Room for development

What we do, think and feel has been said to be preprogrammed by our genes, determined by blind fate or a watching divinity, imprinted by culture and society, moulded by our childhood experiences. I don't feel particularly compelled by such theories that tell me, in effect, that my choices, my ideas and convictions, are really driven by something (or someone) else. Are you convinced?

We have to make a fine distinction here. What those theories I've mentioned above have in common is the claim that we don't choose ourselves what to do, think or feel. But there are different ways to understand that claim. It could be meant that we are fully controlled by something else, that none of our actions actually comes from our own decision, that we always think and feel in a way that is determined externally (that is, outside of ourselves). On this extreme interpretation, there is nothing that we really could do to change ourselves, in order to act differently. In fact, according to this extreme view, even our wish to change is something that's preprogrammed, and so is whatever we try to do in order to fulfill it. (And of course, whether we succeed in changing thus is also already predetermined.) Our notion that we have choices and some freedom turns out to be an illusion.

There is a more nuanced interpretation, however: it might be claimed that we are only partly controlled externally, that some of our actions result from influences beyond our control, but others are really what we chose freely, that sometimes we are driven, but at other times we are the drivers. On this view, there are still strong influences on us; but it also acknowledges some room for exercising choice. In fact, nobody would really think that everything is under our own full control: we experience ourselves often enough to be somewhat influenced by factors outside ourselves. Our genes, childhood experiences and so on seem indeed to have some role in shaping our lives, and unless we start to counter that influence, obviously there won't be any change. But what the nuanced interpretation allows, and what the extreme interpretation does not allow, is that there is some room for development. We may be shaped by childhood experiences, but we can to some extent conquer that influence in our lives. The same applies to cultural patterns, and biological conditions. There may be limits, but there are possibilities as well, and it is within these possibilities that we can operate.

And how else could success in life be defined, if not precisely by how well you do within the area marked out so? For living successfully, it's relevant how much you make out of the possibilities. Where exactly the lines of constraint run does make some difference for what will happen in your life, but that's not the relevant one. What makes the relevant difference is whether you do act, within the area where you can change things, and whether you actually bring about that change. That's what is decisive for whether a life is successful or not. And of course, the extreme version of the claim that other things than our own choices drive our lives leaves no room at all for that sort of success.

There is another consideration that makes the extreme view unacceptable: What would it mean for you if it were actually true? What discernible difference in your life would it make whether your behavior is preprogrammed by your genes or not? I'd rather say that if there were any difference at all, it could result only from a difference in your actions, thoughts and feelings. If you started believing in being driven by mechanisms generated by the events of your early childhood, that would possibly change your behavior in some ways, and also your attitudes: would you be able to take other people as seriously as you do now when you come to think of them of automata controlled by their genes, their childhood experiences, or social role conventions, or some such thing? Start accepting the extreme view, and you'll probably begin to behave indifferently towards others, and indeed, towards reality. However convincing the rhetoric may sound (and some proponents of the extreme view use the pathos of science, or religion, to astonishing effects), accepting the claim under the extreme interpretation is not good for you — it's harmful: it will damage your relationships with the rest of the world.

And finally, subscribing to such a view, one that takes your responses to the world as something that you don't actually control yourself, would be a perfect excuse not to put any efforts into forming your character, improving yourself, wouldn't it? What point would there be in enhancing your ability to deliberate, to figure out what's the right thing to do, when the outcome will be what providence has prescribed anyway? Why should you try to build up better, more consistent beliefs when the truth is hidden behind veils of cultural constructs? And why should you educate your feelings when they're at any rate merely a cruelly blind repetition of the events in your early childhood? Thus accepting the extreme view is damaging not only in your behavior towards others, but even in your attitude towards yourself. Again, it's harmful: it leaves no room for development.

So when you think about influences on your decisions, be careful to be nuanced. Make sure that the view you accept includes room for development: of your own character, your relationships with others, and your success in leading your life. Take care.

Having nothing to hide

Some of our actions, many of our thoughts, and most of our feelings remain unknown to anybody but ourselves. In some cases, this may be simple economy: unimportant as they are, nobody would be interested in them. Sometimes, perhaps, it's rather tactics: can you get something you want easier or more quickly if certain people don't have a clue about your intentions? Or it may be that you want to spare the feelings of others by keeping to yourself what you think or what you are about to do. And finally, sometimes your personal life needs protection from political or commercial exploitation, or just foul-minded individuals setting out to harm you. But even subtracting all that, a nagging suspicion remains that there is still more within that horizon which only you can cross, things you do only in private, thoughts you won't speak out loud, emotions you daren't express.

Just to avoid misunderstandings: we're not necessarily talking about severe matters here — there may be so many small things, things others wouldn't probably even notice (or invest much thought into to judge them). And yet you're hiding them, just in case — and perhaps because, if someone would look at them critically, you feel they'd be right. We hide things often not because there could be tangible consequences, but rather because we are ashamed of them ourselves.

Let's make a thought experiment: What would it mean to get them out into the open? What would happen? How would you have to change in order to be able to do so without fear (or shame)? Why is that so hard? (It is, no doubt. The reflex to hide is deeply entrenched in many of the ways our societies work. Not least because of this we admire honesty and openness so much in those who are capable of them.)

Part of the question is whether your actions, thoughts and feelings are in accordance with your values all the time. Is it sometimes that you'd rather hide them because they are not in harmony with the values you subscribe to? If, for example, you see consistency and integrity as important, and then find yourself acting (or even thinking or feeling) contrary to them, you may well feel an impulse not to admit even to yourself how weak your ability to stick to your values is. Another aspect is related to the views of others: is the higher or lower opinion that people might have of you a good enough reason to act in a given way? So do you hide actions sometimes not because they are inconsistent with your values, but because they're not compatible with what people think you should do, even if you don't agree to them, just to keep general opinion in your favor? And finally, is it sometimes so that you keep your thoughts to yourself merely because they might hinder your career if they became known to someone, or might cause you some material disadvantage?

On reflection, as you have certainly found, these motives I've just listed are questionable, especially the latter ones. Are money, reputation and career progress important enough to make you operate with two faces? Are integrity and justness, courage and perseverance, kindness and generosity, honesty and modesty — are these values that you have to hide whenever you encounter someone who thinks that wealth and pleasure, reputation and power rather are the things worth having? But even the first motive, not owning up to things you've done because they contradict your own goals, seems not sound when thought through to the bottom: if you're not willing to admit even to yourself such a divergence between what you've done and what you think you should have done, then how could you ever make progress in becoming more congruent there? And if you're willing to admit it to yourself, then what point would there be in hiding it from others? (Given that you've just agreed that catering to the opinions of others in itself is no good reason either.)

So shouldn't be the goal one along these lines: to develop a character such that none of your feelings, thoughts and actions are such that you would not want to admit them, be it to yourself or anyone; to be able to recognize, and own up to, situations where you still fall short of that goal — be it toward yourself or others; to live in a way that any of your doings might come out into the open, and be comfortable with it? Of course, that doesn't mean that you have to run around confessing whenever you think you haven't been at your best; and neither does it imply you should impose the details of everything you think and feel on anybody who wants to listen. But there shouldn't be anything among those details that you'd be ashamed of. Not getting everything out in the open may be all right, but the reason shouldn't be a desire to hide. The goal should be having nothing left that needs hiding. Take care.


A disdainful behavior is not a sign of excellence — although those who exhibit it usually think (or hope) that this is what it is taken for. But there is no reason why anyone who speaks dismissively about others should be in the least better, just for the reason that he's able to criticize. (It's always easier to talk negatively than to be appreciative, anyway.) And badmouthing others (co-workers, neighbors, competitors) is a cheap and disgraceful tactics. As so often is the case with what we think, say and feel, it reveals more about those who do it than about those who it is about.

There are several things you might want to do with the stance I've suggested in the previous paragraph. (Apart from thinking it through, and questioning it, of course, which is something worth doing with any opinion you take in, always.)

One is to try it out in everyday life, be perceptive and observe closely how it actually plays out. There are plenty of occasions. When you enter into a conversation with your co-workers, notice what their first response is to what people tell them. Is it encouraging? Constructive? Does it show an interest in what the other has to say? Or is it dismissive, contemptuous, a knee-jerk throwing of objections and misgivings at everything that is proposed? (And scrutinize your own contributions for the same patterns; it's easy to forget in a conversation that you're a participant too, and that the tone is influenced by your words as well.) After you've identified some of the latter sort, watch who's got the upper hand. You'll be surprised how often it is the negative person who seems to have made a point, and the other who's on the defensive. That's why throwing criticism around is such a cheap, but often successful tactics. One doesn't really have to say something substantial, just be sufficiently aggressive, and then let the other one defend. One can easily appear to have only the best interests of everybody at heart, of course, since one is merely bringing objections to the table that should have been considered by anyone anyway. Yet certainly it's neither fair nor helpful when people behave that way, so that's the point at which you may ask what their real motives might be. And that's precisely to take the perspective I've suggested in the first paragraph. (On a side note: you'll possible also notice hat a negative style has a way of rubbing off on all involved — once somebody starts, others tend to follow, and the constructive substance of a discussion goes down in a spiral.)

A further possible response to the suggested attitude is to examine the reasons behind it: why is it that talking down the achievements of others, discrediting them, should be taken as signs of a lack of excellence rather than of excellence? In part, that's because an unfair and unhelpful behavior towards others indicates some faulty character qualities, and that doesn't speak for a person's overall excellence. There is, however, a deeper reason.

Arrogance can have many roots, but in almost all instances it expresses an attitude that hints at some incongruity between what someone perceives to be the case and what actually is the case. It displays a rift between what is behind our actions, thoughts and feelings on the one hand, and reality, the world with which we interact, about which we think and to which we respond affectively, on the other. Drifting away from reality is bad for you, and as far as arrogance discloses such a drift, in its diminished awareness of others, absence of appreciativeness, and above all, deficient self-awareness, it's a clear mark of a lack of excellence. Or, to put it the other way round: if you are striving for excellence, beware of arrogance in all its forms. Take care.


On some occasions, our feelings towards something suggest a depth, a profoundness that is hard to describe, and possibly even harder to explain. (Perhaps explanations have to come to an end at points like this.) Such occasions can be of various sorts. Sometimes we are touched by the beauty of a piece of music, a work of art, or a bed of flowers; or the sublime spectacle of natural phenomena moves us: a grand landscape at sunrise, a violently raging thunderstorm, the boundless calm surface of a sleeping ocean.

Yet perhaps the deepest feelings in us are inspired by people and their qualities of character: their consistently fair and just behavior, their strength in enduring adverse conditions, their calmness in the midst of turmoil, courage in the face of risk and danger, and generosity even in uncertain times. And while feelings originating thus seem to have a certain quality in common with the more aesthetic experiences coming from encounters with physical beauty or natural spectacle, there is an extra dimension that can only spring from the specifically human excellence we find exemplified in them, and our response to it. In a word, what we feel towards the excellence of character in people we encounter is constituted in part by admiration.

Admiration itself is not a feeling — it's an attitude. It's not something that merely happens to you, it's something that you choose to exhibit. And in order to really be admiration, it must be expressed towards others; it's not enough that you privately experience it. Admiration is an activity, a chosen course of action. And, not surprisingly, I strongly recommend that you very carefully consider by which criteria you single out someone as worthy of your admiration. Whom you admire, and for what reasons, tells as much about yourself and your own values as it signals something to the admired person.

You can only admire what you value. (You may not be able yourself to do what you admire in others; but you must be aware of it, and you have to be convinced that it is of value. Otherwise whatever you feel isn't based on admiration.) So if you admire someone's courage, that presupposes that you think of courage as something worth having. If you feel great respect for someone who can remain composed and be fair even under pressure, that shows that you see value in that ability. But people consider a diversity of things as worth having, don't they? What about money? Would you think of someone as admirable because of their wealth? Be it that it came from lucky accident, heritage, or that person's own ability to amass it: we'd not take this as something admirable. For one thing, this should perhaps have us thinking about what the worth of wealth really is; and there is another aspect: we can admire only what a person has achieved herself — not something that happened to them by lucky accident, or was gained by gift or heritage. Really praiseworthy is only what is of stable value, what cannot be given or taken away by circumstances, doesn't depend on fortunate events: an excellence of character, consistent decent behavior, clear and honest thinking and appropriate feeling towards others and yourself.

On a side note: this means also that there is no point in hoping (or praying, if you are with some religious faith) for a good character (something that can be admired) — you have to achieve it yourself, and whether you do that doesn't depend on anything else but you. (If it did, again it wouldn't be something we could admire.) If there is anything that can produce this, make us admirable ourselves, then it is human spirit and the rational capacity in us — nothing else. Nothing from the outside will make one admirable; nothing should be admired that didn't come from within. Take care.

Sort out your thoughts

Be structured and clear when you speak, and keep a well-measured pace, both for the benefit of your listeners and your own: you might run into the danger of talking faster than you can think.

Whoever listens to you wants to be able to follow and to understand. It's your responsibility to take care that they can. And they deserve it that you put some effort into it, if they are taking time and give their attention to what you have to tell. (That is especially so since good listeners have become rare and people are increasingly unable to concentrate and focus; if you are so lucky to have someone who is listening to you, you should well appreciate it.)

Sorting out your ideas is not just a matter of what you believe, or what you would say to yourself. It's not a matter of merely internally structuring your reasoning. It also depends on who it is you talk to. (So the same thing may have to be put differently to different audiences, and differently at different occasions.) Considering your audience nearly always improves your speaking: think about what they may know, what they may think, how they might respond. And it doesn't have to stop with the order of your thoughts, and the vocabulary. Sometimes you will have to be inventive conceptually, coin notions, devise images and metaphors. This way, the audience's listening reflects back on, and so enriches, your thought — this means that the more acute your awareness, and the more intense your responses to your listeners, the broader and deeper will be what you can gain for yourself.

Apart from the benefit that both you and your audience have when you sort out your thoughts, there is a deeper effect. Structured, meaningful conversation is valuable to us, and becomes more so with every instance in which we take part. There is something like a level of quality that a conversation can have, even though it is difficult to measure. The more excellent interactions you engage in (and the more excellent you make them by taking care to express yourself well and in an adequate way that connects with your partner in the interchange), the higher becomes the overall quality of discourse. Especially when philosophy comes into play, this should be a concern close to your heart. The way you discuss philosophical questions, and particularly ethical ones that relate to how one should live, should display a dedication to excellence, a striving for investing our lives with actions and feelings that have been solidified and refined by constant and honest reflection. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.