God knows I’m no great fan of the self-help genre. Actually, that would be some understatement, as not only have I never bought a book under that label, but I tend to actively despise both them and their readers (I’m arrogant and unsympathetic to my distressed fellow human beings’ plight like that), an ugly tendency that leads me to hector anybody I see reading them about the likely evils and shortcomings of their content. Take a look at the almost 200 posts I’ve published in the last years and, although being mainly concerned with moral philosophy and ethics (well, and weightlifting, which ends up being the most practical part of it) you won’t find much applicable advice on how you, anonymous reader, should conduct your life.
Which makes some sense. I don’t know you and your specific circumstances, so how could I dare to suggest you to do this instead of that? (whatever “this” and “that” may be). However, a few weeks ago I had a conversation with my elder son that looked like a semi-decent, reasonably generalizable, piece of advice, and it seemed kinda selfish to keep it to myself. So, breaking a lifelong tradition of being circumspect about those issues, I’m gonna share in this post some thoughts that can be immediately put in practice, and that can turn your actual, real, lived life for the better (as opposed to my usual pabulum of a highly abstract nature, which tends to be as practically useful as an Inuit sealskin jacket in the Sahara).
To begin with, we all want to get better. By definition, we all want what is good, and we intuitively understand what being good in certain areas consists in, although we may differ on the details. I’m going to focus in four areas of goodness in which I think there is wide agreement, both about their overall desirability (that is, almost everybody, in any age and culture, agrees that they constitute a “good”, that having a greater mastery in that area is a net positive for living a worthy life) and about the most salient features being desired (what mastering such area looks like). The four areas are:
· Intellectual ability
· Physical ability
You may miss some areas that are important for you, and you may find some in there that you don’t think are that salient right now. Just bear with me, as I’ll be briefly justifying each one in turn. But there is one area, in particular, that is conspicuously absent and that may cause some puzzlement: work. So its absence requires some previous justification. Isn’t work, like, super-important? Specially, in our materialistic, anomic, secularized societies, much more important than some other areas in the list (I’m looking at you right now, transcendence)? Don’t people show, in their day to day actions, that they value their work more than relationships (all those broken or deprioritized friends and family ties), more than intellectual ability (all those courses not taken, books not read), more than physical ability (all those workouts missed and gym memberships left to expire unused) and, surely, more than transcendence (what was that about, again)?
In a sense, I’m not going to write about work because sure as hell you don’t need another voice telling you how essential it is for a fulfilling life and in order to develop your full potential. You are already drowned by messages along those lines, and, you know what? They are mostly hokum. I’ve been attending to a number of retirement parties lately, some of them to say goodbye to lowly assistants (although much loved) and some to CEOs and Chairmen (a more mixed bag, although I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with very widely respected professionals at all levels) and the impression I take is that, at the end of the day, even for those at the very top of the corporate hierarchy, almost in every case your job is not all that it was hyped up to be. Even for the captains of industry, the sacred entrepreneurs, the titans that created companies from scratch and turned them in multi-billion dollar concerns, what remains, what they are remembered for, is their gentleness (or lack thereof), their intelligence (ditto) or, in one surprising case, how insanely in shape he was. And that seems to be the norm: what do people remember of Steve Jobs? That he was a) a tremendous jerk, b) pretty clever and c) lucky (you don’t hear that last one much, but the undercurrent of his biography underlines how he had the right ideas at the right place and time for them to payback beyond anybody’s wildest dreams). Something similar could be said of Bill Gates, Jack Welch or Lee Iacocca.
Which points to a second aspect of how we perform our (paid) jobs that is also worth noting. Was Jobs (or Welch, or Gates) a good worker (in their case, a good CEO)? Depends on who you ask, and, more pointedly, depends on what moment in time you focus on. Jobs was terrible in his first tenure (almost run Apple to the ground) and then stellar in his second (but then again, was it an increased learned ability, or did he just get lucky)? People close to Gates say he was at best mediocre, but consistently lucky, and consistently good at finding great helpers to compensate for his deficiencies (or lack of interest). Then again others say the opposite, and maintain he was a second to none manager and visionary (a most rare combination). Same with Welch, who oversaw wild fluctuations in the total share value of GE (the metric on which he, and the rest of his sycophants, were fixated). Work performance, simply, is notoriously hard to measure, and there is nothing like a consensus on what excellence as a worker means. A lack of consensus, by the way, that is played yearly in performance reviews all over the world when, regardless of what “objective” goals and metrics have been set, managers the world over end up rewarding those workers with personalities more like themselves, and then try to rationalize such self-preference the best they can.
Furthermore, even if there were a consensus of what a good worker looks like, beyond someone healthy, good at relationships (so it is easy to get along and work with him) and clever (three areas we have already covered), I’m not sure such set of qualities would be “trainable”, which will allow me to finish this justificatory detour with a clarification about the purpose of this post. To that end, I need to explain the difference between “trainable” and “non-trainable” abilities. The paradigm of the first group would be physical strength, and the defining feature of the group is that we have a pretty good understanding of how to increase the abilities within it (applying consistently the principle of progressive overload, as I expounded in this old post: Progressive Overload in a nutshell). A possible paradigm of the second group could be playing rugby (or being a CEO), as their defining feature is that we don’t have a clear grasp on how to improve at them, other than practicing something as close to the real thing as possible. We could try to break it down in its components (in the case of Rugby, say, decide that playing well consists in having good positional awareness, “reading” where the ball should go, running fast, passing both far and precisely, tackling bigger guys unerringly without being injured, dribbling opponents, etc.) and try to develop protocols to improve in each of them separately, but as that would seem insanely time-consuming, and there would always be doubts about how effectively each of those “component” abilities transferred to the actual play, that is not the most common approach. What most people do is just devote a ton of time to play, in actual games or in training, and hope that such devotion will pay off in enhancing (more or less) in unison all the components, and thus in making them better players overall. Which is what usually happens. The application of such strategy to work would be “do as much of it as you think you need to get to the level of competence you desire to achieve”… which is essentially something you already knew. But I can not add much more, and neither can any self-professed self-help guru, as what that level of competence consists in is subject to debate, probably quite different from one job to the next and has an uncertain influence, compared with other factors outside your control (like global market conditions, personality of boss or fit with corporate culture, all of which are proxies for “sheer luck”, as much as we would like to think life is fair, meritocracy works and everybody really gets what they deserve).
What we do know in Rugby is that, everything else being equal (ability reading the field, precision in passing, ability tackling), the stronger player will win over the weaker one, so strength being highly trainable it always pays to devote time to develop it. Similarly, in your job I can safely bet that being better at forming meaningful relationships, having more mental acuity and sharpness and having more endurance and stamina (being physically more fit) are going to be beneficial. Regarding transcendence… you’ll have to wait ‘til we get there to judge to what extent it is similarly positive and worthy of your attention and time. Without more ado, then, let’s talk about how best to train those qualities:
This one should be a cinch. Probably the single factor with more influence in how satisfied we are with our own life is the density of our social network, the amount of high-quality relationships we have managed during our life to weave with lovers, family members, friends, and even colleagues and professional partners (doubt it? Have the most cursory look at the Harvard longitudinal study: The Harvard Study which has been following the original participants for seven decades now, and has been expanded to include people from different socioeconomic status, their wives and children). Having many people who care for you, and whom you care for, not only makes you happier, but strongly protects your health, both mental and physical. So investing in maintaining such a robust network should be a doozy.
Sadly, a surprising majority of people in the West doesn’t seem to have got the message, and get to the end of their working life estranged from their families (all those years too busy working to devote much time to them, you know?) and knowing very few people outside of their professional circle. And those inside, after retirement, don’t seem all that interested in maintaining much in the form of a relationship with them, once they can not advance or promote their own interests (yep, professional relationships based on self-interest are mostly selfish like that, sorry to break the bad news to you).
Given, then, that we accept such state of affairs is bad, and thus that it makes sense to invest time in improving our ability to form that kind of meaningful, stable, long-term, rewarding relationships, how can you go about to get better at it? Simple: family reunions. Yeah, I know, you already visit your parents in Thanksgiving, and in Christmas every other year. Too tough already, given you don’t get along all that well with that know-it-all of your brother-in-law. And you went some years ago to the wake of that second uncle, and saw again those cousins you hadn’t seen since you were a freckled and carefree kid. Starting to see the problem? Meeting people once a year or less is no way to sustain, even less nurture and grow, a relationship! My suggestion is going full Mediterranean here: lunch at your parents (or your spouses parents’) house every friggin’ weekend, unless something really big impedes it (“really big” means second coming of Christ is probably an acceptable excuse, hangover from poker night with friends is probably not). And the more the merrier, prod your old ones to invite aunts, uncles, cousins, old family friends, whomever has the thinnest relationship that is still breathing.
I know sometimes having lunch (or dinner) w extended family may seem a chore. You don’t necessarily agree with the political views of your siblings, although, being same blood, you are willing to give ‘em a pass. But the in-laws? Well, they are putting up with your kin much more than you, so shut up, man up and be nice to them also! Because that’s the trick, that’s what makes the weekly family lunch invaluable to develop your relationship-forming abilities. You are constantly reminded that your own view is not that important. Doesn’t matter how much or how little you have accomplished in life, for your parents you will always be that little lovely critter that run around the house screaming every Christmas morning, the one that was run over by a bus and got out smiling as if nothing had happened, or that gulped a bottle of rat poison and had to be rushed to the hospital to had an orogastric lavage or whatever foolish and mildly embarrassing thing you did when very young that still is regularly brought up in any reunion (not to mention how huge your big toe was when you were born…). And for your siblings you will always be that mildly annoying, arrogant, self-important dick that competed with them for mom and dad’s attention, told them incessantly they were really (really!) adopted and paid them so little attention that didn’t remember at all their life transforming summer trip to Italy and keep on insisting they must have imagined it all. And that’s OK! Even if it is a pain to relive (again and again!) those little things, because by anchoring ourselves in a shared narrative they help to put us in our place and remind us of our (relative) insignificance in the grand scheme of things, and that’s really what a relationship, and love, are about: being a part of a whole bigger than you, a whole that will go on after you are not here anymore, a part that you didn’t entirely chose (you were born into it without anybody asking your opinion beforehand) but you didn’t entirely renounce, so it’s not as if you can’t be fiercely proud of it anyway.
And even more important, those reunions remind you that for a meaningful relationship to flourish it has to be disinterested, unselfish. It has to be “not about you”, or not too much anyway (and certainly, not only about you, as our hyper-individualistic, self-centered age is wont to forget). It’s great if you have a serious illness to have friends and family really concerned, and visiting you in the hospital and all, but for most of your life you keep on seeing them, and putting up with their put downs, just because they are your friends and family, not because you expect to receive something in return.
Which takes us to the thorny issue of relationships within your work environment. Why not train to be better at them by practicing them more directly? Wouldn’t it be more advisable to recommend to go out to lunch every week with a group of co-workers? To organize social outings with the colleagues? Absolutely not. That is akin to putting the carriage in front of the horses. Remember: you don’t push yourself to see your family more often to be able to form more bonds at work. Forming meaningful relationships is not a means to a higher end (like professional progress or making more money, or closing more sales). Forming meaningful relationships is an end in itself, the highest end, indeed, if you want to be happier (brief aside: if you really want to be happier there is absolutely one end you should not pursue, and that is happiness itself; It is an ironic feature of human nature that the more obsessively you pursue happiness the less likely you are to achieve it). And, ahem, and sorry again if this is news to you, professional relationships are rarely deep enough to qualify as “meaningful” or “happiness enhancing”. Remember the last chapter of 30 Rock, and the frustration of “Tracy Jordan” as the character played by Tina Fey explains to him that after all those years working together they would probably never see each other again? I found that pretty insightful, as after a number of job changes I can attest that more often than not job relationships are quite volatile, and being supported by each party pursuing its own personal interest, they dissolve quickly and without a trace.
I grant that there is a special category of job relationship that can endure for the long term: the ones made in the first years of professional career (5 to 10, tops), when you are fresh out from college and are suddenly surrounded by similarly minded colleagues, as clueless as yourself, and probably as willing to give it all and carve a name for themselves in the corporate world. You can make real friends with your equals then, but after those 5-10 initial years you have too many responsibilities, the environment typically becomes too political, you can make favors, and ask for favors that may enhance or hinder other people careers, so they just stop approaching you for your charm and sympathy, and start doing it to see what they can gain by associating with you.
So yes, by all accounts, participate in your company’s social life (respectfully and graciously… the young intern that you think is making a pass at you is probably a) not making it and b) even if she is, it is not because you are so goddamn attractive and irresistible, but because your position and authority make you appear so… just say no), but don’t think that somehow compensates for not having anybody that gives a rat’s ass about you outside of your professional circle. It doesn’t, and if that is the case, you better do something to fix that!
If the previous one was easy, this one is darn complex. I’m sure you are already familiar with a thousand miraculous solutions to make you sharper, more clever, a faster reasoner, and thus better at a number of mental fields (mathematics, learning foreign languages, passing IQ tests, improving your SAT score and whatnot): from mobile apps that supposedly train your brain to listening audiotapes while sleeping to solving sudokus to consuming nootropic drugs, the market is awash with products that promise to increase your intelligence for a pittance. Which is all right, as all those solutions have one thing in common: they don’t work. There is only one thing that consistently seems to work: having chosen the right parents, as general intelligence (which is the foundation on which all the other abilities are constructed) is both highly heritable and not very amenable to training.
What a bummer! Does that mean that you are stuck with the same mediocre mental capability you were born with, and that you are condemned to never get past first degree French, unable to go beyond “Bon Jour, mon nom est Choderlos, comment est que vous vous appellez?” (or something similarly lame)? Well, kinda yes, but the mileage you can extract from that predefined set of capabilities may vary, and I’m going to propose a proven method to get the maximum from what you have got. I’ll promptly recognize that the sample size on which the proof has been made is somewhat modest (one person, I’ll let my astute readers guess his identity).
The method is pretty simple, actually, and darn cheap. Its only drawback is that to bear fruits it requires a ton of willpower and grit, as it demands a lot of consistency during a very long period of time. Here it goes: Read. Lots. Of. Boring. Books.
That’s it. That’s the optimal method to increase your mental acuity, your cerebral suppleness, your reasoning capabilities, your working memory and your symbolic manipulation capacity, all at once. You may understandably have some doubts, so let me clarify a bit:
· Read: that part should be uncontroversial, reading is the fastest way to absorb new information, and the more information you have at your command, the better you can think. Marshall McLuhan identified reading from an alphabetic writing as the key to Western dominance (the basic tool that taught us how to solve problems in the most generic way imaginable: break them down as we break the words in syllables, tackle each one separately, and then put the solution back together as we do with the meaning of the word) and I recently read in Emmanuel Todd (absolutely atrocious and unwarranted conclusions, but that would be the matter for another post) that learning to read between 5 and 10 years irreversibly alters the kids’ brains making them more plastic and more intelligent. So no audiobooks, and no videos. Just read.
· Lots: that means really a big number. Twenty, maybe (gasp) even fifty? Nah. Think in thousands, not in hundreds (well, I already warned you that it required time, didn’t I?) At least half an hour every single day, no matter how exhausted you arrive from work; how badly you want to watch TV, or play videogames, or hang out with friends; how hung over you feel from yesterday’s party or how seductively your wife is trying to woo you to the conjugal bed. Aws, OK, in that last case you can go and leave reading for another day. We are talking of week days, of course. Everything under three hours in the weekend is considered cheating. Please note that I’m talking about the bare minimum. For the method to work, that half hour during the week and three hours in the weekend constitute the non-negotiable floor, but regarding a possible ceiling, the sky is the limit. If you can leave work earlier and clock 2-3 hours on a weekday, so much better! If on a blessed Sunday you can read for 14-16 hours go gladly for it! Few pleasures compare to finishing a couple of numbingly, maddeningly, apocalyptically boring books in a single day! You really go to bed being a so much better man, and feeling so contented with yourself that it truly defies words.
· Boring: I know what you are thinking now: “boring? Why do they have to be boring? If I’m going to read thousands of books surely I can at least make it as enjoyable an effort as possible! If I read 2,000-3,000 books I’m gonna turn into an insufferable egghead, doesn’t matter if they are all about Jewish jokes and Sci-Fi and erotica”. Nope, sonny, it doesn’t work like that. You read 3,000 books of good science fiction, or heroic fantasy, or YAF (is that even a thing?) and you end up being definitely nerdier, but not a iota more clever. What really makes your “cleverness muscle” (aka brain) pump is forcing yourself to go through concepts and ideas you don’t care a patootie about. Having to fight to stay awake as your vision crawls across the page mercilessly scribbled with combinations of words that make barely any sense. And once you reach the end of the page, having to start again because you realize you haven’t registered a single concept, and if you were asked about the meaning of what you just read you would have to stare blankly and confess you didn’t have a clue. I recognize that the prospect of slaving through those many boring books may seem like an insufferable drudgery to many, so soul-crushing and willpower-depleting as to seem an insurmountable obstacle in your way to cleverness. All I can recommend is the “weightwatchers” strategy: join a group of similarly minded people to which you declare your intentions and where you report periodically about your progress so they keep you accountable. Human teenagers have been doing it for centuries, it is called “university career” and its main tenet has always been to subject the students to a syllabus of works as boring and unrelated with anything actually done in a real job as the teachers could get away with. Indeed, I find it so inspiring that I have been studying one or another, almost without interruption, since I was 17 years old…
· Books: it almost goes without saying, but only books will do the trick. Reading millions of fortune cookies, advertising placards, movie posters or T-shirt messages won’t do the trick. It has to be long and convoluted and with many pages so you have to keep your working memory fully engaged to try to remember as much as possible of what came before. I hear some TV shows now (“lost”, “breaking bad”, “the sopranos”, “game of thrones”) demand almost as much from their viewers as your average Russian novel from the XIXth century… maybe, maybe not, but there are simply not so many shows of that kind around, and they don’t exercise our ability to break problems down in tiny components and then reassemble the solution from the ground up, so I’ll stick with books, and I recommend you do too.
So there you are, the optimal training strategy for becoming more clever, more disciplined, more acute, is to read lots and lots of boring books. Of matters you are not familiar with. Of course, at a certain point you run out of matters, and you start to actually enjoy reading XIVth century metaphysics, or tracts on the philosophy of right of the Carolingian codex, or treatises on the sociology of Andaman Islands tribesmen, as you recognize events, ideas, theories, and you see how they “fit” in the vast and wonderful network of human knowledge. Does that mean that you can not keep on pushing the envelope, and have to admit you have reached a definitive plateau and can only stagnate in your mental development? Far from it! At that point you introduce reading in foreign languages you have not yet mastered. But that is a very advanced technique which we will leave for another day.
Another thing we will leave for another day is discussing the optimal strategies for training the two remaining skills (physical ability and transcendence), as this post is already inordinately long, and I’ve surely taxed the patience of my readers more than enough…