What to Do About This Thing Called Life

Over the years, I’ve come across certain resources that have definitively shaped the way I think and who I am. I’ll share them here in a few broad categories that are not necessarily mutually exclusive but provide a preliminary grounding for explaining why I think each resource is valuable and in what kinds of context I’ve applied each. I hope you like this list and feel free to share your thoughts!

1.     Why do we exist and what should we do with this thing called life?

Personally, I would be unable to do anything significant with my life if I didn’t understand why I do what I do. Here’s a sort of guide for how I went about things:

  • Read a lot of Ancient philosophy including:
    • Plato’s Republic, the Meno, Phaedo, Phaedrus and Symposium. Plato thinks that there is a thing called the Good, towards which we all strive. This Good is an abstract reality. In essence, the goal of life is to become virtuous and lead a good life to get to know the good. This will lead to blessedness and joy.
    • Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, On the Soul, Politics and Organum (his treatises on language and logic). Aristotle develops a theory on how things come into being and become other things. His theory on the goal of life is more appealing and coherent than Plato’s (simply because he didn’t write in dialogues, whereas Plato says contradictory things because his ideas are set down in dialogue form). Essentially, Aristotle says that we are able to understand what our nature is and become virtuous according to our nature. This entails practicing becoming virtuous: courageous, truthful, just, prudent, etc. The key difference between Plato and Aristotle is that the former thought virtue came out of knowledge, but the latter claims it comes out of practice.
    • The Stoics: Marcus Aurelius is probably one of the best examples of this philosophy.
    • The Epicureans: Read On the Nature of Things by Lucretius.
    • The Academics: the best way to get an understanding of what these intellectuals taught is to read Cicero’s On Academic Skepticism.
    • Probably one of the best works that sort of deals with all of these questions in a more succinct matter is Cicero’s On the Good Life.
  • Read more philosophy:
    • Augustine’s Cassiciacum dialogues, including: Soliloquy, On Order, On the Good Life, Against the Academics. Also, profoundly affecting the way I understood the world was On Free Choice of the Will.
  • Read some more philosophy:
    • Kant;
    • Hume;
    • Hegel;
    • Marx;
    • Nietzsche;
    • Heidegger;
    • Sartre;
    • Foucault.

The key takeaway for me from philosophy is that life is complicated, that the mind exists and can learn concepts that are true independently from itself through great effort, and that the best way to live life is to examine it, learn the truth about self and the world and pursue it relentlessly.

I will follow up on Friday with resources that deal with other, more mundane but equally important aspects of life 😊

How To Succeed At Meetings

I never thought I’d be intellectually engaged by a so called “business guru” but I’ve recently begun reading Ray Dalio’s Principles through LinkedIn and have found them tremendously uplifting and useful. In an effort to bring principled thinking to my own work, I’ve tried to come up with a framework to become useful to others. To me, this means being efficient and valuable. Much of the time I spend at work is in meetings and I thought I’d begin to reflect on what it means to be efficient and valuable during meetings. In my own personal context, this means coming to meetings prepared. I’ve therefore attempted to develop this framework with that end in mind and I hope it’s useful to me and to those who are kind enough to read my blog. This post is intended not so much as an exposition of an idea but as a checklist. I hope you’ll give me feedback in the comments and help me improve the ideas I’ve set out here.

(As a side note, I highly recommend reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric, upon which I drew inspiration for this post).

Meetings happen in ways that fit into three buckets, broadly speaking: those where one or more people wish to galvanize others to pursue action in one direction or another; when a group decision must be made and when information is to be shared. Meetings don’t necessarily happen in one of these buckets exclusively but can move from one to the other at different times.  I’ll call them persuasive, deliberative and informative.

Persuasive meetings: during these meetings, the goal of a speaker is to present an argument for or against an action. If I participate in such a meeting, I’ll try to keep the following in mind:

  • A good argument has three key parts: terms, premises and conclusions. The key questions to ask are:
    • Are the terms clearly defined? Do I understand the key definitions of what is being talked about? Do I think there is overlap in terms?
    • Are the premises true or false?
    • Are the arguments valid or invalid?
  • Do I agree or disagree with the argument? Why?
  • Do I understand what would make my point of view invalid?

Deliberative meetings: in these meetings, the goal is to reach a team consensus or deeper understanding of an issue at hand. For these meetings, I’ll try to have these questions answered by the time the meeting is finished:

  • What is the task or project that we need to define?
  • How many different parts does it have?
  • How long is the task going to take? How long are each of the parts going to take?
  • Who should do what?
  • What are the criteria for progress?
  • When do we want to regroup to evaluate progress?
  • Do we need to pivot or change our focus?
  • Are there questions? Can we solve them together or do we need someone else to solve them for us?

Informative meetings: these meetings are always about the state of affairs of some action or project within an organization. During these meetings, we’ll hear about:

  • Project elements:
    • Resources: are we using more or less than was anticipated?
    • time frame: is it on time, early or delayed?
    • person responsible for carrying it out: changes in leadership, additions to the team, etc.
  • If the goal or purpose cannot be fully defined, then a deliberative meeting has to be held to determine it.

This sums up much of what I encounter during meetings but I’m sure this checklist will continue to evolve as I gain experience and participate in other kinds of projects. I’m also aware that I’ve excluded certain key ideas about participating in meetings: knowing my role during a conversation, when to address uncomfortable ideas or conversations, how to help the meeting reach its purpose when its been derailed, etc. But I think that for many of these questions there already are excellent frameworks. In another post, I’ll include some resources you can use to learn about these questions. As always, I appreciate your feedback and hope to continue to grow.

On Education I

Ever since I graduated with a degree in philosophy and meandered my way to an MBA, I’ve thought about my educational journey. Socrates’ claim that the unexamined life is not worth living is one that I took to heart and have sought to incorporate into my own life. I want to share some of the ideas I’ve discovered through this practice of self-examination.

Before coming to Babson, I was the dean of a small liberal arts college and had the opportunity to put into practice much of the ideas I’d discovered through self-examination. I thought that I had insights into what makes a good education and, being in an environment where I’m constantly exposed to people and ideas from several different continents, I find that some of those insights have universal applicability. The key idea for a successful education is to uncover the well of insatiable curiosity that many of us have somehow managed to put a lid on early in our lives. As Aristotle said:

For it is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophize; they wondered originally at the obvious difficulties, then advanced little by little and stated difficulties about the greater matters, e.g. about the phenomena of the moon and those of the sun and of the stars, and about the genesis of the universe. And a man who is puzzled and wonders thinks himself ignorant […]; therefore since they philosophized order to escape from ignorance, evidently they were pursuing science in order to know, and not for any utilitarian end.

Aristotle, Metaphysics

When we look into ourselves, we’ll realize that there’s an itch to get out and know things, just for the sake of knowing them. The first habit that a well-educated person cultivates, then, is wonder.

Achieving a constant state of wonder is impossible without self-examination. But what is this precisely? Initially, self-examination might start with wondering why we do certain things. A young adult might wonder why he doesn’t like doing homework or why he loves to go hiking so much. All self-examination begins this way, by asking why, but it doesn’t stay there. In fact, it can’t, or there’s the risk of forgetting how to do it.

In one of my favorite essays, Martin Heidegger reflects on the process of thinking: “Questions are paths toward an answer. If the answer could be given it would consist in a transformation of thinking […]” This is a lesson that anybody who has tried to reflect on the self will quickly learn. Knowing why we do something is important but then we quickly realize that there are more questions that we can ask about ourselves: how do we do things? When do we do them? What are the means we use to do them? Finally, this is the most important question: understanding the true reason for our motivation and being able to ask what is the ultimate purpose of our actions.

It is here that the person who engages in self-examination will reach the paths that lead to true education, the education that leads to freedom. The path that reveals itself at this point needs special skills to be followed. It demands that we learn about the inner workings of our mind and how we can interpret reality. And it also demands that we learn about how the world is constituted, its nature and the way it presents to ourselves. These demands need tools that are different, but that our ancestors have found in the past. It is the answer to the questions of self-examination that leads to this transformation in thinking and we realize that knowledge is irreversible: it forever changes who we are and there is no going back.