People have problems. If either (or both) the magnitude of any one (or more) of them becomes too great, or the total number of them too large is combined with rank ignorance - which is to say a lack of knowledge (both general and specific) - then solutions become elusive. It is then that those problems can become overwhelming and joy becomes diluted and suffering more concentrated. This happens throughout life - but particularly for many towards the end of their lives. It is then that, finally, the insurmountable problem is ultimately encountered. The health issue for which no one knows a solution either in oneself or in a loved one. Another time common to many, but not to all, when one problem after another can seem to be “overwhelming” are the teenage years - especially the late teenage years and leading into the early 20s.
The reason, in epistemological terms, is that at this time there is a rather unique confluence of events. The number of new problems well outside the range of what has been encountered before in terms of emotional stress begins to maximise precisely at the time when one’s knowledge of “what to do” in such circumstances is at its lowest ebb. For most of us (though admittedly not all) this is a time where personal decision making becomes increasingly less constrained by the adults in one’s life. One begins for the first time to have all the thoughts that plague many throughout their lives (if they never learn the lesson in their teenage years): what should I be doing with my time? Am I wasting it right now? What is the point of this right now? This is not fun: why should I have to do it? X seems to be having more fun then me - but then X has more money than I do. How can I get more money? Y seems fitter, stronger, better looking, more intelligent, more skilful and more popular than me - what can I do to be fitter, stronger, better looking, more intelligent, more skilful and more popular?
Problem after problem is encountered - but at this time for the first time and there is no background knowledge to call on. No “previous experience” and perhaps no one to ask in many cases. Or if there are people to ask, the responses given can seem - which is to say can be - unsatisfactory. There may be wisdom in the words of others, but in a cruel trick of logic, one might simply lack the knowledge to know wisdom when one hears it. One can be told “Problems are soluble” all day long or encounter The Desiderata framed on a wall every day or recite The Serenity Prayer each morning and not ever really get it much less get anything useful from it:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
courage to change the things I can,
and wisdom to know the difference.
Which is yet another way of saying: Either a thing is prohibited by the laws of physics and cannot possibly be changed - so accept that fact of reality or you cannot change the thing due to a lack of knowledge - so perhaps with some effort you can create the knowledge that will be the solution to your problem. In all other cases: you can change things; you can solve your problem.
The wisdom passed on through ancient traditions sometimes takes work to distill out from the noise - but it is there. We cannot blame the ancients who often got there first for having to dig the gems from out of the mud if sometimes those gems are not so perfectly polished. We can do the polishing now.
But back to our proverbial teenager (or indeed almost anyone) encountering problems at a rate exceeding their capacity to deal with and their background knowledge to - seemingly - help with. If one’s immediate social circle or even any larger concentric circle seems unable to provide the guidance needed it can feel an isolating time and in those situations many will turn elsewhere: books and the lectures or guidance of notable thinkers. Self help pop psychology books might be consulted, perhaps experimentation with religion - particularly any religion far removed from that dominating the culture into which one has been born.
Sometimes these searches can bear fruit. And the problems begin to be solved. Peace and joy are found again. But this is rare. Often what is found is that much of the “self help” is of a nature so general (like The Desiderata) as to seem useless and is easily dismissed on that basis. Other times sources of self help seem to strictly contradict. Some will say suffering is a part of life that needs to be accepted because it is inevitable. “To be is to suffer” and so on. Others will say that suffering can be overcome and can be replaced with joy. So do I accept my suffering and meditate so as to be relieved of it - for all suffering is in the mind? Or do I avoid the suffering and seek out joy? Can I do both? Now one begins to be paralysed by indecision, confusion and some amount of skepticism. Perhaps none of these gurus has any clue? After all they’re not me and have not been in my exact situation (which can tend to seem more hopeless by the minute). One could very well become not merely skeptical of the “older and wiser” but cynical that any of them have useful wisdom to impart. Many of them seem downright depressed and confused themselves as if they’ve learned nothing of much use at cultivating joy in their own lives. Sometimes the problem is: why doesn’t he or she like me? One can quickly pursue entire courses on psychology motivated by: how to understand the mind of others. What are they all thinking? What is he, in particular, thinking? What is she? But none of the books seem to ever have the answer.
The truth is there can be no one size fits all self help. There is no universal theory of psychology unless it is so broad as to be of very little help in any specific situation. “Solve the problem” is indeed a universal claim that might be of some help to someone who is paralysed by complete inaction. Perhaps. But it does not say how. “Drop the problem” might be of use to someone who is in extremis and distress over some mental anguish. But detachment, mindfulness and even complete divestment of self will not solve any actual problem - it will merely alleviate the symptoms caused by the discursive thoughts for the short time one maintains that state. Perhaps it helps to declutter. But no amount of decluttering removes the tumour, brings back the dead, repairs the relationship, gets the job, finishes the work or improves the fitness.
Ultimately, we have to find our own paths and often the paths that lead to joy, greater enlightenment, fun and a fulfilled life of equal measure are wildly divergent - at least on the surface - so that for any young person following in the footsteps of one they admire (for example) who seems to have it together can be fraught with simply misinterpreting the wisdom they offer about how to replicate - at least imperfectly - what they have achieved in one’s own way.
Members of the same species are not identical. The differences between them are described by the term “variation” and it is variation between the members of the species that allows for them to evolve. After all, if it really were the case that members of the same species had “the same DNA” or something like that - if their genomes really were identical, then when the environmental change occured-when there was “selection pressure” (like a drought) then if one of them was to perish because of the change, all of them would. For example if there was some species of deer which, going 5 days without any water, would die and all members of the species lived in some area where all the water had dried up and no rain fell, then if one of them would die after 5 days, then so would they all. For they would all be identical and the one to survive longest would be the one who drank last of all.
But in the real world, within a single species of deer there is variation. Some might only last 2 days without any water. Some might last 2 weeks, even if on average “a deer can go 5 days without water”. Not all deer are identical genetically. They are just more identical to each other than other species of deer and hence, they are (on at least one definition of the term) regarded as being of the same species. (There are other definitions of species like, for example: “two members are of the same species if they can mate to produce fertile offspring” - which is all very well unless they cannot “mate” at all because they are trees or bacteria).
Sometimes the genetic differences between members of the same species can look wildly different. Consider dogs. Dogs have remarkable variety - because of what we have done to engineer them that way through artificial selection. But even the genetic variety of dogs is nothing like the variation among people because the variation among people is not primarily down to genetic differences. The crucial differences between people are differences in their mind: not their bodies (or brains). The knowledge, experiences, dispositions, values and preferences of one person as compared to another is like the difference between one entire species and another. Or more than that: an entire kingdom of life (almost). People are wildly different one from another. Sure there are exceptions to this: people within the same family are quite close at times - but not always. Twins will often have completely different preferences for food or music or ambitions for life. One can remain within the same family and witness completely opposed political stances. Moving outside the family and people are just huge unknowns to each other - at times delightfully surprising and other times confusing. As Jaron Lanier observes in his book “You are not a gadget” words to the effect that people are infinite wells of mystery. We have no direct access to the mind of another person - we can only take them at the word (or their outward behaviour).
People are minds and minds are a form of software running on the hardware that is the brain. That software is a unique algorithm (so far as we know) in the universe for generating knowledge: creative explanations of the world and renderings in the virtual reality of those minds. Those renderings evolve rapidly, changing and adapting to new circumstances, events and other inputs like the sudden rush of emotion that accompanies the unexpected. And this uniqueness - this differentness is uplifting at one extreme - you are entirely unique and therefore literally irreplaceable. Never mind your genome - your mind and your unique experiences and knowledge is the truly unique thing. And at the other end, we are apart and this can cause some existential crises in many and is also the reason why these crises: existential or just more mundane forms of worry - can be so difficult at times to deal with - most especially when the knowledge is lacking.
As a much younger person I ran through the gamut myself of “self help” - beginning first with informal studies into psychology - reading what I could garner online before a brief (but formal) study of psychology. That branched into more “common sense” self help with people like “Dr Phil” whose plain talking “tell it like it is” approach was something I preferred to so much that (even then) cast a person as a victim of circumstance. Encounters with Eastern mysticism and contemplative traditions came and went once the central messages were distilled out. Eventually I found myself that Nike’s motto “Just do it” contained within it just about all that was needed whenever some crisis or life decision presented itself. The problem, rather often, was inaction. If you do something then there is no need to worry about what would happen: it would be happening and there would be no mental space left for worrying about what will be because one would be right in the midst of what is.
I still find much self help personally useful but I can also spot that which is of very little practical use. The first form of self help is the anti-coercion kind that one can distill out from the work of David Deutsch. If things seem difficult - that is useful information. If something has ceased to be fun and you need to really push yourself through: that’s useful information. It’s a red flag. If you do not want to do something, but you are doing it anyways: red flag. Bored? Red flag. Just not having fun? Red flag. Now none of those are disqualifying. I have been terribly bored on long international flights even though I can do just about anything I like within the limits of what is reasonably possible in the “culture of air travel”. But we just lack the knowledge of how to “have fun” even in a comfortable chair with the world’s entertainment at your fingertips. Because the chair just isn’t quite comfortable enough and, well, it was fun at takeoff but after 14 hours of roughly the same position - you have to just push through because there are few other options. The best one can do is minimise the unpleasantness by repeating the distractions from it. Those kinds of exceptions aside, if coercion can be almost entirely eliminated then that solves a vast spectrum of problems and when a problem does arise the question: am I being coerced here (by myself or others) - is a central one to be explored.
Seemingly opposed to this at the other end of the spectrum, I find discipline to be another piece of “self help” that I have embraced. Jocko Willink the ex-Navy Seal who has been a guest on Joe Rogan and Sam Harris’ podcast posts a picture each day on Twitter of his watch upon waking up. The time is always around 4:30am. He works out - hard and posts the sweaty “evidence” on Instagram soon after titled “Aftermath”. The man is supremely disciplined.
Is he coercing himself? Is he suffering through all this? At first pass it seems these worldviews: do not suffer coercion and: be disciplined are completely at odds. But they need not be. Sure: if you are taking orders from someone and obeying them this might be called “discipline” and you might hate each moment of it. Clearly that is coercive. But if you find that waking up each and every day is the very thing that brings you joy - you would be coercing yourself not to do that thing. It is a subtle point. I do not think Jocko is coercing himself in quite the same way (indeed I do not think he is coercing himself at all) as someone else who does not want to get up at 4:30am each morning and work out…before breakfast. Jocko’s personal recipe for success could be hell on Earth for others. But for him - it is the very thing that makes him himself. He is doing exactly what he wants to do because he is someone who can do exactly what he wants to do. He actively makes choices and he is something that happens to the world. The world does not merely happen to him. Jocko has said that the reason he gets up at 4:30am each day is because (1) That’s all the sleep he needs (2) To get ahead of the enemy - who will still be asleep.
Now that last point is said somewhat tongue in cheek. Of course during his military service is could very well have been literally true. But now, speaking on Jocko’s behalf - a dangerous thing to do - we can actually interpret “enemy” as “all those unpleasant problems that would be encountered by sleeping in”. Namely the emails not answered because the workout was completed later and the opportunities missed and, as Jocko observed - having to have so many more encounters with other people and other conversations simply because almost no one else is awake at 4:30am. So it actually solves a bunch of his problems. The “discipline” of following this regular pattern brings joy and fun because it has eliminated many sources of potential suffering.
Jocko is disciplined in doing exactly what he wants. He does not let others dictate what he is doing. He chooses. And that takes discipline. It takes discipline not to give into coercion: either self coercion or the coercion of seeking first to please other people before you please yourself by doing just as you please. Far form anti-coercion and discipline being at odds: they can be in perfect harmony: if you’re playing with them both just right.
There is much made in some (so-called) “rationalist” online communities about “just do what you like” - which is true. For many people. For some however it is a recipe for disaster unless coupled with an instruction to be disciplined: to pay careful attention to what one actually wants. And often what one actually wants is to solve specific problems that will take attention and effort. For some less effort will be needed. But the idea that one can live a life of “no coercion” without thinking further on it can lead to a kind of apathy. If one has not yet figured out what to do - what they actually like - then the instruction to “not coerce yourself” is of no help at all. One is still left with: so what do I do now? Which actually is the first and most important problem and remains the most important problem each moment, hour, day and throughout ones life. What now?
Once one figures out what is fun (often by a process of elimination: by trying and finding out what is not) - then one will find that Just Doing It is rewarding in and of itself. But how to go about doing it can be part of the process as well. Perhaps you find that working 24 hours straight really is the thing. You might not find out that it isn’t the thing until you try. It can take time to figure out you’re not a morning person. Or you are a morning person. Or you were for so long not a morning person - and now - you are. And so that can take discipline so that the experiencing self and the remembering self are aligned. This is why people can train themselves (which is to say learn) to love exercising and lifting heavy weights or running long distances or doing any kind of hard physical activity that they know is beneficial in the long run. But what if you’re not there? How can you pull yourself up by non-coercive bootstraps to begin exercising if you already hate it. Well: you don’t know you hate it and stop telling yourself you do. And why do you want to work out hard anyways? Perhaps just try for 10 minutes. Later try 15. And so on. Be disciplined in trying. Does this mean coercing yourself? No. Well: not exactly. Ah! You might think. Got him! He’s appealing to a form of coercion so that you can “find the fun”. Well no.
Words have multiple meanings and senses: they cannot be infinitely precise and many times words can have two senses that are even opposed to each other. Words that mean their opposite are called “Janus words”. A common one, more often used in military settings is “fast”. If a guard is told to “stand fast” - they are being told to go nowhere. The fast means “to secure in place” - as in fasten. But of course we all know fast can mean move quickly - rather the opposite of going as slowly as possible - moving nowhere. More classically “cleave” can mean both to split apart and to join together.
At the other end of the spectrum we have words that appear to be opposites but are synonyms. Flammable and inflammable is the go to example here. My only point is to illustrate that insofar as there is a science called linguistics: it does not have the precision of physics (which is not infinitely precise either - for one reason it needs to be expressed in ambiguous language). We simply cannot pin down perfectly precise definitions of words. That is the “Wittgenstinian error” and rather too much of what passes for “philosophy” is consumed by it. Debates about terms. Language evolves, can be quirky and is made up of words themselves “defined” in dictionaries using other words to label concepts which are not perfectly precise. All of that said: it is possible to be wrong and there is an objectivity to this. Black is not white. Tomorrow is not today. The existence of grey does not change that and nor does midnight. The thing is you can be disciplined and you can use it to find the fun you did not know was there to enter into a state of non-coercion. All this is possible. And at no point does any genuine suffering need to go on.
So there are, what I would say two quite distinct senses of the term “discipline”: an enlightened and a naive species. Discipline of the form “I am doing this because of someone else’s expectations” - is naive. And it is coercive. There may be no understanding of why you should or why it is best for you. But doing what you want and being disciplined in ensuring you’re doing just what you want is not a matter of coercion but its opposite.
Discipline - being committed to getting something done - to getting something solved can actually be fun. For 25 years or so now I have witnessed people in the gym appearing to suffer. And some are. But others are experiencing the opposite. Same outward appearance. Two diametrically opposed experiences internally. People come to learn to love the pain they learn to love the struggle. It is fun to push through that pain and struggle not merely in expectation of the feeling afterwards but because “I did it - I set a new record” or whatever else it might be. In my case these days it’s rather often “this is amazing - I can multitask - I can get through a book or podcast while staying strong and fit. Life is truly brilliant.”
Sometimes from the outside the phenomena is the same but internally the experience is utterly different. And sometimes from the outside the phenomena is utterly different but internally the experience is completely the same. Jocko will yell and seemingly coerce and be disciplined! It will be testosterone to the maximum and for many this discipline and all the outward signs will make it seem like a kind of self coercion that might barely be possible to exceed. But it is not coercion in our sense. Because he finds joy in it and is doing it even though he has the option of doing just about anything else money can buy. Many can have fun doing what others would find hell. The human mind is universal. It can take any stimulus at all and turn it into almost anything one likes.
These two ways to succeed in the world: being disciplined and not being coerced need not be opposed. One can live “to the full” and experience joy, contentment and fun all the while improving yourself and the world by solving the problems you are interested in and perhaps only you are interested in. Joy through discipline and joy through non-coercive fun are both actually experiences in reality to be had and in reality there can be no contradictions. Both are paths to enlightenment and both end up in the same place. A person may walk one or the other or straddle both perhaps. But it cannot be the case that these two worldviews are in any deep sense in conflict. They may appear to be. But so what? Stars appear cold and dim even though they are the opposite.
I explained earlier how Jocko has explained why he gets up at 4:30am each day. He was once asked on a podcast how he was able to get up at 4:30am each day. The listener wanted to know how he just did not hit the snooze button even if he was tired. He said what he said whenever someone asks him this. He said: “You know what I do? Get ready. So to get up at 4:30am each day I…get up at 4:30am each day.”
People who want to do that - or think they do but it gets to 4:30am and they lay in bed and don’t and go back to sleep haven’t coerced themselves to sleep. But if they get up - they just get up. But there is a strand of person who will think and think and think and perhaps coerce themselves up out of bed or rather try to.
“Do or do not do. There is no try.” As Yoda admonished Luke. Rather: trying - trying to do something rather than just doing something (even if you fail) is the thing. If it’s a trial - if you’re trying and there’s no joy to be found - there’s your problem. But if you cannot wait to attack the problem even if you think you might fail then you’re not quite “trying”. You’re doing. And maybe you’re failing to succeed that time. But that might come with excitement, fun and learning - quite the opposite internal experience from “trying” and failing and suffering.
So much of self help won’t be helpful because it’s not tailor made to you. You are utterly unique. Things may seem gloomy at times and fun may seem to have leached out of life - but this is always a temporary situation because problems are soluble. Sometimes the most pressing problem is how to discover: what do I find fun? Not just now: but all the time? And “fun in the long run” - the kind of fun that is fulfilling - that brings joy in the moment and contentment on reflection. Once the fun is found then you won’t need to coerce yourself into doing the thing - you won’t require more “self help” to figure out “what to do next” - you’ll know what to do. But you just might need to be disciplined about how to go about it. Like Jocko. Because if you can make your life about something, it will be something.
The most valuable thing you can offer to an idea