Hustle and Flow: on knowing when to grind and when to hang it up

Our culture is full of advice on how we can live better, happier, more meaningful lives. This advice often falls on one of two ends of a supposed spectrum. One side tells us to hustle harder, to never give up; to keep pressing on towards our dreams at any cost. The other side tells us to be present in the current moment, to be thankful for what we have, and to not get sucked into thinking that we are entitled to satisfy all of our desires. Entrepreneurs and celebrities tell us to dream big, persevere through failure, and to get back up every time we're knocked down. Yogis and mindfulness practitioners tell us that we would be better off giving up on the idea that we always need to be satisfying more and more of our desires. They tell us that winning isn’t everything, and that our culture of desire-satisfaction makes us less, not more, happy. There’s a barrage of such advice from both ends of this spectrum, all of which I find incomplete and misleading. While hustle and acquiesence are often seen as opposing personal philosophies, I find it more helpful to see them as two sides of a single (life-) coin. 

 

In the tradition of philosophy, the two ends of this spectrum can be represented by two seemingly distinct schools of thought: pragmatism and stoicism. Pragmatism is a relatively recent (19th cent) American tradition bred out of the rightfully ambitious attitudes fostered by the industrial revolution and the successes of the physical sciences. It focuses on how human intelligence can help us assert control over the world in order to satisfy our desires and the desires of others. It’s a philosophy of hustle. Stoicism dates far further back to around the 3rd century BC and its focus appears, at first, to be quite the opposite. Where pragmatists tell us to go out there and work to get what we desire, Stoics tell us we should teach ourselves to desire what we get. They tell us that the world is full of things that are outside of our control, and instead of trying to tame it, we should let its' winds take us where they will. In order to do so, we need to cultivate the inner disciplines or lowering our expectations, minimizing our desires, and learning to be happy with what we already have. 

 

Though philosophers often depict pragmatism and stoicism as opposing worldviews, they’re more compatible than they may at first appear. Their difference is but a difference of focus, and both tend to oversimplify our lived experiences. Pragmatists tend to hi-light that in life which we can change, while stoics hi-light that which remains out of our control. Pragmatists often gloss over how much of life we cannot control while Stoics tend to underestimate how much of life is receptive to our influences. Pragmatism reminds us that technological advancement allows us to control things that were once wholly outside of our influence. We can now grow vegetables in the dessert, walk the depths of the ocean, eradicate diseases, and alter our genders. Stoics remind us that our upbringings, what others think of us, our age, and the weather, remain as indifferent to our desires to control them as ever. Life is full of both that which we cannot change and that which is susceptible to our influence, and if we’re looking for a philosophy capable of helping us guide our lives, neither pragmatism nor stoicism seem to do the trick on their own. A philosophy capable of providing some guidance for our lives must incorporate both of these attitudes at appropriate times. Particularly when we face adversity, how do we decide whether to keep on keeping on (trying to change things) or to gracefully bow out of the race (accept things as they are)? Enter: stoic pragmatism.

 

American culture loves to tell the stories of those who kept pushing and pushing and finally made it. Legend has it that Colonial Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame tried to sell his secret recipe over one thousand times before anyone bought it. While at some point he succeeded in making his first sale, his continued efforts were no guarantee of that success. There are many more lesser-told stories of people like the Colonial who were never able to sell his or her recipe to anyone. I played hockey growing up and have a few friends who at thirty years old are still chasing the dream of becoming professional hockey players. More than one of my former teammates has ended up with a career-ending injury in their mid to late twenties with no higher education or job experience to speak of. Were they right to keep pressing on like Colonial Sanders or would they have been wiser to quit while they were ahead? I don’t claim to know the answers to these questions, but I do know that limitless resolve (hustle) is tiresome on the soul and doesn’t guarantee positive results. So what do we do? Quit striving to satisfy our desires and take up the stoics’, Buddhists’ and yogis’ advice to lower our expectations in order to be content with what we have and not be (too) disappointed by our failures? Or do we keep pressing on, even as it kills us, with the hopes that one day our efforts will pay off? 

 

Luckily this question presents a false choice because life’s problems are far more complicated than to be solved by being just a pragmatism or just a stoic. But popular culture doesn’t typically have time for such nuance. People want easy answers, sound bites, and pre-prescribed solutions to life's problems. What I would like to call for is a far less popular position: that of lowering our expectations while simultaneously working very hard to satisfy our desires. We can work our asses off to get what we want, but we would be wise to do so with the understanding that we very well may fail. And at some point, it’s okay to say that we’ve in fact failed enough, and quit without (too much) remorse. Sure, quitting may exclude the possibility of eventual success, but it might also protect us from devastating disappointment that, in the end, may lessen our resolve even further.

 

This stoic pragmatism aknowledges that we can work very hard to change the world without holding onto the dillusional optimism that if we just try hard enough, things will eventually work out. Luckily pragmatic effort and stoic expectation-lowering are more compatible than most philosophers and self-helpers usually admit. This is counterintuitive because our culture teaches that optimism is what leads to success. But often times in life things are uncertain enough that optimism is unwarranted. American culture seems to endorse this unwarranted optimism, where we are encouraged to believe in our eventual success even when we aren’t justified in doing so. To me that just seems silly, but I used to fall for it too.

 

Many will reply that without a strong sense of optimism and high expectations of ourselves we will never achieve the growth we could otherwise. But upon further reflection, this simply isn’t true. When we have very high expectations we often become disappointed with ourselves for missing the mark, and this disspointment does not embolden our motivation, but in fact lessens it. And do lowered (read: more realistic) expectations kill our drive to succeed? Paradoxically, no, they do not. Desire is not a fire easily put out. By becoming a little bit more of a stoic you will not lose your competitive edge. You’ll just be less of an asshole when you lose. And you might be a little wiser when choosing when to quit chasing the dream and hang up your skates.  

 

Human Suffering: Moral Resources In Short Supply

At least in my college and graduate studies, it was clear that one of the main goals of a liberal arts education was to train students to concern themselves with the suffering of others. I had always been sensitive to the suffering of those around me, but my coursework aimed to widen the horizons of my sympathy beyond my family, friends, coworkers, classmates, like-minded thinkers, and neighbors. In addition to studying political theory supporting this sentiment, we read ethnography, watched foreign films, studied abroad, and corresponded with students around the globe. We familiarized ourselves with people quite different from ourselves; learning about our commonalities as well as our vast differences. In my philosophy and political science classes we spoke a lot about utopia. We were meant to choose between various visions of an ideal future — a future where human suffering was largely mitigated — presumably in part due to a widening in the scope of people’s sympathies. Where we often focus our moral efforts on lessening the suffering of ourselves, those close to us, and our extended communities, some day we might all care for one another as a global community, the rhetoric seemed to extol. While this program has its positive contributions in battling the myopia and selfishness of many a college freshman, in the end I find it quite misleading. 

The world is chock-full of human suffering. This realization is one of the uncomfortable upshots of such an education in sympathy-expansion. Liberal arts educations are good at raising awareness of suffering, getting students to be more sympathetic to it, and encouraging us to do something about it. But what I often find lacking is a responsible discussion about how much we can and should do. Philosophers like Peter Singer teach us that we should have equal concern for the suffering of everyone on the planet. And since most people will not extend their sympathies this far, Singer continues, it’s our job as moral folks to make up for their shortfall as best we can. To me, this seems far too strenuous, and a recipe for inevitable short-coming and guilt. This might not bother Singer, but it bothers me. There will always be more suffering to battle, and there are only so many hours in the day for us moral champions to fight. Philosophers such as John Lachs are quick to point out that the world supplies us with infinite opportunities for moral intervention but only finite resources with which to help (time, influence, and sympathy itself are in short supply). Surely we shouldn’t lay awake each night feeling guilty that we could have done more. We can always do more. But should we? 

When have we done enough?, is the question I am posing here. As a pragmatist I don’t believe there are any ultimate answers to this question. There are no instructions about proper levels of moral commitment imparted to us by God, Nature, Reason or any other ultimately authoritative source. The truth about what we should do exists only insofar as we come to some agreement about it. Most pragmatists consider themselves meliorist [that is, people who work to make the world a better place] but that’s because the culture of pragmatists happened to develop that way. There’s nothing about philosophical pragmatism that necessarily commits one to humanitarianism over complacency. Just as nothing in philosophy can tell us when we’ve donated enough, helped enough, volunteered enough, or given enough. Philosophies that don’t provide such final answers about moral issues are often criticized, as are most "post-modern” strains of ethical thought, as being deeply troubling. And in comparison to being provided with an ethical roadmap from the Divine, they are. But that’s where we’re at. For centuries we’ve searched high and low for universal moral standards and ultimate ethical criterion, and we’ve come up short. Experience confirms that the world’s inhabitants value a plurality of goods — universal moral criterion just won’t do. 

So what, if anything, the concerned may ask, is the thoughtful person's motivation for remaining committed to the reduction of suffering as opposed to receding into his or her own selfish desires? Isn’t it a slippery slope from acknowledging the insurmountability of human suffering to doing whatever we want without boundary or concern for others? It’s possible, but I highly doubt it. Our moral habits and values are far too deeply entrenched for us to shed them even once persuaded by a post modern ethic like pragmatism. That being said, identifying with the moral sentiment I’m endorsing may help you rest better at night knowing that the suffering of the world doesn’t rest so squarely on your shoulders. And I find that valuable. 

It's not reasonable to ask us to care for all the worlds' inhabitants as if they were our kin. And it's completely reasonable to feel a stronger intuitive moral pull toward those closest to us. Seeing as the resources of time, influence, and sympathy are in such short supply, there's no shame in spending the lot your moral efforts on those closest to you; despite the incalculable amount of human suffering in this world. I do believe that there are benefits to expanding student's sympathies, but there can also be benefits to constricting them. When our sympathies are focused, we can better serve a relatively small group of people within our sphere of influence. What's a shame is when those with more focused moral agendas are made to feel ethically inadequate for not addressing the world's farther reaching problems.  

Hope After Speculation

Much of the history of Western philosophy has concerned itself with questions similar to those of Western religion. Ultimate questions about where we came from, what our purpose is, what the ultimate structure of reality is, and what happens to us after we die. Questions of this sort belong to a branch of philosophy called metaphysics because there is no possible physical way to find their answers (these topics are meta or beyond physical). There's no physical way to know what happens when we die, just as no physical evidence can tell us what the ultimate purpose of life is, or whether our wills are free or wholly determined. Since experience can never lead us to definitively answering questions like these, all of our theories about metaphysical issues are, by default, speculative.

But lack of the possibility of evidence has not made those questions burn any less fierce in our psyches. Since lived experience doesn't readily supply us with the answers we seek, history is full of stories about how the divine came into physical form to impart such unknowable knowledge to us. But for some of us who are inclined to view those stories as fables, we think that our mental resources should be focused on problems that are at least potentially answerable through an appeal to evidence.

If we resist this temptation to speculative metaphysics then our values must lose the status of Divine, Natural, or Universal; to be shown for what they really are: radically contingent. Radically contingent in the sense that our values are not emanations of a divine, natural order; but rather the result of everything in the past that has led us to them. How we were raised, who we have spoken with, what we have read, who we have loved, where we have traveled -- these are the true sources of our beliefs and values -- even when we're tempted to think that their authority comes from something bigger than our own lives. 

Coming to terms with the contingency of your values means reminding yourself that you had no say in where or when you were born, and that if one small moment in history had been different, things could have been wholly otherwise for you. Such an acknowledgement doesn't necessarily destabilize the values that shape our lives, but it does humble them. It's an acknowledgment that while they may work for us, they are not universal, timeless or otherwise absolute. Understanding the contingency of your values and opinions is an anecdote to the xenophobia that drives so much injustice and exclusion because it invites us to entertain the possibility that future experiences might alter our current beliefs. Some of the most intolerant zealots are those unaware of the contingency of their values -- who think that their values reflect the natural order of things (and the idea of "natural order" depends highly on metaphysical speculation). They do not. 

Perhaps ironically, however, you may still choose to fight and die for your values even after acknowledging their contingency. You just have a better understanding that you're fighting for yourself and your community and not for God or Nature.