Monday, 17 July 2017

How the devil sets productivity traps for the unwary

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There's a short story by Leo Tolstoy about a farmer who was very poor, and who asked God for help. Soon after, the devil came to see the farmer, and offered him a deal.

I will give you as much land as you want,” proposed the devil. “It is up to you to decide how much land you'll get. All you have to do is run as fast as you can, tomorrow, from dawn to sunset. All land that you'll traverse will belong to you at the end of the day.”

The farmer felt exceedingly happy upon hearing the proposal, and turned to planning what he was going to do the next day. He intended to cover as much territory as possible, but at the same time, he wanted to ensure that he would be running on fertile land.

At dawn, the farmer started to run. He didn't take with him any food or water because he didn't want to waste time taking a break for eating and drinking. He only had one day to make his fortune, and wanted to make the best of it.


For the next hours, the farmer ran as fast as a reindeer on the prairie. However, when the sun was high in the sky, he began to grow tired. “Should I stop and get a drink?” he wondered. “Should I stop and get something to eat?”

Yet, he determined to keep on running, and continued the whole day without ever taking a break. Occasionally, he would slow down for a few minutes, but then remembered that the devil had promised him all the land he could traverse until sunset.

The whole afternoon, the farmer continued to run with a smile on his face, realizing that he had already covered more land that he would ever be capable of cultivating. However, he continued to run farther.

When the sun began to descend on the horizon, the farmer felt severe pain on his chest. He slowed down for second, and then stopped. “I am not feeling well,” he said. Next, he found it difficult to breathe, and felt the taste of blood in his mouth. And before he knew what was happening to him, he fell on the ground, and died of a massive heart attack.

So much for a productive day.

In the twenty-first century, we are not far different from Tolstoy's farmer. We run all day, and we are constantly looking for short cuts to do things faster.

Each day, new software applications become available with the goal of helping us answer additional emails, read documents faster, access our files day and night, and listen to audio recordings twice faster than the speed of human speech.


Despite these innovations, our work has become increasingly frantic. Millions of people do not even take the time to have a proper lunch. Instead, they gulp down some pizza, drink soda, and munch some cookies on the go, so that they can keep running like Tolstoy's farmer.

Day after day, the scheme repeats itself in the name of high productivity, but is this really true? The problem is that some of those software applications are going to prove worthless because they just help us do at a higher speed things that we should not be doing in the first place.

Like it happened to Tolstoy's farmer, the appeal of better results can make us lose our sense of proportion. It can make us want more just for the sake of getting more, while we lose sight of our primary goals. It can make us want to do things faster, just for the sake of doing them faster, without actually thinking if we should be applying our energies elsewhere.

The danger of productivity traps is that they can push us further than we want to go because they make us forget the big picture. They make us forget that the real goal of productivity is not to do things faster, but to do the right things well at a sustainable speed.

If you think about it, we shouldn't want to do things that add little value to our lives, nor aim at working twenty-four hours a day. Least of all, we don't want to create useless work for ourselves by filing electronic documents that we will never have time to retrieve, let alone read.


Such useless exercises remind me of the advice that Van Helsing, the vampire-slayer, received in Bram Stoker's novel “Dracula.” This is what a friend told Van Helsing:

You were always a careful student, and your case-book was always fuller than the rest. You were only a student then, but now you're a master, and I trust that your good habits have not failed. Remember, my friend, that knowledge is stronger than memory.”

A friend was warning Van Helsing against the danger of paying too much attention to details, and forgetting about one's primary goal. Productivity traps produce the same effect. They make us devote efforts to tasks that seem urgent but that, in practical terms, deliver little value.

Like animals, we human beings are fascinated by shiny objects. Everything new, everything fresh, everything colourful attracts our attention, and makes us want to try it out.

Yet, if we want to be highly productive, we need to force ourselves to ignore shiny objects. We need to force ourselves to devote our energies to the areas where we can make a difference, to the areas that really count.

If you allow yourself to get carried away by productivity traps, you will end up like Tolstoy's farmer, getting a heart attack while you were trying to do something that you should not be doing in the first place.

Lack of consistency is what makes people get ensnared in productivity traps. People forget the primary purpose of their work. They forget their life's mission, and instead, they just keep working for the sake of working. As I explain in my books, without a consistent philosophy, nobody can make the right decisions. With coherent views, nobody can resist the appeal of productivity traps.

Already in the nineteenth century, Jane Austen put in the mouth of Elizabeth Bennet, the female protagonist of “Pride and Prejudice,” the conclusion that we should be mistrustful of anything or anybody that lacks consistency:

There are few people whom I really love, at even fewer of whom I think well. The more I see of the world, the more dissatisfied with it; and every day confirms my belief of the inconsistency of all human characters, and of the little dependence that can be placed on the appearance of either merit or sense.”


Consistency is the answer. If you keep the big picture in mind, you will not find it difficult to avoid productivity traps. If you possess a strong sense of direction, you will not find it difficult to discard unimportant things.

By sticking to your life's mission, you will be able to become immensely proactive without having to chase shiny objects that will eventually prove detrimental.

Highly productive people don't feel anxious or stressed. You will not see them pursuing shiny objects because they have long ago embraced the ideal that Walt Whitman presented in his work “The Poet.” If you want to be highly productive, you should also embrace this ideal:

Nothing out of its place is good; nothing in its place is bad. He bestows on every object or quality its fit proportion, neither more nor less. He is the arbiter of the diverse; he is the key. He is the equalizer of his age and land. He supplies what wants supplying; he checks what wants checking.”

Let the ideal of consistency, simplicity, and balance guide your life. It will help you avoid worthless shiny objects and productivity traps, and hopefully, contribute to preventing an early death due to a massive heart attack.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photo taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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Monday, 3 July 2017

The dark side of minimalism – and how to make minimalism bright again


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Intellectual fashions are rarely perceived as dangerous until they have inflicted severe harm on their victims. This an unfortunate, but frequently observable aspect of human nature. Few people are willing to invest time in assessing the downside of their beliefs, and even fewer are willing to devote any efforts to preventing those risks.

The problem acquires a much larger dimension when intellectual fashions appear not only harmless, but beneficial; not only pleasant, but affordable; not only convenient, but also reputable.

Minimalism is a philosophical magnet that is attracting hundreds of new adepts per day because it looks harmless, inexpensive, and sophisticated, while in essence, it is nothing but decaffeinated Buddhism with a veneer of Stoicism.

Undoubtedly, millions of people today are looking for a philosophy to give direction to their lives. In doing so, these people are trying to embrace sustainable, understandable, and honourable principles.


A consistent philosophy constitutes an essential human need. However, one should not confuse chicken feed with proper human nutrition. Minimalism is chicken feed for the soul because it leaves major philosophical questions unanswered.

The dark side of minimalism is that it can render you less than human. If you choose to embrace the ideas that you only need a few things in life, that it's advisable for you to limit your ambitions, and that you should not try to do too much or travel too far, you are going to be restricting your chances of achieving complex goals.

Human happiness is all about exploiting your talents and possibilities. It's all about trying to achieve the best possible results with your life. Happiness is not about curtailing your dreams, limiting your vision, and rendering yourself as small as possible.

An added problem of minimalism is that it will tempt you to waste your skills. If you embrace minimalism after having spent years acquiring complex skills, you will be tempted to view those skills as useless, in the same way as Masha did, one of the main characters into Chekhov's play The Three Sisters. Here is what Masha said:

Knowing two foreign languages in a small town like this is an unnecessary luxury. Actually, it is not even a luxury. It is rather a useless encumbrance, like having a sixth finger on your hand. Unfortunately, we have spent so much time learning useless things.”


This is the kind of internal dialogue that takes place in the minds of minimalists. Minimalism has made them discard everything that is not strictly necessary. It has made them discard things that are unusual, expensive, and ambitious. It has made them waste the energies they've invested in acquiring complex skills.

I view minimalism as a dangerous philosophy precisely because it is less than a philosophy. It is only a short-term remedy to reduce the anxiety of those who lack a structured, integrated, rational philosophy.

When someone embraces minimalism, he renounces his ambition to pursue complex goals, expensive pleasures, and major success. In a way, minimalism turns him into a bipolar paranoiac, like the main character in R.L. Stevenson's novel Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a character who is on the one side peaceful and friendly, and on the other side, a wild, free-ranging monster. At a certain point, the peaceful side wants to renounce the wild side, and says: “I cannot say that I care what becomes of Hyde. I am quite done with him.”


Let me though qualify my warning against minimalism. I have nothing against simplicity and frugality as such. In fact, I highly recommend them if they are exercised in the right philosophical context.

I regard as a great idea to simplify your life in order to free up your time to pursue major ambitions. I also view frugality very positively because it enables you to accumulate resources for undertaking major projects.

The rational purpose of simplicity is to enable you to pursue complex goals. The rational purpose of frugality is to enable you to accumulate resources for pursuing major ambitions. In the right philosophical context, the purpose of minimalism should be to free up your time and resources for doing great things, not for staying small.

The greatest danger of minimalism is that it can keep you waiting forever. It can make you so obsessed with staying small that you will stop trying to do big things. It can put your ambitions, plans, and creativity on hold just for the sake of keeping yourself constrained.

Delaying your initiatives is not the right way to live. If you spend your life waiting, you'll render yourself less than human. If you use minimalism to delay your ambitions, you will be doing yourself a great disservice because, as Shakespeare put it in his play Henry IV: “delays have dangerous ends.”

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph by John Vespasian, 2014.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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Saturday, 17 June 2017

Daily meditation: what works and what doesn't -- my practical recommendations

 
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In 1422, Bernardino of Sienna was facing a disastrous situation. The plague had wiped out half of the monks in his monastery. To make things worse, the crop had been lost, partly because of insufficient cultivation, partly because of an unusually harsh winter. The monks that had survived had no resources, no energies, and no motivation to go further.

Those still alive were looking at Bernardino, hoping that he would be able to figure out a solution. He was the spiritual magnet that had attracted them to the Franciscan Order, prompting them to abandon parents, friends, and possessions. He was the fountain-head from which they had always been able to draw strength in times of trouble.

To everyone's surprise, Bernardino did not convoke a chapter to discuss the situation. He also didn't provide any instructions, explanations, or words of encouragement. Instead, he just announced that he needed to be alone for a while in order to meditate. "I will be back in two weeks," he said, before walking out of the monastery, headed for the nearby woods.

Bernardino spent the next weeks in solitude, thinking about the challenges he was facing. During that period, he drew nourishment from wild fruits, drank water from the Arno river, and slept in an improvised shed.

When Bernardino returned to the monastery, he was saluted sombrely by John Capistrano, the monk who had taken up Bernardino's functions during those two weeks. "Did you find an answer?" asked John Capistrano. Bernardino nodded. "When I meditate, I always find answers," he replied, "and these are answers I could not find by reading a hundred books."

In fact, what Bernardino had accomplished through meditation was not so much finding the answers to his problems, but letting the answers find him. He had made himself ready to see the invisible, ready to let solutions take shape before his eyes, ready to overcome obstacles that seemed insurmountable. He had allowed nature to speak to him, and point him in the right direction.

"Letting the answers find you" constitutes the perfect definition of meditation. Instead of exerting pressure, you create conditions that render pressure unnecessary. Instead of pushing for decisions, you let them emerge naturally. Instead of agonising about the future, you trust that the right process will always deliver the right results, given enough time.

Through the years, my attitude towards meditation has evolved from total scepticism to daily practice. This evolution however is not the result of a philosophical revelation, but of trial and error. It is the result of acknowledging what works and discarding what doesn't.

"In order to learn, you need to accumulate, but in order to understand, you need to simplify," observed Lao-Tzu. His words provide us an accurate description of the meditation process. The whole point of meditation is to grasp the principles, patterns, and structures that shape our lives; to draw practical conclusions from a multiplicity of facts, intuitions, and emotions; to become better, more effective human beings.

Yet, my daily practice of meditation has only served to increase my suspicions towards grandiose pronouncements about "becoming one with the universe" and "understanding that we are all one."

My approach to meditation may be viewed by many as unorthodox, but that's too bad for them: I find proven success more convincing than grandstanding. I prefer a solid track record in problem-solving to the possession of arcane knowledge.

If you are practising meditation in the traditional Eastern style and it's not working for you, you may want to take a look at my unorthodox methods:
  • instead of meditating in a yoga position, put on some comfortable shoes, and take a one-hour walk.
  • instead of emptying your mind and controlling your breathing, carry with you a brief list of the main issues you are facing, and focus your thoughts on those.
  • instead of looking for solutions to problems, seek only to formulate the questions accurately, and then let the answers find you.
  • instead of meditating only at certain times during the week, take breaks every day at irregular intervals, enjoy a cup of herbal tea, and meditate for ten minutes.
  • instead of demanding immediate results from your meditation sessions, accept the fact that the benefits will be non-linear, benefits such as gaining deep insights at unexpected moments, and coming up with creative solutions to problems while you are performing unrelated tasks.
  • instead of meditating about little things, focus your reflections on big principles, big patterns, and big structures; ignore irrelevant details, and concentrate on essential traits and large commonalities.
  • instead of following a meditation routine, explore different set-ups and sequences to see which one works best for you; do not pay attention to people who claim that their meditation method is the best for everybody.
Anyone who has read my books won't be surprised to hear that I regard beneficial meditation and a consistent philosophy as indissolubly linked. I don't think that you can have one without the other.

Meditation -if understood and practised as intense, quiet thinking- will render you happier and more successful, if only because it will improve the quality of your decisions and actions. As Longfellow put it so beautifully in his Psalm of Life: "Not enjoyment and not sorrow is our destined way, but to act so that tomorrow finds us further than today."

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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Thursday, 1 June 2017

Five massive advantages of rational living

 
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These days, when irrationality is frequently predicated as the only way to go, it is important to remind yourself of the massive benefits you can draw from rational living. 

How often do you hear that you should trust your emotions blindly? Or that you only need to believe something on order to make it true? Or that you cannot be sure of anything because the veracity of facts depends on the viewer's standpoint?

The problem with relativism and subjectivism is that, in addition to rendering you hesitant and ineffective, they can also make you poor, sick, and conflict-prone. Let me illustrate these risks while I present the advantages of rational living.


Speed is the first difference you will remark if you compare rational and irrational individuals. And by “irrational,” I don't mean stupid. What I mean is wildly emotional, confused, and erratic. People who trust their emotions more than they trust facts can only maintain their course of action for a while, that is, until their emotions change, something that might happen next week, the next day, or the next hour.  

Without the consistency provided by rationality, you will only be able to advance towards your goals slowly, if at all, because, with every change of mood, your direction will also change.

Rationality enables speed because it helps individuals keep going on their chosen direction day after day. Over time, such constancy will allow them to cover long distances so fast that it seems inconceivable. Conversely, slowness is the way of life for wildly emotional persons because their erratic behaviour prevents them from going far in any direction.

2. Self-confidence

Self-confidence is also something that you will immediately perceive when you deal with rational individuals. In contrast to the endless hesitations of emotionally-driven people, rational persons can establish their goals on the basis of facts, and make their plans on the basis of logic. An orderly thinking process provides rational men and women a strong determination to succeed.

If confronted with opposition, rational people don't fall apart. If faced with obstacles, they don't give up. If hit by misfortune, they don't despair.  Their self-confidence is based on a realistic assessment of their possibilities, an assessment that entails the acceptance of occasional errors, adversity, and setbacks.

In contrast to emotionally-driven people, rational individuals can confidently keep advancing towards their goals because they know that steady, focused work will lead to beneficial results, if given enough time. 


The ability to create wealth is quintessential to rational individuals. Wildly emotional people may occasionally come up with brilliant ideas, but their erratic personality will prevent them to bringing those ideas to fruition.

Irrational people may conceive grandiose plans, but their inconsistent behaviour will prevent them from implementing them. They may now and then propose compelling projects, but their irregular efforts will not suffice to turn those projects into reality.

Only rational men and women can exert the sort of sustained, consistent efforts that create wealth, and enable wise investments.


A good health (or at least, better that it would have been otherwise) goes hand in hand with rational living because only rational individuals possess the self-discipline to eat sensibly, exercise regularly, and get sufficient rest each night.  

Rational men and women commit themselves to a sensible lifestyle, and strive to stay healthy. They follow a sensible diet because they understand the dangers of overindulgence. They go to bed on time because they grasp the risks of overexerting themselves.

In contrast, wildly emotional people tend to be addicted to low-quality food, risky activities, and burning the candle on both sides. Such habits can cause tremendous harm to one's health in the long term.


Last but not least, I want to mention an aspect that you will rarely hear anyone mention: Irrational people tend to be conflict-prone, that is, vociferous, hurtful, and self-centred. By putting their emotions on the driving seat, they often fail to pay attention to what other people say and feel.

Contrary to what many movies portray, emotionally-driven persons tend to lack empathy because empathy requires the willingness to analyse the context of problems. While rational individuals go to great lengths to have harmonious relationships, irrational people, due to their lack of perspective, will often provoke unnecessary clashes.

In  conclusion, your commitment to rational living (starting with the adoption of a rational philosophy) can deliver you large advantages. The efforts you exert to develop your prudence, self-reliance and thoughtfulness can enable you to make faster and better decisions, and help you implement them effectively.  Rationality is an invaluable asset, which especially in times of adversity, can make the difference between a glorious victory and a painful defeat. 

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical building; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
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 Here is the link to a media interview, just published:

Saturday, 13 May 2017

The missing link in personal development

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The importance of having good systems becomes particularly clear in times of turmoil. When problems become acute, you need systems that get things done, systems that enable you to move forward, irrespective of the size of the obstacles. 

When we talk about having good systems, we should not forget about philosophical systems, since those are indispensable for making correct choices in the face of complexity and uncertainty. 

Personal development, if taken seriously, is driven by patterns, not by isolated events. You need effective habits, principles, and structures in order to keep growing as a person year after year. The fact that many people lack a solid philosophy explains why they collapse psychologically when they face a major challenge. Relatively few individuals manage to keep their mental balance when they are accosted by illness, financial hardship, and family quarrels.

A rational philosophy is essential for living effectively in good and bad times. Without such a philosophy, it is impossible to keep a cool head when thing get hot. Cost consciousness is an essential part of such philosophy, and sets apart practical, well-grounded individuals from hopeless, unrealistic dreamers.

Yet, cost consciousness is so rare in personal development that I have come to call it "the missing link." Encouraging people to take action “to develop themselves” without having regard for costs can easily lead to disaster. Let me give you five examples that show how to enhance your cost consciousness, and accelerate your personal development:


If you want to guide your life by a rational philosophy, you should take into account the opportunity costs every time you make a major decision. Already in the nineteenth century, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850 ) observed that, unless we make the effort to assess alternative scenarios, we can be easily fooled by our tendency to think short term. It takes effort "to see the invisible," explained Bastiat. It takes a rational philosophy to open our eyes, and see the hidden costs of our choices.

When you decide to go in one direction, you should also assess the hidden cost of your not going in other directions, or for that matter, the cost of staying put and doing nothing. For example, the direct cost of playing video-games five hours a week is negligible, but the long-term opportunity cost of wasting five hours a week is huge. Think of what you could do in the long term if you employ those five hours productively each week: You could learn a second language, start your own business, or become an accomplished public speaker. 


Another critical but often overlooked aspect of personal development is making fair comparisons between present and future costs. Individuals will often refrain from taking action because they grow discouraged by assuming (wrongly) that they cannot reduce their costs. People will regard obstacles as insurmountable because they assume (wrongly) that they cannot find an inexpensive way to circumvent those obstacles.

Entrepreneurship, understood in a wide sense, is essential to your personal development. The ability to understand and identify future cost variations can give you a large advantage when making major decisions. Already three centuries ago, Richard Cantillon (1697-1734) regarded this ability as a key element in economic success.

For instance, individuals will sometimes fail to pursue promising opportunities because they overestimate the costs (tangible and intangible) of moving to another city or country. In fact, those costs tend to rise only during the initial six months, which is the length of time it takes to find your way around in a new environment. Later on, those costs can be typically compressed.


The subjective elements in the perception of cost should also not be overlooked. Many outstanding initiatives have been abandoned when the originators made the mistake of asking other people for their opinion. "It is too expensive," they got to hear. "It is too risky. It will take too long, and you are already too old for that."

The problem is that, even if those remarks are made with good intentions, they are bound to remain subjective. Even when critics argue that their remarks are based on hard data, those remarks will still be tainted with subjectivism.

Already in the Middle-Ages, Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444) realized that prices are naturally set by comparing the intensity of subjective desires. Exactly the same principle applies when it comes to assessing the cost of personal development projects.

A learning process that should "objectively" take years can often be compressed into months thanks to the extraordinary motivation of the individuals involved. Similarly, senior men and women who should "objectively" possess limited energies can display enormous levels of dedication when they are reinvigorated by a strong sense of purpose.


The apparent "certainty" of cost can also be misleading. The truth is that, when you are making major decisions such as getting married or changing the course of your career, you will never be able to forecast the cost with certainty. As Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832) put it so wisely, cost optimisation is “a process of constant trial and error." 

If the cost of pursuing your dreams appears too high, this should be a call for caution, not a call for defeat. Personal development projects are challenging precisely because their long-term cost is bound to remain uncertain. Yet, such uncertainty should not prevent you from applying your creativity to reducing those costs as much as possible through “a process of constant trial and error."


When it comes to personal development, millions of men and women will routinely underestimate their capabilities and fail to seize their chances because they compare themselves with people in different circumstances, and wrongly assume that they cannot afford to compete.

Such conclusion can often be proven false. Already in the eighteenth century, Adam Smith (1723-1790) observed that products and services tend to gain value when they are complementary to others, a phenomenon that Smith called "competitive advantage."

If you want to develop yourself in a certain area, you should not be discouraged by the fact that other people are already firmly established in that area. In those cases, a good strategy is to use your particular circumstances to develop skills that are complementary to those already existing on the market.

For instance, if you want to establish yourself as a public speaker, you don't need to imitate the skills and cost structures of people who are already well-established in that profession. Chances are that you can attain success faster and at a lower cost if you identify and exploit your competitive advantages, whatever those may be. 


Cost consciousness (and the associated actions to manage costs effectively) are the missing links in personal development. A rational cost assessment is a crucial factor that you need to take into account every time you make a major decision in your professional or private life. 

For the attainment of long-term  happiness, I regard cost consciousness as no less important than knowing yourself, understanding your environment, and sustaining your long-term motivation.

Twenty-six centuries ago, Confucius was asked if human beings can gain knowledge about life after death. Confucius dismissed the question by saying that "before worrying about life after death, we should first try to gain knowledge about life before death." By becoming cost conscious here and now, you can deepen your knowledge, make sound decisions, and build a better life for yourself.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of classical painting; photograph taken by John Vespasian, 2016.

For more information about rational living, I refer you to my books

 
Free subscription to The John Vespasian Letter


**********
 Here are the links to five media interviews, just published: