The Most Important Skill for This Decade
This philosophy will help you better cope with uncertainty, a crucial skill nowadays.
Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash
July 24th, 2020. After several months literally and figuratively trapped in the uncertainty caused by the coronavirus crisis, this is it: I’m finally fleeing on holidays. Before the outbreak, a friend and I had booked flights for a week in southern Spain.
In beautiful Andalusia, the heat, beaches, restaurants, good wine, and sunsets were waiting for me. In two words: pleasure and easiness. Something to look forward to after months of pure and dull austerity.
At least, that’s what I thought. How could I be naive enough to believe that I would just go on holiday without anything going wrong?
It’s 2020, for God’s sake. The only certainty is that nothing is certain. So, two days before boarding, I find out that easyJet has decided to cancel my flight, of course. The cancellation email? In my spam, of course.
Anyway, panic time: I spent the whole morning jumping from one hotline to another desperately looking for a last-minute flight to Malaga. To be honest, having first checked their websites, I didn’t have much hope.
But after two grueling hours on the phone, my little favorite — SWISS Airlines — saved my life. As always, they took a lot of money in the process but still solved the problem. Ah, how I love my country.
That’s when I explained all this to my friend, thinking he would ask me to buy another ticket for him.
To which he simply replied: “Go ahead without me, I’m staying here. No hard feelings, but I don’t want to force it. Something tells me that this is a good thing and this is the way it should be”.
I immediately understood his acceptance attitude, but the end of his sentence immediately brought up questions that, like this one mosquito late at night, would keep whistling in my ear, preventing me from sleeping if I didn’t confront it.
- What is destiny, this invisible force that supposedly decides for us?
- How is it that it acts differently for my friend and me in the same situation?
- But above all: if this force really exists, can it coexist with our free will?
The challenges created by recent events (health, economic, social, political, and climate crises) will continue to produce a great deal of uncertainty in the coming years.
For this reason, I have decided to explore these questions in order to find the best attitude to live in an uncertain environment.
“Are you free to read this article, or is it your destiny?” — Overthinking me
Freedom and responsibility
In order to answer these questions, I must first tell you about one of the most famous philosophers of the last century.
Jean-Paul Sartre was free at such a badass level that on October 22nd, 1964, when the Nobel Academy awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature, he turned out to become the first-ever laureate to refuse the prestigious title.
Later, he also refused the Legion of Honour. According to him, these prizes would have turned him into an institution, undermining his freedom.
His philosophy — existentialism — consists of saying that, unlike for technical objects, the existence of Mankind precedes his essence. In simple terms: a chair was designed in the mind of a craftsman with a specific purpose before it existed. On the contrary, human beings exist first, and must then invent their nature.
A person is defined by his actions. This radical freedom that characterizes us goes hand in hand with a radical responsibility, which can be difficult to undertake.
This freedom and this responsibility are so extreme that they can be frightening. In that sense, human beings may be tempted to get rid of their condition through an attitude that Sartre calls bad faith.
It is the people who justify their actions by saying “that’s the way I am” or “you know us, Sagittarians…”; the guy who shows up late and apologizes by saying that he is “not a morning person”; or the girl who hates her job but keeps doing it forever.
Bad faith is justifying your choices in the name of an alleged essence that predetermined your actions.
It is lying to yourself to avoid the discomfort that comes with the absolute responsibility of who you are.
But according to the philosopher, this attempt is vain because, like the person who accepts his mediocrity for fear of not finding better elsewhere, it is always freely that one denies his freedom.
You got it: Sartre was the anti-destiny.
Legend even has it that Fate looks under its bed to make sure Sartre is not there before it goes to sleep.
“Man is condemned to be free” — Jean-Paul Sartre, French philosopher
The reason I’m talking about Sartre is the incompatibility of freedom with the concept of destiny in its fatalistic definition, that is, a series of inescapable events predefined by an instance considered superior to Mankind (Nature, the Universe, God, etc).
What would Sartre say to my friend when he gives up on his flight because “that’s the way it should be”?
Well, he would most probably respond that destiny has nothing to do with it. That he is acting in bad faith to deny responsibility for a decision he actually made freely.
If we follow this line of reasoning, then fate would be an excuse to justify our inability to act.
A way to deny our responsibilities by denying our freedom. Or even a certain form of laziness. According to Sartre, Man’s only destiny is to be free.
Stoicism: the useful philosophy
Unlike existentialists, the Stoics advocate the idea that the sequence of events is governed by a superior and perfect intelligence — called Logos — according to the principle of causality.
According to them, suffering does not arise from events per se but from the judgment we make of them. Pain is inevitable, but suffering is a choice.
In the face of this, they recommend a detached attitude.
We should try and imagine the worst-case scenario, knowing that even then, it will be okay. And if life is truly intolerable, then suicide is always an option.
Yes, Stoics could get pretty extreme.
Happiness = Reality — Expectations
Stoicism considers sadness and anger as mistakes induced by the opium of emotions: hope. Peace of mind — called ataraxia — is achieved by reducing the gap between our expectations and reality.
Since we do not control reality, the best strategy is to lower our expectations to zero.
“We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” — Seneca, famous Stoic and Roman statesman
Okay but… What’s the skill?!
Isn’t it frustrating to have two points of view that are so contradictory, while at the same time, as plausible as each other?
What do I do, what do I believe, how do I act?
What if I told you that these two schools of thought — just like freedom and the concept of destiny — can coexist if you ask yourself a simple question?
In this last part, I will try and convince you. Pay attention, because this is where it all comes down.
The idea is relatively simple. There are two kinds of things in life: the things you control and those you don’t.
The trick is to correctly identify these two categories and to adopt the right attitude towards each of them. Most of your experiences are out of your control:
- The events of your daily life
- What others say and do
- What other people think and say about you
- The number of likes you got on your last Instagram post
- Your partner’s behavior
- The ideas and actions of your parents, your friends, your children
- Success and failure
- The result of your efforts
- Your past
- Your genes
- The culture and circumstances in which you were born
- The education you got growing up
- Most diseases
- Death (yours and your loved ones)
Well, it’s a long list. A very long one.
The things you control, on the other hand, are far fewer. But that’s a good thing. It makes it easier for you to focus on what really matters.
And they’re the ones that make all the difference:
- Your thoughts and opinions
- The way you interpret and respond to outside events
- The values you decide to live by
- The way you treat others
- Your honesty
- Where you decide to put your attention and energy
- Your curiosity and open-mindedness
- Doing your best
Although you can’t control the vast majority of your life (your destiny), it is what you do with it that defines who you are.
Let’s go back to our story: the canceled flight was a matter of fate. This event was inevitable and out of me and my friend’s control.
However, each of us, according to our values, freely decided to interpret and respond differently.
This decision led each of us down different paths. If despite all my efforts, I had not been able to find an alternative flight, then I would have had to accept my fate.
“God give me patience, to reconcile with what I am not able to change, strength to change what I can, and wisdom to distinguish one from another.” — Marc Aurelius, Roman emperor and writer
But it’s not always easy to differentiate between things you control and things you don’t. If you practice the skill, soon it will be instinctive.
Once you can tell the difference:
- FOR WHAT’S IN YOUR CONTROL: Freedom and responsibility are key. Dare to invent yourself, follow your intuition, and take responsibility for what you wish to do, experiment, or become. Do your best without expecting rewards. The result is always out of your control.
- FOR WHAT’S OUT OF YOUR CONTROL: The Stoic approach will be of great use to you. Forgive yourself for past mistakes and learn to embrace uncertainty. The shorter the period of time between an experience you consider negative and your acceptance of the latter, the smaller your emotional reaction, the more you will feel calm, operational, free, and responsible for your life.
Having expectations about what is beyond your control only leads to inaction, anxiety, and unnecessary suffering.
Practice letting go.
Remember: suffering, unhappiness, and anger are misperceptions. Once you understand this, you have what it takes to stop making those mistakes and live a more peaceful life.
It’s been a little over two years since I discovered a passion for writing. Only, until now, I’ve been doing it rather timidly.
I write an article here and there, share it on social media, and stop there. When the inspiration comes back to me, I write a new one.
Even if I sometimes find it hard to admit, I know that deep down I dream of becoming a writer. Why not one day publish a book.
Inspire hundreds, thousands, even millions of people. Travel the world.
It’s hard for me to admit it because I think people will never take me seriously. I tell myself that if I don’t succeed, I will look like an idiot. That being a writer is too hard anyway.
But now I understand that it’s all out of my control.
All I can do is write and do my best. And that is within my reach.
That’s why I decided, starting today, to take on my dream. I don’t have an exact strategy yet, but sharing it already makes it a little more real.
All I know is that I want to write, and write more. The rest will come in time.
I hope this article will encourage you to do the same and one day be able to follow your heart.
Popular opinions are often wrong. Writer on medium.com/@yannccosta. Published in The Startup and Noteworthy – The Journal Blog.