Conquering Fears, Modern problems, Uncategorized

Excellence, change, and mindset

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“Non est ad astra mollis e terris via” – “There is no easy way from the earth to the stars” 
― Seneca

Habits, habits make most of your life, if not all. We simply, cannot function without them. Just like you cannot think about breathing and digesting all the time, you cannot think about everything you do every day all the time.

Most of what you do is automatic. You don’t think when you tie your shoelaces, you don’t think when you wake up and walk straight to the restroom or drink a glass of water. You simply do it without thinking. In reality, you don’t even think about what you do every day.

These are really good news and really bad news. Why?


Neuroplasticity is the ability of the brain to weaken or enforce the different neural connections used to perform different activities. Think about tying your shoelaces, you do it in automatic. This is because the neural highways you use to perform such actions are strengthened every time you perform such activity. By now, tying your shoelaces has been done so many times that you have enforced a freeway of neural connections that make tying your shoelaces so automatic that you don’t even have to think about the steps of making the knot, you just do it.

This is good because any activity can become easy, extremely easy, to the point of becoming automatic. If you play the guitar enough times, you will no longer think in terms of chords and progressions, you will ascend to a higher level and think in terms of emotion and expression because the chords and progressions you need to express yourself emotionally have become automatic in your brain due to intense practice. This is a fact, this is, essentially, how the brain works. You can practice anything so much that it becomes automatic.

Great! Right? It is indeed amazing, a brain is a wonderful machine, but, just as you can become great at anything, you can become lazy and sluggish and bad at anything as well.

The bad news is that our natural tendencies are not towards enhancement and betterment of ourselves but towards the other side, towards the comfortable and easy. The bad news is that every time you make a choice you are strengthening your neural pathways. If your decisions are bad, well, you will become better and better in making bad decisions. Every single decision you make every day counts.

If you’ve been making bad choices, with food, for example, you have been “training” your brain to eat more unhealthy food. This is why it is so damn hard to change.

What is the best, most practical way then to change those pathetic habits like gorging on Instagram or 3-hour Netflix-sessions then?

Stoicism, the seed of change

“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself and in no instance bypass the discriminations of reason? You have been given the principles that you ought to endorse, and you have endorsed them. What kind of teacher, then, are you still waiting for in order to refer your self-improvement to him? You are no longer a boy, but a full-grown man. If you are careless and lazy now and keep putting things off and always deferring the day after which you will attend to yourself, you will not notice that you are making no progress, but you will live and die as someone quite ordinary.
From now on, then, resolve to live as a grown-up who is making progress, and make whatever you think best a law that you never set aside. And whenever you encounter anything that is difficult or pleasurable, or highly or lowly regarded, remember that the contest is now: you are at the Olympic Games, you cannot wait any longer, and that your progress is wrecked or preserved by a single day and a single event. That is how Socrates fulfilled himself by attending to nothing except reason in everything he encountered. And you, although you are not yet a Socrates, should live as someone who at least wants to be a Socrates.”
Epictetus (From Manual 51)

And he is right, you know he is damn right. What are you waiting for?

Philosophy is great in the sense that it makes our beliefs tremble, it gives us perspective. But sadly, just reading a quote will not make you the best version of yourself, you need to take action and more accurately, you need to change your neural pathways.

Changing your neural pathways is hard, it is hard because you have to think, you have to use your reason,  and override the neural pathways of failure that you’ve enforced and have become now automatic.

My recommendation

I am not Epictetus, but this is good for you, because just like you, I struggle with this as well, really hard. This is the reason I write here as well, I write because I need constant reminding of the stoic teachings to keep myself on track.

What works?

The first step in changing your habits into the habits of a person that demands the very best of himself is the actual belief that you can change.

“If something is difficult for you to accomplish, do not then think it impossible for any human being; rather, if it is humanly possible and corresponds to human nature, know that it is attainable by you as well.”― Marcus Aurelius

Carol S. Dweck Ph.D., writes in his book: Mindset. that there are two types of mindsets with which people operate: The fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

A fixed mindset is static, either you are good or you are not, either you know how to perform something or not. Either you are good with math or you are not. This mindset shots itself in the foot as it cannot do anything about anything, not even try, and worst, just by thinking this way, you will be using the incredible power of neuroplasticity against you, because you will be reinforcing the belief that you cannot do something.

In comparison, the growth mindset is more malleable, it grows, it changes and develops, it is the belief in the undeniable fact of neuroplasticity. If you believe in growth, then you are going to actively look for things that make you grow. It doesn’t serve your brain to stick with the easy and achievable as a person in the fixed mindset would do, you need problems to thrive and grow, you need challenges to form new neural pathways. You don’t run from challenges, you thrive on them because you need them to grow and strengthen your new neural pathways.

The second step is taking your time.

I know you are now all pumped up and ready to demand the very best in you. You are ready to turn your life around, trust me I know, I’ve felt the same way a lot of times before. 

But this approach does not work. 

Don’t try to turn your life around in a second. 

You may think that you are different and that with just a little bit of willpower you will be able to pull it through. The the thing is that becoming a different version of you in a day does not work because of the simple reason that you only have so much mental energy in a day. Your brain needs the automatic-aspect of your habits to function correctly and if you try to change everything in a day, you will simply overload it and you will stop doing all the things you wanted to change in a week or less. 

The best approach then is to start with just one thing, maybe two, tops. If you want to make working out a habit for example, start with that and do just that for 2 weeks, without missing one single day. 

Changing one habit at a time is better because you are not overriding your brain. You are changing one thing at a time and what will happen is that it will become automatic after a while. Once that habit has become automatic, you will be ready to change another one, and then another one, and then another one. 

Remember, your excellence is defined by your habits, your habits are simply neural connections strengthened or weakened with each decision. The recipe to becoming the very best version of yourself, resides in changing one habit at a time, just like reading and compound interest, you will not see big results in the beginning, but with time, the compound and they become big time changes. With time, you will become able to demand the very best of yourself. 

“As is a tale, so is life: not how long it is, but how good it is, is what matters.” 
― Seneca

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Why bother?

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“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterward. These are games; one must first answer. Albert Camus

Tough guy isn’t he?

I don’t disagree with him tough, but fear not, his answer towards life is positive, very, and yours is and will be as well I’m sure but you have to have your own answers, your own conclusions, because no one can do your thinking for you.

Why bother? Why even bother living at all? This is a very scary question indeed. It is a journey of the mind that we must all take, certainly not for the light-hearted.

The deeper you go into the rabbit hole, the better the insights you will get. In the rabbit hole, you’ll find what you’re looking for, but you have to be brave enough to ask and ask, and ask. Fortunately, a lot of thinking has already been done, specially by the stoics and although you have to do your own thinking, there is no reason why you cannot use ancient wisdom to better understand the issues at hand. So let’s deep into the matter using existing knowledge.

Pragmatism, stoicism and it’s practicality

Pragmatism: an approach that assesses the truth of meaning of theories or beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application.

Stoicism is a practical philosophy, and exactly that is the beauty of it. Seneca even discourages you to read a lot of books if they will not aid you immediately in living a good, virtuous life. In this sense, Stoicism is a pragmatic philosophy.

There is a great book written by Simone and Malcolm Collins called The Pragmatist Guide to Life.

The Pragmatist Guide to Life begins, just like Camus’s book Myth of Sisyphus, with a sadistic humorist question, personally, I think I found it funny as a defense mechanism against the jokingly darkness of it, but judge for yourselves.

Why is genocide bad?

The obvious answer, the one I thought first, was: absolutely not! It’s just obvious!  Killing people is terribly wrong! And to this they answer:

Our society tells us genocide is wrong, that killing innocent people is wrong, and that racism is wrong. However, if you believe these things only or primarily because the culture in which you grew up told you they were obviously true, then you hold little moral authority over someone who participated in genocide, because the culture in which they grew up in told them genocide was a moral imperative.

If you took an average of cultures across human history—the things that most people in most places were raised to believe were true—you would have a culture that believed women were lesser beings than men, that some people are born better than others, that freedom of thought is not a right, and that when you conquer a city, it is perfectly moral to rape, kill, and enslave as many civilians as you want. Why were most cultures in human history wrong, whereas the time and place that you just happen to be born into correct? If you want to believe, with any intellectual integrity, that the culture you were born into or the counterculture that accepted you is more correct than others, you need to develop your own reasons why. What you believe is a choice you can make—independently, for yourself.
Collins, Malcolm.

And while we’re on it, why even bother answering these questions, and not “just live”? It seems that just going with the flow works doesn’t it?

Again, you are welcome to do as you want, but if you start to wonder and ask just a tiny bit more your reasons little bit more about the whys of your motives and develop an idea of why you do what you do and why you are who you are you will start to develop better informed idea about your behavior.

You will gain power over your identity (because it is a choice, and it is certainly malleable) you will become in every sense a better person.

You will no longer be a blind human just doing what culture, your parents, your peers and so ask you to do, just because “it has always been done this way” or because it is convenient to somebody else.

Understanding gives you power.

You can develop your own morality based on your own assumptions and live a better, more informed and fulfilling  life.


So what happens when you start to ask the “why” question more often?

As human beings, we naturally follow value. Value is like the north in a compass for our minds, we just follow it and we know just know what it is. We act how we act and do what we do because we found whatever it is that we are doing, valuable.

For example. Suppose you’ve just gone to the beach,  Cancun, Ibiza or whatever. Then suppose that you’ve been training in the gym hard the entire winter, so now by summer, you are pretty ripped. When you get to the beach the first day after a perfect evening chilling with some new friends on the beach, you find yourself in the most beautiful sunset you’ve ever been in your life. Obviously, you take your phone out and take a picture. You then upload the coolest sunset photo you’ve ever seen to your Instagram account and within an hour you take your phone out and realize that your photo got thousands and thousands of likes.

We can infer several value assumptions here. Let’s see.

First, we could say that what you find valuable is experience. The simple act of discovering is what moves you.

Another could be your health, you’ve been working the entire winter so clearly, health is valuable to you. You went to the beach to get some relaxation, maybe the spa as well.

And lastly, it may be praise what you are after, and everything you do, you do it for the fame and followers you may be able to get by visiting cool places.

Now, if I ask you, which of the three values just mentioned, do you find the most value in? Health? Fame? or experience?

Now we are getting somewhere.

What you found the most valuable could be defined as a core value of yours. A value from which other values spring. But what happens when you ask why enough times?

Imagine values as a tree, your strongest values are the strongest branches and from those branches, other branches emerge. Now imagine the trunk of the tree. That is your core value, your most important value. Do you know what it is? If not, you’ve got some questioning to do.

Asking “why” enough times will start unveiling some quite uncomfortable truths.

It will feel like peeling an onion. What if you discover your values are pretty shitty? What if you discover that your core value is not even something under your control, like being liked by other people? This is where the situation gets messy, and this is where stoic advice fits just perfectly.

Shitty values, usually, are things that are not under our control. Like popularity (you are a slave to others), pleasures (slave to them) and so on.

The proposal of supreme value in stoic philosophy is virtue. As you very well know the motto: “Virtue is the only good”. But why? Are you just going to accept what I or the Stoics say? Or are you going to put it to the test of your reason?

I know it’s quite a bit to process and I’m sure you’ll need (as I did) some time to process and question your life a bit. So let’s leave it here so you can do some questioning and I’m the following article I’ll continue with some more wisdom.

To be continued…….

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Become our Patreon and enjoy the patron only benefits! You can find more on our Patreon page. Thanks a lot for reading and I hope stoicism makes your life better, I’m sure it will.

Want to further your knowledge? Complement your reading with Opportunity cost.