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resilience

Three insights I gained from this weekend

It’s been a busy couple of weeks, hence no newsletter last week. I feel like I am spinning plates at the moment. Luckily I’m off to Cornwall tomorrow to take it easy with some good friends. In the meantime, here are three insights I have taken from this weekend’s wild adventure.

Bo3qukaCIAAVK7wThe weekend started with a flight to Madrid, on Thursday evening, for an AECOP conference – AECOP is the Spanish association of business coaches. I have never met a business coach before, but a member of AECOP, Winni Schindler, reads this blog and was kind enough to invite me to give a key-note. On Friday morning, I gave a talk about how we can use ancient Greek philosophy in modern life, to a room full of 150 business coaches. An interpreter translated my talk as I went along, but I was a bit over-caffeinated up so the poor lady was exhausted by the end of the hour!

The coaches really liked the talk, I think. For the last question, a lady asked me ‘how can we learn about your approach, where do you do courses, and how much do they cost?’ I replied ‘well…you can just read the books of ancient philosophy, they’re all free and easy to read!’ Then I sat down at my table, and this Israeli business coach shook her head at me in wonder and said ‘you just missed a huge opportunity’. It turns out I should have had a Philosophy for Life training workshop ready to pitch to the room of business coaches, and lots of them would have signed up. I realized then: I need a business coach to tell me how to make money!

I honestly hadn’t imagined that coaches offer coaching to other coaches! I wasn’t even sure what coaches did – do they offer one-on-one coaching lessons or do big workshops or what? It turns out that business coaches do all these things. You can hire them one-on-one, or go to a workshop of say 10 to 100 people, or sign up for one of their online courses. All of which I can do, and I could actually get paid decent money for it.

This is a remarkable discovery. I’m so used to giving book talks for free, in the hope I’ll sell perhaps 20 copies of my book, and get 7% royalties for each copy (which means perhaps 50p a book). It’s quite a slog, as any writer will tell you.

Yes, but…would it be selling out to offer philosophy life-coaching or business-coaching? Wouldn’t this be like Michael Sandel, who charges $30,000 to do talks about his book, What Money Can’t Buy? Perhaps one should offer this stuff for no money, simply in the service of humanity (while living in a cardboard box under the Hammersmith Flyover). I think it depends how you do it. Many is the philosopher who teaches life-wisdom but has absolutely no idea about how to make ends meet. It’s important to me that I can make a living, otherwise I end up asking for handouts from relatives or needing to churn out books every year. So I have no problem with making money for what I do.

Ryan Holiday, Stoic business guru
Ryan Holiday, Stoic author

On the other hand, it’s important to remember that ancient philosophies were not simply about ‘getting ahead’. They were counter-cultural spiritual philosophies.  An entrepreneur called Ryan Holiday has just brought out a ‘Stoicism for Entrepreneurs’ book called The Obstacle is the Way . He comes from PR – his last book was a Machiavellian guide to PR called Trust Me I’m Lying – and his latest book has been well-promoted and is selling great. Ryan’s success shows both the opportunity and the risk of taking Stoicism into business coaching –  Stoicism is not really about being successful in a conventional sense, it’s about being a good person. All of us doing ‘Stoicism for modern life’ need to be clear that the ancients didn’t think of this philosophy as a formula for conventional success.

So, here is the first of this weekend’s three insights:

I could do philosophy life-coaching for organisations and individuals, as long as I used the profits to subsidize work with less rich and more disadvantaged groups.

I think it’s OK to offer workshops on wisdom and philosophy within organizations – in fact, there’s a noble tradition of adult education within companies, like my ancestors the Rowntrees used to do. But philosophers have a moral obligation not just to cater to the affluent or the elite. And we need to be clear about the end or goal of the education. We should never teach wisdom with the end of ‘getting rich’ or ‘being a success’ – that would be misusing the ancients’ advice. We should only use it with the end they had in mind, of helping people build good characters. Even at Saracens rugby club, even the week before a big final, we still focused not on ‘winning at all costs’, but on building good characters. Which brings me to my next insight.

rugby_2927613bAfter the conference in Madrid, I went to the Premiership final at Twickenham, where the Northampton Saints were playing Saracens. I’ve been running a philosophy club at Saracens this month, which the Saracens coaches were kind enough to big up in a piece in the Telegraph last week. Alas, the team lost the final in the last second of extra time, having put their bodies through a brutal ordeal for 80 minutes. And this was just a week after they lost a similarly brutal European cup final. So having led the Premiership league for the entire season, and won the most points, they came away with nothing for the second consecutive season.

The players coped with the defeat with great integrity, applauding the fans and shaking the hands of the opposition. They didn’t even complain to the referee, although he awarded the match-winning try despite not being able to see if the ball had touched the ground. That’s admirable – to show character in the face of galling defeat. They had done everything right, all season, and they still lost. This gave me my second insight of the weekend:

Sport is cruel.

Unlike pretty much every other profession, there is a tiny margin between victory and euphoria, and defeat and heartbreak. All season, we have been practicing philosophy and the idea that it’s not just about externals, it’s about integrity, values and character. Which it is. But in sport, it’s also, inevitably, about externals – the external of winning or losing. This makes me glad I’m not a professional sportsperson – though I hugely admire these people who can take such a physical and emotional battering, and get up and do it again a few days later.

BpDBCXMIMAI6YS6-1OK, final insight. On Sunday I did a talk at Sunday Assembly, the ‘atheist church’, on ancient philosophy and how wisdom can help us transform our emotions and improve our lives. It went well – in general I think humanism can be a bit shiny happy optimistic, and philosophies like Stoicism offer it something a bit grittier, which is all to the good. I wanted to offer a similar talk in the church I sometimes go to in Kings Cross, but the vicar basically stymied the idea. I’m not sure if he (a) doesn’t trust me (sensible fellow) or (b) doesn’t trust Greek philosophy because he sees it as a rival to Christ and St Paul. What a pity if Christianity has become so existentially threatened, like modern Islam, that it sees every other philosophy as a threat, even one that did so much to influence Christian culture. If that’s the case, it’s destined to become a cultural ghetto, and to disappear entirely.

After the Sunday Assembly, I went to a Christian service at a church in West London. The sermon was by a visiting New York pastor called Pete Scazzero, about how he had set up a church in Queens, only to suffer a breakdown. He’d decided that he was utterly emotionally illiterate, and it was holding back his church. So he read widely, from Thomas Merton to Henri Nouwen (two psychologically-literate Christian writers), and studied contemplation techniques from Christian monasticism. And he eventually wrote a book, Emotionally Intelligent Spirituality, summing up some of his ideas. It is ancient wisdom served up for evangelicals – and is precisely what born-again Christianity needs.

the-emotionally-healthy-churchIt seems to me that evangelical / charismatic Christianity does some things well. It does worship and music well – although its music tends to be really upbeat, unlike the Psalms, which are two-thirds lament. It does community well, although its communities tend to be full of people saying ‘amazing!’ and ‘awesome!’ and ‘Jesus!’ rather than honestly talking about their difficulties. It does evangelism and mission well, although it focuses intently on the ‘moment I came to Christ and everything got better’ rather than talking honestly about the continued difficulties of the spiritual life after finding Christ. And it does passion / ecstasy / encounters with the Holy Spirit well, but unfortunately ends up over-relying on such full-on encounters, and desperately imploring the Holy Spirit to do more, more, more.

Well, we have our reason as well, don’t we? That’s a gift too! And we have the centuries of tradition of Christian prayer and contemplation. That’s a gift too. So why not use them, instead of relying totally on outpourings of the Holy Spirit to do all your healing needs.

So this is my third insight of the weekend:

The extravert thrills and spills of charismatic Christianity needs to be balanced by a revival of the interior stillness and silence of contemplative Christianity.

Seven Truths about character education

This year I got some funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to teach a course in practical philosophy with three partner organizations – Manor Gardens, a mental health charity in North London; Low Moss prison in Glasgow; and Saracens rugby club.

The courses teach practical ideas from various wisdom traditions, and how they’ve inspired techniques in modern psychotherapy. The first half of each session is me teaching the ideas, then in the second half the group discusses a particular ethical question, such as ‘what does flourishing really mean?’, and they share their own ideas and experience.

The aim is to help people cope with adversity and move towards their conception of flourishing. It’s also to introduce people to the ‘Great Conversation’ of philosophy (and culture more broadly) and make them feel at ease in that particular party.

Saracens centre Nils Mordt, catching up on some ancient philosophy

This week, I ran a session at Saracens, where the players discussed whether arrogance or humility is a better virtue in professional sports and life in general. We discussed various figures, from Lao Tse to Paul Scholes. It was enjoyable and, I hope, useful.

I’m also working with a colleague at York University to try and get some practical philosophy into Religious Education in schools, and with others to try and get it into higher education, to help undergrads and PhDs cope with the emotional demands of academic life.

All of this work is based on the uncertain premise that wisdom can be taught.

That assumption sprang into the news this week, when both the Liberal Democrats and Labour came out in support of character education in schools.

First the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Mobility published a ‘character and resilience manifesto‘ calling for the introduction of lessons in character skills and even a ‘character certificate’ for each pupil. The report, written by Jen Lexmond of the consultancy Character Counts, draws on the work of American economist James Heckman, who found that interventions in the first five years of a child’s life can help them acquire character skills like perseverance, self-control and attention.

Tristram Hunt: resilience is all about bouncing back

The next day, Labour’s shadow education minister, Tristram Hunt, called in a speech at an education conference for “all schools to see instilling character among their pupils as part of their educational ethos.” He also referred to Heckman’s work, as well as the work of the Jubilee Centre for Values and Character at Birmingham University.

Perhaps, the RSA’s Matthew Taylor wondered, this week would come to be seen as a ‘tipping point’ for the character education movement. However, there are still plenty of skeptics. Toby Young, the journalist and free school founder, suggested that ‘all the evidence suggests it’s a waste of time’. The columnist Gaby Hinsliff worried that it was being treated as a magic bullet that let policy makers ignore the real issue of poverty. Author Ian Leslie likewise dismissed the project, telling me: “I don’t think teachers should be charged with imparting wisdom. They should be charged with ensuring kids learn stuff, so that they can fully participate in and benefit from culture.”

Ethics in a post-religious society

The problem we are grappling with, as I see it, is this: how to teach ethics in a post-religious and multicultural society, in a culture of consumerism, ubiquitous digital media and widening inequality, a culture where the ruling value appears to be individualism and personal freedom.

We are extremely wary of the sort of collective moral restraints over personal choice which religious societies accept. Yet our post-religious culture presents deep structural challenges to the development of character – the decline of the two-parent family, for example; or the huge cultural impact of a free market media which makes more money from outrage and titillation than ethical reflection.

Policy makers have seized on ‘character skills’ because they seem to side-step our liberal dislike of moral preaching. They’re skills, not values, and they’re evidence-based. So it’s not dogma, it’s science. And everyone loves science, don’t they? Character skills in this sense are the modern descendant of Auguste Comte’s vision of a ‘positivist religion’ to replace the Abrahamic faiths.

The only problem is the evidence isn’t that great. New Labour introduced a subject called Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning in 2002, only to find out a decade later it had little effect on either children’s well-being or academic success. In 2008, a resilience programme designed by Positive Psychologist Martin Seligman was tried out in several regions. Again, not much impact.

So why bother? Perhaps we should give up trying to teach these soft or ‘non-cognitive’ skills as a well-intentioned but ultimately pointless or even harmful distraction, and focus on teaching children knowledge and cultural literacy. Besides, says Toby Young, most of our character and IQ is genetically determined. If you’re smart, rich and happy, you’ve won the genetic lottery. If not, sucks to be you.

A brief proposal

Let me make a brief case for my ‘practical philosophy’ version of character education, in seven truths:

1) All of us face suffering and adversity at some point in our lives. Religion, philosophy and culture provide us with resources to cope with suffering, find meaning and move towards our conception of flourishing.

2) Some of the wisdom from religious traditions has in the last 30 years been turned into evidence-based therapeutic techniques, such as mindfulness (from Buddhism) and CBT (from ancient Greek philosophy). There is a lot evidence that these therapeutic techniques do help many people through difficult moments of their lives. That’s why people have turned to them century after century.

3) It is useful to learn about these skills / techniques, and also to learn about the ethical traditions that they come from. By connecting the techniques to their cultural context, learners are brought into the Great Conversation and given valuable cultural literacy about, say, Greek philosophy or the Renaissance or the great wisdom traditions of China and India. This is more interesting and inspiring for them than simply force-feeding them techniques in the instrumentalized and culturally sterile language of psychology.

Join the Great Conversation

4) It is also good to create spaces for open ethical discussions about what it means to have a good character, or career, or relationship – in other words, not just means but ends. Such discussions get learners engaged and make them feel part of the Great Conversation. On their own, such Socratic discussions can lead nowhere (they don’t teach us the wisdom of previous generations). But they are useful in partnership with the teaching of wisdom, because they give people the space to disagree and to find the wisdom which works for them.  If I was sent on a character course and given no space for discussion or disagreement, I’d find it illiberal and patronizing, and would resist it. As John Stuart Mill realized and Martha Nussbaum recently reiterated, you need a balance between the teaching of wisdom traditions and the freedom to find your own path. This is especially true for teenagers and young adults.

5) Ethical discussions help people practice moral reasoning, or what Aristotle called phronesis. This is exactly what the Positivist approach to character skills lacks – it tries to drill people in instrumental techniques rather than getting them to think critically about which values are appropriate in which situations, and which goals we should be striving for. And perhaps most importantly, group discussions let people teach each other and be vulnerable with each other. Sounds sappy but it’s powerful, particularly with tough young men like rugby players or prisoners.

6) As children of the Enlightenment, we have a wariness of people teaching wisdom / character because we have a keen sense that moral preachers are often hypocrites. Gaby Hinsliff points out that the headmaster of one academy where pupils chant ‘character before knowledge’ each morning has just been arrested for fraud. None of us are necessarily moral beacons (I’m certainly not) but we can still explore wisdom traditions as long as we’re open about our own imperfections. One of the things I admire about the Christian tradition is this recognition of our fallibility.

7) The teaching of wisdom or character should never be an excuse for failing to tackle the structural causes of suffering, nor should it be a means for the affluent to congratulate themselves while blaming the poor for their weakness. At its best, it should give the disadvantaged the resilience to stand up to social injustice. Such was the insight of Martin Luther King, the champion of ‘creative maladjustment’, who also said the aim of education should be ‘intelligence plus character’.

I’d suggest calling this subject something like practical philosophy or the Good Life. Perhaps the best place to teach it is in the statutory hour of RE which each school is meant to teach each week (although fewer and fewer do). Or it could be done in an after-class course (some schools already do this). It may be a good way to teach ethics in a post-religious society  – introducing young people to the great wisdom traditions, teaching some of the techniques or ‘spiritual exercises’ which these traditions developed, and creating spaces for them to discuss, apply, and disagree.

I hope I’m not just peddling my own course…OK, I am a little bit, but really, this isn’t ‘my’ course, this is our culture. We shouldn’t be afraid to teach it.