Variety is the Curse of Life

Beer used to be easy. There were six or seven large breweries. They made a signature recipe and a lite version. You were loyal to your brand, and you bought in bulk because it was cheaper that way. Sometime in the late 1990’s that all began to change.

Suddenly there were ice beers and amber beers and red beers. Then came the microbrews and the imports. Novelty was the order of the day, and novelty sold well! More microbreweries sprung up everywhere. Brewmasters strained their creativity to produce endless new varieties. Obscure brands from halfway around the world began showing up in the local liquor store. Connoisseurs emerged who wouldn’t be caught dead sipping anything that emerged from a corporate vat.

That trend has continued for decades and I am ashamed to admit that I’ve periodically been caught up in the enthusiasm and snobbery.

So, why am I telling you this story? Because this cycle is everywhere anymore. Baseball cards have followed a similar path. So has wine. Athletic shoes. Watches. Coffee.

Am I saying that new is bad? No, far from it. Innovation is the key to long term success. But seeking the new, merely because it is new, is a gateway to despair.

It’s a treadmill that is difficult to escape. If you keep running, you’ll become overwrought and exhausted, but if you step off, you can fall into the hole in your life where the new once held sway. Healing that hole is a long and painful process.

Better to avoid it altogether. My solution is utility. Don’t be a collector. Acquire what you need and avoid what you merely want. Be purposeful. Resist trends. Fail to conform. This is the path to contentedness.

 

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 🙂

 

 

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