Sandboxing emotions

CC BY Scott Robinson

There are some (what I would call) ‘natural’ human responses which we’d all agree as universally good. For example, empathy – our ability to out ourselves in the position of another – would be one of these. Empathy can spur us into action, which is often manifested through a kind word or deed. We’d generally consider a lack of empathy as something less than human, or perhaps due to a person repressing a thing that should come naturally.

There are other human responses that we would deem as unhelpful. Jealousy springs immediately to mind, but there are many others. Something I’ve noticed recently is our tendency to allow emotions from one area of our lives to bleed into the rest of it. There are times when this is unavoidable – for example in the case of the death of someone close to you, or perhaps the breakup of a significant relationship. Most of the time, though, we can get emotional about pretty inconsequential stuff in the grand scheme of things. Someone forgets to invite you to a party; your child nags you all morning; someone you know well says something that could be interpreted in a number of different ways.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from reading Stoic philosophy, setting up my own business, and being immersed in the world of tech, it’s the importance of ‘sandboxing’. Technologically-speaking this is a “security mechanism for separating running programs… often used to execute untested code, or untrusted programs from unverified third parties, suppliers, untrusted users and untrusted websites” (Wikipedia). In other words, it keeps unrelated things separate.

There’s a lot of uncertainty when setting up and running a business, as there is in life itself. As Nassim Nicholas Taleb reminds us in his (excellent) book Antifragile, a ‘steady job’ just means that you’re hiding your risk under the basket in which you’ve just placed all your eggs. Consultants/freelancers are exposed to smaller amounts of risk, but on a daily basis. How you deal with that matters. I’m quite fond of the protagonist in one of Lemony Snicket’s books to “be scared later”.

Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher I’m currently reading, reminds us that our reactions matter more than our actions:

What, for instance, does it mean to be insulted? Stand by a rock and insult it, and what have you accomplished? If someone responds to an insult like a rock, what has the abuser gained with his invective?” (Discourses, Book I)

Returning to the idea of ‘sandboxing’, Google’s ‘Chrome’ browser sandboxes its tabs. This means there is an “additional layer of protection to your browser by protecting against malicious web pages that try to leave programmes on your computer, monitor your web activities or steal private information from your hard drive.” As human beings we’re at our most vulnerable when we experience strong emotions. We can’t help feeling the way we do, but we can attempt to employ some principles from Stoicism and from computer security in the way we deal with them.

So my new outlook on life is to treat my working life as a browser full of tabs. If something is happening (good or bad) in one ‘tab’, I’m not going to let that affect what happens in another. I’m a big fan if mental models and using metaphors to effect behavioural change, and this looks like one that could help me. If you’ve read this far, I hope the same holds true for you!

Image CC BY Scott Robinson