A philosophy of life: my personal foundational texts

My life has been a bit of a mess. When I want to fix things, I read a book.

I started with some specific areas; depression, procrastination, countless books on teaching and learning thinking that if I read enough to achieve my career goals everything else would fall into place.

Then I moved on to general self help texts, starting with “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”. I want to be effective! But apparently not the kind of effective Covey had in mind because I just couldn’t connect with it.

Finally I came to “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”. Philosophy. But surely philosophy has little to offer when it comes to happiness. I had studied philosophy in college and it was all logic and epistemology, and never practical. Irvine assures us that it was not always so. There was a time when philosophers dealt in philosophies of life.

And Irvine has this to say of philosophies of life:

Why is it important to have such a philosophy? Because without one, there is a danger that you will mislive—that despite all your activity, despite all the pleasant diversions you might have enjoyed while alive, you will end up living a bad life. There is, in other words, a danger that when you are on your deathbed, you will look back and realize that you wasted your one chance at living. Instead of spending your life pursuing something genuinely valuable, you squandered it because you allowed yourself to be distracted by the various baubles life has to offer.

And I may have found a philosophy of life in stoicism, a philosophy that plays on many of my strengths. And ultimately I can distill that philosophy down to just three words; virtue, tranquility, and fortune.

Below are the texts that have helped me understand each.

Virtue

“How To Win Friends and Influence People”, Dale Carnegie

Marcus teaches us that our purpose as human beings is to befriend each other, and that our duty is to our fellow man. Carnegie gives practical advice on how to practice fellowship, and a plethora of anecdotal evidence of the rewards.

“The Marshmallow Test”, Walter Mischel

Ancient philosophers practically worshiped the “rational principle” within each human being. Mischel explains the origin, function, and limitations of that rational principle.

Tranquility

“A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy”, William Irvine.

This text provides an excellent introduction to stoicism, but focuses on methods Roman philosophers taught for maintaining tranquility. Those methods include negative visualization, internalization of goals, voluntary discomfort, and exercises in fatalism.

“The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Charles Duhigg

“The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work”, Christine Carter

Noticing and managing my habits has done a lot to help me preserve my tranquility. The latter chapters of Duhigg’s work I did not find helpful, but the beginning does an excellent job of explaining the fundamentals of habit formation and change by way of the “habit loop” model. Carter references Duhigg’s work, and expands upon how to use habits to create peace of mind.

Fortune

“The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives”, Leonard Mlodinow

I love probability and statistics. I was fascinated by Mlodinow’s account of how that mathematics has developed over time, but he also describes very well how large of a role Fortune plays in success and failure.

“Thinking, Fast and Slow”, Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman details our reactions to randomness; the heuristics and biases we use to make a coherent story out of a chaotic world. This text helps us understand how to be virtuous in the face of Fortune, or in Kahneman’s words to invoke our lazy System 2 when System 1 starts jumping to conclusions.

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