Here are the “12 Problems” I’ve built my current life around. These are non-negotiables, and they are also the focus of everything I do. If a situation doesn’t fit into one of these problems, I’ll generally relegate it, delegate it, or ignore it.
I don’t generally recommend this practice for everyone. It’s a very difficult ethical standard to hold, and it can be cumbersome to run the mental math of “which problem am I trying to solve?” at any given time.
However, this approach’s clarity and focus far outweigh the negatives.
Here are my 12 Problems. I highly urge you to come up with your own:
How can I have a positive impact on this world?
How can I thrive while operating contrary to the dominant social or cultural trends?
How can I inspire young people to appreciate learning as a practice?
How do I provide for my family while remaining true to my calling?
How can I live with the most ethical sustainability while not sacrificing my enrichment in balance with the Creation?
How can I be the best role model for my espoused ideals and ethics as presented to my children and students?
How can I live according to nature (kata phusin in Stoicism)?
What does it mean to really be an effective teacher who can make connections and expand the worldview of my students?
How can I be a good Dad, and what does that mean?
How can I be a good partner, and what does that mean?
How can I explore my own self and brain and express that in my life?
How do I always maintain my own curiosity despite the challenges that the outside world might present?
Recently, I’ve been delving into a philosophy that’s been around for centuries but feels incredibly relevant to our modern times: Stoicism. In particular, I’ve been engrossed in the works of Marcus Aurelius, his ‘Meditations,’ (there are free versions out there on the web, but this Gregory Hayes version is my favorite), and Epictetus with his ‘Discourses (again, there are free versions available on the web that are easy to find, but this is a great version that I use personally).’ It’s been a transformative experience, which I am compelled to share, as it’s begun to significantly shape my perspective on parenting and teaching.
For those unfamiliar, Stoicism is a philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC but became especially popular in the first couple centuries of the Roman Empire. It teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means to overcome destructive emotions. The Stoic does not seek to extinguish feelings but instead transform them with a resolute ‘askēsis‘ that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm.
Marcus Aurelius, a Stoic philosopher and Roman Emperor wrote ‘Meditations’ as a source of personal guidance and self-improvement. It’s a collection of thoughts, musings, and reminders to himself about the virtues he strived to cultivate—patience, humility, and understanding.
One of my favorite quotes from Aurelius is: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” This concept, often summarized as “the obstacle is the way,” has profoundly reframed challenges in my life. As a parent and a teacher, numerous unforeseen obstacles arise. Rather than viewing these as setbacks, I now see them as opportunities for growth and learning—for myself and the young minds I’m shaping.
Epictetus, a formerly enslaved person turned philosopher, taught that our reactions are the only things within our control. He said, “We cannot choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them.” This insight has shifted my approach to parenting. When my child gets upset, I can’t always control the situation causing the distress, but I can control my reaction. I can choose patience, understanding, and compassion.
In the classroom, the Discourses of Epictetus have also inspired me to shift my focus from the outcomes of my students to their effort and growth. This approach aligns perfectly with the Stoic emphasis on controlling what’s within our power. I can’t control the grades my students receive, but I can encourage their resilience, their determination, and their love of learning.
Stoicism, focusing on inner strength, self-control, and accepting what we cannot change, provides a robust framework for navigating life’s challenges. As I continue to study and incorporate these principles into my life, I’m better equipped to respond to the demands of parenting and teaching.
My journey into Stoicism is ongoing, and I’m excited to share more insights as they come. If you’re interested in exploring this philosophy, I recommend starting with ‘Meditations’ by Marcus Aurelius and ‘The Discourses by Epictetus (and pick up Pierre Hadot’s The Inner Citadel if you want a deep-dive). Their wisdom is timeless and, as I’ve found, profoundly applicable to our modern lives.
τῶν ὄντων τὰ μέν ἐστιν ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν, τὰ δὲ οὐκ ἐφ᾽ ἡμῖν should be the opening line of every textbook, Driver’s License manual, Facebook user agreement, and marriage certificate as we move through life. It’s the opening lines of Epictetus’ Handbook (“Some things are up to us, and some are not up to us.”).
We spent about half a class discussing a pair of images, both of which featured the Serenity Prayer: one was a delicate ceramic plate where the text was surrounded by morning glories and puppy dogs, and the other was the same text in the form of a bicep tattoo surrounded by American flags and tanks. Epictetus’s point is that how you frame content determines how you perceive it. And here we had, with the text of Epictetus, two cases of literal frames, one of which made the text seem gentle and available to those who might feel soothed by it, and the other of which made it seem macho and available to those who self-conceive in that way. So that conversation offered three different weavings of meta in the same place.
Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, ‘Did God say, “You shall not eat from any tree in the garden”?’
My mom has always been highly allergic to poison ivy. I remember her having severe reactions to the plant after she would spend hours in her beloved gardens while I was growing up. I felt that I was immortal because I could basically roll in the stuff and never suffer a breakout or rash.
Then I got older.
And now I, like my mother, suffer harshly from interacting with poison ivy, sumac, or poison oak. The frustrating part is that as I get older, I enjoy gardening even more and that has been especially true over the past year during the Covid pandemic. My asparagus is now 4 years old and pretty amazing, btw. Thank God for Tecnu.
According to Genesis, we were created in a garden to enjoy the fruits of nature (plants, not animals… being omnivores wasn’t part of the created order, which is a point I like to make when people press me on literal interpretations of Genesis. Enjoy that steak… you’re betraying the created order. Don’t get me started on shrimp or wearing cotton and nylon together). Our created selves were breathed into by a God that walked in the Garden during the evening, looking to commune with us.
They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, ‘Where are you?’
Poison ivy, like mosquitoes, is one of those realities of living in South Carolina that reminds you that you are mortal. From dust, we came, and to dust we shall return.
Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; and you shall eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.’
This past weekend I was working in our yard and removing the inevitable weeds and unruly plants that have popped up over the last few weeks of a South Carolina spring. They always come suddenly and ferociously this time of year. Our well-trimmed and manicured winter lawn becomes a weed-filled garden of poison delights within a few weeks every April. I always remember to put on my gloves and long sleeves and identify plants at the beginning of May when I attempt to tackle this new growth from the earth.
April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain. Winter kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow, feeding A little life with dried tubers.
And now I’m reckoning with two armfuls of poison ivy rashes despite knowing I’d been tapped by those slick and sticky strands of green creation that always cause me to catch my breath. I quickly applied a good helping of Tecnu, thankfully. But still, here I am with two arms covered in red itchy bumps.
April is the month of reckoning. We must step back and examine the steps we made over the winter (even here in SC where the winters are milder than the Starnbergersee). We take stock of the first few months of the new year and we make plans for the rest of the year. There’s a reason Easter comes this time of the year.
There’s a reason we are reminded of our mortality and weakness to a simple plant while attempting to grow new food or beauty for our family and neighbors and communities. Gardening is not easy. It involves risk. Especially for those of us allergic to urushiol oil and too stubborn to remember to wear long sleeves when tending potatoes in the ground or Iris beds or clearing a path to show our children where the snake who shed a 5 foot long skin in our backyard last week probably lives.
The Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. He drove out the man; and at the east of the garden of Eden he placed the cherubim, and a sword flaming and turning to guard the way to the tree of life.
We are all on our journeys outwards, East of Eden. Those paths are not simple highways, but meandering roads that are filled with opportunities and options and trees of fruit and weeds of poison. As we travel, we grow and we learn. We are able to identify the poisonous plants and discern which fruits are good to eat. Through it all, we learn and gain knowledge from the trees. The wisdom of our humanity is not a curse, but a blessing.
David Bowie had an immense and long-lasting impact on me and I’ve been revisiting his music (even more than usual) lately as it has been 5 years since his passing on.
I first dove into Bowie because of Nirvana (I know, I know). Nirvana was the first band that I discovered early for myself, and that music has also shaped much of my own aesthetic. Their cover of Bowie’s “The Man Who Sold the World” on their Unplugged album immediately caught my fascination. I had known about Bowie and knew of him from “Let’s Dance” and his role as the Goblin King in Labyrinth, of course.
But as a child in the ’80s and then a pre-teen and eventual teen in the ’90s, Bowie’s 80’s music was reminiscent of what I felt we were all pushing against. His ’70s material was almost off-limits in the same way KISS or Black Sabbath was to me… there was something secretive and occultist and just weird to my Southern conservative Baptist straight-laced white boy type. Nirvana was almost a bridge too far (indeed, a high school teacher spent a number of days having us analyze why Nirvana’s music was so terrible and destructive to “Western Culture” … turns out that turned us all on).
When I started doing a deep dive on Bowie because of Nirvana’s (masterful) cover in 1994, the persona had been reinvented again and he was associating with Trent Reznor and moving away from his 80’s MTV friendliness into industrial rock. I was just beginning to explore this area myself and Nine Inch Nails played a big part in that (I bought one of their t-shirts around this time having never heard them, but figured I should give them a listen). That led to me first experiencing Bowie through Earthling, which is a weird way to hop into Bowie.
Eventually, I explored his 70’s material (and then his 60’s works) and was blown away. Where had Low and the Berlin Trilogy been all my life? Ziggy is an amazing piece of work, of course. Hunky Dory is still one of my favorites. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) comes just before Let’s Dance and hints at what would become industrial rock in the ’90s. It was all a revelation.
Station To Station was in there, plodding along with its otherworldliness. It took me some time to even listen all the way through in one sitting. It was only after I also earnestly began studying religion (modern and especially ancient versions) that I was finally brave (?) enough to hop in and attempt Station To Station.
I try to “read” music as literature. Now Station To Station is one of my favorite Bowie albums and this write-up from 10 years ago is one of the most effective descriptions of this piece of art…
Bowie constructs the most grandiose of love songs, the most overblown, epic ballads, mouthing hollow romantic clichés as if, by saying the lines with enough simulated passion, he will actually come to feel them. And yet, of course, all of this is just a construct, too- he knows exactly what he’s doing. It’s not a cynical act, because the desire to feel remains genuine- in its way, this is as stark and troubled a record as anything from Neil Young’s contemporaneous ditch trilogy, the musical polish and role-play only thinly veiling a soul on the edge, battling with addiction and paranoia and with what he, at least, genuinely believed were dark mystical forces just waiting to drag him forever into the abyss. “It’s the nearest album to a magical treatise that I’ve written,” Bowie has said, though perhaps a ritual spell of protection would be a more accurate description.
Must read here. I won’t summarize the article as you need to read the entire piece for yourself, but the implications for things I care about very deeply (such as marketing, politics, technology, religion, and education) are serious.
Take some time and read:
Sloman and Fernbach see this effect, which they call the “illusion of explanatory depth,” just about everywhere. People believe that they know way more than they actually do. What allows us to persist in this belief is other people. In the case of my toilet, someone else designed it so that I can operate it easily. This is something humans are very good at. We’ve been relying on one another’s expertise ever since we figured out how to hunt together, which was probably a key development in our evolutionary history. So well do we collaborate, Sloman and Fernbach argue, that we can hardly tell where our own understanding ends and others’ begins.
I get these sorts of questions frequently from new clients:
“Why aren’t my Facebook Page posts getting more likes?”
“Why isn’t my website getting more views?”
“How can I let more people know I’ve written / made / created / offer the best service / product in my area?”
“When will people start responding to the emails I’m sending them about our product / church service / nonprofit fundraising?”
“What is the best way to market this because what I’ve done hasn’t worked so far?”
After being in the marketing world for almost 20 years now, these are among the most common questions I get from people just beginning to take marketing seriously (and have hired me to help them realize that vision).
We’ve all asked ourselves similar questions after the initial excitement of an idea has faded away due to the lack of engagement from everyone else who didn’t respond the way we wanted.
But that’s the beauty of marketing… it’s a system of nuance and subtleness and not a blunt tool. It’s not meant to “convert” (that’s sales) as much as “persuade” … and that takes extra effort and thinking outside of our own heads. Some do that with data. Some do that with incredible gut instincts.
Nonetheless, don’t fall into the trap of letting your own perspectives dictate all of your marketing efforts…
The dilemma for my boss, for me and for you – as humans – is that it’s very difficult to admit that you were wrong, or even stupid. It’s is the last thing someone will admit. The alternative is, instead of believing the evidence, you double down on your initial belief – belief perseverance – and say it’s the other person who’s wrong.
Well this is an eye-opening piece that has caused me to reconsider lots of presuppositions…
In other words, to solve the problem of our unwillingness to keep track of our dogs, we do not address our own unwillingness. To address the overpopulation of unwanted dogs, we do not address the overpopulation. Instead, we non sequitur: we take brand-new dogs and introduce them into our homes by first putting them through a surgery at six, four, or even three months of age. The professed solution, in the United States, is to spay or neuter all the new ones.
My oldest daughter made a comment about how I resemble The Librarian in my mannerisms and philosophy on things, except that I didn’t wear bowties anymore.
That was good enough inspiration for me to open up my dusty drawer of memory-imbued bowties I have collected, bought, been given by students, and gifted by friends over the years. During my time as a Middle School teacher, the bowtie became my talisman and an important part of my costume that I would put on every morning (and squirrels… but that’s a different blog post). My students would voice their disappointment when they showed up to class and I had on a “regular” tie. I started receiving handmade bowties made out of duct tape, squirrel-themed bowties, and everything in between. My official portrait done by the 8th graders in art class included the bowtie as well. I taught numerous young people (of all gender identifications) how to tie a bowtie. High schoolers would come by my graduation before picture day or a school dance or graduation to have me help them tie their bowties.
So I was incredibly sad and then frustrated this morning when I went to tie one of my favorite bowties and realized the muscle memory was gone. It was as if I’d been a concert pianist for years and then I sat down to play Fur Elise and had no idea where to move my hands.
I stopped myself, looked myself in the mirror, and resolved then to never forget how to tie a bowtie. The muscle memory slowly came back, and I made a pretty good knot.
It’s time for me to get back to where I once belonged and not forget the power of the bowtie.
I made the decision last week to attempt what I previously thought was relatively undoable for my business and/or personal life and pull out of the Twitter stream and Facebook world, and Instagram performance art gallery. Some of that was due to this liturgical season of Lent and some of that was my constant need to try on new “thought technologies” that helps me explore more of this life.
After a week, I can say a few things that have struck me as personal revelations.
First, I am more focused and “get things done” work-wise in a more deliberate and intentional way. It’s not that I was skipping over things a year or a month ago, but the silence that comes from not having a constant TweetDeck tab open in my browser window (or on the large screen that was dedicated just to TweetDeck) has made a marked difference in my workflow as evidenced by my time sheets and my client ticketing system.
Second, I find myself reaching for my phone fewer times during the morning, day, and night. I would constantly be scanning Instagram or Twitter when I had a few spare moments or minutes during the course of a day. Now that I don’t have those time sinks, I find myself scanning Feedly for news or longer form articles or just doodling on paper for 30 seconds.
Third, I’m blogging here more. I feel more “creative” in general to be honest. Being away from the constant stream of short takes on the latest political scandal or presidential tweet or funny meme has made me recognize how much I’ve pushed down my own voice inside of my head (as much as it is an unreliable narrator sometimes!). But I feel like we’re picking back up the conversation after a long 12 years on Twitter and as a heavy user of all things social. I feel more creative and less anxious in general.
Most importantly, I have space to be more mindful about my place here. I already feel a change in my outlook on issues and things I need to give or pay attention to. I’ve found myself turning off notifications on my phone from Slack and Email (heaven forbid!) and even our ticket support system. Could I make do with a flip phone? Who knows. But that mindfulness and a better sense of presence doesfeel different than it has the last few years.
Coincidence is not causation, so we’ll see how this happens as I keep up with this thought technology of being mindfully and spiritually situated in specific places and times rather than floating through the matrix of performative attention.