As 2017 is unfolding, I wanted to write a post to remind myself of three pieces of advices for this year. They are from Epictetus (55-135 AD), Marcus Aurelius (121 – 180 AD) and George Pólya (1887-1985). Epictetus and Aurelius are two famous Stoic philosophers of the past, and Pólya is a famous Hungarian mathematician.
Epictetus spent his youth as a slave which laid the backdrop for his stoicism. His original name is unknown. The name “Epictetus” in Greek means “acquired”. Epictetus himself has not written any books, however his follower, Arrian, wrote down his teachings. One of the most famous quotes attributed to him is;
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”
Epictetus’ famous work, The Enchiridion (Translated by Elizabeth Carter), starts off as;
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
In the same book, Epictetus continues;
“With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it.”
The above quotes gel together to form an important lesson. Not all of my ventures are going to be successful this year. There may be several setbacks. However, all setbacks are experiences to learn from. They provide lessons that I can only learn from the school of life. They increase my knowledge and prepare me for the next harder setback. My triumphs are built on the setbacks I faced before. The setbacks provide an opportunity for reflection. To loosely paraphrase a lesson from Information Theory, failures have more information content. They provide a reason to challenge our hypothesis. Successes do not necessarily challenge us to take a second look at our hypothesis. We thus learn more from failures. The point is to not look for failures, but to keep an open mind. This is a great lesson to remember as a new year starts.
2) Marcus Aurelius:
Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, was a Roman Emperor. His famous work is “Meditations”. My lesson from this book, translated by Maxwell Staniforth, is as follows;
“Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours.”
Far too often, we let the past dictate our present actions. Either we stay complacent and stay in our comfort zones by relying on our past victories; or we let our past failures control our actions and we remain in the comfort zone. Both these thought processes keep ourselves from taking risks or venturing outside our comfort zone. The past is past and the future is not yet here; what we truly have is the present moment. This Zen-like teaching is an important lesson for this year. We can only change the present moment by taking the right action. Of course, not all of our actions will lead to tremendous successes. This is covered under the first lesson above.
3) George Pólya:
George Pólya was born in Hungary and later came to America and taught at Stanford University. One of the famous quotes attributed to him is;
“If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can’t solve: find it.”
This quote was written by the famous Mathematician John H Conway in the Foreword to a 2004 printing of Polya’s book “How to Solve It”.
“How to Solve It” is a gem of a book written in 1945 by Pólya. The above quote attributed to Pólya is a great lesson when we are trying to solve a problem and we get stuck. Pólya offers two different plans of action. One is to find a similar but easier problem to solve. He says;
If you cannot solve the proposed problem do not let this failure afflict you too much but try to find consolation with some easier success, try to solve first some related problem; then you may find courage to attack your original problem again. Do not forget that human superiority consists in going around an obstacle that cannot be overcome directly, in devising some suitable auxiliary problem when the original one appears insoluble.
The second plan of action he offers is called as the Inventor’s Paradox. Loosely put; to prove what you want, try proving more than what you want so that you get the flow of information to work properly. George says that “the more ambitious plan may have more chances of success”. This idea is quite paradoxical. He advises that going to a more general problem is going to create more questions that may be easier to answer than just one question. This approach may lend us a new view at the problem that will help us solve the more general problem along with the original problem.
The two plans lead us to step back from the current problem and look at the problem from a different light. Pólya points to us the importance of “some vision of things beyond those immediately present”.
The three lessons above have a common theme – obstacles. We can be certain that this year will come with obstacles; it is up to us to decide how to treat them. I wish all of you a great year, one that will make you a better person.
I will finish off with a great lesson in Zen from the great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In his book, “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”, Suzuki Roshi talks about the story of four horses. He recalls the story from Samyuktagama Sutra. It is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent horses, good horses, poor horses and bad horses. The best horse will run as his master wishes before it sees the shadow of the whip. It can run fast and slow, right and left and always at the master’s will. The second best horse runs as well as the best horse and he does that just before the whip reaches its skin. The third best will run when it feels the pain on its body. Finally the fourth one will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!
Almost all of us want to be the best horse. If that is not possible we want to be the second best horse, and so on. However, in Zen this is the wrong approach. When you are determined to practice zazen (a form of sitting meditation), it is valuable to be the worst one. In your imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind. Suzuki Roshi continues that those who can sit perfectly physically usually takes the most amount of time to obtain the true way of Zen. But those who find great difficulties will find more meaning in it and thus obtain the actual feeling of Zen – the marrow of Zen. Thus the “worst one” may be the best student.
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Clause for Santa – A Look at Bounded Rationality.