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  • Doug Belshaw 2:54 pm on October 31, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    Regret is a wasted emotion 

    Live with no regrets

    From what I’ve read and talked about with others, it seems that we humans are prone to occasional flashbacks and sudden pangs that we classify under the banner ‘regret’. “I should have done this”, or “I could have done that” eat us up inside.

    I’ve just been browsing a HN thread on this topic from yesterday and there’s the usual regrets (staying in a relationship, walking away from something earlier, recognising things for what they are) but also some sage advice from the community.

    The Stoic approach to regret is summed up well in today’s reading from a new book entitled The Daily Stoic : 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living:

    Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will—then your life will flow well. — Epictetus, Enchiridion, 8

    The heart, the centre of Stoicism is that there are things that you as an individual can control and things that you cannot control. We should focus on the former. Reading through that HN thread showed how much of life people, whether through hubris or something else, think is within their control.

    Image CC BY Jason Howie

  • Doug Belshaw 7:33 am on October 28, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    What should we measure in education? 


    As I explained on the latest episode of the TIDE podcast, this post annoyed me this week. It’s a perfect example of arguing for conclusions you’ve already reached, using spurious examples and badly-referenced research.

    While I usually let such thing wash over me these days, the reason this really grated was for three reasons. First, it was reasonably widely-shared in my network. Second, I think it’s concomitant with the problem we’ve got in education with the cult of meritocracy. Third, the assumption is that the more ‘intelligent’ you are, the more knowledge you have.  

    Education can’t be ‘fixed’ because we can’t agree what is the actual http://purposed.org.uk/“>purpose of education. My concern around education reform is that it’s being captured by reactionary, conservative, neoliberal elites who are doubling-down on knowledge-based testing. You can point to as many examples of the need for knowledge as you want, but if you haven’t got the skills to apply it in a particular domain, what’s the point?

    ‘Knowledge vs. skills’ is a false dichotomy. They’re both important. The problem is that the former is easy to test, and anyone can design a test for it. You either have knowledge on something, or you don’t. The application of knowledge, however, through skill development is much more difficult to assess.

    That’s why Open Badges is a trojan horse. It looks like just a metadata standard, but the ability to capture all kinds of learning is a game-changed around the assessment of skills. I can understand why those good at pub quizzes and high-stakes exams might like to perpetuate a system based on recall of facts. But for me, as someone who’s been through the whole academic system and seen it for what it’s worth, I’d like to create something new.

    In order to change a system, it’s not enough to critique what already exists. You have to create an ecosystem of value that provides a realistic alternative to the status quo. The question is, what can and should we be measuring to provide that alternative? I’m pretty sure it won’t be rubric-based! Answers on a postcard (or comment), please…

    Image via Dawid Malecki

  • Doug Belshaw 6:11 am on October 25, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    More proof that ‘meritocracy’ (as we currently understand it) doesn’t work 


    Earlier this month I wrote a post entitled Why It’s Time to Let Go of ‘Meritocracy’. I argued that:

    A simplistic meritocratic approach to society and our education systems has failed. It’s time to stop ‘doubling-down’ on narrow education targets and results that privilege the few and, instead, embrace more holistic, open approach such as Connected Learning and microcredentialing.

    The way that society is currently structured is rigged towards the affluent. We fool ourselves when we think that, just because everyone can take the same tests, that it’s a level playing field. It’s not. At all.

    Earlier this week, I read in The Washington Post that, at least in the USA:

    Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves.

    I found the following chart quite disturbing — and can’t imagine the situation is much better in the UK:

    Is this what meritocracy looks like?

    It’s perhaps not immediately obvious how to read this, so I’ll quote the original author again:

    Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.

    In other words, ‘meritocracy’ hasn’t fixed anything. The approach, based on examinations and ‘objective’ testing was designed to stamp out sinecures, the type of job that children from rich families could take — whether or not they were suited for the position. It looks like, on the evidence of this data at least, that the rich have rigged the game. 

    While none of this is surprising, what concerns me is that evidence suggest that the poorest in society have swallowed the meritocracy myth hook, line and sinker. It’s shocking: the 1% have managed to win the hearts and minds of those they’re simultaneously managing to economically repress.  

    Image CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

  • Doug Belshaw 5:58 am on October 24, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    Sailing through the monotony of oneself 


    Heraclitus is quoted famously as saying that “the road up and the road down are one and the same”. This morning, I read a similar sentiment in Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet:

    ‘Any road,’ said Carlyle, ‘this simple road to Entepfuhl, will lead you to the end of world.’ But the road to Entepfuhl, if followed right to the end, would lead straight back to Entepfuhl, which means that Entepfuhl, where we started, is that ‘end of the world’ we set out to find in the beginning.

    It has to be said that, on the face of it, The Book of Disquiet feels like one of the most pessimistic books you’ll ever read. But, for me, there’s an underlying optimism, something that reminds me of the Albert Camus’ discovery that, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” While not a Stoic, there’s nevertheless a sense in Pessoa that joy and satisfaction can be found in the details of life. 

    In fact, Pessoa cannot understand the desire to travel abroad to see the sights, when everything you need is either inside oneself, or readily available in the immediate physical environment:

    Someone who has sailed every sea has merely sailed through the monotony of himself.

    This is a really interesting way of looking at the world, and one echoed in Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel. Given that wherever you go and whatever you do, you have to take yourself with you, you’re better off getting your internal life right first.

    Condillac begins his famous book with the words: ‘However high we climb and however low we fall we never escape our own feelings.’ We can never disembark from ourselves. We can never become another person, except by making ourselves other through the sensitive application of our imaginations to our selves.

    Of course, this perfection of the inner life is something that is never-ending. What I think Pessoa is driving at with the metaphor of ‘sailing through the monotony’ of oneself, is that if you take the same (undeveloped) version of yourself to different physical environs, you haven’t really learned anything new:

    Like history, experience of life teaches us nothing. True experience consists in reducing one’s contact with reality whilst at the same time intensifying one’s analysis of that contact. In that way one’s sensibility can widen and deepen since everything lies within us anyway; it is enough that we seek it out and know how to do so.

    When I used to travel more than I do now (i.e. when others were control of my schedule) people used to think it was ‘glamorous’ that I’d have to go to the US for 48 hours. Nothing could be further than the truth:

    There is an erudition of knowledge, which is what we usually mean by ‘erudition’, and there is an erudition of understanding, which is what we call ‘culture’. But there is also an erudition of sensibility.

    This ‘erudition of sensibility’ means being able to ‘appreciate and respond to complex emotional or aesthetic infludences’. Although Pessoa can’t be counted as a Stoic philosopher, there is certainly more than an element of Stoicism in his writing. Today I’ve learned not to year for far-off places, but to be happy with exploring my inner and local environs. 

    Photo by Hugo Kerr

  • Doug Belshaw 7:19 pm on October 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    #StoicWeek: Day 7 

    Steaming cup 

    Today’s morning reading, the last in Stoic week 2016:

    The works of the gods are full of providence, and the works of fortune are not separate from nature or the interweaving and intertwining of the things governed by providence. Everything flows from there. Further factors are necessity and the benefit of the whole universe, of which you are a part. What is brought by the nature of the whole and what maintains that nature is good for each part of nature. Just as the changes in the elements maintain the universe so too do the changes in the compounds. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.3

    …and the evening reading:

    At every hour give your full concentration, as a Roman and a man, to carrying out the task in hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from other concerns. You will give yourself this if you carry out each act as if it were the last of your life, freed from all randomness and passionate deviation from the rule of reason and from pretence and self-love and dissatisfaction with what has been allotted to you. You see how few things you need to master to be able to live a smoothly flowing life: the gods will ask no more from someone who maintains these principles. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.5

    One of the things I’ve learned from Stoicism over the past few years, and this week in particular, is just how few things you need, and how few things you need to master to be contented in life. Although not a Stoic, this is reminiscent of a famous quotation from eastern philosophy:

    If you are depressed, you live in the past. If you are anxious, you live in the future… If you are happy… You live in the present.” – Lao Tzu

    There’s much to be said for looking back at one’s life up to this point without regret, and looking into the future without fear. ‘Happiness’ is a fleeting thing, and too much of a slippery idea to be pursued in real-time. Instead, I’ve learned to focus on productive habits, workflows, and regimes that leave me contented.

    I’m sure that a younger version of myself would have been disappointed with aiming for mere ‘contentment’. But, actually, as the Stoic philosophers argue, being of an even temper is definitely worth striving for. While life might not be so strenuous to our physical bodies as it was in the ancient past, modern life is nevertheless psychologically tumultuous.

    Stoicism is a fantastic way to have a philosophy of living that gets out of the way and allows you to live. At the same time, it’s a never-ending process of self-improvement. I’ll continue striving for contentment.  

    Image by John-Mark Kuznietsov

  • Doug Belshaw 7:08 am on October 22, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    #StoicWeek: Day 6 

    Waves crashing on headland

    Today’s reading:

    Be like the headland on which the waves break constantly, which still stands firm while the foaming waters are put to rest around it. ‘It is my bad luck that this has happened to me!’ On the contrary, say, ‘It is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without getting upset, neither crushed by the present nor afraid of the future.’ – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.49

    This is perhaps the layperson’s definition of Stoicism – to be imperturbable in the face of difficulties that would otherwise show an outward display of emotion. 

    I often wonder what it must have been like to have been raised in ancient Sparta, a warrior society immortalised both in writing but also in films like 300. Wikipedia notes that the harshness of Spartan society began at birth, when children would be bathed in wine to see if they survived, then presented to the father. If he didn’t approve of how it looked, then the would be thrown of a cliff (an early form of eugenics). History.com gives a pithy overview of what ‘spartan’ has come to mean as a consequence of this ancient society:

    The word “spartan” means self-restrained, simple, frugal and austere. The word laconic, which means pithy and concise, is derived from the Spartans, who prized brevity of speech.

    I highly recommend the ‘King of Kings’ series as part of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series to find out more about this time period. It’s fascinating stuff.

    Back to the original passage from Marcus Aurelius. The idea that the wise person should be moderate in their emotions is at the core of Stoic philosophy, and can be found time and time again in the work of various writers. If I had to choose just one book to take with me anywhere, it would be Baltasar Gracián’s The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence. Here’s his fifty-second maxim:

    Never lose your composure. A prime aim of good sense: never lose your cool. This is proof of true character, of a perfect heart, because magnanimity is difficult to perturb. Passions are the humours of the mind and any imbalance in them unsettles good sense, and if this illness leads us to open our mouths, it will endanger our reputation. Be so in control of yourself that, whether things are going well or badly, nobody can accuse you of being perturbed and all can admire your superiority.

    The exhortation in that last sentence, being constant in the face of both success and failure, is an extremely hard thing to learn. I’m trying my best to do this, but it can be hard when others, including those closest to you, expect you to respond emotionally to certain situations.

    Image by Sushil Nash

  • Doug Belshaw 4:59 pm on October 21, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    #StoicWeek: Day 5 


    Today’s text is the start of Book 2 of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I often think of this as the ‘proper’ start of the whole text, given that Book 1 is, in effect, Aurelius simply enumerating the people he’s thankful to for the inheritance/learning of various character traits.

    The section highlighted for reflection contains advice that, on my best days, I think about with a smile. The first two sentences are powerful:  

    Say to yourself first thing in the morning: I shall meet with people who are meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable. They are subject to these faults because of their ignorance of what is good and bad. But I have recognized the nature of the good and seen that it is the right, and the nature of the bad and seen that it is the wrong, and the nature of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that he is related to me, not because he has the same blood or seed, but because he shares in the same mind and portion of divinity. So I cannot be harmed by any of them, as no one will involve me in what is wrong. Nor can I be angry with my relative or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work against each other is contrary to nature; and resentment and rejection count as working against someone. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.1

    I’m re-reading Epictetus at the moment. He’s not my favourite philosopher, but given he’s mentioned several times in the Stoic Week handbook, I thought he was working revisiting. In his Discourses (appropriate, given the title of this blog!) he states:

    I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains – but moaning and groaning too? I must be exiled; but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed?

    This to me complements well what Marcus Aurelius is saying about dealing with other people. The idea is to have such a strong sense of self and what is in and out of one’s control, that you suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (so to speak) with good grace.

    One other thing I wanted to record here is that my family and I spent the last 24 hours on a mini adventure here. This morning, lying in bed away from home, I read this:

    One never lives so intensely as when one has been thinking hard. (Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet)

    It reminded me just how much we’re in control of the lives we lead. We really enjoy packing things in to a short period of time, it feels like you’re really living. However, there’s times when it’s not possible, for whatever reason, to remove yourself physically from one place to another. One of the huge advantages of Stoicism (and philosophy in general) is having a rich inner world to escape to, whenever you desire.

    Image by Kaley Dykstra

  • Doug Belshaw 6:07 am on October 20, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    #StoicWeek: Day 4 

    Old kettle

    The reading for today is once again Marcus Aurelius. I have no complaints, given I read him every day anyway!

    If you find anything in human life better than justice, truthfulness, self-control, courage… turn to it with all your heart and enjoy the supreme good that you have found… but if you find all other things to be trivial and valueless in comparison with virtue give no room to anything else, since once you turn towards that and divert from your proper path, you will no longer be able without inner conflict to give the highest honour to that which is properly good. It is not right to set up as a rival to the rational and social good [virtue] anything alien its nature, such as the praise of the many or position of power, wealth or enjoyment of pleasures. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 3.6

    I’ve spent so long thinking about this particular passage over the last couple of years I’m actually struggling to find anything to say about it, which is odd. In other words, I feel like I’ve internalised it to such an extent that all I can do is nod my head. Just like buying books and putting them on your shelf, however, this does not mean I’ve actually done anything useful as a result.

    The notes for today from the handbook include this passage about the ‘four chief virtues’ of Stoicism:

    The four chief virtues, taken together, are intended to cover the main areas of human expertise or ‘living well’: rational understanding, proper treatment of others, management of emotions and desires. The Stoics saw the virtues as a complementary set, which were mutually supporting, so that you could not have one virtue without having the others too. They also recognised there were many subdivisions of the main four virtues and that they could be understood from a number of different perspectives.

    It’s the holistic nature of Stoicism that appeals to me. You’re attempting to become a well-rounded human being who’s self-sufficient, with appropriate emotional responses. It’s not, say, working on just one of the ‘seven deadly sins’. The idea is, for example, that ‘proper treatment of others’ flows from ‘rational undrestanding’, and managing ’emotions and desires’.

    I’ll be away this evening and tomorrow morning, so I’ll reflect on the second reading for today now:

    Every habit and faculty is formed or strengthened by the corresponding act – walking makes you walk better, running makes you a better runner. If you want to be literate, read, if you want to be a painter, paint. Go a month without reading, occupied with something else, and you’ll see what the result is. And if you’re laid up a mere ten days, when you get up and try to talk any distance, you’ll find your legs barely able to support you. So if you like doing something, do it regularly; if you don’t like doing something, make a habit of doing something different. The same goes for the affairs of the mind… So if you don’t want to be hot-tempered, don’t feed your temper, or multiply incidents of anger. Suppress the first impulse to be angry, then begin to count the days on which you don’t get angry. ‘I used to be angry every day, then only every other day, then every third…’ If you resist it a whole month, offer God a sacrifice, because the vice begins to weaken from day one, until it is wiped out altogether. ‘I didn’t lose my temper this day, or the next, and not for two, then three months in succession.’ If you can say that, you are now in excellent health, believe me. – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18

    Although I tend to find Epictetus a bit patronising (I’ve read his work before, but don’t choose to include it in my daily reading) this is a good passage. “Habits,” as I’m always fond of quoting Cory Doctorow as saying, “are things that you get for free”. As I read this morning in Mason Currey’s Daily rituals : how great minds make time, find inspiration, and get to work, it parallels what William James may have exhorted others to do, but which he struggled to manage himself. As James wrote in Psychology, a Briefer Course:

    The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

    If there’s anything that’s taught me the value of routines, it’s having children. They crave routine, perhaps because novelty and deviation from that routine provides so much joy.

    My aims for today? I’m going to follow Epictetus and try not to lose my temper, or, indeed, show any form of irritation to another human being.

    Image by Jaime Spaniol

  • Doug Belshaw 6:16 am on October 19, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    #StoicWeek: Day 3 


    Today’s morning reading from Stoic Week:

    People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills; and you too are especially inclined to feel this desire. But this is altogether unphilosophical, when it is possible for you to retreat into yourself at any time you want. There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind, especially if he has within himself the kind of thoughts that let him dip into them and so at once gain complete ease of mind; and by ease of mind, I mean nothing but having one’s own mind in good order. So constantly give yourself this retreat and renew yourself. You should have to hand concise and fundamental principles, which will be enough, as soon as you encounter them, to cleanse you from all distress and send you back without resentment at the activities to which you return. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

    This was paralleled by something else I read this morning:

    Life for us is whatever we imagine it to be. To the peasant with his one field, that field is everything, it is an empire. To Caesar with his vast empire which still feels cramped, that empire is a field. The poor man has an empire; the great man only a field. The truth is that we possess nothing but our own senses; it is on them, then, and not on what they perceive, that we must base the reality of our life. – Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet

    Internalising the idea that happiness in life depends on your perception of things that happen to, and surround, you is hugely liberating. It reminds me of Alain De Botton’s The Art of Travel in which he points out that one reason why holidays can be so disappointing is that we have to take ourselves with us, as it were, complete with our worries, concerns and imperfections. The reality and the glossy brochure can never be identical.

    In my own life, I’ve found this particular part of Stoicism extremely useful. I live in a terraced house only a few miles away from where I grew up. While I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite a bit during my career, really all I need is my family around me, a healthy body, and access to books and the internet to keep me satisfied. 

    Image by Rowan Heuvel

  • Doug Belshaw 3:40 pm on October 18, 2016 Permalink | Reply  

    How to do more ‘deep work’ 


    Alex Denning is on a mission:

    Distraction is a problem. We’re probably reliant on or addicted to the internet more than we’d like to admit. Fixing this will be a work in progress, but acting now, recognising the problem and consciously trying to fix it is as good a first step as any.

    It’s a short post, so I’ll forgive him the fact of not arguing well for his conclusion. It does, however, contain some actionable advice — some which also appears in Chapter 1 of my new audiobook.

    Here’s what Denning has done to leave him ‘less distracted in general’:

    • Delete social media apps from my phone (that aim to be addictive). I can still access from the mobile browser if I want, but its inconvenience puts me off.
    • Ban my phone from the toilet. Yup. This is actually a big one.
    • Stop keeping my phone near my bed. Check your email before you get out of bed? If you can’t reach it, you can’t.
    • Stop carrying my phone in my pocket. Keeping it in my bag instead makes it less convenient and me less prone to picking it up.

    I’m doing the first and third of these and they do make a huge difference. Overall, though, it’s about training yourself rather than banning things. In that regard, although it’s not cool to say that postgraduate study is in any way useful these days, when you have a defined period of time to do the research to write a doctoral thesis, you either do the deep work and get it done, or you never finish.

    That being said, I wouldn’t advocate anyone enrols in a PhD in Ancient Greek Civilization just to get over their mobile phone addiction. Denning’s other advice about the Pomodoro Technique is an absolute winner when it comes to cranking things out. 

    Finally, it’s easy to fetishize ‘deep work’ because it sounds serious and important. It also perpetuates the myth of the lone genius. The truth is that, while we do perhaps need to tip the scales the other way, collaboration, serendipitious connections, and speed is just as important as the skills it was possible to hone in pre-internet times.

    Image by Sven Scheuermeier

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