What Should We Value?

How many things are superfluous we fail to realize until they begin to be wanting; we merely used them not because we needed them but because we had them. And how much do we acquire simply because our neighbours have acquired such things, or because most men possess them!

Seneca

I think we fail to realize how many of our possessions are really pretty extraneous. Our parents and grandparents enjoyed their youth and middle years without many of the conveniences we enjoy today—cellphones, the internet, on demand streaming services, endless varieties of food, Amazon, Google, and now everything is available for delivery straight to your home—the list goes on for quite some time. The point is if we were born in a different era all of these things obviously wouldn’t have mattered. None of them were necessary for our parents to enjoy life and find their place in the world. So, why do you allow them to matter to you?

Have you ever noticed how at one moment we can be enjoying our latest purchase and telling our friends all about some new feature and two minutes later we can suddenly be overwhelmed when we discover something doesn’t go as we planned. Maybe our credit card won’t scan correctly at the checkout line or perhaps we find a ding in our new car’s door. The truth is that many of the things we let exasperate us don’t really matter on their own when we separate what happened from how it impacted our plans.

We’ve given these objects the power to upset us because we lost track of what’s really valuable. We stopped looking for value in ourselves and now we’re left with an unsatisfiable desire for something “more” that can’t be fulfilled by the material world. So, we ignore our feelings and go on buying “more stuff” and being disappointed when everything doesn’t turn out the way we wanted.

The truth is that there is nothing inherently wrong with enjoying the conveniences and luxuries of the modern world. I mean we all understand that an object can’t be good or bad. An object is just an object after all. It’s a collection of molecules arranged by nature and tempered by men to serve a purpose—nothing more. So we have to look at how we value and use those objects that determines if our decisions add value or inhibit our personal growth and development.

Is our sense of purpose and fulfillment really something we can measure and buy? Why do you work all day—every week—for decades? Is it to afford the latest fashions and gadgets or are you searching for your place in this world? We all have bills to pay, but are we working just to pay those bills or do we use our careers and salaries to help us fulfill a deeper human purpose? I think that’s the unspoken struggle we face. Objects and possessions are tools. How are you using yours? Are you using your resources to improve your mind or to distract it?

We All Have Limits

Hippocrates, after curing many diseases, himself fell sick and died.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It’s important to remember that we all have limits. At some point we’re going to find ourselves in a moment where we just can’t give any more of ourselves. We’ll continue to do our best, but our “best” simply won’t be good enough. Our failure will be certain before we even have a chance to change the outcome.

Don’t surrender in these moments. Don’t despair. Failure is just as much a part of life as success. Accept the limitations that bind you, and carry on content in the knowledge that you will nevertheless do your part. This is how you approach failure with both wisdom and grace.

If you find it hard to accept failure as a possible consequence of even the best-lived life, take a moment to reflect on our lives in relation to the passing of time.

We don’t expect our life to go on indefinitely. We accept that at some point our life will end as a natural part of the process of living. Yet, we struggle to apply that same principal of finality (a type of natural fatalism) in other aspects of our life. We try and hold on to this illusion of control, but the truth is we have very little control over anything.

We all have an expiration date. As we age, we can become keenly aware of it. That doesn’t mean we give up. Time is a gift. It allows us to put everything else into a shared perspective. If we have to say goodbye tomorrow, then how do you feel about the day you just lived?

  • Did you share love or spread gossip?
  • Did you help a stranger or buy a latte?
  • Did you make the world a better place?
  • Did you even try?

Perspective can keep us both honest and focused on something other than ourselves. Accept that gift and use it to change the world—build bridges, tear down walls, mend the broken—the point is you can make a difference today even if you can’t fix it all. Famine, disease and poverty won’t disappear overnight. You’re not going to defeat every obstacle you face today, but you can start chipping away at them.

If we broaden our perspective we can apply this same strategy to our struggles, our business problems and those seemingly insurmountable obstacles. There is no real difference between them. Our obstacles aren’t really obstacles, they’re an opportunity to reflect on our limitations and learn how to anticipate and prepare for failure.

Mentor Yourself – Stoic Reflections on Life

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

Marcus Aurelius, The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus, 4.43

I tend to treat my writing in much the same way I would have an actual conversation with another person. In many ways the person who writes out my thoughts on these pages and provides me advice on how to endure and live my best life is a better version of myself. He’s an alter ego of what the perfect version of myself would say or do. I’m not that person, but I can strive to become more like him.

This alternative ego is my Mentor in the same way others use role models. He is the person I want to be. He is the man I’m struggling to become. He is someone who is unaffected by pain, heartache, setbacks, and misfortunes. He is a man who understands and accepts that life has a bit of everything in it. It’s how we react to those uncertain and often unpleasant circumstances that determines who we are.

We can endure or we can complain. I’d rather endure. So, what I’m attempting to do today is a Stoic exercise in reframing my perception and acknowledge that the only thing I control is my response to the world. I can acknowledge my setbacks and adjust my perception to allow these experiences to become building blocks rather than obstacles in my way. Let’s see how well I’ve understood the Stoic concept of altering our perception when analyzing two issues that have become personal stressors this month.

Reality Check – Sometimes Life Sucks

So, I’m at one of those times in my life that’s incredibly stressful (at least from from my very limited and self-focused perspective). I realize that my stress is inconsequential in the greater scheme of universal events and that my attempt to reframe my perspective is the seed for this post. My stress and my problems can be placed in another larger perspective, and that alternative frame of mind can make them less overwhelming. It doesn’t change the fact that I still feel pain, my heart rate jumps, a migraine begins to roll behind my eyes and even moving hurts as my previous injuries from a few years ago begin to flare up to the point that I can’t walk, sit, or lie down without feeling varying degrees of pain.

I accept the pain. At some point the pain becomes a dulled sensation and I can ignore it, more or less, but never really for long. It’s always lurking there in the background and one turn or step can send an unpleasant reminder that life isn’t always easy. The same can be said for all of us really. Problems are never really absent. They are just hiding in the fog beyond our vision. They are always there, just beyond our sight. I won’t complain. My life is amazing. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge a good life has pain and uncertainty. That’s okay. Pain can put things in perspective.

Problem 1 – Home Repairs, Selling a House and Building the Dream

As I get ready to sell our current home, I deal with the complexities of working with many people with conflicting agendas. There’s a continual headache of trying to overcome communication gaps and the general mishaps common when a dozen people are working on similar but unrelated activities. Contractors, insurance adjusters, subcontractors, real estate agents, photographers, builders —and of course your career and family—all battle for your very limited time during this short 30-60 day window. It can feel like too much at times. I have to pause and force myself to remember that it’s a blessing to have a home, and an even greater blessing to have the means to sell one and afford another. Likewise, I have a job and family. So, those headaches are well worth the suffering when the alternative is to be unemployed and alone.

That’s the framing we need to constantly challenge ourselves to create when we experience obstacles in our path. It’s not about other’s mistakes or the delays that mess up our plans. We get to choose how to respond to those setbacks and that tells us what type of person we really are. Are we really living up to our aspirations to become the best version of ourselves?

We all face setbacks, and yet time moves on. The work will eventually be done and your expectations may even need to be changed, but if you start to have the right conversations rather than arguments, you can build a future. Can you move on and fix the problem or are you creating a new problem by not letting go?

Problem 2 – The Workplace Will Always Have Issues

We all know promises don’t exist in the workplace so when I was told a new position was a “sure thing” and that “you have nothing to worry about,” I was cautiously optimistic. It felt nice to be told such things, but I kept that Stoic phrase in mind the entire time “Fate Willing.” I knew anything could happen. There are no guarantees. Sure enough, I wasn’t chosen for the position, and though I’ve been told “you have nothing to worry about,” my actual job is likely to be discontinued in the near future. Will I find a new position? Will I have to look elsewhere? I’m not upset, but let’s be honest, I’m definitely a little stressed.

I don’t have the answers for my future. I never did. However, I always knew that “anything is possible,” and “it’s better to be prepared than surprised” in life. So this scenario was always a possibility whether I acknowledged it or not. Nothing really changed in my day to day activities but my perception of the events around me were darkly misleading. I became more aware of the potential fears that were always around me but were previously ignored or overlooked. Will I lose my job? Will I go broke? Will I lose my possessions? What could I sell to pay the mortgage? Crap, what happens if I lose my health insurance? My life insurance! I was caught in a mental eddy of panic rather than action. So, I stopped myself. I simply said that’s enough. Move on.

In a nutshell, I decided I wouldn’t let this perception ruin my week. Am I disappointed I didn’t get the position? Sure. Will my disappointment change their decision? No. So why bother being upset about it? They’ve moved on and hired someone so I need to move on as well. That doesn’t mean all my fears or concerns vanished. I’m still uncertain if I’ll even have a job in 3 months, but I’m not letting that fear impact the quality of my life or the decisions I make. I’ll plan to the best of my ability, but I won’t panic. I’m going to sell my home. I’m going to finish building a new one. Panic at this point will only make things worse. If things get bad I can always sell the new home and starting building the dream again.

Always look for the facts. Stay objective. That’s where we find clarity in uncertain times.

I hope these thoughts help you get through your own rough patches this month. I recognize my stressors are uniquely my own, but I do believe if we approach all our problems with patience and distance ourselves from a self-focused perception we can endure almost anything.