Everyone wants to be the next Marcus Aurelius until shit actually hits the fan. His book, The Meditations, does contain profound insights on how to live, but merely reading his work isn’t practicing philosophy, living it out is. Throughout the ages, many wise people have shared their insights with the world — from philosophers to self-help writers and more. But, as you probably know from your own experience, reading is only one part of the equation.
I know people who have read dozens of self-help and philosophy books but still haven’t made meaningful changes to their lives. In my case, I put extra pressure on myself to practice everything I preach because, if I don’t, then what’s the point? I think back to last year when the pandemic started. A bunch of self-improvement writers started to crumble under the pressure of turbulent times. They lost the motivation to write. They made the argument that their words didn’t matter during such trying times. Well, if the words don’t matter when life gets rough, then they don’t matter at all.
Actually, the only way to truly gauge your philosophy on life is to put it to the test. The way you behave shows more about your philosophy on life than your words. Your philosophy is the map you use to navigate the world. Let’s talk about how to not only create the right map but use it when it matters most.
I have a simple strategy I use for my writing to make sure I’m living up to my words. First, I learn. I’ll read a book or find some source of wisdom that seems plausible. Most people stay at this stage. When you’re reading a book like The Meditations it makes sense when you read a quote like:
“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance revert at once to yourself and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of harmony if you keep going back to it.”
But then, when you are jarred by life’s experiences, you have to see if you can put the quote to the test. So in my second step, I take what I’ve learned and try to apply it to the real world. Let’s stick with the quote. What are some of the moments that jarred me? My marriage crumbled a few years ago and I had to, in many ways, start my life all over again. The quote says to try not to lose too much of your composure, but for a little while, I had zero composure. I was stuck in a hole of depression for weeks. But then, all of my previous training kicked in. I accepted that I had no better option than to build a new life from the pile of rubble. And that’s what I did.
This leads to the third step, teach. After going through the process of reinventing my life after a major downfall, I started writing articles about my experiences. I wrote a piece on learning to deal with being alone. I wrote another one about listening to the signs the universe is trying to share with you based on the epiphanies I had. Going through a serious rough patch and coming out stronger gave me more conviction as a writer.
Even if you’re not trying to share your wisdom with the world, going through a similar process teaches you how to practice philosophy.Being a mere academic student of philosophy doesn’t do much for you. Too many of us spend too much time in an imaginary world instead of the real one — books, social media, YouTube, podcasts, etc. It’s very easy to fall into the trap of thinking that content consumption makes a difference. All it does is give you little hints of dopamine that make you feel like you’re doing something. More and more, my goal is to get people to stop reading my content and start living their lives. Let’s keep looking at some steps on how to do just that.
Before you get in the act of studying philosophy, consider trying to understand your current philosophy. We all have one. They are the guiding principles and beliefs that dictate your actions. Your actions dictate your results which either positively or negatively reinforces your current beliefs. And since your belief systems are tied so deeply to your identity, you’ll have a tendency to cling to your map even if it doesn’t map the terrain.
There’s no such thing as objective truth aside from the laws of physics, but you can reach a certain level of truth by seeing how your philosophy pans out. There are ways to test the accuracy of your current philosophy. If it seems accurate, you can double down on what you know. If you spot a mismatch, which is often hard to spot because of your blind spots, you can change your mind and adopt new ones.
Some factors to consider:
You’d be surprised at what you come up with when you take the time to fully articulate your view of the world. I’ve gone so far as to write down elaborate answers to questions like “How does the world work?” “What type of person am I?” “What is my understanding of human nature?” That way, I have a baseline of my current understanding, but my current understanding is always subject to change.
Nine times out of ten, people tend to suffer because of their philosophy. The famous self-improvement expert Jim Rohn said, “If you want to change your life, change your philosophy.” This is where learning comes in. Seeking wisdom is an important step. Often, you’ll hear certain insights from certain people that stick with you so much that you decide to change your mind.
This learning phase is important. I went through it myself and still go through it every single day. When I was broke, depressed, anxious, and feeling lost, I figured I needed to get smarter to change my life. So, I went on a learning spree. I read dozens of books, watched videos, podcasts, etc. After going through that process, my entire worldview changed. The key here, though, is that I continued to put it to the test and alter it over time.
Your philosophy on life will create a hypothesis for how you should act. So, you act out the hypothesis and see if it helps you get the results you wanted from it. You take what you want from it and discard what you don’t.
For a time, I dove heavily into Buddhism and Eastern Philosophy. I meditated and did Yoga for hours a day. I tried to “destroy my ego.” I once read a book that essentially said that nothing has meaning whatsoever. I was even considering moving to a cave somewhere and renouncing all my possessions. Seriously. After a while, I realized that I didn’t want to live a life totally devoid of desire, ego, and material wealth. So, I kept the parts I liked, e.g., remaining detached from my desire. But decided to opt-out of full monk mode.
I reached a similar point when studying Stoicism. At first, I found it useful to help me deal with my problems, but I didn’t fully embrace every aspect of it because it didn’t seem realistic. Mark Manson put it well in an article he wrote about why he’s not a stoic:
From the get-go, people criticized Stoics of being heartless “men of stone.” Many Stoics argued that it wasn’t that you got rid of all emotions, it was simply that you trained yourself to be unmoved by them—that you are always able to pursue virtue in even the most heated of moments.
With modern psychology, we know that emotions penetrate much deeper into our conscious thoughts than we originally thought. Much of what we experience as rational thought is still highly laden with emotions. It’s actually impossible to separate the two — and worse, when we believe we’re detaching from our emotions, we’re often simply tricking ourselves. Not only is being unaffected by our emotions probably impossible, but often we find that people who try to resist their emotions usually need a lot more therapy than those that embrace them. Paradoxically, it’s only by engaging and expressing our emotions that they lose power over us.
I decided to opt for a life that allowed me to experience the highs and lows of life in an emotionally intelligent way instead of trying to fully rid myself of emotions altogether.
I repeat this process over and over again attempting to course correct. Instead of trying to be right, I try to be less wrong. Instead of focusing on being right, I focus on getting it right. I never just study different philosophies for the sake of doing it. And I definitely try to catch myself when I jump onto a trend.
It’s important to study philosophy, but if you find yourself identifying too much with it, you’re missing the point. Don’t practice stoicism because you want to be stoic. Do it because you find it useful. Don’t practice Buddihm because you want to be a Buddhist. Do it because it makes sense.
The same goes for self-improvement. So many people wear it as a badge of honor. It’s nothing more than a tool. You’re not better than anyone else because you study it. And you get no points for doing it either. I see so many people who brag about the number of books they read instead of the number of lessons they implemented. They’re status signaling to the other members of the philosophy club and nothing more. Don’t become self-help or philosophy junky. Take what you need, use it in your life, and move on.