our everyday social activities.
How, then, are we to learn to be practically wise? There is no recipe, formula, or set of techniques. Skills are learned through experience, and so is the commitment to the aims of a practice. That’s why we associate wisdom with experience. But not just any experience will do. Some experiences nurture and teach practical wisdom; others corrode it. And it is here that Aristotle focuses our attention on something critically important: character and practical wisdom must be cultivated by major institutions in which we practice.

And yet… the institutions that nurture us strives to instill wisdom but fall very short. Aristotle believed that we could develop traits like loyalty, perseverance, mindfulness, and kindness; he called these aretes (virtues or excellences). The master virtue, the soil for cultivating these traits, he argued, requires practical wisdom. Schwartz and Sharpe outline the 6 signs of someone exercising practical wisdom [emphasis mine]:

1. A wise person knows the proper aims of the activity she is engaged in. She wants to do the right thing to achieve these aims—wants to meet the needs of the people she is serving.
2. A wise person knows how to improvise, balancing conflicting aims and interpreting rules and principles in light of the particularities of each context.
3. A wise person is perceptive, knows how to read a social context, and knows how to move beyond the black-and-white of rules and see the gray in a situation.
4. A wise person knows how to take on the perspective of another—to see the situation as the other person does and thus to understand how the other person feels. This perspective-taking is what enables a wise person to feel empathy for others and to make decisions that serve the client’s (student’s, patient’s, friend’s) needs.
5. A wise person knows how to make emotion an ally of reason, to rely on emotion to signal what situation calls for, and to inform judgement without distorting it. He can feel, intuit, or ‘just know’ what the right thing to do is, enabling him to act quickly when timing matters. His emotions and intuitions are well educated.
6. A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. People learn how to be brave, said Aristotle, by doing brave things. So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling.”

Practical wisdom is not only for our day-to-day life but also for the workplace. Schwartz and Sharpe discuss that practical wisdom helps us deal with situations in work and life that aren’t black and white. Rules and frames influence the context of a situation, making it rigid and inflexible, undermining our ability to exercise practical wisdom at a fault:

“Doctors—and teachers attempting to teach and inspire, or lawyers attempting to provide proper counsel and serve justice—are not puzzling over a choice between the ‘right’ thing and the ‘wrong’ thing. The common quandaries they face are choices among right things that clash, or between better and best, or sometimes between bad and worse.
These sort of quandaries don’t have pat, one-size-fits-all answers. Good rules might be useful as guides as we try to manage these multiple aims, but they will never be subtle enough and nuanced enough to apply in every situation. Aristotle recognized that balancing acts like these beg for wisdom, and that abstract or ethereal wisdom would not do. Wisdom has to be practical, because the issues we face are embedded in our everyday work.
Acting wisely demands that we be guided by proper aims or goals of a particular activity. Aristotle’s word for the purpose or aim of a practice was telos. The telos of teaching is to educate students; the telos of lawyering is to pursue justice. Every profession—from banking to social work—has a telos, and those who excel are those who are able to locate and pursue it.”
Think about dealing with a bad manager or an awful coworker. It’s easy to act emotionally, stirring up anger with anger and trying to win with force. But is this the sign of a practically wise person? Venting and causing drama may feel good in the moment, but it should make us question whether the outcome we created was worth the trouble.

Take for example anger. Aristotle didn’t argue whether it’s right or wrong to feel anger, but rather how we manage it. Aristotle said:

“We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly. But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner—that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue.”
Schwartz and Sharpe continue:
“Sizing up the situation, figuring what’s relevant in this particular case and these particular circumstances, imagining what someone else is thinking and feeling, recognizing the options and imagining the consequences—all these skills are part of being perceptive. It is this perception that enables us to recognize the uniqueness of a particular situation. Such perception is ‘a process of loving conversation between rules and concrete responses, general conceptions and unique case, in which the general articulates the particular and is in turn further articled by it.’
Practical wisdom demands more than the skill to be perceptive about others. It also demands the capacity to perceive oneself—to assess what our own motives are, to admit our failures, to figure out what has worked and not and why.”

Deliberation, perception, mindfulness, empathy, using emotions as our allies, learning from past experiences, thinking about our thinking—these are all required to exercise practical wisdom, to act wisely, morally, and thoughtfully. If human flourishing is the pinnacle ideal, both on a personal and societal level, the question isn’t so much about how but when.

The French essayist Montaigne once said, “It is not enough to recount experiences; they must be weighed and sorted; they must be digested and distilled, so that they may yield the reasonings and conclusions they contain.” Schwartz and Sharpe share MIT professor Donald Schön’s idea on reflective practice and why it’s essential for developing practical wisdom:

“MIT professor Donald Schön dubbed it ‘reflective practice.’ Schön, an expert on how professionals and organizations learn, argued that good professionals are always adjusting their actions to the particular context in order to achieve a general aim (health, education, justice), and the way they learn how to do this is by assessing the particular actions they choose (their words, their advice, their framing), and reevaluating, often rapidly, what they have said or done so they can improve upon it. This process of reflective practice—of trial, error, reassessment, and trial again—allows them to get better and better at what they do. They learn the moral and technical expertise to do their work well.”

What is life but a practice? Practical wisdom may seem like one of those elusive attainments that only gifted individuals could achieve, but how shortsighted that is on every level—and how easy it is to use that as an excuse to not try to be better. Whether we’re doctors, writers, assistants, bankers, accountants, artists, geologists, or scientists, practical wisdom is unbounded by circumstance or craft.

What I find so beautiful about practical wisdom is that it enriches our lives and influences our behavior by reminding us of how it helps others, not just ourselves.

Practical Wisdom is a must-read. Easy to assume that studying a topic like this is difficult, especially if you have no clue or understanding of practical wisdom and why it’s even worth ruminating. That is why we read. Schwartz and Sharpe do a masterful job of providing relatable examples of moments where practical wisdom is required, and ultimately, how we can start fostering it in our own lives.

Why Rewards Can Be Toxic to Our Careers and Why Curiosity and Showing Up is Essential

Jane Smiley

Throughout our lives and careers, there are telltale signs that tell us if we’re headed in the right direction or not. An increase in revenue or Amazon reviews or a sudden barrage of likes, pings, traffic, and emails—we’re entitled to believe that we’re doing something right and productive. External validations make sense to the human condition because we’re wired to be social. We desperately seek connection and to be understood, thus making reviews or the smell of a new car all the more desirable and convincing that we’re okay.

In my short writing career thus far, external validation comes in all shapes and sizes, some meaningful and some ultimately meaningless: the number of shares on a post (meaningless); the email I recently received from a reader in Dubai trying to buy my book on Amazon but couldn’t (meaningful); rankings and ratings and reviews; the number of subscribers; Google analytics; someone famous shouting you out.

Some of these are psychic anchors for the artist and entrepreneur, like our morning cup of coffee but for our self-esteem; some are meaningful data where it can make us better, whereas others are the equivalent of flattery. Differentiating the two requires experience and wisdom on what truly matters and what doesn’t. It’s not that we shouldn’t accept or acknowledge external validations, but we mustn’t be so busy in the pursuit of them that we lose sight of our art and why we’re doing it in the first place.

Jane Smiley, an American author and also the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1992 for her best-selling novel, A Thousand Acres, beautifully admonishes in Why We Write: 20 Acclaimed Authors on How and Why They Do What They Do on how rewards can be potentially toxic to our careers and why curiosity is the panacea [emphasis mine]:

“I’ve had some rewards. Rewards are fantasies. You can’t wish for an award. You cannot say, ‘My career will finally be worth it if I win the Nobel Prize.’ That’s false consciousness. If your career wasn’t worth it while you were writing those books, then what a sad life you’ve led. For me, it goes back to curiosity. I suppose my career will be over when I look around and say, ‘This is all boring; there’s nothing more that interests me.’ You want your interests to outrun your actual days on earth.”

How do we sustain that kind of curiosity?

By not tying our self-worth to praise and metrics and by honoring our purpose for doing what we do—to truly harness the feeling of being alive when we do the work. At the start of my writing career, my focus was, mistakenly, to make money. My old blog had Google Adwords littering every crevice of white space. It wasn’t until after many failures and re-dos and realizations that I returned to my true purpose: writing to learn, to communicate, generate, and understand the ideas occupying my mind, and in the words of Terry McMillan, to shed dead skin.

However, in a culture where we’re woefully underdeveloped in exercising practical wisdom in our lives and careers, it becomes increasingly difficult to avoid false consciousness. When we see people receiving rewards, it’s alluring. When we finally receive one, it becomes addicting. Like a cigarette after a meal, this quiet and destructive habit can form, making us chase reward after reward and slowly disconnecting us from why we sat down in the first place.

Milton Glaser

In How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, Debbie Millman—remarkable interviewer, brilliant author, renown designer—interviews designers of all kinds from a variety of industries, inquiring on what makes a great graphic designer and how these individuals crafted their careers. One of the interviewees is no other than Milton Glaser (think: I ♥ New York, Bob Dylan poster, and many more). Millman was curious as to how Glaser’s career had such longevity and vitality. Glaser responds with true wisdom [emphasis mine]:

“I don’t know. Just staying at the desk turning out the work and trying to do it as well as I can. I am also a very persistent man: a stubborn, persistent man. And the reward is still the same reward: doing things that have quality, that are still powerful, and that reach people. And, of course, the sheer joy of doing it. I love coming in to my office and working.”

And yet, as a culture, we have a hard time internalizing this kind of advice—show up and work (and enjoy it). Both Milton and Smiley had their fair share of rewards in their careers, but their admonishments in our interests outrunning our days on earth and the work being the reward happens to be the root of their success. Once you study interesting careers and see this pattern, it becomes hard to deny that what makes our lives meaningful aren’t the rewards or applause, but the more subtle, behind-the-scenes principles: showing up, loving what you do, and remaining curious.