Immediate Reactions

Author Colin Wright discusses the ways in which our unconscious brain picks up on small cues and differences about people that we meet before we are able to form complete judgements of others as human beings. These small cues and differences shape the way we think about other people and influence our behavior, often times without us ever realizing.  In his book, Come Back Frayed, Wright explains this phenomenon by writing the following:

 

“It’s remarkable how our peculiarities can set us apart so dramatically and rapidly. Even before we truly recognize each other as humans, as complete people with depth and density, we recognize things about strangers that help us categorize the world. These biases, and sometimes prejudices, color the world around us with tones that guide our actions and opinions.”

 

Before we have met someone we are already preparing ourselves for what we expect our interactions with them to be like. These biases are huge because they prevent us from treating everyone as openly and fairly as we would like, and they exist within ourselves and within the other person at the same time. The way we frame the other person and the types of expectations we bring to a  conversation shape the actions and behaviors that we will have. If we instantly feel negative feelings at the sight of another, it is unlikely that our interactions with them will be positive.

 

Wright would encourage us to become more self-aware and to develop processes of self-recognition so that we can acknowledge those moments when we have immediate reactions to another person. We can develop skills to notice when the tribal part of our brain labels someone as an outsider, and drives us to act in ways that push the other person away. Becoming self-aware helps us see the ways in which these small cues influence much of the way we interact with the world, and gives us the power to better control the world around us.

 

If we fail to gain perspective over our instant reactions to other people, then we will never allow people who are different from us to truly participate in society. Our actions will be colored by the reactionary perceptions of our brain, and we will never develop the empathy needed to improve the world for all of those around us. Accepting  that we judge others before ever meeting them, and before we ever consider who they are as human beings, give us the ability to overcome biases, and to help society become more connected and unified regardless of race, ideology, age, or gender.

Avoiding Extremes

Colin Wright is an author, podcast host, and in to some degree full time traveler writing about his experiences and the ways in which he has come to see the world through stoic principles of self-awareness and mindful consideration. In his recent book, Come Back Frayed, Wright details his experiences living in the Philippines and explains ways in which his lifestyle contribute to his being able to not just survive, but thrive in very different environments and places. One of Wright’s traits lending to a successful lifestyle of travel is his ability to avoid extremes in terms of thought, behavior, and desires. Regarding extremes he writes,

 

“Extremes are insidious because they’re incredibly valuable until they’re not. At some point on the usefulness curve, they transition, hyde-like, to harmful. Even water is deadly if you drink too much of it.
Avoiding extremes has become an integral part of my lifestyle, because I find that walking up to that line, toeing it, and then stepping back to stand on healthier, more stable ground is what allows me to work and live and enjoy the world around me without suffering the consequences of burnout, sleep-deprivation, ill-health, and fanaticism.”

 

I enjoy this passage because Wright explains the importance of remaining even and level in our actions. It is easy, tempting, and often encouraged to push toward an extreme in whatever we are doing with our lives, but in the long run the consequences of living on the extremes can be disastrous. Pursuing diets without flexibility, driving toward completing incredible amounts of work, and even participating in non-stop leisure can lead to worse outcomes than if we had been more balanced in our approach. Focusing so highly on one area may help us find incredible success, but as we push further toward the extremes, we must out of necessity, and limitations on our time and energy, give up attention for other areas of our life. Without stopping to take notice of our focus, we will find that suddenly, our laser detail on one extreme, has allowed other areas to become problematic.

 

This is the sudden change that Wright discusses in his quote above. Extremes push us to places where the supports that allow for our behavior become weakened and unable to further support our specific efforts. Because our focus is so set in one area, it also means we are oblivious to areas we have chosen to neglect, and when problems arise, we might not know where to look to find solutions.

 

Greatness and deliberate action are things to strive for, but we should recognize what we are sacrificing to reach those goals. As we drive further toward extremes in pursuit of excellence, we will notice that we must take our focus away from other areas. Being conscious of our decisions and recognizing when we are approaching extreme points will help us find a place where we can continue to seek greatness on more stable footing.

Anger

A pillar of stoicism is the ability to control ones emotions, especially when it comes to negative emotions and states in which we are more likely to harm others. Throughout his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius, the 2nd century Roman Emperor, reflects on the ideas of anger, contempt, and our thoughts toward other people.  He explains the benefits of calm and collected thought when we are frustrated and feel as though we have been wronged.  Through self-reflection he reminds us of the importance of considering our own actions as if we were in another person’s shoes, and with self-awareness he urges us to think about our actions and how we would like ourselves to behave.

 

Aurelius writes, “Consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger and vexation caused by such acts than by the acts themselves, at which we are angry and vexed.” When looking at this quote it is easy to think about the importance of not becoming angry, but I think it is more important actually visualize the situation described by aurelius. We can think about how we could have handled situations differently, and we can imagine ways in which we could have been more responsible for ourselves or for others. Keeping this quote in mind and thinking about our conflicts and how we could have mitigated them by controlling our emotions and reactions can help prepare us for future conflicts.

 

Rather than becoming outraged that something negative happened to us, even if that something was an intentional act by another person, we can move forward looking for solutions or ways in which we can use the experience to better ourselves. Aurelius constantly argues for living a life in the present moment, which means recognizing that actions that took place even a second before the present moment no longer impact our current state, particularly in regards to our current actions or decisions.  Stepping back, looking at something that happened, and then deciding that it was not the end of the world will help us make the best decisions as we move forward. If we allow those thoughts, feelings, and emotions to remain, then we give away our self control and let an experience of the past dictate the decisions and actions of our present and future lives.

Turning Words to Action

In Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius shares his thoughts on how to live a meaningful and purposeful life.  The book is his collection of self-reflections on not just how to succeed in life, but how to take advantage of the time we have on this planet, and how to live a life that lets us feel complete.  One of the themes in his book is connecting our beliefs, thoughts, and words with our actions. He encourages us to reflect on our lives and be aware of the ways we think that we and others should behave. If we can be honest with ourselves and recognize wether or not we are truly living up to those standards then we can always ensure that our actions align with our beliefs and that we are moving in the right direction for the right reason.

 

In a short segment in Meditations, Aurelius writes, “No longer talk at all about the kind of man that a good man ought to be, but be such.” To follow through on this advice requires self-reflection and self-awareness to measure our actions against the ideas we have for how  we should live.  Recognizing the areas where we do not act in accordance with our beliefs is not difficult, and we will have no shortage of excuses for why we do not act the way we know we should.  Once we can understand the excuses  and accept our own shortfalls we can begin to enact Aurelius’ advice, and we begin to see that our lives become more fulfilling as we live with a greater intent. Rather than wishing for our lives to be different, we can recognize the changes we want to see, enact them, and putt power and control over our lives back on within our own hands.

 

When we spend time focusing on what a good person should be without looking first inward at ourselves, we abandon hope of living our life with intention, and risk becoming increasingly judgmental of those around us. Cynicism builds in this situation, and we fail to take action to change the world in the direction we want. Instead, we see the negativity around us, assume ourselves to be a beacon of moral righteousness, and fail to improve our life or the lives of those around us.

 

We do not need to speak to others about what we all should expect from life, society, or ourselves, but our actions should define our expectations. When we fail to build our words and thoughts into our daily habits, others will take notice, and our words will become hollow, leaving us increasingly frustrated at our inability to advance and create the change we want to see or expect to see in ourselves and others.

Stoic Self-Awareness

The last couple of years for me have been a journey to better understand my thoughts, motivations, desires, beliefs, and assumptions. I began working on self-awareness after I realized that I did not fully understand the world and what was happening around me. Podcasts helped open my eyes and helped me see that there were many things that I was ignorant of and viewed from only one perspective. From that realization I began to see the importance of self-awareness.  I have continued to make self-awareness a major focus in my life, and Marcus Aurelius echoes and guides my thoughts and feelings of reflection in his collection of writings Meditations.

 

“Those who do not observe the movements of their own minds must of necessity be unhappy,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in regards to self-awareness.  By not focusing on ourselves and by not looking inwards, we are allowing ourselves to move through life without guidance and direction.  The way we think about the world and our position in the world is something we can change and control, but it is also something that can move and fluctuate on its own if we  are not careful. Aurelius is encouraging us to master our thoughts and explore those parts of us which make us who we are.

 

A powerful metaphor that I came across to better explain the importance of self-awareness and reflection came from a young author named Paul Jun. In his book Connect the Dots, Jun described the following metaphor. Think of self-awareness and focus like a flashlight in a dark room.  Your flashlight can illuminate a certain space, and the more narrow the focus of your flashlight the clearer the item you shine it at becomes.  But while you are focused in one area, everything else is obscured. When you begin to take a step back and shine that flashlight at a greater area you will see things that were hidden before.

 

For me, this idea of self-awareness and shining a flashlight of focus on areas that had been dark to my conscious helped me better understand many of the expectations and pressures that I lived with. I thought deeply about what my ideas were regarding success, and where those ideas came from.  I thought about what I expected myself to do as part of the identity I had developed for myself, and I thought about why I had those expectations.  Through a journey of self-awareness I was better able to understand my own morals, values, and principles which gave me the ability to see what things fit in with who I wanted to be and allowed me to act accordingly.

The Reflections of a Stoic

Meditations is a work by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. It is a collection of letters written by Aurelius in his common place book, a journal where he wrote his important thoughts and reflections so that he could return to them and always be cognizant of the lessons life had provided him.

 

Aurelius’ Meditations begins with the emperor reflecting on his childhood, his family, and his upbringing.  He lists lessons that he learned from those around him during his development, and what those lessons meant to him at the time he was writing.  As I return to Aurelius’ thoughts, I am struck by how well his work parallels ideas from Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character. I recently wrote about a study that Kiel completed as part of the research for his business book written over 1,800 years after Aurelius’ meditations, and I am struck by the overlap of the ideas.  Kiel argues that our most successful and responsible business leaders, those who provide the greatest value for those in their lives and the companies they run, are those who have a whole and complete understanding of themselves and the experiences that shaped their lives.  He argues that to be a truly moral and responsible individual you must be able to reflect on the influences that shaped your life, and understand how those influences shaped who you are today.  By understanding and having a complete life story you can better connect with people and be better prepared to lead through having a greater understanding of humanity and your place within society.

 

What Kiel wrote in his book in 2015, Aurelius clearly understood in the 2nd second century.  He explains how he developed the thoughts and ideas that shaped him, and he explains exactly where his character traits and habits come from.

 

The Emperor begins Meditations by writing, “From my grandfather Verus [I learned] good morals and the government of my temper” and he continues, “From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” Aurelius extends beyond family to show what lessons he learned from people in the society in which he lived, “From my governor…I learned endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands…” “From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline … nor to showing myself off as a man who practices much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display.”

 

The quotes above are key tenants of stoicism, and they struck me as very powerful when I first read Meditations. Aurelius explains what forces in his life shaped his thoughts and beliefs, and he continues  throughout his work to show how this backing helped him approach the world in a constructive and positive manner as he governed not only the Roman Empire, but his own mind and actions. Incorporating the ideas outlined above in his quotes can be very powerful in the way we approach others and apply ourselves toward the efforts and goals that we all have.  Remembering that character requires discipline and continual improvement helps us stay humbled in our relationships to others, especially if we can practice such discipline without making a great show or display of it.  When we can focus on these key concepts and understand what molded us into the complete individuals that we are today, we will be better prepared to react to a changing world, and we will better understand our role and place within our society.

Leadership: Act Accordingly

Fred Kiel addresses leadership throughout his book Return on Character and he constantly relates leadership and decision making back to our character development. Kiel focuses on self-awareness and the ability humans have to recognize their decision making and their environment and to grow and change within those frameworks.  Kiel writes, “We aren’t born great leaders, after all; we become great leaders by training ourselves to think and act accordingly.” In this quote he is directly explaining the importance of reflection along our journey to ensure that we are growing in the right direction to help us become great leaders.

 

Kiel’s quote reminds me of Colin Write’s book Act Accordingly and a post I wrote last September. In my post regarding acting accordingly I wrote about the importance of self-awareness and recognizing why we make the decisions we make. That careful consideration requires a dose of self-awareness to help us see not just why we make decisions by why we think the way we do about decisions and how those decisions fit into a framework that we create to explain who we are.

 

When we focus on leadership we must develop a way of thinking about our actions that is in accord with the vision we have for ourselves. If we lack self-awareness then the vision we have for ourselves will not be aligned with what we ultimately want to achieve.  This means we could be bogged down in self-interest and that we may be more focused on our own success than the success of those arounds us, diminishing the quality of our leadership.  Thinking critically of our actions as a leader will help us create habits based on integrity that can guide us and those who are around us to maximize our moral character, building it into our decision making framework.  We can continually grow into this role through practice, and our actions can actually help others learn to develop into leaders of high character as well.