Leverage, and How to Avoid Manipulation

Today my stoic lesson was about about being controlled. To be controlled you have to have levers. I think of levers as the things that compel you to act when you would rather not. There are several levers that are built into us as humans.

Fear, is the biggest. We are afraid of pain. We are afraid of embarrassment and the loss of reputation it will bring. We are afraid of being discovered to be an impostor, because inside we know that we are not as good as people think we are. We are afraid that someone will take what we have worked hard to acquire. We are afraid of death. We are afraid of losing freedom. We are afraid of hunger. We are afraid of the unknown. We are afraid of missing out. Fear is not the only lever, but it is the one seen most often.

Sexual desire is the next. We have a built in understanding of the pleasure that sex brings and we have a built in need to procreate and perpetuate the species. There are innumerable subtitles to this, so I am generalizing a bit for simplicity. Manipulation through sex is everywhere. Marketers tie sex to everything because they understand its power. Attractive men and women both use that quality, consciously or unconsciously, to smooth their path through life. If you don’t believe me ask yourself why women would ever suffer the difficulty of high heeled shoes, or why every gym has so many mirrors.

Empathy is another strong lever. We are social creatures and empathy comes packaged with that. We are pained when we see others in pain, and we want to help them if we can. The closer we are tied to a sufferer, the stronger the desire to help them. This weapon is used against us on a daily basis by charities soliciting funds and people on corners with cardboard signs.

Greed is final lever. We are preprogrammed to want more. It was once a survival instinct, but now it is a burden. When the world was not flush with opportunity and availability, the desire to have more meant you could better withstand the spaces between abundance. Now it is used by scammers and stock brokers who promise massive returns on tiny investments.

So what is the answer? How can we armor ourselves against these attacks? The answer is choice. Our prefrontal cortex it a wondrous thing It grants executive function to override the older parts of our brain that deal in these more visceral emotions. It allows us to choose not to give in.

The problem is that in the moment, that executive function breaks down and we do things that we later regret. To manage this, to preserve control, we must prepare ourselves in the calm moments.

We must find ways to avoid the situations that get our blood boiling, and thus remove the moments of temptation. We must expose ourselves to the things that we fear, in controlled situations, so we can understand our innate irrationality. We must learn to spot the cues that someone is using these levers against us, and by doing so, break the their power.

This battle is never-ending. Temptation and manipulation are all around us, but with practice and focus, you can teach yourself to not react to fear. To not want. To give people responsibility for their choices, while still assuaging the burdens that misfortune has heaped upon them. These are the keys to true freedom and happiness.

How to Avoid Unnecessary Pain

For the last year I’ve been working my way through The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday. It has been amazing to me how relevant many of the lessons have been to modern life. Today’s lesson seemed particularly good to me, so I thought I would share it.

“It is when times are good that you should gird yourself for tougher times ahead.” Seneca, Moral Letters 18.5-6

We live amid incredible luxuries. Even simple things like clean running water, electricity, and the abundance of the grocery store are things that we should be thankful for. When you add in cars and having all of the answers in the world at our fingertips though the internet and virtually instant global communication, we are living in a world that was barely imaginable a century ago.

These wonders are easy to begin to rely on however. They can creep into your head and make you feel all panicky when you think of their involuntary absence.

The best way to avoid this is to remind yourself that you don’t really need them. As Seneca suggested, periodically deprive yourself on purpose. Walk to the store. Go camping somewhere without any plugins. Somewhere that you have to filter your own water. Plant a garden and grow your own food. Go hunting. Provide for yourself. Take a cold shower. Turn off the air conditioner when it’s ridiculously hot. Turn the heat down when its cold. Go hard in a sparring match with someone who is better than you. Take a beating. Do all of this on purpose, when you don’t have to.

Willfully subjecting yourself to things you fear conditions you against them. You will be able to better bear their pain when you no longer have a choice in the matter. It give you power over them.

Have you applied something similar in your life? Let me know in the comments. I am always looking for new challenges 🙂



Fixing Things that Aren’t Broken

One of my least favorite phrases is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. This is a recipe for stagnation and decline. It implies you’re so uncomfortable with your understanding of the principles that govern the system in question, that you’re afraid you could never again achieve your current level of success if you made changes. It’s fear thinking at it’s worst.

There are only two states of being, improvement and decline. Choosing to avoid improvement curses you to decline. Stasis is a myth. The world is constantly changing and we must change to keep up.

Will you fail if you change your approach? Of course you will, and that’s ok. Reflect on the causes of your failure and try again. The only shameful mistake is the one you fail to learn from.

Will those who are too afraid to try ridicule you for your attempt? Almost certainly. They will tell themselves that yours is a cautionary tale, and will feel even more justified in their fear. Ignore them. It is better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all.


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