Simple steps for filling your life with ancient wisdom.
You buy a philosophy book, something popular like Meditations. You bought it for a reason, and that was to make your life better. But if you’re anything like me, you quickly realize that you’re a stoic sage when you’re alone, comfy, safe, and reading the text — but a complete novice when you try to take these lessons to the real world.
Why does this happen?
There is an idea in psychology called Context Dependent Memory. In short, when you learn an idea or fact, you will have a much easier time recalling it in the environment in which you learned it. But researchers have even taken this a step further — the mood in which you learn information will be linked to its recall.
So learning your stoic tenants will be very helpful in your moments of reflection. When journaling, I can make so much more sense of what’s happened and where I should go from here. But outside of these moments, I’m as lost as I’ve ever been. I often simply forget what I know, my mind changes too drastically, and I’m lost.
And that’s not all.
What about when you are able to recall, but still find it does no good? I’ve been a practicing stoic for years now, I know the material, and can recall it in many different contexts.(though certainly not all of them) But even still, my mood is gets out of control, my thoughts often take over, and my actions don’t always reflect my stoics beliefs.
I’ve encountered this over and over in my personal experiments.
When I set a phone alarm to go off every day at 3pm — “amor fate” — I remembered then, that loving the moment is sensible and practical and would be the solution to my problems. But remembering did not make me love the moment.
When I wore an arm band that said, “memento mori”, I would occasionally remember that I will die one day, don’t sweat the small stuff. Doing so was helpful, but not permanent or the panacea that I was hoping it would be. I remembered that the blown opportunity was small, but it still felt very large.
So where do we go from here? I’ve found 3 primary ways to hack this and make stoicism useful
Reread, reread, reread
“Never read a book you would not re-read.” — Nassim Taleb, practicing stoic and author
In On Discursiveness in Reading, (the 2nd letter in Letters from a Stoic) Seneca describes a profound shift in how to consume information. Instead of 5 reads of 5 different perspectives, books, or lectures, try reading 1 book 5 times.
Reread those books that are classics and impactful, rather than constantly searching for new insights in other sources. This eliminates 2 common issues with philosophical practice:
1: Forgetting lessons learned
2: Missing insights that can only be gleaned from constant chipping away at the complex ideas within the book
For me, this was an essential step towards making life improvements with philosophy. It has profoundly impacted how I learn and study, not just philosophy, but any subject.
Journaling can be difficult. Often, I forget why I’m even doing it, as many days it seems like writing those things I’m grateful for is a rote exercise of memory, writing about the events of the day is tedious, describing my mental state is vanity and self obsession.
But when I go back and think on those reflections I had a year ago, I’m given the gift of building upon who I was in the past. Without writing them down, will I really internalize the realization that I dislike working for only monetary gain? The temptation to pursue jobs and projects for this reason is constant, and looking back and remembering — I did not like this, I have done this before — is a game changer.
And in those moments of reflection, having to write down what I am thinking brings clarity to what I actually mean when I’m having these conversations with myself. Go ahead, write down what you are thinking. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find that what you thought you were thinking, and what you actually mean, are two different things.
As an example, a few years ago, I was conflicted. I kept having thoughts that I wanted to find another career. I was constantly unhappy, but I didn’t see any real way out. And besides, I liked parts of my job, and who am I to think I can find better, work isn’t supposed to be fun.
I sat on these thoughts for months, never realizing — until I wrote it down — that what I really thought was, I dislike my job, I have other talents, and there are better ways for me to serve my fellow man. Not doing so is doing harm to myself and a potentially better future. Writing down in my journal led me to the truth, that I was unhappy precisely because I did have other opportunities, not simply because my job wasn’t fun. If there was truly no way out, I wouldn’t have had these thoughts at all.
Journaling my thoughts showed a distinction between complaints about a path that I have chosen, but is simply difficult, vs. a path that I chose by mistake and just isn’t working for me.
This can be true for you as well. Remember: you are human. Most everything that you have done and thought is forgotten. If you want to find meaning and perspective, writing gives you the opportunity to do so.
Human beings were not meant to go at it alone. Nobody has found success without help and social reinforcement.
The most compelling reasons why are found in the study of persuasion and self identification. In Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, author Robert Cialdini lists Social Proof as one of his 6 pillars of persuasion. Social proof is the tendency for humans to value and internalize those activities, products, or beliefs that the majority of the people around us have.
This pillar is the key reason why our community matters so much — it taps into what makes us human.
In one study, nursery aged children with phobias of dogs were shown 20 minute videos of children happily playing with dogs. Within 4 days, 67 percent of the children were willing to climb in a play pen with dogs.
4 days. That’s all it took. There was no explanation, no discussion, nothing but simply seeing what other children were doing.
Think of your own life — if you have a friend who takes on a new task, requiring more courage and self control than he had before, don’t you feel like you can do the same? All of a sudden, what seemed impossible is now inspirational to you, you feel a pull to take on the challenge.
Perhaps more important than these positive effects are the potential life changing negative effects from the wrong community. Think of cults, which we can define as isolated and obsessive religious sects whose actions and beliefs almost always lead to tragic consequences for their members.
Cultists have been aware of the power of community for thousands of years. In Influence, Cialdini described a modern day Chicago doomsday group, waiting the return of the “Guardians” — spiritual beings loosely based on biblical characters. The cult’s leaders supposedly received transmissions that the Earth would be destroyed in a great flood, but these guardians would return to take the faithful to safety in the heavens.
The cult started by isolating the members, and the influence of other people’s beliefs. The members gave up their lives and families, and the cult became their world. Insanity quickly became the norm, and the outside world became insanity. Haven’t you implicitly believed what your family and friends believed, at least until those were challenged by the outside world?
But as the day of reckoning approached, and passed, you might think the cult would lose members and fervor. How can you follow these teachings when there is physical proof — a lack of a Old Testament scale flood — that the teachings are false?
You’d be wrong. Their beliefs intensified. And their actions changed dramatically. Formerly secretive and closed off, they began to frantically spread their message, doubling down on a new doomsday prediction. In Cialdini’s own words:
“If they could spread the word, if they could inform the uninformed, if they could persuade the skeptics, and if, by doing so, they could win new converts, their threatened but treasured beliefs would become truer. The principle of social proof says so: The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct.”
Where our community goes, we follow. That’s how unavoidably powerful it is.
This doesn’t have to be a net negative — we have the power to choose who we spend time with. Maybe your job is bringing you down and reinforcing negative behaviors: we now know how powerful this can be, and how beneficial working towards a new work environment is. If your boyfriend, girlfriend, best friend, or anybody else isn’t encouraging you — sit them down and explain to them exactly why it matters what they say and think. If they don’t change, the way for you to change is to associate with other people.
Of course you can’t change everything about your environment, but at least now you know exactly what’s happening when it seems like you can’t progress. This knowledge can allow you to develop work arounds.
If you can’t change jobs immediately, network after work with communities you want to eventually work with. If you are absolutely swamped and have only an hour or so a night — join an online community. Get some positive support, and do your best to remove negative reinforcement.
You and I aren’t superheroes. Nobody is stronger than this pull, nobody.
To make philosophy useful, reread those texts, quotes, and essays that can change your life. Take that course more than once. When you finish a great book, start it over at the beginning, this time taking notes and really understanding what goes into its message.
Journal your thoughts, and give yourself the opportunity to clarify where you’re at, and where you’d like to go.
And finally, surround yourself to the absolute best of your ability with people who help make it all the norm. These people should challenge what you think is possible, who you think you are, and push you to be better.