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Mind Macros 53: Overcoming worry, margin of safety, and Stoicism
“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings - always darker, emptier and simpler.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Welcome to another issue of Mind Macros - I hope you find something of value.
Food for Thought
I. Overcoming worry
"In Seneca’s philosophy, there are several ways to overcome worry, and they’re all rather simple. But since Stoicism involves practice, and is a practical philosophy like Buddhism, these solutions must be applied for them to work. One of the first and most effective ways to reduce worry is simply to monitor your inner judgments and the emotions they give rise to as the process happens, and as you start to feel anxious about future events. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus called this practice prosochē, 'mindfulness' or 'attention.' Once we understand how emotions arise and learn to monitor this process in real time, at the exact moment that anxiety is first felt, we can make a conscious choice to follow Seneca’s advice: this involves calling our mind back from the future to live fully in the present, because the future doesn’t even exist. For a Stoic like Seneca, it’s reasonable to be concerned about future events but it’s a mistake to worry about something in advance that might not even happen. As he wrote to Lucilius, 'My advice to you is this: Don’t be miserable ahead of time. Those things you fear, as if they were near at hand, might never arrive. Certainly, they haven’t arrived yet.' This is one piece of advice that Seneca stressed many times over, throughout his writings. Marcus Aurelius also supported this view when he wrote, 'Don’t allow the future to trouble you,' because when it does arrive, you’ll face it with the same sense of reason you apply to the present moment.
“Second, since anxiety, fear, and psychological suffering arise from bad judgments, faulty opinions, or a misuse of the imagination, Seneca asks us to undertake a key Stoic practice: to analyze wisely our patterns of thinking in order to understand the source of the suffering. For if anxiety arises from faulty beliefs, by rationally analyzing those beliefs and dismantling them, we can also cure the distress. As Seneca puts it, 'We agree with opinion too quickly. We don’t test those thoughts that lead us to fear, or question them with care. . . . So let’s examine things carefully.' Modern cognitive psychologists call this kind of inquiry Socratic questioning, another tip of their hat to ancient philosophy. Albert Ellis, one of the modern founders of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), had studied the Stoics. When Ellis first started work with new clients, he always gave them a copy of this famous Stoic saying: 'It’s not things that upset us, but our opinions about them.' That, in essence, is the central, foundational thought behind the entire field of cognitive therapy. Ellis used a simplified scheme, known as the 'ABC Theory of Emotion,' which was directly based on Stoic philosophy. First, with A, there is an Activating event. Then with B, there is a Belief, opinion, or judgment. And finally there appears C, Consequences, which is usually an emotional result of the earlier belief.
“If you get splashed by a car on a rainy day and simply believe 'I just got splashed,' the main consequence is that you might feel a bit wet. But if you believe 'My entire day has been ruined,' which is the same as saying 'I’ve been harmed,' the consequence would most likely be extreme anger. From this, we can see that it’s our unexamined, often irrational beliefs that cause emotional reactions. Fortunately, we can better understand those faulty beliefs, and even eliminate them, by analyzing them through the practice of Socratic questioning, either on our own or with the help of a therapist or mentor. Nearly 20 percent of people in the United States suffer from anxiety disorders. But many individuals who study Stoicism and use Stoic mindfulness techniques have reported significant declines in the experience of negative emotions like anxiety and anger.” — From Breakfast with Seneca by David R. Fideler (view my three takeaways).
Three popular misconceptions of philosophy include:
Philosophy is unrelated to everyday life and has no practical applications.
Philosophy is only for intellectuals and is not accessible to the average person.
Philosophy is not scientific or empirical and thus has no value or merit.
When imagining a philosopher, many people might conjure up the image of a Zen Buddhist meditating inside a temple in Nepal. Such people have disconnected themselves from the daily realities of the average person, reinforcing the above misconceptions.
The Stoics were the antithesis of such types. The three Roman Stoics, from whom we have the most writings, occupied wildly different positions in life. Marcus Aurelius was a philosopher King, the most powerful man in the world during his 19-year reign as Roman Emperor. Epictetus, whom Marcus referred to in his Meditations (personal journal), was a former slave who ran a Stoic school of philosophy. Seneca was one of the wealthiest men of his time and served as a Statesman in the Roman courthouses. With a lifetime of action behind them, their words are practical, lacking any ambiguity.
Here is a selection of my favorite quotes:
"Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one." — Marcus Aurelius
"You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength." — Marcus Aurelius
"There are more things likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality." — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realize that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it… Life is long if you know how to use it.” — Lucius Annaeus Seneca
“It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” — Epictetus
“Do not wish that all things will go well with you, but that you will go well with all things.” — Epictetus
We have discussed Seneca's advice for dealing with groundless fears in issue 40, which makes for a valuable follow-up if you’ve found the above passage insightful.
II. Margin of safety
"When we interact with complex systems, we need to expect the unexpected. Systems do not always function as anticipated. They are subject to variable conditions and can respond to inputs in nonlinear ways. A margin of safety is often necessary to ensure systems can handle stressors and unpredictable circumstances. This means there is a meaningful gap between what a system is capable of handling and what it is required to handle. A margin of safety is a buffer between safety and danger, order and chaos, success and failure. It ensures a system does not swing from one to the other too easily, causing damage.
"For example, engineers know to design for extremes, not averages. In engineering, it’s necessary to consider the most something might need to handle—then add on an extra buffer. If 5,000 cars are going to drive across a bridge on an average day, it would be unwise to construct it to be capable of handling precisely that number. What if there were an unusual number of buses or trucks on a particular day? What if there were strong winds? What if there were a big sports match in the area, and twice as many people want to cross the bridge? What if the population of the area is much higher in a decade? Whoever designs the bridge needs to add on a big margin of safety so it stays strong even when many more than 5,000 cars cross it in a day. A large margin of safety doesn’t eliminate the possibility of failure, but it reduces it.
"When calculating the ideal margin of safety, we always need to consider how high the stakes are. The greater the cost of failure, the bigger the buffer should be. To create a margin of safety, complex systems can utilize backups—in the form of spare components, capacities, or subsystems—to function when things go wrong. Backups make the system resilient. If an error occurs or something gets broken, the system can keep functioning. One way to think of backups is as an alternate path, like how you might have multiple routes to your office in mind so you can still get there if there’s a car accident blocking one road. A system can’t keep working indefinitely without anything breaking down. A system without backups is unlikely to function for long." — From The Great Mental Models Volume 3: Systems and Mathematics by Rhiannon Beaubien and Rosie Leizrowice.
A margin of safety refers to building a space between our expectations and worst-case scenarios. The size of the space, or buffer, depends on how proactive we are in mitigating risks.
Here are some examples of margins of safety in everyday life:
Wearing a seatbelt in a car
Installing smoke detectors in a home
Backing up digital data in at least three places
Wearing a helmet when riding a bike or motorcycle
Keeping a fire extinguisher or fire blanket in your kitchen
Consuming a balanced diet that meets our nutritional needs
Regular exercise that focuses on strength, endurance, and mobility
Maintaining an emergency fund (three months' expenses) in case of financial hardship
Allowing extra time during travel to arrive at your destination on time
Storing a first aid kit in various frequently visited locations (home, car, work, etc.)
Backing up digital data
People often back up their digital data on an external hard drive, but if that data only exists in one place, it doesn't qualify as a backup. Keeping duplicate copies of the data on two separate hard drives increases our margin of safety to 20%. Traditional hard drives with moving parts frequently fail, which only increases with age. In non-geek speak, this means that the more often we use the drive, the sooner it will fail (on average). A solid-state drive (SSD) with no moving parts has a much lower failure rate, providing a higher margin of safety. If we use two of these SSD drives, our margin of safety increases to 40%. Storing both drives in one location makes them vulnerable to accidents, such as a power surge, fire, or flood. A common solution is to keep data online with a cloud service like Dropbox. Now our data lives in two locations - at home and on the servers of Dropbox. Our buffer increases to 50%. Storing data in ‘the cloud’ just means on servers in warehouses. Such locations are not immune from disasters, so we may consider keeping a drive at our family's or friends' homes. The next option could be storing a drive in a safe deposit box in our home country. We might next choose to stash a drive in a safe deposit box in Switzerland or another state outside our home country’s jurisdiction.
The benefits of increasing the margin of safety begin to diminish beyond a certain threshold. Therefore, an appropriate rule is that the worst-case scenario's severity and probability should determine the buffer's size.
Quotes to Ponder
I. Friedrich Nietzsche on the difference between thoughts and feelings:
“Thoughts are the shadows of our feelings - always darker, emptier and simpler.”
II. Ralph Waldo Emerson on books being time capsules of wisdom:
"What a great treasure can be hidden in a small, selected library! A company of the wisest and the most deserving people from all the civilized countries of the world, for thousands of years, can make the results of their studies and their wisdom available to us. The thought which they might not even reveal to their best friends is written here in clear words for us, people from another century. Yes, we should be grateful for the best books, for the best spiritual achievements in our lives."
Thank you for reading,