On the Simple Life

by James Shelley

This is a rough draft manuscript in development

Last updated on July 18, 2018, at 3:44 PM

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Copyright © 2018 by James Shelley (contact@jamesshelley.com)

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This book is simple. It is all about simplifying life. But this topic is far from simplistic.

Our quest in the following pages is to interrogate every dimension of our lives – our priorities, relationships, and work – with an inquiry: How can this be simplified? Let’s imagine what our little visit on this planet might be like if we made the arrangements for our stay less complicated.

Simplicity might seem innocent from afar, but it is profoundly transformative and revolutionary up close. It can ruin us for the status quo. It can interrupt our assumptions. It can liberate us. We might even get addicted.

Simplicity is an ethos that is universally applicable. And it can turn everything on its head. This book is all about simplicity: so, in other words, this book is all about turning things upside down.

A Note to the Reader

They say you should ‘Write what you know,’ but this book is an effort to ‘Write what you want to actualize and internalize for yourself.’ This document is a work in progress. Part journal. Part theory. Part experiment.

If there is such a thing as a ‘simplicity expert,’ I am no such individual. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit that I am a longtime member of the cult of speed, efficiency, pack-as-much-in-as-possible. I write as someone with a long trail of complicated failures strewn in their wake. If this were a religious text, I am writing it from the confessional. I’m not a guru. Just a struggling convert.

When one writes about simplicity, one encounters a haunting problem: the instant you say more than needs to be said you betray your subject. Simplicity is like sublimity: it is easy to ruin it by talking about it. Therefore, dear reader, please do not hesitate to contact me if anything here reads obtusely. Towards greater clarity, brevity, and, yes, simplicity, your input is appreciated.

What is a Simple Life?

If you ask a human being to define the essence of health you often hear, ‘Health is the absence of disease.’

Ask someone to describe the nature of peace, and they might reply, ‘Peace is the absence of conflict.’

Is it even possible to describe health and peace without relying on binary comparisons to their opposites?1

Defining a simple life presents a similar dilemma. To get at the essence of a simple life, we must comprehend its opposite: a complicated life. Therefore, to imagine simplicity, imagine a person who is run off their feet, torn in a million directions, juggling a hundred things at once, addicted to all the frills, and serving a multitude of masters – now imagine the opposite of all that. What do you see?

Simplicity is not generally something you can ‘add’ to your life. It is not an upgrade or enhancement you acquire. Instead, simplicity tends to be the result of jettisoning encumbrances. A more straightforward way of being in the world is the consequence of removing the superfluous. Think of the antonyms of simplicity as extraneous, baggage, and obstruction.

When asked to define simplicity, we might respond, ‘Simplicity is the absence of everything that gets in the way.’

In Wind, Sand and Stars, the aviator and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry reflects on the history of airplane design. A central lesson from aeronautics, according to Saint-Exupéry, is that simplicity is the end and ultimate goal of all design:

It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship’s keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.2

Simplicity and nakedness are good synonyms: you cannot get nude by adding more clothes, just as you cannot find simplicity by adding more details, features, and caveats to your design. For Saint-Exupéry, you only inch closer to perfection by getting rid everything that competes or distracts from the essentials.

Nakedness cannot be feigned. Simplicity does not work as a veneer, or a superficial layer slapped on top of an incoherent mess. It tends to be found in the arithmetic of subtraction, not addition. It is about sanding down the walls, not slapping on a fresh coat of paint. Simplicity is the byproduct by taking things away rather than by adding more. In Saint-Exupéry’s words: the perfection of simplicity is only achieved when there is nothing left to take away.

The pathway to simplifying life begins by purging the excess commitments, bling, ambitions, and worries.

In a sense, every one of us is already living this simple, naked life. The problem is that the simple joys of being get buried underneath layers of extra nonsense. We’re hauling around all the dead weight we have accumulated over the years: myths about the value of brand names, the idea that we can control the behaviour and expectations of other people, and the delusion that purchasing ‘the next thing’ will finally bring contentment. We bury simplicity at every conceivable turn.

The simplest life is the happiest life. It is a life that clings to nothing more than what is necessary for fulfillment, contentment, and meaning. Beyond these, we can only add distractions, to the detriment of our wellbeing itself. This book is about stripping away the impediments. Let’s abandon the shame and get naked. We’ve been saving face for too long and missing out on the best parts of being alive.

Time to encounter the rejuvenating thrill of rediscovering that less is more and that enough is enough.

Chapter I – Simplifying Self

As a general rule, it is not a good idea to take internet memes at face value. That said, there is a particularly arresting quote in circulation that is hard to argue. It goes something like this: ‘The common denominator and single consistent feature in all your broken, failed, and dissatisfying relationships is you.’3

So scathing and enfeebling, yes. And so irrefutable. I can outright ignore the proposition; I can blame others for the outcomes of my relationships; I can go to therapy and theorize the patterns of my behaviour – but the one thing I cannot do is mount a valid argument against the logical factuality of the statement.

Recognizing that we are the recurrent variable in our relational debacles is what counsellors and psychotherapists want us to discover about ourselves. Until we wrap our heads around the idea that we are part of the problem, we’ll keep barrelling ahead, acting in the same way, duplicating the same results. As long as we are blind to our ourselves, we’ll continue to waste whatever life we have left on the eternally fruitless exercise of blaming other people. Unless we see ourselves as the problem, we’ll foolishly believe that ‘the problem’ is always someone else, leaving us inept and paralyzed to change anything.

Acknowledging ourselves as the common denominator in our repetitive habits can extend beyond the realm of our relationships. We should consider the implication of this idea in every aspect of our lives, especially in areas where we are prone to ask, ‘Why does this always happen to me?’ What if, instead, we ask, ‘Why do I always tend to do this?’

We insist that ‘The world is complex – it’s not my fault everything is so complicated!’ And in this, we sentence ourselves to live complicated lives. What if we are the common denominators of all the clutter, stress, and disorder in our lives? What if we are not caught up in the cyclone of a havoc-wreaking tornado – what if we are the tornado? Or maybe we are storm chasers?

On Earth Day, in 1971, cartoonist Walt Kelly released a comic featuring his main cartoon character, Pogo. Along with his counterpart, Porkypine, Pogo stares at an ominous pile of garbage strewn across a forest and declares, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us.’4 Extending the ecological lesson, the physical, mental, and emotional clutter in our lives – like the litter in our wake – does not materialize out of nothing. We make it.

We might repurpose the internet meme: ‘The common denominator in every arena of stress and disorder in our lives is ourselves.’ The cause of our complicated lives is us. But this is not infantilizing: it is clarifying. Acknowledging ourselves as the problem opens up the possibility that we can do something about it.

We simplify our lives only to the extent we simplify ourselves. To begin simplifying our lives, we must aim at the source of the complications: the stuff going on in our heads. We need to change something fundamental about the common denominator.

Some High Mountain

I vividly remember the first time I flew into São Paulo, Brazil – the ninth largest city in the world. São Paulo has a population of almost 12 million residents living within a 1,500 square kilometres (about twice the density of Shanghai).

Below, countless cars, buses, and trains scurry about, hauling passengers to destinations in every direction. Soon my plane will land and I, too, will become one of those little busybodies down there. Another airline passenger will peer out of their window shortly and not even notice my taxi, as it is swallowed into the arteries of the road network below. From this perspective, I am destined to leave the arrival gate as nothing more than a tiny dot myself – an indecipherable speck caught up in the rhythm of the city.

What is the most humanity you have seen one place at the same time? Over the centuries, many writers have invited us to engage in a timelessly fascinating thought experiment. Imagine climbing to the peak of the highest mountain in the world. The tallest mountain conceivable.

From this lofty perch, you look down and see all the affairs and concerns of humankind. You have an unparalleled perspective from this great distance: you perceive all the ambitions, projects, and plights of humanity in one view.

The thought experiment poses a question: if you could see the whole human world from a single view, would it make you think about your purposes and objectives any differently?

Herodotus, the fifth century BCE Greek historian, uses a high mountain to spark the imagination of his readers. The year is 480 BCE. Here we meet Xerxes, the king of Persia, preparing his military to invade Greece. Xerxes orders all of his troops to gather at a rendezvous point, and then he climbs to the top of a seaside mountain to marvel at the size of his army and navy together. Herodotus tells us that it was the largest armed force ever assembled in the world.

At first, Xerxes sparkles with delight. The view before him is spectacular and astounding: his regiments of soldiers and cavalries seem as numerous as the sands; his massive fleet of ships entirely block the sight of the shoreline. Sitting on his mountaintop throne, Xerxes laughs to himself, perhaps drunk on the power that he, a mere man, possesses over the world.

And then, suddenly, Xerxes starts to weep. His advisor asks why his laughter has turned to tears. “As I look out over my vast army, I can’t help but weep for the shortness of human life,” Xerxes replies. “Look at this unfathomable multitude! In a hundred years, not a single one of these men will still be alive. Existence is pitiful.”5

Perspective is everything. Seeing the scale and magnitude of his army in a single frame forced Xerxes to think about the nature of human life in different terms. When you look at the rest of the world from an elevated, ‘transcendent’ point of view, you cannot help but think differently about the ‘destiny’ of its inhabitants.

In a letter to a friend, Cyprian (a third century CE theologian) presents another thought experiment based on a mountaintop analogy. Cyprian invites us “to be transported to one of the loftiest peaks of some inaccessible mountain,” from which we might gaze upon the rest of the world lying below.6 What do we see down there? The world as it really is. This peak elevates our perspective far above what we can observe while we are busily scuttling about, immersed in our daily chores below. But for Cyprian, the view is not pretty. From our high perch, we see all the wars, plots, and feuds. We can see all the toxic resentment and fear bubbling under the surface – often hidden, but never suppressed. “Crime is not only committed,” Cyprian observes, “but it is taught.”

Our view is omniscient. From atop Cyprian’s peak, we can discern the desires and inclinations people’s character. We see the ubiquity of hypocrisy: multitudes of people who “are accusers in public” but “criminals in private.” Cyprian wants to show us that our ambitions for honour, wealth, and prestige ultimately sentence us to these lives of treachery and deception. Just look at those rich people over there: what security does their wealth afford them? They must now spend their lives figuring out how to keep other people from stealing what they have acquired.

We can imagine ourselves going much higher still. Thousands of years before Xerxes stood on his mountaintop, the ancient Mesopotamians told the myth of Etana – a king who was desperate for an heir to his kingdom. To plead his case before the gods, Etana is flown up to heaven clinging to the belly of an eagle. On their upward journey, the eagle asks Etana what he sees. Etana replies: humankind looks like tiny insects buzzing about, the sea appears to be a no bigger than a stream, and the land is but the size of a garden plot. The higher they go, the less Etana can see. In fact, Etana is so disoriented and terrified that their first attempt to fly to the gods fails because he demands to be returned to the land.7

If imagining a mythical king’s journey to heaven isn’t a helpful thought experiment for you, consider the scenario in more concrete terms. The Blue Marble is an iconic photograph of Earth.8 It was taken by the Apollo 17 crew in 1972, at a distance of 45,000 kilometres from the planet’s surface. This famous picture captures the reflections of many astronauts who have viewed the Earth from space. It puts human life in perspective. It reminds us that geopolitical borders are human inventions. It reminds us that our planet is a delicate, ecologically interconnected system dangling in a vacuum of gravitational equilibrium.

Seeing Earth from orbit often leaves such a significant psychological impact on astronauts that the experience even has a name: the overview effect.9 We can undergo dramatic attitudinal and cognitive shifts when we see the whole picture.

Blue Marble image from Apollo 17
Blue Marble image from Apollo 17

Perhaps the ultimate ‘high mountain’ paradigm comes to us in a photograph taken on February 14, 1990, by the Voyager 1 space probe. After speeding along at about 64,000 kilometres per hour for twelve years, the craft turned around to photograph its home planet one last time before leaving the solar system. From six billion kilometres away, Earth is merely a speck suspended in an endless space. The photograph is known as the Pale Blue Dot – our planet is only visible as a distant, faint, bluish pixel.10 Just a molecule of the cosmos.

Pale Blue Dot -- you are on the light blue pixel
Pale Blue Dot – you are on the light blue pixel

There is no other image of Earth captured from a greater distance away. “Compared with heaven all this earth is but as tiny dot on a wide board,” said Boethius, the sixth-century Roman philosopher.11 The Pale Blue Dot captures the thought in visual form.

Have you ever gone star gazing on a clear evening and found yourself humbled by the magnitude of the night sky? Instead of staring at billions of tiny lights in the night sky, the Pale Blue Dot reminds us that we are inhabitants of one such little pixel – and everything we strive for and cherish are infinitesimally small properties of this dot. No matter how important we judge ourselves to be, our ambitions and accomplishments are laughably imperceptible from six billion kilometres away. Our highest priorities and pressing deadlines are reduced to microscopic invisibility from here.

When our perspective is violently jarred and reconfigured, we often find the new view discomforting. Xerxes saw that human life was pitifully short. Cyprian saw that humans are chronically prone to hypocrisy. The Pale Blue Dot might tempt us to think that all human endeavours are ultimately meaningless compared to the vastness of the universe. However, all these reactions boil down to personal value judgments: Seeing the Earth from space might also remind us how awesome it is to be alive at all. Such experiences might just as easily increase our appreciation for life instead of diminishing it. Cyprian could have used his omniscient vision to scan for examples of human hope and tenacity. Xerxes could have left the mountain committed to cherishing his remaining days, appreciatively cognizant of life’s temporality.

All of these ‘mountaintop’ examples12 highlight a common phenomenon: shifting our perspective can significantly shift our mindset. Just looking at things from a new angle – or from very far away – forces us to think about what we see differently. ‘Perspective is everything’ is more than just a nice idiom.

Let’s come back to earth for another thought experiment.

Imagine the largest city you have ever visited. Imagine that there is a giant mountain just on the outskirts of the suburbs. Imagine that you climb up to the peak and, like Xerxes and Cyprian, sit down to peer at the world below. However, from this summit you see the city vista not only as it is today, but as it has transformed over time. Like a high-speed time-lapse video, the landscape beneath you morphs. You watch generations of indigenous inhabitants adapt to the region; you see all the invasions, conquests, and colonizers; you see all the despots and revolutions; you watch the never-ending evolution of building styles, fashion designs, and social conventions; you see you spikes and drops in the rate of new construction as the value of the region’s commodities fluctuates. In a matter of only a few hours, centuries pass before your eyes.

Suddenly the frenetic slideshow stops and the playback returns to ‘real-time’ – the city ‘arrives’ in the present. As they have done for hundreds of years, the citizens below continue bustling about buying and selling; loving and fighting; praying and doubting. Is there anything new under the sun? You see believers and skeptics, conservatives and liberals, and traditionalists and progressives, all angrily shouting at each other – all insisting on the hollowness of each other’s ideas. But from here, they all kind of look similar, don’t they? They sound like little, microscopic ants throwing temper tantrums. Their insistence and certainty about ‘the way things are’ seems redundant and predictable. What do we make of humanity? What do we make of ourselves?

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that the person who climbs the highest mountains laughs at tragedies.13

Moments of heightened perspective are priceless. These vistas temporarily jerk us awake from our hypnotized preoccupation with the granular details of life. Like pinching a digital photograph, zooming out from the present increases the resolution and clarity of the moment. Just as seeing the Earth from orbit prompts astronauts to recalibrate their assumptions about life, seeing this present moment from the perspective of history invites us to reconsider our priorities, aspirations, and goals. Just as looking at a great city from an airplane window reframes the terms of our imagined self-importance, looking at today from the perspective of centuries invites to reimagine our definitions of value. Watching the great ‘time-lapse’ of human history gives us invaluable perspective when we wonder, What is important right now?

Get Out of My Sun

This is the story of a legendary conversation.

The exchange occurs between two men: Diogenes, an ascetic philosopher, and Alexander, the great military hero of Greece.

It is a dialogue that enchanted the minds of many later thinkers. But first, the story:

One day, Diogenes was doing what he did best: sitting in his tub by the side of the street, naked or half-naked, castigating passing pedestrians for their foolish ambitions for money, fame, and leisure. ‘You are pathetic puppets of your society!’ he might have shouted. ‘You live for nothing more than your stomachs and pocketbooks!’

Diogenes berated anyone who would pay attention to him for wasting their lives in mindless pursuits. His nudity and overt poverty were intended to reinforce his creed: humans do not need anything but to be free – to speak their minds and enjoy the sunshine.

Diogenes' brazen critique of society earned him a reputation; he personified the philosopher who lived what he preached.

Alexander the Great, the conqueror, was curious to meet the legendary cynic, so he sought him out. Details vary as to the exact flow of their conversation, but most accounts converge on a particular point in their exchange: the great Alexander asked the humble Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, and Diogenes replied: ‘Could you move over a bit? You’re blocking my sun.’

For many writers, this moment epitomized the ultimate juxtaposition in human status: Alexander, the most celebrated, famous, and ‘successful’ man in the world; Diogenes, the most disinterested, honest, and poor man in the world.

According to Plutarch (46–120 CE), Alexander was astounded by the wisdom of Diogenes. In Plutarch’s retelling, Alexander later says, ‘If I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes’ – implying that he inwardly endorsed the philosopher’s rejection of social convention, even though Alexander himself carried the burden of disseminating Greek culture to the world.14 Plutarch intentionally frames the story to highlight the dichotomy between Alexander the military imperialist and Diogenes the philosophical rationalist.

Laërtius, the third century CE historian, highlights the social class and value distinction. When he approached Diogenes, Alexander introduced himself, ‘I am Alexander, the Great.’ In response, Diogenes said, ‘I am Diogenes, the Dog.’15 The Dog proves to more satisfied and confident that the Great. Better to be content and happy and have nothing, than to be king of the world and be miserable.

Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) had another theory: it was Diogenes' security in his lowly position that gave him greater confidence than a man who directed armies. Because Diogenes had nothing to lose, he had nothing to fear, even when approached by an entourage of the ultimate power in the world. For all his pride and accomplishment, the ‘great’ Alexander was ‘beaten as soon as he met a man to whom he could give nothing, and from whom he could take nothing away.’16

Cicero (106–43 BCE) drew a similar lesson from the encounter: Diogenes had nothing and was content; Alexander had everything and could not have enough. It was Diogenes' disregard for earthly pleasures that granted him satisfaction with life, whereas royalty can never find contentment. (Cicero, Tusculan Disputations 5.92)

Juvenal, the early second century CE Roman poet, agreed:

The nude Cynic fears no fire for his tub; if broken, he will make himself a new house to-morrow, or repair it with clamps of lead. When Alexander beheld in that tub its mighty occupant, he felt how much happier was the man who had no desires than he who claimed for himself the entire world, with perils before him as great as his achievements.17

The story of Alexander and Diogenes leaves us with a proposition to consider: the greatest strength, confidence, and courage does not come from accomplishment and reputation, but from having nothing at all to lose. The more we have to protect – whether our names or our treasures – the less free we truly are. What do you think?

When you let go of making it big

When you don’t need to be the expert
When you don’t need any recognition
When you don’t need the keys to the city
When you don’t need to voice your opinion
When you don’t need the award nomination
When you don’t need a park named after you
When you don’t need to orchestrate your legacy
When you don’t need other people to like your post
When you don’t need to level up another achievement
When you let go of making it big
When all you have is all you need
When the world owes you nothing
When all living consciousness doesn’t orbit your ego

Then, and only then, do you find that you possess everything you could ever want

There are Only Two Kinds of Problems in the World

There are only two categories of problems in the world:

  1. There are problems you can do something about.

  2. There are problems you can not do anything about.

If you can do something about the problem, then there is no need to be anxious about it. You know that you can exert some degree of influence on the outcome. What you actually need to do is sit down and make a list of the actions you need to do in order to achieve the result you desire, or at least do whatever is in your power to move the needle a little closer in the right direction. And then you just need to do those things. There’s no point in stressing out over this. Your ‘problem’ is not really a problem at all: it is just a process you need to sort out, execute, and perhaps reiterate.

If you can not do anything about the problem, then there is equally no point to being anxious about it. If you cannot address the issue, then you must conclude that your stress and anxiety will have equally no bearing or influence on the outcome, either. There is no point in expending emotional energy towards a problem for which such effort is guaranteed to have zero effect.

Logically, then, should we not conclude that we are often quite irrational in our stress? When we are anxious we are either a) needlessly expending energy that we could employ to resolve the issue, or b) needlessly expending energy to change something that we do not possess the ability to change in the first place.

Epictetus (circa 55–135 CE), the Greek Stoic, was a devoted rationalist who concluded that worry and anxiety is irrational. For Epictetus, the paramount purpose of philosophy itself is to teach us how to be indifferent towards situations that are beyond our control.18 Reason, he says, demonstrates that worry is categorically unreasonable.

As Epictetus sees it, everything we experience belongs in one of two categories: it either happens in our mind (internally) or it happens somewhere ‘out there’ in the world (externally). A lot of externals are beyond our control, but the internal state of our mind is ours alone to order. Therefore, if events, people, situations, or circumstances affect our emotional or psychological wellbeing, it is only because we allow them to do so. There is no reason for anything ‘out there’ to make you upset unless you first agree to bring it ‘inside’ yourself.

Epictetus then asks, in essence, “Why do you surrender your mind – the one thing you can actually control in the world – to every new impulse that comes along? Who is in control of you – you or your circumstances?”

Many of us carry around a disgruntled laundry list of things we do not like about the world: family members aggravate us, foreigners threaten us, the nattering of office politics is draining, the neighbours are too loud, and the coffee is too cold. Often our gut reaction is to assume that all these negative factors are the “authors of the evil in our lives.”19 But Epictetus reminds us that they are all externals. They are all outside of our minds. They themselves do not upset us – they are just there – we only upset ourselves by how we judge them.

Epictetus' philosophy boils down to a simple proposition: you cannot control anything, save for how you choose to respond to the world. Your family, neighbourhood, market portfolio, and coworkers – they are obviously and objectively not under the dictatorial thumb of your whims and desires. But if your emotional wellbeing becomes tied to these externals, you are in for a wild ride. When you surrender control of your own mind and allow it to be manipulated by an ever-changing world of factors and variables you cannot control, you yourself are no longer in charge of you.[See Epictetus, Discourses I.4.19, 23; I.29.39–40]

The more stubbornly we try to control externals, the more we are beholden to them. The harder we try to whip the world into submission, the stronger its stranglehold over our mind. When our emotional wellbeing is dictated by the state of our circumstances, we are nothing more than reactionary mirrors of the world. We have, in effect, surrendered our minds.

If you can change it, it doesn’t deserve your worry.

If you can’t change it, it doesn’t deserve your worry.

If you worry about it anyway, you are simply inviting it to tyrannize and traumatize you, indefinitely.

Exercising this meticulous self-control is a lifelong enterprise; an endless journey. It requires a habit of not only contemplating events as they happen, but also reflecting on our responses to them as they occur. It means thinking about our thinking. At any given moment, the world might interrupt you with some great calamity or someone might riffle your equilibrium, which means being on constant guard – realizing that your own worst enemy is yourself lying in ambush.[See Epictetus, Enchiridion 48] We are a liability to ourselves, always on the verge of surrendering control of our minds to things we cannot control.

Epictetus implores us to embark on a rigorous program of mental self-discipline – a diligent study of ourselves so that we might live ‘free and unenslaved’ by externals.20 By learning to control our minds, he instructs, we can learn to accept every situation and circumstance for what it is.

The only thing we can control is how we react. And there are only two kinds of problems in the world.21

Chapter II – Simplifying Work

All Time is Free Time

You must work hard to earn free time, says the mantra of commerce and industry.

Before entering the labour market, did we purchase our time? No, our time was already free. Work is not about earning free time, but about selling it. Jobs only take time away from us; they do not reward us with more of it. We will never end up with more free time after working than we had before. Jobs only subtract from our free time.

If the point of our work is to achieve more free time, our efforts are blatantly counterproductive. If leisure and time together is our goal, it makes far more sense to simply work less.

Obviously, we don’t work to earn time. We work to earn money. We convert time, which is free, into a commodity of exchange. We impute value to hours. This equation allows us to trade our time – a finite, nonrenewable resource – for currency. In doing so, en masse, we effectively monetize the existence of one another.

Of course, there are many benefits to this arrangement. As an apple farmer, a financial market system allows me to sell my fruit to the grocer and buy what I need from the butcher, carpenter, and blacksmith. Without money, I have no bartering power with the butcher, carpenter, and blacksmith, except for bushels and bushels of apples. What if they don’t need or want apples? The money system solves this problem brilliantly.

But there is a psychological cost to participating in this ecosystem of transactions. I know how many dollars I earn for a bushel of apples, and I know how many hours of my life are required to produce it. My time – by the hour – is now appraised by the market. I can no longer talk about the value of my produce apart from the value of my time as a producer. Free time now refers to the portions of my existence when I am not earning money.

It is either your money or your time, we say. Time to think, to just be, and to sit by the river and ponder life with a good book – this is no longer ‘free time’, it is time we must purchase. And once on the time-is-money treadmill, escape is difficult.

Who deserves free time in a market economy? The centralization of wealth equals centralizing the right to leisure. Cultural activities of leisure become relegated to those who can pay — for those who ‘have earned it’. Free time becomes something like a ‘capital gain’ reward for the diligent and hardworking. Our narrative proclaims: the people who enjoy life the most are the ones who can take exotic holidays by ‘cashing out’ the investment of their work. Whereas one might think leisure is the absence of work, capitalism (ironically) leverages leisure as the principle incentivization to work harder. As a consequence, free time inevitably becomes an earned privilege.

Virtually everything in the system is positioned to reinforce this creed: time is money, money is time, and one is always needed to trade in exchange for the other. The social legitimacy our work hinges on our collective affirmation of this premise. There are many perks, yes: this mass neurosis supplies us with delightful trinkets and comforts. But even these appeasements arguably serve to distract us from the usurpation of our time. Our loss is placated and masked by the unquenchable need to invest more. The gifts of capitalism inherently perpetuate our desire for more of it.

To enjoy the benefits of the market, we must make a significant sacrifice. We must forget that all time is free time. We must bury this old, relic of an idea. We must shut it out, deny it. We must allow ourselves to be motivated and incentivized to work in exchange for manufactured, token blocks of leisure, dangling before us like carrots from sticks.

Can we change? Can we survive without enslaving so much of our free time — that is, our lives — to the mythology of our work? Are we destined to go on dividing conscious existence into fractional units (hours) that can be bought and sold? How long will we be content with this arrangement of commodifying ourselves?

I think we need to rebrand the ubiquitous doctrine that ‘time is money’ with a new slogan: ‘living is free until you trade it for money.'

The Wisdom of Doing as Little as Possible

Thought experiment. Let’s imagine a different world. In this alternate existence, everyone works only as much as they need to work.

They work as little as possible.

They work only to sustain and support themselves, and to provide for those they need to provide.

They curtail their ambition, curtailing their busyness.

They increase their time by diminishing their needs.

After they work, they spend the rest of their days sitting by the river, or reading, or lounging in the shade with their friends and families.

I suspect that if a critical percentage of our society lived this way, our society would be a significantly different place. Imagine if we valued our own free time more than we value the paycheque we receive for selling our time. What if low-budget leisure became our dominant, collective pursuit? What if we used our careers to fund our layabout routine?

Sure, we might have to put up with longer intervals between available upgrades and updates for our gadgets, but would it not be worth the payoff?

Yes, it would be a very different place, I think.

As it is, we live in a society predominately organized around trying to convince other people to do things: our lives are preoccupied with the task of convincing people to buy our products, use our services, or give money to our causes. How much of our labour, in the end, boils down to strategic coercion and manipulation?

It’s exhausting, really – all this work of trying to get other people to do things.

Is there a suitable justification for making the procurement of converts and customers the cardinal aim of life?

I’m going to spend more time sitting by the river.

At the end, when I look back, I reckon I’ll care more about the sunsets I saw than the contracts I won.

If you want to live in a world full of people striving, one-upping one another, and trying to implement their plans for one another, then by all means, continue striving, one-upping, and making your schemes.

Propagation and is not on the agenda of my slacker ideology. That would be way too much extra work.

I’ll just lead by example – the example of doing as little as possible and enjoying the simple things.

The faster you go, the faster life moves past, like the scenery through an automobile window.

Existence is like a fine scotch–to savour it, you must sip it slowly.

There’s no way to relish what you are chugging.

Be Micro-Ambitious

This is amusing to me: the word many of us use to describe our livelihoods derives from the idea of running around in circles. In English, the word career emerges in the sixteenth century to denote a set roadway or race course. One might have said that ‘the horse raced around the career,’ or that ‘the sun follows its career across the sky.’ (Career traces its origins back to the Latin carrus, a chariot.)

Careers are much like racetracks. From our earliest encounters with the education system, we are groomed to believe that ‘success’ means excelling at a very particular set of skills. After all, what is a career? Is it not a fairly predetermined course of activities which you perform over and over again? If you execute these tasks sufficiently well, your scope of activities narrows further; the parameters become even more specific. It’s called a promotion. You specialize. You go around again.

Importantly, this is a race. The faster (and more laps) you manage to get around the circuit, the bigger your crown and the higher you stand on the victor’s pedestal. At least this is the carrot dangling in front of your chariot. Or maybe you don’t know what you are chasing, but since you are going around the loop again anyway, why not do it more efficiently? Either way, in this culture, your career is the anchor-point of your identity. It is the final check-and-balance of your merit. It is the definition of your self-worth when someone asks, “So, what do you do?”

For myself, the most demoralizing feature of being stuck in this loop is the chronic, inescapable sense of inevitability: as if my life is the rote performance of a story that has been scripted. Every other decision is weighed by its implications for either ‘winning’ or ‘losing’ the career race. But if I win – presumably the best case scenario – what have I achieved? If ‘success’ comes at the cost of my healthiest, ‘most productive years’, how will I ever know that the rewards were even worth the sacrifice in the first place?

Is the whole point of running this race simply so that one day I will not need to race anymore? Do I work solely for the cause of not working in the future? How does this make sense? Never mind. Around I must go again.

Careerism – having a career for the sake of having a career – strikes me as a rather toxic, consuming ambition. The higher I climb up the ladder, the more autonomy I lose; the more invested I become in the course, the greater the cost of abandoning the path. The circuit owns me. Escaping its inertia becomes a fantasy that must be regularly repressed and forgotten. ‘Leaving now would just be irresponsible’ becomes my repetitive, self-placating creed. (And the longer I stay, the more ‘irresponsible’ and ‘impossible’ it becomes to shift my trajectory.)

Obviously, this attitude and outlook is intensely personal. I have many dear and wonderful friends who are extremely passionate about their careers. And, admittedly, part of me is jealous of their apparent contentment. They seem to thrive on the prospect of doing roughly the same thing they are doing now in twenty or thirty years from now. In fact, this seems to be explicitly be their goal. They love knowing the layout of the course in granular detail. They have a precise number of laps planned in advance. For them, the rule book of the race is a dependable, centring point of stability.

More power to them, I say. I dearly love and respect my career-oriented friends, but ultimately I do not want to spend my conscious existence on this remarkable planet running on precisely the same circuit over and over again. Careerists flourish where they find security and equilibrium in the repetition, but to me the potentialities of the unknown seem too incredible to squish into a predetermined course. Surrendering the opportunity to discover and explore new routes along the way is too high an entry fee, even if a first place finish and the grand prize were somehow guaranteed.

One of the most liberating moments of my life was accepting that the ‘career narrative’ of my culture is optional. No one is legislating it. It is a path to be chosen, not a destiny to be fulfilled. Careers are not privileges or rights, they are just popular, strategic approaches to surviving life in modern, capitalistic societies. Like religions, they are stories we are told when we were young.

No sooner had the realization and confession, ‘I’m not a career guy’ fallen from my lips than the probing inquiries commenced: if a ‘career’ will not be the crowning achievement of my life, then what do I live to create and build? How is one to ‘make a living’ if not by following the popular script? I can’t pretend to answer this for everyone, but the way forward seems pretty clear to me: being fully and wholly devoted to whatever opportunity presents itself right now.

By ‘opportunity’ I mean whatever is in my capacity to do in the moment. It might be a paying gig, managing a corporate portfolio, a ‘passion project,’ or a volunteer commitment. It doesn’t matter. I am avoiding the abyss of careerism by doing the assignment in front of me as if it is the sole litmus test of my integrity and calibre – as if it is the final ‘interview’ for my next opportunity. My principle aim is to achieve maximum quality and take utmost pride in whatever I do.

Tim Minchin, the Australian comedian, describes this attitude succinctly: he calls it micro-ambition – ‘passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals.’22 The next opportunity worthy of your attention will probably show up in your peripheral vision, some unpredictable consequence of having “put your head down” to invest your best effort in the present enterprise. Micro-ambition is all about focusing on projects… not crossing some imaginary, arbitrarily defined ‘finish line’ in the future.

This is actually very old advice: ‘Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might,’ urged the sage of Ecclesiastes.23 Of course, many career-oriented folks work with great diligence too. But this isn’t a contest over who works harder. Neither is it a denial of the obvious social privilege I enjoy to be able to approach work with this kind of attitude. No, the ‘point’ here is whether we think of life as a sprint around a racetrack or an exploration through a labyrinth of alleyways. Is the route predetermined or not?

To me, careers are like leaky buckets. Every day you refill what has drained, knowing full well that you will need to do it all over again – perhaps next week, next product cycle, next harvest, next fiscal quarter, or next semester. Around and around the racetrack. It is hard to stay invigorated and curious. You keep topping up the bucket and it keeps emptying again. Do you define success as having the most important ‘bucket filler’ title? Do you want to be the chief executive bucket filler? Why has your sense of self been defined by a bucket? When you retire and pass along your position to the next senior bucket filler, eagerly waiting in line for your position, what do you take away with you? What do you leave behind? What was the opportunity cost to find out?

To adopt a ‘micro-ambitious’ attitude is to approach your work as an artisan. Everything you have to give is poured into short-term, project-oriented goals. Micro-ambition means investing yourself into ventures that you can complete, polish, and proudly admire… before launching yourself into the next opportunity (that you haphazardly stumbled upon along the way). The only ‘problem’ that you ever need to worry about ‘solving’ is the one in front of you right now – the only problem you can actually do anything about anyway.

Micro-ambition assumes from the outset that continual learning and self-reinvention are par for the course.

Regardless of where your paycheque comes from, do you think of life as a racetrack or a labyrinth? Are your current projects a means to an end, or a chapter in a twisting, unpredictable plot? In reality, of course, these are not absolute dichotomies. (There are plenty of careerists who leverage their position to create incredible opportunities and plenty of freelancers who fret over the legacy of their careers.) This is ultimately a question of attitude. How do you approach the present?

In the end, objectively speaking, perhaps we ought to accept that life is something of a circuit. Careers might be somewhat avoidable, but the cycles of life are inescapable: The sun rises and sets. Seasons come, go, and return. Taxes are due. Every day we must engage with the ‘career’ of getting out of bed before we go foraging for food, an income, or a sense of purpose. Our children grow old and have children of their own, and all along the way we retell our narratives about education, internships, and retirement, in much the same way our parent taught these stories to us. Whether we sow seeds across a field, instruct students through a course, or move papers across a desk, most of us are intractably ‘stuck’ in many simultaneous circuits. Over time, our lives and identities are defined by the cycles, patterns, and routines of our days.

How can you ‘escape’ the gravitational force of careerism? How can you game the system? Or is this even the right question? Instead you might ask, What does it mean to live with enthusiasm, joy, and curiosity in a world of cyclical repetition? To answer the latter question, first look at whatever opportunity or project sits in front of you right now, and imagine that it represents the penultimate opportunity or project of your life.

Think about it: the opportunity in front of you right now is the convergence of every other experience you have had. This is it. To be ‘micro-ambitious’ means embracing the present opportunity – whatever it is – and making of it everything you can. After all, just as the present is a coalescence of your past so far, rest assured that the next thing will be built on the foundations you lay today. So build well. Go ‘all-in’ on whatever opportunity you have now. Be micro-ambitious.

Happiness is not found on the peak of the next accomplishment but on the plateau of contentment. Settling for now –which, in a sense, amounts to confidently embracing mediocrity – is not so much defeat as liberation. It is liberating because it means finally retiring from a race that cannot actually be won. Someone sold you the ticket for a voyage, but instead they gave you a hamster wheel.

If you can’t find some sense of enjoyment in what you have already accomplished, what makes you think…

… you get the point. If you can’t find contentment in the here and now, you will not be able to find contentment anywhere at anytime.

Careerist vs. Dilettante

What is the alternative to careerism? In their 1986 book, The Careerfree Life, Gillian Hemstock and Frank McEnaney propose that the opposite of careerism it is dilettantism.24 The word ‘dilettante’ comes to us through Italian, via the Latin delectare, which means ‘to delight.’ Originally, a dilettante was not an ‘unprofessional,’ ‘amateur,’ or ‘dabbler’ (principal synonyms for the word today) but rather an aristocrat who could afford to indulge time in their own personal interests and hobbies. Simply: a dilettante is a person who does activities they find delectable — because these activities bring them joy.

The problem with careerism is that it constantly punts ‘delight’ ahead to some future date or accomplishment: after the next promotion, acquisition, upgrade, etc. Dilettantes, by contrast, are much more immediate in their hedonism. If one cannot enjoy in the present what is at one’s disposal to enjoy, the rest of life is pretty sure to be miserable. After all, what is the future? Is it not simply a string ‘presents’ in sequence, strun together all the way to the grave? If you can’t figure out how to enjoy the present, the rest of life is looks pretty bleak. It is nothing but a whole barrage of ‘present moments’, barreling towards you at sixty seconds a minute! Careerists find themselves caught up with moving ahead another square in the Game of Life. But dilettantes, because they’re enjoying the activities of the moment, want to relax and put off rolling the die for as long as possible. You know, smell the roses and all.

If ‘delight’ is our principal measure for ‘success’ in life, what do we do about the practical problems of putting groceries on the table, paying the electricity bill, and cleaning the toilet? The authors of A Careerfree Life have a simple solution: when we need them, we get jobs. But jobs are not careers, and we must understand the difference.

It is etymology time again. According to Hemstock and McEnaney, the word ‘job’ arises as shorthand for ‘job carriage, job horse. Hired or used by the job for a particular piece of work, for a definite time.’[^Ibid p. 12 I can not find direct corroboration for this assertion, but it does seem that historically the word ‘job’ has a different relationship with time than the word ‘career.’ For example, when Anthony Trollope writes, ‘I have a job of work to do before I leave London’ in 1878, his idea of ‘job’ seems to resonate with our contemporary notion of ‘task.’25

Jobs are tasks. They are activities simply need to be done. Importantly, tasks exist to be finished. They come and go. Each one has a starting point and a completion.

Culturally speaking, we do not define ourselves by the tasks we do. We get on career-paths, not ‘task-paths’. We obsess with career-planning, not ‘job-planning’. Jobs and tasks are temporary and utilitarian. This is why we are better to think of work as a means to an end, not the source of our identity. This means rejecting the ideology of careerism that purports to offer us fulfillment in the work itself. No, by and large, work is mostly unagreeable, and it’s a fools errand to find a life’s worth of happiness in it.

The contrast between the careerist and the dilettante is stark. The careerist seeks fulfillment in productivity and work. The dilettante only works when it is required to support the activities they enjoy (and/or enables them to physically continue surviving so they can do these things). One defines themselves by their rank and accomplishment, the other defines themselves by their interests and passions. Therefore, inasmuch as ‘rank’ and ‘accomplishment’ are defined by other people, careerists find themselves on stationary treadmills pointed in the direction of an unachievable destination. Dilettantes, on the other hand, set their own rules of engagement in life when it comes to their contentment.

All of this boils down to an attitudinal shift. Do your work – your jobs and tasks – because they need to be done, not because they bring you a sense of transcendental purpose. Do everything you can to turn your career into a job – just another set of tasks, like washing the dishes and doing the laundry. And whether you are vacuuming the living room or doing payroll at the office, remember that every moment you will ever experience will be a moment in the present.

A Life Given, Not Taken

The Children of Hercules is a play written by Euripides, performed in Athens circa 430 BCE. It is a story about revenge: a crazed king pursuing the descendants of Hercules from city to city, threatening war for any city that offers them sanctuary. However, the people of Athens agree to protect the refugees and face the army of the embittered king.

On the eve of battle, the oracles prophesy that a young virgin from noble bloodline must be sacrificed to guarantee an Athenian victory. One of Hercules' daughters (known to later tradition as Macaria) offers herself to die as the victim, thus heroically saving the rest of her family and the city.

Iolaus, an old friend and protector of Hercules' family, tries to intervene to save Macaria’s life. Instead of seeing Macaria volunteer to go to her death, he suggests an eligible virgin ought to be decided by casting lots: something like a random ‘lottery’ to determine who must die to appease the gods.

Macaria will have none of it: ‘I will not let my death depend on such a whim. That way my life is taken, not given.’26 Macaria sees the equation clearly: if she dies of her free will, she maintains her honor and dies a hero’s death. An innocent victim who volunteers for the altar on behalf of others performs an act of self-sacrifice worthy of legends and glory. But there is no respect in being executed because of the roll of the dice.

Yes, all this talk of myth, prophecies, and scapegoating noble virgins is far removed from contemporary theories of work. But bear with me for a moment. Macaria’s plea that her life be ‘given’ instead of ‘taken’ gives me pause. Inasmuch as the time we surrender to our employers is a kind of ‘sacrifice’ of our temporal lives, we, too, desperately want to think of our existence as ‘given,’ not ‘taken.’

In present-day language, we often distinguish between ‘a job’ and ‘a career,’ defining them as unique categories of work. We valuate jobs and careers differently: jobs are often described as simple, labour-for-compensation exchanges (a trade of time for money), while careers are framed as identity-building enterprises (a means to the end of some self-actualization). By some accounts, jobs are superior to careers precisely because they don’t tempt us to define ourselves by our labor. But others argue that careers offer greater stability, thus affording more opportunity to find meaningful activities outside of our employment. Perhaps the ‘job’ vs. ‘career’ distinction is a false differentiation. Maybe it is a semantic construct that clouds the issue. What we want more than anything else is to hold our heads high and say we gave our lives to something greater. No, our jobs and careers did not take our lives from us. We sacrificed ourselves, freely, through our own agency and choice, to a cause that held value for us.

Two individuals work at the same job. One worker is resentful and angry with the state of their employment. The other exudes an air of contentment and resolution. Perhaps the latter describes their labor as time given, while the former says their time has been taken away. The difference between these two laborers is not that one has internalized their work as a ‘job’ and the other as a ‘career.’ The difference is that one has agency and the other thinks of themselves as a prisoner.

This distinction reminds me of the observations of Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor. While a prisoner in Nazi concentration camps he noticed that some people maintained a relentless desire to continue living, while others quickly let hope slip away. What makes people different from one another? Frankl wondered. Why are some prisoners so psychologically resilient?

Frankl study concludes that survivors managed to maintain their self-determination and agency, even in the midst of incarceration: although they were living through hell on earth, they intrinsically saw themselves servants to some higher cause. For Frankl, this was much more than a coping mechanism or a mental trick: their lives were given to something greater than themselves, and nothing could take that away from them.27

How did Frankl himself psychologically survive the ordeal? He found a meaningful purpose for being there. He assigned himself the mission of serving, observing, and learning from his fellow prisoners. He decided that his suffering was a curriculum – a tool to help him become a better psychiatrist. He studied his reality. In a sense, he gave himself to the Thereienstadt, Auschwitz, and Kaufering because he had defined an important reason for why he was there. In this sense, he was no longer a prisoner.

How does the legend of Marcaria and the experiences of Frankl translate into the reality of our occupations? I think it boils down to personal autonomy. To have ‘meaningful work’ is to have a job or a career to which you freely give yourself. The labor can be hard, and the workload can be demanding, but as long as it is a self-sacrifice, you can embrace the suffering instead begrudging it. As long as you identify yourself as having chosen the path, you can undergo excruciating trials along the way. You rise to the occasion because this is your course – your mission.

However, as the myth of Macaria reminds us, compulsion nullifies self-sacrifice. The moment we feel like we are not on this path because of any choice of our own, we are doomed to resent it. We become prisoners, scapegoats, or indentured servants when we are no longer able to say, ‘I am here because this work – or the remuneration it rewards – serves some purpose that I determine has value.’ A life of meaningful work is a life consciously given, not a life that feels like it has been taken away.

  1. On one hand, yes, of course, health and peace are describable on their own terms. For instance, we might describe health as the uninterrupted sequence of physiological processes. Or we might say that health is an instance of any self-organizing and self-replicating system of metabolic processes that successfully – albeit temporarily – holds the second law of thermodynamics at bay. We could say peace is cooperation and mutuality at scale. But what do health and peace mean to us as humans? Ultimately, whatever we say about health and peace will be said in some human language, nestled within some human culture, and hued by some human values. At the level of social and personal interpretation and application, health and peace only hold meaning for us, as humans, to the extent we understand the concepts of disease and war. It is in this explicitly human-bound experience of health and peace that they appear incomprehensible apart from their opposites.  ↩

  2. Saint–Exupéry, Antoine de. (1939). Wind, Sand and Stars (1939). Translated by Lewis Galantière (1967). Emphasis added. Available on Google Books at https://books.google.ca/books?id=9JSQUG74tFgC&pg=PT50#v=onepage&q&f=false  ↩

  3. I have constructed this ‘hybrid’ quote based on numerous iterations and versions in circulation. I have not been able to pinpoint with exact certainty where this statement originated. It seems to be popularized by a Despair, Inc. ‘Demotivator’ poster (see https://despair.com/products/dysfunction) but has appeared in countless variations without citation. Conducting a date–based search on Google Books, the earliest instance I can find is: ‘I was the common denominator in all these relationships’ in Freston, Kathy. (2007). Expect a Miracle: 7 Spiritual Steps to Finding the Right Relationship. St. Martin's Press. Quote in context: https://books.google.ca/books?id=kVSGzfRCFvEC&pg=PT7  ↩

  4. Kelly, Walt. (1971). We have met the enemy. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pogo(comic_strip)#/media/File:PogoEarthDay1971poster.jpg. The quote, ‘We have met the enemy, and he is us’ is a parody of, ‘We have met the enemy and they are ours,’ reportedly written in 1813 by American naval officer Oliver Hazard Perry, following the defeat and capture British Royal Navy ships in the Battle of Lake Erie. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wehavemettheenemy.  ↩

  5. Herodotus, Histories 7.44–46. I have paraphrased quotations. My source is trans. Aubrey De Selincourt (2003[1954]). Penguin Classics.  ↩

  6. Cyprian, Epistola ad Donatum 1.6–14. In Roberts, Alexander (ed) & Donaldson, James (ed). (1886). The Ante–Nicene Fathers. Translations of the Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 323. Volume V. p. 277. Buffalo: The Christian Literature Company.  ↩

  7. Dalley, Stephanie. (2008[1989]). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 190–200  ↩

  8. Photograph available from NASA at https://www.nasa.gov/content/blue–marble–image–of–the–earth–from–apollo–17  ↩

  9. See Overview effect on Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overview_effect  ↩

  10. Photograph available from NASA at http://photojournal.jpl.nasa.gov/catalog/PIA00452  ↩

  11. Boethius II.VIII, The Consolation of Philosophy. (Trans. Walter John Sedgefield, 1900). Oxford: Clarendon Press.  ↩

  12. There are countless other examples in literature of great elevations symbolically or literally paralleling the highest perspective on human activity. For example: the Temptation of Christ (Matthew 4:8, Luke 4:5); Ibn Tufayl‘s’s highest sphere of transcendence (Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān 127–129)  ↩

  13. Nietzsche, Friedrich. (1883). Thus Spoke Zarathustra 1.7.  ↩

  14. Plutarch, On the Fortune or Virtue of Alexander 331f-332c  ↩

  15. Diogenes Laërtius, Lives 6.60  ↩

  16. Seneca, De beneficiis 5.6.1; trans. Dobbin 2012:32  ↩

  17. Juvenal, Satire 14.308–12, trans. Ramsay 1918  ↩

  18. Epictetus, Discourses I.29.24  ↩

  19. Epictetus, Discourses I.11.37  ↩

  20. Epictetus, Discourses I.25.31  ↩

  21. There are two important caveats here. First: When you are being stalked by a tiger, chased by an assailant, or uncertain about the source of your next meal, Epictetus does not seem to advocate curling up and just accepting what life deals you. Your hypothalamus and adrenal gland are there for good reasons. In emergencies, stress and anxiety are absolute imperatives, and are arguably far more useful than rationality could ever be in the moment. The point here is not to stigmatize stress and anxiety, but to consider where they are most appropriate, assuming that the ‘problem’ at hand is a situation which allows for such leisurely review. Stress and anxiety are themselves not the problem, nor are they even necessarily ‘bad things’ at all. We are culture–bound creatures: giving neurobiological states ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ values is inherently a subjective game. Secondly: Let us keep in mind that the brain is a physical organ, and as such it is just as susceptible to injury, disease, and fracture as the rest of our cellular composition. For some people, stress and anxiety are simply not states that can be analyzed and rationalized with the prefrontal cortex. Please do not hear me proposing that a simple thought experiment like this can override broader, systemic biological or chemical conditions. In other words: I am not proposing Epictetus as a clinical remedy.  ↩

  22. Minchin, Tim. (2013). Occasional Address. Delivered at The University of Western Australia. Full address available at http://www.timminchin.com/2013/09/25/occasional–address/  ↩

  23. Ecclesiastes 9:10, World English Bible  ↩

  24. Hemstock, Gillian & McEnaney, Frank. (1990[1986]). The Careerfree Life. Oakville: Mosiac Press. p. 18  ↩

  25. Trollope, Anthony. (1878). in Hall, John N. (ed) (1983). The Letters of Anthony Trollope. Volume 1. Stanford: Stanford University Press. p. 783  ↩

  26. Euripides, The Children of Hercules 447–448 (trans. Davie, John. (1996). Euripides: Medea and Other Plays. Penguin Classics. p. 111.)  ↩

  27. Frankl, Victor E. (2006[1984]). Man’s Search for Meaning. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press. pp. 110–111  ↩