Don’t Strive For Goals, Strive To Be

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For the past two years or so I’ve got into the steady habit of lifting weights. I’ve delved into it temporarily once or twice before, but this has been the first time I’ve really been able to embrace it over the longer term and make it sustainable.

Yes, I’ve seen results. And yes, there’s still a lot more I want to achieve. There will always be more to do in front of me in this regard. It’s an ongoing journey. There’s no end goal. This has just become something that I do – something that I am.

Oddly enough it was a philosophy quote by Marcus Aurelius that helped me build this weight lifting habit and make it stick.

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

This quote obviously has nothing to do with fitness or lifting weights. I doubt the Roman Emperor was much of a gym bro. But this can be translated into so much in life.

How much time do we obsess over things but not do anything? How often do we make big goals for ourselves without even starting? How many of us wait for some sort of divine inspiration to commence on a journey of fitness, learning, career change, or whatever, without even doing step one?

Aurelius’s advice is simple. Stop thinking about it, just do it. Implement it. Be it.

The way I’ve translated that advice has helped me change the frame of why I lift weights, and this has made all the difference.

Instead of waking up in the morning and thinking I have to lift weights, my thinking is rather I lift weights. That’s what I do. Instead of having some vague fitness goal, I lift weights because I know that’s who I am.

This has made all the difference. The key words in that Marcus Aurelius quote are Be one. His point is that we fixate over some distant goal or ideal, instead of being the person that will get there.

If you are able to be that person, the goal should become irrelevant.

Is This Necessary?

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Marcus Aurelius has always been an interesting figure for me. One of the most prominent Roman Emperors, he ruled the empire for nineteen years from 161 to 180. He’s an endearing figure for many, both as a thinker and leader.

Although what is most endearing about him for me is his philosophical work called Meditations, written by him in his latter years. It is still regarded by many as one of the leading works of philosophy, and it paved the way for the progression of the ideas of Stoicism. Indeed, many referred to him at the time as the Philosopher King, and through the ages he has been known as the Philosopher Emperor.

It can certainly be said that his words of philosophy carried weight and real experience behind them. Aurelius himself led military campaigns defending the empire, and was an astute military commander with a wealth of experience. Here was a philosopher who wasn’t sheltered in empty palaces his entire life, removed from the real world. We can safely assume that he was exposed to his fair share of blood, guts, violence and the ugly side of human nature.

I own a copy of Meditations. Every now and then I page through it. Some of it, I’ll admit, doesn’t quite land for me. But there are certain sections and phrases which make this one of the more essential books in my collection, and for me this work should have its place in any collection.

I’m also a keen admirer of the philosophy of Stoicism, and for myself and many others, this work is the go-to guide on the philosophy, along with Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic. The ideas around the philosophy have always made a lot of sense to me. Ideas such as controlling what you can control and letting go of what you can’t, living at one with nature, using reason as your guide.

Yet there’s one line in Meditations which is the standout for me. It’s a line I contemplate often, and indeed try to live by. It’s also a great one-line summary of what Stoicism is. The line is this:

Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

A great primer into the ideas of Stoicism, but also possibly the greatest time management and efficiency advice you’ll ever read in one line.

Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?”

I try and fail. Perhaps one day I will master this. The line has made me realise just how much time in life we dedicate to things which ultimately are not leading us to a better life or the fulfilment of our goals. Things which are, once viewed though this lens, decidedly unnecessary.

The phrase could probably be expanded to “Ask your self in every moment, is this getting me closer to where I want to be in terms of vision, purpose and life goals? Is this making me happier and more fulfilled?” If not, why do it? How much time do we waste on the things that are ultimately useless to us?

This extends beyond action to our internal processes. Such as worry. Worrying about the results of a test. Worrying about a job interview. Worrying about the outcome of a pitch at work. At times of worry it is once again worth remembering the words of Aurelius. Is this worry necessary? Will it change anything? If not, why bother?

I can think of countless examples of where it might be worth asking the question. And notice Aurelius didn’t say “Ask yourself every now and then?” No, he said, “Ask yourself at every moment.”

Of course, I understand that downtime and recreation are important to retaining a balanced lifestyle. But again, the question can be applied. Is this necessary. i.e. Is this leading to happiness and relaxation? If it is, great. In moderation. Yet how many things do we do day to day that don’t bring us closer to our goals or don’t bring happiness? Plenty.

Mindlessly playing video games when important tasks need to be done, or when your house is a mess. Binging on alcohol for no particular reason. Continuously scrolling Instagram seeing paid models living the high life in exotic locations. Spending quality time with a friend that brings negativity and who sucks your energy out. All of these actions are worthy of the question – Is this necessary? And the answer is usually no. Absolutely not.

Or, a more relevant example, and one I see too often in this modern world – dedicating one’s free time and energy to politics. Specifically in the act of engaging in endless political squabbling online. I see it day in day out. People using their free time to get into endless Twitter arguments over their political beliefs. Arguments which will change nobody’s mind, and alter nothing in the greater scheme of things. Continuously throwing out their angry political opinions their closed circle of Facebook friends. Changing profile pics and social media names to reflect a political viewpoint. Almost as if that political stance now has come to define that person. Why?

A certain type of possession seems to have overtaken so many people in this modern society of ours. Bereft of any sense of purpose or fulfilment in their lives, they turn to politics, and here they find a home, clutching at something to believe in and ignite a passion within them. I pity these people, not merely because of this possession, but primarily because they’re engaging in something utterly futile to their own lives, happiness and general direction. I would even hazard that this obsession with politics is making people more miserable, since politics is a beast which takes and doesn’t give.

Of course, you can understand people who engage in this who actually are in politics or political media, whose livelihoods depend on it. Yet more and more I’m seeing ordinary people in ordinary jobs reduced to a level of obsession I’ve never seen before. In our hands we have incredibly powerful smartphones. The entire history and knowledge of the world is in our pocket – the greatest learning device we could imagine. Yet I see people using it to play stupid games or argue about politics on social media.

Once again when I see this I ask, is this healthy? And more pertinently, is this necessary? Certainly not. It goes without saying that we should remain informed, particularly around politics. But to find happiness and fulfilment in it is futile.

Is this necessary? I’m a big believer in questioning everything, but the longer I live, I find this particular question is playing a more and more important role in my life and happiness.

Find ways of randomly bringing this question into your daily life, activities and thoughts. You may find it will clean up your life significantly.


The Dumbing Down of Society – Who is to Blame?

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A few weeks ago I was on a plane travelling from Johannesburg to East London. In the row in front of me were three young men, probably around the age of early university. I didn’t take too much note of them until we began commencing our descent, and I had to put my laptop away. With nothing else to do, I eavesdropped in on their overly loud conversation.

They were speculating as to where Jeffrey’s Bay is in relation to East London. One of the youths ventured that it was 200km up the north coast side of East London. The other disagreed, saying that it went East London, then PE, then Jeffrey’s, as you moved northward up the coastline.

These guesses were obviously all wide of the mark, but it did make me wonder how university students of a clearly privileged and affluent background could be so blissfully unaware of the positioning of a couple of major centres in their home country. I’ve never set foot in Kwazulu Natal, and I didn’t do geography in school, yet I know for example that Margate is a couple of hundred kilometres south of Durban, and Ballito is slightly north of Durban, with Richards Bay quite a distance further up the coast. I don’t know why I know this, I just do. And I should.

I keep getting reminders like this about the intelligence of the world, which keep disturbing me. Of course, I could rattle off a whole array of stats and percentages on how intelligence is declining and how people don’t know simple things about history or the physical world they live in. These points would no doubt be true, and rather unsettling. But I’d rather focus on what I’ve personally experienced in day to day life.

About 5km from my house, they’ve just built the Mall of Africa. It’s the largest single development shopping centre in the Southern Hemisphere, or something like that. It has the full array of the big retailers you’d expect, along with international luxury brands. It also contains one of the first Starbucks in South Africa, and the Woolies is the size of a small shopping centre. One or two brands have made their stores into flagship outlets. But there’s one glaring absentee from the store directory – there’s no bookstore. Not even an Exclusive Books. An Exclusive Books, or any bookstore for that matter, is pretty much guaranteed to exist in any decent sized mall. But in this new mall, which is one of the biggest in the country? No. The mall has everything you can think of, except books.

On the subject of books, I was a big fan of George RR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. It’s the book series upon which the Game of Thrones TV show is based on. Each volume was a mammoth 1000 pages or so, but it was some of the best, intriguingly complex and most entertaining fiction I’ve ever read. Only one or two people I knew had discovered the series, so there was this element of pride that I had that I’d discovered this gem that no one else had in my circle.

As we know the TV series created from it has been a massive hit. But deep down I’ll always begrudge the TV series a bit (or maybe a lot). It had to take summarising of 1000 page works of beauty into a series of one hour episodes on TV for it to gain popular appeal. That’s the real tragedy for me. The TV show scratches the surface of something incredible, yet most people will never experience this. The even bigger tragedy in all this is the fact that the TV series is now leading the plot because they’ve caught up to where the author is in the book development. This could cause the rather nightmarish scenario where the TV series reveals the ending rather than the books.

When it comes to TV, that’s another thing that bugs me. A few years ago a big budget superhero action movie would be fairly rare. Maybe one every year. Now there are about 5 or 6 big productions per year. It’s hard to keep up with them. From Superman to Fantastic Four to Antman to Avengers to Incredible Hulks to Batman VS Superman. And all of these boil down to the simple premise of some action hero defeating a villain with a series of action scenes designed to entertain you mindlessly. There’s a line in Pink Floyd’s song ‘Not Now John’ where they ironically sing ‘Who cares what it’s about as long as the kids go’. This is a very valid point. Hollywood obviously make all these moves because they make money. That’s the troubling part. It’s entertainment over substance.

I have DSTV at home, and I make a point of seeing what movie the Mnet channel is showing every Sunday at 8pm, since this is the ‘premiere’ and usually the best new movie they have. I can honestly say that three quarters of these movies are movies that seem to be targeted at 10 year olds.

We’ve created a culture where Justin Bieber can hit world fame and popularity with a song that has a chorus of “Baby baby baby oh”. We idolise pop stars and call them ‘artists’ even though for the most part they don’t even write their own songs or music. Half a century ago, a young guy called Bob Dylan rose to fame. At the age of 21 he was writing some of the most intellectual and influential music of his generation, around themes such as social change, economies, alienation and death. Nowadays if you’re a young musician trying to rise to fame, you need to be making shitty pop music and singing about hooking up with girls in the club.

People sit and watch episode after episode of rich celebrities living their daily lives. And this desire to be entertained starts eroding the moral fibre of a society when you have series like the Bachelorette, where a woman will fraternise and frolic around with a bunch of different men at the same time. And yet as ridiculous as this concept sounds, it’s been running for 12 seasons. You’d assume that a large part of the audience is between 12 and 18. What message does this send them?

Instagram is rapidly moving ahead of Twitter in popularity, because people prefer looking at pictures and sharing memes than taking in different thoughts and ideas. You’ll struggle nowadays to find a teenager reading a book of their own accord, yet millions would rather delight in taking and sharing Snapchat filters giving them dog ears and a dog’s tongue.

Even the way our political leaders are elected, and how they campaign has been dumbed down. I’ve held strong alternate views on Donald Trump, which I stand by, but even I have to say that the process of electing him as a Republican nominee showed the shallowness and lack of depth in the world today. There were better nominees competing with him, with clearer ideas, more complex knowledge, more intellect and ability. Yet these candidates were drowned out by someone who used sensationalism and who grabbed all the headlines and floorspace. This is the world we live in. Nobody wants to hear from the quiet intellectual. They’d rather read headlines. Even during Bernie Sander’s short lived fame, nobody in his large support base stopped to think Wait a minute, all these promises of free stuff – how on earth it even possible?

We’ve created a world where the great leaders of our time sit in companies, while governments contain mediocre minds, at best. In 161 AD, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote ‘Meditations’, where he poured out his own personal philosophy to life and living. It’s still referenced in psychological and philosophical theory today, and indeed many units are still sold each year. The book went a long way to developing the philosophy of Stoicism. This was written by the Roman Emperor – someone with more power than we could even imagine in today’s world. Yet now, 2000 years later, I think you’d struggle to find a political leader capable of writing anything beyond their memoirs, and even that would be penned by someone else. You certainly wouldn’t find them writing complex philosophy or progressing philosophical theory.

There’s no nice way of saying it, but the world is being dumbed down. I always wonder, is this a concerted effort from governments to create uninformed masses who don’t think, question and reason? Or is it just a natural regression due ironically to innovation and technology. I do strongly suspect that some governments, if not many governments, are quite satisfied with a population that doesn’t think or question things. Ruling parties that can keep the people uninformed and uninquisitive are more likely to keep voter loyalty. But beyond this idea, we need to look at ourselves.

Perhaps entertainment is undermining intellectualism because the world is becoming tougher and life is getting harder each year? Our incomes don’t go as far, we stress about kids, will we still have jobs or companies a year from now? Do we see and feel enough hardship, struggle and stress that escapism is actually a necessity for some level of sanity? Perhaps in the dark waters of our minds, we all have much needed guilty pleasures to keep us going, and perhaps the Kardashians, superhero movies and Britain’s Got Talent are just the most socially acceptable.

The schooling system needs to take at least some blame. When the system is based on getting people to fit in to a certain style of thinking and way of doing things, you get a society that doesn’t think for itself. When you teach kids in order to pass an exam instead of critically think, you don’t build a culture of lifelong learning. A recent study showed that 42% of American graduates never read a book again after graduating. Surely a teacher’s highest achievement should not be to getting a learner to master subject matter, but rather to instil a mindset of constant curiosity with the world?

Then there’s technology. Have smartphones done the opposite and made us dumber? Has our reliance and addiction to technology made us sloppier thinkers? I’ve met some people in Johannesburg who still use a GPS to get to well-known landmarks, even though they’ve lived in the city all their lives. Perhaps all the clutter of the modern world and everything going on in our heads has made us less observant. In amongst all the stresses and worries of living in this world we’ve maybe lost touch with actually noticing what we’re doing, thinking or going. The act of ‘busyness’ is creating a sense of thoughtlessness. If we noticed more around us in life perhaps we’d know where Port Elizabeth is in relation to East London, or allow us to find an area without a GPS, simply because we took note of it the previous time.

The pace and demands of the modern world also mean that parents are probably spending less time with their children than a generation ago. The days of the luxury stay at home mother are over. Money doesn’t go that far anymore. Children who spend less time with their parents are less likely to have valuable life lessons and values passed down. There’s less opportunity to learn from the example of your elders. As a result, children are learning more from TV, social media or friends than they ever have before.

Indeed, it’s within the home where the battle for future generations will be lost or won. If we allow the world outside and the ‘system’ to be our children’s primary teacher, then society’s downfall will continue to accelerate. But if we can take the time as parents to nurture the most difficult aspect of all – Thinking – we can at least feel that in some small way we’ve done our bit for society. It doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It takes strong family values and two calm parents who can take the time to inspire thinking rather than teach knowledge.