Stop Being Busy

You know the story. You see a friend. It’s been awhile. You shake hands. You give a hug. As you sit down for coffee to talk, your friend naturally asks, “How are you? How have you been?” There’s lots you could share, right? All the things you haven’t shared with your friend – the updates, the changes in your life, the challenges you’ve been dealing with, new discoveries you’ve made that you’d like to share.

But instead, you answer, “Busy. I’ve been busy.” Even as your lips purse to form the burst of the “B,” you regret it. But it’s out there. The most boring answer to your friend’s question that you could give. Worse yet, your friend doubles down. “Oh yeah, me too. SOOOO busy.”

How often have you had this conversation? I know I’ve had it more times than I could count, and many more times than I care to admit. What’s behind this answer? Are we really that busy? Our feeling of how busy we are has increased over time. Take a look at Google’s graph of this use of the word “busy” between 1800 and 2010:

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From this timeline, we used the word “busy” at an increasing rate until the mid-1940s. That makes some sense – the world at large did have an awful lot to deal with in 1944. And it appears that people were in the mood for a well-deserved 25 year vacation after the war. But around 1975 (notably, the time that most of my generation were appearing on the Earth), we started another climb towards increasing business.

Are we really that busy? There are differences between being busy, believing that you are busy, and wanting others to believe you are busy. It seems to me that people generally fall within a three categories. Some people really are unbelievably busy, filling their lives with professional and personal obligations from sunup to well past sundown. There are people who are not busy at all, although people don’t often admit it. Last there is what I suspect is the largest group of all – people who say and believe that they are busy, but actually are not really getting much done at all. Do we need to be busy? Is there a better way to be? And if we are busy, what should we be busy doing?

There are two places in our thought process where we often get confused. The first is in dealing with the pressure the modern world places on us to be in perpetual motion. The second is making good choices about how to spend our time.

Turning Off Your Monkey Mind

Work, side projects, family, spouse, kids, friends, and community all demand attention from us in amounts greater than we can meet. We careen through life with a thousand different to-do lists and scheduling conflicts dancing in our head. It’s easy to live life almost entirely in your head, bouncing between thinking over and “re-doing” past events and worrying about future ones. Past-future-past-future-yesterday-tomorrow-where are my car keys?

Left uncontrolled, our thoughts can take over and make a ping-pong ball out of our psyches. Buddhists refer to this phenomenon as “Monkey Mind.” When Monkey Mind takes over, you are unsettled, restless, lost in daydream or worry, inattentive, confused, and indecisive. It’s what makes you feel busy and overwhelmed. You don’t want to encourage Monkey Mind.  You want to turn it off.

How? If you want to avoid being lost in these thought loops, you first need to become aware of those thoughts and how they arise. Take a quiet moment and sit comfortably. What does your body feel like in the chair? Is it heavy or light, calm or restless? Do you feel pain or tight muscles? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Breathe normally and notice your breath. How does it feel in your body? Where do you feel your breath? Does each breath feel different? Don’t judge or worry, just notice it. Chances are, the first time you try this, you will find yourself thinking about your afternoon appointment calendar or weekend plans or work stress without any desire to do so. You might not be able to focus on even one or two entire breaths before new thoughts pop up in your head. This is OK and normal. It’s actually the point of the exercise. You might have believed all along that you spend time thinking thoughts because you choose to. That’s not the case. It’s your uncontrolled Monkey Mind filling your peaceful mental stillness with worry, planning, and regret.

After you understand how thoughts arise in your mind, you can practice letting them pass by while observing them calmly, instead of being whisked away. This is simple, but not easy. It involves nothing more than noticing thoughts when they arise, and over time, improving your ability to do that so that you can avoid being swept away and lost in thought. You can call it meditation, or mindfulness, or being present, or anything else that works for you. You don’t need to adopt any religion or new philosophy or recite mantras. You just need to pay attention to how your mind works. There’s no better way to do that than to sit down and watch it.

Should I Do This?

The second reason we feel too busy is that we do things that we don’t want to do. I’m not talking about taking out the trash or cleaning out the gutters. I’m talking about big projects or time commitments that require a lot of us, but that don’t help us accomplish any of the goals in our lives. We take too much on. We don’t say no. We get caught up in societal pressures to have more, do more, be more, win more. If a friend calls you at 2PM on a Wednesday on the first warm day of spring and asks you to go play 9 holes of golf, what would you do? If your spouse calls you at the office and invites you to lunch and a long walk, would you go? If you have a choice between attending the third networking lunch of the week or having a quiet lunch to read and think about a problem at work, what’s the better choice?

Why are we making ourselves busy with things that make us miserable? I am not advocating sloth. I do believe, however, that as a society we are absolutely confused about how to spend time to do our best thinking, produce our best work, and live our best life.  Derek Sivers has a wonderful take on this in his short post, “Hell Yeah.” When presented with an opportunity, only commit if your reaction is “Hell, yeah!” Otherwise, say no. Don’t follow lukewarm feelings.

The interesting thing is that, the more you tame your Monkey Mind, you’ll desire less. You’ll worry less about the future and regret the past less. You won’t spin your wheels trying to address phantom concerns. You’ll dump the unnecessary tasks. You’ll feel more present and energized by your work and pursuits. You’ll spend less time doing things you don’t want to do. You’ll get more done in less time. You’ll be less busy, and you’ll be more interesting at the coffee shop.

Starting a Travel Journal

I’m sitting in an apartment in Washington, D.C. writing this, enjoying a week’s vacation with my family during the spring break my kids have from school.  Cathedral Heights, specifically.  We have a lovely view of the National Cathedral across the street from our accommodations, and we have spent a fun week taking the kids on their first “big city” trip and doing the typical nation’s capital tourist items.  Museums, bus tours, memorials, great food, and lots of squinting over Metro maps and bus schedules.

I am collecting items for a travel journal this trip, a first for me.  I first came across the idea after reading an article about Yolanda Edwards, creative director of Conde Nast Traveler.  Ms. Edwards and her family travel extensively, and her habit of creating a travel journal for most of her trips, chock full of postcards, maps, receipts, menus, coasters, matchbooks, drawings, and notes is marvelous.  I couldn’t believe I had never done it before.  I take it back – I did make a half-hearted attempt to document my cross-country travels decades ago, but never with collected items.

So I’m giving it a try this trip.  I didn’t plan well in advance, so I do not have the new notebook that will house our trip’s memories.  But I’ve made daily journal entries, and I have a pile of restaurant receipts, planetarium tickets, bus tour maps, and other items documenting our trip.  When I get home, I’ll put it together as the first complete travel journal.  I can’t wait to see what it looks like.  I know I’ll be better prepared next trip (New Mexico in June!) and have my new notebook ready.

Finding Mindfulness in the Kitchen

I love to cook.  I’m self-taught, I have no professional experience, and I doubt that I have the chops to survive in a restaurant environment.  But I love it all the same.  My interests and heartstrings are tugged in a lot of different directions when I cook, but the most consistent sentiment I experience is a connection to life: to the Earth, to farmers and purveyors, to past generations, to my current community, to family.

Heat (An Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany) is the fantastic memoir of Bill Buford, who left his job as an editor at The New Yorker to dive into the world of professional kitchens, pasta making, and ultimately, to learn the craft of butchery in Tuscany.  It is a beautiful tribute to those cooks in the world who choose to master craft, and by mastering craft, develop a deeper love for life around them.

The book follows Buford through kitchens of different locations, sizes, and intensity.  At every turn, though, Buford focuses his attention on what he can learn from the moment and from his teachers.  The unifying thread he stitches through these vignettes is a mindful attention to the emotional and human experience of cooking.

Lessons of Mindfulness in the Kitchen

On developing mindfulness in the kitchen:

I once asked Mario [Batali] what I could expect to learn in his kitchen….

He thought for a moment. “You also develop an expanded kitchen awareness.  You’ll discover how to use your senses.  You’ll find you no longer rely on what your watch says.  You’ll hear when something is cooked.  You’ll smell degrees of doneness.”

On the simple pleasure of making good food:

The satisfactions of making a good plate of food are surprisingly varied, and only one, and the least important of them, involves eating what you’ve made.  In addition to the endless riffing about cooking-with-love, chefs also talk about the happiness of making food: not preparing or cooking food but making it…. The simple good feeling …might be akin to what you’d experience making a toy or a piece of furniture or maybe even a work of art – except that this particular handmade thing was also made to be eaten.  I found, cooking on the line, that I got a quiet buzz every time I made a plate of food that looked exactly and aesthetically correct and then handed it over the pass to Andy….

These are not profound experiences – the amount of reflection is exactly zero – but they were genuine enough, and I can’t think of many other activities in a modern urban life that give as much simple pleasure.

On the melancholy ways that food ties us to each other, ancestors, and mortality:

Betta’s tortellini are now in my head and my hands. I follow her formula for the dough—an egg for every etto of flour, sneaking in an extra yolk if the mix doesn’t look wet enough. I’ve learned to roll out a sheet until I see the grain of the wood underneath. I let it dry if I’m making tagliatelle; I keep it damp if I’m making tortellini. I make a small batch, roll out a sheet, then another, the rhythm of pasta, each movement like the last one. My mind empties. I think only of the task. Is the dough too sticky? Will it tear? Does the sheet, held between my fingers, feel right?

But often I wonder what Betta would think, and, like that, I’m back in that valley with its broken-combed mountain tops and the wolves at night and the ever-present feeling that the world is so much bigger than you, and my mind becomes a jumble of associations, of aunts and a round table and laughter you can’t hear anymore, and I am overcome by a feeling of loss. It is, I concluded, a side effect of this kind of food, one that’s handed down from one generation to another, often in conditions of adversity, that you end up thinking of the dead, that the very stuff that sustains you tastes somehow of mortality.

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Laying Out the Pasta at Our Albergo in Tripoli, by Edward Ardizzoni

On reaching higher planes of achievement through mastery and listening to your own voice:

This, it told me, is what you have to do to learn this craft: you keep having to be a slave – to not one master but several, one after another, until you arrive at a proficiency (whatever that might be) or your own style (however long it takes) or else conclude that, finally, you just know a lot more than anyone else.

On the connection of the kitchen to the natural cycle of planting, growing, harvesting:

The evening was interminable and I remember little about it, except for a brief exchange with Enrico about his olive oil.  I wanted to know why it was so good.

“There are two reasons,” Enrico said.   “When I pick and what I pick.  Nothing else matters.”

Heat is an important reminder to us to slow down, pay attention, and experience the feeling of what we’re doing.  Pair with Thoreau’s advice on escaping busyness through walking and my post on protecting your time for important work.

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Joan Didion on Keeping a Notebook

I keep notes in a lot of places.  I have Moleskine notebooks with thoughts, sketches, business notes, to do lists, and snippets of prose in my briefcase everyday.  I have older notebooks that are full and aging on bookshelves in different rooms.  I have a box of note cards with quotes from books I’ve read that make up my commonplace book.  I have an electronic archive of articles and photos I’ve clipped from the web in an Evernote file.  As a keeper of notes, I do puzzle over the source of the compulsion to record the instant moment, our impressions of the past, the hopes for the future.  Why do we write things down?

Why Do We Write Things Down?

I found simple and wonderful insights into this question in Joan Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” part of her 1968 anthology Slouching Towards Bethlehem.  The essay was written nearly fifty years ago, but feels perfectly modern, arguing that a notebook allows us to return to our former selves and visit, if just for a little while.

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Joan Didion, 1970

Didion begins by describing the moment when she found a random story scribbled into a notebook.  She asks herself why she wrote it in the first place:

Why did I write it down? In order to remember, of course, but exactly what was it I wanted to remember? How much of it actually happened? Did any of it? Why do I keep a notebook at all? It is easy to deceive oneself on all those scores. The impulse to write things down is a peculiarly compulsive one, inexplicable to those who do not share it, useful only accidentally, only secondarily, in the way that any compulsion tries to justify itself.

Keeping a Notebook Lets Us Remember How We Felt

Didion supposes that her instinct to record is not shared by all, and that her compulsion is borne of some underlying anxiety.

I suppose that it begins or does not begin in the cradle. Although I have felt compelled to write things down since I was five years old, I doubt that my daughter ever will, for she is a singularly blessed and accepting child, delighted with life exactly as life presents itself to her, unafraid to go to sleep and unafraid to wake up. Keepers of private notebooks are a different breed altogether, lonely and resistant rearrangers of things, anxious malcontents, children afflicted apparently at birth with some presentiment of loss.

Didion begins to peel back psychological layers when she admits that “the point of my keeping a notebook has never been, nor is it now, to have an accurate factual record of what I have been doing or thinking.”  Instead, she says that her recordings were about “how it felt to me.”

I sometimes delude myself about why I keep a notebook, imagine that some thrifty virtue derives from preserving everything observed. See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write—on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will all be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world out there.

The Beauty of Visiting Our Own Histories

Didion ultimately admits that the practice of keeping a notebook is inward-facing.  While she imagined that “the notebook is about other people,” she admits that the point was always to “remember what it was to be me.”

Only the very young and the very old may recount their dreams at breakfast, dwell upon self, interrupt with memories of beach picnics and favorite Liberty lawn dresses and the rainbow trout in a creek near Colorado Springs. The rest of us are expected, rightly, to affect absorption in other people’s favorite dresses, other people’s trout. And so we do. But our notebooks give us away, for however dutifully we record what we see around us, the common denominator of all we see is always, transparently, shamelessly, the implacable “I.”

Didion’s best advice to us is to never overlook the value in “remembering what it was to be ourselves.”  As she says, “It all comes back.”

Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were. I have already lost touch with a couple of people I used to be; one of them, a seventeen-year-old, presents little threat, although it would be of some interest to me to know again what it feels like to sit on a river levee drinking vodka-and-orange-juice.

Intuitively, I’ve always felt that my notebooks were about remembering ideas so that I could return to the facts of times past.  Didion convinced me in this short essay that I was completely missing the point.  I returned to some old notebooks this week and realized that in reading the entries, I can’t recall the factual details of events or entries.  But the feeling of who I was, what was important, why I was writing was as clear as the day I wrote them.

Didion ultimately reminds us that, “it is a good idea, then, to keep in touch, and I suppose that keeping in touch is what notebooks are all about.”

The entire collection of Slouching Towards Bethlehem is full of similar insight and wit, touching on self-respect, morality, and marriage.

Thoreau on Escaping Busyness through the Art of Walking

I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil, — to regard man as an inhabitant, or a part and parcel of Nature, rather than a member of society.

Are you trapped by busyness?  Finding and protecting the time to do the work that is meaningful and important to you requires that you slow down, remember your goals, and develop focus.  I’ve found that my ability to complete meaningful work is inversely proportional to how “busy” I am.  Accomplishing deep and satisfying work is the product of rejecting perpetual distraction, unending demands, and our modern culture of 24-hour responsiveness.

Science tells us today that even short lunchtime walks can help you cope at work, improve your concentration, heal your brain by soothing your mental state, enhances your creativity, and can treat depression. Although he did not have access to brain-scanning technology, Henry David Thoreau nonetheless presciently anticipated this present conflict in his essay “Walking,” in which he discusses the art, requirements, and benefits of learning to detach from daily distraction and find new and clear perspective in the outdoor world.  An outgrowth of journal entries from 1851, the essay argues that man finds “absolute freedom and wildness” in the natural world.

Thoreau argues that the benefits of walking in nature are found in understanding the art of sauntering, which we have in large part lost today:

I have met with but one or two persons in the course of my life who understood the art of Walking, that is, of taking walks — who had a genius, so to speak, for sauntering, which word is beautifully derived “from idle people who roved about the country, in the Middle Ages, and asked charity, under pretense of going a la Sainte Terre, to the Holy Land, till the children exclaimed, “There goes a Sainte-Terrer,” a Saunterer, a Holy-Lander. They who never go to the Holy Land in their walks, as they pretend, are indeed mere idlers and vagabonds; but they who do go there are saunterers in the good sense, such as I mean. Some, however, would derive the word from sans terre, without land or a home, which, therefore, in the good sense, will mean, having no particular home, but equally at home everywhere. For this is the secret of successful sauntering. He who sits still in a house all the time may be the greatest vagrant of all; but the saunterer, in the good sense, is no more vagrant than the meandering river, which is all the while sedulously seeking the shortest course to the sea.

Thoreau’s requirements are large: “four hours a day at least…sauntering through the woods and over the hills and fields absolutely free from all worldly engagements.”  To prepare one’s self, Thoreau announces a bold and demanding set of spiritual requirements needed  for a proper walk:

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again; if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man; then you are ready for a walk. […]

No wealth can buy the requisite leisure, freedom, and independence, which are the capital in this profession.

Setting aside four hours a day for a daily trek is an impossible goal for most of us these days.  It probably was an impossible goal for most of Thoreau’s neighbors as well.  Nonetheless, Thoreau’s short essay is a beautiful exposition on the value and purpose of walking and exploring, regardless of physical distance.  In leaving the daily mundane chores and obligations behind, we have the opportunity to find a direct connection to an improvement in health, spirit, and mental focus.

When sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shop-keepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them — as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon — I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.

While the physical benefits of walking are easily appreciated, the deeper benefits lie in the opportunity walking presents to develop mindfulness,  “a state of clear, nonjudgmental, and nondiscursive attention to the contents of consciousness, whether pleasant or unpleasant.”  Thoreau understands this point well, and turns his attention to the goal of mindfulness and the manner in which giving our full focus to the task at hand is essential:

Of course, it is of no use to direct our steps to the woods, if they do not carry us thither. I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit. In my afternoon walk I would fain forget all my morning occupations, and my obligations to society. But it sometimes happens that I cannot easily shake off the village. The thought of some work will run in my head, and I am not where my body is; I am out of my senses. In my walks I would fain return to my senses. What business have I in the woods, if I am thinking of something out of the woods? I suspect myself, and cannot help a shudder, when I find myself so implicated even in what are called good works — for this may sometimes happen.

Thoreau describes here the instant of realization that we all have experienced, when we suddenly snap to attention after having been lost in thought, only to realize that we are occupied and engaged in some different task.  It is this mental drifting, this capture in the cacophony of our minds, for which Thoreau prescribes walking as the antidote.  For walking, in our great spaces, is the way to recapture Wildness.

The West of which I speak is but another name for the Wild; and what I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the world. Every tree sends its fibres forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. […]

Life consists with Wildness. The most alive is the wildest. Not yet subdued to man, its presence refreshes him. One who pressed forward incessantly and never rested from his labors, who grew fast and made infinite demands on life, would always find himself in a new country or wilderness, and surrounded by the raw material of life. He would be climbing over the prostrate stems of primitive forest trees.

And what do we find in Wildness?  New perspective.  New ideas.  Escape from the same paths of learning and thinking and doing that limit creativity and expansion and prosperity.  It is new ideas that and new thinking that excite us and attract us:

In Literature, it is only the wild that attracts us. Dullness is but another name for tameness. It is the uncivilized free and wild thinking in Hamlet and the Iliad, in all the scriptures and mythologies, not learned in the Schools, that delights us. As the wild duck is more swift and beautiful than the tame, so is the wild-the mallard-thought, which, ‘mid falling dews wings its way above the fens. A truly good book is something as natural, and as unexpectedly and unaccountably fair and perfect, as a wild flower discovered on the prairies of the west, or in the jungles of the east.

When the afternoon energy low hits you tomorrow, and you find yourself checking your watch every ten minutes, take a walk.  If you have a list of phone calls and voicemails to return, take your cell phone and return the calls while you walk.  If you plan on an afternoon coffee break, walk to a different coffee shop a few blocks away, rather than simply visit the break room down the hall.  While I don’t accomplish it every day, my goal on most days in the office is to do my deep thinking and creative work in the mornings, and make phone calls in the afternoon, preferably while walking.  It revives me, clears my head, and lets me refocus on the task at hand mindfully.

Who knows?  While you probably won’t find Thoreau’s Wildness every day on every walk, you just might have spark the crash of creativity and new perspective of brilliance that Thoreau felt was lurking in the Wild:

Genius is a light which makes the darkness visible, like the lightning’s flash, which perchance shatters the temple of knowledge itself-and not a taper lighted at the hearth-stone of the race which pales before the light of common day.

photo:  Patorjk via Wikimedia Commons

Richard Feynman on the Value of Straight Talk

Do you speak freely and communicate your ideas directly?  Or do you filter, hedge, calculate, or adjust your message based on what you believe your audience wants to hear?  Richard Feynman highlights the value of straight talk through a short story found in his collection of autobiographical adventures, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

Richard Feynman’s Direct Communication

Feynman (1918-1988) was an American theoretical physicist, lifelong learner, and academic adventurer.  His work spanned many decades, and he made gigantic contributions to the fields of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, and particle physics.  He participated in the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, taught at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology, and assisted in the investigation of the Challenger Shuttle explosion.

Aside from his professional accomplishments, Feynman is often admired for his humorous and bawdy adventures in life.  His direct communication style often startled conventional thinkers: when learning feline anatomy, for example, his question was reported to be, “Do you have a map of the cat?”

Deliver an Honest Opinion Directly

In Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, Feynman recalls the opportunity to meet and work with Niels Bohr, the Danish physicist and Nobel laureate, in Los Alamos, New Mexico during the Manhattan Project.  At the time, Bohr was a giant in the field, while Feynman was still in the early stages of his career and relatively unknown.

“I also met Niels Bohr.  His name was Nicholas Baker in those days, and he came to Los Alamos, with Jim Baker, his son, whos e name is really Aage Bohr.  They came from Denmark, and they were very famous physicists, as you know.  Even to the big shot guys, Bohr was a great god.

[…]In the morning of the day he’s due to come next time, I get a telephone call.

‘Hello-Feynman?’

‘Yes.’

‘This is Jim Baker.’ It’s his son. ‘My father and I would like to speak to you.’

‘Me? I’m Feynman, I’m just a-.’

‘That’s right.  Is eight o’clock OK?’

So, at eight o’clock in the morning, before anybody’s awake, I go down to the place.  We go into an office in the technical area and he says, ‘We have been thinking how we could make the bomb more efficient and we think of the following idea.’

I say, ‘No, it’s not going to work.  It’s not efficient …Blah, blah, blah.’

So he says, ‘How about so and so?’

I said, ‘That sounds a little bit better, but it’s got this damn fool idea in it.”

This went on for about two hours, going back and forth over lots of ideas, back and forth, arguing.  The great Niels kept lighting his pipe; it always went out.  And he talked in a way that was un-understandable -mumble, mumble, hard to understand.  His son I could understand better.

‘Well,’ he said finally, lighting his pipe, ‘I guess we can call in the big shots now.’ So then they called all the other guys and had a discussion with them.

Then the son told me what happened.  The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, ‘Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea.  So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr.  Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.

I was always dumb in that way.  I never knew who I was talking to.  I was always worried about the physics.  If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy.  If it looked good, I said it looked good.  Simple proposition.

I’ve always lived that way.  It’s nice, it’s pleasant – if you can do it.  I’m lucky in my life that I can do this.”

An honest opinion delivered directly can be of immense value.  Don’t waste your opportunities to share them.  Over time, the reputation as someone who shares ideas candidly will become even more valuable to your audience than the individual opinions.

Finding Peace by Focusing on the Things in Your Control

It’s Monday morning.  You raced around all weekend, doing errands, buying groceries, shuttling kids to their playdates and practices.  You fit in some time with your spouse or friends on the evenings.  Sunday evening was the predictable mad scramble of planning, packing, and preparing for another busy week, with the clouds of anxiety gathering in your mind as you think about how busy, frenetic, and stressful the coming work and school week will be.  How do you feel on your Monday morning?  Are you behind schedule, anxious, impatient and weighed down by the worry of getting everything right?  Is there any way to shift this mindset to one focused on opportunity and to shed some of the stress?

Nearly two thousand years ago, Epictetus wrestled with this question.  Epictetus (c. AD 55-135), a Stoic philosopher living in the Roman Empire, believed that our capacity to be happy lies entirely in ourselves.  He taught through a series of discourses, many of which have been preserved.  A shorter version of the principal themes of his discourses was recorded in the Encheiridon, or Manual.  According to Epictetus and the Stoics, events are neither good nor bad, but our reactions to those events may be good or bad.  Our experience is, therefore, dictated by the sum of our reactions to the events of our life.

Epictetus begins his work the Encheiridion by distinguishing the things in our control with the things out of our control:

“Of things some are in our power, and others are not.  In our power are opinion, movement toward a thing, desire, aversion (turning from a thing); and in a word, whatever are our own acts: not in our power are the body, property, reputation, offices (magisterial power), and in a word, whatever are not our own acts.”

We have control over our opinion, movement, desire and aversion — “our own acts.”  We lack control over our bodies, our belongings, and our success.  Recognition of this distinction is important, because it is only by differentiating the things we control from the things we do not control that we can find freedom.  According to Epictetus, “the things in our power are by nature free,” but “the things not in our power are weak,” and “in the power of others.”

Suffering lies in our confusion about what we control:

“Remember then that if you think the things which are by nature slavish to be free, and the things which are in the power of others to be your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed….”

On the other hand, keeping a clear mind about the things that lie in our control is the pathway to mental freedom:

“If you think that only which is your own to be your own, and if you think that what is another’s, as it really is, belongs to another, no man will ever compel you, no man will hinder you, you will never blame any man, you will accuse no man, you will do nothing involuntarily (against your will), no man will harm you, you will have no enemy, for you will not suffer any harm.”

Epictetus’s “live and let live” message of focusing only on the things you can control is easy enough to remember and practice when things are going well.  But how do we implement this type of mental discipline in tough times?  Epictetus recommends the practice of reflection in difficult circumstances as a means to develop peace and find opportunity.

First, Epictetus suggests that we examine obstacles closely to understand exactly what limitation they present:

“Disease is an impediment to the body, but not to the will, unless the will itself chooses.  Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.  And add this reflection on the occasion of everything that happens; for you will find it an impediment to something else, but not to yourself.”

We all face obstacles in life.  Often times, however, the obstacle is not the barrier we may initially perceive.  Most importantly, Epictetus reminds us that there can be no obstacle to our own willpower that arises externally.  This is squarely in our own power.  Reviving our willpower in the face of difficulty can be a matter of examining challenge for opportunity:

On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.

The suggestion here, is not that difficult times are easy.  We all face challenges that frustrate us, anger us, and hurt us.  The lessons in those moments, Epictetus suggests, is that pain can teach endurance, not getting what we want can teach patience, dealing with abusive people in our lives can teach understanding.

Finding this pathway to understanding requires us to remember Epictetus’s first point: focus on the things in your control.  We cannot control our external successes or failures, or how others view or treat us.  By remembering this, and developing a practice of reflection, we can find equanimity and peace in our relation to the world.  Epictetus writes that the “condition and characteristic of an uninstructed person” is that “he never expects from himself advantage nor harm, but from externals.”  In contrast, an instructed person “expects all advantage and all harm from himself.”  Ultimately, this is our choice to make:

“You must be one man, either good or bad.  You must either cultivate your own ruling faculty, or external things; you must either exercise your skill on internal things or on external things; that is, you must either maintain the position of a philosopher or that of a common man.”

Epictetus’s belief is that if we practice this, a better view of life awaits:

Seek not the that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but with the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.

Go tackle your Monday morning.  If it isn’t perfect – and whose ever is? – draw a bit of strength from Epictetus by remembering that while you can’t control the day, you can find peace in your reaction to it.