When you hear the word ‘philosophy’, you probably think of struggling philosophy majors from liberal arts colleges living in their parents’ basement. Or maybe that guy from your office with grand ideas about the meaning of life.
But chances are, you might be misinformed about what philosophy truly is. I definitely was. I used to think philosophy was nonsense with no practical teachings — only sweeping ideas that could never apply to reality. I could not have been further from the truth.
Digging in and learning more about it, I realized if you wanted to pursue success and happiness in life (two things most people want), as well as create a foundation for answering difficult questions, philosophy, more than anything else, could help guide you there. How? Well first, you have to understand what philosophy actually is to better understand some of its core teachings.
Philosophy is a Love of Wisdom
Defining philosophy like this can help you better understand how learning about it can benefit you in your life. People ultimately study philosophy to gain wisdom. And what’s better than becoming incredibly wise? In this case, wisdom can encompass many different things, depending on your perspective. It can mean applying your knowledge to relevant situations. Or learning to view the world objectively. Or even being at peace whether you’re at the highest high or the lowest low.
Two of the most successful business people in the world today, Charlie Munger and Ray Dalio (whom I wrote about here) embody the definition of philosophy. They both have a deep love of wisdom, and through the rigorous study and creation of their own unique philosophies, they’ve been able to achieve both happiness and success. Think of the most successful or smartest person you know in your life. Chances are, you’d call them wise. Most likely, they’ve studied some type of philosophical concept.
Understanding that philosophy is a love of wisdom can be daunting and vague — where do you even begin? A good place to start: asking questions about yourself, why you think the way you do, and the world around you. The concepts and ideas laid down below come from different philosophical realms and thinkers, and can help you begin answering these questions by applying them to your daily life in however you see fit.
If you’re like me, you probably get the feeling sometimes that time and your life whizzes by without you having a moment to, as they say, stop and smell the flowers. We’re all on autopilot. We have our routines that we stick to. Our legs move us around our neighborhood or around our house without us even thinking. We absorb ourselves into our iPhones and our computers, deep in a trance with no regard or attention to the world around us. The next thing we know, another day has passed. And they all blend together. In philosophical terms, our condition would be called Waking Sleep. Obviously we’re not asleep, but we might as well be.
Simply understanding the concept and the condition of Waking Sleep can dramatically improve your day to day life. Our brains want to work as little as possible, so they thrust us into these routines where we have trouble noticing and appreciating the richness of the everyday and the mundane around us. It’s difficult to enjoy each and every day when your brain switches to autopilot. Instead of living like the robots we’re glued to, next time you’re walking down the street, look around and take in your surroundings. Try to take pleasure in the mundane or the everyday around you — whether the trees, or a beautiful building, or even your neighbors. If you’re with your friends or family, remember to be present with them, and enjoy their company right now. Snapping out of waking sleep demands that you divert your attention to the present moment.
For me, I try to take tasks that I normally dislike (washing dishes, brushing my teeth) and think about and enjoy them while I do them, rather than have my mind wander. Simply paying attention to your task at hand can help bring you to higher states of awareness, and thus, make whatever you are doing significantly more enjoyable. There may be many paths to wisdom and happiness, but first you need to learn how to wake up.
Control Over your Situations and Emotions
Forces beyond your control can take away everything you possess except one thing: your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation. — Viktor Frankl
How often do you feel stressed or wronged in certain situations? Or worry incessantly about something that has yet to occur? As Ryan Holiday states in his book The Obstacle is the Way, “The phrase ‘This happened and it is bad’ is actually two impressions. The first — ‘This happened’ — is objective. The second — ‘it is bad’ is subjective.” Here, he’s taking a page out of the stoic philosophyplaybook: you, and only you, have the power to determine whether or not your given situation is good or bad.
Say for example you and a fellow co-worker were competing to be promoted, and your co-worker beat you out and was given the job over you. You’d probably view this situation as “bad”. But if you were a student of stoic philosophy, you’d know that you’d have a clear choice in determining how to view this situation. Maybe you now have an insight into what skills you need in order to move up, or which alliances you need to make, or even an opportunity to reevaluate if that career path works for you. And this can ultimately lead to future and sustained success. The key insight here is that you are in the driver’s seat: you have the ability to determine your own situation.
In addition to showing us our emotional options, stoic philosophy can also teach us about the senselessness of obsessing over decisions or situations outside of our direct control. This might seem obvious, but most people (myself included) stress about situations or major decisions outside of their control, like if a snowstorm will delay your important travel plans, or if a certain piece of legislation will come into law. The worrying about the uncertainty of tomorrow reduces your ability to enjoy the certainty around you today. The ancient Roman philosopher, Seneca, phrases this philosophical idea beautifully: “The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control and abandoning what is in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: Live Immediately.”
Just having an understanding of this philosophical idea and keeping it in the back of your head can have a profound impact on how you live and enjoy your life. Instead of worrying about that snowstorm set to hit this weekend, forget about it and enjoy the people around you. Not feeling confident about Congress acting in your favor in a vote two weeks from now? Revel in your freedom today. Live like the Stoics do (and did). The key insight here: if it’s out of your control, it’s unproductive to act otherwise, and you’ll just end up creating unnecessary worry and stress.
Understanding and Finding Meaning
I’m just going to dive right into this heavy, loaded, and deep topic of meaning. To avoid confusion, I’d like to define meaning as: actions that are important or worthwhile. Exactly what is important or worthwhile, of course, is subjective.
I think it’s fair to say that most people desire some form of meaning in their life. You probably want your actions to correlate to a higher purpose, and not just go through arbitrary motions, right? You want what you do to matter. And this search or acquisition of meaning can prove challenging. I’m not going to say that I know much about living a life of meaning, but rather discuss how the study or understanding of philosophy can help push you in a positive direction. While there are many different branches of philosophical thought on meaning, I’m choosing to focus on Existentialism here.
Through the lens of Existentialism, there is no inherent meaning in the world: nothing is “destined to be”. Rather, individuals derive their own meaning in life as they see fit, living it passionately and “authentically.” To help drive this idea home from a scientific perspective, in his book The Big Picture: Life in the Universe, Sean Carroll writes,
“We are collections of vibrating quantum fields, held together in persistent patterns by feeding off of ambient free energy according to impersonal and uncaring laws of nature, and we are also human beings who make choices and care about what happens to ourselves and to others……We don’t need an immovable place to stand; we need to make our peace with a universe that doesn’t care what we do, and take pride in the fact that we care anyway.”
While it might seem frightening that no inherent meaning for you exists, similar to having complete control over your situational responses, it also can be liberating to know that you, and only you, can derive and establish meaning in your own life. It may seem intuitive that you can establish your own life’s meaning, but seen through the lens of existentialism (and thus, philosophy), you can better understand your own quest for meaning and translate this into a way to live.
Albert Camus, a famous 20th century French philosopher and existentialist, discussed the struggle between man’s search for meaning and the lack of inherent meaning in the world, dubbed “the absurd.” Camus acknowledges the anxiety that follows a thirst for meaning in a meaningless universe, but once the absurd is truly known and confronted, can become freeing. He says, “The return to consciousness, the escape from everyday sleep represent the first steps of absurd freedom.” Here, he discusses how once you recognize the absurd, you become more aware of your surroundings (opening your eyes from waking sleep) and your condition (living in a world devoid of inherent meaning), and can thus “revolt” against this condition and create meaning in the face of the absurd reality.
Through the lens of existentialism, you can better understand your position in the world, and from there, strive to uncover meaning in your own life. You can absolutely find meaning in your life without any understanding of philosophical thought; however, having a base from which to understand your core truths from and having a deeper understanding of the subtleties of meaning itself can provide you with more satisfying, clear answers and results.
The Self and the Present
As you probably don’t know, the “self” is an illusion. “I” is an illusion. I’ll offer philosophical reasoning (and scientific evidence) to back these claims up. And you’ll see why removing this illusion remains essential to philosophy and your quality of life.
Alan Watts, a 20th century British philosopher best known for bringing Eastern thought to the West, has this to say about the self: “‘I’ comes from memory and the rapidity of thought…..Memory is a part of the present experience. There is no separate I that can view the past in the present…..There is simply experience.” He argues against the “self” we view as an unchanging being that directs, controls, and owns our lives and minds; rather, he believes that all of our feelings and experiences occur briefly in the present, flowing down our stream of consciousness. Our memories are experienced in the present, just like our sense of “I.” Even though our memories of past experiences exist, these memories are experienced in the here and now, not within a hidden, unchanging part of your brain. Watts says that, “You cannot separate yourself from the present and you cannot define it,” further reiterating the belief that what you are IS the present moment.
I can definitely understand any hesitation to accept this philosophical reasoning around the self, so I’ll add some scientific reinforcement that bolsters Watts’ argument. Marvin Minsky, an American cognitive scientist and founder of MIT’s Artificial Intelligence lab, discusses the illusion of the self in his book The Emotion Machine. At a high-level, he also argues that the “self” is an illusion; he says that many different mental processes and resources competing in different methods can account for what we describe as the “self”.
Minsky likes to think about the self by asking seemingly obvious questions: “When you think of yourself as a single thing, this gives you no clues about issues like these: What determines the subjects I think about? How do I choose what next to do? How can I solve this difficult problem? Instead, the Single-Self concept offers only useless answers like these: My Self selects what to think about. My Self decides what I should do next. I should try to make my Self get to work.”
Through asking these questions, Minsky concludes that a single Self controlling our brains doesn’t make sense. Instead, he believes different mental processes compete within our brain, just like life competes in nature: “For by nature I am a sort of meeting place of countless streams of ancestral tendency…. I am a collection of impulses. There is no one desire that is always present to me.”
Okay, so now that we can intellectually understand the illusory nature of the self, who cares, and what does this have to do with philosophy? Well, understanding and noticing this concept assists you in understanding the present. Instead of looking inwards to the “self”, your awareness encompasses the present and your reality around you. Watts would say that man and his present experience are one, not divided. When you recognize the fallacy of the “self”, your attention is free to absorb everything around you and understand the present moment.
And understanding and feeling the present moment helps us to shake off waking sleep, recognize when our emotions and expectations spin out of control, and understand how and what we derive our meaning from, if anything. To bring it full circle, realizing the fallacy of the self brings your awareness to the now, which supercharges your ability to understand all other philosophical concepts, and recursively improve your understanding. And thus, this improvement can help you better enjoy the life and reality around you.
Philosophy is a love of wisdom — not a way to practice mental gymnastics. Diving into its teachings can help improve your quality of life in whatever manner you see fit. Only a few philosophical concepts through one perspective have been discussed here. There are hundreds of other thinkers and concepts to learn from. If you have any desire to become happier, more successful, a better rational thinker or decision maker, or just a curiosity to better understand your own life and the reality around you, then philosophy is for you.
Here are some useful websites and books for you to get started: