Long before Enzo Ferarri made red famous or Morpheus presented his red pill, Paconius Agrippinus advised us to “be the red thread“. While Enzo used red to feed the ego, Morpheus used it to free the mind. “Agrippinus was a highly regarded Roman statesman and Stoic philosopher who was known for his ability to do what was right, even when it meant going against the popular opinion. Agrippinus was a man of action, not a man of words. That’s why we know nothing of his writing, and only of his character as it is described by others.” (Seneca, Epictetus, etc) (daily stoic). Epictetus recalls a story about Agrippinus:
Agrippinus used the red to share wisdom and light on those around him. To be true to his values so others could see the truth in the values.
Feedback on the Next Right Action worksheet has been very helpful so far, thank you. As a sucker for punishment, I want to test the model at scale, so for the next 1,000 people who send me a problem, I will think it through with the worksheet and send it back to you. This is part of my research on problem solving. A goal of this research is to gather data around common daily problems and the most effective approaches to them. A couple of the hypotheses I am testing include:
Most problems fail the urgency/importance test.
Most acute problems have a systemic root.
Most people never engage System 2 for problem solving.
I will engage my System 2 on your problem. You may get some insights on how to approach your problem, you may think my approach sucks. Either way, we have both taken action and the research will move ahead. Let’s do this!
Ok, I am a nerd so computer science metaphors really work for me and “default mode” is a real doozy. When a computer system is powered on and not doing anything it is in the “default mode.” Just sitting there waiting for something to do. It has all its resources memory, hard drives, processors, programs, network connections, just sitting there waiting for inputs to it can decide what to do with the inputs. Ready and waiting for the next action. In default mode, the capability of the system for action is constrained by the capabilities of the resources available to the system. Too many inputs can lead to overload. Faulty inputs can lead to errors. Buggy programs can lead to errors. Slow processors can lead to long delays in action. Small memory can lead to thrashing. The system’s capacity for action can be improved by upgrading the resources available to it. This upgrades the default mode to handle harder problems. Ok enough with the computer stuff.
Humans have a default mode also and our capacity for action is constrained by the quality of the resources available to us.
Pick up something heavy? You have a certain strength in default mode.
Emotional state? You have a default mode. Fearful, calm, curious, etc.
Smarts? You have a default mode.
Problem-solving ability? You have a default mode, a standard way to approach problems with a given toolset (resources).
The default mode can be upgraded by upgrading the resources available in default mode. Human resources are upgraded by practice, training. Practice the opposite of the default mode.
Pick up something heavy? Practice lifting ever heavier things.
Emotional state? Practice the desired default state. Meditation, breathwork, ketamine, psychedelics, gratitude, etc.
This one totally tilts the Gunning – Fox index. Medicine is full of big words for simple concepts. In this case “we have no fucking idea.” An “idiopathic” disease is any disease with an unknown cause or mechanism of apparent spontaneous origin. The Greek roots are “idios”, or “ones’ own” and “pathos”, or “suffering”. Basically “a disease of its own kind.” If the doctor says you have an idiopathic xyz, he is telling you he has no idea. Something idiopathic exists in liminal space. Between things. Not this or that. Undefined.
When we mindlessly sleepwalking through life, sometimes things (especially emotions and reactions) can seem idiopathic also. Someone cuts you off in traffic and you fly into a rage. A picture of Donald Trump tilts you. Your wife asks for a cup of coffee and you say “get it yourself.” Why the strong reactions to small events? Why the outsize responses? At the time they can seem idiopathic. Luckily, with a pause, some practice, and some reflection, you can usually figure these out. Get out of the liminal space. Close the moral gap. The Next Right Action practice can be an antidote for idiopathic.
Ok, so this is not a TED talk, but it is an idea. An idea I have been circling from manydifferentangles. Alan Watts challenges the “journey” metaphor for life here pointing out that a journey presumes a destination, a goal, a finish. I ofter remind myself that to travel is better than to arrive. While life can seem like a journey, what happens along the path IS life, not the destination. Watts encourages us to “Play through life” as if it were music. The point of music is not the end of the music, but the music itself. Feeling its effects and enjoying its melody as it plays. Very well said Alan.
I have thought through over 1,000 problems for CEOs, investors, friends and myself using the Next Right Action Worksheet. One of the mantra’s that drive me is “have hard problems to solve every day”, so, yea, I love thinking through problems. I also love helping people. So once you have filled out your own Worksheet, send it to me in WORD format and I will add my comments to it. No, this won’t cost you anything, in fact you will be helping my research, and helping make me smarter by thinking through more problems. Remember, only YOU can decide the Next Right Action, I can only help explore and hypothesize about the problem as a guide. Go ahead.
Madison, my 9 year old yelled as she screamed by on her bike. We were on a camping trip and Madison was riding her bike up and down the path in front of our campsite. First time in months (thanks pandemic).
On her next pass by, this happened:
“A mosquito bit me and I crashed!” She managed through tears and trembling lips.
Torrents of crying, shaking and whimpering. I rushed over to pick her up as my wife and Harper (5 year old) hustled down the road to meet us. As I was running a recent Seed Crystal post title entered my consciousness.
“Well, here is the Disaster part.” I thought as I helped Madison up and over to the Airstream. Hello Disaster, welcome to our Journey. I started working the Next Right Action worksheet in my head.
Pause. Take a few breaths. Encourage Madison to take deep breaths. Wait for my wife to get here. Look around for any other dangers. Think.
Clarity: There are two major categories of problems here. First, the acute injuries, how bad are they, get them addressed. Second, any emotional injuries. Her overall motivation to ride bikes could be injured. Her risk tolerance overall may be injured. Separate these two and take one at a time.
Urgency: The acute injuries are immediate. See if serious enough for medical care. The emotional injuries can be addressed after the physical injuries are assessed.
Agency: Neither the physical nor emotional injuries were in my control. Madison’s body and mind must fix themselves. While I have zero direct agency to solve her problems, this is a perfect situation to apply guidance and wisdom to (hopefully) shorten her path to healing. And to reframe the event as an Adventure instead of a Disaster to be avoided in the future at all costs.
I found the first aid kit in the Airstream. Wet a washcloth. Got out the alcohol wipes. Gave Harper a doll to play with. As Jen worked on Madison, we kept finding more scrapes. Right knee (lots of blood and missing skin), left knee (not as bad), right elbow (bad), left elbow (smaller scrapes), forehead just under where the helmet was (very small, no blood). No broken bones, no mental confusion, no poor vision, no need for medivac helicopter. We concluded this was a clean up and patch job.
It became clear that the clean up would require more than a wash cloth though, so Jen took Madison to the shower. More screaming and crying, but we got her clean. I started some popcorn in the microwave. Harper played with her dolls and kept saying “I feel bad that Madison is hurt.” When Madison came out of the shower, Harper went over to hold her hand. I was awed by the instinctual sense of empathy and comfort Harper displayed. Harper had not seen much disaster in her short life, yet she instinctually knew how to comfort her sister. Thanks evolution!
As Madison started to calm down, Jen applied the ointment and bandages. I handed her a bowl of popcorn and sat down next to her. Time to turn this disaster into an Adventure through wisdom, humor and empathy.
“The scratch on your forehead is not so bad. Good thing you were wearing your helmet! Think how bad it could have been.” +1 for helmets.
“See this scar and big bump on my elbow?” my wife said. “It is from a motorcycle crash where I didn’t clean it well and didn’t tell my parents. The scar is much worse because I didn’t take care of it right when it happened.” +1 for cleaning the wounds immediately.
“I have crashed my bike more times than I can remember.” I say to Madison with my hand on her shoulder. “Want to see something?” I show her a dark spot on my right thigh. “I crashed my bike in Venice. There was sand on the path and when I went to turn, the tires slipped out. It was much deeper than your worse one and took about a month to heal. I was riding my bike the next day and while it looks a little funny it doesn’t hurt at all now.” +1 for you will get through this without permanent physical or emotional damage.
“If you have scars, think about the cool story you will have for your friends.” +1 for humor and assumptive close (imagine you are already over it).
“You are lucky walking will be painful. You can spend all day lying on the couch playing video games!” +1 for humor and gratitude for the disaster. Hello silver lining.
“More popcorn.” Madison asked calmly and with a slight grin. On the mend already.
I am happy to say Madison is healing quickly and back to her spunky, smiling self. She has not gotten on the bike but says she wants to.
Unattended Disaster = Trauma. Disaster reframed into Adventure = growth.
Growing up I had a bad taste in my mouth for “philosophy”, especially in college. Especially “comparative philosophy” with the focus on memorizing minute details of differences between schools. Lots of details without much context or understanding of why those old guys were arguing about that stuff. In college, I was a business and computer science major, a “hard” major. Philosophy was part of liberal arts, the “soft” stuff. The soft stuff was never going to get me a job so why bother? Oh, the hubris and certitude of youth. You were useful then and I don’t miss you.
Recently, by way of Ryan Holiday, I learned the greek roots of the word:
philo (“love”) and sophia (“wisdom”)
While the education system today has turned philosophy into a historical, academic exercise, it did not start out that way. It started out as the search for a “way of life”, the journey with love toward the wisdom of how to live life. I also stumbled on this deeper context.
“The rather vague definition ‘love of wisdom’ comes from the origin and etymology of the Greek word ‘philosophy’: philo (“love”) and sophia (“wisdom”). According to an ancient tradition Pythagoras of Croton (born on the Greek island of Samos, c. 580 B.C.) coined the Greek word ‘philosopher’ meaning ‘lover of wisdom’ to contrast with ‘wise man’ (sophist), saying of himself that he was only a man who loved wisdom (a wisdom-loving man), not a wise man. And the example of Socrates — whose only wisdom was that he did not think he knew what he did not know, that he did not think himself wise when he was not (Plato, Apology 23b) — further suggests that it was modesty that invented the word ‘philosopher’ (“lover of wisdom”), a word from whence the word ‘philosophy’ (“the pursuit of wisdom [by the lover of wisdom]”) came.”
So a philosopher is a “lover of wisdom”. Not a bespectacled, tweeded college professor. Every school of philosophy (and every religion) endeavors in their own way to deliver their “wisdom” to answer the “how should I live my life” question. The VIA Character Institute spent years looking across all cultures, religions, schools of philosophy, and more to figure out what are the common character strengths which are valued (and tend to lead to a “well-lived life”). These are incredibly consistent. The exact techniques and practices and belief systems vary widely, but the values and goals are all the same. Everyone wants to live the “good life.”
Philosophy, rather than being a fixed set of principals to be memorized and categorized by academia, is rather a way of approaching the world. As a lover of wisdom. As a traveler on a journey, picking up useful bits and pieces along the way to make the way forward easier and more meaningful. This only came to me later. I wish I had rocked this in my 20s. You don’t have to read ancient philosophy or religious texts to be a philosopher. You just have to be a seeker, lover of wisdom.
I have often wrestled with the advice to “Stay present” and ignore the past (you can’t change it) as well as the future (it isn’t here yet). My monkey mind cries out “How am I going to learn anything if I ignore the past?” followed by “How can I make a better future without worrying about it ?” Rock, meet hard place.
After wiggling there for years, some light started to appear. Maybe there is a difference between “Thought” and “Worry”. There is, and it is all the difference in the world.
What struck me standing next to Rodin’s “Thinker” atop the granite pedestal is that gravel and green garden in Paris was how calm he looked. The visitors picked up on this and a hush fell over the crowds as they approached. There is not a trace of worry in him.
Productive thought is accompanied by calm, intensity, curiosity, open-mindedness, confidence, empathy, presence, passion, humility, gratitude, fascination, focus, and yes even joy. Thought is a precursor to right action.
Worry is accompanied by irritation, hostility, annoyance, frustration, agitation, closed-mindedness, fear of failure, distrust, scepticism, randomness, pride, despair and yes even misery. Worry is aimless recursive wallowing without a plan of action.
Thinking about the past, present and future when directed toward right action is very useful. Worry without direction is a waste of time and effort.
If you, like me, are searching for wisdom in life, and want to hack the process (get more results in less time), one of the most distilled forms is the commencement speech. In less than 20 minutes, someone with a bunch of life wisdom (hopefully) endeavors to pass it on to a primed audience in a way they can understand and use. One of my favorites is David Foster Wallace (ok, he killed himself so maybe he had challenges applying the wisdom in his own life, but stick with me).
Steve Jobs is obviously one of the winners at this game of life. Sure he could be an asshole and that was in service of his mission in life too. Our heroes are never perfect, who can possibly be? The point of seeking wisdom is not to replicate someone else’s life, but to live our own at a higher level. So take what resonates, and integrate that. The trick is how to get the distillations of life lessons as efficiently as possible in a way we can relate to, so we can translate that wisdom into our own lifes. Jobs does this amazingly well by “just telling three stories”. One about a beginning (his birth, adoption, and path to work), One about love, for creating stuff, getting fired, creating again, meeting his wife, finding the path in unexpected ways. And one about Death, using the 100% certainty to live each day with intent. Three key areas of wisdom (valued through the ages by the way) delivered in a personal narrative that makes you sit up and say “Yea, that is how it should be and can be for me.”
I re-watch this almost every year. Small time commitment. Big reward. Enjoy.