Knot for want of

Thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I’ve recently been rather obsessed with Charlie Lim’s music. Very late to the party, I know. There’s a line in my favourite song, Knots, that really stood out to me and it goes like this:

Don't you think it's for the best
That we don't always get what we want

At first glance, this line might sound a little strange. How can not getting what you want be any good? To answer this question, I’ll borrow an excellent example from the Skepticism episode of Philosophize This!, which is a great podcast by the way. Let’s consider things from the opposite end, and assume that we’ll get whatever we want whenever we want it. Sounds perfect! Right?

Things might be amazing initially, but not for long. The satisfaction that you get from buying a new iPhone or a new car does not come solely from ownership. Much of the satisfaction and joy comes instead, from the months or years of hard work put into saving up for the purchase. This principle applies to most things, not just monetary purchases. The sense of achievement gained from seeing your hard work come into fruition is an amazing feeling. And this would be lost forever if we simply got whatever we wanted instantly. Not so perfect now, is it?

Now, you’re probably thinking that this isn’t exactly the opposite of Charlie’s lyrics, he didn’t say “that we don’t always get what we want instantly. And you’re right. Things don’t always go as planned, and sometimes hard work doesn’t pay off, at least not in the way that we wanted it to. Success doesn’t come by easily, and that’s precisely why in the off-chance that it does, the satisfaction that comes from is much sweeter than if we succeeded all the time.


Taking a step back, and applying the Stoic principle of identifying things within or beyond our control, we see that we can’t control whether or not we’ll get what we want, but we can control our wants and desires. Seneca puts it succinctly what this means for us:

No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Skepticism in the face of Rejection

Hello dear reader, look around you, wherever you are. You might be sitting on your couch and reading this blog post now, but can you truly be certain of that? How do you know you’re not actually dreaming of sitting on your couch and reading this blog post? Or how do you know that you’re not simply a brain in a vat, and someone is feeding you false sensory signals, causing you to perceive that you’re sitting on a couch and reading a blog post?

These scenarios might sound insane or improbable, but can you prove that you’re not in a dream or you’re not a brain in a vat? You can’t. And that’s philosophical skepticism in a nutshell! The skeptics believed that we can’t trust our senses and we can never really be completely certain of anything. Having to doubt everything all the time is a real hassle, but as of late I’ve been able to find some solace in the wisdom of the skeptics.

In ancient Greece, the Pyrrhonian skeptics strongly believed that as long as we do not have complete knowledge of a certain event, we should suspend our judgement of it. And when you suspend judgement, especially the negative ones, it makes a huge difference in your response to events.

I’m in my second year of university and so far, it has been completely different from how I had envisioned the experience to be, and not just because of corona. I had a few plans prior to starting school – I wanted to stay in a residential college (like a dorm), I wanted to join NUS Hackers and I wanted to go on an exchange programme to another country. Well, how did my plans turn out? My residential college application was rejected, I failed the NUS Hackers interview and more recently, my exchange programme application was rejected.

Dealing with rejection after rejection can be rough, and it definitely made me question my competencies. But from the skeptic’s perspective, you can never have complete knowledge of your rejection. It might seem bad, but perhaps there is a much better opportunity down the line that you would miss out on had you been accepted instead. By adopting the wisdom of the Pyrrhonian skeptics and suspending my judgement of each rejection, I was able to remain open-minded instead of wallowing in self-pity (although I did for a while).

The practice of suspending our judgement is not a mere coping mechanism, it is actually a very rational way of thinking. We don’t know everything so we shouldn’t be so quick to conclude that things are bad. As you can probably tell by now, I’m clearly terrible at conclusions so I’ll just end off with a famous but apt saying.

When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has opened for us.

Alexander Graham Bell

Sabrina (1995)

No, this isn’t a movie review, but yes, there will probably be some mini spoilers, so read on at your own risk. For those who know me, you know that I love a good romance film. And Sabrina was my most recent discovery. Starring Harrison Ford and Julia Ormond, it was a really sweet and classy romance movie. It’s apparently a remake of the original 1954 movie. It’s not a very highly rated movie but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

What really stood out to me was the dialogue. Some of the lines were so well written, it was almost poetic, leaving the audience to read between the lines a little. Here’s are some snippets of dialogue from different parts of the movie.

Sabrina: You probably don’t believe in marriage
Linus: Yes, I do. That’s why I never got married.

Sabrina: I thought it was all a lie.
Linus: It was. It was a lie… but then it was a dream.

David: You’re talking about my life.
Linus: I pay for your life, David. My life makes your life possible.
David: I resent that.
Linus: So do I.

Sabrina : What was Linus like as a boy?
Fairchild : Shorter.

There are a lot more lines like this, but I can’t be quoting the entire movie can I? If you’re still unconvinced about watching this movie, picture a slightly awkward but still confident Han Solo. That’s basically Linus Larrabee, the character played by Harrison Ford, which is still, obviously, ridiculously charming. Perhaps that might pique your interest a little more.

The Stoic guide to friendship

If you’re wondering who am I to comment on the topic of friendship, I’ll have you know I have a grand total of 5 friends, so you’re in pretty good hands. But you don’t have to take my word for it, for this wisdom comes from the ancient Stoics themselves. And if you’re wondering what the Stoics have to say about friendship, the answer is well, quite a bit actually.

Contrary to the common misconception of Stoics being unfeeling and cold, the Stoics actually share the belief that humans are social beings and acknowledge the importance and power of friendship. Here’s what Seneca has to say about the joys of new and old friendships:

Great pleasure is to be found not only in keeping up an old and established friendship but also in beginning and building up a new one.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Seeing the true value of friendships, the Stoic approach was strict but very intentional. Seneca cautioned against a flimsy understanding of friendship and advises us to think hard about who we consider our friends.

But if you are looking on anyone as a friend when you do not trust him as you trust yourself, you are making a grave mistake, and have failed to grasp sufficiently the full force of true friendship… Think for a long time whether or not you should admit a given person to your friendship. But when you have decided to do so, welcome him heart and soul, and speak as unreservedly with him as you would with yourself.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Marcus Aurelius and Seneca also wrote about “red flags” in friendships. We should look out for these not only in our friends, but also in ourselves and how we have been treating our friends.

There’s nothing worse than a wolf befriending sheep. Avoid false friendship at all costs. If you are good, straightforward, and well meaning it should show in your eyes and not escape notice.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Anyone thinking of his own interests and seeking out friendship with this in view is making a great mistake. Things will end as they began; he has secured a friend who is going to come to his aid if captivity threatens: at the first clank of a chain that friend will disappear. These are what are commonly called fair-weather friendships. A person adopted as a friend for the sake of his usefulness will be cultivated only for so long as he is useful.

Seneca, Letters from a Stoic

Though I’ve shared many quotes, this is really just a sneak peek into the wealth of wisdom that the Stoics have to offer on the seemingly fundamental concept of friendship. Perhaps most of these sound like common sense to you, but as Voltaire succinctly puts it, “common sense is not so common”.

What online school lacks

I’m currently in the 10th week of my fully online semester of school. Studying and taking classes from the comfort of my bedroom has its plus points. From a purely academic standpoint, it might even be better. Everyone is muted so you don’t have to worry about chatty groups sitting near you. Everyone’s camera is off so they can’t distract you and the only possible distraction you have is your computer or your phone, which are also present in physical lectures. It’s easier to ask questions in a lecture because using the Zoom chat is way less intimidating than raising your hand in a room of 200 people. I also save a ton of money because I don’t have to travel or eat out every day. Yet I just can’t help but feel that there’s something missing, and these tradeoffs aren’t worth it.

I chanced upon a video reflection of sorts by John Fish titled “The Mundanity of Online School“, and he really helped put into words what I’ve been feeling about my semester thus far. He mentioned that the digital world is simply unable to fully capture the richness of reality, it can only provide a compressed version of it. I have some pictures of the Great Ocean Road from my trip to Melbourne last year. They’re lovely to look at, but it’s not the same as actually being there and seeing it with my own eyes! The cool sea breeze, the smell of the sea, and the sound of the waves. These things are lost when the experience gets compressed into a picture.

Similarly, many seemingly insignificant aspects of physical classes get compressed when adopting an online format. In some lectures, all you get is the professor’s voice coupled with some slides. In most tutorials, everyone’s cameras are off, including the tutor’s! Most students prefer to use the Zoom chat rather than the mic. You might argue that this is essentially all you need to learn, everything else is secondary. But to me, it just feels so cold and dull. 10 weeks into school and I do not even know what my classmates look or sound like. I’ve never seen my tutors’ faces, just their names.

Human interaction is and should be an insanely rich experience. Beyond verbal speech, we communicate through body language, facial expressions and many more subconscious subtleties. These are the things that are compressed and lost in the digital medium, at least for now. And it’s these same things that give classes and lectures that human touch, which I think makes a world of difference. In fact, the classes I enjoy most are those which require us to turn on our cameras and participate actively. Maybe I’m just lonely.

Anyway, if like me, you’ve been beating yourself up about being lazy, unmotivated, or extremely bored, don’t be too hard on yourself. Online school is tough. It might not be the season to make new friends, so instead why not appreciate the friendships you currently have.

Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art, like the universe itself (for God did not need to create). It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves

Happiness and the Hedonic Treadmill

The hedonic treadmill is defined as the observed tendency of humans to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. It answers the question of why getting a pay raise does not necessarily make you happier. It might initially, but you’ll quickly go back to feeling the same shortly after. Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau explains it beautifully.

“Since these conveniences by becoming habitual had almost entirely ceased to be enjoyable, and at the same time degenerated into true needs, it became much more cruel to be deprived of them than to possess them was sweet, and men were unhappy to lose them without being happy to possess them.”

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality

As our financial condition improves, we become more willing to spend and gradually our wants become our needs. While spending our hard-earned money on ourselves is totally fine, this leads to our happiness tapering off and returning to its baseline state. Money is just one example of the hedonic treadmill in our lives.

The hedonic treadmill seems to be something that hinders our pursuit of happiness, but is there a way around this? As I was pondering about this, I had an epiphany! Gratitude! Cliche, yes. But hear me out. If anything, I think the hedonic treadmill really cements the importance of gratitude.

Think back to where you were five or ten years ago, and from that perspective look at where you are now. You might notice that there are many things you have that you never did before. Think about how you would have felt back then if you had everything you have now. The old you would have been so delighted!

This is also why it’s important to begin our prayers with thanksgiving. Before we start asking for more, we should first take a step back and reflect on all that we have already been blessed with.

Gratitude might be the perfect counter to the hedonic treadmill, or perhaps it isn’t. Either way, the eternal question still stands: What is the key to happiness? I don’t presume to know the answer, but I’m just gonna continue experimenting and questioning things.

Gambler’s Fallacy

I discovered this today and realised that I too had fallen prey to this line of thinking. So, what is the Gambler’s Fallacy?

[…] Gambler’s Fallacy occurs when an individual erroneously believes that a certain random event is less likely or more likely, given a previous event or a series of events. This line of thinking is incorrect, since past events do not change the probability that certain events will occur in the future.

Investopedia

Let’s take a really basic example, coin flipping. Assume we’ve flipped a (fair) coin 5 times and we got heads for all 5 flips. One might then predict that there is a high chance that the next flip will be tails. Unfortunately this is incorrect, and it’s exactly what the Gambler’s Fallacy is. The probability of a coin flip is 50/50 for heads and tails. This doesn’t change even if we’ve gotten 5, 10 or 50 heads in a row. It doesn’t make it any more likely for the next flip to be tails.

An application in the investing world, and a misconception that I once held, is that overvalued stocks are bound to drop in price. That’s just not true. Sometimes, overvalued stocks can stay overvalued for an unexpectedly long time. Just because it has been overvalued for awhile, it does not make it any more likely for a drop in price soon.

*cough* NASDAQ *cough*

Minimalism: It’s not just about decluttering

The minimalism movement has been gaining traction the past couple years and now most of us know or have at least heard about minimalism. I’ve been a self-proclaimed minimalist for about 2 years now. Other than using it as an excuse for my neat-freak habits, I’ve found that minimalism has actually significantly shaped my thinking over time.

I started off like many others, inspired by Matt D’Avella’s documentary, and I dug into my closets and drawers, clearing out all the belongings that I’ve accumulated over the years. Back then it was purely a decluttering process for me.

But as I ventured deeper down the minimalism rabbit hole, I realised that decluttering required me to be rather intentional about my stuff. For each item, I was questioning myself “Do I really need this? Is it important? Why am I keeping this?” It made me think. I’m being so intentional about my things, but ultimately these are just things. I should be equally, if not even more intentional about other areas in my life, like my time and my relationships with others.

Minimalism also taught me to be content with less. Okay, that’s pretty obvious but what isn’t as obvious are the far-reaching effects it has had on my life. I learnt to be grateful for the things that I have, which I have taken for granted. Kinda venturing into mindfulness territory here, but strangely enough, minimalism has indeed taught me a great deal about the virtues of mindfulness.

Minimalism taught me to focus on the things I have, instead of the things that I don’t have. I have my family, friends, a home, an education and much more. This long list has shown me that I have all I need to lead a happy and content life. So, a happy and content life I shall lead.

And by the way, I’m not a hardcore minimalist with only 5 sets of grey t-shirts, though that does sound tempting. My point is that having less doesn’t make you happier, its simply about being content with what you have, which might be a lot more than you think!

Stoic emotions

What an oxymoronic title, you might think. Many often relate the term stoic, to being emotionless or indifferent to emotions, through no fault of their own of course. For that is how the definition of this term has evolved over time in the English language. From an observer’s perspective of the Stoics, this might seem to be an accurate term, but it’s an oversimplification really.

To understand why the Stoics seemed to appear like emotionless robots in spite of circumstance, let us peer down the deep and fascinating rabbit hole, that is the philosophy of Stoicism. The Stoics believed that everything falls under two broad categories — things within our control, and things beyond our control.

Categorising things this way makes it immediately obvious the pointlessness of worrying or stressing over something. If something is beyond your control, worrying does nothing at all as it wouldn’t change a thing. Whereas if something is within your control, you have the power of changing the outcome. So instead of worrying, take action and steer it toward your desired outcome.

The Stoics believed that one of the most powerful things we have control over is our faculty, our mind. They believe the mind to be a weapon, because when you acknowledge that you are in control of your mind, who can hurt you? No one can tell you what to feel, you decide for yourself how to respond to whatever life might throw at you. Nothing can hinder you from making the most out any situation.

He is most powerful who has power over himself.

Seneca

Meaningful mandatory module

I just started my second year of school and this semester I’m taking a module that has been prescribed to me — GEQ1000 Asking Questions. This is a module which is mandatory for the majority of students in my school, regardless of faculty. Not only was this a prescribed module, but it was also a pass-fail module. Which meant that you won’t get a grade that affects your Cumulative Average Point (CAP, or GPA in other schools).

Needless to say, the consensus toward a mandatory general education module is that it is not that important and no one’s really interested in modules like these. Being a pass-fail module, that also meant doing the bare minimum required to pass. I did some poking around online, reading the reviews posted by seniors and sure enough, they reflected the said consensus.

I too came into this module with low expectations, all ready to do the bare minimum. But, I was thoroughly surprised by the Philosophy segment in the first two weeks. The prof discussed the need for a module that teaches us something seemingly fundamental — asking questions. He discussed the irony of having a Question pillar as one of the five general education ‘pillars’. Questions often tear things down, while pillars should be doing the opposite.

I’m not going to delve too much into the content of the lectures but I think he did a great job proving the importance of this module, by tearing down numerous assumptions that many have made about the field of science, human nature and other supposedly ‘simple’ things, just by asking us questions. Seriously, more questions than answers were provided! For instance, have you ever wondered what a question truly is? What about the science behind questioning? Is it a sophisticated intellectual ability privy only to us advanced human beings, or something more primal and instinctive, shared by all animals?

So far, I’ve found this module extremely interesting, and even somewhat mind-blowing. But then again it’s only the second week and I might not enjoy the other non-philosophy segments as much. We shall see. I shall end with a quote by Sylvain Bromberger that was mentioned in the lecture.

We find ourselves, as individuals and as communities willy-nilly cast in a world not of our making, in which we want to survive, if possible to thrive, and whose features we want to understand. We start out with little prior information about that world, but we are endowed with the ability to come to know that there are things about it that we don’t know, that is, with the ability to formulate and to entertain questions whose answers we know we do not know. It is an enormously complex ability derived from many auxiliary abilities. And it induces the wish to know the answer to some of these questions. Scientific research represents our most reasonable and responsible way of trying to satisfy that wish. That is its most tenable defining goal…

However, in seeking its goal science repeatedly runs into difficulties. Many of these difficulties are physical in nature and call for the design of new and more powerful instruments. Others are psychological and call for the invention of devices that supplement our memory and our computational powers. Still others, and those are the ones that are relevant here, are intellectual and pertain to our ability to conceive, formulate, consider, connect, and assess questions, and to our ability to conceive, formulate, consider, connect and assess answers. These sorts of difficulties often call for inspiration and creative intelligence. Careful observation and description are not enough.

Sylvain Bromberger, On What We Know We Don’t Know