Room for failure

I think the key to succeeding with habits is leaving oneself enough room for failure that it becomes easy to avoid the real failure, which is to drop the habit.

Don’t punish yourself for failure, if you want to keep the habit long term. You’ll feel strong in the moment, like you’re being tough on yourself, and that’s not a bad thing. There’s a place for that. Just not in setting up the habit itself.

Give yourself a generous, forgiving framework to act within. Most days, you’ll do better than the bare minimum you’ve set for yourself, and that is exciting. Some days, you’ll do way, way better than that bare minimum, when the inspiration to do so is there. Those days will be pretty rare.

And then some days, whether because of schedule or stress or health or just mood, you’ll only do the bare minimum.

On those bare minimum days, there will not be much progress, but there still will be a little, which counts for something, since all the little bits add up over time.

But far more importantly, those bare minimum days precede more days of practicing that habit. Without the generous framework, the “bare minimum” days would feel instead like “failure” days, and no one likes to feel like a failure.

There are only so many times a habit can be failed before a person gives up on it. Psychologically, that just seems to be the reality, at least for most of us. But having a low bar means it is easy to avoid failure, which in the long run will pay dividends.

Back to the Academy

In the past few months, I’ve been seriously considering making an effort to go back in the direction of aiming for some sort of an academic career.

It’s a future I’d dreamed of for quite a while, but there was a point in my life when I experienced some real hesitation. That hesitation began because a professor I knew, for whom I had some respect, was outspoken in his opinion that PhDs were a bad choice. It’s really hard work, and at the end of it all you probably won’t have very good job prospects, so if you’re really smart you’ll just do something else with your life. Because of how strongly he seemed to believe this, it left a deep impression on me.

There were several other factors that contributed as well. I’d heard, for instance, how much of a toll doctoral studies could take on a person’s mental health, and I’d seen signs of that. I was also, in a way, frustrated by how constricted a program of studies could feel. I wanted to read the complete works of Plato, to tackle the great books and authors and thoughts of the past, and instead I was forced to spend immense time and energy reading and writing on the comparatively short and unimportant texts assigned by professors with the narrowest focus. Getting out of the academy felt like a liberation, and I did take advantage of it to read many of the things I never had time for as a student.

What felt central to me, though, was my burgeoning conviction that the most urgent, most important thing was to grow in virtue, to be a good person. I turned away from an academic future because I felt sure it would be an obstacle to virtue. The further I went, the more I noticed qualities in my fellow students, in the students who were ahead of me, and in my professors, that I didn’t think I wanted any part of. It was becoming clear to me that for our academic system to accentuate a person’s virtues rather than vices was not impossible, but at least exceptional. And it seemed highly likely that there was a causal connection — that these were vices not simply displayed in an academic style, but caused by the pressures of an academic life. I saw in my own personal development how my studies fostered intemperance, irritability, insecurity, arrogance, envy, sloth.

And then the longer I was away, the more life just seemed to get in the way of getting back to it.

So then having said all that, what could change my mind?

One extremely important point is that I’ve had a chance to read much of the great thought and writing that I wanted to get around to reading. I’ve read enough of it to feel okay with slowing down. There’s still so much more that I’m hungry to read, but I’ve reached a point where I’m happy to slow down and focus on one smaller (even less important) collection of texts under others’ supervision for a time.

Probably the pivotal moment for me was the realization that I just do desire to be part of the scholarly community, and that in our day it is very very difficult to do so without a PhD. I found myself already spending as much as possible of my spare time studying languages and history and reading journal articles and great books, and I realized that I could be doing all these things and getting paid for it, rather than doing all these things without compensation and while losing opportunities to spend that time doing other important things.

And that sort of leads me back around to the topics of mental health and progress in virtue. In the past several years, I’ve developed several good habits that relate to studiousness, habits that will remain in place (to one extent or another) whether or not I am in the orbit of academia. This gives me the hope that rather than being driven by my program of studies, which is how things have always gone in the past, I might be able to stay more in the driver’s seat, using my good habits to spend my time responsibly. I’m taking a class this semester and I can already see how the stresses of timelines and deadlines can cause some problems for my habits that weren’t there before, but on the other side, I can also see how the habits are preserving me somewhat from the unhealthy tendencies that would otherwise be afflicting me, and enabling me to do a far better job than I would have been capable of in my former way of doing things.

I’m open to what the future holds! I don’t know what will come up, or whether an academic future is realistic for me to contemplate. It’s back on the radar, however, and for the moment that’s feeling pretty exciting.

Leo Strauss’s Core Books

It occurred to me recently that there are half a dozen books by Leo Strauss that I think of as a sort of canon within the canon.

Only one of those books is (what I think of as) a commentary book, as opposed to a book of essays. The Hobbes and Spinoza books, important as they are, seem not quite to represent his mature and most powerful thinking, and the later books like the ones on Xenophon are just so tedious and obscure, not nearly as thrilling as some from earlier in his career. Thoughts on Machiavelli though, for all that it focuses on a single thinker, has certainly made a place for itself among his greatest books.

Out of the other books, the books of essays, there are five that I think of as having a particular coherence and importance over the others. I’m judging this not only based on my own experience but also on how I’ve heard others speak of them.

Some are his most famous writings. Natural Right and History. Persecution and the Art of Writing. On Tyranny. These seem to deserve their remarkable reputation.

It might be slightly less famous and slightly more obscure, but I believe that City and Man demands to be seen on the same level as the last few I mentioned.

Probably the most controversial book on my list is Philosophy and Law. Not as famous, not as mature, perhaps not quite as moving. But I can’t bring myself to leave it off the list.

I’m by no means saying that his other books are unimportant or uninteresting. For some reason, and it might be entirely irrational, these six books strike me as most authoritative, and somehow also most exciting. Maybe my list will change in the coming years! But I think I’ve been seeing Strauss’s corpus this way for a while, and it was interesting to notice it and articulate it for myself, even if I can’t fully defend or explain why I hold to this list in the form that it has.

Growing in courage

Courage is the virtue that relates to how we deal with pains, and with fears of pain.

Practicing doing thing that are painful or that frighten us, would seem to be the sensible way to grow in courage. And there’s something to that.

For myself, I think what I’ve found in the past (and I have to confess that I haven’t enacted this with any sort of consistency) is that what gives the most powerful boosts of courage, most quickly, is to think about pain. Hold what pain is in the mind’s eye, and look it straight on, without blinking.

When we don’t think directly about pain, but only “around” it, seeing it only in the periphery of the mind’s eye, we cannot help thinking it is worse than it really is. We know it is something we’re naturally averse toward, and that feels like all we need to know. All the more reason not to think about it directly.

But when we do think about it directly, we realize that pain isn’t really what we fear. There are much worse things than pain, and pain is a comparatively small price to pay for something we really desire. By thinking about pain without shying away from the thought of it, pain loses its power to frighten.

Such an exercise makes pain and fear fade into insignificance, for as long as the memory of the exercise is still fresh enough that it can be easily recalled. This clarifies for us in a marvellous way what sorts of things we should really have an aversion to, when we see with a sense of proper proportion.

The tricky thing about bravery, of course, is that it can be put either to good ends or to evil ones. People can feel so ashamed of being called cowardly that we can assume by implication that all bravery is as such a good thing. But being brave, aggressive, ruthless in the service of ignorance or selfishness or prejudice is not truly courage.

Courage is about being willing to do what we know is the right thing, even if fear holds us back from it, even if pain is the price of it. That’s a virtue worth striving for.

A Habit of Reading in Other Languages

A little more than a year ago, I began a new daily habit of reading in languages I wanted to learn. I was very ambitious, and very excited.

I decided to put myself way out of my depths. I was reading Homer and Aristotle in Greek, Horace in Latin, Hegel in German, Rousseau in French, and still others as well.

My plan was to read slowly, with some sort of dictionary. Slowly read the first page, and then reread it until it became easy, and then move on to the second page, and continue like this. In no time, I thought, I should be breezing through the languages.

It turns out, that was a poorly conceived project. I’m surprised I stuck with it as long as I did — nearly half a year! But it was a frustrating, largely fruitless endeavour the whole time.

However, within my bad idea was the seed of a good one. As that gruelling half a year was wrapping up, I didn’t abandon the habit. I just shifted it.

What if I put the same sort of effort into reading something that’s more like a graded reader? I’ve long been attracted to Ørberg’s Lingua Latina Per Se Illustrata; what if I read artificially instructive texts like that and slowly became proficient at more challenging texts in my target languages, rather than diving straight into the difficult stuff?

The major downside is that I wouldn’t be spending time immediately reading the authors that interest me, in the original languages. It felt pretty cool, in one way, to be doing that. The objection to that disappointment, though, is obvious: if I take the longer and slower path, I think I’m much more likely in the long run to be able to achieve and sustain a habit of that sort. I’ll get back to reading great books in their own languages! But there’s just a very important little detour I need to make first.

So now I’m reading through some graded readers, each at its own pace. It took me several tries to find a Greek one that I like, so I’m behind there, but the other languages have been coming along nicely. I need to be patient; my guess is that, at the pace I’m going, it’ll take at least a year or two before I can go back to reading real texts. But at the same time, I fond that amazing. In just a few years from now, maybe I’ll be comfortably reading difficult texts in foreign languages, at the cost of only a few minutes a day between now and then. It’s hard not to be excited.

Plan for a long life

You’d think that the smart way to life would be to anticipate a short life and an early end. Then, if you end up living longer than expected, it’s just the frosting on the cake.

I was listening recently to a story about a famous intellectual which seemed to assume the same. Ever since he was a little child, a relative recalled, he’d believe he was going to die an early death and would need to accomplish something important without delay.

I feel like something along those lines was implicitly what I was assuming for almost the first few decades of my life. Getting married, and even more so having children, were probably the factors that have been most important in changing the approach for me, to thinking more in terms of decades rather than years. I now wish I would have made the change long before.

It seems to me that living as if life will be short will bring many activities that are not wise for a long life. You’ll burn yourself out. You’ll focus on the short term benefits. You’ll be careless with friendships and health and career and more.

Living as if life will be long, on the other hand, seems more likely even in the short term to lead to positive outcomes. The sorts of good habits and smart investment of time and effort that come with a life lived in view of a long future, will really not seem foolish or blameworthy in a life cut short.

Living as if life will be short can be presented as a noble or realistic stance, but it is hard for it not to become an excuse for vice.

Living as if life will be long might seem presumptuous or even, in a sense, short-sighted, but it holds us accountable for today’s decisions in a way that is not relevant for the person who anticipates slipping away into eternity at a young age.

We have a choice, and although in my case the realization is of embarrassingly recent provenance, the better choice should really be pretty clear to see.

Reverse Willpower

I’ve been grateful to be able to keep up several great habits over several years, and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to keep them up for several years more.

A friend of mine recently asked me if it takes willpower to do those habitual actions every day, and at first I just answered in the negative. Once you begin to think of yourself as just being the sort of person who does habit x every day, the need for willpower becomes minimal.

But then after a moment of reflection, I added in a thought that seems really helpful to me. I said that sometimes doing the habits almost seems like reverse willpower, in a way.

When I said that, I was thinking of those moments when it’s late in the evening, when I’m tired and distracted, and all I want to do is listen to an audiobook until I fall asleep, and yet I sit down and do the little bit of reading or writing or practice or whatever it is, that I didn’t get to during the day.

That might sound like incredible willpower, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way! Willpower doesn’t feel like it enters into it at all. My will is turned decisively toward dreamland, and I’m reluctant to do anything else.

But the habit drags me along, pulls me through the motions so I can check the daily box. There’s a part of me that fears losing the habit, and so my willpower gets forced into doing what I’m the moment it has no desire whatsoever to do.

I don’t know if that makes any sense from the outside, but for me, in the moment, it felt like a valuable encapsulation of something I don’t think about much but which probably helps me out more than I usually know.

Dream Power

Being able to dream about the future, and to be excited about the possibilities ahead, can be a powerful force for good in a person’s life.

I read once that thinking about the future makes you a better and more disciplined person in many ways, and that sociologists have measured and confirmed this. I actually used to schedule time daily for the purpose. I don’t do so anymore, but mainly because there’s no point.

I frequently find myself thinking about how excited I am for the future, and all I need to do at this point is give myself permission to enjoy thinking about what the coming years and decades hold.

I find this happens especially with my good habits. I used to dream about how cool it would be, how impressive I would look, if I learned a bunch of languages, for example. These days, for some reason (maturity perhaps? but not necessarily), I think less about how I will look, and more just about how useful it will be.

I can’t wait until I can read many of the philosophers that interest me in the languages in which they wrote. I can’t wait for my reading project to grow, to expand, to become more complex and more complete.

It is a long wait. It will take many years of diligent, lonesome toil.

But the wait becomes easy and even pleasant, precisely by virtue of the fact that I cannot wait for the destination.

Healthy eating a cause and an effect of a good mind

The workings of a mind are deeply affected by bodily circumstances. Intoxication from alcohol, or exhaustion from sleep deprivation, illustrate this fact clearly.

The food we consume is one of the main factors that affect our health. Eating poor food will make a powerful mind less sharp, and eating healthy food will give us our best shot at being our most brilliant self.

But it goes the other direction as well. I think that an unhealthy intake of food can also be a consequence of weaker mental powers. If we have the ability to eat more healthily, and we want the good things that would be produced by such eating, then it doesn’t make much sense to come up with rationalizations to justify eating in unhealthy ways.

So these two things seem to lead to a downward spiral. Unhealthy eating and weaker intelligence reinforce one another, feed into one another. Each drags the other further down.

There are a few easy things we can do that are specifically beneficial for our brains. Maximize fibre intake, to reduce chances of stroke. Keep blood cholesterol (especially LDL) low, mainly by reducing trans fats, saturated fat, and dietary cholesterol, which seems to help with protecting against brain disease. Maximize antioxidants, especially by eating things like berries.

It just takes a moment to break the downward cycle. Just a single decision, and the descending spiral can be replace with an ascending one.

It’s worth giving it a little thought. The time and effort will be repaid a thousandfold.