Future-casting: from memory to destiny

Luke Skywalker stood on the dune at the edge of his uncle’s compound and gazed wistfully at the twin moons of Tatooine. If only the future looked as grand as those giant orbs. Luke had been raised by his aunt and uncle, who were moisture farmers on the remote desert planet. When Luke looked into the future, he saw nothing but boredom and toil. Luke’s heart brimmed over with longing for adventure. But life hadn’t given him any resources that might enable him to realize his dreams. Luke’s dreams remained precisely that – dreams. He was destined to work the harvesting systems on his uncle’s farm for the rest of his days. His excitements would be limited to racing his landspeeder through the desert canyons and haggling with the Jawas for droids.

All this changed the day that Luke stumbled upon a hologram of a beautiful princess calling for help. He sought the assistance of a desert hermit, Ben Kenobi, who turned out to be a Jedi Knight, practically living on his back doorstep. Soon Luke was consorting with pirates, hot-dogging through the stars and fighting space battles with Imperial forces. All the while, his knowledge and experience was rapidly increasing.

Luke was too modest to admit it, but his sense of destiny was expanding at an equal rate.

[Read more…]

Ready for change? Your time starts now


Life Changing is a hands-on guide to harnessing the power of change. Using philosophical examples, it shows you how to cultivate the resilience, agility and vision to embrace change and make it an adventure.

The book includes practical exercises that enable you to apply the ideas in familiar contexts. By doing the exercises, you learn how to think philosophically about change and unleash its life-changing possibilities.

Be creative with change. Don’t just ride it out — use it.

Life Changing: A Philosophical Guide is available on Amazon, Kobo, and iTunes.

Check out the introduction to Life Changing on the P2P Foundation wiki.

Life Changing marks the end of a personal journey. For the past fifteen years, I have been studying, teaching, and applying transformative philosophy in my own life, first as a doctoral student at the University of Sydney, then as a lecturer at the Universities of Sydney and New South Wales, and recently in my Philosophy for Change course, which I’ve run at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Sydney. My guiding intuition has been that it is possible to distil from philosophical ideas a kernel of practical wisdom, which can be communicated through simple exercises that students can apply to their lives.

This intuition is core to Life Changing. The book is structured about five practical exercises. Each incorporates a life-changing insight. The exercises show you how to muster the courage to change; how to control yourself like a Stoic philosopher; how to cultivate your Nietzschean will to power; and how to use Spinoza’s philosophy to supercharge your social life. They show you how to take adventure from the heart of crisis and fulfilment from the struggle with adversity. [Read more…]

Philosophy, freedom, and Malamud’s Fixer

‘If I have any philosophy’, said Yakov Bok, ‘it is that life could be better than it is’. Yakov (the maligned hero of Bernard Malamud’s novel, The Fixer (1966)) was a poor handyman, or ‘fixer’, who lived in a small Jewish village in pre-revolutionary Russia. When his wife left him for a stranger, he decided he was ready for change. Yakov packed up his tools and set out for Kiev to start anew. He threw his religious items into a river on the way to the city. He abandoned his name and the final evidence of his origin just as quickly when offered a job by a wealthy anti-Semite in a part of town restricted to Jews.

But the past has a way of catching up with us. One day a boy was found murdered and drained of blood in a cave near Yakov’s factory. When, in the course of their investigations, the authorities discovered that Yakov was a Jew, they accused him of ritual murder. Anti-Semites to a man, the authorities tried everything they could to frame the fixer for the crime. The fact that Yakov had rejected Judaism and identified as a freethinker counted for nothing.

Yakov was thrown into solitary confinement while charges were prepared against him. The transformations that he’d made on the way to Kiev now seemed entirely cosmetic. Like a child, he had assumed he could lose his shadow just by looking the other way. The truth, Yakov now realized, was that he was shackled to his identity just as surely as he was locked in this filthy cell.

For weeks and months Yakov languished in the cell without charge. The shadow of the past became huge and malignant, filling the space of his life and world. Yakov’s father-in-law called on him to repent, to fall to his knees in prayer. But Yakov despaired of God and used the time to think.

This is how he discovered philosophy. [Read more…]

What is philosophy and why should I care?

It happened again. This time in a public place. I was walking with the crowd into Central Station when I stopped to talk to one of the charity workers who hover like butterflies about the station entrance. These guys usually freak me out a bit – with their friendly handshake that holds you in place and their sales patter cloaked as bonhomie – but I was feeling playful on the day, and so I went along with it, waiting for my chance to explain how I was already donating to a handful of charities and would rather keep my credit card details to myself, thank you very much.

The spruiker must have picked me for a tough sell because he played the long game. Instead of diving straight into an account of his employer’s good works, he decided to inquire into mine.

‘That’s an interesting set of sideburns you’re sporting, mate’, he said. ‘I bet you have an interesting job. What do you do?’

Did I groan aloud? I’m pretty sure I swallowed it. But I knew what was coming.

‘Well, I write’, I said. My interlocutor beamed expectantly. ‘Philosophy’, I added, after a pause. ‘I am a philosopher’.

That killed it. It always does. I’ve never had a hostile reaction from anyone. But the response is rarely what I’d consider positive. Usually, you see a glazed look appear in the other’s eyes. I imagine cogs and wheels turning in their brain as they try to slot you into some recognizable social role. Philosophers don’t fit – that’s the problem. A philosophy academic passes muster because he or she has an office, working hours, a salary and tax bracket – all the things that go to comprise a recognizable social function. But philosophers per se have no function. It confuses people.

‘Philosophy’, the spuiker replied, recovering himself. ‘That’s great! So … what is your philosophy?’ [Read more…]

On the commons: reflections on sustainable community

When I was nine years old, my family travelled to England to visit the extended tribe. Mum and Dad had emigrated from England to New Zealand in the early nineteen sixties. It was the first time that my siblings and I – Kiwis born and bred – encountered the full contingent of British grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins to whom we were biologically related. It was the summer of seventy six and England put on her best weather – a heatwave in fact. We travelled through Dorset, Surrey, Devon, and Cornwall. I will never forget it.

England, for me, was a sweltering dream. It was like a fantasy novel full of rolling landscapes, verdant forests with horses and deer, thatched roof cottages, stone circles, Roman roads and castles. And the commons. I remember fishing for Sticklebacks with my cousin Helen on Broadstreet common. I had never been on a commons before. All I knew about the commons came from episodes of The Wombles. Helen, a hardcore tomboy, brought a bag of maggots for us to use as bait. I let her bait the hooks. The weather was perfect. We sat tending our lines as I marvelled at the untamed landscape about us and wondered how a commons continues to be. [Read more…]

Socrates as social entrepreneur: who is Socrates?

CHAPTER TWO: WHO IS SOCRATES?

He was not pretty and he was not well bred. Socrates was a plebeian, of common stock, which set him at a disadvantage in the aristocratic world of ancient Greece. Socrates was a muscular, thick-set man, with a snub nose and heavy brow. He had served, at some point, in the hoplite infantry, but whatever physical presence he possessed was diminished by his self-depreciating sense of humour and unmanly instinct for philosophical discussion. Socrates would make a practice of wandering barefoot about the marketplace, chatting to the people that he met. When he was alone, he’d stand for hours lost in thought. People thought he was very strange. He was polite, for the most part. But he didn’t seem to fit in.

Socrates did not charge a fee for his services, unlike the Sophists, the professional thinkers of the time. Unlike the philosophers who came after him, he did not establish a school or training institute. Socrates wrote nothing and he claimed that he had nothing to teach. Yet Socrates, more than any other ancient philosopher, is responsible for creating philosophy as we know it today. [Read more…]

Vision and empowerment: the Spiderman moment

What goes through Peter Parker’s mind when he first realizes he has superpowers? This scene in the original Spiderman movie sent chills up my spine. What goes through your head in a moment of vision? ‘I am alive, I am empowered, I have the capacity to think, feel, act, and experience life in some way’. In a moment of vision, we understand our sources of power and our powers themselves. We realize that we are empowered through having the capacity to think, feel, do, and be.

Thinking, feeling, doing and being are the building blocks of human experience. Together they encompass an incredible range of capacities and abilities. If we located all the different species in the world on a graph showing their relative powers, with insects and reptiles with basic sensory and motor functions at the one end of the graph, and the higher primates with rudimentary cognitive and affective powers at the other end, human powers would be off the scale. Of all living creatures, only humans have the power to seize on an issue and think it through; to attune themselves empathetically to the needs and desires of other human and non-human creatures; to respond to a situation with a complex and deliberate set of actions; and to assume a social role and become a certain sort of person in a social context.

We call our species homo sapiens, the wise man. We might just as well call ourselves homo potens, the powerful man. Wisdom is only one of our powers. It is all too rarely applied. [Read more…]

Commoning is making common

How do we make a commons?

One answer is: through law. King Henry III granted commoners rights to use the English forests in the Charter of the Forests. When people have a common right to use some good, and a law that defends this right, we have a commons. As historian Peter Linebaugh argues, there is a cultural process presupposed in this – a process by which a group of people agree that such and such a set of goods and resources should be held in common, and act together in a way that preserves the commons. Affirming the plenitude of their shared stock, and inspired by the goodwill that they receive from others and feel eager to return, they contest the limits of public and private ownership and demand a law that secures their common rights to sustain themselves, to live with dignity, and to assemble with their peers. [Read more…]

When (too much) passion is not enough

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I read a great post today on Venessa Miemis’ blog, Emergent by Design. The topic was passion and whether it is all it’s cracked up to be. I happened to be writing on the Stoic approach to passions, so I ventured a response. Here is an edited version of what I said.

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Following one’s passion is important. But passion can easily become an end in itself. This can be a disaster. To ensure that we stay focused on realistic goals and achievable tasks, we need to keep our passions in check. This is not easy, with so much in the world to feel passionate about. And it doesn’t help that, in the workplace, we are constantly incited to fire up our passions.

Motivational culture is a cornerstone of post-industrial society, and it feeds on passion. Pick up a book like Drive, by Daniel Pink, and you’ll learn about the value of passion. Professionals are no longer satisfied with money and status – they want meaning, intrinsic value, and a big passionate experience of life. Cultivating a powerful sense of passion can take you a long way, and to some pretty interesting places as well. But it’s a mistake to think that passion is some kind of magic carpet ride, destination Xanadu. Nikolas Tesla was passionate about his breakthrough inventions, but he died in poverty. Romeo and Juliet epitomize passion, and we all know how that story ends.

If we want to achieve our dreams, we need to check our passions against reality. We also need to check our passions, because they have a way of taking control of us. This is something we don’t tend to acknowledge, because we are constantly told that it is important to feel passionate about things. Passion is important – it is vital. But it is also vital that we don’t let ourselves be consumed by passions, so that the passion (as opposed to the goal) becomes the meaning of life. [Read more…]

From vision to action: how to beat a lack of self-belief

My friend has a failure to follow through. He is full of ideas. Catch him on the right day and you’ll be blown away by what a happy, vibrant, and creative person he is – always leading the conversation, always ready with an idea for taking things forward. Every now and again, he’ll astound me with a new idea for a book, a project, or a business initiative. The next week I’ll ask him how things are going. He’ll be cagey. ‘Oh, ok’. Time drags on and the great idea drops from view. It is a continuing cycle: ideas proliferate but plans go nowhere.

My friend is a visionary thinker. But he continually fails to follow through on his ideas.

I was talking to another friend about Philosophy for Change. This person is empowered individual, the CEO of a successful tech company. He brought into focus what the problem is: a question of self-belief. The gist of his insight was as follows:

‘What if someone doesn’t believe in themselves? What if they’ve been told from day one: ‘You’re no good’. They may be brimming over with ideas. But when it comes to applying these ideas and realizing them, they don’t have the courage for it. It is not that they don’t believe in their ideas. They don’t believe in themselves, and thus they don’t believe they can achieve these ideas’.

It is a genuine problem. Plenty of people have the capacity to think and dream. Without a robust sense of self-worth, however, these dreams tend to remain dreams. We know where we want to go. We just don’t believe that we have the resources to get us there. [Read more…]