Practical Philosophy

Never Assume You Know Their Reason

One of the most valuable lessons I learned in my life was to stop assuming that I understood a person’s motivations for doing something. I used to think that the obvious (and usually malicious) motivation that I first came up with to explain another person’s behavior was probably theirs. That is, if someone was driving in a manner that frustrated me, it was because they were specifically trying to be a jerk to me. They wanted to make my life hard.

But I’m increasingly sure that that category of explanation is not just wrong, but never right. There are uncountable explanations for most behaviors we see people demonstrating. The frustrating driver may be distracted by their child in the back seat, or on the other end of the phone. Maybe they’re in a panicked mind state for one of more than a dozen reasons we could speculate about. Maybe they’re uncomfortable behind the wheel of their vehicle, or don’t really know all the relevant traffic laws and customs. Maybe they’re struggling mightily just to keep their vehicle operating in the manner it should and are unable to focus on their actual driving behaviors. Maybe they’re just really preoccupied with an appointment they’re driving from or to. And there are certainly more stories we could come up with.

The point isn’t that any of those specific stories are true, but that any of them are at least as likely as the story that they’re intentionally trying to sit in my blindspot, block me from passing, or swerving in a way I find disconcerting. In fact, most of the latter stories seem to be more likely than the one that they’ve intentionally chosen to make a special effort to ruin my day.

Assuming you completely understand the behaviors of another person is almost always stupid. People are complicated. They live rich, complete, independent lives totally divorced from the small fractions of time that their world collides with ours. How frequently do you intentionally act to thwart someone’s goals, to make their life harder or less pleasant? Do you think others do that more or less than you do? Why?

I’ve learned in the years since I first noticed this strange impulse to misunderstand, that most of the times that I came up with an explanation of why someone was doing something and checked my understanding with them, their reason was never the malice I’d assumed. Even allowing for the fact that people might hide actual malice in retrospect (either for the reason of further malice or self-delusion), people’s reasons for their actions aren’t usually malicious.

On the other hand, a gap in understanding is a common explanation of places where I mistakenly saw malice. It’s common that someone’s behavior was different than I wanted because they had knowledge I didn’t. To come back to our driver example, that she urgently needed to stop her child from putting something in his mouth that he shouldn’t might be the reason she changed lanes without as much care as she should have. Another possibility is that she was ignorant of something I knew that was relevant and true. In many states the law or custom is that you drive in the right lane on the highway, except to pass. Not all drivers know this.

The benefits of not assuming you understand someone’s motivations are many. The primary one is this: you see and understand the world with more accuracy and clarity when you don’t make up and treat as true things that aren’t verified. Ignorance papered over by a thin film of plausible explanations isn’t knowledge. It’s a delusion you’ve constructed.

Another big benefit to refraining from seeing malice you don’t know to be there is that it makes you a more patient, friendly, and kind person. How’s that? When you assume you understand someone’s reasons, and especially if you think them malicious, you’re short with them, and prone to lashing out at (what you perceive as) their malicious behavior toward you. When you assume nothing, you’re able to come to them with a patient, questioning curiosity. You’re also more likely to greet them as a friend, rather than an enemy. And to state the blindingly obvious, we’re nicer to our friends than our enemies.

It’s not easy to really internalize and operationalize this new way of relating to people. If you’re experienced with the art of finding a motivation to explain every action you see, you’ll need to allow yourself a lot of time and space to retrain in patience and allowing for the possibility that you don’t understand why someone is doing something. But you can learn to do it. I did.

When you know the value of assuming that you don’t understand someone’s reasons, it’s just a matter of time until you’re able to relate in a new way. Be patient; allow for possibilities you’ve never even considered. Slowly, you’ll see a shift. And your life will be better, and the world friendlier, as a result.

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Practical Philosophy

Gratitude is the Foundation

When I look around at people, one thing that I notice is that their dispositions — how generous they are to those around them, how short their tempers are, how patient they can be, how randomly careless toward others they are, how willing they are to help — have very little to do with their material circumstances. And it has even less to do with their outward appearance. The crucial influence on their disposition and associated behaviors seems to be the gap between what a person believes they deserve, and what they recognize that they have.

Some people, we know, feel they deserve the world and everything in it. That by virtue of their parents, their nation, their friends, whatever, they deserve all that they have and also much much more. No one in the world can have a puppy if I don’t also have a puppy! All children go through this phase; some, I think, never really leave it.

Then there are humble people. People who give a lot relative to what they have. Maybe it’s this decade’s hot philanthropist Bill Gates, maybe it’s a volunteer at your church or local homeless shelter. Whoever it is, there are people we see giving to others; being kind and generous. And we’re moved, or should be, to wonder how exactly they do it. Whatever their ability to give, they give more than we’d ever reasonably expect.

You shouldn’t sacrifice your mental or physical health for the purpose of being generous. And you probably, short of a kind of insanity, wouldn’t. But an easy shift that changes hugely how you relate to what you have and what you need and what you deserve is growing your gratitude for what you have.

Gratitude, more than anything else, seems to determine how wealthy and secure a person feels. The actual material circumstances, within some sane bounds (let’s at least not pretend that people can live without food, water, and shelter), don’t matter much. What matters is what you see as worthy of gratitude. For some it is simply to have food to eat. Others are only glad if the food is healthy or tasty. And some are outraged that the chef whose name in on the front of the restaurant didn’t personally prepare every piece of food that was placed before them. On this, and many other matters of perspective, you choose where you fall. We don’t control the world, but we do control our dispositions.

One of the easiest and best places to start to take control of your disposition is in practicing gratitude. Find one thing in your life that you’re truly thankful for. Write it down. Can’t think of more? Come back later. Continue the exercise. You don’t have to make a physical list. You don’t have to always feel grateful for everything on your list. But you can and should understand the value of gratitude, and that an exercise as simple as making a list is a great way to start to grow it. As Melody Beattie said:

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into a friend.

You don’t control all that comes at you in life. But you do get to control your disposition and your response to what comes. And the foundation of a healthy and productive response is gratitude.

 

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Productivity

The Meaning of Meetings and Metawork

A bit of a neologism, I wondered if I should use the hyphenated “meta-work” instead. To explain: metawork is simply work about work. That is: rather than making widgets, metawork consists of conversations about making widgets.

Meetings are the quintessential form of group metawork. And the popular disdain for meetings among white collar workers is mostly due to the worst qualities of metawork. Metawork, because it is not the work that you really are tasked with, can just amount to a massive and frustrating distraction. A time-suck that produces nothing but lets people feel like they’re really being productive and getting things done. After all, a worker’s calendar wouldn’t have been jam-packed for weeks if he weren’t a vital person in the company.

Before we bash it too hard, a few words in defense of meetings and metawork. Meeting are great for a number of reasons: they allow everyone to be simultaneously available to each other. This means that decisions that would have to be had in a series of small and repetitive conversations can happen quickly. This also means that the gaps in different people’s understandings of their goals and tasks can be seen and resolved much more smoothly. Meeting are great for strategic thinking and aligning of a group in a single direction. This is necessary are valuable metawork.

But meetings don’t typically move a group very far in a given direction. That’s what the real work is for. And that is the essential tension of metawork. On the one hand, it has a lot of vital functions. On the other, it’s probably not actually doing anything that’s specifically impacting the organization’s real goals. And this tension is inherent, impossible to rectify.

An organization that does no metawork loses its way, continuing to do what it’s always done because it never bothers to find any new insights. An organization that does too much metawork doesn’t accomplish its core mission because it never really does any work. It’s so diverted by discussion of how much its mission matters and how clearly it has explored the details that it forgets that it has to work to get there.

So far I’ve only talked about metawork at the organizational level, because that’s where it’s obvious. But it’s just as relevant, if not more so, in your personal life. You need to do some metawork — organization, perspective-taking (what am I doing with my life?), etc — but you can easily convince yourself that it is more necessary and valuable than it is, and excuse yourself from having to do the real things you need to to have an impact on the world.

Especially in my early twenties, I asked incessantly what my goals and purpose in life were. And I rarely if ever got useful or satisfactory answers. And during that time I did shockingly small amounts of productive work that would let me accomplish any purpose in life. I was doing too much metawork.

This is what I now see. Metawork is, in too many cases, a fun, easy, and deceptively-close-in-appearance-to-productivity activity. A certain class of people enjoys the relaxing qualities of meetings and so have far too many of them.

Metawork’s a useful and necessary tool. But it must be kept in check and seen for what it is. Because you can never get rid of it, you just need to come to it with insight. Know when you’re doing the work, know when you’re doing metawork. Reflect on the balance. And when it seems that the split is off the mark, correct it. That’s the best you can really do.

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Vinyl Kills the MP3 Industry
Communication

Culture Is A Series of Lossy Compression Algorithms

Compression algorithms are all around you in a modern digital life. But you may not actually know what they are, so let me explain: raw data taken from the world is rarely very efficiently packed. So to save file size and computational sanity, most data is compressed. JPEG is an image compression format — it takes raw information about what color each pixel of a photograph is and packs it more efficiently. MPEG does this same basic thing for video, MP3 does music, and ZIP can be used on any kind of data.

Some compression algorithms favor data accuracy and integrity over efficient file size compression. These are said to be “lossless” data compression formats. The FLAC audio format offers “lossless compression.” MP3, on the other hand, is rather notorious for its strategic “lossy compression” on music. Audiophiles love to deride it, but consumers have used and loved the format for decades now. By chopping off bits of the sound that human ears struggle to make sense of or retain, MP3 files can be significantly smaller than FLAC files. But incontestably something is lost when audio is encoded and saved as an MP3.

Now this site isn’t about technology, so why did I tell you all of that? Because it occurred to me that I really love writing, but all my attempts to convey my ideas amount to partial capturings of what I really want to convey and persuade someone of. The words capture the majority of the point, but they don’t say everything that was in my head.

And then it occurred to me that movies which are built upon books are famously lossy encodings of those books. This fact usually means that those that haven’t read the book are satisfied to have seen a good movie. And those that have read the source material are outraged by all the omissions.

And it turns out, all cultural artifacts contain this same type of data loss.

People have full, rich, and so far uncapturable-by-technology outer and inner lives. Even if we could record everything that entered our visual and auditory fields throughout our lives — which is possible but quite unlikely today — we’d be missing touch, taste, and smell, which so far technologies don’t capture. And that’s to say nothing of the internal life of the mind.

So to save and pass along anything, we humans have developed some ingenious lossy compression algorithms through history. Language allows us to condense and convey most thoughts and feelings, but we still hit its edges somewhat regularly. (Metaphors help, but they to don’t quite ever feel like they get us the whole way.) And written language can capture most of the spoken language, but still stumbles on some of the more subtle non-linguistic auditory expressions that can be so meaningful.

So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that culture is a lossy compression algorithm. So what? I think these may be a bit controversial — I picked the hottest ideas I could — but I think the following ideas are true if my theory is.

  • Religions are an effort to compress, condense, and pass along experience of the mysterious and indescribable, but people get caught on specific corners of the encoding. Hot topics like homosexuality, or whether or not you can consume pork, beef, or any meats are examples of strange artifacts of a specific encoding.
  • Acedemia at large is built around the attempt to clarify and hone our procress of understanding the world. But the lives of many academics include as much politicking, infighting, and administrativa as it does contributing actual knowledge back to the world. This is a direct effect of the need to institutionalize the processes for the sake of preservation.
  • Corporations mostly form because they solve problems that exist in the world. But most companies end up with their initial “we will solve this problem excellently” culture having been lost as they propagate and undergo recompression throughout time and a bureaucracy that inevitably compounds data artifacting as it grows.

There are obviously many more places we could take this idea, but I think I’ve thrown enough into the arena for now. The chief thing I think this idea should make you realize is that what you read, write, or are told is probably not an exact representation of the truth as originally experienced. Through a series of inevitably lossy compressions and re-compressions, it could even be quite quite different. And that’s just the reality of cultural transmission.

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Practical Philosophy

The Difference Between Optimism and Delusion

Optimism has a bit of a rap against it. Too many people, my former self included, cast aside optimism as a sane perspective on life because they’re making a simple and obvious mistake: conflating optimistic delusion with optimism itself.

I raise this not to make the pedantic linguistic point — I assure you I refer to no dictionaries. Nor an impotent philosophical one — I hate those. But I think there’s an important thing that past-me and far too many people I know and have known in the past make regularly.

What is optimism?

Before we clarify why this error is hard and problematic, lets get on the same page about what optimism is and what value it has. Optimism isn’t seeing someone’s life ruined before you and telling them that it’s all part of God’s plan. That’s fatalism. Optimism isn’t seeing something bad happen to a friend and telling them it’ll surely work out for the best. That’s optimistic delusion.

Optimism is seeing a great building fall and being willing to envision and hope that a better one may eventually rise in its place. And optimism can include the willingness to help that brighter better building rise because you believe in its possibility.

The value of optimism is that you’re cultivating hope. Hope is great and powerful and so long as delusional certainty is kept in check, one of the primary drivers of every good thing that happens in the world. Without optimism, one typically reverts to either pessimism — the belief that things will most likely get worse — or a sort of fatalistic impotence — a belief that things can turn out good or bad but that it’s unlikely that anything you possibly do will have the least influence over it.

I hope you can understand without explanation why I think neither a constant fear for the worst or a cultivated sense of your personal impotence in the world is all that useful. But I’ve defended something like them before. The logic was that if I envisioned the worst, any improvement would pleasantly surprise (rather than inevitably disappoint) me. And this is what I’m driving at: what argument that was for pessimism was actually an argument against delusional optimism, not mere optimism.

And what of this “delusional optimism”?

Delusional optimism feels certain that things will improve. It feels certain that things can never go from bad to worse. Delusional optimism does not honor the crazy and terrible unpredictability of the world. Delusional optimism says that you’ll never have to visit the hospital to see your dying wife. Pure optimism just has hope that it won’t happen soon.

Delusional optimism makes your water heater breaking the day after you had a plumber in to fix your leaking kitchen faucet into a catastrophic rebuff of all that you believe. Optimism just sees that you’ll end up with a new kitchen faucet which is better than the old, and a new water heater that’s a bit more efficient and under a new warranty.

The answer: Optimism without the delusion

It’s not that optimism without delusion is easy. But it is the case that optimism is worth the effort, and delusion is a problem when it’s combined with anything, not just optimism. Understanding the difference between the two is important. Hoping for a bright future and feeling certain you will get one are not the same thing. But hoping for a bright future, and seeing that you do have some power to shape it is hugely valuable.

I wish you the ability to be optimistic. I wish that your optimism be free of delusion.

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Practical Philosophy

The Essential Complexity of Life

I spend most of my professional effort these days working on and thinking about software and computer programming. I enjoy it, and it casts a whole interesting lens on lots of other things. One topic I recently discovered — I even wrote about it in the software context — is the difference between essential (or inherent) complexity, and accidental (or incidental) complexity.

On the surface, you may already understand the idea, but if not let me elaborate quickly. A piece of software will have two sources of complication: the part about the problem it solves that is just hard, and everything else. Tax law is hard, and so software that deals with tax law has a large amount of inherent or necessary complexity to it. If you’re selling in a country like the United States where many local areas have many different taxes and regulations, just pretending that there exists a simple percentage tax in effect throughout the whole country is unlikely to be workable. This unworkable difficulty of the problem is said to be essential or inherent.

Incidental complexity, on the other hand, is much of the actual difficulty with most software in the world. And this complexity isn’t coming from the complexity of the problem, but the mistakes fallible humans make while trying to solve it using computers. Some of this will come because the programming system is inadequate, some of this comes because people misuse the programing system, and some of the issue comes when people use the right tool but in the wrong way.

So what does any of this have to do about the world outside of software? A whole lot. Life is pretty simple really. All life on earth only requires a few basic elements to flourish and multiply. It needs space. It needs a supportive environment in temperature, wetness, and shelter. It needs an energy source: food and water for us humans. And it needs others of its species with whom to learn, socialize, and procreate. And that’s just about it really.

It doesn’t really need a loving relationship with its father. It doesn’t really need to have a nice car. It doesn’t really need a fancy TV or nice clothes, or even a very nice shelter. It doesn’t need to know what its future holds. It doesn’t need to have a beautiful body or a hunk of a husband. Sure those things are nice, and surely they have benefits, but we count them as essential and we’re mixing in the incidental complexity of what we want with the essential complexity of what we really need.

The more time I spend with the idea that life is simple, the truer it feels to me. Maybe this is just a long strung-out trip of self-delusion, but I think it’s actually a deep and profound truth. Life is stupidly simple. If you’ve got food, water, shelter, and health, you don’t need much else. That is a stable base from which you can draw tremendous feelings of strength, well-being, and stability. Other things you could have may make those feelings easier to cultivate, but they are not necessary.

We like to look past how few things are really essential in our life because it’s so humbling to see. We’d rather tell stories of our heroism, or victimization, or ongoing struggle. They give us a supporting narrative which can feel quite compelling. But they’re not really a necessary part of our life. Very little is.

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Practical Philosophy

The Mental Hoarding of Identities and Story

Sometime in the last decade — I don’t follow or care enough to tell you more exactly — America discovered and fell in love with the idea of hoarding. A “hoarder”, as you might expect, is a person who keeps stuff — everything from old newspapers, to packaging from old purchases, maybe metal scraps, collectable memorabilia, whatever — to great excess. The reasons there were (and maybe still are) about five different cable television shows about this phenomenon are not for this essay. But the core behavior of hoarding — and the fact that it’s so clearly seen as unhealthy and meriting either ridicule or correction — is.

Hoarding of physical goods is obvious, visible, and problematic. It creates unsanitary and largely uninhabitable physical spaces in which the room for the person is slowly crowded out by the collected items, whatever they are. It’s a health risk, a social risk, and most of all, it worsens the underlying mental problems that led a person to start doing the behavior in the first place. Having 50 delivery pizza boxes in a collection is a great reason to keep numbers 51 – 5000, for example.

Now the leap: a lot more people than make physical hoards have mental hoarding tendencies. They suck up things: for some it’s petty resentments, for others it’s every possible complimentary behavior or event seen as flattering. And many people walk around with a head full of this stuff — facts, memories, words, or phrases faintly remembered or very vividly recalled — that form the basis of how they see themselves and how they relate to the world.

People have a tendency to hoard feedback about their position and identity in society. They collect the knowledge that “Sue, Mom, Grandpa, Billy, and Sam all think I’m really smart” and build that into a narrative — “I must be a really smart little girl” — that they use to shape their future behavior. They hoard the feedback and let it constrain their actions.

Smartness is one of the more subtlety problematic kinds of identities people carry around, but there are many many others. Some other subtle candidates are being the nice one, the resolute one, the strong one, the social one, the pretty one, the moral one.  Some obviously problematic identities: the mean one, the wronged one, the shy one, the materialistic one, the fearful one, the dumb one, the quiet one, the gossipy one, the vain one, the worthless one.

The problem with this hoard of stories supporting some identity, or set of identities, is just the same as with a physical hoard. All the baggage of the story and the detritus of “This one time I was the first in the class to get the answer to an impossible math problem…”, “Once I figured out a solution so good…”, etc. is that it constrains you. Consider yourself smart and you shackle yourself to always having the right answer. Consider yourself shy and you shackle yourself to an identity as a uncommunicative wallflower.

These identities and the stories we collect to support them are our prison. The walls aren’t strong or fortified; but these stores form a permanent and fast moving layer of detritus that will shift beneath you like a sea of take-out food packaging you couldn’t bring yourself to throw away. They don’t explicitly confine you, but they do slow your movement and block your freedom just the same.

Hoarding identities, or identity-forming stories, is a problem that doesn’t make good television. And it also doesn’t seem so obviously problematic as a person who has crowded out their personal living space with things that most don’t consider valuable. But it’s just as stifling.

When a hoarder is out in a park, their collecting isn’t visible to the world. Mental hoarding is always as invisible to the outside world. But the damaging effects are the same. How much mental baggage do you carry? How much does it constrain you?

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Practical Philosophy

The Hidden Power of Acceptance

Most people think of power as assertive and domineering. That power rides up to the world and forcefully changes the way that it flows. Sometimes, power does look like this. And it’s undeniable that this kind of power is the most visible and compelling.

But as many martial artists know, there’s a lot of power in taking the way the winds are blowing and modestly intervening to better align it with your interests. While the traditionally powerful fighter will stride confidently into the ring and forcefully throw punches at will, a clever and skilled master in any of a number of martial arts will seize this as a great and powerful opportunity. When the opponent is assertive and driving the fight, a defender aware and knowledgeable of what the attacker does is able to take advantage of the weaknesses his style exposes.

Acceptance of the opponent’s style is powerful in fighting because it allows you to turn a fight from a one-on-one affair into a two-on-one match. Me and my opponent’s aggressive style against my opponent. There’s a reason martial arts movies love to tell this story, and a reason we keep needing to hear it — we still don’t really get it.

We continue to insist that we know the way to do things in the world, and that way is to set a course and push valiantly in that direction until we succeed. And that can and does work at times. But it works only when it’s got all the luck of the world flowing behind it. When it (more typically) fails, we think that we’ve failed. But the failure’s root cause will likely be that we allowed ourself to completely ignore the way the world really is.

To many, especially stereotypically Western, mindsets, acceptance is something that weak subservient people have to learn. This mindset leads to the belief that world is led (or should be led) by those who have the ability to dominate and change present conditions. But even the most strident person can probably think of at least a few times when acceptance would have helped.

Acceptance’s power lies in its lack of denial. Where the domineering mindset may well have to fights two fights — against both reality and it’s actual fight — simultaneously, a wise acceptance constrains the problem to its own fight. By accepting, respecting, and taking full view of reality as it is right now, acceptance allows one to start from a place of knowledge rather than ignorance. And by working with reality, acceptance has a lot of power.

I’ve used this quote more than a few times on this site, and it’s been a defining one in my life. But I always return to it because it’s so accurate. Henry Miller:

Everything we shut our eyes to, everything we run away from, everything we deny, denigrate or despise, serves to defeat us in the end.

The power of acceptance is that it removes from play all those hidden corners of reality that can defeat you. By accepting everything you can see and sense fully, the world as it is becomes yours to change. By denying any facet of reality, the world is yours to slowly and blindly fight against. The choice is yours, but I recommend acceptance.

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Personal Development

You Are What You Repeatedly Do

I’d bet you’ve heard the phrase “you are what you repeatedly do,” or a variation on it, at least once before. It’s one of these profound but banal truths that I think are so important, those things that are simple but not easy.

It’s got such a simple purity that it’s almost impossible to dispute. But its simple clarity makes it really easy to forget about. And its implications are deep and important; foundational to what I believe to be a good and well-lived life. But it’s really easy to just look past it and do what is easy: to keep on watching television, playing video games, eating that bag of candy you indulgently bought, or anything else.

Surely not everyone has complete control over all the things they end up repeatedly doing. Some people have actual uncontrollable psychological or physical disorders that make them repeatedly do things against their active will. And obviously some people, because of age or poverty or having lost their awareness of their own agency, feel that they have to repeatedly do things that they think are bad and wish they didn’t.

But most people in most conditions most of the time have a lot of ability to change the things that they repeatedly do, but they don’t. Habit formation is hard work. It is not breezy, simple, and effortless fun in the way that eating a pint of ice cream while watching a Law and Order or Threes Company marathon on TV is.

The reason that we like to ignore this nearly incontestable reality that we are the results of our regular behavior is that it implies pretty directly and indisputably that what we lack in discipline or physique or career is not because the world is set against us, but because we don’t regularly exert enough effort toward those goals. (Though we should always keep in mind that we only control what we put out, not what we get back.)

I realized recently that in the course of my recent weight loss journey, I’ve kinda become a little scrawny and chicken-armed. I don’t want to be scrawny and chicken-armed. But the only step I’d taken to not be scrawny and chicken-armed was to do about fifteen push-up and fifteen chair-dips a day. And I’m sure even the most die-hard proponent of body-weight exercises would concur with my recent conclusion that that simply won’t cut it if one wants to have sizable (but not Mr. Olympia scale) arm muscles. I could read my scrawnier-than-I’d-like arms as an indictment of my genetic inheritance, or my career, or something else equally disempowering, but I feel pretty sure that it’s just telling my that I’m not repeatedly doing enough muscle-building arm-work.

This is really the choice you have about most facts about life: they can be great information to help you build to a new thing, or they can be disempowering truths about what is inherently wrong with you. The more I look, the more I see that the way you repeatedly make that choice to see determines almost everything about what else you repeatedly do in life, and thus almost exactly what you are. Learn to repeatedly do things that are hard but important, and I’m starting to wonder if there are any limits to the things you can accomplish.

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Practical Philosophy

“Simple But Not Easy”

I don’t remember quite where I first encountered the phrase “simple but not easy,” but after a recent encounter it’s been stuck in my head. I believe deeply that all the important insights in life are simple. Really really really stupidly simple.

The reason the phrase is stuck in my head, though, is that there’s an often related, unstated, and wrong corollary that people think follows from the idea that everything is simple: that everything is easy. Things are not easy. At least not for many people in many situations much of the time.

How does one develop a reputation as a kind, generous, and admirable person? Well, by being a kind, generous, and admirable person. (Duh! It is that simple.) But how do I act kindly, generously, and admirably? You perform actions that feel kind, generous, and admirable. (Duh! It is that simple.) What about when I don’t really feel like it and I really just want to say the mean thought that’s on my mind because I’m tired and a bit fed up? Even then, especially then. I didn’t say it was easy.

We know what it means to be nice. We know what it means to have courage. We know what it means to forgive. We know what it is to help. We know what it is be present. We know what it is to love. When we don’t do those things, in most cases, it’s not because we don’t know how we would do them. Rather, we fail to demonstrate qualities we admire because they either aren’t easy for us to see, or they aren’t the easy or expected thing for us to do.

To really be the kind of person who is thought of as kind is an exceptionally hard task. It’s hard not because it’s not obvious how to be kind. It’s hard because it’s not easy to be kind to a lot of people a lot of the time. People have a habit of doing things we don’t like. And the easy reaction when someone does something we don’t like is to be mean. To meet what we perceive as their unkindness with our own. It is a hard thing to be kind when every impulse you have is to lash back. But it really is simple.

The core insight of “simple but not easy” is this: while we frequently want to blame our deficiencies on a lack of knowledge — thinking that we “don’t know how” to do the right thing — it’s typically actually caused by a lack of will. We tend to — for comfort, for simplicity, for the conservation of energy — do what is easy. But if we want to be proud of our actions, we should try to do what is simple and obviously going to make us feel admirable and proud. Not just when it is easy, but when it is hard. Especially when it is hard.

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