Some Big Questions with Small Answers

From time to time I take stock by asking myself some big questions. In case you’re interested, Vera, here are my answers as of today (in other words, either the questions or answers, or both, could change):

What’s the purpose of life?

Perhaps there is none. My focus is on experiencing life fully.

What stands in the way of contentment and happiness?

Three things come to mind: 1) desire, 2) the need to make a difference and 3) the idea that I and the world should be something we’re not.

Is there a creator-being (God)?

No one knows. Moreover, it’s a question that need not be answered.

What is the prime age?

Physically, our 20s and even into our 30s. Cognitively, our mid-20s to mid-40s. Emotionally and psychologically, we can improve with age; there is no reason to believe we ever have to peak (subject to disease).

What’s the most important factor to consider in deciding where to work?

The attributes of the people who work there: their purpose, expertise, standards (both performance and ethical), and values.

What deserves more attention than it gets?

The inner life. The external receives nearly all our attention.

What are the most precious things in life?

Authentic, caring relationships. And experiences that excite us.

Is money the root of all evil?

No, although it’s the root of much evil. But ego plays a major role, too.

If there is no god, is there even such a thing as evil or sin?

Depends on what you mean by it. Clearly, there are things that harm oneself, others, or the earth. Call it what you want.

What would I do different if I had the opportunity to start over?

Not spend so much time looking for answers that don’t exist. Seek deeper understanding and become more aware of the knowable. Recognize the dangers of the ego and desire. Waste less time in meetings and watching TV and sporting events. Accept reality, expect nothing from others or fate, and be less judgmental. Eat less sugar and sugar-containing products. Be a better listener. Start my own business or firm. Be less attached to, dependent upon, and concerned with others and the ego. Value relationships more. Work less and play more. Live more in the moment.

What’s the best movie I’ve watched, the best book I’ve read, the best president we’ve had, the best college, etc.?

I’m tapped out with our obsession with rankings and hierarchies. They’re a distraction and waste of time.

What constitutes a good book?

One that’s worth reading more than once. If you want to know what authors and books I value, come and look at my bookcase (and the floor surrounding it).

What would I do different in rearing my children?

Be less concerned with imparting values and what I thought was knowledge, and regulating conduct, and more focused on helping them discover things and gain a deeper understanding of people and themselves. Ask the question “why?” more often.

What do you think of organized religion?

It demands I embrace too many ideas I no longer believe are true or necessary or even beneficial. And I’ve grown weary of the way the institution manipulates people through guilt, embraces obvious charlatans, and condones — indeed, helps perpetuate — ideologies and power structures that subjugate and pacify people. So organized religion no longer has a place in my life. Even more personally, it filled my psyche with the seeds of self-doubt and self-loathing, which nearly killed me. All and all, the dangers of organized religion are under-appreciated. That said, its rituals and ethical foundations can play an important and beneficial role in the world. And some of the most admirable, authentic people I’ve known I’ve met through the church (although, admittedly, some of the most deceitful, fraudulent, and despicable people I’ve met have been regular church-goers).

What’s unexplainable in life?

Most things. Of the many, two stand out in my life: 1) a vision in my 40s (very different from a dream) and 2) a born-again experience in my early 50s (bearing absolutely no resemblance to what evangelical Christians think of as being “born again”).

What do I hope to understand better?

My own mind.

What do I hope to control better?

My own thoughts.

What is the most destructive force on earth?

Fear.

What do I fear?

Too numerous to list. Someday I hope to fear nothing. My fears today are fewer and less powerful than they used to be. But I still am fearful of too many things. Courage is harder to muster than one would think.

What are the two most important words ever spoken?

“Fear not.” – Jesus

What are the three most important words ever spoken?

“Love one another.” – Jesus

Am I optimistic or pessimistic about the future?

Neither. Moreover, my views of the future are of no import, either to me or to anyone else. I have no idea what the future holds, nor do I need to. My focus is on today. I looked forward to getting up this morning. And I expect to have the same excitement tomorrow morning.

Whom do I admire?

People who risk or sacrifice something to help others. And people who are authentic and don’t pretend to be somebody they aren’t. People who do their best. People who are honest (with others and themselves).

What traits serve people well?

Curiosity, open-mindedness, and courage.

What’s most important in life?

Inner peace.

What do I want to be remembered for?

I’ll be dead. Such questions don’t interest me. They seem silly and narcissistic.

 

 

Our Feelings Are Being Hacked

If you think you’re immune from being hacked (and, yes, I mean you, not your computer), then you’re probably not aware. And perhaps there is nothing as dangerous as lack of awareness.

Yuval Noah Harari outlines 21st-century hacking dangers in this Ted Talk and offers suggestions for resistance. It’s well worth watching. And, more importantly, it’s worth considering the risks and challenges to individuality. To independent thought. The risks to you. To me.

It’s also worth questioning whether we should be participating in certain internet platforms such as Facebook. Some time back I decided to drop out of FB and am convinced it was the right thing to do.

Last week I watched the Steelers-Panthers football game on Fox. It came with Amazon Prime. It’s the first I had watched commercial television in a while. OMG, the commercials. And the product placement in the announcer booth. The entire experience was commercialized and manipulative. It was a good reminder of the constant attacks on our independence. On independent thought.

Awareness. I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. And realizing how unaware I still am.

The Show Goes On

President Trump is the consummate con man. Show man. No one can dominate the public attention and discourse like he can. He’s superb at what he does.

Meanwhile, of course, the daily barrage of distractions — the show he orchestrates — provides cover for the real Republican agenda: cutting taxes for the rich and their corporations, privatizing governmental functions such as education and the military (i.e., converting them into profit-making enterprises, further enriching those with capital), eliminating constraints on businesses so nothing gets in their way of turning a profit, undermining and weakening the forces of liberal democracy in whatever way he can, and pruning and, where possible, eliminating the social safety net (i.e., overturning Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and its progeny). In short, Mr. Trump has been very good for the elite of this country, his populist persona notwithstanding.

Bob Woodward’s new book, Fear, will arrive at my doorstep today, thanks to Amazon Prime. Continue reading

What Do I Understand Now That I Wish I’d Understood Then?

What do I understand (or at least think I understand) now that I wish I had understood when I had began my journey through adulthood? It’s of no consequence to me, of course: it’s impossible to turn back the clock. But it might be of some help to you, Vera.

In looking back I’m struck by how naïve I was when I came out of high school and, four years later, college. I had little appreciation for what the world was really like. Growing up in a working-class family in homogenous rural south-central Pennsylvania hadn’t exposed me to much. My world was very small.

More than four decades of career experiences in law, business (CEO), government (special agent for DOD and, later, cabinet secretary), and higher ed (college president) changed that. To a degree. There is still much about life I don’t understand or, perhaps more accurately, refuse to accept. I’m still learning and always will be. Nonetheless, life has imparted a few lessons along the way.

Some of the lessons were easy to learn; some were hard. Some were moments of euphoria and left fond memories; some were painful and left scars. Others were learned merely by reading or observing. (It’s always preferable to learn from other people’s wisdom or mistakes.) I decided to compose a list of what I consider to have been some of the most important lessons.

What the list isn’t, however, is a list of rules to live by. I’m not fond of rules and would never suggest life is so easily mastered. Moreover, as I’ve mentioned before, I have absolutely no desire to tell you how to live your life, Vera. Rather, I’m simply sharing some of the things I wish I had better understood when I was young, starting out.

Some of the lessons are practical; some are of the existential variety. The list is neither complete nor final. After all, I’m still learning.

Please don’t infer an order of priority, for none is intended. “You” and “your,” below, refer to me; it is as if life is speaking to me. Occasional personal comments follow parenthetically. Continue reading

The Fear of Missing Out

Social media and internet usage are driven, in part, by the fear of missing out. In my case, despite knowing better, I check news sites, Twitter and Facebook far too often. I want to be sure I don’t miss something important. Unfortunately, the internet does a poor job of separating the important from the trivial, which means I spend too much time and focus on the unimportant.

The problem is, all of this is time consuming and distracting. It interferes with other things, namely, things that have the potential of being far more meaningful and valuable to myself and others.

The other aspect of the problem is the lack of discipline being exhibited. A well-disciplined person would not succumb to the temptations of immediacy that the internet provides. The person would be in control.

Finally, there are the detriments of information overload. Simply put, I know too much. And a lot of what I know is utterly useless — sheer clutter and noise. It doesn’t make me a better person or better informed, and it certainly isn’t useful in making better decisions. It’s just information overload, plain and simple.

That’s the problem as I see it. So what’s the fix? Here’s the plan I’ve been implementing.

The first step is to be clear about what I need to know. I have a national newspaper delivered daily so there’s no danger of missing something of national or international importance. Hence, I’ve been reducing dramatically my checks of internet news sites.

But it’s not that simple. There is some news that is critical to what I do, namely, investing and trading financial assets (stocks and bonds primarily). So I do need to keep in touch with developments that could impact significantly the value of those assets and the markets generally.

Which brings me to Twitter. It’s a great resource; however, like other sites, it can get out of control. So I’ve been culling the list of people and organizations I follow to focus on those who are more regularly adding new insights or material information that is more likely to have a bearing on investment decisions.

I’ve also stopped reading most of the president’s tweets. At first, they were entertaining and insightful, providing a window to a deranged mind. But, frankly, by this point he’s become a bore. A potentially dangerous one, but a bore nonetheless. I don’t need daily reminders of just how crazy it is that an individual like him occupies the White House.

Finally, on the email front, I’ve been unsubscribing from all but what are essential sites for purposes of investment decisions. And have been converting daily Google Alerts to weekly ones and dropping ones that have only marginal value.

I often say that fear is the most insidious and injurious force in the universe. I believe that. But fear takes many forms. It’s taken me far too long to appreciate the grip that the fear of missing out has on my life. Finally, I’ve reached the point where denial is no longer an option. It’s time to take control.

Too Afraid To Be Away From the Office

Americans don’t take roughly half of their allotted vacation time because of fear. Vera, if you ever find yourself in the position of being afraid to take your allowed vacation time, know that it’s time to take stock of your life.

Sixty plus years of life has convinced me that fear is the most persistent and powerful force in the universe. And that one key to a happy life is to overcome it.

It’s no easy task. In fact, some people may say it’s an impossible task. But they’re only partially right. It is impossible to conquer fear entirely, but it is quite possible not to allow it to dominant your life.

But it may take some planning. And willingness to take some risks (or what will be perceived by many people as risks).

If you’re going to be beholden to anything eternal to you, such as an employer, a particular client, an image or certain position in life, then it’s likely you’ll fear losing that thing. And it’s possible that that fear will lead you to do things you’d otherwise not do, and to feel things you’d rather not feel. It’s because the thing owns you.

The antidote to fear, in my experience, is freedom: the freedom to walk away, the freedom to live your life in harmony with your values and heartfelt desires.

Yet freedom can be illusive. Things seek to steal it, to deprive you of its glory. Fear tells us freedom is risky. Unreliable.

To the contrary, the risk lies in allowing fear to convince us that the other is the source of freedom and happiness. And that it doesn’t reside within.

We think we need more than we do. Fear convinces us of that.

Many people are afraid to spend time away from the office. They fear losing their job. Or their privileged position.

I hope you know freedom, Vera. My hope for you on this Labor Day is that you’ll never be afraid to leave the office and, if you find yourself in that position, that there will be a path out to freedom.