Posts Tagged ‘habit’

Hercules slow & steady

June 11, 2013

A small daily taskmaster is (said the Victorian Trollope) stronger and more accomplished than a “spasmodic Hercules.”

At my steadiest I’m no Hercules, but I am good at hewing to a routine. Slim line between that and a rut, some may say, but slow and modestly steady is still the most reliable strategy anybody’s devised for getting things done. Beats procrastination, anyway.

Maria continues picking at the theme of daily self-discipline, with wise words from Gretchen Rubin.

You’re much more likely to spot surprising relationships and to see fresh connections among ideas, if your mind is constantly humming with issues related to your work. When I’m deep in a project, everything I experience seems to relate to it in a way that’s absolutely exhilarating. The entire world becomes more interesting.

Again, though, the exhilaration reflects one’s predisposition to care. The author’s task is to make readers care too. That’s harder.

But there’s no time like the present for trying. Latest Stone piece notwithstanding, Nike strikes the right slogan. Just do it, Hercules.

The great thing in education

September 29, 2012

It was Parent-Teacher Conference Day in Middle School  already yesterday, and Younger Daughter made us proud again. Her advisory teacher, an ebullient and charming woman called Dr. McCoy (she actually has a framed photo of “Bones” of the Enterprise on her wall) reassured us that because of her great work and study habits, our girl’s got the 8th grade licked.

Habit, habit… it’s just not possible to overstate the value for living of mastering habit. My habit of mentioning that at every opportunity, thanks to my long professional immersion in the thought of William James, is thankfully set for life.

But the most gratifying thing we heard from teacher, again, is the testimony of a relatively-disinterested adult observer that our student is not only an academic success but is a genuinely Good Person, of sweet and generous disposition. Not a Mean Girl, not a whiner or complainer. A habitual helper. A steady friend.  A Doer.

So all there really was to say to her, yesterday, was: keep it up.

But if she wants to hear more, I’ll remind her again:

Habit is the enormous fly-wheel of society… It alone is what keeps us all within bounds and saves the children of fortune… The great thing, then, in all education, is to make our nervous system our ally instead of our enemy…

Or, as she habitually translates my Jamesian disquisitions: Blah blah blah.

But that’s ok. Deeds, not words, solidify our habitual characters. She’s doing well, and doing good. She can read all about it later.




September 3, 2010

Keep your goals to yourself?

I thought the old Jamesian wisdom on this score was still pretty smart:

in 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 re-enforce 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.

Anyway: my goal is to write two books. In the meantime, I have a couple of articles to finish.

According to Derek Sivers, my goals just now receded measurably. My subconscious mind experienced virtual fulfillment in the mere telling, and so I have involuntarily  relaxed my resolve.

I’m not buying it. If I don’t meet my goals, blame me and not the megaphone. I’m not a gadget, either. We need more data on this.


December 12, 2009

This was the first morning in months when my trusty Toshiba failed to answer the bell for me. A manufacturer’s shipping box is on its way, so it looks like I’ll be counting down the twelve days of Christmas this year in a different kind of anticipation and wistful wonderment… wondering when my wayward laptop will return.

Meanwhile, it was nice to discover this morning that I can still do it the old-fashioned way:  scribbling in a notebook, with a pen, and still making it to the backup machine with a quick dawn reflection before the first mug of java runs out.

I won’t be texting these posts from the handheld device, I really am all thumbs with that. I predict that I will be writing more (in little black notebooks) and publishing less, with less prolixity, these next few weeks. At the moment, I’m choosing to feel happy about that. It’s good to shake up our routines periodically, they so easily become ruts. Habit may be the great fly-wheel of society, as James said, but sometimes it can also be fly-paper. I feel oddly un-stuck, this a.m.

It’s also nice to know that if I spill my beverage on that writing surface– the little black notebook, the truly portable laptop writing tool– my equanimity will not depend on the solicitous intercession of a polite but very remote customer service agent somewhere on the Indian subcontinent.

James bio – 6

October 16, 2009

jameslThe story continues. It’s the late ’70s, James is about to become a family man (Henry III was born in May ’79), his philosophical future is resolving into sharper focus, his brilliant but troubled sister Alice has begun a steep, inexplicable decline (diagnosed as “neurasthenic”), and his parents are nearing their respective ends.

William is now articulating some of his most distinctive positions. For instance,

On habit: “The great thing is to form habits which then leave the hemispheres free for higher flights…” 

On emotion: “No conscious event can occur without some parallel event occurring in the nervous system on which the conscious event depends… the bodily event is the condition, the mental event the consequence. What we esteem the highest is at the mercy of the lowest…”

On consciousness and human evolution: It “means the end of the reign of chance and the beginning of the reign of intelligence.”

On human “powers” and free will: We may profess a “natural faith that our delights and sorrows, loves and hates, aspirations and efforts are real combatants in life’s arena, and not impotent, paralytic spectators of the game.” And: “The trouble with determinism, fatalism, pessimism, the unconscious, and materialism is that in our better hours we feel such limited and limiting forces… to deny our most intimate powers all relevancy…” And: “the inmost nature of the reality is congenial to powers which you possess.”

On attention: “Emotional interests are the great guides to selective attention.”

On life as an adventure, without guarantees: “All that the human heart wants is its chance.”

On effort and free will: “What makes it easy to raise the finger, hard to get out of bed on a cold morning, harder to keep our attention on the insipid image of  a procession of sheep… It is a question of getting to the point where we want to will something or other…”

In January 1879 James publishes “Are We Automata?” No, he insists, and would insist to Dan Dennett today with his neuroscientific idea that our minds are assemblages of billions of miniscule cellular robots. But T.H. Huxley’s argument in the affirmative had sounded some characteristsic Jamesian themes too. For example: “In men as in brutes, there is no proof that any state of consciousness is the cause of change in the motion of the matter of the organism.” Remember, on James’s early psychological view we are sad because we cry, not the other way ’round.

But in “Are We Automata?” James is mainly concerned to keep free will in the game, and this seems to require a big role for the emotions as selective, attentive, and integral to the possibility of real human choices and acts. In the process, he says things that might remind you of Cartesian homunculi. The point of consciousness is to allow us to choose, just as a ship’s passenger may choose to seize the helm and “raise, lower, or reef the sail, and so, in small but meaningful ways, direct the voyage. Such a person, taking such actions, cannot be called an automaton.”

No. But neither is it clear that such an understanding of the role emotion plays in our lives is quite consistent with the James-Lange theory. When concept-laden theory confounds our actual experience, James will always opt for the preservation of experience. The details may need working out, but he’s typically happy to go back to the theoretical drawing board rather than deliberately distort perceptual reality in the name of a tidy but misleading picture.

(BTW: James would be fascinated by a story that appeared in the Times science section this week, suggesting the possibility that the Hadron Super-collider might actually interfere with time itself. Perhaps what we do really does alter the space-time causal landscape in tangible ways… does wiggle our dominoes, to return to a strange metaphor that came up in the course of one classroom discussion this week.)

It was during this time that James began experimenting with various psycho-active substances to see what effect they might have in expanding his consciousness and recognition of reality. Hilariously, he read Hegel under the influence of nitrous oxide with predictable results.

1882 was a year of loss. Darwin died, Emerson died. His mother died at age 71. Before the year was out, his father followed suit. James was abroad when his Dad began his final descent, and quickly drafted a letter that preceded him back to Boston. But it did not arrive in time for Henry Sr. to read.

It is a remarkable letter, one which I found it fitting to read to my own father* when his remaining days were few. William was still aboard ship on Dec. 21, continuing his Atlantic transit,  when his brother Henry stood at their father’s graveside  and  read aloud from that letter that began: “Darling Old Father…”

“The letter concludes: “As for us… we will stand by each other and  by Alice, try to transmit the torch in our offspring as you did in us… And it comes strangely over me in bidding you goodby how a life is but a day and expresses mainly but a single note, it is so much like the act of bidding an ordinary goodnight. Good night my sacred old Father. If I don’t see you again– Farewell! A blessed Farewell! -Your William”

Richardson rightly observes: “Letters, even undelivered, outlast life. It was a scene a novelist would be hard-pressed to improve.” *It sure was.