We all have problems
The one thing we all have in common is problems. Some take us by surprise and others are self-inflicted. Some problems we welcome and others we could do without. It is near impossible to go through life without having to make some difficult decisions to deal with life’s problems.
We would like to think we always make the best decisions but we know that more times then we would like to admit we allowed our emotions to make those decisions and our problem turned in a cluster fuck.
Our anxiety, anger or excitement usually takes control of the decision-making process for you. A week, a month or a year later that decision comes back to haunt you and you wonder what the hell were you thinking. We act on our mood and not on our principles. There is a better way to made a decision that will reduce the chances of regret.
The Stoic philosophy has a practical system to make solving problems by taking emotions out of the equation and focusing on what’s important.
Tim Ferriss describes philosophy as an operating system for decision making. It makes life simpler when you can solve these problems quickly and easily. It doesn’t lessen the importance of these decisions but philosophy will help you cut through the bullshit and get to the real core of the problem.
Let’s focus on some of the stoic techniques that use the intellect to solve life’s problems.
First things first. What is a life problem? It could be a problem that was unexpected like losing your job. It could be deciding whether or not to sell you house. It could be setting a goal for yourself and how you are going to accomplish that goal.
To give yourself the best chance that the outcome will bring you tranquility you need a system that you can rely on that will keep you focused and keep your emotions in check.
“Stoic tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety and the presence of positive emotions such as joy.” William Irvine
A system that works
The best systems are ones that are easy to remember and can be quickly applied to situations. Here are 3 steps that you can apply to any problem.
1. Controlling your emotions
- Imagine that your brain is a busy highway and your emotions are the cars. Be an observer of your emotions by viewing them from the side of the road rather than standing in the middle of the road dodging the cars as they go speeding past.
- Avoid passing judgement on your emotions, acknowledge what you are feeling and it them go. Reminding yourself that getting angry or upset about the situation will not help solve the problem. In fact, it will cloud your judgement.
- One of the best ways to learn to be an observer of your emotions is through meditation. I know, I recommend practicing meditation in almost every post I write. This is because I firmly believe that meditation is the best way to train your mind.
- Acknowledge those emotions come from within, it’s does not come from what the world is doing to us on the outside. Our emotions emerge from what we tell ourselves with our inner-talk.
2. Place value on the problem and avoid labelling them good or bad.
- Avoid labelling problems as good or bad. Think of them as learning moments to be explored and to grow from. Look at every problem as an opportunity.
- Work at putting a value on the problem, in other words, how important does solving this problem contribute to your values.
- Take time to evaluate what brings you value, decide what is important to in life. Is it your family, your career, or leading an ethical and moral life. Make it clear in your mind what is valuable to you and disregard things that have little or no value.
- Turn the negative into a positive no matter how dire the problem seems. Remember that no matter the outcome to a problem, life will go on. Even if the decision turns out to be a failure, learn from it and move on.
3. Dichotomy of control/Sphere of choice
The philosopher Epictetus simple states “Some things are up to us and some are not”. Some things that he believes are up to us includes our opinions, desires, and aversions. Things like our possessions and reputation are not.
The philosophy behind what he thinks goes quite deep and to try to explain it I would only end up quoting half of William Irvine’s book A Guide to the Good life.
There are things we have total control over, things we have no control over and there are things we have partial control over.
To prevent my head from exploding I simplified the thinking so I could apply it in the moment when there is little time to break the problem down.
Things we have no control over.
- Things you have no control over include a person’s thoughts, actions, and feelings….most of the time, sometimes you will have partial control. We will get to that in a moment.
- We have no control over parts of our physical environment like the weather or traffic.
- Simply, if you have no control of a thing then let it go and do not concern yourself with it.
Things we have total control over.
- We have complete control over our goals, ethics, values, and morals.
- We have complete control over our character and opinions.
- Most important, we have complete control over our internal goals. Making the goal to practice hard to win a chess match will allow us always achieve our goals whether we win or lose.
- As long as we always practice hard at our game then it doesn’t matter if we win or lose, we will always achieve our goal.
Things we have partial control
- This is where things get sticky.
- We have partial control over whether we follow our values and ethics.
- We all know that we have only partial control over our desires, cravings, etc.
- We have partial control over a person’s actions and feelings which are determined by our interaction with that person.
- We should avoid making external goals like the goal to beat an opponent in a game of chess. Since we only have partial control over the goal, it could produce frustration every time we lose because we did not achieve the desired result.
A problem we can all relate to
So how do we do about using this information to solve a problem? Let’s use a real-life example to demonstrate.
Life is good, you come home every day from work to happy children and a loving wife. You spend your days off working in your yard, fishing and enjoying leisure time with the family. When one night your wife tells you that she is not happy at all. She feels that you have grown apart and is unhappy in the marriage.
You are completely taken by surprise. You are overcome with emotions, and you don’t know how to respond. Ok, let’s stop right here. There are two ways to respond. here is the first way.
This is unbelievable, where is this coming from. What do you mean you are not happy? You have everything you could want in life. How can you do this to me? You ungrateful bitch. If you feel like that then why don’t you just leave?
You feel hurt and confused and place the blame on your wife. The argument might even deteriorate to the point where you are shouting at each other and damage the relationship even further. Your anger keeps you from viewing the problem correctly. You focus on blame instead. You make the external goal of making your wife love you again which you only have partial control of. You feel frustrated because when she continues to feel the way that does and you view this as a failure and place the blame on her. See you in divorce court.
You could break the problem down like this.
Your wife tells you that she is unhappy in the marriage and feels like you are growing apart.
Control your emotions
Let’s not kid ourselves, this would be an emotional blow. You feel sad, angry and confused but you still love your wife and don’t want your marriage to end. You recognize the negative feelings that you are feeling and observe them without judgement and let them pass. In a calm and rational manner, you discuss how your wife feels and how to proceed.
Place value on the problem.
You could view this problem as bad, ok more like devastating. This problem has the potential to completely disrupt your life and could result in a bunch of new problems which could overwhelm you.
You decide instead to view it as an opportunity to strength your marriage. You wife is unhappy and you place a tremendous amount of value on her happiness and your marriage.
Dichotomy of control/sphere of choice
I have complete control over my values and character. I have some control over how my wife feels about me. You make your internal goal to improve how you show your love to your wife and put forward your best effort in how you act towards your wife.
Even though this is a fictional example, I am sure we all can relate in some way to this situation. Whether it’s with a spouse, boyfriend or girlfriend, brother or sister, or anyone else close to us, we’ve been in situations like the one described above. Look back at how you handled the last time you encountered a relationship problem and apply the 3 steps. Do you think it would have affected the outcome in a positive manner?
The problem template looks like this:
- Control your emotions
- Put value on the problem
- Set internal goals to solve the problem
If you want to explore more of a long form way of looking at problems There are some excellent articles on the net that can help you dissect a problem and how to solve it, like this one at wiki how. You can also listen to this episode on The Operation self reset podcast: How to make Great Decsions
It’s that simple. Remember that simple does not always mean easy. Practice makes perfect.
Check this out
If you need more convincing, then listen to Jocko Willink, one of the most badass human beings on the face of the Earth talk about emotions and decision making. He also talks about the effects of inner talk which I wrote about here Let’s talk about inner talk. Listen to him here on this episode of the Tim Ferriss podcast. Jocko Willink on Discipline, Leadership , and Overcoming Doubt.
Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing. (Enchiridion 1)
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