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Posts Tagged ‘William James’

31 OCTOBER, 2014

William James on Choosing Purpose Over Profit and the Life-Changing Power of a Great Mentor

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“After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together.”

William James is celebrated as one of the most influential philosophers of all time. His publication of The Principles of Psychology in 1890 established him as the father of American psychology. His 1901 treatise The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, originally delivered at the prestigious Gifford Lectures, remains one of the most important theological works of all time and inspired Carl Sagan’s superb The Varieties of Scientific Experience. But if James were alive today, his contributions might well be dismissed under the fashionable accusation of privilege — he was born into a wealthy family and his father, a prominent theologian, was independently wealthy himself a century and a half before the term “independently wealthy” entered the vernacular; his godfather was Ralph Waldo Emerson. But he also endured an undue share of physical hardship, suffering from a range of physical ailments since childhood — near-blindness, debilitating back pain, and various skin and stomach conditions — as well as regular bouts of severe, suicidal depression since early adulthood. His life was defined by dualities in deeper ways, too — James was a man straddling two epochs as a scholar of theology in an era when the dogmatic beliefs of the previous generation where past the point of repair and a science-minded skeptic before the golden age of twentieth-century scientific discovery.

And yet despite these vexing dualities, James navigated his life with tremendous faith in the power of personal choice in shaping one’s destiny — which included, as it always has and always will, the discomfiting luxury of making difficult decisions. Nearly four decades before he came to put this conviction into words in his timeless treatise on habit“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone.” — he enacted it in his own life as he stood on the precipice of a monumental choice, the kind all of us have to make at one point or another, the value of which we only ever appreciate in hindsight.

In 1861, 19-year-old William enrolled into Harvard to study science after a short apprenticeship with the artist William Morris Hunt. But as he immersed himself in the pursuit of a medical degree, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the prospects laid before him by this established path to a “successful” life as a respectable doctor — a life of steady income and steady petrification of his deeper aspirations. He knew he had to confront the trying choice between profit and purpose. (Around the same time, halfway around the world, a young Leo Tolstoy was tussling with a parallel tension between income and ideals.)

In a letter to his cousin Kitty from September of 1863, found in the altogether illuminating The Letters of William James, Vol. 1 (public library; free download), 21-year-old James outlines his choices with equal parts exasperation and snark:

I have four alternatives: Natural History, Medicine, Printing, Beggary… After all, the great problem of life seems to be how to keep body and soul together, and I have to consider lucre. To study natural science, I know I should like, but the prospect of supporting a family on $600 a year is not one of those rosy dreams of the future with which the young are said to be haunted. Medicine would pay, and I should still be dealing with subjects which interest me — but how much drudgery and of what an unpleasant kind is there!

He adds a lament about the crippling industrial model of higher education, which shoves young people down the conveyer belt of specialization and careerism before they’ve had a chance to find their true purpose — a lament equally, if not more, valid today:

The worst of this matter is that everyone must more or less act with insufficient knowledge — “go it blind,” as they say. Few can afford the time to try what suits them.

In a letter to his mother later that month, James exorcizes the growing urgency and unease of his impending choice:

I feel very much the importance of making soon a final choice of my business in life. I stand now at the place where the road forks. One branch leads to material comfort, the flesh-pots; but it seems a kind of selling of one’s soul. The other to mental dignity and independence; combined, however, with physical penury.

James, longing to be a family man, peers into the future and considers how choosing the pursuit of purpose over profit would affect his imaginary future love, to whom he refers by a Shakespearean allusion, as he revisits his four options:

If I myself were the only one concerned I should not hesitate an instant in my choice. But it seems hard on Mrs. W. J., “that not impossible she,” to ask her to share an empty purse and a cold hearth. On one side is science, upon the other business (the honorable, honored and productive business of printing seems most attractive), with medicine, which partakes of the advantages of both, between them, but which has drawbacks of its own. I confess I hesitate. I fancy there is a fond maternal cowardice which would make you and every other mother contemplate with complacency the worldly fatness of a son, even if obtained by some sacrifice of his “higher nature.” But I fear there might be some anguish in looking back from the pinnacle of prosperity (necessarily reached, if not by eating dirt, at least by renouncing some divine ambrosia) over the life you might have led in the pure pursuit of truth. It seems as if one could not afford to give that up for any bribe, however great.

And yet, admitting to being “undecided” still, James is aware of the rare privilege that renders him among those few young people who “can afford the time to try what suits them.” He tells his mother with a self-conscious wink:

I want you to become familiar with the notion that I may stick to science, however, and drain away at your property for a few years more.

James did choose to stick to science. Around the time he wrote that letter to his mother, he changed majors from Chemistry to Comparative Anatomy and Physiology — the Harvard department where he lucked into one of the most formative relationships of his life. There, he came to study under a professor named Jeffries Wyman, whose influence on James’s ideals and decisions became a spectacular testament to how unsung mentors and champions shape creative geniuses. A brilliant yet humble man — a perennially rare combination — he imparted on his pupils, by way of personal example, enduring values of kindness, generosity, humility, unflinching integrity, and resolute refusal to advance himself at anyone else’s expense. Under Wyman’s wing during those two critical years of determining the course of his entire life, James blossomed into himself — his ideals, his values, his character — with courageous authenticity. He would later come to write of his mentor:

His extraordinary effect on all who knew him is to be accounted for by the one word, character. Never was a man so absolutely without detractors. The quality which every one first thinks of in him is his extraordinary modesty, of which his unfailing geniality and serviceableness, his readiness to confer with and listen to younger men… Next were his integrity, and his complete and simple devotion to objective truth. These qualities were what gave him such incomparable fairness of judgment in both scientific and worldly matters… He had if anything too little of the ego in his composition, and all his faults were excesses of virtue. A little more restlessness of ambition, and a little more willingness to use other people for his purposes, would easily have made him more abundantly productive, and would have greatly increased the sphere of his effectiveness and fame. But his example on us younger men, who had the never-to-be-forgotten advantage of working by his side, would then have been, if not less potent, at least different from what we now remember it; and we prefer to think of him forever as the paragon that he was of goodness, disinterestedness, and single-minded love of the truth.

James graduated from Harvard with a degree in medicine, but wasn’t interested in practicing. Instead, he followed his calling and set out to study philosophy and psychology on his own, imbibing self-education with diligent visits to the Harvard and Boston libraries. He persevered through failing eyesight, debilitating depression, and frequent brushes with the very “beggary” he foresaw and feared. Decades later, having followed his purpose to become America’s first great psychologist, he joked: “I never had any philosophic instruction, the first lecture on psychology I ever heard being the first I ever gave.”

The Letters of William James is full of soul-stretching insight into one of the greatest minds and most visionary spirits humanity has ever known, featuring James’s meditations on melancholy, happiness, writing, creativity, and human nature. His brother, the great novelist Henry James, captures this beautifully in the introduction to the 1920 edition:

Life spoke to him in even more ways than to most men, and he responded to its superabundant confusion with passion and insatiable curiosity. His spiritual development was a matter of intense personal experience.

Complement this particular snippet with a recentering read on how to find your purpose, then revisit Alan Watts on money vs. wealth and Eleanor Roosevelt on living with integrity.

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25 SEPTEMBER, 2012

William James on Habit

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“We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar.”

“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle famously proclaimed. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Perhaps most fascinating in Michael Lewis’s altogether fantastic recent Vanity Fair profile of Barack Obama is, indeed, the President’s relationship with habit — particularly his optimization of everyday behaviors to such a degree that they require as little cognitive load as possible, allowing him to better focus on the important decisions, the stuff of excellence.

I found this interesting not merely out of solipsism, as it somehow validated my having had the same breakfast day in and day out for nearly a decade (steel-cut oats, fat-free Greek yogurt, whey protein powder, seasonal fruit), but also because it isn’t a novel idea at all. In fact, the same tenets Obama applies to the architecture of his daily life are those pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James wrote about in 1887, when he penned Habit (public library; public domain) — a short treatise on how our behavioral patterns shape who we are and what we often refer to as character and personality.

When we look at living creatures from an outward point of view, one of the first things that strike us is that they are bundles of habits. In wild animals, the usual round of daily behavior seems a necessity implanted at birth in animals domesticated, and especially in man, it seems, to a great extent, to be the result of education. The habits to which there is an innate tendency are called instincts; some of those due to education would by most persons be called acts of reason. It thus appears that habit covers a very large part of life, and that one engaged in studying the objective manifestations of mind is bound at the very outset to define clearly just what its limits are.

James begins with a strictly scientific, physiological account of the brain and our coteries of ingrained information patterns, exploring the notion of neuroplasticity a century before it became a buzzword of modern popular neuroscience and offering this elegant definition:

Plasticity … in the wide sense of the word, means the possession of a structure weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.

He then bridges the body and the mind to shed light on how “habit loops” dominate our lives:

What is so clearly true of the nervous apparatus of animal life can scarcely be otherwise than true of that which ministers to the automatic activity of the mind … Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself; so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances, without any consciously formed purpose, or anticipation of results.

He eventually brings this lens to social science, painting a somewhat ominous picture of habit as a kind of trance:

Habit is thus the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent. It alone is what keeps us all within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the envious uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to tread therein. It keeps the fisherman and the deck-hand at sea through the winter; it holds the miner in his darkness, and nails the countryman to his log cabin and his lonely farm through all the months of snow; it protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. It dooms us all to fight out the battle of life upon the lines of our nurture or our early choice, and to make the best of a pursuit that disagrees, because there is no other for which we are fitted, and it is too late to begin again. It keeps different social strata from mixing. Already at the age of twenty-five you see the professional mannerism settling down on the young commercial traveller, on the young doctor, on the young minister, on the young counsellor-at-law. You see the little lines of cleavage running through the character, the tricks of thought, the prejudices, the ways of the ‘shop,’ in a word, from which the man can by-and-by no more escape than his coat-sleeve can suddenly fall into a new set of folds. On the whole, it is best he should not escape. It is well for the world that in most of us, by the age of thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again.

This brings us to the question of education, whose responsibility it is to chaperone the formation of habit and curtail the very daily deliberations of which Obama has gladly rid himself:

The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy. It is to fund and capitalize our acquisitions, and live at ease upon the interest of the fund. For this we must make automatic and habitual, as early as possible, as many useful actions as we can, and guard against the growing into ways that are likely to be disadvantageous to us, as we should guard against the plague. The more of the details of our daily life we can hand over to the effortless custody of automatism, the more our higher powers of mind will be set free for their own proper work. There is no more miserable human being than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision, and for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation.

He proceeds to offer three maxims for the successful formation of new habits:

  1. The acquisition of a new habit, or the leaving off of an old one, we must take care to launch ourselves with as strong and decided an initiative as possible. Accumulate all the possible circumstances which shall reenforce the right motives; put yourself assiduously in conditions that encourage the new way; make engagements incompatible with the old; take a public pledge, if the case allows; in short, envelop your resolution with every aid you know. This will give your new beginning such a momentum that the temptation to break down will not occur as soon as it otherwise might; and every day during which a breakdown is postponed adds to the chances of its not occurring at all.
  2. Never suffer an exception to occur till the new habit is securely rooted in your life. Each lapse is like the letting fall of a ball of string which one is carefully winding up; a single slip undoes more than a great many turns will wind again. Continuity of training is the great means of making the nervous system act infallibly right … It is surprising how soon a desire will die of inanition if it be never fed.
  3. Seize the Very first possible opportunity to act on every resolution you make, and on every emotional prompting you may experience in the direction of the habits you
    aspire to gain. It is not in the moment of their forming, but in the moment of their producing motor effects, that resolves and aspirations communicate the new ‘set’ to
    the brain.

Of course, as is often the case with famous advice, James immediately follows up with a disclaimer that echoes Joan Didion’s eloquent definition of character:

No matter how full a reservoir of maxims one may possess, and no matter how good one’s sentiments may be, if one have not taken advantage of every concrete opportunity to act, one’s character may remain entirely unaffected for the better. With mere good intentions, hell is proverbially paved. And this is an obvious consequence of the principles we have laid down. A ‘character,’ as J. S. Mill says, ‘is a completely fashioned will'; and a will, in the sense in which he means it, is an aggregate of tendencies to act in a firm and prompt and definite way upon all the principal emergencies of life. A tendency to act only becomes effectively ingrained in us in proportion to the uninterrupted frequency with which the actions actually occur, and the brain ‘grows’ to their use.

He makes a case, once again, for the consistency of effort, offering one final maxim:

Just as, if we let our emotions evaporate, they get into a way of evaporating; so there is reason to suppose that if we often flinch from making an effort, before we know it the effort-making capacity will be gone; and that, if we suffer the wandering of our attention, presently it will wander all the time. Attention and effort are … but two names for the same psychic fact.

[…]

Keep the faculty of effort alive in you by a little gratuitous exercise every day. That is, be systematically ascetic or heroic in little unnecessary points, do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test. Asceticism of this sort is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time, and possibly may never bring him a return. But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin.

He cautions about the gravity of our habitual choices, however small they may seem:

The physiological study of mental conditions is thus the most powerful ally of hortatory ethics. The hell to be endured hereafter, of which theology tells, is no worse than the hell we make for ourselves in this world by habitually fashioning our characters in the wrong way. Could the young but realize how soon they will become mere walking bundles of habits, they would give more heed to their conduct while in the plastic state.

We are spinning our own fates, good or evil, and never to be undone. Every smallest stroke of virtue or of vice leaves its never so little scar. … Nothing we ever do is, in strict scientific literalness, wiped out.

James concludes with a timeless validation of grit as the secret to success:

Let no youth have any anxiety about the upshot of his education, whatever the line of it may be. If he keep faithfully busy each hour of the working-day, he may safely leave the final result to itself. He can with perfect certainty count on waking up some fine morning, to find himself one of the competent ones of his generation, in whatever pursuit he may have singled out. Silently, between all the details of his business, the power of judging in all that class of matter will have built itself up within him as a possession that will never pass away. Young people should know this truth in advance. The ignorance of it has probably engendered more discouragement and faint-heartedness in youths embarking on arduous careers than all other causes put together.

Habit is now in the public domain and is available for free in its entirety in multiple formats.

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