Epictetus’ Handle

I read Ryan Holliday’s The Daily Stoic [US] [JP] for each day’s entry. I write them in my daily journal (more often than not).

The 14 June account confused and confounded me:

Every event has two handles – one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wrongdoing, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other – that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.

(Via Holliday’s translation of Epictetus, Enchiridion [US] [JP], 43)

I understand the overall moral in Epictetus’ message but the handle metaphor makes no sense. Events don’t have handles. If they do, then why two with one useless handle? Who is making these handles?

The further description from Holliday’s book failed to enrich:

The famous journalist William Seabrook suffered from such debilitating alcoholism that in 1933 he committed himself to an insane asylum, which was then the only place to get treatment for addiction. In his memoir, Asylum, he tells the story of the struggle to turn his life around inside the facility. At first, he stuck to his addict way of thinking—and as a result, he was an outsider, constantly getting in trouble and rebelling against the staff. He made almost no progress and was on the verge of being asked to leave.

Then one day this very quote from Epictetus—about everything having two handles—occurred to him. “I took hold now by the other handle,” he related later, “and carried on.” He actually began to have a good time there. He focused on his recovery with real enthusiasm. “I suddenly found it wonderful, strange, and beautiful, to be sober. … It was as if a veil, or scum, or film had been stripped from all things visual and auditory.” It’s an experience shared by many addicts when they finally stop doing things their way and actually open themselves to the perspectives and wisdom and lessons of those who have gone before them.

There is no promise that trying things this way—of grabbing the different handle—will have such momentous results for you. But why continue to lift by the handle that hasn’t worked?

Again, this makes no sense to me. I get the moral – there’s an easy way and a hard way; embracing opportunity instead of fighting to hold on to cherished opinions (paraphrased from a quote of Seng-ts’an I saw somewhere) – but “the handle” still threw me. Off I went to reference another translation to see if this metaphor was poorly conveyed.

I checked out The Enchiridion Translated by Elizabeth Carter, made available by MIT.

Everything has two handles, the one by which it may be carried, the other by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, don’t lay hold on the action by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be carried; but by the opposite, that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it, as it is to be carried.

This is, to me, a subtly better version. I still don’t fully appreciate the handle metaphor. It remains awkward. “There are two sides to every coin.” “Every cloud has its silver lining.” Something about swords or cheeks or keepers or better angels or walking in shoes all come close to the idea here.

One more check, this time the copy on Project Gutenberg:

Everything has two handles: one by which it may be borne, another by which it cannot. If your brother acts unjustly, do not lay hold on the affair by the handle of his injustice, for by that it cannot be borne, but rather by the opposite—that he is your brother, that he was brought up with you; and thus you will lay hold on it as it is to be borne.

These are all variations on a theme. I remain unable to grasp this.

Who is making handles that can’t be used to carry? Is there supposed to be both a “just” and “unjust” handle to all things? If so, how are they distinguished? Can there be a third or more, like “practical but compromised” and “pragmatic but ineffective”?

Taking the constructs of the brother and the addict and bringing them together, I can love him for the fact that he is my brother and we grew up together and I know his better side. But as he is an addict, would I do my brother or myself any good by metaphorically “grabbing the other handle”? If your brother, actual or symbolic, isn’t an addict or similar but you and he are otherwise in conflict, that’s where I think this comes into play.

I think. Maybe. I don’t know.

After all of this I still don’t get Epictetus’ handle metaphor. Would someone care to help illuminate me?

Meanwhile I’m thinking about reaching out to my erstwhile prodigal brother. He’s not an addict or anything. He’s just a dick.

The difference there is betwixt honor and honesty seems to be chiefly in the motive. The mere honest man does that from duty which the man of honor does for the sake of character.

William Shenstone, Of Men and Manners, 1764

Stoic movie review: RBG – How to Be a Stoic

Stoic movie review: RBG – How to Be a Stoic:

Now, why do I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a Stoic role model, and have included the documentary about her in my Stoic movie reviews? Three reasons, all of them explored in the film. First off, and most obviously, she embodies at least three of the Stoic virtues: courage, justice, and temperance. The above biographical sketch should leave no doubts about her commitment to social justice, in a sense that is aligned with the Stoic conception of it, and which unfortunately is easily forgotten by a number of self-professing modern Stoics: we are all human beings, members of the human cosmopolis, to be treated fairly and equally. But she also clearly showed plenty of courage, standing up for the right thing to do, both in terms of her own professional career and on behalf of millions of women, for many decades. She did all this in the right major, rarely if ever departing from a no-nonsense approach that would calibrate her reactions to the problem at hand, thus practicing the virtue of temperance. (I cannot comment on her practical wisdom, as that one is a virtue that is usually deployed only by people who consciously think of themselves as Stoics.)

Second, her firm rejection of anger as a useful emotion. The documentary mentions this several times, adding that she inherited the attitude from her mother. Anger, as Seneca puts it, is temporary madness, and not conducive to act reasonably, even when it may be justified by an injustice. RBG has suffered plenty of personal injustices, and has fought on behalf of many others treated unjustly, throughout her life. And yet she has managed to maintain her calm in the midst of plenty of storms, a most Stoic trait.

Finally, and most surprisingly, her apparently genuine friendship with the now deceased Justice Antonin Scalia. Despite their diametrically opposite positions on all sorts of social issues, they were warm toward each other, went on vacation trips together, and made several joint public appearances. I have to admit that I probably would not have the fortitude to stomach a friendship with a person like Scalia, who I found to be despicable. But that’s because I’m not a sage, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a better Stoic than I am. Her behavior toward Scalia embodies the difficult to internalize Stoic notion that nobody does evil on purpose, but only because they are misguided. As Marcus says:

“They are certainly moved toward things because they suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them. ‘But it is not so.’ Teach them then, and show them without being angry.” (Meditations VI.27)

(Via How To Be A Stoic)

There certainly has been a push lately around Justice Ginsburg. I like the story of her and the late Justice Scalia. Regardless of the political perspectives each held they could have not just an honorable debate but a genuine friendship.

Figuring Out ‘The Good Life’

The idea of the “good life” is a core idea of philosophy, often described with a single Greek word, eudaimonia (there’s your new word for the day, most likely). It simply means aiming for the highest human good – the good life, in other words.

Those pictures, and the others that were shared, all point to rather different day to day lives, even though they all have a few things in common. Rather than rattle on a lot about what elements would make up my idea of the good life, I was actually more interested in what elements are commonly found in the ideas of the good life that lots of people shared with me, so I thought about those stories and asked a few others what they thought the “good life” was.

(Via The Simple Dollar)

The article touches on many concepts that, unsurprisingly, ancient philosophers also documented. What I appreciate is Trent’s typically through tie back to the site’s themes about personal finance.

I’m bookmarking, PDFing to my Kindle, and then taking some time to really dig into this and what it can mean for me.

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I Don’t Have the Time

If there’s one phrase I would like to eradicate from our language it is this.

From Patrick Rhone

Tl;dr: We all work with the same 24 hour day. The difference? How we choose to spend that day, how many we have, and how our use aligns with what we truly value.

Your friends and mine, the Stoics, have strong opinions on this topic.

To start, Seneca‘s many writings [US] [JP-en] [JP-ja] go deeper than I do here :

“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

Those who have a hard time disconnecting, this message is perhaps for you.

I love this quote:

“We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”

The sentiment is so true. I know I spend too much time debating over small things that end up costing me more in the time I spent and the other things I could have done. It was Robert Burton who said,

Penny wise and pound foolish

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius [US] [JP-en] [JP-ja] has many things to say on the subject:

“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” (10.16)

What is he saying? Basically, stop wasting time thinking about being a better person and just start being better. I think this touches on the idea of perfect being the enemy of the good enough.

Likewise:

“Be not a man of superfluous words or superfluous deeds.” (3.5)

We all, myself included, go on and on. Get to the point so as not to waste your or others’ time.

Elsewhere he says:

“Away with your books!  Be no longer drawn aside by them: it is not allowed.” (2.2)

Essentially I read this as an admonition against workaholism, unless you’re like Jack Donaghy.: “I wish I’d worked more,” he confessed, near-deathbed.

And again,

“But away with your thirst for books, that you may die not murmuring but with good grace” (2.3)

Most importantly, while striving to make the most of your time make sure you get some quality “Me” time:

“Do the external things which befall you distract you? Give yourself leisure to learn something new and good, and cease to be whirled around. But then you must also avoid being carried about the other way. For those too are triflers who have wearied themselves in life by their activity, and yet have no object to which to direct every movement, and, in a word, all their thoughts.” (2.7)

Everyone needs time away from the distractions of responsibility. The goal is that they are valuable to you, relatively healthy, and give a true break.

It’s astounding how our brains process data even at rest and store the data for later. For example, I know a high-powered executive who travels the world working on multiple large client accounts. He spends his “Me” time watching reality TV on airplanes and in hotels. Even though he says he “switches [his] brain off,” he passively learned about human behavior and popular culture. It was a happy accident his “guilty” (to him) downtime pleasure provided him unexpected benefits.

As Frank Herbert said in Dune [US] [JP-en] [JP-ja]:

“Every experience carries its lesson.”

Thoughts?

Other References:

Various bits above are from Donald Robertson.

Various references are from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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Inspiration from finance

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” – Cicero

I’ve long subscribed to and enjoyed Trent Hamm’s The Simple Dollar site. His approach to personal finance lines up with mine.

Every month or so he shares things that registered with him in some way. This month he hits a bunch of topics I co-sign.

“The root of all superstition is that men observe when a thing hits, but not when it misses.” – Francis Bacon

People, like Emacs Lisp Lambda Expressions, Are Not (often) Self-Evaluating

From null program:

This week I made a mistake that ultimately enlightened me about …

A better opening to a post or journal entry I cannot imagine.

We all make mistakes. How many mistakes do we see & use as an opportunity?

I often reflect back on a quote from Frank Herbert’s Dune [US] [JP] (emphasis mine):

… his first training was in how to learn. And the first lesson of all was the basic trust that he could learn. It’s shocking to find how many people do not believe they can learn, and how many more believe learning to be difficult … every experience carries its lesson.

The entire Scientific Method is predicated on the idea of making mistakes and learning from them.

Example: I let myself get sucked into something this morning that looked like a footstool requiring my deep attention and action. By the end of the day the footstool turned out to be one foot of an elephant that required nothing more of me than a reassuring pat. Complaining, which hadn’t seriously entered my mind until writing this post, would be useless to the elephant and to me.

I learned a lot about the elephant in a very short amount of time. When I was spun up trying to tend to the footstool I was interacting with people I didn’t usually communicate. I received an intense education in something I used to know well but with which I didn’t stay current. I saw how some new people, now in my orbit, work and got an insight into their thinking. These are skilled, talented people I will do well to know better. And I got to work with a few folks I know, enjoy working with, and didn’t know were in town.

I thought about what I should do when I get a similar request, which happens frequently enough that I should have a process for when it occurs yet happens infrequently enough that I easily pushed down in my priority list.

Meanwhile, I made at least a dozen or more other mistakes in the same 12 hours. I hope to address them, the ones over which I have control, Real Soon Now.

One has only so many hours in the day to make mistakes and learn from them.

[Preparing for the Pink] Building a Smart Job Loss Plan

Building a Smart Job Loss Plan:

Imagine that tomorrow – or your next day at work – you go into your workplace only to find a pink slip waiting for you. You’re done. Your employer heard some horrible rumor about you, or maybe your organization is downsizing, or maybe you made a big mistake recently and it’s caught up to you. Whatever it is, your job is no longer yours. You have 15 minutes to clean out your desk and half an hour at HR to sign some papers and then you’re out on the street.

What now? What do you do?

(Via The Simple Dollar The Simple Dollar)

Way back in 2013 (was it that long ago?) I wrote about being laid off from the company where I worked for twelve years. I called my posts “Preparing for the Pink” as in a Pink Slip. This is the traditional American notice of termination of employment though the physical pice of paper is not often used any more.

Anyway, here is an updated version of the same idea. While very focused on people in the United States the general principles should be useful to workers everywhere even where the labor laws are much more liberal.

  1. Keep your resume updated all the time.
  2. Keep your training and education current, preferably using current workplace resources.
  3. Have a set of strong professional contacts in place; do favors and make sure those relationships are strong.
  4. Have a very healthy emergency fund.
  5. Know exactly what benefits you’re due if you were to lose your job and how to get those benefits.
  6. Have a list of people to contact immediately to start finding another job.

This whole article and my earlier ones are a great example of the Stoic idea of Negative Visualization, which the ending of the article sums this up spectacularly:

The key lesson is that thinking about life’s potential problems now and coming up with solutions in a rational and calm way, then taking steps to make those solutions easy to execute in a crisis, goes a long way toward making any and all crises in life much easier to handle.

The little steps you take now, handled with rational thought and just a little effort and a little money, can save you enormous headaches and a great deal of money down the road when an unfortunate event does occur. Preparing for a job loss is just one example of this powerful life strategy.

Trent Hamm’s articles in the Simple Dollar are great. If you’re not reading it on a regular basis, you should.

Ambivolence as Empowerment

Your lack of planning does not constitute my emergency

A former co-worker and former friend coined that phrase for me. He was fired for exercising that customer support philosophy far too stringently on a day-to-day basis (among many, many other sins). Both his mantra and eventual fate educated me.

Long after his departure, the poem “If” by Kipling stuck home:

“If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you”

The opening quote to this post takes on a new meaning if the opening of “If” is included.

Emergency responders, be they Emergency Medical Technicians or police or fire fighters, do what they do to their training. For example, if you find yourself impaled on a piece of rebar your sense of urgency is to remove the rebar. The EMT knows removing the rebar is the wrong thing to do. Maintaining your blood pressure, treating for shock, and many other things are more important.

Case in point: About 10 years ago my team and I were pressed into service performing real life disaster recovery for a business unit that planned for no such disaster. We came in and assessed the situation. We told our customer truths about the current state of affairs they did not want to hear. We required them to make hard choices about which they wanted to dither and debate. We, as part of a larger response team, got them back up and running far faster than they deserved based on their lack of planning.

Ultimately our value was as much in our not being emotionally invested as our ability. They needed a rational actor in what they experienced as a highly irrational environment. My team and I offered independent advice, provided facts, and ultimately used our skills and creative thinking to help our customer get back on line from a catastrophic event.

We could have empathized. We could have offered platitudes. We could have told them everything would be okay, that being strong in the face of adversity would overcome.

Again, our emotional ambivalence offered more value. We didn’t coddle or make people feel good about themselves. We were there to fix things. We needed the business to make decisions based off of uncomfortable and ugly facts. These were hard business choices – short term, medium term, or long term; pick one. Shop floor production or back office support? Payroll or shipping?

Our stark A/B questions caused a number of recalculations. Back office staff could be easily relocated elsewhere, so they were moved off site. Some finishing and shipping could be shifted to another site, too.

Some of the stuff we tried failed. When that happened, we tried something else. Today that’s called agile development.

The catastrophe evolved to an event to a disruption to restored service in 6 days. I don’t presume my team’s approach was the primary catalyst for the speedy resolution of things, but without a doubt it made a positive impact.

This story highlights the value of an emotionally independent or ambivalent actor with their wits about them when yours are completely invested. This is true in an emergency, but also true when yours are too invested in the status quo.

Axle Wrapped: Performance Review & Stoicism

You may not know I am on a global work assignment in Japan from the United States. I get to have two management teams, one in each country, and two performance reviews! Ain’t I lucky?

My US manager sandbagged me with my review. I woke this morning to a meeting request for my review at 21:00 JST. There was no warning and no notice.

My history with these types of activities is complicated. I won’t go into detail now. Suffice to say I find little value in these lazy “one size fits all” retail approach to HR. A good leader does not require such a complicated artificial construct, nor do truly empowered and well lead employees.

Never the less, I’m shackled with this time consuming obligation. I need to take time and reflect on good old fashioned stoicism to get my head right. It would be great unwrapping myself from around my HR axle as well.

First, it’s important to remember at the moment my career path, goals, and objectives align with my employer. The alignment is temporary.

Second, my employer’s goals and objectives reflect what is right for the company. There is nothing requiring me to like or even agree with the goals and objectives. Gainful employment encourages my active engagement toward them, yet my gainful employment is not the object of my life.

Third, the common theory of “you will get out of the process what you put in” is false. It is not true in physics, engineering, romance, cooking, finance, politics, small appliance repair, Pokemon Go, or much of anything in life.

Fourth, these retail HR systems are more and more geared toward meaningless concepts and platitudes which fail to bolster any concept of anti-fragility or resilience. Anecdotally friends and peers shared ratios of three or more positive comments to every negative comment in reviews. Others shared “the bell curve” – in any team the manager plots the best and worst performers on a chart and scores everyone else somewhere in between because “you can’t have a team of all above average or below average” members. Arbitrary artificial constructs like these try to pave over the world’s variables (I’ve seen plenty of teams with no above average performers, typically in non-critical roles) plus fail to offer employees any tangible constructive feedback (i.e., “You were rated a 2 out of 5 because there are too many 3s and 4s on the team already.“)

Fifth, companies want some degree of fragility in their employees. They cannot rely on loyalty any more, especially in the US and other countries with at-will employment. Employee retention is usually a balancing act between enough training, team building, and encouragement to make employees feel empowered & add value while subtly keeping them just fragile enough to fear change.

Stoicism and Us | New Republic talks about these concepts in other contexts, such as the cancer diagnosis in the opening paragraph.

What matters, in good times or bad, is not whether you have a job, an income, a family, or a home, but whether you have the inner strength to realize how little such things matter.

This quote, Dear Friends, helps me unwrap my mental axle.

Stoicism is having a moment in the robot revolution | The Financial Times talks about a new book by Svend Brinkmann, Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze – Kindle edition by Svend Br…. Full disclosure: I have not read the book yet. This article however talks about a few of the concerns I laid out above in the context of the current stoicism fad in Silicon Valley. This neo-stoicism smacks of exuberant exceptionalism without embracing the negative things in life. The side bar about this in relation to Ryan Holiday’s writings (which I enjoy) intrigues me.

This idea of embracing the negative leapt to my attention today when I read Feeling bad about feeling bad can make you feel worse | Berkeley News. This study (full disclosure: I have not read it yet) seems to reinforce the concept of the negative things in our lives can make us better at living our lives.

This long, rambling screed flowed fairly quickly. I feel better about my impending US performance review (and the soon-to-follow Japan review). I remain bearish toward the whole process, but at least I can get on with my day. And I hope to learn something more about dealing with things like this in the future.

What do you think? Am I off-base? Do you agree? Have I missed the boat entirely? Add your tempered, well reasoned thoughts in the comments or on the social media.

Date: 2017-08-15 Tue 11:54

Author: Paul Jorgensen

Created: 2017-08-15 Tue 13:55

Validate

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