There are many statues and images of the Supreme Leaders in the Democratic Republic of North Korea, and as a visitor, you must abide by some rules. Breaking these rules will result in life imprisonment, followed by the one-by-one removal of your toes.
As a dissentious foreigner, you’ll want to know why. These are the reasons that you cannot fold an image of a Supreme Leader:
A Supreme Leader’s body is tougher than all of the bodies of the world combined. Folding their image would be disregarding this fact.
A Supreme Leader’s face was chiseled by angels and is sublime. Folding a Supreme Leader’s face would be like folding your Mona Lisa, even though we know that your Mona Lisa is worthless when compared to a picture of a Supreme Leader.
Supreme Leaders are tall and powerful and must not be made shorter by folding their legs.
Every image of a Supreme Leader’s face is a wondrous miracle. Why would you fold a miracle?
Folding the Supreme Leader’s face in unusual ways is a desecration to his peerless beauty. The impudent dog responsible for this image was hunted down and forced to eat his own intestines.
Note: we will take your passport for safe-keeping when you arrive in the Democratic Republic of North Korea, and fold it however we like.
Consider the girl who, no matter how determined her efforts, or how much she tries to motivate herself to complete the urgent task in front of her, opens up Instagram instead. Such a dire lack of willpower is recognisable by all. I dread to think how much time I’ve wasted on insipid bullshit instead of doing something difficult and valuable. When a challenging task is before me, and I’m taut with anxious doubt, it isn’t a lack of willpower that makes me open Instagram, but my inability to deal with the anxiety. I’d do anything not to feel that emotion, and I have the most distracting and entertaining thing imaginable at my fingertips: the internet.
We don’t procrastinate because we lack self-control, but because we’re in the grip of an unpleasant emotion, and don’t know how to handle it. This is called emotion regulation—the ability to respond to negative emotion in a way that is mentally healthy, and socially acceptable. Instead of having the fortitude to wade through the unpleasant emotion, we reach for the nearest comfort instead—social media, television, drugs, or whatever is easiest. Without the ability to regulate our emotions, we can become depressed, anxious, develop eating disorders, and abuse substances1. We might also have fewer and shallower personal relationships.
The stoics were masters of emotion regulation, which is one of the reasons that their philosophy endured, and continues to grow in popularity. Though the concept of emotion regulation wasn’t clarified until the 20th century, the stoics appeared to practice a method that is now called reappraisal, which is interpreting an event in a way that will reduce its emotional impact. The following example might have been lifted from the journal of a Roman stoic:
“Somebody stole my sandals from outside my door. I needed those sandals to walk across the city for an important meeting at the Senate, which I now won’t be able to attend. At this point, the theft is already done, and there’s nothing I can do to change what has happened, so the only thing to do is carry on with my day.”
A well-practised stoic is able to reappraise the situation and lessen its power, suppressing any negative emotion that might compromise his virtue. Consider the moment that Seneca was ordered to commit suicide by the Roman emperor Nero, who suspected Seneca of being a conspirator in an assassination plot against him. This is the ultimate test of emotion regulation. Upon hearing the news, Seneca made out his will, asked his wife not to grieve, and then opened his veins without fuss. He was so well-practised in reappraisal, so at peace with his lack of control and the fate that had been written for him, that he was able to face his death with courageous equanimity.
How did he do it? The stoics have a few reappraisal theories and techniques that they use to regulate their emotions.
Dichotomy of control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
The dichotomy of control tells us that some things are in our control, and some things aren’t. This idea is key to a stoic’s ability to regulate his emotions. The vast majority of what happens to us is outside of our control, and when something “bad” happens—a car accident, your mother’s death, buying an all-yellow bag of Starburst—a stoic knows the futility of getting upset. He’s wise enough to make a good calculation of the matter, by understanding the difference between what is controllable, and what is not. For a stoic such as Seneca, this understanding was visceral. He knew that the will of the emperor was beyond his control, and running away wasn’t an option. In such a situation, getting upset is illogical, leaving acceptance as the only remaining answer.
Genuine acceptance of your fate cannot produce emotional turmoil, even for something as drastic as your death. Stoics such as Seneca understood the dichotomy of control so viscerally that they were able to use it to regulate their emotions, by reappraising the situation from something awful, to something uncontrollable, and therefore to be accepted.
Our transitory nature
“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
Everything in our universe obeys an ironclad rule: things must change. The stoics recognised that everything preferable in their lives (what they referred to as “preferred indifferents”) could be taken away from them in an instant, whether it was their children, their home, or their own lives. In the tender moments that you’re kissing your wife, Epictetus advises you to tell yourself that you’re kissing a mortal, as a reminder of their impermanence. By constantly reminding yourself of the transience of people you adore, even going so far as to meditate on their death, you’re practicing for the possibility of their actual death, which you’ll be able to reappraise and remain calm if the moment occurs. This technique is called negative visualisation, and is a form of adversity training; a toughening against the harsh realities of the world. It also makes us more grateful for what we have—a powerful perspective that has proven to make us happier2.
Understanding the changing nature of the universe helps a stoic to remain emotionally stalwart in the face of adversity. Seneca knew that just like every other organic thing in the universe, his mind and body would eventually change into something else. Nero just happened to speed it up.
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Stoics recognise that the harm of an insult isn’t from the words themselves, as though the breath of another person carries a debilitating poison, but from our impression of the words. Like everything else in the universe, words don’t have objective meaning. Our species has given them meaning as a way to survive and procreate. If somebody tells you that your nose looks like a pickle that’s been rejected by the local supermarket, you can judge the words to have value, or you can identify them as the bleatings of a man without virtue.
We’re bombarded with impressions and judgments every day, and while we can’t control an initial impression, we can use reason to evaluate its benefit, and change it if necessary. A stoic has the capacity to reappraise her initial impressions of the world, changing the detrimental into the beneficial—a more fitting impression for a judicious philosopher.
Courage is a chief virtue for the stoics, defined as the ability to face misfortune with bravery; in recognising the mental turmoil that an event such as your death can create, and facing it with equanimity because you know it’s outside your control. The courageous man experiences just as much fear as everyone else, but acts in spite of it.
The stoics realised a fundamental truth: life is suffering, and if we want to be happy, we must be courageous enough to face our problems head on. An obstacle isn’t something to be feared, but an opportunity to practice reappraisal; a moment that demands our courage, followed by the use of reason to reappraise the situation into something favourable.
Being able to regulate our emotions is critical for our well-being1. The reappraisal technique reduces physiological, subjective, and neural emotional responses. That sentence remains true when swapping the words “reappraisal technique” for “stoic philosophy.” The wonderful philosophy of Stoicism can make us masters of emotion regulation, allowing us to reappraise negative impressions, and transform them into emotions that contribute to our happiness.
Dave never much liked philosophy. Hated it, in fact. So when the first philosopher showed up and whispered an aphorism into his ear, he didn’t know what to make of it.
He was lunching at the time, ogling the little butts of the Chinese waitresses who flitted in and out of the kitchen, and gorging on dumplings that singed the roof of his mouth. The Great Wall restaurant had a sign at the entrance saying “wok this way,” which he always grinned at. For Dave, nestling into the cramped wooden chairs with an ice-covered Tsingtao and a plate full of dumplings and a dance of hypnotic rears was pure magic—a stark contrast to the drudgery of everything else in his life.
As he dunked his final dumpling in soy, splattering its periphery with brown, the clinking and shuffling and murmuring of the restaurant was interrupted by a soft but clear Chinese voice, which said “a good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”
Dave jolted and the dumpling flew from his chopsticks into his lap, soiling his respectability. He snatched it from his lap and turned to the source of the noise—an ancient and wispy Oriental, who grinned at him with earwax-coloured teeth; teeth that were too close to his face.
He jiggled his chair backward, as much confused by the interruption as by the man’s words and antiquated appearance.
“Excuse me?” Dave said, “do you work here?” The man’s smile dropped, and his eyes bore into Dave’s.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished” the little man said with a yellow flash of teeth. In the distance, a dish of beef exploded into a cacophony of sizzle, creating flurries of garlic-infused smoke as it’s carried past the man to its delighted recipients. The wisps cling to the man’s willowy beard, making it look like the onset of a turbulent fire.
Dave asked the man if he worked at the restaurant, knowing full well that he didn’t, but not sure what else to do about the situation.
“The snow goose need not bathe to make itself white,” the man said, “neither need you do anything but be yourself.”
“What’s that about a goose?” Dave replied, losing his patience. He called a waitress over, and asked her if she knew who the man was.
“No, we don’t all know each other” she scoffed.
“He’s talking to me about all kinds of nonsense—travelling geese and whatnot. Can you ask him to leave me alone?”
“Some food, sir?” the waitress asked the old man, motioning to a distant table, “we don’t have goose, but we have duck.”
He refused, bowed to them both, and with a swish of his tunic, left the restaurant. Dave stared at his last dumpling, as if it might be able to explain what had just happened.
The next afternoon, Dave rode his bike along the Brisbane river, delighted by the great swathes of sparkles that lay across the river like blankets of fairies, birthed by the setting sun. Jacarandas peppered the bike track, wearing luscious coats of luminous purple, rising up like noble Australian kings. Dave had forgotten the oddity of yesterday, closing in on the city and working up a good sweat, which always made him self-conscious since that little bitch Gretchen Greenwood from grade fourteen had called him “Heatwave Dave” on account of his sweat patches.
He’d just passed the German Bierhaus, of which he was a fuzzy-headed patron, when another cyclist rode up next to him, so close that the rubber handles of their bikes almost touched. As cyclists feel obligated to correct every infraction that they witness, no matter how trivial, Dave assumed that he was about to be told off, but in fact, found himself side-by-side with a serious man in a serious grey suit, who had the most magnificent moustache he’d ever seen, blasting out of his face like the beginnings of a volcanic eruption. The man paid no attention to what was in front of him, as other cyclists hurtled past. He preferred to stare at Dave.
After a few seconds, over the pitchy whistle of the wind and in a thick German accent, he said “you must have chaos within you to give birth to a dancing star.”
Dave squeezed his brakes, and the German catapulted into the distance. Cyclists with throbbing veins shot past him and swore, the flash of their lycra blinding him, but not enough to stop him witnessing the ominous man circling around to return. He watched with dread as he approached, catching every word of the new maxim that was being yelled at him.
“The higher we soar the smaller we appear to those who cannot fly.”
Dave took off in the opposite direction. He pedalled as though the German had produced a hatchet rather than a philosophical tenet, rocketing along the jade surface with the air roaring in his ears, muscles burning from the desperation of his escape. After a minute, he looked back over his shoulder, and saw the man’s Krakatoa moustache emerge from a just-passed curve in the track. The gap narrowed with every rotation of the German’s pedals—he had the legs and lungs of an Übermensch!
He arrived at Dave’s side, who tried to kick him off his bike. The German dodged the attack with ease, grinned, and shouted “beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster…for when you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”
“What do you mean?!” Dave screeched, but the man was already braking, having said what he came to say. He rode back in the direction of the bierhaus.
Dave pulled over to collect himself. Though the quotes were undoubtedly wise, and the benevolent men who imparted them well-qualified (and well-fit), he’d had quite enough of monsters and chaos and dancing stars. He wanted comfort—a return to miserable normality, where most things made sense.
He went home, showered, and went to his favourite local bar—Stazione di Birra—run by a fat little Roman called Guiseppe who always nudged him and asked him how his mother was. Stazione di Birra was always bright and crammed with people and had more wooden furniture than it needed, which had to be shifted to get anywhere, filling the place with the scraping of wood-on-wood.
Dave drowned himself in beer, thinking that it might tease some sense out of the absurdity of this philosophical assault, or at the very least, suffocate his memory with an impenetrable fog.
As he drained his ninth glass and motioned to Guiseppe for another, a figure appeared in his periphery—a regal man in a white tunic, whose head and face were garnished with a sea of looping curls. Dave’s heart sank.
“The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are.”
Dave’s spirit was very much troubled.
“Who are you people?” he demanded, “and what the hell do you want with me?”
“Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.”
Guiseppe was alerted by Dave’s raised voice, and walked over to them. “Everything alright?” he asked, confused by the man’s tunic and luscious curls. “Drink?”
The regal man gave Guiseppe a sharp look. A passing drunkard bumped into his back, spilling some Guinness, but not making an impression. His eyes returned to Dave.
“Accept the things to which fate binds you, and love the people with whom fate brings you together, but do so with all your heart.”
He smiled, touched Dave on the shoulder, and left.
Guiseppe asked what was going on. A flabbergasted Dave recounted his last 24 hours to Guiseppe, who chuckled and combed his moustache as it was told.
“It sounds like they’re trying to teach you something” Guiseppe said.
“Teach me what?”
“Maybe that you’re too stressed?”
Eventually, Dave found their quotes online, bought all of their books, and transformed himself into a cool-headed philosophical superstar. But though he was desperate to thank them personally, they never appeared again.
All morning we’d been free as roaming grizzlies, bounding about our local park, gazing at the blooming Double Delight roses, kicking footballs, and sniffing the pollen out of the air. We’d settled on an itchy tartan blanket under cover of a red-speckled poinciana, cracked frosty beers and lounged about like Kings and Queens of old. We’d tapped our feet to the nifty grooves of Mr. Stevie Wonder, and grinned as the cool Queensland breeze lighted on our skins before moving on to gladden some other baked soul.
It was a Saturday, and there were three of us—myself, Tommy, and Gemma. We were all close friends; the kind of friends who colour each other’s lives with dazzling luminosity; the people usually included in your most entertaining stories. They were also the kind of friends who got you into trouble. But I wouldn’t change anything about them. They were made for clinking and drinking with under the shade of a thousand leaves, with the planes roaring overhead and the magpies swaggering all around us. As we sank crisp lagers and revelled in our eternal bliss, none of us suspected that something terrible was about to happen.
The trouble began when a group of strangers entered the park, carrying marquees for a birthday party. They seemed innocent enough: middle-aged women with small children, with the odd bloke thrown in. They erected their marquees with expert speed and settled themselves.
All was calm, until suddenly, the air was filled with a sound that arrested the steady thump of our hearts—a shrill cackle that pierced our skulls like shrapnel and tore our brains to shreds. We inhaled every atom of oxygen in a 2-meter radius, and shrank away from the noise, terrified. What could have made such a sound? A recently-thawed pterodactyl come to feast on the guests of New Farm Park? Perhaps a pack of starved hyenas converging on our position?
We peeked through our fingers at the source. It was a forty-something, bleach blonde female with colossal breasts, bouncing her way towards our new neighbours and alerting them of her arrival. We sighed as though just pardoned from a noose. She clearly wasn’t a threat. But that sound! We looked at each other in disbelief, wondering why we’d frightened so easily.
We were calm again, but things were a bit edgy now. We laughed and joked as before, but a seriousness had gripped us. The Cure came on the radio, and we quickly changed it. Every magpie in the area seemed to be looking at us, and even though it wasn’t swooping season, we saw murder in their hellish black eyes. The sun had settled itself over a gap in our tree, almost intentionally, forming beads of anxious sweat on our foreheads.
We heard a distant thump, and in the sky appeared a dark circular mass, plunging towards us like a cannonball shot by a ragged force of pitiless pirates. We clutched each other and squealed like helpless toddlers, as the orb of metal smashed into our Esky, sending it hurtling across the park like a punted shih tzu. We expected to be descended upon by hoards of bow-legged scallywags, daggers in hands and hate in hearts, but all that appeared was a spindly teenager, come to retrieve his football.
What was wrong with us? Why were we envisioning scurvied sea criminals when we were an hour away from the ocean? Why did our heavily-mammoried neighbour screech like a long-dead dinosaur that wanted to consume us?
“Shall we go?” I asked, praying that Tommy and Gemma would agree. They leapt up as though electrified. But first, we had to gather our things. Tommy had brought most of what was spread before us: blanket, UE Boom, Coles chocolate chip cookies, Burger Rings, and assorted nuts. I expected him to jump into action, but instead of packing, he was standing incredibly still, looking at his bag with desperate intensity.
“Just put your things in your bag, Tommy” I said. But it wasn’t that simple.
“How do I do that?” he replied, chin rested on his fist. What do you mean how do you do that? Just pick up your things and put them in! But even as the words came out of my mouth, I understood his turmoil. How would that work, action-by-action? What if he did something wrong—folded an item incorrectly, or positioned it at an incorrect angle? Would he have to unpack the bag, and start over? What if he was never able to pack the bag properly, and we were stuck in the park for eternity? Packing…unpacking…packing…unpacking…packing…unpacking, as the pirates and dinosaurs closed in? If we couldn’t figure out how to pack the bag properly, how would we ever leave the park?
I looked at Tommy’s face, and knew that he was thinking the same thing.
“I don’t know how to do this” he said. He looked on the verge of tears, immobilised by the immensity of the task. I turned to Gemma and asked her to pack the bag. She invited me to look at the size of the bag and then compare it to everything that was spread out before us. It would be like trying to stuff an Alsatian into a bum bag.
“But it was in there to begin with!” I protested, and they both agreed—it didn’t make any sense. Nothing made sense anymore. As I looked up at the sky in desperation, a fluffy cloud rearranged itself into something sharp.
I filled every inch of my lungs with air, and tried to be logical about our situation. I considered every item that we had, and how they might be positioned in the bag. I folded the blanket in my mind a hundred ways; I visualised the cookies going in top first, bottom first, side first; I examined every Burger Ring left in the packet, and how we might stack them atop one another to save space; I decided that a side pocket is always the best place for a UE Boom, but the bag didn’t have a side pocket. I went through a thousand considerations, and every one of them was a failure.
It was at that moment I knew we were trapped. The Problem of the Bag had snatched our freedom from us. We couldn’t pack it, and we couldn’t leave it. So what could we do?
As the three of us stood motionless, looking down at the canvas backpack that was creating such crippling strife, I started to feel people’s eyes on me. There was a distinct guffaw, and I hated whoever made it. How could they be so cruel in the face of our paralysing dilemma? Were they so arrogant to think that they could just waltz over to us and solve The Problem of the Bag whenever they wanted? We’d been robbed of our independence, and people were laughing about it!
Gemma and Tommy were standing still with their chins rested on their fists, contemplating the bag. In any other situation they might have looked like noble philosophers, wrestling with problems of existence. Instead they looked as though they’d just tunneled their way out of the local nuthouse, and were considering consuming the bag in order to avoid packing it.
As our desperation reached its peak, and at least one of us was about to start weeping, I had a spark of insight.
“What were we doing before this?” I asked. Gemma and Tommy’s faces contorted as they tried to grasp my question. Then Tommy’s eyes widened, as his face went from bewilderment to realisation.
“Oh my god,” he said, as it hit him. “We dropped acid a few hours ago.”
We had dropped acid a few hours ago! That little slice of truth was all he needed. He went from a confused invalid to a qualified hero, packing everything into the bag with such ease that we laughed and hugged and slapped each other’s backs. The Problem of the Bag was nothing but a nightmare created by a mind-bending chemical that we’d consumed and then forgotten about, submerging us in an ocean of confusion. The towering walls of the park crashed down into a clouded rubble, and our freedom was restored. We could finally leave the park.
We tiptoed away shyly, like gibbons walking over hot coals, and in the few minutes it took to reach the road, the acid running through our brains played the same trick on us, and we quickly forgot ourselves.
We needed to call an Uber, but for some reason, nobody could figure out how.
Is it just me, or are the managers of the world getting smarter? I’m constantly dazzled by a glut of long and complicated sentences, often needing careful analysis. Intelligence seems to be the most important currency in the modern workplace, and our bosses want to give as much of it away as possible.
This trend towards higher intelligence has been happening for years. I once worked with a shy blonde lad called Tim, who had narrow shoulders and was unable to hold a gaze. He sidled into the office each morning, worked for eight hours, and then left. He was obviously stupid because unlike our managers, he didn’t give away his intelligence. When forced to speak, he used words like “use” instead of “leverage,” “range” instead of “bandwidth,” and “complete” instead of “holistic.” We wondered how anyone so simple-minded got the job in the first place. His one saving grace was that he was easy to understand, but we scoffed at this too, because we didn’t want to side with someone with his affliction. Big words meant big brains.
Our direct boss Jakob, on the other hand, was clearly a genius. He wore expensive silk shirts and impossibly shiny shoes, and drove a new Mercedes. He would ask questions such as “how are we leveraging our existing pipeline?” and “what’s the projected ballpark figure for our 2nd-quarter strategy?” He was a real big thinker—a man rubbing shoulders with the Gods. He was success personified. We aspired to dress like him, to talk like him, to act like him; to live in a home like his, to play with a dog like his, to sleep with a wife like his. When Jakob went to the pub on a Friday evening, we followed him like rats to a piper, even though we were committing to hours of confusion as he went into great detail about how he was going to drastically curtail the company’s long-term pain points, by proposing a unique paradigm shift to the CEO.
After a few months of working for the company, the pedestal on which we’ve placed Jakob began to crack. The first time we noticed it was when he brazenly declared that our market scope for the last 12 months had been unequivocally myopic, and that going forward, we were going to penetrate not one, but two major markets. Double penetration. Who did this guy think he was? Elon Musk? But he spoke with such confidence, and such an impressive vocabulary, that we continued to trust him. If he thought it possible to penetrate two countries at the same time, we’d be right beside him, tools in hand.
Inserting ourselves ruthlessly into a second market proved to be a lot harder than Jakob made out. The first phase of his master plan was aggressive circulation and assimilation in the market’s most efficacious associations. I thought this meant that we were going to bribe our way in, but Tim explained that we were just going to get chummy with industry experts. Despite being so stupid that he only used one and two syllable words, Tim had a knack for interpreting Jakob.
Once we’d aggressively assimilated, the second phase of the plan was disruptive innovation. I was certain that this meant we were going to come up with new ideas somewhere that would put people out, like the middle of the kitchen area, but Tim quietly explained that the disrupting part just meant that we were going to do things better than our competitors.
The third phase was pure brilliance. Once we’d aggressively assimilated ourselves in the market’s most vigorous social groups, then disrupted the industry with inconceivable innovation, we were going to achieve full penetration by synergising our departments to establish a single unitary contingent. As Jakob guided us through this part of his presentation, we all looked at each other in awe. Apart from Tim, who was quietly shaking his head. He asked what phase three meant. We sniggered at his idiocy, but listened intently. Jakob explained that it meant we were going to merge all departments into one—a solitary assemblage of collaborators—which would minimise the prevailing friction that had incapacitated the company until this immediate juncture in time.
Jakob was fired a couple of weeks after that meeting, so never achieved his master plan. He had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed by psychiatrists as suffering from a “severe and incurable habit of verbal diarrhoea,” which Tim explained as “he couldn’t stop talking shit.” Despite Tim’s obvious stupidity, he somehow ended up taking his place as boss, and his ability to hold a gaze improved dramatically.
Though nobody admitted it, we were all much happier working for Tim.
In 2012, a skinny boy joined the software company that I was working for, ten years my junior, but twenty years smarter. Within a few hours he was suggesting fixes for my lousy code. I felt immediately threatened, resentful but too proud to show it. He probably noticed anyway.
He’s a close friend today. And thank god, such natural forces are better as allies. But I can’t be chums with every clever bastard, and in a meritocracy, where people are rewarded on their intelligence and achievements, the rest of them are my enemies. The office is a carpeted battleground where my disadvantage is apparent. I lose limbs from the skillful feats of my opponents, and my own dismal failures. I’m chopped away bit by bit, reduced to a disabled and bloody stump, little worse than before.
A meritocracy takes the brutal competitiveness of nature and turns the dial up. Perform, or be outperformed. Be smart, or be outsmarted. Was it created by some clever demon who wanted to torment those of average intelligence? I seem destined to struggle in a system that illuminates my mediocrity; abandoned at the foot of a ladder too slippery to climb.
“They are tested again and again … If they have been labelled ‘dunce’ repeatedly they cannot any longer pretend; their image of themselves is more nearly a true, unflattering reflection.”
I’ve worked with some blockheads over the years, their actions a sharp reminder of my own shortcomings. Once, a guy from our sales team received the contact info for a lead, and dialled 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9, believing it to be their real phone number. I can still feel my cheeks burning on his behalf. He’d learned to gloss over his repeated stupidity with roars of laughter, but his eyes brimmed with sorrow. Floundering was his default mode, like he’d been born into an ill-fitting world, where confidence is as durable as a fart in a hurricane.
In a meritocracy, self-esteem is a precious reserve controlled by our leaders, who like gods, release it at their leisure. It might be granted as a smile, a touch on the shoulder, or an awkward thumbs up, at which point we’re thrust skyward, breaching the altitude of the high-achievers, who are visibly aggrieved, but satisfied as we plummet back to inadequacy—our rightful place. Inadequacy is the destiny of the unexceptional. Gold stars aplenty, just not for us. And as we witness the effortless confidence of our glorious colleagues, every accolade received, every favourable look, every round of applause intensifies our jealousy.
Meritocracy is meant to eliminate the luck of feudalism—success purely on merit. But luck wasn’t removed, just altered. With feudalism, luck is status at birth—kings, nobles, nights, and peasants. In a meritocracy, luck is intelligence at birth. Today’s kings are determined by their brain power, not their castle-shuffling parents. Also, the luck of status remains in a meritocracy: being born into a wealthy family leads to better education, and greater intelligence. Though a meritocracy teaches us that we’re entirely responsible for our own success, it’s still highly influenced by luck.
The system makes my head spin. Every fibre of me protests. I want to clothe myself in black and storm Parliament; seize the scheming pollies by the scruff and demand something better. How can the average Joe be confident in a society that rewards intelligence, and scorns the ordinary? We’re commanded to be exceptional, yet unequipped for the job. Like American Beauty’s Angela Hayes, we realise that there’s nothing worse than being ordinary. It’s failure. Ordinary is the rule, not the exception. Most of us have to live with that.
Social media makes things worse, with its curated streams of colourful perfection, stark against the humdrum grey of our own lives. Every post reinforces our pathetic, flawed existence, until our eyes are flooded green, and heads horned. Here’s a video of a Japanese man with eight perfectly obedient Welsh Corgis, and all I have is a wily cockroach with an appetite for bin scraps. The washboard abs plastered across my news feed are cutting reminders of my own burgeoning paunch. Everyone is exceptional except me.
The solution? Break the rules. A meritocracy is just a game invented by a society that values intelligence, with victory counted in cash. There’s other values to live by: kindness, courage, humour, wisdom, fortitude, temperance, compassion, loyalty, and a ton more. Some degree of intelligence is required to earn a living, but it doesn’t have to be priority number one. If the rat race is exhausting, and you’re too fat and slow to win, there’s other races.
Our worth isn’t defined by our IQ, economic rank, or position in a company. It’s defined by whatever we merit. The beauty of Western freedom is that we don’t have to play by society’s rules. We can write our own, creating a place where status anxiety is quieted to a murmur; where the average Joes and Janes of the world can flourish in a game of their choosing, and realise that there’s nothing shameful in having an unexceptional brain.
Imagine a world without death, in which departure is refused, and so everything remains eternal, with nothing fresh permitted to emerge. The living have absolute control over the entry gates of existence, resolutely shut under lock and key, to prevent something new coming along to displace them, or eat them, or whatever it is that the unpredictable unborn might do. The jostle for existence has been halted; the dance of life arrested, its tune silenced so that the living can exist in perpetuity, bereft of competition, having made themselves elves on earth.
The streets are filled with the same old faces, same old names, same old fancies. When the light departs they sip single-malt whiskey with bartenders named Walt or Joey or Jim, who don’t have children. Nobody has children. There’s no brightly-painted playgrounds or baby blue cots; no toddlers on bikes or awkward fumbling teenagers. The creatures on earth have existed since time immemorial, like a captured snapshot, or a stagnant, tepid pool, never at risk of being refreshed by a generation new.
“Without birth and death, and without the perpetual transmutation of all the forms of life, the world would be static, rhythm-less, undancing, mummified.”
Such a world would be tragically dull. Even the most lustrous songbird, warbling its beautiful tune on a crisp Sunday morning, becomes boring after a while. For life to create something new and unique, death must first clear the way. Paradoxically, to refuse death is to refuse life. Change is a requirement of an exciting universe.
“Death is the dropping of the flower, that the fruit may swell.”
Henry Ward Beecher
Death is not a problem to be solved, but a driving force of dynamicity, unreservedly and unapologetically cranking the wheel of change, making way for a delicate yellow-spotted butterfly, a row of scarlett-tipped roses, or a soaring snow-capped mountain. Such beauty wouldn’t exist without the destructive force of death.
“Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life.”
Our awareness of the delicate evanescence of life makes us grateful for it. To know that soon enough, every living thing that you encounter will be dead, is to make them all the more precious and special, to be revered with shining eyes. Loss is a lens that relieves our shortsightedness, and brings into sharp focus every transitory little thing that begs to be appreciated, before it’s too late. Everything exists just once in a lifetime, never to be witnessed again, its beauty derived from its impermanence. Death is the old friend who taps us on the shoulder and reminds us that soon enough, everything before you will be annihilated, while wearing a t-shirt with the words “you don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
“Mostly it is loss that teaches us about the worth of things”
“By becoming deeply aware of our mortality, we intensify our experience of every aspect of life.”
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.”
“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”
Edgar Allan Poe
Without contrast, we cannot appreciate. One can only imagine the joy a Norwegian living in Svalbard might feel when witnessing the sun peek over the glistening mountains for the first time in six months, or the lip-smacking splendour of an ice-cold beer after completing Dry July. Much that we favour is only possible through the unfavourable. By stamping out death, we must also stamp out life.
“What would life be worth if there were no death? Who would enjoy the sun if it never rained? Who would yearn for the day if there were no night?”
Breaking us down to our constituent parts, those less-than-specklike atoms that constantly come and go, it becomes clear that our physical essence is transitory, and that the notion of being the same as we were yesterday is nothing but the inability to feel our atoms departing. Who knows where they’ll end up? The toenail of a mischievous spidermonkey, leaping through the Brazilian Amazon; the lungs of the mighty blue whale, cruising through the chilly depths of the Atlantic; or perhaps in the fist of an enraged white nationalist, who plunges it into the cheek of a penniless immigrant. You have no say in the matter. Your atoms connect you to the entire universe, and guarantee your eternity whether you like it or not—atomically subordinate to the never ending cycle of life and death.
“You’ll drift apart, it’s true, but you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”
“I shall not wholly die, and a great part of me will escape the grave.”
“From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”
What is death but a return to the state of pre-birth? A time without pain, botherance, or exertion; when your atoms were splayed across the far reaches of the universe, not yet you, but destined to be so. Though we may picture non-existence as an interminable, torturous blackness, perhaps akin to being buried alive for eternity, we can never comprehend its genuine experience, because one experiences something by being consciously alive. The dead cannot comment on being dead, having been deprived of the ability at the moment of their demise. The sense of dread that we may feel in relation to death is vanquished, made null and void by the nature of our changing universe, as it fashions something fresh and remarkable to take our place. Death is the easiest thing that we’ll ever have to do—it’s all taken care of, after all.
Not a person on earth can teach you how to die, because no-one who died ever lived to tell the tale.
“I do not fear death. I had been dead for billions and billions of years before I was born, and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”
“Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?”
“I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable greyness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamour, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary.”
“Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead. So why, one could say, be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
“If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.”
The most biting tragedy of all is allowing death to dull our spark; to restrain us with a short leash, trapping us in a life of grey mediocrity—safe, but colourless, like the frightened young mother who locks her son inside and smothers him with love, cutting off his oxygen, and ensuring a life of retardation. Courage and risk are ingredients of a well-lived life: to put one’s best foot forward with a spirit of adventure, despite the danger. When these things are absent, we exist as frightened spectres, lacking in true substance and already half-dead. Every waking moment carries a choice: affirmation of life, filled with courageous deeds of dedicated participation, or negation, whereby we recoil into our cowardly shells, barely able to peek out at the madness of our unforgiving universe, lest it tramples us into oblivion.
“Death is nothing, but to live defeated is to die every day.”
“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
“A man with outward courage dares to die; a man with inner courage dares to live.”
“I don’t want to die without any scars.”
“Whatever you want to do, do it now. There are only so many tomorrows.”
“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
Though we spend much of our lives jostling for position, mercilessly chained to our desks in an attempt to climb the ladder of recognition, Death sweeps away the hustle and grind as if it were just another dusty doorstep to be cleaned—as inconsequential as a grain of sand, worn down from the body of a miniscule sea creature. Status isn’t in Death’s vocabulary. Why must it be in ours?
“Death makes equal the high and low.”
“You may be proud, wise, and fine, but death will wipe you off the face of the earth as though you were no more than mice burrowing under the floor, and your posterity, your history, your immortal geniuses will burn or freeze together with the earthly globe.”
“Everything is ridiculous if one thinks of death.”
“The day which we fear as our last is but the birthday of eternity.”
Above all else, death can help us to illuminate the one thing that we all desperately crave and need, something that motivates us beyond measure, pushing us onwards despite the reality of our nihilistic universe: meaning. The ultimate gift from Death, purchased, packaged, and decorated with a silk ribbon, is to encourage us to find something to live for. When we figure out what’s personally meaningful to us, we discover the very reason that we’re alive.
“No one really knows why they are alive until they know what they’d die for.”
Boredom is a state of mind that makes most people horribly uncomfortable. When all occupations temporarily leave us, and we’re left floundering alone with our thoughts, we might bear witness to a creeping sense of lethargy that seems to enclose our very souls, spawning an instinctive desire to liberate ourselves from the grievous tedium of nothingness, away from the intense feelings of apathy, depression, weariness and languor. Escape seems the logical solution to such apparent ghastliness.
Some writers would even have us believe that boredom is the consequence of a flawed character, claiming listlessness to be wholly unacceptable in such a fascinating world as ours:
“There are no uninteresting things, only uninterested people.”
I’m assuming that Mr. Chesterton was never forced to attend Sunday church as a child, or to spend the day watching Test cricket. Despite existing in a universe comprised of a magnitude of wonder, the shine of its splendour is still easily dulled by the bored human mind, and to classify this as a flaw seems a grave injustice.
For German philosopher Martin Heidegger, to face raw, unadulterated boredom is to stare deep into the foggy abyss, all sense of meaning obliterated, with nothing left but dreaded existential anxiety:
“Profound boredom, drifting here and there in the abysses of our existence like a muffling fog, removes all things and men and oneself along with it into a remarkable indifference”
Boredom has a terrible rap, it seems. But despite being universally maligned, boredom has a multitude of latent benefits, like precious jewels waiting to be unearthed. As with every other emotion that we experience, boredom was developed for an evolutionary benefit: to discover what interests us, and then to motivate us towards it. It serves as a mechanism for seeking new, beneficial experiences. As one sits in a bored funk, mind devoid of focus, appealing ideas may start to emerge from the darkness, and given that doing something seems better than doing nothing, we find ourselves on the receiving end of little zaps of energy, lighting us up with intention. Many significant human advancements may have been the result of bored geniuses.
“Something’s got to happen—that’s the explanation for most human undertakings.”
Jean-Claude Baptiste (Albert Camus—The Fall)
The self-reflection and daydreaming that occurs during periods of boredom are teachers of our own desires, educating us on what we want, and then motivating us to get them. Our instinctive and immediate desire to escape from boredom—whether with social media, television, video games, or whatever else in your escapism arsenal—drowns out these valuable, insightful teachings, in favour of something entertaining, but bereft of meaning. Boredom can force us to start on the difficult and valuable thing that we’ve been putting off for years. It’s an opportunity to tend to our own requirements; to be temporarily introspective, rather than mindless content consumers.
“Boredom makes people keen to engage in activities that they find more meaningful than those at hand.”
Wijnand van Tilburg
The more we employ the numbing tactics of escapism, the greater our alienation from our true selves; those soft whispers that echo in the chambers of our minds.
“Like the trap of quicksand, such thrashing only serves to strengthen the grip of boredom by further alienating us from our desire and passion, which provide compass points for satisfying engagement with life”
John Eastwood, boredom researcher
Few people like to be alone with their thoughts, particularly the difficult ones. But running away only exacerbates them; they grow in your mind like a rapacious virus, goading you into inevitable combat. The beasts that we bury deep within are but temporary prisoners. Every attempt at distraction swells their strength, until they burst forth with a violence that cannot be ignored. Embracing boredom can help you to identify the things that truly bother you, so that you can face them head on, and with a bit of luck, defeat them.
The busyness and distraction habits that we’ve built for ourselves can have a tendency to make our brains feel as though they’re brimming with worthless clutter, and travelling with such speed as to put Speedy Gonzalez to shame. Consuming hundreds of memes, photos and videos with frantic flicks of the thumb might leave you feeling even more stressed than before. By allowing yourself to be bored on occasion, you may find that you’re less tired at the end of the day. Submitting to the odd bout of boredom is like drinking a cup of coffee without the elevated heart-rate.
Having mustered the fortitude to withstand a little boredom, the valuable thing that you decide to do may be suffused with more creativity¹. Innovation often comes from daydreaming, when your mind is in a directionless, wandering state. Only by doing nothing is there room for something to emerge. When we’re in such a state, our brain’s Default Mode Network is activated, a core component of creativity. Incidentally, this network is also activated when taking psychedelics. The empty space of boredom makes room for wondrous creativity.
“So we might try to find that stimulation by our minds wandering and going to someplace in our heads. That is what can stimulate creativity, because once you start daydreaming and allow your mind to wander, you start thinking beyond the conscious and into the subconscious. This process allows different connections to take place. It’s really awesome.”
On the surface, being bored seems a waste of our precious time; a devilish rascal to be avoided at all cost. But digging a little deeper reveals the truth: it’s a driving force of creative thinking, allows golden moments of self-reflection, and compels us towards what we value. Escaping into the glow of a screen while sucking our thumbs for comfort isn’t necessarily the best option. By relenting to our boredom, we may just stumble onto something important.
“When hit by boredom, let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom. In general, with things unpleasant, the rule is: The sooner you hit bottom, the faster you surface. The idea here is to exact a full look at the worst. The reason boredom deserves such scrutiny is that it represents pure, undiluted time in all its repetitive, redundant, monotonous splendour.
Boredom is your window on the properties of time that one tends to ignore to the likely peril of one’s mental equilibrium. It is your window on time’s infinity. Once this window opens, don’t try to shut it; on the contrary, throw it wide open.”
In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!
The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.
With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.
Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.
The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.
“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³
As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.
With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.
Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.
The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.
Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.
If somebody screwed with a bicycle so that the handlebars worked in the opposite way to usual (left goes right, and right goes left), do you think you could ride it? Many people do, according to Smarter Every Day’s Destin Sandlin. Until they get on the bike.
In his video, Destin illuminates a valuable insight: knowledge doesn’t equal understanding. He had the knowledge that he needed to ride the backwards bike—turn the handlebars in the opposite way to usual—but he didn’t have the understanding (or the deep understanding) of how to do it.
The difference between the two concepts is key. Knowledge can be considered as an acquaintance with facts or principles, a familiarity or awareness of something. Understanding goes to the very heart of a concept, requiring a thorough and comprehensive grasp. Often, we can’t explain why we understand something, as it requires an aspect of intelligence that is separate from language. Riding a bike is an example of this—the most articulate person on the planet couldn’t teach a child to ride a bike using just words, as it requires spatial and bodily-kinesthetic skill. Only by getting on the bike itself can the kid begin the journey to BMX-champion stardom.
There’s nothing wrong with being a dabbling dilettante; engaging in multiple things can help you to discover what you’re passionate about. Curiosity can lead you to great places. If we want a true and deep understanding though, it requires a lot more than skimming the surface. You can’t read a Nietzsche book and expect to be an expert on existentialism, or to see an immediate positive impact in your own life. You’ll need to read similar books, analyse and evaluate the content thoroughly, and actively try to apply the concepts in your day-to-day. Passive reading just isn’t enough, even with a photographic memory. Deep understanding takes engagement, hard work and commitment.
Being actively engaged in something is one of the few ways to promote higher-order thinking, and this can only happen if you’re either genuinely interested in the topic, or are being pushed forward by a strong external motivation. Active learning is an effective educational process being used by universities the world over.
Ways to promote deep understanding
Do the thing
Want to learn how to surf? Get some surfing lessons, and then go surfing. Want to become a mathlete? Take some online courses, and then do math. Want to relate to people more deeply? Ask questions, and try to put yourself in their shoes. None of these things can be understood by just passively learning about them. Nobody taught you how to speak—as a child you instinctively knew that by making noises, you’d get what you wanted. You’re using the same method years later, just in a more articulate fashion (hopefully), and you learned it by doing.
You might be able to the list the amazing benefits of mindfulness meditation, but unless you actively engage in the practice itself, you’re never going to reap any of them. This is the simplest but most effective method for gaining deep understanding.
Apply it to problems in your life
Everybody has problems, and it can be difficult knowing how to fix them. Progress can only be made by giving something a try, and observing the results. By trying something, and evaluating the attempt afterwards, you’re gaining a deeper understanding of your chosen solution, regardless of whether it was a complete failure. Even abstract concepts of philosophy require a degree of practical action in order for us to properly understand them. Take utilitarianism (the idea that the end justifies the means) as an example. You might believe that chastising a rude shop assistant is the morally right thing to do, because they might adjust their behaviour towards people in future. But until you give it a try, observe the results, and then evaluate its effectiveness, you’ll never fully understand whether utilitarianism is the right approach in this example.
“I believe that the school must represent present life – life as real and vital to the child as that which he carries on in the home, in the neighborhood, or on the playground.”
“Theory without practice leads to an empty idealism, and action without philosophical reflection leads to mindless activism.”
John L. Elias and Sharan B. Merriam
Discuss and debate
Chatting with your spouse, friends and colleagues about a topic helps to cement the ideas in your brain, in addition to securing some much needed human intimacy. The associative nature of our brains allows discussion that adapts and diverts from the original point, strengthening the neural pathways surrounding the central topic, and advancing understanding in the process. We can learn a shitload from our friends, if we’re willing to listen and engage. Have the courage to be vulnerable and say what you really want to say; what you’re genuinely interested in. You can only get through so much weather small-talk because you find yourself going insane. Deep, meaningful conversation is a major factor for successful relationships, while at the same time promoting thorough understanding of the examined topics.
Analyse and evaluate
Pulling something apart into its core components—whether an engine, or a philosophical concept—helps to understand how the parts make up the whole. Some things are multi-faceted and incredibly complex—breaking them down into smaller chunks is an effective way to understand them better. We must critically analyse the details of a thing if we want to really know it, and compare and contrast it to things of a similar nature.
Evaluation is just as important. Only by reflecting on the value of what you’ve done can you determine whether it’s worth doing again.
There’s a million cliches that espouse this message, and for good reason. Only by repeating something can you build the neural brain connections required for memory, and networks to similar concepts in your brain.
All of your senses can be used for repetition learning—by reading, watching videos, or listening to podcasts about the same concept, you’re forging valuable pathways that will promote understanding, while helping to keep things interesting through the use of different mediums.
“Neurons that fire together wire together.”
Donald Hebb, Canadian neuropsychologist
Write it down
Writing your ideas about a subject will help you to remember it, and formulate different notions surrounding it. Producing emotional writing—how you actually feel about the topic—also makes it more memorable. Dry, purely rational writing should be left to university assignments; these are your personal thoughts and feelings about a topic.
It’s easy to skim the surface of a subject without truly understanding it. You could be the pub-quiz champion of your town but actually know very little about your memorised facts. If you’re willing to dive deeper, with dedication and hard work you can turn simple knowledge into deep, fulfilling understanding.