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109 - On Your Associations - Moral Letters for Modern Times

If you wish to have a better understanding of the world, spend time in the company of people who demonstrate their depth of perception and see beyond the surface of things.
109 - On Your Associations - Moral Letters for Modern Times

I gather I depressed you in my last letter by presenting such a scathing indictment of our institutions of higher learning. The places that once nurtured the greatest thinkers for generations are now creating pampered disgruntled anarchists. Moreover, these fallen intellectuals are bankrupting the country as they simultaneously enrich themselves and impoverish the minds they have been paid to better. Hmmm, now I am depressing myself in summarizing this sad state of affairs.

But my aim today is not to depress you, but rather to lift your and my spirits by describing one sure way out of the darkness and back into the light. If we assume that there is a genuine desire for learning and self-improvement, and I believe this is always the case, is there a better path for eager students to follow? There is, and I can describe it more succinctly than I did make my case against the universities: surround yourself with wise people who want the best for you.

We are more directly influenced by our peers than we know. Rather than being inadvertently molded into the shapes that society directs us, or that our circumstances offer up by default, use this fact to your advantage. If you wish to be a happier person, spend time in the company of happy people. If you wish to become a sportier person, get yourself to the gym, run over to the track, and make friends with the most enthusiastic amateur athletes you know.

“Why should this be so,” you ask? “And how does it work?” Take first the simple explanation, Deuteros, which also serves as a good reminder that we do not need to make everything so complicated. It works because it works! Even if I don’t know why, I can still take advantage of this fact if I have observed it reliably working over and over again.

But I know you are a more demanding student so I will give you two further answers. The first I would describe as active interaction, or mindful presence. That is, when you are with other people you can purposefully use them as your role models. See how this one behaves and what it gets them. You do not have to repeat their mistakes personally to learn to avoid them. My advice here is to surround yourself with the role models of your choosing and study them carefully so that you learn from the best examples possible.

That excellent scholar and teacher Confucius gave the advice in this fashion:

If I am walking with two other men, each of them will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and the bad points of the other and correct them in myself.

I will also call upon Confucius to give the second of my answers. This vehicle is available to everyone, mindful or not, student or not, and it is powerful because it works unthinkingly. It is of course the power of habit, or as Confucius says:

Men’s natures are alike; it is their habits that carry them far apart.

To reinforce this point, and to show that modern thinkers have come to a similar conclusion, here is how Naval Ravikant describes the idea:

You are a combination of your habits and the people who you spend the most time with. Many distinctions between people who get happier as they get older and people who don’t can be explained by what habits they have developed.

So if you wish to have a better understanding of the world, spend time in the company of people who demonstrate their depth of perception and see beyond the surface of things. And do not assume that I mean you must find these clear thinkers around the water cooler at work! Take into your arms a book by a great philosopher, and you will have made a worthy friend indeed. If you make it a daily habit to spend some time in thoughtful conversation with such partners, I have no doubt you will find yourself in a better frame of mind than if you just let another hour of TikTok videos scroll by.

As much as I value the company of the great thinkers across the ages, I do not counsel you to take up the habits of the hermit. Pay attention to the people you do spend time with, whether it means you linger at the water cooler with the most helpful or seek out their association in some other setting. You are helped in the company of people who help you in any way, whether mentally, physically, or emotionally, on significant matters but also in small things.

“You have been telling me that the highest virtue is the reason that comes from a well-ordered mind,” you say. “Having achieved reason, and knowing how to properly value everything I confront, what good does the association with other people do me? They cannot help me reason any better.” This is true, insofar as we expect two wise people to come to the same conclusion about the nature of things and the proper course of action. Even if you believe you have attained wisdom I would counsel you to seek the company of other wise people, and I would again give you two reasons to do so.

First, I have found no one who is not helped by positive reinforcement. Even Confucius remained a student his whole life long, taking good lessons and bad lessons from those around him. You may have found wisdom in many things but are you certain you have found it in all things? And if you are so bold as to say you have found wisdom in all things then I offer you my second reason.

It is that you have a duty to pass on your wisdom and to teach the willing students who come after you. Confucius was also a lifelong teacher, and the world is truly a better place for his example. In my experience the best teachers are simultaneously expert and beginner, experienced and novice, as open in dispensing wisdom as they are in receiving it from their students. So seek to have a dialogue with your students and don’t just lecture to them. They will certainly learn from you and you may just learn something from them that keeps you on the path to wisdom.

Be well.

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