The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Concepts of excellence applied to an "ordinary" life

Recently, in comment on my discussion of Steve Muhammad's "four rules" for life, a reader offered not everyone wants high levels of achievement. I agree. But my attitude is that "not everyone wants to build the Sistine Chapel, but no one wants to sleep naked in cold rain."

In other words, the foundation of success on a large scale is success on a smaller scale--at the very least, an avoidance of pain.

And here is where I draw the line. To my understanding, all motile life forms will move to avoid pain or gain pleasure. This means that when I look at human behaviors and beliefs, starting with "how is this helping this person to avoid pain? Or gain pleasure?" is one of my most basic thoughts.

Steve's "four rules" are a grandmaster's approach to high achievement in a matrix of balanced living. Just one approach, but I feel that they map over quite nicely with other high achievers I've known. And what about people who aren't interested in "High" achievement? Of what value are such ideas to such folks?

In my mind, plenty.

A) Body. Not everyone wants to be an athlete, let alone a champion. Not everyone wants an underwear-model body (or is even capable of it! Genetics do factor in). But (for all practical purposes) everyone wants a body that is not in pain. That has enough energy to do the things that are important to us. That is not continuously sick and weak. Most want a body capable of having passionate sex, and satisfying a partner. I believe that we also would like bodies that are equivalent to the bodies we are attracted to in others--but a sad percentage of people lie to themselves and others about this. The "Four Laws" would apply to these minimum standards (and trust me, I'm not saying "minimum" as if we should all want the Maximum. No. We have the right to juggle our priorities) in the following way:

1) Spiritual Law. Viewing the body as a temple has worked for countless people in maintaining discipline or overcoming negative body image. Viewing the body as a vehicle for performing good works in the world is also positive. Grasping the inevitability of death can motivate us to make the very most of the days we have, and the body we have while we have it. Why rush the inevitable?

2) Dietary Law. Well, this is obvious. Garbage in, garbage out, even if you want only basic health and enough fitness to not gasp when you walk up a flight of stairs.

3) Fitness Law. Given the most sedentary lifestyle, basic fitness can be acquired in less than an hour a week. The return in terms of energy and aliveness is staggering, even if you want only the minimum.

4) Skill Law. Not everyone wants to master a sport, but everyone wants to move through life without wasting energy, or banging their body up every day. A little efficiency in motion goes a long way. Dance, hike, yoga, boat, swim...walk. Do you want to throw out your back picking up a baby or reaching for a can of beans? Having a little sense of where your body is in 4-dimensional space is mighty useful.

B) Mind. Career and education. Not everyone can or should aspire to making millions, or being famous or whatever. But I've never met anyone who enjoyed having bills they couldn't pay. Who did not wish they had the money to support the people and causes they care about. Who enjoyed begging the bank for extensions on their mortgage payment. So I'll go so far as to say that everyone wants control over their basic access to food, shelter, education and medical care. This is why most people work--not because they enjoy their jobs, but because they NEED to in order to have these things, and provide these things for their family.

1) Spiritual law. If you have to work every day, you might as well love it. You might has well find happiness there, if not deep personal satisfaction. Why? Again, basic animal behavior: we all move away from pain, and toward pleasure. When we can see the way. People behave as if they have no control over how they feel at work. Or in life. And I disagree with this seriously. One way to do this, that has worked for thousands of years is to find the service in your job. How are you providing for your community, your family, your sense of the order of the universe? When you can attach a mundane action to an evolved purpose, cleaning toilets or digging ditches becomes something to celebrate and embrace. If you have to do it anyway...why not have fun? If you're having fun, you change the entire culture in which you work. You also get better at it--because you don't withhold focus. That's a pathway to increased income in every field I know of. If you gotta do it...why not be the best you can be?

2) Dietary Law. Mental efficiency is certainly influenced by diet. Powerfully, in the case of conditions like hypoglycemia. When and how you eat influences your time management, energy, mental clarity, and more. All of which influence your ability to learn or work.

3) Fitness Law. Again, minimum fitness can be acquired in minutes a week. The only reason I can see to ignore this is if there is, literally, pain associated with engaging with the body. Biggest reason I see for that? Shame, and the Hawaiian Huna principle that the body becomes a "black bag" holding our negative emotions. If you ain't ready to process all of that fear, disappointment, shame, or whatever...if you're not ready to really face the fact that you are aging, that your body isn't what it was when you were might prefer to just anesthetize yourself with alcohol or food or psychological stupor (or SF/Fantasy novels and movies and trivia...) and pretend time hasn't passed.

4) Skill Law. In any occupation or activity, the more skilled you are the less energy you expend achieving a given result. People often make the mistake of thinking that the only skill that matters at work is the specific intellectual skill. Then they are baffled that others who have greater skill in navigating social networks get ahead of them. Learning to connect with other human beings is a skill, people. Arguably the most useful skill in business, if what you want is good relationships with bosses, employees, and customers and clients. Once again, if you have to work to make a living, have to spend eight hours a day five days a week, why not have that time be as stressless as possible? As much fun? As rewarding as possible? Why expend one iota more energy than necessary keeping body and soul together, so that you will have the energy and aliveness to enjoy your family, or free time?

Again, I believe that all animals, including humans, will try to move away from pain and toward pleasure. Whenever anyone suggests otherwise, I just start looking for reasons they might have to lie to me, or to themselves. And there are plenty of 'em.

C) Spirit. As you know, I measure spirit in terms of our healthy relationships with other human beings, especially our significant others. And here, viewed in this way, the connections are obvious.

1) Spiritual Law. Well--for believers, obviously there are always rules and principles that relate sin and blessings to a properly lived family life. Atheists and agnostics have never, in my experience, displayed a lesser commitment to their families, so if we view "spirit" this way, we're golden. In my own life, I try to live so that it doesn't matter a damn whether there is a God in the Christian sense, or not. Works for me either way. But "doing unto others as you would have them do unto you" is a central principle in every major religion (modified slightly), and seems to be a fine basic way to approach life. (Yeah, yeah, I know...there are limitations to the Golden Rule, but I can't think of a better general principle that can be expressed in fewer words).

Whatever principles you use to drive your life, they should incorporate your thoughts about mortality, children, community, love, sexuality. What set of principles will enable you to live your life, and die your death, with maximum clarity, acceptance, and satisfaction? This stuff needs to be considered carefully, so that IF you can live according to those principles, you'll be able to lay in your death bed, look back over your life, and both the old man/woman you will be, and the child you were, will be happy with what you have done with your days.

2) Dietary Law. Well, health, fitness, mood, sex drive, providing a role model for your children, ecological and economic concerns are all connected here. Personally, I eat today for how I want to feel tomorrow. But whatever you do, you should eat consciously, with the thought that if you eat this way, it will maximize your pleasure in life. And for most of us that means discipline. That's long-term as opposed to short-term pleasure. The discipline to control your diet is transferable to any other arena of life.

3) Fitness Law. Our bodies should match our own values. When they don't, I believe that it triggers serious guilt and pain, which is often anesthetized--we don't want to feel the negative emotions, so we simply stop feeling our body. Healthy children and animals move more than sick ones. Everyone knows that. Considering that, if you proceed intelligently, it actually takes a tiny amount of time to create basic fitness (five-ten minutes a day, anyone?) I simply don't believe that people who can accept working 40 hours a week to pay bills can't find a single hour to exercise. Yes, there may be cases, but just as you can reserve the right to think I have my head up my ass, I reserve the right to think you're lying to yourself. Your body, energy, and aliveness are gifts you give to your lover, and your family. And the child within you, who holds the key to all of your aliveness and creativity.

4) Skill Law. Relationships require insight, negotiation, emotional control, intuition, reading moods, evoking honest responses, willingness to openly express the content of our hearts. All of these things are related to skill development. Let alone being a skilled lover, or having skills we can pass to our children. Every morning, Jason and I practice yoga. We spend the first two minutes just sitting looking into each other's eyes while a timer counts down. I center myself, and speak to him of being calm and focused. Whenever his eyes shift away from me, I remind him to bring them back. I have to stay as deep within myself as possible.

And every morning that I've done this, his behavior at school has been perfect. Maybe there's no connection. Maybe it's just spending time with Daddy. But you know what? That's fine. I don't believe in Quality Time. Just Quantity. And if I ensure the quantity, Jason's little psyche will figure out what he needs from me, and extract it for himself. But I have to have things to show him, teach him, do with him. So even be able to give my son a sense that excellence is possible, and THIS is the road. In any task. For any profession. Ten thousand hours. If you're not willing to spend 10,000 hours, you don't really want to do it--it's just a pipe dream. If you want it, it's there for you. He needs to know that. Nicki needed to watch her parents achieving--it separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of deciding what you really want to do with your life. And considering we spend about a third of our entire lives working, getting ready for work or depressurizing from work...the path of hunting/gathering must be addressed directly, or life is likely to be very unsatisfying. And don't you want your families to be happy? Your spouse or lover?

And don't YOU want to be happy?


Anyway, this is how I would apply these four principles, whether or not you wish high-level accomplishment, or just want to live life with minimum stress. And every time I've met someone who achieves at a high level without trashing the rest of his/her life, I pump 'em for information. I am absolutely fanatical about having a happy life I live on my own terms. I'm not fanatical about being famous, or rich, or a world-class martial artist. Geeze, I'd enjoy those things, but they are just games I play, dreams I see how close I can come to actualizing, given my limitations of time and ability. We'll see.

But I will not believe that people don't want to be happy and healthy. And often get lost along the way. And then lie to themselves to ease the pain. Yes, I know it's possible, but I've simply had too many cases of people who lied to me about it, then later confessed. So now, I simply assume it's always a lie. Safer that way, I think.


Steve Perry said...

Where you'll get into trouble is assuming ...

Those expectations are killers ...

Marty S said...

Steve: I agree with a lot of what you say. In particular everyone seeks pleasure and seeks to avoid pain. Where we differ and I mean are different rather than disagree is that you analyze the decisions people make through your four rules, while I look at life as a series of trade offs where often your decisions are made based upon which is the lesser of two pains or the greater of two pleasures. Two examples from my life. Going to college was a great pain to me because it meant putting up with my parents running my life for four more years, but I went because the pain of forty years in a job I was unhappy with would be greater. I decided to have children. Children are very expensive so having children meant giving up many other things that would have given me pleasure, but children were for me the greater pleasure. Now here is the important point. Each trade off is personal to me. I can perfectly understand that for some people not having children would be the preferred decision and would not criticize then for that decision. We should not expect everybody to fit our mold.

Rory said...

I agree with both. A lot of the ways people measure success- money, popularity- don't resonate with me. My ideal home isn't a mansion but a simple cabin (sometimes a cave in deeper meditation); the level of solitude I can maintain is a surer sign of my spiritual health than my circle of friends.

On the surface. it looks like Steve's system doesn't describe me, but it does. I don't want a lot of friends, but I want them to be extraordinary and I want to be worthy to run/work/play with them. Went through the stage where women could have been something to collect but even then I wanted one, just one, that I could spend my life trying to be good enough to deserve. I never wanted a life of ease, I wanted one of challenge. Doing pretty good there.

The rewards don't look the same to everyone, but the bones of Steve's system work pretty well.

Steven Barnes said...


I absolutely believe in trade-offs. We all make them. There is no conflict between "looking at people through the prism of four rules" (they're not my rules, they're Mr. Muhammad's. I'm just exploring them). Looking at them through that prism helps me to understand the trade-offs they've made, and sometimes even intuit the value heirarchies behind them. Your mention of college as a four-year trade off to avoid forty years of pain is just absolutely perfect. THAT is what adult human beings do, the very lesson we struggle to teach our children. We aren't as different as you think.

Anonymous said...

While it may be unrealistic for everyone to expect to attain super-achievements like riches, Olympic athleticism, or fame, I hold we should nonetheless target and strive to seize our highest aspirations. Machiavelli explained why both rationally and persuasively in The Prince: "..act like the clever archers who, designing to hit the mark which yet appears too distant,..take aim much higher than the mark, be able with the aid of so high an aim to hit the mark they wish to reach"(1)

Always reach for the greatest prize. Even though you'll still likely fall short of the gold medal, silver or bronze may come within reach. Then again, unrealized ability or fortune may catapult you far above the gold. And if all fails, if your best labors leave you unmoved at the starting line, you'll have still earned the satisfaction that you dared to really GO FOR IT, and the personal knowledge and character growth that facing profound challenge builds.

(1) Machiavelli, the Prince, Chapter VI, p. 22

Ethiopian Infidel