Sunday, 6 August 2017

How to massively increase your productivity, success, and happiness

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The French use the word "nombrilism" in order to designate people who fail to see the big picture because they are focusing on their own navel ("ombril"); people who, instead of pursuing large goals, opt for thinking small and without system.

Of course, any attempt to achieve large goals by thinking small and without system is doomed to failure. There is no way that you can make major improvements by taking small, inconsistent steps. There is no way that you can turn your life around by means of little, uncoordinated tricks.

Some people find it impossible to accept that universal principles exist, and that they have always existed. In particular, the keys to productivity, success, and happiness have remained the same for centuries.

Universal principles

I am always reminded of this fact every time I take a tour of historical sites. Every time I look at vestiges of the past, the principles are always there, right before my eyes. Last week, while I was travelling through Spain, visiting medieval castles, churches, and monasteries, the Basilica of St Vincent in Avila (central Spain) made a deep impression on me.

Its construction started in the tenth century, but it took a hundred years before the building was finished. For this reason, the basilica bears witness to the transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles. In addition, St Vincent's Basilica embodies the keys to productivity, success, and happiness.

Firstly, the basilica was built on solid rock, a decision that was not a coincidence, but the result of the events that, from the very beginning, led to the idea of putting up the building: In the third century AD, in the times of Emperor Dioclecian, Spain was a province of the Roman Empire, and following Dioclecian's orders, the local governor was carrying out a persecution of Christians.

Nonetheless, Roman legal procedure required that, when someone was accused of being a Christian, he had to be given the chance to recant his faith, and demonstrate his allegiance to the Emperor by making a sacrifice to ancient Roman deities such as Mars (the god of war) and Minerva (the goddess of wisdom).

That was exactly what happened to Vincent, a Spanish merchant who was known to be a devout Christian. Roman soldiers took him into custody, and required him to renounce his Christian faith. They told him that, if he refused to comply, he would be facing the death penalty.

While Vincent was in custody, he received a visit from his sisters, Sabina and Christeta. "You have to flee, Vincent," they urged him. "Otherwise, the soldiers will kill you." Vincent was reluctant to run away, but his sisters insisted. "We have paid off the guards, and we have brought horses. Come with us, and we will escape together."

Vincent and his sisters slipped away during the night, and used the horses to flee. However, the Roman soldiers began to chase them the next morning. Eventually, the soldiers captured Vincent and his sisters in Avila, tortured them, threw them off the city wall, and left their corpses lying on a rock at the bottom of a cliff. This is the rock upon which the basilica was built in the tenth century.

A solid foundation

If you visit St Vincent's Basilica in Avila today, you will still be able to see the rock. It stands in the crypt, right below the altar where the faithful have been celebrating mass for the last one thousand years. The rock provides the basilica with a clear purpose, a definite meaning, a solid foundation. Throughout the centuries, the rock has welcomed hundreds of thousands of pilgrims, and seen the basilica flourish. It has helped transform brutality into benevolence, and confusion into structure.

Similarly, your productivity, success, and happiness are dependent on your ability to build upon solid foundations. Without a consistent philosophy, there is no way you can attain high productivity because you will simply not know what to do. Without a clear purpose, there is no way you can determine which path to follow because you will simply not know your destination.

For this reason, it puzzles me that unprincipled people spend so much time looking for productivity tricks and short-cuts to success. In a way, they are trying to build a basilica by piling up stones at random. They are trying to put up a building without having any idea of what it should look like. Such attempts always fail miserably. No wonder that such people feel immensely stressed.

Having a rational, integrated philosophy is a prerequisite to high productivity. You need to know your ultimate goal. You need to know your life's mission. You need to know what you want, and why you want it.

A well-designed structure

Secondly, you need to build a well-designed structure, which is something that requires consistent efforts. Do you know what you are trying to achieve in life? Can you ensure that the decisions you make today are in line with your long-term objectives?

As soon as the basilica was finished in the eleventh century, the Bishop of Avila ordered the construction of a cenotaph to house the remains of Vincent and his sisters. The cenotaph was built by a team of local artists, following the Bishop's instructions: "I want you to illustrate Vincent's story by means of twelve scenes made of small sculptures," asked the Bishop.

The sculptures, only thirty centimetres high, were placed on the sides of the cenotaph, and painted in blue, yellow, red, black, and white, making them look almost alive. Since few people in the Middle Ages were able to read, the cenotaph proved a perfect complement to the basilica.

The Bishop ordered to place the cenotaph inside the building, to the right of the main altar, so that pilgrims could walk around the cenotaph, admire its sculptures, and learn the details of St Vincent's life. Precisely as the Bishop expected, the combination of cenotaph and basilica proved a lasting success. Both creations share the same purpose, carry the same message, and appeal to the same audience. They enhance each other's beauty, meaning, and reputation.

Sticking to your chosen strategy is the second key to increasing your productivity, success, and happiness. Like the Bishop of Avila did when he ordered the cenotaph, you must ensure that your actions are consistent with your purpose. You need to make sure that your decisions are integrated, focused, and aligned with your goals. If you do that, they will enhance each other, and multiply your results.

A clean board

Thirdly, you need to keep a clean board by having the discipline to say "no" to distractions, temptations, and interruptions. You need to clear your path of obstacles, so that you can keep advancing towards your goals.

The habit of keeping a clean board can dramatically contribute to your productivity. Your commitment to staying on track day after day can enormously enhance your results, and increase your peace of mind.

Unsurprisingly, St Vincent's Basilica also shares this trait. Since the Middle Ages, its right and left corridors have been kept free of furniture, so that pilgrims can walk freely, admire the cenotaph, and pray unencumbered.

A beautiful medieval anecdote confirms this point: When Pedro Barco, a hermit famous for his piety and wisdom, died in the early twelve century, his neighbours could not agree where to bury him. Two villages were claiming the right to have him interred in their church.

After some discussion, the neighbours agreed to let a mule determine where the hermit should be buried. For this purpose, they placed the hermit's corpse on the mule's back, and let the mule go its way. "Wherever the mule takes him, that's where we will bury him," they convened, expecting the mule to head for one of the two villages.

Yet, to everyone' surprise, the mule took to the main road, covered all the way to Avila, arrived at St Vincent's Basilica, went through the portal, continued unencumbered through the right-side corridor, stopped ten meters away from the cenotaph, and tapped firmly on the ground, indicating where the hermit should be buried.

Nine hundred years have passed, and Peter Barco's sepulchre still lies ten meters away from St Vincent's cenotaph; and the basilica's right and left corridors are still free of furniture, so that pilgrims can continue to walk unencumbered.

The rock that bears witness to St Vincent's story still stands in the crypt, naked and unadorned. The building and the cenotaph still keep conveying their original message strongly and clearly, like a man who has found his mission in life, and knows exactly what he is doing.

Next to Pedro Barco's sepulchre, there is a curved mark on the basilica's floor. If we believe the legend, it was a mule that made that mark nine centuries ago, a mule that knew exactly where it wanted to go, and how to get there; a mule that had instinctively figured out the key to productivity, success, and happiness.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: Photograph of medieval sculpture; photo taken by John Vespasian, 2017.

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

 
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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

 
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Friday, 28 April 2017

Why reason and prudence are preferable to unbridled positive thinking

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"Just do it, go for it, do not hesitate." Those pieces of advice are omnipresent in our culture. Will you follow them, and place your life at risk? Will you act now without thinking of tomorrow's consequences? 

I very much hope you don't because, instead of solving your problems, you would only be placing your future at risk. Instead of improving your life, you would only be jeopardising your assets. 


Wisdom starts and ends with reality. Opportunities need to be rationally assessed, investments carefully researched, alternatives prudently weighed. If you make important decisions on the spur of the moment, you will commit grievous errors. Blind enthusiasm is not the way to go. 

Lao Tzu, a Chinese philosopher who lived twenty-six centuries ago, already warned us against exaggerated pursuits. “A wise man does not rush,” he wrote. Wise men are prudent and steady, not foolhardy and over-anxious.

Calmness, realism, and patience may not be popular these days, but they work a million times better than hot-headiness, rashness, and wishful thinking.

You will do much better if you assess the distance before you jump. You will advance much faster if you look ahead and circumvent obstacles, rather than crashing against them.

Japanese management techniques provide us detailed prescriptions about how to enhance our prudence and effectiveness. And those prescriptions do not require us to maintain a cheerful appearance at all times. 


Rationality, not enthusiasm, is the key to getting things done quickly, with high quality, and without errors. In particular, you want to avoid the three major negative consequences of unbridled positive thinking, three consequences that the Japanese have named "muri,” “mura,” and “muda." 

"Muri" means excessive physical or mental strain, which tend to have detrimental effects. We all know that over-stressed individuals often experience anxiety, insomnia, and a higher propensity to infections. Do not allow yourself to fall into the “muri” trap. If you avoid over-commitments, you will do much better in life. Keep a cool head. Protect your health, and be realistic about how many hours you can work.

"Mura" is a synonym of "unevenness" or "irregularity." It means that, on Monday, you perform a fair amount of work; on Tuesday, you do a bit less; and on Wednesday, you do three times as much as on Monday, with the result that you feel exhausted, irritable, and out of control. Although unevenness can make you look creative and enthusiastic, it will inevitably drain all your energies. Definitively, this is not a good way to live.

"Muda" means "waste" and includes all types of actions that consume our resources, but fail to advance our cause. Typically, those are errors we commit when we give more weight to your enthusiasm than to our logic. Examples of “muda” are performing unnecessary tasks, engaging in unnecessary travel, and establishing unnecessary requirements. A little less positive thinking and a little more cool-headed planning can go a long way.

Unfortunately, some individuals trust their positive thinking so thoroughly that they overlook the signs of "muri,” “mura,” and “muda" until it is too late to avert reality's harsh revenge. It is always sad to witness disasters that could have been prevented if people have kept their eyes open, but without a rational philosophy, who can resist the pressure of exaggerated emotions? 


The story of a man who was afraid of his shadow is attributed to Lao Tzu: The man tried to run away, but could not escape. He ran and ran, trying to get rid of his shadow, until he eventually dropped dead out of exhaustion.

Those who guide their lives by unbridled positive thinking are no better off than the man in the story. They run and run without caution, measurement, or planning. And in doing so, they render themselves highly vulnerable. 

There is a better way: the way of reason and prudence, the way that I present in my books. By learning and practising the principles of rational living, you can spare yourself plenty of trouble, increase your chances of success, and maintain an optimistic, but still realistic outlook.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph by John Vespasian, 2017.

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

 
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 Here are the links to six media interviews, just published:

Friday, 14 April 2017

The most frequent obstacle to personal growth -- and how to surmount it


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Few people know that sharks change their teeth all the time. New teeth grow on the back of a shark's denture, and then the teeth move progressively to the front side, until they are eventually discarded. Sharks have evolved into constant tooth changers for a reason essential to their survival: They need to keep their teeth sharp for hunting purposes.

If sharks were to lose their razor-sharp teeth, they would be unable to hunt, and it would not take long before they disappear as a species. We human beings don't need such sharp teeth, but we do need to think accurately if we want to thrive. We need to stay alert and proactive if we want to improve our lives. We need to pay attention to what's going on, draw logical conclusions, and implement them consistently.

Unfortunately, we stifle our personal growth all too often because we let emotions distort our perceptions, weaken our alertness, and undermine our understanding.We grow too rapidly discouraged when we encounter failure. We view setbacks too readily as final. We regard obstacles too quickly as insurmountable.

The underlying cause

The underlying cause for this problem --in fact, the underlying cause for our excessive willingness to give up-- is our tendency to think inaccurately,  fragmentarily, and short-sightedly. While evolution has led the shark teeth to grow constantly and automatically, it has not granted us the power to think accurately without effort.

We really need to push ourselves if we want to exercise this capacity, and surprisingly enough, we even have difficulties to remember in daily life the lessons taught by 4500 million years of Planet Earth history, and from the animal evolution in the latest 500 million years:
  •  Even nature can make mistakes in the sort term and have animals evolve into suboptimal shapes and functions, but in the long-term, it will correct those mistakes in an endless pursuit of perfection. Nature has no qualms about acknowledging errors, and reverting to previous shapes (e.g. fish developed legs and become reptiles, and then some reptiles discarded their legs and became snakes). Why on earth would you be reluctant to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes?
  •  Nature has no problems to apply in a new context solutions that have already proven successful in a completely different  context, even if those solutions seem unorthodox and weird (e.g. some species of turtles have developed beaks, similar to those of birds. The beaks make those turtles look weird, but they also make the turtles highly effective in their environment). Is your demand for orthodoxy preventing you from solving your problems, and accelerating your personal growth?
  • Nature tends to operate multi-dimensionally, allowing animals to accentuate useful shapes and functions, even if those are totally unrelated (e.g. while reptiles were learning to fly 300 million years ago, they were also evolving into warm-blood creatures). Is your tendency to think uni-dimensionally preventing you from achieving your goals in unrelated areas? 
Best chances of  success

I recently read the diary of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827), and I must tell you that I was not impressed by the depth of Beethoven's philosophical insights. Sure, the man was a musical genius, but an accomplished thinker was he not. I had assumed that excellent skills in one area mean excellent skills in other areas, at least in those that appear closely related, but I was wrong, totally wrong.

Indeed, I was making the quintessential mistake that frequently prevents our personal growth. I was thinking too linearly.  I was interpreting facts incorrectly. I was making unrealistic assumptions. Exercising our capacity to think accurately is a daily and never-ending challenge, but it is our best chance to maximise our creativity, innovations, and achievements.

Text: http://johnvespasian.blogspot.com

Image: photograph of ancient mosaic; 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


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 Here are the links to four media interviews, just published: