Epictetus – The Wisdom Of A Stoic Master: The Secrets To Living A Good Life Revealed

One of the most important questions we ask ourselves is about the way we should live our lives. What is really important and how should we act?

Luckily, there is guidance available and some of the most profound thoughts on this were formed already two thousand years ago.

These words of wisdom were uttered by a man named Epictetus, who went on to influence the lives of some of the most powerful men of his era, all the way up to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Yet this man was born a slave and supposedly had one of his legs maimed by a former cruel master, so that he always walked with a limp. This did not detter him from living a good life and achieving happiness.

Epictetus was not a theoretical philosopher living in his own world, but instead tried to make his philosophy down-to-earth and practical. This advice can be taken and applied in the real world as a guide for your day-to-day life.

His powerful words served as inspiration for many people undergoing hard times. Picture this: a man sitting in a prison with no knowledge whether he will ever get out.

The man could feel no hope, but instead his thoughts are turned inwards and draw inspiration from Epictetus.

There is a great similarity to the tale of Boethius and his reflections on life that I already wrote about. However the year is 1967 and the man is James Stockdale, an American pilot captured by the Vietnamese and put in a prisoner of war camp.

Stockdale credited the works of Epictetus for showing him the way on how to survive this ordeal. If these words could guide a man in such desperate times, just imagine what they could do for you.

We know the philosophy of Epictetus primarily through the works of his pupil, Arrian. Arrian noted down the teachings of Epictetus in two surviving works: “The Discourses” and “Enchiridion”, which is the Greek word for handbook.

It is the “Enchiridion” which is the most easily accessible work, as it is short and contains many practical lessons for your own life. It doesn’t take long to read, but can really change the way you view life in a very fundamental way.

All people search for happiness, but they usually go about it in the wrong way. They don’t realize that happiness can only come from within, from things that you have control over.

What are the things that you have control over? Your thoughts and your actions.

The main idea of the Stoics was that you should live a simple life, where you don’t concern yourself with things that you cannot control, and instead focus on the things that you can.

The world is what it is, random things will happen, and they might block your progress. Learn to accept it.

Living a simple life, where you act in a disciplined way, and where you act in accordance with your moral principles (virtue), will lead you to happiness.

For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.” Epictetus

Below are some of the main lessons from the “Enchiridion”:
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How To Make An Impact In This World? The Secrets To Success From A World-Class Scientist

Almost everyone dreams of hitting it big, of becoming someone who makes a difference and changes the world. The reality is that most people will never make the type of impact that they want to make and instead will live very ordinary lives.

That’s not always a bad thing, but wouldn’t it be great if your wildest fantasies came true? As a kid, you probably dreamt of becoming an astronaut, a record-breaking athlete, or a world-class scientist.

What things do you need to do in order to rise up to the top of your field and actually make a difference? I recently ran across the transcript of a talk given by Richard Hamming, an American mathematician whose work changed the computing industry.

In the talk he outlined some of the things he learned from working with numerous world-class scientists and the way these lessons could be applied in your life and your work.

While most of his lessons come from the scientific field, they can be applied in any type of field that you are in. The lessons are universal:

Now, why is this talk important? I think it is important because, as far as I know, each of you has one life to live. Even if you believe in reincarnation it doesn’t do you any good from one life to the next! Why shouldn’t you do significant things in this one life, however you define significant?

I’m not going to define it – you know what I mean. I will talk mainly about science because that is what I have studied. But so far as I know, and I’ve been told by others, much of what I say applies to many fields. Outstanding work is characterized very much the same way in most fields, but I will confine myself to science.

One of his first jobs was at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project as a programmer who created the machines that helped the physicists calculate all the different equations they were using to create the A-Bomb.

There he started noticing the things that the top guys did and what made them different from all the rest.

At Los Alamos I was brought in to run the computing machines which other people had got going, so those scientists and physicists could get back to business. I saw I was a stooge. I saw that although physically I was the same, they were different. And to put the thing bluntly, I was envious. I wanted to know why they were so different from me.

I saw Feynman up close. I saw Fermi and Teller. I saw Oppenheimer. I saw Hans Bethe: he was my boss. I saw quite a few very capable people. I became very interested in the difference between those who do and those who might have done.

The part on observation is very important. If you want to succeed, you need to be a keen observer of the things around you. Look, analyze, and then implement. Observe what is happening around you, ask yourself questions and analyze why some things work and others don’t, take out lessons and implement them in your own work.

In his speech, Hamming noted that the first thing that you need to do is to drop your modesty and become ambitious. You should say to yourself: “Yes, I want to do first-class work.

This type of goal is what creates the drive needed for rising to the top. As I noted in the article on how chimps rise to the alpha (leadership) position, ambition is the first trait of someone who becomes a leader.

This trait is important for motivation and drive. Without it, you would just end up drifting through life, with no goals, no motivation and no willpower to better your situation.

From the speech we can notice a pattern emerging: ambition, motivation, drive. Each one creates the other. Drive is one of the things that differentiates the great ones from the just mediocre ones:

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive.

Hamming goes on to talk about luck. Yes, luck is important, but you still have to prepare the conditions necessary in order for luck to strike. Here the quote “luck favors the prepared mind” sums up the situation perfectly.
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Paradigm Shifts, Creative Destruction And How You Change The World

Most people pass their entire life doing things the same way, never considering that it is not the only way of working. Yet sometimes things change and the old ways don’t work anymore. That’s when you need to step up in order to survive.

Aesop’s Fables have been told to kids for thousands of years to teach them moral lessons and help them navigate in a complicated world. One such fable is that of “The Crow and the Pitcher”.

The allegory starts off with a crow flying around on a hot, dusty day. The crow is exhausted from thirst, but keeps on circling in the sky, eyes alert, but struggling to find anything to drink.

Finally, he spots a pitcher. Excited, he descends down to it, only to discover that it contains very little water.

He puts his beak into the pitcher, hoping to be able to reach at the water, but can’t. He tries pushing it over, but it doesn’t fall. He attempts all kinds of different ways to get at the water, but no success.

Then an idea pops into his head. He collects stones nearby and stacks them next to the pitcher.

Picking them up with his beak, he starts dropping these stones into the pitcher, one by one. Slowly, but surely the water level starts rising and gets a little higher with each stone thrown in.

Finally, he puts in the last few stones, and the water level in the pitcher rises high enough for him to put his beak into it and drink.

There are several moral lessons to be learned from this little story. Hard work, persistence and ingenuity are all things that ancient commentators saw as the things you were supposed to take out of it.

The little crow failed several times, but got back up and tried in a different way, persisting where others would have given up. He was also smart in noticing how the world works around him and applying that to solve the problem. The crow had a goal and didn’t stop until he achieved it.

One moral stands above the rest though: necessity is the mother of invention.

Old ways of doing things didn’t work any more. The crow tried all the traditional ways of getting at the water, but not one of them worked.

In order to survive, he needed to start thinking outside the box.

As a result of that little incident, the crow experienced an internal paradigm shift. However this was not only a change in how he views the world, but a change in how he works in the world.

He realized that he didn’t need to rely only on his own body to do things, but that he could use other objects lying around to help him perform different jobs better.

The crow became a tool user.

The story is not far from the truth, in fact modern crows have been studied and have exhibited similar problem-solving and tool-using techniques.

Once you learn that you don’t need to rely on what nature gave you in order to do your daily activities, but instead can pick up different objects in your vicinity and use them to help you, it’s a huge revelation and it completely changes the way you live.

You expend less energy, and need less resources to do daily things. You can also do new things, things you have never been able to do before.

It opens up a world of possibilities. Possibilities that had been closed to you before.

Chimpanzees and other primates have also been seen using tools in the wild. Different groups use different tools and techniques, which means that it is not an instinctual behavior, but instead a learned one.

It has been observed how when one individual discovers a new technique to do a certain activity, the technique spreads to many of the other individuals in the community. This new way of doing things completely changes their lives.

They experience a paradigm shift.

Technological Revolutions and Paradigm Shifts

When our ancestors picked up tools for the first time, they also experienced the first technological revolution.
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Paradigm Shifts, Scientific Revolutions And How You See The World

People are conditioned to see a certain way, believing it is the only way to look at things and don’t even consider the possibility of a different explanation for what they are seeing.

Plato illustrated how this works in in his work “The Republic” using an imaginary dialogue between Socrates and his pupil, Glaucon. This dialogue is called “The Allegory of the Cave”.

Imagine being a prisoner chained inside of a cave. You have been in this situation since you were born, and your chains prevent you from moving, so that even your head is in a fixed position.

There are others chained in the cave with you, but since you cannot move your head, you cannot see them directly. You can only see the wall in front of you.

Behind your back is a fire that is burning bright and between that fire and your back is a raised walkway and a wall. Hidden behind this wall are the puppet masters, who often hold up puppets above their heads.

The shadows of these puppets are projected on the walls of the cave, and so the only thing that you can see are these shadows.

Of course as a chained and immobile prisoner, you do not know this. You think that these shadows are real. They are your reality.

Since you have nothing to do, you would be bored often and to pass the time start playing games with the other prisoners.

You and the others would start trying to guess which shadow would appear on the wall next. Sometimes, some of the prisoners would predict (guess) correctly and all the other guys would praise them and think that they are so smart for being able to do this.

Imagine then, that one day somehow your chains get lose and you manage to free yourself. Now you are able to turn around, and even flee the cave.

The moment you turn your head for the first time, you would probably get a big shock. Your eyes would be hurt by the bright fire and things would be hazy.

You would see a big disconnect between what you thought was real and what was starting to emerge in front of you. You would probably not believe your eyes and instead turn back around to look at what was familiar to you, the shadows.

Then, as you are getting back to your reality, someone takes you and drags you out of the cave, outside into the real world. The sun is shining, the wind is blowing and the green of nature is all around you.

You would be angry at the guy who dragged you out and start feeling a lot of pain. Not being accustomed to light, the sun would temporarily blind you and cause you even more pain.

However, slowly, your eyes would start getting accustomed to the light. First you would only see hazy shadows everywhere, but little by little, the images would start getting clearer.

For the first time, you are able to see real people all around you. You realize how wrong you were about reality when you were in the cave, and start reasoning about all this in your head.

Armed with all this knowledge, you now want to return to the cave and free your fellow prisoners, not just physically, but also intellectually.

You go back to the cave, but as you enter, your eyes are now not used to seeing in such darkness and you are temporarily blinded again.

You try to explain to your fellow prisoners what you saw outside, but they don’t believe you, think that you are mad, and at last try to kill you. They feel much more comfortable in their version of reality, than in the real world.

The prisoners were living their entire lives believing in a certain way and thinking that what they see is what the world is really like. They came up with explanations of how this works and held them as truth.

They interpreted what they saw with their eyes and heard with their ears in one way and did not accept the view that it could be otherwise. They were focused on this one reality and way of seeing things, that they could not comprehend that there could be another way of seeing the world.

Have a look at the picture below. What do you see?

Have a look again. What do you see?

Is it a duck? Or a rabbit?

Most people at first only see only one of these things. They either see a duck or a rabbit. Which one of these was it for you?

Now go back to the picture. Can you see the other image? If you saw a duck, can you see the rabbit or vice versa?

Most people after a while, can refocus and reframe their thinking and see the other image. After a point, some can even see both images basically at the same time.

Yet at the beginning, they only saw one and not the other! It’s all a matter of perception.

Paradigm shifts

This type of reframe is what is called a paradigm shift.
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Dunbar’s Number: Find Out How This Little Number Governs Everything You Do

There is one little number that is key to most of your major problems. When you learn about this number, you will realize what the main culprit of your frequent despair is.

What is this magical, all powerful number? Wait for it… wait for it… it’s 150!

WTF?

Dunbar’s number is the number of people you can maintain a stable and meaningful social relationship with, and is based on some calculations done by Robin Dunbar, a British anthropologist and psychologist.

This is how he came up with the number:

I was working on the arcane question of why primates spend so much time grooming one another, and I tested another hypothesis – which says the reason why primates have big brains is because they live in complex social worlds. Because grooming is social, all these things ought to map together, so I started plotting brain size and group size and grooming time against one another. You get a nice set of relationships.

It was about 3am, and I thought, hmm, what happens if you plug humans into this? And you get this number of 150. This looked implausibly small, given that we all live in cities now, but it turned out that this was the size of a typical community in hunter-gatherer societies. And the average village size in the Domesday Book is 150 [people].

What he is saying is that the psychological make-up of humans is geared towards living in a community of around 150 (plus or minus) people. This is the number that is observed in hunter-gatherer societies around the world, but also the average number of people that have lived in villages up until modern times.

Chimps also confirm this number, with the largest chimp community in the wild, the Ngogo group in Uganda, numbering around 200 individuals (but most other groups being even smaller – around 50 to 60).

In such communities, you know everyone, you interact with everyone and know a lot about them. You can observe other people in your community and learn much about who they are and how they do things.

You can also form much closer links and bonds with them. Contrast this to how people are living in the cities of the modern world.

People are everywhere, yet it seems that most people are feeling more isolated than ever. Less and less people have deep relationships with other people. Rates of depression are skyrocketing.

The reason for this is found in Dunbar’s number. In cities, on a daily basis you encounter many more people than this in different types of situations.

It is impossible to form stable relationships with most of them. You only interact in very limited situations and don’t get to know them well.

The social relationships between people are broken. In one instance you are together with one group of people (for example at work), at another instance you interact with another group of people (for example in an after-work class), but these interactions are often shallow.

In the meanwhile, you also pass countless other people in the streets. All these different combinations add to the complexity and your brain usually isn’t able to handle this in an optimal way. There is a huge disconnect.

People are trying to substitute this void with social media, but deep down it isn’t working.

Maria Konnikova writes that the core of human bonding are face-to-face shared experiences. This is getting replaced by supposedly shared experiences online:

We do have a social-media equivalent—sharing, liking, knowing that all of your friends have looked at the same cat video on YouTube as you did—but it lacks the synchronicity of shared experience. It’s like a comedy that you watch by yourself: you won’t laugh as loudly or as often, even if you’re fully aware that all your friends think it’s hysterical. We’ve seen the same movie, but we can’t bond over it in the same way.

This means most relationships in the modern world are quite superficial. This type of online interaction also kills your real life social skills:

As Dunbar states:

In the sandpit of life, when somebody kicks sand in your face, you can’t get out of the sandpit. You have to deal with it, learn, compromise. On the internet, you can pull the plug and walk away. There’s no forcing mechanism that makes us have to learn.

That’s why narcissism seems to be growing.

The main reason for this is that the number of people we have to deal with on different levels in this world is way above the 150 Dunbarites.

David Wong, in an excellent post on what he calls the “monkeysphere” illustrates what happens:

Most of us do not have room in our Monkeysphere for our friendly neighborhood sanitation worker. So, we don’t think of him as a person. We think of him as The Thing That Makes The Trash Go Away.

Most humans become just statistics barely even registering on your radar. The further away they are, the less you care.
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Why Are People Superstitious?

The second inning has just ended. Relief pitcher “Turk” Wendell quickly gets off the field and goes to… brush his teeth!

Not because he thinks that it will help him prevent rotten teeth, but because he believes it will help him win baseball games.

Wendell was voted the most superstitious player of all time by “Men’s Fitness”, but he is far from being the only athlete to have some weird little ritual.

Actually, if you look at it, most people are at least a little bit superstitious. Whether it’s black cats, that lucky pencil, or looking in the eyes when toasting, almost everyone has some belief that they have to do for good luck or to prevent bad luck.

It’s an irrational belief, but people accord this act a particular significance.

Why do people do this?

One explanation that has been proposed by researchers is called the uncertainty hypothesis. This means that people become more superstitious when they encounter things outside their control.

They feel like they don’t have power over the outcome and so they try to figure a way to control at least partially what will happen.

This hypothesis was initially proposed by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski when he studied the Trobriand Islanders in Melanesia.

He would follow them on their fishing trips and note down how they do things. Sometimes they would fish in shallow water and sometimes in deep water.

One thing that he noticed is that when the islanders would go on dangerous expeditions on the open sea, they would perform elaborate rituals. This did not happen when they fished close to land in shallow waters.

For him, these rituals showed that the fishermen tried to exercise at least some control over the conditions on the sea, which was often unpredictable and sometimes deadly. These rituals gave them a peace of mind that things would turn out all right.

You would think that these types of things just happen in primitive societies, and would die out in our modern society, but that is not the case. Superstition is going strong even now among different varieties of people.

A factor that is significant in this, is how often people rely on intuitive thinking (System 1) and emotions over rational thinking (System 2) in their daily lives. Research done by Marjaana Lindeman showed that people who relied more on the first also tended to be more superstitious.

So engaging in critical and rational thinking tends to lessen the tendency to resort to superstitious rituals.
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The Consolation Of Philosophy: How A Man About To Die Found Happiness

It is a time of decay. Rome, once the mighty capital of an Empire spanning three continents, is a rotting, crumbling shadow of its former self.

The old institutions of the city, like the formerly powerful Senate, are still there, but entering the last few decades of their existence.

The ruler of Rome is no longer a Roman, but instead a barbarian King named Theodoric.

Theodoric was the King of the Ostrogoths, a Germanic tribe which had been previously settled in Pannonia on the banks of the Danube River. Always in search of land, they had then moved downriver into the Balkans.

From their settlements deep in Lower Moesia, the Ostrogoths had been pillaging the Eastern Roman Empire, even threatening the capital of Constantinople itself.

In order to protect his lands, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno urged Theodoric to instead turn his wrath towards Italy.

There the ruler was Odoacer, the Germanic chieftain and King who had overthrown the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus. Thus he had ended the Empire in the West for all eternity.

Theodoric sent all his forces into battle and defeated Odoacer, founding an Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. Rome became just another city in his kingdom.

It is 523 AD, and a man is sitting in a darkly-lit cell, awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. He was falsely accused and brought down by dishonest men who coveted his position.

The man, in his mid-40s, takes up a pen and starts writing. One question bothers him: How is it that in a supposedly just world, good men suffer bad things, while evil men often triumph?

Boethius, or in his full name Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, was born into an ancient Roman noble family. Among his ancestors he could count Roman emperors, consuls and senators. He was a senator himself, who rose to become a consul, and later a high-ranking official in the court of Theodoric.

Boethius had jumped to the aid of a friend who was falsely accused of treason against Theodoric and for that had been in turn accused of treason himself. His enemies brought out false witnesses against him and he was thrown in jail.

Being a man of learning, Boethius used the time during which he was locked up for productive purposes. As a scholar of ancient philosophy, he used his knowledge to draft a manuscript which in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance would become one of the most influential works of Late Antiquity. It is called “The Consolation of Philosophy”.

It was a dark time in the man’s life, knowing that his days were numbered and he was about to die. This was made even more difficult by the fact that this situation was not of his doing. He had tried to be a good and honest man, but shady and dishonest men brought him down.

An honest man was about to be executed based on false accusations, while crooked men were enjoying riches and privilege. This state of affairs caused him to lose sleep. How could this be in a world supposedly ruled by a just God?

This is the question that many people have asked themselves throughout history and continue asking themselves now. Why do good people get punished and bad people rewarded?
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What IKEA Can Teach You About Making Money

In an interview for “Popular Science” magazine, Nick Offerman, the guy who plays Ron Swanson on the series “Parks and Recreation”, talked about his love for building things with his own hands.

He is a guy who has enough money to buy whatever he wants, but he still keeps a small woodworking studio on the side and using traditional techniques (they won’t even use a cutter jig to cut their dovetail joints!), builds all kinds of stuff out of wood.

To quote Offerman:

Keeping whatever calluses I can on my hands is an important part of my personality.

If you think about it, you are probably not that different yourself and neither are the people you know. You (or many of your friends) still probably keep that crude “bird” you cut out of wood in 6th grade during your “I want to be an expert craftsman” phase or that model airplane you spent months building, almost giving up at certain points, but always returning again to glue one more piece.

I remember how proud I was when I finished a crappy Tic Tac Toe game in my QBasic class back in high school. It only had some basic functionalities, shitty graphics, and wasn’t very exciting, but the important thing was that I had programmed it myself and it worked!

It’s a psychological effect. People feel much more proud of something that they had built themselves, than of something that they bought off the shelf. There is a sense of accomplishment that fuels self-esteem.

The Ikea Effect

IKEA is a billion-dollar furniture company that has stores around the world. It sells furniture that you have to assemble yourself, and that is the secret of its success.

A study that came out in 2011, examined what it calls the “IKEA effect”.

The psychologists behind this study had people assemble IKEA boxes, fold origami and build Lego sets. What they found out was that at the end, after successfully finishing their products, these same people valued them as highly or even more so than the same products created by experts.

Basically, people had a preference for building things with their own hands, over getting everything done for them. And this is exactly the business model that IKEA has employed right from the beginning.

The psychology behind this is related to a cognitive bias called the endowment effect. Things that you own (and things that you create yourself) have a much bigger emotional value for you than ones you don’t:

“In one experiment a social psychologist found that people were more reluctant to give up a lottery ticket they had chosen themselves, than one selected at random for them. They wanted four times as much money for selling the chosen ones compared to what they wanted for the randomly selected ticket. But in random drawings it doesn’t make any difference if we choose a ticket or are assigned one. The probability of winning is the same. The lesson is, if you want to sell lottery tickets, let people choose their own numbers instead of randomly drawing them.” Peter Bevelin “Seeking Wisdom”

This is also why people often get attached to their houses or cars and have a sense of loss when they have to move out or give them away.

The lesson here is if you involve others in the making of a final product, whether that product is a project, a model airplane, or a piece of furniture, they will value the final product much more than if they were not involved at all.
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Bayesian Thinking: If You Want To Be A Critical Thinker You Need To Understand This Concept

It is the middle of the Cold War. Tensions are high and the United States wants to be ready to retaliate against any Soviet nuclear strike or do a first strike if needed.

In order to be able to have the capability to react fast, General Thomas S. Power initiates an operation called “Chrome Dome”, which has B-52 bombers armed with thermonuclear weapons continuously flying on a set route reaching certain points close to the Soviet border.

As part of this operation, early on the 17th of January 1966, a B-56G bomber of the United States Air Force, takes off from the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina. It is carrying 4 hydrogen bombs.

At 10:30 local time, over the coast of Spain, it begins a routine refuelling with an air tanker plane.

However there is a misunderstanding and as the procedure is about to begin, the tanker plane collides with the fuselage of the bomber, causing the bomber’s left wing to snap off. A huge explosion destroys the air tanker and severely damages the bomber.

All people aboard the air tanker, as well as some aboard the bomber die instantly. The rest of the crew of the bomber manage to parachute to safety.

The wreckage falls to the ground near a small village on the coast called Palomares. The nuclear bombs land nearby as well.

Three of the bombs are recovered relatively quickly (two are partially damaged however and cause nuclear leaks on the ground), but the fourth is nowhere to be found.

The guys searching for the bomb look at the evidence and decide that it had probably been blown over the sea by the wind and so is probably lying somewhere at the bottom of the Mediterranean.

They are facing a dilemma. If damaged, the bomb could cause great harm. If undamaged, it could fall into enemy hands. Cost what it may cost, it needs to be found.

What to do?

Put yourself in their shoes. There are some things that you do know.

A tail plate of the parachute was recovered, leading to the high probability that the bomb’s parachute probably deployed.

You have a probable eye witness account. A local fisherman says he saw the bomb enter the water. He points out the location where he saw it.

You also have a detailed map of the seabed in that area.

Enter John P. Craven.
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