Sunday, July 10, 2016

How other people's failures can spur you to success

There's been a lot of  successful people failing  recently - enough to make up a supergroup - like, say, the Spice Girls.  Comedian Ashley Baker  certainly thought so .....

Tony Blair and Michael Gove could easily be added to this list of recent  and very public failures, though I'm not sure which Spice Girls they would be ...

Whilst schadenfreude is a very human reaction,   more positive  responses are  also possible. That's what this post is about  - How other people's failures can spur you on to success.

So what are some constructive reactions to the demise of the successful? Here are a few better ones :-

"Everyone fails sometimes - so there is no reason for me to be ashamed of  possible failure"      
         "Failure is part of the process  of success"

         "If that lot can fail, it's OK for me to fail....."

          "I shouldn't even call it failure.  I should reframe a setback as not reaching my target yet"
My personal favourite though  isThomas Edison's response to a journalist's question about the number of attempts he had  needed to invent a commercially viable lightbulb
 "Mr Edison, How did it feel to fail 10,000 times?" 
            To which Edison replied :-

         "I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work"

Thomas Edison Quote, photo credit to BK, Creative Commons License CC-SA-2.0

Thomas Edison's is a prime example of someone with a growth mindset

There are two basic views about success.

The first is that either you have talent or not. If you've got it, then  you should succeed pretty much all the time. You shouldn't need to work at it. If  you haven't got talent, there's no point even trying. This attitude  is called a fixed mindset.

The other view is that talent is less important than effort. Even if you've got talent, you will need to work hard and purposefully, and you can expect to fail plenty of times on the way. If you aren't blessed with so much talent, you may still be able to reach a high level of achievement, given sufficient practice and determination. This attitude is called the growth mindset. Betty Edwards' art classes for adults who (like me!) have been told they are useless at art, but wish to see if they can improve, is a wonderful illustration of what people can achieve if they embrace a growth mindset. The before and after self-portraits of those who attended her 5 day art course are a revelation and an inspiration.

Whilst there is some evidence that at least one of the famous five mentioned in the tweet is seeing his failure in growth mindset terms, this post is designed to help you rather than them...

So what can you take from this? I think there are two main lessons.
  • Don't avoid taking a risk for fear of failure
               If David Cameron, Chris Evans and the rest can fail, why should the rest of us expect all of our enterprises to work?  Better to try and fail than never to try at all. One of the commonest regrets of the dying, according to a nurse who made a study of it, was not having the courage to live a life true to oneself.
  • Learn from Failure
        Not everything we do will succeed. The trick to achievement isn't so much to have self-confidence (that would be the fixed mindset, either I have got it or I haven't) as to expect not  to succeed sometimes  and then to learn from your mistakes. If you don't get a job, get feedback, take note of it and apply for another job using the feedback.  If you have a row with your partner, or get angry when you shouldn't, analyse what has gone wrong and plan to do differently next time. If you can't draw for a toffee, go on Betty Edwards' 5 day course .

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Brexit: 5 Stoic Strategies to help you cope

Is your reaction to Britain's decision to leave the EU anticipatory delight at the prospect of  a new era of British autonomy?  Do you find yourself  nodding approvingly at proposals to make June 23rd  Independence Day or "St.Nigel's Day"? If so, I suggest you read no further. You have no need for a Stoic response to Brexit.

But maybe  thoughts like these have been popping into your head since Friday morning:-
"I'm so disappointed in the attitude of my fellow citizens"
"At this moment I am ashamed to be British" 
"I am really worried about the future - what will the effect be on future generations?" 
"I am very concerned that this will unleash the forces of Little Englandism and bigotry" 
"Will this be the start of the break up of the UK?" 
"Will this be the end of the European dream?" 
"I am worried that I or my friends or loved ones won't be able to stay in the UK" 
"I am angry with David Cameron for a political gamble with all our futures" 
"I am hoping that I will wake up and the Brexit result will turn out to be  a nightmare"

Such thoughts bring with them emotions extending from disappointment to shame, feelings ranging  from mild anxiety to fear, and frustrations fluctuating from mild irritation  to anger. Some of you may be  worried where it will all end.  As one friend told me "It's not like when  David Bowie died and you were really upset  for a few days but  got over by listening to Ashes to Ashes and Life on Mars. The consequences of Brexit will be with us forever."

 Long ago, a group of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers devised an excellent life philosophy  - Stoicism - to help them deal with adversities worse than Brexit. In this post I will describe
 5 Stoic strategies to help you handle Brexit.

Stoic Strategy # 1 Analyse your mood  

Moods and emotions are not, according to the Stoics, an inevitable consequence of things that happen to us. They  result from an interplay of events and our interpretations of them. In Epictetus's words
"People  are disturbed not by things, but the views which they take of them”            Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5

Take a  moment to reflect on your mood since Brexit. Picture yourself in this mood, as in  comic or  a graphic novel ("Nightmare on Farage Street?"). What would be in your thought bubble? Would it be any of the 9 thoughts mentioned above?
 Now ask yourself these questions.

  • Need this thought be 100% true? 
  • Is there a different way of looking at things?
  • Is there anything helpful I can do to deal with this concern?

Stoic Strategy #1 may seem familiar to devotees of CBT which isn't so surprising since CBT stole them from Stoicism. For the Stoic, they are  just the beginning.

Stoic Strategy #2:  Accept those aspects of the situation which you cannot change
"What, then, is to be done? To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it naturally happens." Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1.17
None of us are gods (not even you Boris, should you be reading this) and there are limitations to what we can change. Thinking otherwise will inevitably leas to frustration and other negative emotions. Applying this to Brexit, it isn't in our power to change the result, so there is no point dwelling on all the "if onlys".  Dwelling on the past or worrying unhelpfully about the future is a very dangerous strategy. Indeed, for the past few years I have analysed thousands of questionnaires  during Stoic Week to discover the relationship between our  attitudes and  happiness.  The  attitude that is consistently the  least conducive to well-being is

     "I spend quite a lot of time dwelling on what’s gone wrong the past or worrying about the future"

If you notice yourself doing this, remind yourself that this is really unhelpful and look for a more fruitful way to spend your time. By all means  try to learn from mistakes and  make plan about what's to be done. But these aren't dwelling or worrying, it's trying to change the things you can, which is our next Stoic strategy ...

Stoic Strategy #3: Change those aspects of the situation which you can (and should) change

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are  our opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Epictetus, The Enchiridion

 Stoicism should not be confused with a philosophy of quietism or resignation.  Stoics  argue that you both can change your emotions and should do the right thing. Stoicism can help you to reframe unhelpful thoughts and consequently feel  calmer and develop wiser action plans. Here are are nine understandable but ultimately unhelpful ways of looking at Brexit and how to reframe them Stoically.

#1:"I'm so disappointed in the attitude of my fellow citizens " & 
           #2: "At this moment I am ashamed to be British" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Disapointment possibly spiralling down into despair if left unchecked & Shame
What I can't control:  How other people have voted
What I can control: My own attitude to how they voted
Stoic reframe: "I am disappointed  in the attitude of many of my fellow citizens but I can't control their attitudes. Furthermore I can't be held responsible for the attitudes of other British people, so shame is not appropriate. What I can control is my reaction, which can be to be an inspiring role model of how British people should be   -see Stoic Strategy  #4
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and determination

#3:"I am really worried about the future - what will be the effect on the next generation?" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The future
What I can control: My own behaviour, which may have a positive influence on the future (though this cannot be guaranteed)
Stoic reframe:"I can't control the future, there isn't any point worrying  about it, unless my analysis can produce a good action plan. I can use the Stoic Worry Tree   and get involved in projects that can help the next generation.
Stoic emotion: Calm, focussed and determined
#4:"I am very concerned this will unleash the forces of little Englandism and bigotry" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The political and social environment
What I can control: My own behaviour in so far as it can be part of a ripple effect exemplifying positive virtues
Stoic reframe:"I can't control society, but I can be a role model for cosmopolitanism and tolerance.  One way of doing this might be tweeting such Stoic exercises as the Concentric Circles of Hierocles
Stoic emotion: Caring
#5:"Will this be the start of the break up of the UK?" & 
#6:"Will this be the end of the European dream?" 

Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: The political and social environment
What I can control: My own behaviour
Stoic reframe: "I can't control whether the UK breaks up - I'll cross that bridge when I come to it. With regards to the European dream, whilst I can't control what governments do, I can act like a good European. Marcus Aurelius used to say "concentrate every minute like a Roman". I should "concentrate every minute like a good European".
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and resolve

#7:"I am worried that I or my friends or loved ones won't be able to stay in the UK" 
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anxiety
What I can't control: Decisions made by government
What I can control:How I relate to my friends or loved ones
Stoic reframe: "I can't control what happens with regards to employment law though I could try to influence it by campaigning. More immediately, I can be as supportive as possible to those I care about, being a rock for them to lean on, helping them emotionally and in practice ways."
Stoic emotion: Concern and full of purpose

#8: "I am angry with David Cameron for a political gamble with all our futures"
Pre-Stoic emotion: Anger
What I can't control: Decisions made by David Cameron
What I can control:  My thoughts about decisions made by David Cameron
Stoic reframe: "I can't control the past, least of all that relating to our Prime Minister's actions. It would be  futile  to dwell on this. I need to focus my energy on things that matter that are under my control
Stoic emotion: Calm
#9:"I am hoping that I will wake up and the Brexit result will turn out to be  a nightmare"
Pre-Stoic emotion:Incredulity
What I can't control: The result
What I can control:  My  response to the result
Stoic reframe: "The result of the referendum has gone against my hopes. I need to accept the result and then move on to thinking about how   I can respond like a good Stoic and a good citizen of Europe and the world"
Stoic emotion: Acceptance and resolve to respond with Stoic virtue

Stoic Strategy #4:  Ultimately, external things we want  - like wealth,  status, pleasure, power and even health -  that aren't under our control  aren't nearly as  important  as  how we conduct ourselves, which is under our control
“Seek not the good in external things;seek it in yourselves.” Epictetus
The Stoic outlook is not a dismal one. Stoics believe in  the potential for  a virtuous circle of positive emotion, ethical behaviour and happiness.  First we learn to reframe our thoughts so we try to control only the controllables, thereby avoiding much  frustration .  Next we recognise that what we have most control over is our own thinking and conduct.  But exactly how should  we think and behave? The Stoic answer is that we should aim to develop the cardinal virtues summarised admirably by Professor Christopher Gill in this way:-

                 Wisdom - understanding how to act and feel correctly; 
                 Courage -  knowing how to act and feel correctly in situations of danger, in facing things seen as fearful (above all, death and other ‘disasters’); 
                Self-control - knowing how to act and feel well in situations arousing other emotions such as desire, appetite, lust; 
                Justice - knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with other people, at individual, family or communal level, knowing how to act generously and with positive benevolence, with friendship and affection.

According to the Stoics, developing these virtues is within our power.  So focusing on virtue means we are at the same time controlling the controllables and leading (morally) good lives. We will also increasing our chances of happiness. If this last claim seems at all fanciful, then the results of Stoic Week do indeed suggest a strong link between Stoicism and happiness , as does other research.

So how can the cardinal virtues be  applied to this situation? Here are some ideas.

                 Wisdom -  Reflecting on what is and is not under our control, what really matters and what we need to do
                 Courage -  Doing the right thing even if it brings about inconvenience or discomfort to ourselves 
                Self-control - Avoiding lashing out angrily at those  who do not share our views. Noticing and halting  thoughts that lead  to self-pity or despair
                Justice - Working at both a personal and communal level to help those adversely affected by Brexit. Being  a positive role model of a good European and citizen of the world

Stoic Strategy #5: See difficulties as a challenge and an opportunity

“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests. ”  Epictetus

John Sellars  argues that Stoics should actually welcome  adversities as a chance to develop and prove themselves.
"It is only through a real fight that the wrestler can develop his skills and prove his talent. Likewise in life, it is only through apparent adversity that we get to prove our character." 
Let us consider both those ideas in relation to Brexit.   It provides the opportunity to develop character - to notice your unhelpful ways of thinking and responding   and to replace them with unhelpful ones. Brexit also gives you the opportunity to prove yourself.  Churchill  - himself an  early advocate of a united Europe - would not  have had the opportunity to show his qualitiesif it had not  been for Hitler. Brexit gives  you have the opportunity to show wisdom, courage, self-control and justice.

I hope to have shown that Stoicism can be a useful philosophy for dealing with real-life adversities like the prospect of Britain leaving the EU .  Whilst we cannot change what has happened, we can learn how to think about it rationally and and how to conduct ourselves like a good citizen of Europe and the world.  Up next - the Stoic response should Donald Trump get elected as President....

Monday, May 30, 2016

The 2 steps to Achieving your Potential Through Positive Psychology

A few years ago a friend said to me "Tim, you've been working with clients and students for many years, you've been putting together  some great ideas from psychology and philosophy, why don't you put down what you've learnt in a way that we can all understand?"

This seemed such a nice  idea that I spent the next 18 months doing what he'd suggested, and the result was Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology.

A few weeks ago the same friend said to  me "Tim, I got your book, I like it, it's great". This was good, but to be honest  I didnt  write the book just to get compliments, I wrote it to help people. So I asked him "That's lovely to hear, how has it helped you?"  "Well", he ventured "I'm not sure excactly, I've done the 3 good things exercise a few times ... I'm sure some of it's helping me by osmosis!".

The thing is, I know from my experience as a coach and therapist that whilst osmosis works great for plants it's not really so effective  for humans .. 

I've learnt that there are two steps to achieving your potential through positive psychology  - first learning Positive Psychology and then living Positive Psychology

Step 1 Learning Positive Psychology

There's a complete Positive Psychology Toolkit on page 247-8 of Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology.   Whilst comprehensive, that list have seemed a  a bit daunting for my friend, so here are 3 of my favourites  to start you off today.

1) Three Good Things

An oldie but a goodie. Recently I heard  Positive Psychology's founder Martin Seligman presentshis latest thoughts in London   and once again  he enthusiastically recommended this exercise.

Here is the Three Good Things Exercise

Think of 3 good things that happened in the last 24 hours. In addition think about what you did to contribute to them happening. Don't set the bar too high and don't neglect any small part you had in making it happen. For example, supposing the sun shone -you noticed it. A friend called - you have helped maintain that friendship in the past. Find a good time to do this every day - the end of the day works for many people. You might like to share this exercise with friends and family.

2) Random Acts of Kindness Days

One day in the next week, do 5 random acts of kindness.  The acts of kindness do not have to be large. Don't do anything that could put you or anyone else at risk.

 Here's a list of possible acts of kindness and here's a Facebook group dedicated to random acts of kindness.

Send postcard to a friend even when not on holiday
Help elderly person to cross road
Cook something for someone else
Buy coffee anonymously
Hold a door open
Give people compliments genuinely
Tell loved ones how important they are to you
Say thank you to bus drivers
Listen properly
Give leftovers to a homeless person
Tell people how much you value them
Call or Skype a  relative or friend
Do  an act of kindness for yourself as well for other people
Find out about  Effective Altruism and how your donation to charity can make the most difference

One of the things I love about Positive Psychology is that it really goes beyond what you'd find out in self-help books to discover what really works. Which do you think makes people  happier - Having acts of kindness concentrated in a day or spreading them out? It's the former, so whilst its great to do regular acts of kindness, most likely it will make you happier if every so often you schedule a kindness day where you perform 5 or more random acts of kindness.

3) Be aware of and use your strengths (and manage your weaknesses)

There's a lot of research to suggest that using your strengths helps happness and effectiveness, as long as you do this wisely - for example by managing your weaknesses. Here are 2 ways to learn what you need to do start doing this more.
  • Ask 3 friends (or family members or work colleagues) to identify 3 good points and one weakness. Ask them to give evidence for each strength and weakness. It’s important to tell them that you value honest feedback, and ask for it to be in writing. 

Once you are more aware of your strengths, use them in a new way each day. For example, one of my strengths is love of learning, so I started today by learning a bit more about altruism through this Ted Talk
It's also helpful to know and manage your weaknesses. For example, if you are an ideas person but not a completer-finisher, then it would not be such a great idea to team up with another ideas person - you will just be competing with each other and mutually frustrated when nothing gets implemented. Instead, team up with someone who is the polar opposite of you - someone who is willing to listen to your ideas and get them done.

There are many more more simple yet evidence-based and effective ideas in the Positive Psychology Toolkit  but it's better to implement two or three ideas than to try to take it all on at once.

Step  2 Living Positive Psychology

I've written before about  how  the New 3 Rs can help you to flourish 

The New 3Rs are Repetition, Reminders and Rituals.  Do you brush your teeth everyday? Is that helpful? Could exercising your strengths, or thinking of 3 good things each day or doing random acts of kindness be a useful ritual to carry out each day or, in the case of the acts of kindness, perhaps once a month? If you are agree, then it's just a matter of embedding these and other activities in your life until they become habits, just like brushing your teeth.

What could work well for you to learn and live more positively?

Here are a few ideas

  • Do a daily Positive Psychology Workout
  • Team up with someone to share Positive Psychology ideas
  • Join a positive psychology class or Action for Happiness
  • Put lists of these ideas on your fridge, or phone, or email them to yourself
  • Incorporate a Positive Psychology ritual (such as 3 Good Things or meditation) into an existing ritual (such as brushing your teeth).
  • Read some Positive Psychology each day or watch a Ted Talk or listen to a Positive Psychology podcast
  • Keep a Positive Psychology journal, listing what you've done today, what you've learnt and what you intend to do tomorrow
Do you want to try any of these ideas? Have you got any ideas of your own for learning and living Positive Psychology, if so, add them to the comments section.

Have a great day


Sunday, December 20, 2015

Its not your fault but it is your responsibility

Imagine this.  Your grandfather bequeaths you his pet dog.You have always liked the dog. It's cuddly, it's great with kids, it can do tricks.  And you have to take it, it was your grandfather's dying wish.   There's just one tricky thing about the dog. He hates cats, and given the chance will kill them.

You take the dog, You didn't really have a choice, You are now in possession of a dangerous dog.

Is it your fault? No, it was your grandfather's dying wish that you look after the dog well.
Is it your responsibility to make sure the dog doesn't kill cats? What do you think?
Is it your responsibility to keep the dog on a lead, to keep a look out for cats, and go in the other direction whenever you have the dog out for a walk and spot a cat?

How does this connect with you?

We all have tricky brains. Our brain has evolved to keep us safe from prehistoric dangers so  we are all prone to be more angry and anxious (to name but two tricky emotions) than is often helpful.
Many of you may  have had tricky lives so far. You didn't choose to be born into the family you were born into. You didn't choose to  have all the difficult experiences you have had. You didn't choose to have a tricky brain.

It's not your fault.

But it is your responsibility.

It's  not your fault  but it is your problem. It's your responibility to learn how to deal with a tricky brain and tricky emotions.
The dog owner should not  blame herself for owning a dangerous dog. You should not  blame yourself for owning a tricky brain.
But the dog owner should accept responsibility to keep everyone  safe.  You should  try to learn about and develop ways of keeping yourself and others safe.

It is your responsibility to try to become a better version of yourself.

Yoda would say  that's it's your responsibility to do more than just try ....

Thursday, November 05, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #4: The Serenity Prayer

You may have already encountered this saying, the Serenity Prayer, perhaps on a tablemat in a souvenir shop or as the prayer associated with AA (Alcoholics Anonymous). You may have written it off either as a clich├ęd truism or as applicable only to alcoholics. If so, can I ask you to now reread the Serenity Prayer, now, slowly, as if you were reading it the first time? You may end up believing, like me, that far from offering trite advice it contains the essence of Stoic wisdom. You just have to  look at the first sentence of Epictetus's Handbook to discover the Stoic roots of the Serenity Prayer.

Why do I like the Serenity Prayer so much? Let’s look at each of the three parts  in turn.

First, have the serenity to accept what you can’t change. Think about some things that you really, really can’t change. Perhaps the fact you weren’t born a millionaire, or that the world is not always a fair place. What is the best attitude you can take to these realities? To get angry? No, you’ll only make a bad situation worse. To try to put things right? By definition, no, because these are thing that you can’t change, so it will just be wasted energy. Accepting the situation and not letting it disturb your peace of mind is the only appropriate response.

What about things that you can (and should) change? Although by definition these are things we can change, this doesn’t mean it’s easy, popular or risk-free to do so. It’s not easy to change oneself into being a more patient person (but it can be done). It is not always popular to campaign for something you believe in (but things can change as a result). We can change these things, but we need courage to do so.

Finally, and above all, we need the wisdom to tell the difference between the things we can change and the things we can’t change. We can’t change the fact that we were not born a millionaire, but we can put effort into becoming richer, or change our attitude to not being so wealthy. We can’t make the world a completely fair place, but we can make the world a fairer place. Usually there will be some aspects of a situation we can change, and some aspects we can’t. We need to distinguish which is which and then change courageously or accept serenely as appropriate

What I like most about the Serenity Prayer is how easy it is to recall and apply in difficult situations. Such a situation happened to me a while ago, a few days before I was due to go abroad to a conference I really wanted to go to. Having finished lunch in a restaurant, I checked in my trouser pocket for my wallet –only to discover that it wasn’t there. I looked next in my jacket pocket – no wallet. Neither was it in my briefcase or anywhere else. I tried to think back to when I last saw it, and recalled having it on entering a train station a few hours before. I also remembered someone bumping into me rather carelessly (or so I thought at the time) soon after. I guessed the rest. What to do? It must have been several hours ago that he stole my wallet. Thoughts began to race through my mind. What else did I have in my wallet? Had he already bankrupted me by using my credit cards? If only I’d taken a different journey…. If only I’d checked my pocket after he’d bumped into me… Maybe I’d have to cancel my conference trip …

Luckily, before these thoughts got completely out of control, I remembered the Serenity Prayer. I had to accept with serenity what I could not change. Well, I could not change the fact that my wallet had been stolen. There was no point beating myself up or fretting about these unchangeables – that would cause me to be even more upset and also stop me thinking about what I could change. So, what could I change? Well, obviously I could limit my liability – first thing was to phone the bank. Then I could arrange for the credit card company to see if they could send me new cards before my travel – there was just sufficient time for them to do so. In future, I resolved, I would be more alert to people bumping into me. Using the Serenity Prayer helped me deal constructively with this mini-crisis, and it has helped me many times since. Forget the table mat image and AA associations and focus on the underlying Stoic message and it can be of great assistance to you too.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #3: Stoic advice on how to be more self-controlled

On Monday, we looked at how Stoicism can help us be more compassionate by using negative visualisation to imagine difficult people, then remembering how we are all fallible human beings to help us be more compassionate and less irritable.

Yesterday we cited Epictetus’s dictum “Persist and Resist”, focusing on how Stoicism can help us be more persistent – in modern parlance, show more “grit”. Today’s modern Stoic meditation will look at the other half of Epictetus’s dictum, and help us all to be more self-controlled.

How many of us can honestly say we are very self-controlled? According to research by the Values in Action Institute (VIA), not many, as self-control comes out near the bottom of the 24 mini-virtues (“strengths”) in terms of how much responders say they own it.  Yet, as Walter Mischel’s best-seller The Marshmellow Test, shows, it is a very important virtue – strongly linked with achievement, well-being and health.

So how can Stoicism help us be more self-controlled?

The first important thing to remember, according to the Stoics, is that self-control is within our power.

As Marcus Aurelius reminds us,  “You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” (Meditations). 

So why is it that we so often aren’t self-controlled? Too often we succumb to  thoughts that allow us to make an exception, just this once. We might use that most  non-Stoic saying  of Oscar Wilde “I can resist everything except temptation” to rationalise our action.“

"Nonsense!” reply the Stoics, "You can resist temptation, you are just allowing unhelpful thoughts to rule you. Instead, be ruled by thoughts about the benefits of self-control. Remind yourself of the benefits of self-control and the  problems with the lack of self-control. If you are on a diet, bring to mind the benefits of losing weight.  If you are about to get angry, remember the problems that anger has caused you in the past."
 All this is very good advice. Self-control is within your power. Thoughts that might lead you into temptation can be resisted.  

Seneca has one more helpful piece of advice. "The greatest remedy for anger is delay." Again, modern psychology supports the Stoics. Taking a number of slow breaths is a very useful way to control any impulse – it calms the body down and gives time for reason to convince us to do the right thing.

Let’s put all of this together and imagine being self-controlled like a good Stoic.  So close your eyes and think of an area of life where you would like to be more self-controlled – it could be regarding food, drink or showing irritation. Next imagine that temptation comes your way and practice saying to yourself “Resist, Resist.” If you notice thoughts tempting you not to resist, say to yourself “I have the power to resist.”  Picture vividly in your mind’s eye the worst problems that might be caused by your lack of self-control. Then think of the benefits to you if you are self-controlled. Finally, take a few deep breaths, and imagine yourself over-coming unhelpful desires.  Like an actor learning her lines,  you will eventually learn to perfect your script to  help you be more self-controlled.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Modern Stoic Meditations #2: Persist, Persist

According to Favorinus, Epictetus would also say that there were two vices much blacker and more serious than the rest: lack of persistence and lack of self-control. The former means we cannot bear or endure hardships that we have to endure, the latter means that we cannot resist pleasures or other things we ought to resist. ‘Two words,’ he says, ‘should be committed to memory and obeyed by alternately exhorting and restraining ourselves, words that will ensure we lead a mainly blameless and untroubled life.’ These two words, he used to say, were ‘persist and resist’.”

Epictetus, Fragment 10, “Discourses and Selected Writings”

Anyone who says that philosophers are too obscure or complicated should be made to read that quote.  Stoicism couldn’t be simpler. We must commit the words “Persist and Resist” to memory and keep saying them to ourselves. Move over mindfulness,  recite the “persist and resist” mantra instead.

Contemporary psychologists  have vindicated the importance of persisting and resisting.  Psychologist Angela Duckworth has led research on grit  - which she defines as the tendency to sustain interest in and effort toward very long-term goals.  Walter Mischel, famous for his Marshmallow Test,  has for many years argued that self-control –the  quality that allows you to stop yourself from doing things you want to do but that might not be in your best interest - is key to achievement and well-being, So when Epictetus tells us that persisting and resisting are key, he is clearly on to something.

In today’s meditation I will focus on persistence, and how Stoicism help us persist. 

We already know that we can use it as a mantra, how else can Stoicism help us?
At the time when we feel like giving up, we can train ourselves to become aware of the negative  thoughts that make us feel that way. We can then remind ourselves  “This negative thought is  just an impression in my mind and not an objective fact like it claims to be.”  For example, if I am trying to write an article and the thought 
“You will never finish it” comes into my mind”, I can respond by reminding myself that "This is just a thought, not a fact."

As well as negative thoughts, people often give up because of a setback. Here the Stoic advice to think of what the sage would do in this situation is valuable. When it comes to dealing with setbacks, I really admire the attitudes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edison. Churchill said "Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm." Thomas Edison suggested "Negative results are just what I want. They're just as valuable to me as positive results. I can never find the thing that does the job best until I find the ones that don't." When asked by a journalist how he had coped with failing in his first 10000 attempts to invent the lightbulb he responded “I   had not failed. I had just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”  

The Stoics give us one more relevant piece of wisdom in the analogy of the archer. An archer should take accurate aim, and then accept  fate if the arrow gets blown off course. In the same way we should focus on what is under our control and not get discouraged if fate prevents success. We should control the controllables.

So the Stoics give us four excellent pieces of advice when it comes to persisting and developing grit. We can use the mantra “persist”, we can challenge the validity of discouraging thoughts, we can reframe failure in the same way as the sages on success and failure do, and we can focus on what we can control and leave the rest to fate.

Let’s spend a few moments using a visualisation to help us build up the virtue of persistence.

So think of something you want to achieve – it could be completing Stoic Week, or changing career, or getting fitter – or something else that is important to you.  Imagine trying to achieve this and then something getting in the way. Now in your mind’s eye imagine saying to yourself “Persist, Persist”. Next imagine a negative thought getting in the way – perhaps “I’ll try again next year when circumstances are better”. Remind yourself that this thought is just an opinion, it’s not an objective fact. Reflect, like Thomas Edison did, on what you can learn from this setback. Perhaps you’ve learnt another way not to do it! Finally think of something you can do that is under your control to take you in the right direction. Imagine doing it, whilst repeating to yourself–persist, persist, persist. Then imagining yourself persisting until you succeed.

Tomorrow we will look at the second part of Epictetus’s mantra- Resist – how to be more self-controlled.

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