Prudent Career Advice from Ancient Greece

A quick scan of Amazon’s best seller list in the career development section reveals some well known titles.
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity
  • What Color is Your Parachute?
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
All of these books offer solid advice, and a man can get a lot of tips and tricks to become more successful in his job. In fact I am willing to guess more than a few readers own one or two of them. Here is a title you may not be a familiar with: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life by Epictetus.

I can hear you now, Epic-who?

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher from the first century AD who was a proponent of the stoic branch of philosophy. Stoics believed that what happened to a man was less important than how that man reacted to the event. Therefore the most important teaching of stoicism was one of self-mastery. Epictetus became one of the most well known teachers of this way of life.

Born a slave, he never wrote anything down but simply taught those who wanted to learn to become better men, much like his more famous predecessor, Socrates. What we now know of Epictetus’ teachings is thanks to his pupil, Arrian, who wrote them down in his collection Discourses.

OK, so he was a great Greek philosopher. How does that help me be a better sales manager?  

Glad you asked.

Just about all of Epictetus’ teachings are in the form of short sayings that embody some profound idea. Many of these can be directly applied to your career, no matter what you do for a living. For the purpose of this article I have grouped some of the best (in my humble opinion anyway) into three categories. Prudent attitude, prudent words and prudent action.

Prudent Attitude

Without the correct attitude about your job, it really won’t matter how hard you work. Sure, you may have some success, but it will not be truly satisfying, or lasting. If you approach each day- each project- with the right attitude, the rest can fall into place so much easier.

“There is only one-way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
How many times have you stayed awake at night replaying the day’s events or looking forward to some anticipated occurrence? More often than not, there is nothing we can do about these things. This is what Epictetus is talking about. There are events we have control over and events that we don’t. Wisdom comes in knowing the difference.

By zeroing in on those things that are under “the power of our will,” we can accomplish a lot more. No needless energy is wasted running around in circles nipping at the heels of projects or situations where someone else is the main driver. Speaking of other people, we also need to pay attention to how other’s attitudes affect us.

“Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.” 
Here is my modern version of this quote: Beware the break room

It is so easy to join in with co-workers in the inevitable bitch-session that often takes place in the break room. And while everyone needs to vent once in a while, a steady diet of this attitude will eventually poison your own work ethic. This attitude can lead to you not taking responsibility for your (occasional of course) faults and instead blaming it on someone else. The pass-the-buck syndrome was born in a break room bull session.

Don’t be anti-social, just be sure that those who you spend the most time with share your general outlook.  Don’t sabotage yourself.

Prudent Words

We have all heard some form of the maxim, What you think, you say. What you say, you do. Well, we are at that mid point. Cultivating the ability to say the right words, to speak well, will directly inform who we are and how we act in our careers.

“Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may
hear from others twice as much as we speak.”
“First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.”
Epictetus points to the first step in speaking well here. In essence his advice is to speak less. No one likes a know-it-all, and we are all familiar with that particular person who just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut during meetings and planning sessions. (If you aren’t, it is probably because you’re it. Note: Pay specific attention to this section!). In contrast, most organizations also have the quiet and thoughtful man. The one who doesn’t speak up often, but when he does, everyone listens.

The goal is to become the latter. By rushing in to speak up you do not allow your reason to fully digest what is going on, what the full parameters of the discussion entail. Therefore your comments are more opinion or repetition, not suggestion or evaluation.  A man needs to fully listen to what others are saying before he jumps into the fray.

Try this at your next meeting or informal business discussion. Say as little as possible; just listen. You’ll be surprised about what you may learn. Things like others’ true motivations, hidden agendas and possible leanings all become much more evident when you take a step back. Then when you do join in the discussion, your comments will be that much more targeted and useful.

Prudent Action

We have now reached the point where Epictetus has some advice for how we should act in our jobs and careers. His points here echo throughout history as advice given to all those who strive to do something great, and yet, the actual substance of his words is plainly simple. First, he explains how we should begin.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
Really? This is his profound advice?  Sounds like a Nike commercial, you say. 

Well, you’re right. The gist of this advice is to “just do it.” But just because we have heard it before doesn’t mean it is not valid. And let’s be honest with ourselves. Do we really, consciously, decide what we want in our careers and then actually make a plan to achieve it. Do we take daily steps in that direction, no matter how small, but always forward in a clear direction? Or do more of us tend to drift, letting those around us dictate the direction of our professional lives.

If we unpack this simple advice we see many more eternal truths, not just about career development, but about life in general. Think for yourself. Take responsibility for your own actions. Don’t blame others for your mistakes. Decide, and then do.

However, even the best laid plans…well, you know, sometimes things just go wrong. Epictetus has some fatherly advice for us here as well.

“Difficulties are things that show what men are.”
“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it.”
You need fire and a heavy hammer to sharpen steel. A man’s character requires just as powerful a tool. Your fire and hammer are provided by the obstacles that you meet along the way. Rather than bemoan the fact that your boss has given you twice the work load, or cut your territory, or your co-worker has stolen credit for your latest project, pick yourself up and keep moving forward. Decide on a course of action that will rectify the situation and then act.

The tougher the problem, the more refinement your character can receive. You have all you need already inside you, but only if you truly apply all of the advice Epictetus has to offer. Prudent attitude. Prudent words. Prudent actions.
“Epictetus [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy].” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 18 July 2011. .
Long, A. A. Epictetus a Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002. Print.
Oates, Whitney J. The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers; the Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius. New York: Modern Library, 1957. Print.

Star Wars Virtue

I write this post as hurricane Irene is bearing down on the east coast. Though so far it has been something of a let down. While I certainly don’t want mass damage, so far there has been little more than a steady rain. Oh well. [Note- not five minutes after completing the first draft of this essay the power went out, not to come back for 24 hours. It was out even longer in neighboring towns. Guess I tempted fate.] School is about to start here in New England and I have been giving some thought as to how I can incorporate the classical virtues in my every day teaching.

Values education has been around for years, but most programs I have seen have revolved around reading kids painfully fabricated stories and then discussing the moral decisions the characters must make. They tend to be preachy, unrealistic and the kids treat them accordingly. The teacher “covers” the values section of the curriculum and the kids file it away, never really gaining anything long lasting.

Enter the four classical virtues.
Ideally a values education program would allow English teachers to use the works they always have- books and stories that have stood the test of time and appeal to students intellectually and aesthetically, rather than prepackaged “programs.” It is my hope that by applying the classical virtues to what we already read we can show students examples of how to live without it coming across as phony, or put on.

I believe every major character in a work of fiction either exemplifies one of the four classical virtues or is lacking in one of them. Many times a protagonist will do both, with the lacking virtue acting as the character’s fatal flaw. Let’s use Star Wars as a proxy for all fiction simply because it is familiar to most.
Each character in Star Wars can be analyzed by looking at how much or how little of each classical virtue he has. I am going to limit myself to the first movie (by first I mean 1977 release, not the chronological first- confusing isn’t it?) I’ll look at two characters, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
Luke the Evolving Hero
He is brave enough to decide to rescue Princess Leia and his sense of justice will not let him leave the job undone when they go up against superior forces in the Death Star. Yet, he lacks prudence. This devil-may-care, jump-before-you-look attitude leads him into trouble time and time again. It is not really until the end of the first trilogy that we see a Luke who is able to think about his next move and make it confidently, knowing he is doing the correct thing at the correct time.
Han  the Complete Hero
Solo on the other hand is quite prudent and moderate in his dealings. However, because these two virtues are not tempered by Justice, he tends to only look out for himself. It is not until he puts others before himself that he becomes a true hero. He is in fact the real hero of the first film, even though Luke is the one who saves the day.
Han is the one who overcomes his main flaw and comes in to save Luke just before certain death. The fact that Luke is the one who destroys the Death Star is an important step in his hero’s journey, but he is not finished. Han on the other hand has essentially completed his journey and will be a steadfast hero throughout the rest of the films.
Looking at fictional characters through the lens of the classical virtues allows you to see deeper into their motivations and eventual actions. In turn you can discuss morals and values in a more authentic manner.
I will return to this topic in a few posts and elaborate on how I will try to incorporate this into my teaching over the course of the year.

The Virtues of Our Ancestors

I have incredibly deep roots in the northeast. Most of my family, on both maternal and paternal sides, came down from Canada into New York, Vermont and Massachusetts in the early to mid 1800’s. And as far as I can figure they were in Canada for a good 150-200 years before that.
Recently, I visited upstate New York where I did a bit of research into my father’s side of the family tree. After walking through that rural landscape with it’s mountain passes and fields of swaying corn, as well as reading countless historical documents from census records to newspapers to farm schedules, I have come to a startling conclusion.
I am fairly certain my ancestors could kick my ass, and had more character than I ever will.
The hard lives they lived as farmers and laborers left little time for comfort and softness. Pumping water for up to four hours a day simply to supply the livestock, struggling through winters that dipped to 30 below, all while raising families of 9, 10, 11 children all built character. They lived the four classical virtues in an authentic way because if they didn’t, they likely wouldn’t survive.
Prudence came more naturally because the world was a much less forgiving place. Mistakes in judgement could mean ruined crops, dead animals or children without enough to eat. If I make a bad decision I can usually make up for it –  at least materially- pretty quickly.
Fortitude was something they had in spades. Simply existing then took courage. When I think about my ancestors leaving all they knew to travel to what they hoped would be better land to start all over, usually with huge families in tow, I am left speechless. I doubt I would have that courage. I know that for good or ill, I have grown too comfortable.

When there are less distractions Moderation tends to be man’s natural default. The siren song of TV, radio and Internet were not things they had to contend with in the 1800’s. Nor was the danger of over eating. With no ready-made convenience food most of the time they were doing their best simply to have enough. They worked when it was light, rested when it was dark and spent Sundays with family.

Finally, the concept of Justice was much more immediate. Reading one newspaper article I saw how what we would call a mugging was thwarted by a couple courageous townsman. When they is less of an official deterrence in the form of regular police, lawyers and courts, neighbors needed to take care of each other.
Trying to live a virtuous life in the 21st century has a number of obstacles that life in the rural 19th century simply didn’t have. I love living where I do and when I do,  and I know that it is easy to idealize the past. I am sure there were obstacles to virtue that I am glossing over. Still, a part of me wonders if all our so-called progressed has simply made it harder to live life the ways it is supposed to be lived.

A Failure of Political Skill

Democracy may not be perfect, but it is the best form of government man has come up with to manage a free market, capitalist society. However, in order for a democracy to work its many factions need to have the requisite political skill to compromise in order to get things done.

In the U.S. this must take the form of Democrats working with Republicans. Unfortunately, one of the drawbacks of our recent polarizing climate is that many on both sides now seem to value ideological purity more than they do the country as a whole. Politics, always an endevour synonymous with a contact sport has seemingly become nothing more than sport to a large number of its participants.

The problem is, this is not a game. And the loser doesn’t get to go play golf in the off-season.

Neither political party holds the high ground right now either. The Democrats, united by their dislike of former President Bush have solidified into an ultra-liberal, semi-socialistic party. For their part, the Republicans have become so afraid of the Tea Party faction that they dare not do anything that even has the faint glimmer of moderation.

The solution comes back to what this project is all about- virtue. The stunning lack of which is best illustrated by looking at the recent failure of the grand compromise on the debt ceiling. For those who have not been following the debate, here is the issue in a nutshell.

Administration officials say the country needs to raise its $14.3 trillion debt ceiling to stop a default on loan obligations, and Republicans want spending cuts in order for them to cooperate. Obama says that in return, he wants new taxes to combine with the cuts to reduce the debt by $4 trillion over the next 10-12 years.

The taxes he has in mind are of course the much talked about Bush tax cuts for those making over $250k. Obama and Speaker Boehner were basically in agreement. This was the opportunity to do something truly big and far reaching. Hell, by the end of their golf-outing negotiations Obama was even willing to put entitlements on the cutting block.

Think about that for a minute, for raising taxes on those who could probably handle it anyway, the GOP was going to be able to take a huge bite out of government spending. To think that we could dig our way out of this debt hole without any pain is folly ~ this was as good a deal as either side was likely to get. Trillions in cuts and modest tax raises.

Then the rank and file on both sides shot it down. No way can we cut into Medicare! NO new taxes!
So, how does virtue come into play you ask?

Neither party, apparently aside from the president and speaker, had the fortitude, or courage, to do what was prudent, or necessary.  Now I will admit I have no insider knowledge here. Maybe there were others willing to put aside short term political gain and do what clearly needs to be done for the nation as a whole. But if so, they have not been very vocal. And the leaders of each party, Obama and Boehner, have to take the blame for that as well. Leaders can only be leaders if people are willing to follow them.

The point remains that until we have people of strength, men and women of virtue in places of power, we will continue to simple play games with our collective future. Real democracy needs real political skill.  Something to think long and hard about as we enter the next election cycle.

Self Improvement & The 5 Foot Shelf

Harvard Classics Complete Set 51 Volumes First Edition (The Five Foot Shelf Of Books)I am going to take a break from my ongoing series on George Washington on Leadership in the Workplace to share something that I just recently came across. Now this may not be new to you- after all my quest to live and learn about the classical virtues is still in its infancy. However, even if you have heard of Dr. Eliot’s Five Foot Shelf, reacquainting yourself with this valuable resource and cultural experiment can be useful.

First a little history. Charles W. Elliot was the president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909. This is an important era in American education as this comes during the transition from old-style classicism to John Dewey inspired progressivism. Dr. Elliot represented a sensible middle ground. Old-style classicism had become in many ways a caricature of its former glory, more concerned with an archaic curriculum than the foundational ideas behind it. On the other hand many of Dewey’s followers created schools that were so child-centered that they ignored the importance of the content as well as the role of the teacher in a student’s education.

The Five Foot Shelf
Dr. Elliot has gone down in history as one of education’s great reformers, and rightly so, but he also had a deep love of the classics. Here is where the Five Foot Shelf comes in. He was known for claiming that if you spent just 15 minutes a day reading the right books, an amount that could fit comfortably on a five foot shelf, you could give yourself a good liberal education. 

P. F. Collier and Son saw a marketing opportunity and challenged Dr. Elliot to create his list and they would publish it. Thus was born The Harvard Classics. This is an amazing set if you, like me, are interested in a more classical approach to education. As much as Elliot tried to break from the past, he could not escape the fact that to become a truly educated person you must read the best writing. Today’s schools, in an attempt at inclusiveness, often include sub par works. This resource allows you to fill in the gaps of your education as it were.

It Costs How Much?!
Now for the bad news. The set is currently prices $400 at Amazon. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d love if you clicked this affiliate link to Amazon and purchased a set. I would happily pocket the commission safe in the knowledge that I recommended a solid educational resource. However, there is a much better and cheaper way to get a hold of this classic series.

The Internet Archive is a non-profit that was founded to build an Internet library. One of its products is The Harvard Classics.

The most comprehensive and well-researched anthology of all time comprises both the 50-volume “5-foot shelf of books” and the the 20-volume Shelf of Fiction. Together they cover every major literary figure, philosopher, religion, folklore and historical subject through the twentieth century.n 1910, Dr. Charles W. Eliot, then President of Harvard University, put together an extraordinary library of “all the books needed for a real education.”

Adding This to My Bucket List
I for one am going to take up Dr. Eliot’s challenge, albeit 100 years late, and read for 15 minutes a day, going through this series. Admittedly this is a lifetime pursuit, but it is only 15 minutes a day. Surely anyone can spare that. And with the collection absolutely free there just isn’t a good reason not to attempt this goal. Does anyone want to join me? Stop by Twitter or comment below.

What This Blog Is Not

A plethora of sites inhabit the blogoshpere that purport to teach you how to make the most of your life. They use terms like risk-taking, unconventional life and doing the impossible to motivate you to do more and live better. To steal a quote made famous by the US Army, they try to enable you to “be all you can be.”
Development For Development’s Sake
Just Google the term lifestyle design or personal development and you’ll be inundated with information about how to become a better human. You’ll learn how to travel the world, live minimally, be location independent, raise an army to your cause and many other such things.
Before I go any further I want to make clear that I have no problem with these sites as far as they go. If they serve to motivate people to realize there is more to life than Netflix and iTunes then that is great. These sites act as giant pep rallies, and rallies have a purpose in life, a good purpose. They get us to move, break us out from our self-imposed lethargy. But rallies generally do not answer the questions, Why? and How?
I can readily find information online about how to run my first marathon, do 100 consecutive push ups or travel around the world with little more than a back pack. But aside from a feeling of personal satisfaction, or greater global awareness, I still do not really know why I should do these things or how they make me intrinsically better than I was before I accomplished them.
What This Blog Is
This has been a long-winded way of saying A Certain Quality of Life will not be one of these sites. I will hopefully inspire people to make more of their lives; that is of course why I am chronicling my own journey here. But more importantly, I think, is that I will be attempting to discover and share why living a fuller life is important to our being human and how living a certain way can help us attain that life. I admit I do not have the answers yet, but I hope a few of you will stick around for the conversation.
By focusing on the classical virtues as the glue holding this site together I hope to draw on the learning and experience of people much wiser than I am. The world has changed so much, and so fast, over the past 100 years, hell, over the past 20! It is easy for us to feel like we need to find the answers to life’s biggest questions on our own. But we don’t. People have been struggling with how to define what a good life looks like, what happiness is, for literally millennia.
People like Aristotle, Plato, Marcus Aurelius, Thoma Aquinas.
Books like The Bible, Summa Theologica, and The Art of Living.
These sources can give us insight into how people, who dedicated entire lifetimes to study, attempted to answer some of life’s most perplexing questions. Through a study of those who have gone before us I hope to get closer to an answer to the Why and How.

The Value of a College Education

A classical education is defined as one that focuses on the seven liberal arts. According to Andrew Kern over at The Circe Institute, “[c]lassical education is the only hope for democracy. It is the only form of education that can make people fit to rule themselves.” While I tend to agree with Mr. Kern, I do think reasonable people can debate whether a classical education is the sole purveyor of self rule. However, according to recent reports our currrent college system may be missing the mark.

A recent New Yorker article by Louis Menand looked at both the purpose of college and the results presented in a new book, Academically Adrift, by, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, whose premise is that American colleges are more about a social experience than learning. I know the gut reaction to the latter is probably a, “Yes, of course. we didn’t need a study to tell us that!” But let’s not get ahead of ourselves just quite yet.
First, Menand states two possible purposes for college. One, it is essentially a sorting hat for the world of work. An IQ test is not reliable, but if someone makes it through 4 years of college with an acceptable G.P.A. then a potential employer can assume a certain level of proficiency. The second purpose, in his own words, is to

  …expose[s] future citizens to material that enlightens and empowers them, whatever careers they end up choosing. In performing this function, college also socializes. It takes people with disparate backgrounds and beliefs and brings them into line with mainstream norms of reason and taste.

He then goes on to state that one of the problems with our modern college system is that it attempts to do both. As a classicist I support theory number two fairly strongly, though I have to admit to the efficacy of some type of sorting for the purpose of creating a productive society. But can a system that has as a main aim a vocational education truly create a citizenry of creative and independent thinkers? Here is where Arum and Roska come into play.

The book has an ample appendix and is full of research and data- it is not one of those red-meat diatribes against education. There are of course plenty of surveys included that talk about how much less studying goes on now a days, and how more and more college students spend their time on social and entertainment activities. To a certain extent I disregard these. The older generation always feels the younger just isn’t up to snuff in one way or another.
But one piece of interesting data that they focus on quite a bit is a test known as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or C.L.A., which they gave to incoming freshman, sophomores and seniors to judge how much they were improving. The results were less than flattering.
Arum and Roksa say that 45% of the students showed little if any improvement. On the face of it this seems bad. However, you need to dig a bit beneath the surface to find the ray of hope. Menand finds this ray,

The most interesting finding is that students majoring in liberal-arts fields—sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities—do better on the C.L.A., and show greater improvement, than students majoring in non-liberal-arts fields such as business, education and social work, communications, engineering and computer science, and health. There are a number of explanations. Liberal-arts students are more likely to take courses with substantial amounts of reading and writing; they are more likely to attend selective colleges, and institutional selectivity correlates positively with learning; and they are better prepared academically for college, which makes them more likely to improve. The students who score the lowest and improve the least are the business majors.

We are coming full circle back to the idea that a classical education is the one that best prepares one for life in a democracy. Those students studying the liberal arts, the foundation of any classical system, perform best. Unfortunately liberal arts students make up less than 20% of the population of college students. The far and away leader? Business degree. want to guess who score the lowest?
The point seems to be that while we need vocational training in a society that needs more and more specialized skills in the productive world, we also need a classical or liberal foundation to be more than just a cog in that world. How do we succeed at both?

The Importance of Self-Control

I am a teacher. I understand the value of learning the “3 R’s”. I believe all sorts of schooling scenarios can work: public school, private school, home school or even guided independent study. A lot depends on the teacher and the type of student(s) involved.  However, I also know that there are things even more important than the basics of reading, writing and computational skills.

Character counts.

And character is not as easy to quantify, teach or assess. Many schools institute a type of values education, but this is often just an add-on to an already over-crowded curriculum. The teachers resent having one more topic to cover and the kids sense their ambivalence. Not a recipe for success, which is why these programs never seem to go the distance. They pop up only to disappear once the teacher or administrator who spearheaded the program moves on to something else. At the same time we are learning more and more about just how important character is in determining the quality of your life.

Your character can be defined as how well you abide by the four classical virtues, one of which, Temperance has been in the news lately. Back in the early 1970‘s Stanford did a study to see if four-year-old kids had an innate sense of temperance, or self-control. They put a child alone in a room with a marshmallow. They were free to eat it, but if they could resist for a set amount of time they would receive two marshmallows.  Turns out, some kids were better at this than others. The finding were an interesting curiosity at the time, but decades later the follow up data has made news once again.

Scientist Terrie Moffitt and her colleagues found that self-control has a pervasive and powerful effect on the arc of a life.

Even adjusting for IQ and economic background, children who were more adept at self-control went on to lead better lives. They were healthier, less likely to abuse drugs, more likely to save, less likely to be convicted of a crime, and the list goes on. These “good choices’’ not only benefit the individuals who make them, but their friends, family — even taxpayers.

What makes Moffitt’s discovery of such great public consequence is another surprise. Self-control is like a muscle. It is not just something that one is born with, but something that can be strengthened through regular exercise. Equally important, everyone can benefit. Moffitt found that, no matter the starting point, any improvement in self-control meant brighter prospects, and steps down portended trouble.

While it is always nice to have scientific back-up, the fact that virtue takes practice is hardly new. Over 2,000 years ago Aristotle said that excellence, or virtue of character was a habit more than anything else. We need to constantly exercise our self-control over small things if we ever expect it to “work” when the big temptations of life come along. Many religions instinctively realize this, hence the self-limiting disciplines- no meat on Fridays or set times for prayer. It is not that these specific practices need to have a dogmatic relevance; it is that they help train your self-control muscles as it were.

This is where the tricky part comes in to play. We currently live in a culture that values instant gratification. Self-control is almost looked at as a vice, rather than a virtue in many cases. How many parents give their children everything they could want, and do so out of sincere love, only to be stripping them of the opportunity to train the temperance muscle.

The same goes for adults, myself included. One of the unforeseen benefits of the hard economic times we are currently facing in much of the western world is the drying up of readily available credit. Most of us can not simply whip out the plastic and make spontaneous purchases anymore. But this is a good thing. Part of being human is dealing with lack. It is unnatural to live in a perpetual state of plenty. Just watch one of those lottery-ruined-my-life shows to see how having everything soon leads to nothing.

Self-control, Temperance, a classical virtue that is being thrust, unwelcome, upon many of us could be just the training we need in a 21st century world. Which brings us back to schools. How do we incorporate true character education? Again, they best society has come up with is often based in or around religion, therefore religious schools have the best track record here. Is there a way to bring this to a secular public school setting?  This is a topic I will be exploring in the future and I welcome any thoughts below in the comment section.

Living & Finding Meaning in Work

How to Live on 24 Hours a DayOne thing I really enjoy is the reading of older self help books. By older I mean ones written between 1850 and 1920. The advice they give is often more clearly grounded in tangible acts of virtue than much of the modern,feel-good platitudinous works. The best resource for these treasures is Google Books. My latest find: How to Live on 24 Hours a Day (1910), written by Arnold Bennett. 

It is part of a more complete book called How to Live. Bennett offers everyday advice on how we can live and not just exist within the limits of a 24 hours day. He is writing at the turn of the century and for an English audience, but the message is surprisingly relevant.
Much of the populace was moving towards working in an urban jungle of cubicles and offices and they were leaving behind much of what he argues made them “men.” People worked to make money, but their day-to-day lives consisted of waking up, going to work, going home, relaxing, going to sleep, and repeating the whole thing the next day. 
Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be? 
Basically, he didn’t believe they were really living. And to a large extent, not much has changed in the ensuing 100 years.
I would argue that meaning can be found in work. That is actually a prevailing theme of this site, but I would not disagree that many of us toil away in jobs that currently have little intrinsic meaning to us. Bennett says the solution is to use our leisure time for self improvement: reading, studying and other  classical pursuits. These are of course all valid and useful endeavors. But this doesn’t really solve the problem of not enjoying our daily work. 
To lead truly full lives we need to both use our leisure time well and find something meaningful in our actual jobs.

Plato and Our Current Culture

Plato: RepublicWe like in a culture that feeds on itself. We build people and organizations up simply to tear them back down. Little attention do we devote to our own moral development. without each doing his part the whole of society can not improve. Does this sound like the current state of affairs in the modern western world?

The state being a perfect one must exhibit in itself the four cardinal virtues. Not that every one of its citizens must exhibit them perfectly, but the philosophical rulers present prudence, courageous standing-army courage, the well-conducted populace and craftsman temperance. The remaining virtue justice, the virtue of the whole, the principle and cause of the existence of the other three, compelling each portion of the state to keep it own business, and to abstain from all interference with the affairs of the other portions.- Plato’s Republic, Book 4

The question is: how do we get there from here? As the U.S. moves into yet another divisive election season we could benefit from some attention to a basic civic virtue.