The process is the product
A common thread ties together many of my careers: none of my bosses cared if I was a nice guy. Performance was what mattered. They wanted to see cases closed, hostages saved, the size of the settlement, or the verdict read by the jury.
I worked hard to meet the goals of my superiors1 and busted my ass to find the perp, save the hostages, stop the terrorists.
My coworkers felt the same pressure. We always did our best. But as I Powered Up and started paying attention, I began to notice the benchmarks being measured were not the benchmarks that mattered.
The department wanted to see arrests made and cases closed. They sometimes asked for specific numbers, and we gave them what they wanted. If it meant classifying a homicide as manslaughter or changing a rape to an assault and battery, then that is what we did. Eventually the commissioner or the mayor would take those numbers and turn them into a political victory.
It took years for me to understand what was happening, with a strong assist from the writings of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius on the philosophy of stoicism.
Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors.
If you can privilege your own mind, your guiding spirit and your reverence for its powers, that should keep you clear of dramatics, of wailing and gnashing of teeth. You won’t need solitude—or a cast of thousands, either. Above all, you’ll be free of fear and desire. And how long your body will contain the soul that inhabits it will cause you not a moment’s worry. If it’s time for you to go, leave willingly—as you would to accomplish anything that can be done with grace and honor. And concentrate on this, your whole life long: for your mind to be in the right state—the state a rational, civic mind should be in.
Fighting the wrong fight
We were doomed to fail from the beginning. We had quotas for arrests, but there were never quotas for justice. Preventing crime and protecting the helpless—our highest callings—were not even on the radar.
We should have been charged with building trust in the community, but that would only have benefited the people we served. If you cannot put a number on progress, then a deputy commissioner cannot hang their career on it. Reporters will not know how to report on it. Law firms can't bill for it, and the general public won't understand it2.
The way people behave. They refuse to admire their contemporaries, the people whose lives they share. No, but to be admired by Posterity—people they’ve never met and never will—that’s what they set their hearts on. You might as well be upset at not being a hero to your great-grandfather.
Righting the wrong
My performance went through a second metamorphosis as my understanding grew3. My goals changed from improving my record to improving the community, and my performance reviews suffered for it.
I used to want promotions, better cases, seniority, perks, overtime. By the end I wanted to do what was right.
In stoicism, the former items are indifferent. The latter—doing what is virtuous—is good.
Wealth is a fine example of an indifferent. Its presence or absence is morally neutral. There is no problem in making decisions that increase your wealth, as long as doing so does not interfere or conflict with your ability to commit acts of virtue.
This is a surprisingly complex moral rule. Things are rarely equal, nor is virtue obvious4.
I should have learned this much earlier in my law enforcement career. Every day was a lesson, if only I had been paying attention.
Find your priorities
As much value as I think stoicism has to offer, there are problems with it that cannot be ignored. It was a product of its time, like all attempts to pin down timeless truths5.
Nevertheless, the philosophy's central insight remains relevant. Some good people will fail in life, and some bad people succeed, through no fault or virtue of their own. Because of this, worldly success or failure is worthless as a guide on how to live and act. It also says nothing of a person's worth.
[D]eath and life, success and failure, pain and pleasure, wealth and poverty, all these happen to good and bad alike, and they are neither noble nor shameful—and hence neither good nor bad.
Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting Fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a dream and mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.
Then what can guide us?
Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly and with imposture, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it. And making sure that it accepts what happens and what it is dealt as coming from the same place it came from. And above all, that it accepts death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.
The ability to hold firmly onto a set of values that provide meaning and dignity to your life is one of the few things that truly matter. Success, fame, wealth, and popularity are distractions by comparison.
What matters is not whether you win or lose, but the battles you choose to fight.
Andrew Reeves is an entrepreneur, touring musician, and practitioner of eleven martial arts. He reached financial independence at age 28 and has dedicated his retirement to fighting crime and helping others.
The mismatch between what is measured and what is important creates what is known as perverse incentives. They are everywhere.
The first metamorphosis, detailed in an earlier post, was when I integrated and began to approach my work with interest, instead of checking out.
Many people think in terms of second-hand values, borrowed from their family members, their friends, or sometimes even the media conglomerate that has targeted their demographic.
Among stoicism's most interesting aspects is its extreme disinterest in effecting change in the world or upsetting existing power dynamics.
What virtues do you pursue? Have you studied stoicism? How has your study of martial arts influenced your understanding of right and wrong?
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