Sisyphus, by Titian.

The education that we receive barely prepares us for the challenges that lie ahead. This is what we should have been told at graduation instead of all the misplaced, self-congratulatory platitudes.

1. We strived to give you the best education. But what is the best education? The best education is not that which enables you to make a good living, nor even that which enables you to make a social contribution, but that which enables you on the path to freedom and individuation, and which, in the longer term, leads to the fullest living and the greatest social contribution.

2. Always ask for plenty of advice, but only from people whom you admire or seek to emulate. Best of all, seek advice from great works of literature and philosophy. Shakespeare and Plato are far wiser than anyone you will ever meet.

3. On the other hand, don’t dish out advice unless you are specifically asked.

4. Keep on asking silly questions. People may look at you funny, but at least you thought of the questions.

5. Be very sensitive to your feelings and intuitions. They are your unconscious made conscious. And they are almost always right.

6. Don’t be envious. Whenever you come across someone who is better or more successful than you are, you can react either with envy or with emulation. Envy is the pain that you feel because others have good things; emulation is the pain that you feel because you yourself do not have them. This is a subtle but critical difference. Unlike envy, which is useless at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation is a good thing because it makes us take steps towards securing good things.

7. Make friends with people who drag you up rather than drag you down. It is better to be taught than to teach, and better to be consoled than to console. In the long run, you become just like your friends. You are your friends.

8. Never get into a relationship because you are bored, lonely, or insecure, or because society expects you to. Things will go badly wrong.

9. The same also applies to having children.

10. Don’t expect to find perfect love, perfect virtue, or perfect wisdom in this world. These things simply do not exist in their idealized forms—or, at least, not outside our imagination.

11. Given the choice between laughing and crying, go with laughing. There is, sadly, no end of things to laugh about in this world.

12. All of the above requires a great deal of self-confidence. Try to cultivate it: it comes with habit. And it is divinely attractive.

13. The corollary here is: never be afraid. Or at least, never appear to be afraid. Danger and bad luck are attracted to fear.

14. If you don’t appear to want something, you are far more likely to get it. More importantly, when you do want something, be sure that it is worthy of you. And remember: we are rich not only by what we have, but also and especially by what we do not.

15. Never get angry. Just like fear, anger is a superfluous feeling that does far more harm than good. Most of a person’s actions and the neurological activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person’s patterns of thinking. It follows that the only person who can truly deserve your anger is the one who spited you freely, and therefore probably rightly! This does not mean that anger is not justified in other cases, as a display of anger—even if undeserved—can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose. But if all that is ever required is a strategic display of anger, then true anger than involves real pain is entirely superfluous.

16. Man is a product of the world which he inhabits. He seldom chooses to endure the things that he does. Simply being conscious of this fact can help to increase your degrees of freedom, and it only takes one free action to change the course of an entire lifetime.

17. Find whatever it is that you love doing and just do it, regardless of what others might think. It won’t feel like work. And chances are you will be very good at it.

18. Avoid working for other people or, worse, faceless corporations. It’s not psychologically healthy. And it’s not a game you’re ever going to win.

19. Think long term. The main difference between the rich and the poor is that the rich made a plan and stuck to it.

20. When you do find success, don’t expect anyone to be happy for you. In fact, many less successful people will actively resent you—even, sometimes, friends and family. Some people are small. Just accept it as collateral and move on.

21. Unless your work is your passion, you work so as to live and not vice versa. Spend at least half your waking hours simply reveling in the world around you. Never forget that our consciousness and its objects are the greatest of all miracles.

Altruism has been thought of as an ego defense, a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic vocations such as medicine or teaching may be able to permanently push their needs into the background, and so never have to address or even to acknowledge them. Conversely, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress when this role is suddenly removed from them.

Altruism as an ego defence should be distinguished from true altruism—one being primarily a means to cover up uncomfortable feelings and the other being primarily a means to some external end such as alleviating hunger or poverty. However, many psychologists and philosophers have argued that there is, in fact, no such thing as true altruism. In The Dawn, the 19th century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche maintains that that which is erroneously called ‘pity’ is not selfless but variously self-motivated.

Nietzsche is in effect agreeing with Aristotle who in the Rhetoric defines pity as a feeling of pain caused by a painful or destructive evil that befalls one who does not deserve it, and that might well befall us or one of our friends, and, moreover to befall us soon. Aristotle surmises that pity cannot be felt by those with absolutely nothing to lose, nor by those who feel that they are beyond all misfortune.

In an interesting and insightful aside, Aristotle adds that a person feels pity for those who are like him and for those with whom he is acquainted, but not for those who are very closely related to him and for whom he feels as he does for himself. Indeed, says Aristotle, the pitiful should not be confounded with the terrible: a man may weep at the sight of his friend begging, but not at that of his son being led to death.

Altruistic acts are self-interested, if not because they relieve anxiety, then perhaps because they lead to pleasant feelings of pride and satisfaction; the expectation of honor or reciprocation; or the greater likelihood of a place in heaven; and even if neither of the above, then at least because they relieve unpleasant feelings such as the guilt or shame of not having acted at all.

This argument has been attacked on various grounds, but most gravely on the grounds of circularity— altruistic acts are performed for selfish reasons, therefore they must be performed for selfish reasons. The bottom line, I think, is this. There can be no such thing as an ‘altruistic’ act that does not involve some element of self-interest, no such thing, for example, as an altruistic act that does not lead to some degree, no matter how small, of pride or satisfaction. Therefore, an act should not be written off as selfish or self-motivated simply because it includes some inevitable element of self-interest. The act can still be counted as altruistic if the ‘selfish’ element is accidental; or, if not accidental, then secondary; or, if neither accidental nor secondary, then undetermining.

Need this imply that Aristotle is incorrect in holding that pity cannot be felt by those with absolutely nothing to lose, or who feel that they are beyond all misfortune? Not necessarily—although an altruistic act is often driven by pity, this need not be the case, and altruism and pity should not be amalgamated and then confounded with each another. Thus, it is perfectly possible for someone lying on his deathbed and at the very brink of death, who is compos mentis and whose reputation is already greatly assured, to gift all or most of his fortune to some deserving cause, not out of pity, which he may or may not be beyond feeling, but simply because he thinks that, all things considered, it is the right thing to do. In fact, this goes to the very heart of ancient virtue, which can be defined as the perfection of our nature through the triumph of reason over passion. The truly altruistic act is the virtuous act and the virtuous act is, always, the rational act.

Adapted from my new book, Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception

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