Epictetus and the 3 Trainings

It’s the end of the first month of 2019.  This year, I decided not to add my voice to the cacophony of experts telling you how to make this year the most successful and prosperous one yet. 

No.  This year, I thought I’d wait for that noise to die down, for the gyms to empty, for the purchases of health foods to start to decline, for the frequency of team meetings to dwindle.  This is a good time to reflect a bit on what’s happening, right now. 

Usually, my posts focus on tactical and practical steps to take.  Today, I want to be both philosophical and practical. 

Back around 100 A.D. a slave named Epictetus shared wisdom that has stood the test of time.  Among his ideas was that of the 3 Areas of Training for the person who wishes to be wise and good.   The first involves what he called desires and aversions; training yourself so that you never “miss the mark in desires nor fall into what repels” you.  In other words, try to align your wants with what is good and avoid what is bad.  It’s insufficient to just listen to your body or your impulses because decisions made on impulses often lead us astray.   

While he predated evolutionary science, his principle aligns with it.  We are wired to conserve energy, to conform with the “tribe” (however we define that for ourselves) so that we aren’t kicked out, to focus on safety more than happiness and to be attractive.  Those impulses don’t always lead us to the wisest decisions. 

So, when looking at the drift that has probably started recently, see if it’s because the decisions you’re making are just easier, more comfortable, more conforming to the norm.  Keep asking yourself if this is aligned with your own best interests and with the impacts you want to have as an entrepreneur.  If not, what decisions will be more aligned?

The next training is a level deeper.  What are the motivations driving your decisions?  This is one of my personal favorites, but it is also very difficult.  It is the simple – and often uncomfortable – practice of asking “Am I doing this for the right reasons? Or am I doing it because I believe I’m “supposed to” or because I “have to?”  This is difficult because we humans are spectacularly skilled at rationalizing and justifying our decisions.  But in the still pool of your own thoughts, what do you see reflected back?  Do you see fear, anger, desire to avoid effort, worry about the opinion of others, resentment about the need to do these tasks? 

If you can honestly review your motivations, without judging them, you’ll be able to shift by asking yourself different questions.  What if I did the loving thing?  What would give me the most fulfillment/joy? How can be of the most service to others (or to particular others)? 

As with desires, it is natural, (even unavoidable) to feel motivations not aligned with your highest, best self.  But the challenge is to develop the muscle that prevents you from yielding to them.

And that takes us to the third training, which is judgment.  This is the difficult task of rising above our emotional reactions or impulses to use our reason.  We are all subject to what are called cognitive biases as well as our own predispositions or prejudices based on our experiences, education and environment.  Training in judgment helps you see things as they truly are. 

I once had a good friend who was predisposed to see negative intentions in others with whom he disagreed, often to the point that he thought they and others were conspiring against him.  Finally, I said to him “Why do you think you are so important in their lives that they spend their time thinking of how to harm you?  What makes you so uniquely significant?”  It shook him up, but it also woke him up.  The question allowed him to apply a more objective judgment to the situation.   

Sometimes, people give up on their well-intentioned plans at the beginning of the year because they aren’t yielding results fast enough.  But is that reasonable?  Is that seeing things as they really are?  Do you truly believe that change will come that fast?  You must be realistic in your judgments.

Rudyard Kipling once said, “If you don’t get what you want, it’s a sign either that you did not seriously want it or that you tried to bargain over the price.”   

By training yourself to focus on wants that serve you, to be clear on why you want them and to be clear in your judgments about what’s necessary to achieve them, you’re more likely to have…your most successful and prosperous year yet.