Philosophy

When you got your first mobile phone, did you imagine that you’d eventually spend thousands of hours every year looking into one?

I didn’t, and I’m 22.

But the ten year old down the street who got her first phone last week fully expects to spend that kind of time with phone in hand. She’s never know any different.

The game has changed. We’re now more and less connected than we’ve ever been before.

Young people need to be trusted to flourish in this connection, and protected against its most vile byproducts.

In an ecosystem of dichotomies and extremes, confusion is natural and moderation is key.

Brené Brown’s research shows us that vulnerability is a necessary prerequisite to courage.

There is no courage without vulnerability, no innovation without failure and no greatness without risk.

You don’t become a master at anything by bathing in comfort or skirting around failure.

If you’re comfortable with a reality in which you enjoy the modest comfort in choosing not to strive, all the power to you.

As for the rest of us, it’s time we stopped kidding ourselves and started making a ruckus.

You have never drawn a perfectly straight line.

Regardless of whether you use a pencil and a ruler ruler or a laser beam, if you zoom in far enough, the line isn’t straight.

When decisions in our life are overly important or scary, it’s common to wait for the ‘perfect’ time. Which, even if it did exist, would be such a minute window that you’d miss it anyway.

Circumstances will never be perfect because perfection doesn’t exist.

If you’re sitting around waiting for it, you’re going to be waiting a long time.

Forget being perfect.

Be first. Make a ruckus. Repeat.

We are constantly adjusting our expectations in the backs of our minds. We analyse the results of previous games we’ve played to ensure that the expectations we set aren’t going to bring us grief. We reflect on our greatest successes and our most painful failures to inform which games we’ll opt into playing in the future. Our entire perception of the world is shaped by what we expect of it, and how it surprises us. But for all of these expectations we set, how many can we honestly say are conscious?

Each time we get in a car, do we consciously set the expectation that every traffic light we approach will turn green? Of course not. Still, most of us assume this will be the case.

What if one day we roll up to a traffic light and it just doesn’t turn green? For whatever reason the light, which has always acted as we expected it to, just didn’t. Most of us, despite the fact that the light staying red is causing us no real harm and will be resolved within minutes, would experience a negative emotional outcome which is far more intense than it has reason to be. We become frustrated and upset not just because we’re now a whole three minutes late to brunch, but because we were not prepared for our assumptions about the light to be challenged. This resistance, as it pertains to meaningful pursuits, is what we must seek to avoid if we are to protect our ability to foster long-term practice.

Assumptions are the expectations we set unconsciously, and assumptions surrounding our pursuits are dangerous because when proven wrong, they can lead to the kinds of crushing emotional outcomes that make us want to quit.

Failing feels terrible. It forces us to realise and acknowledge that perhaps we’re not quite as good as we imagined we were, and stings even worse when we know we could have done more to prevent it.

The art of cultivating meaningful pursuits will always involve some level of failure because failing is the most necessary step in getting good at anything. 

So if we need to fail to realise our goals, but the thought or act of failing makes us want to curl up and die, perhaps it’s time we develop a more sustainable relationship with it. 

How we feel at the completion of any finite game can be calculated with a reasonably simple (if not slightly convoluted) equation.

Imagine that the emotional outcome we experience as a result of the game can be measured on a scale from negative ten to positive ten. A score of negative ten involves dark, personal feelings of dissatisfaction and disappointment. A score at this end of the spectrum is the type of guttural feeling which could result in someone never attempting a similar game again. Whereas a score of positive ten represents a feeling of such intense, euphoric bliss that it almost overwhelms the body. Scores of positive ten are those once in a lifetime moments of accomplishment which fill us to the brim with joy and pride. Our score along this emotional outcome scale is called our emotional outcome value (O). 

Now imagine another scale, which now only ranges from negative five to positive five. This scale is called the Result Scale. Our result value (R) is determined by how well we performed in the game, where negative five represents the absolute worst, most embarrassing, humiliating failure possible and positive five is the best, most gratifying, outstanding success possible.

At first glance it might seem that these values should be directly correlated; that the result of our efforts should reflect how we feel about the outcomes they produce. But we know from experience that this is often not the case. Both our result value and our emotional outcome value exist only once the game has been completed. 

There is another value, which also exists somewhere along the result scale, that is determined before we even begin playing. Our expectation value (E) represents the result we imagine is most likely to occur, and it is the only aspect of this equation of which we have complete control. Our expectations are influenced by an array of internal and external factors. They’re shaped by what we’re hopeful for, tempered by our previous experience and solidified by the expectations others project onto us. Sometimes we take the time to set them consciously, other times we unconsciously drag them along as baggage into games we don’t yet know we’re expecting ourselves to win. 

Ultimately, the emotional outcome of any finite game is the difference between the result of the game and the result we were expecting.

Result (R) – Expectation (E) = Emotional Outcome (O)

If we’re playing scrabble with a friend and we don’t have a lot of skin in the game, our expectation value might be a neutral value of zero. We don’t expect to succeed or fail and sure, we’d like to win, but we aren’t that fussed either way. In this case, our R value and our O value will be exactly the same. 

Let’s say we win. It was a close enough game, but we had better tiles and won without too much hassle. Our R value is one and so is our emotional outcome. It feels good, but not too good. We say, “Ah! Bad luck. You’ll get me on the next one.”

Now instead, let’s imagine that we’re getting ready to play against a friend who we know possesses an annoyingly Brobdingnagian vocabulary. They’re competitive too, so we’re expecting a challenging game. While we’re sure that beating them is within the realm of possibility, we’re realists. We understand the odds are stacked in their favour. In this case, our E value might be set at negative two. Winning here will definitely be an upset, but stranger things have happened.  

Perhaps we scrape through and secure a modest victory for an R of two. While the success was nothing spectacular, it feels excellent! 

R (2) – E (-2) = O (4)

When you subtract a negative number, it becomes additive. So two minus negative two leaves us with an emotional outcome of four. We’re buzzing after this victory and decide to challenge them to a rematch.

This time around, we’re heading in confident that we can replicate the result of the last game. We know we got a little lucky, but if we were able to beat them first try, they can’t have been as good as we thought they were.

We head into the next game with an E value of positive one.

But we don’t replicate the result of the last game. We don’t even come close. It’s unclear whether or not they were just taking it easy on us in the first game, but after a brief debate as to whether or not ‘katzenjammers’ is a valid english word (which is promptly settled by Google), they annihilate us. R score of negative four.

In this case, there’s no negative subtraction trickery working in our favour.

R (-4) – E (1) = O (-5)

The cost of failure is compounded by the expectation of victory.

It only makes sense to expect success when success is certain (which it almost never is). By placing our E value on the result scale, we’re setting ourselves up for unnecessary suffering.

So let’s change the game.

What if, instead of placing our expectations on the same scale we use to measure results, we designed it its own scale altogether?

How much could we improve our emotional reaction to objective failure improve if we started to set expectations on our growth rather than our success?

Imagine one last scale with me. A basic scale from zero to five which represents how much was learned by playing the game in question.

If we set our R and E values not on the results scale, but on this growth scale instead, it’s far less likely that we’ll walk away dissatisfied. And the less we walk away dissatisfied, the more likely we are to continue to play.

When we aim not to succeed, but to grow, we’re far more likely to fall into success.

Expectation is healthy for as long as your expectations make sense.

Robert Sterberg’s triarchic theory of intelligence suggests that intelligence exists across a spectrum which involves three distinct forms: analytical intelligence, practical intelligence and creative intelligence.

Analytical intelligence is what we typically associate with ‘smart’ people. It’s book smarts. Specifically, it’s the ability to understand, recall and develop ideas which aid in problem solving and decision making.

Practical intelligence is all about how we interact with our environment. How to we change ourselves to suit it, and how to we change our environment to suit us? Practically intelligent people are excellent lifestyle designers.

Finally, creative intelligence is about extending beyond analytical ideas and into the generation of ideas which react effectively to new situations. People with high creative intelligence are those who are comfortable developing new approaches to problems which may not always align with conventional thinking.

Each of these forms are multiplied by one another. If we excel in one but are deficient in another, our overall intelligence still suffers.

If we’re honest with ourselves, can we spot our weakest link?

How much could we be benefit from focussing on improving it?

There’s a lot of research which suggests that we can foster any one of these forms with a bit of dedicated practice.

If that’s important to you, find your weak spot and begin building a habit.

Don’t wait.

Start now.

Laws are the things that govern what we are and aren’t allowed to do.

They’re not voluntary.

Rules are conditions we agree to abide by when we opt into a game.

They are voluntary.

Sometimes, the rules we sign up for aren’t explained to us explicitly.

Some kids, for example, feel as though they must go to university once they finish high school. They’ve opted into this belief to such an extent that no other options feel valid.

Where there are rules, there are penalties for breaking them.

But unlike laws, we get to choose which rules we want to be governed by.

If the games you’re playing involve rules that don’t suit you, play another game.

We’re born with talent, we develop skill and we earn opportunity.

Ability is what we get when we take advantage of all three.

To feel like we’re making ‘progress’, our abilities must be growing.

When they’re not, we start to feel stagnant – in creeps the humble dread of meaninglessness.

Shield against that. Learn to love learning. Take risks.

Grow.

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.”

– Lucius Seneca

I’m a sucker for a good quote.

I know they can be naff, and I get that the they often only seem poignant because they present broad strokes of wisdom which lack specificity or useful context.

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

 – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

… However, I genuinely do believe that there’s something special about a little perspective altering nugget of wisdom.

My vague quote poison of choice is stoic philosophers – namely Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Seneca.

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

 – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I’ve written about them before, and I’ll likely do it again. So rather than dive too deeply into why I think these are valuable, I’ll leave you to decide whether they belong on a weeties box, on your facebook wall or etched gently on the inside of your skull for future pondering.

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

– Lucius Seneca

Our senses are constantly filtering data which we use to decide what we’ll do next. The fact that humans are so predictable is a testament to their ability to do this effectively. 

If you boil that down for long enough, our lives are nothing more than a long string of decisions, actions and inactions. 

Is this depressing? Maybe. Reductionist? Definitely. Could it be useful? I believe so. 

There are a million reasons we might choose to do one thing over another; we have ethical frameworks to pass quick judgement on wrongdoings of others; a moral compass to ensure that we align ourselves with internal principles of right and wrong; a relentless self interest which keeps us safe and ensures we can pass down our genes; and every now and then, we just do stuff because it feels good. 

The mental gymnastics our brains perform while making these decisions are but small parts of the lifelong games we use to define ourselves.

In the same way that ‘you are what you eat’ is true of the body, ‘you are what you do’ is true of the soul.