But What For Newsletter - No. 014

Habits Maketh Man, the Volunteer, Tail Ends, Fat Loss, Leverage Points Are Hard to Find and Mirrors Make You Self-Conscious

Welcome to all our new subscribers! I write a weekly newsletter, sent out every Sunday, with curated quotes and one-line takeaways from material that I think is worth reading. Occasionally, I share my own thoughts, inspired by others’ writings, on Tuesdays. If you enjoy our newsletter, please share it with a few friends/colleagues or follow me on Twitter.

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Latest from But What For?

(Underlined titles are links to full articles)

No new article from me this last week - apologies - as the day job has been a little unrelenting recently. However, sharing this one from a while back given our number of subscribers has increased 4,000% since it was written (Thank you to everyone!).

Life is complex. Chaotic. Surprising. Uncertain. It is full of new things – many of which can kill us. And that’s a problem, because we humans tend to prefer not dying. Fortunately, we have been practicing surviving for quite some time and have developed a way to cut down on that chaos with a bit of order: the ability to form habits. However, and unfortunately for those humans looking for more in life than just survival, these habits often have more control over us than we have control over them.

And it’s a slog for sure, with ups and downs. But what is interesting about all of this is that you don’t actually have much of a choice – you have to play the habit game, so to speak.

You have a set of habits that got you to where you are today. Those are either moving you towards the future identity that you want, or away from it. Which direction are you moving? Are you happy with that?


(Underlined titles are links to sources)

He mistakenly feared it was the start of the “Jewish method” being applied to the Poles. In fact, Nazi leadership intended to drastically reduce the number of Poles in their territories by up to 85 percent, but wholesale extermination had been ruled out. As one German official observed, “That sort of solution [using the gas chambers on more than just the Jews] .  .  . would hang over the German people and deprive us of sympathy everywhere.”

His attorney usually advised clients to beg forgiveness of the court. But Witold refused. “I tried to live my life in such a fashion,” he told the courtroom, “so that in my last hour, I would rather be happy than fearful. I find happiness in knowing that the fight was worth it.” He reiterated the fact that he was a Polish officer following orders.

Patriotism of this strength can seem outdated or worrisomely like the preserve of a far-right rising on a tide of nationalism. But we must also reckon with the fact that Witold’s patriotism furnished him with a sense of service and a moral compass that sustained his mission in the camp. Ultimately he couldn’t save his comrades, or the Jews. He makes no apologies for that fact, but neither does he hide his failure. Rather, he suggests in his final writings that we must come to understand our limits, even as he exhorts us to see past them.

Above all, he asks us to trust one another. Witold’s defining quality was his ability to place his faith in other people. In the camp, where the SS sought to break the prisoners down and strip them of their values, the idea of trust had revolutionary potential. So long as the prisoners could believe in the greater good, they were not defeated. Witold’s men perished in many terrible and excruciating ways, but they did so with a dignity that Nazism failed to destroy.

Witold Pilecki's Heroism in the Face of Unspeakable Evil - History Arch
  • Takeaway: Make sure you actively set priorities in your life and don’t let the inertia of past decisions make them for you

I’ve been thinking about my parents, who are in their mid-60s. During my first 18 years, I spent some time with my parents during at least 90% of my days. But since heading off to college and then later moving out of Boston, I’ve probably seen them an average of only five times a year each, for an average of maybe two days each time. 10 days a year. About 3% of the days I spent with them each year of my childhood.

Being in their mid-60s, let’s continue to be super optimistic and say I’m one of the incredibly lucky people to have both parents alive into my 60s. That would give us about 30 more years of coexistence. If the ten days a year thing holds, that’s 300 days left to hang with mom and dad. Less time than I spent with them in any one of my 18 childhood years.

When you look at that reality, you realize that despite not being at the end of your life, you may very well be nearing the end of your time with some of the most important people in your life. If I lay out the total days I’ll ever spend with each of my parents—assuming I’m as lucky as can be—this becomes starkly clear:

It turns out that when I graduated from high school, I had already used up 93% of my in-person parent time. I’m now enjoying the last 5% of that time. We’re in the tail end.

  • Takeaway: One size doesn’t usually fit all, so make sure you are considering your situation when making decisions

If you’re unhappy with your weight, or your body, for whatever reason, that’s your problem. The sooner you accept this, the sooner you’re going to start making progress. 

You can read all the “TOP 10 FAT LOSS HACKS YOU AREN’T DOING” articles you want, or stare at motivational quotes by some famous dead person plastered across a pair of random abs or glutes, but until you realise change depends on getting off your ass and doing something, nothing’s going to happen because your fat loss is down to you actually wanting to make a change.

And seeing we’re here now: I get gazillions of emails and questions from people asking me for the solution to their lack of motivation–well... There is no solution. 

Did I hurt your feelings?

  • Takeaway: There isn’t always a magic bullet, so don’t get discouraged when you find out it will take a lot of work

Folks who do systems analysis have a great belief in “leverage points.” These are places within a complex system (a corporation, an economy, a living body, a city, an ecosystem) where a small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything.

This idea is not unique to systems analysis — it’s embedded in legend. The silver bullet, the trimtab, the miracle cure, the secret passage, the magic password, the single hero who turns the tide of history. The nearly effortless way to cut through or leap over huge obstacles. We not only want to believe that there are leverage points, we want to know where they are and how to get our hands on them. Leverage points are points of power…

Magical leverage points are not easily accessible, even if we know where they are and which direction to push on them. There are no cheap tickets to mastery. You have to work hard at it, whether that means rigorously analyzing a system or rigorously casting off your own paradigms and throwing yourself into the humility of Not Knowing. In the end, it seems that mastery has less to do with pushing leverage points than it does with strategically, profoundly, madly letting go.

  • Takeaway: Make sure to watch yourself, or you might find you are doing things you don’t want to see yourself doing

In an interesting experiment, behavioural scientist Arthur Beaman and his colleagues called children to a known local house in the neighbourhood. A research assistant pointed to a large bowl of candies on a nearby table and told the children that they could take one of the candies.

The research assistant then mentioned that she had some work to do and exited the room, while another research assistant was secretly watching the kids through a hidden peephole. The experiment revealed that over a third of the kids (33.7 per cent) in this control group took more candy than they should have.

The behavioural scientists then called another bunch of kids to the house and repeated the same experiment.

For this test group, they angled a large mirror by the candy bowl in such a way that the kids had to look at themselves in the mirror when they took the candy. Theft rate in the test group was only 8.9 per cent compared to 33.7 per cent in the control group.

Stoic’s Corner

Epictetus, Discourses, Book 1, 1.13, translation by Robin Hard

  • Takeaway: Just because you occupy some advantageous station in life does not mean you have any right to that position intrinsically, so don’t treat others as if you do

Or because you've been stationed in a somewhat more eminent position, will you set yourself up all at once as a tyrant? Won't you keep in mind who you are, and who these people are whom you are ruling over? That they belong to the same family, that they are by nature brothers of yours, that they are offspring of Zeus?

“But I have right of purchase over them, and they don't have any such right over me.”

But don't you see to where it is that you're directing your view? That it is to the earth, to the pit, to these miserable laws of ours, the laws of the dead, so that you fail to have any regard for the laws of the gods?

Take care and have a great week,

— EJ

But What For? For a break from the urgent: Ideas that matter. Insights that don’t get old.

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