Never Achieving Alone

The United States is focused on achievement and success and we use a few basic measuring sticks to compare ourselves to others and to display how successful we have become. Money is our main yardstick, tied to other measures of success such as home-ownership and the size of our homes, the number and types of vehicles we drive, and so on. When we talk about our own success and reflect back on our path we tend to look at the tough decisions and sacrifices that we made along the way. We focus on the obstacles we overcame where others faltered and we create a highlight reel in our minds that emphasizes our good qualities in the face of adversity and downplays the help we received from others or the advantages we started with. When we do this we begin to develop a false sense of what was truly necessary for us to get to where we currently are, and we begin to overestimate ourselves, our importance, and our relation to society as a whole.
In his book Between the World and Me, author Ta-Nehisi Coats reflects on his life journey and the lessons he learned in a long form essay to his son. He at one point reflects on the poets and writers who were influential to him at college and includes a quick note to his son that stood out to me. Coats writes, “It is important that I tell you their names, that you know that I have never achieved anything alone.”

 

We often miss how dependent our lives are on those around us. We look at the smart decisions we had to make and praise ourselves for being disciplined, for not getting in trouble, and for being more industrious than those who are not as successful as we are. Money becomes the measure of how well we have done on our own, and fancy cars and houses become the way we display our value as human beings and our self-reliance through tough times.

 

These displays and our memories however, do not reflect the realities of our lives and our interdependence on other people. We never truly do anything alone. Our lives do not take place in a vacuum and we are not born as the amazing all-stars we make our selves out to be. We are dependent on other people from the very beginning, and often times, the success we achieve can be attributed to luck, to meeting the right people, and to having the right support at the right times in our lives. We have a large role to play in along this journey, and our attitudes, decisions, and work ethic greatly influence where we will end up, but we never truly achieve something without the help of others. We do not choose our parents and we do not choose our genetic pre-dispositions to things like disease, addiction, physical height and weight, or mental focus. Each of these areas could be managed and improved through personal decisions, but it is important to recognize that many of us do not start with equal footing and we do not all face the same levels of adversity.

 

In a quote written to James Harmon for his book, Take My Advice, philosopher Martha Nussbaum wrote, “even though we develop a degree of mastery and independence, we always remain alarmingly weak and incomplete, dependent on others and on an uncertain world for whatever we are able to achieve.” Great business decisions and adventures can never be undertaken alone, and sometimes the people around you explain more of the success of your business than just your own hard work. We influence the outcome, but we never truly control where we end up. Even the best business idea and the best team focused on reaching smart goals can be taken down in an unpredicted market collapse.

 

In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote, “a branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree also. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” What Aurelius is explaining is that we are connected to others and dependent on others to grow and thrive. Like a branch cut from a tree, we will wither away on our own. We may be able to become successful through smart decisions and hard work, but constantly operating in the background is a society that supports us. Cory Booker in United writes, “our rightful, long-cherished veneration of individual freedom and self-reliance and our faith in the free market must not be accepted as excuses to fail in our individual responsibilities to preserve our communal treasures.” One of those communal treasures is a society that still manages to support others and create opportunities for others through our connections and collective abilities. What makes us great and has allowed us to grow did not occur on our own, and it is up to us to reflect that support back onto others.

 

Ultimately, our money and wealth say nothing of our value or of the obstacles we overcame to get to the place we find ourselves. Looking back, it is easier to see our sacrifices and hard work, and harder to see the advantages we had. We are dependent on society at the same time that society depends on our best efforts. Being aware of how we benefitted and the advantages we received will help us make better decisions and live less selfishly in respect to others and our society.
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Those in Jail

Senator Cory Booker shares a story about visiting a prison in his book United, and he describes the people he met behind bars. In his passage he describes the men in a way that elevates their humanity, which is a shift from the descriptions most people have of men in prison, which reduces their humanity. Booker writes,

 

“What struck me was how similar this talk was to the ones I’d had in the law school cafeteria with my classmates. The men were sharp and sophisticated. What struck me was how normal they seemed to me; they seemed like guys I knew. By no means did I lose sight of the fact that some of them had committed horrible crimes, but it was also clear that these human beings were much more than the crimes they had committed. To paraphrase Bryan Stevenson, they were much more than the worst things they had done.”

 

It is easy to look at people who have made mistakes and those who had done wrong and to judge them by their shortcomings alone. We seem to do a great job of seeing the flaws in others and criticizing other people’s actions, especially if they are hypocritical, in an effort to elevate ourselves and feel better about the things we have done. Recognizing that other people, especially those who have made large mistakes, are still human and share many aspects of humanity with us requires that we step back, look at ourselves and our own mistakes, and try to understand where individuals made mistakes and how they can move forward from them. It is hard to see people as more than the bad things they have done, and those mistakes can hang over them forever, constantly preventing them from moving on with their lives.

 

Stepping back and looking at others in a way that highlights their humanity over their mistakes is a practice that Marcus Aurelius described. When looking at himself relative to other people he writes, “consider that thou also doest many things wrong, and that though art a man like others; and even if thou dost abstain from certain faults, still thou hast the disposition to commit them, either through cowardice, or concern about reputation or some such mean motive, thou dost abstain from such faults.” This awareness can help us understand that the individuals in prison still matter and that the gap that separates us from them is smaller than we would like to think.

 

Not seeing the humanity in those we arrest leads those individuals to become ostracized from the community, making it harder for them to reconnect with society after they have served their sentence. By treating them as sub-human, rather than recognizing that we have many of the same urges to commit crimes, and by focusing on their worst actions we limit their possibilities. We deny government aid and federal housing assistance to those with criminal backgrounds and employers avoid hiring those who were arrested. Focusing so much fear and avoidance on these individuals makes it difficult for them to feel like citizens, and drives the punishment of their crime well beyond their time in prison. There should be punishment for serious mistakes, but when that punishment extends into perpetuity, we risk pushing people toward more crime in a negative feedback loop that seems to run against the stated purposes of our criminal justice system.

Building a Purpose

Cory Booker starts one of the chapters in his book United with the following quote from George Bernard Shaw,

“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap; the being a force of Nature instead of a feverish selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.”

Acting toward meaningful purposes is not easy and there is always a fear of the hard work, planning, and other people that will be part of the journey. Only by overcoming these initial fears and getting involved in the world can purpose and meaning be sparked in life.

The quote that Booker shares opens a conversation about a man named Frank Hutchins who was a longtime housing advocate and tenant organizer in New Jersey when Booker met him. In the story Booker explains that he dedicated himself to understanding people and helping them find true meaning in their life. Booker recalls his hero, and though he did not die as a hero surrounded by millions of people, he focused his life on something meaningful and impacted thousands of people though many likely never knew who he was.

By focusing on your wants and desires you miss the opportunity to do something meaningful to help improve the world for other people. You may find great success, live comfortably, and have lots of things, but wealth alone does not provide an answer for the purpose question. Only our actions and connection with the world can answer that question. I am not religious, but my wife is and I frequently go with her to community groups and church services, and even within Christianity purpose is built on the actions and connections we have with a world. Those actions and connections are guided by scripture 2,000 years old, but they are natural human tendencies that surely pre-date the idea of a monotheistic god. Developing relationships with others and working to make the world a better place, putting aside hedonistic tendencies and short term thinking was a focus of Marcus Aurelius in Meditations, and was so important that it became part of the Christian bible. It is so important yet often so paradoxical that Booker found the need to explore the idea in his life and book, and in our own lives we are still surprised by the idea.

Seeing Opportunity

In The Obstacle is the Way, Ryan Holiday explains the ways in which we can take our thoughts and ideas and build new paths from the challenges we face. By using the obstacles we face to grow and learn we build our own paths to become the best people we can be.  Holiday uses Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor in the second century, as an example of growing and becoming a more well rounded individual by facing the obstacles in our lives. Speaking of Aurelius he discussed the many challenges he faced as emperor from a major plague, betrayal from his allies, and working alongside his step-brother-co-emperor who was greedy and incompetent. Amidst all these challenges Aurelius sought reason, clarity, and self-improvement, and Holiday writes, “From what we know, he truly saw each and every one of these obstacles as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.”

 

Faced with challenges Aurelius did not blame others or complain about his luck. He never wondered why he faced such obstacles when others did not, and through self-reflection and practices of awareness, he was able to see the commonality of struggle in the lives of all people.

 

Aurelius was an ardent stoic, believing that he held the ultimate power over the faculties of his mind, allowing his thoughts to be strong, his intentions to be unwavering, and his reason to be sound in all situations.  The recognition that no one controls our thoughts, and that we can control our opinions and reactions to the world gives us the strength that we need to face our challenges. When we lament over the difficulties we face and decide that the obstacles are too great, we limit our future and prevent ourselves from growing. Looking at that which blocks our path and learning to shoulder our burdens opens new possibilities for us. Facing our challenges and learning to adapt to them makes us more capable of succeeding in the world.

Impediments to Action

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, Ryan Holiday looks at how we can reach our goals and find success in the face of hardship. Holiday focuses on the challenges we face, how we can overcome those challenges, and how the act of surpassing obstacles shapes us into better people. He follows in the tradition of stoic philosophers focusing on building mental fortitude through awareness and reflection, placing the control of our ability to overcome impediments in our own hands, or more accurately, in our own minds. Holiday begins his book by quoting Marcus Aurelius,

 

“Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

 

Holiday continues, interpreting the short paragraph, “In Marcus’s words is the secret to an art known as turning obstacles upside down. To act with a “reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.”

 

His writing focuses on how we can grow and find new opportunities when we change the way we look at obstacles. Aurelius recognized that obstacles and impediments created opportunities for those who were brave enough and creative enough to approach them rather than run from them. Holiday explains that perseverance and a unique approach to the world can turn new opportunities into defining moments. When we see a challenge we should not back away from it, but we should study that obstacle and work to fully understand what we are presented with and what it would look like to overcome it.

 

By facing challenges and striving to reach the other end of the path we grow and develop a greater understanding of the world. We may not always be successful in our actions, but we can still learn and grow. Our path forward will be defined by the lessons we learn and the skills we develop by scaling the mountains that block our path.

Proud of Pride

“For the pride which is proud of its want of pride is the most intolerable of all.” Marcus Aurelius wrote near the end of his common place book published as Meditations. He wrote this after encouraging a simple lifestyle, free from desires for material possessions or fame, and instead ruled by reason and virtue.  What Aurelius throughout his book encourages us to do is live a life where we are not striving to reach the goals of others or to seek success for the purpose of impressing others. He encourages us to abandon that pride, think deeply about others, and to live a humble life, recognizing that our time on Earth is finite. For Aurelius the most important thing we can develop is our relationships, and things like pride get in the way of becoming a truly connected and compassionate person in the lives of those around us.

 

Before the quote above Aurelius writes, “Think of the eager pursuit of anything conjoined with pride; and how worthless everything is after which men violently strain.” By encouraging us to avoid pride and to seek relationships, he is encouraging us to live well with those around us and to recognize the needs of our society. Striving to be great is not a negative thing on its own, but when it is combined with a desire to obtain great wealth and material possessions, or to impress to others, the goal of greatness becomes a trap that we cannot escape.

 

Aurelius would not have argued that we should never feel pride, but that we should redirect that pride away from selfish desires. By focusing on others and helping others we can develop a sense of pride that results from becoming a more connected and well rounded human being, and we can enjoy the self-confidence that flows with that pride. Ultimately however, we must make sure that we are not feeding that pride for our own self-interests and we must ensure that our pride is generated from actions that are benevolent toward all.

Actions

Marcus Aurelius guided his life with rational thought and reason developed from self-awareness and deep reflection of the world around him. As the Roman Emperor he recorded his thoughts in a journal that would be published as the book Meditations, giving us a chance to see the world through the eyes of a stoic focused on better understanding himself and his place in the world.  The advice he left himself is advice we can still use today. His recommendations surrounding the actions and decisions we make is simple, but can have powerful impacts in our lives.

 

“First, do nothing inconsiderately, nor without a purpose. Second, Make thy acts refer to nothing else than to a social end.” Aurelius explains in this brief section that our actions should be well thought out, intentional, and meant to in one way provide a societal benefit. Actions that we make in a rash manner or actions that only benefit ourselves are not going to help us grow and improve, and they will not better those around us.

 

When Aurelius uses the word inconsiderately, he refers to the idea of thoughtfully thinking through our actions. He is not just advising us to avoid actions that are not nice for other people, but rather he is encouraging us not to act without first thinking deeply. Building this into our lives today could mean something along the lines of thinking about why we want to eat a bag of chips before we grab one, whether we will just walk past an empty water bottle in the street, or if we will spend our time watching television or doing something more productive. His encouragement to be considerate equates to us being more thoughtful and less impulsive in our actions, and to us spending more time finding ways to help others.

 

Continuing with this quote and the Emperor’s idea that all of our actions should be done with a purpose and toward a social end, we begin to reshape our purpose on this planet. Our actions should be performed with the greatest focus and intent, and the end result should benefit not just ourselves, but our entire society. When we look for ways to help out everyone and not just ourselves it becomes easier to put a full effort into our work. If our work is incomplete or poorly executed, it is not just us but society that suffers. Aurelius’ advice is to think about the actions and decisions we are making at any moment, reflect to see how our actions could be more beneficial for society, and to execute on our actions.