The ancient Japanese expression on-ko chi-shin says that we cannot understand the new until we consider the old. In the spirit of on-ko chi-shin, here are five unique ideas that you can collect, enjoy, and treasure like souvenirs.
#1: Wag Your Tail in the Mud
Wagging your tail in the mud is an idea that comes from a Chinese parable about a sage named Chuang Tzu. It goes like this: Many years ago, the Prince of Ch'u sent two high officials to inform Chuang Tzu that he was needed at the palace. The officials found Chuang Tzu fishing by the Pu river. When Chuang Tzu heard the request, he gazed at the river thoughtfully then replied: "I have heard that in the State of Ch'u there is a sacred tortoise, which has been dead for three thousand years, and which the prince keeps packed up in a box on the altar in his ancestral shrine. Do you think that tortoise would rather be dead and have its remains thus honored, or do you think it would rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?" The two officials answered that no doubt the tortoise would rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud. Chuang Tzu nodded in agreement and then cried out: "Be gone then! I too choose to remain wagging my tail in the mud."
THE TAKEAWAY: The most obvious point of the Chuang Tzu story is that it’s better to live a simple, meaningful life and die happy than to live a life of prestige and wealth that is empty and meaningless.This is the same lesson Achilles eventually learned. It’s also Candide’s conclusion, as well as Thoreau’s, Li Po’s, Thomas Merton’s, Mother Teresa’s, and a host of other memorable characters and luminary thinkers. But if we fully unpack Chuang Tzu’s parable, it offers even more to think about. Notably: Know what makes you happy (truly and unequivocally), and wag your tail when find it. It offers a warning too—don’t be surprised when people try to drag you away from your happiness or tempt you with false idols or try to define your happiness for you. We need to expect this to happen and know what to do when it does. The most important lesson, though, is this: Once you find your mud, don’t let anyone take it away from you.
#2: The Lesson of the Two Travelers
The lesson of the two travelers is an old parable of uncertain origin that goes something like this: A traveler came upon an old farmer who was working in his field beside the road. "What type of people live in the next village?" he asked.
"What were the people like where you've come from?" replied the farmer.
"They were terrible people—lazy troublemakers and the most selfish people I’ve ever met. I'm glad to be done with them."
"Is that so?" replied the old farmer. "Well, I'm afraid that you'll find the same sort in the next village.”
Disappointed, the traveler trudged on his way, and the farmer returned to his work. Later that same day, another traveler, coming from the same direction, hailed the farmer, and asked the same question: "What type of people live in the next village?"
"What were the people like where you've come from?" replied the farmer once again.
"They were the best people in the world—honest, hard-working, and friendly. I'm sorry to be leaving them."
"Well, I’m happy to tell you," said the farmer, “that you'll find the same sort of people in the next village."
THE TAKEAWAY: Countless studies have been conducted on the effects of optimism, and the vast majority point to the same conclusion: Optimists are healthy, happier, and live longer (One study even found that optimists produce healthier babies than pessimists). The catch (and, yes, there's always a catch) is that optimism isn't easy.
Yes, there are people out there (like the second traveler) who are innately optimistic or at the very least capable of willing themselves to be more positive. But let’s be honest, most of us struggle to tame our minds. Optimism is often hard work. The world around us relentlessly invites negativity (just read today's headlines if you want an example). To make matters worse, some of us have chemicals running wild in our brains that make pessimism even harder to tamp down.
In other words, most of us have a little bit of the second traveler in us. Some more than others. So the question that the parable invites for most of us is this: Can a pessimist become an optimist? Can the negative traveler learn to see the world through a different lens?
A quote often attributed to Abraham Lincoln says this: “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be.” In other words, to be happy we need to choose to be happy. I don’t entirely agree, but I like Lincoln’s sentiment in regards to attitude, which of course is the point of parable of the two travelers.
The answer, I believe is yes—sometimes, admittedly, it's a lower-case yes with caveats—but it’s still a yes that is most certainly worth pursuing.
Lincoln’s view on happiness hits close to the mark, and the parable of the two travelers—quaint as it is—also carries a truth worth considering. This much is certain, if we carry clouds with us, then every village we visit will surely be sunless.
No, we’ll never have Spock-like control of our emotions, but who would want that anyway? And, no, we'll never fully control all our moods or every thought that is bouncing around in our brains.
But there are ways—real, actionable ways—to be more like the second traveler without being a pollyanna. We can change the language that we use. That's a start. We can choose the people we surround ourselves with. That's even more important. And we can work on habits that encourage a more positive mindset.
#3: What Are You Busy About?
There’s a Zen saying that goes like this: “You should meditate for at least ten minutes a day. If you don’t have ten minutes, you should meditate for an hour.”
It’s a popular quote and I’m sure that you’ve heard it before. But before you jump to conclusions regarding its meaning, let’s tease it out a bit. As I see it, there are three common ways to interpret this saying.
One approach is to see it as smug, irritating, and a little self-righteous. Naturally, the response in this case goes something like this: You have no idea how busy I am. Who are you to tell me how to spend my time? I don’t have ten minutes to spare, and so on. These people are sick of hearing about mindfulness, and meditation, and Mc-Buddhist solutions to life’s sundry problems—and, frankly, who can blame them? Who isn't a little tired of blogs and social media posts featuring stock photos like this one?
A second approach is to take the quote at face value; that is, to think of it as a mandate for more meditation, or prayer, or self-reflection, or yoga on teak porches with tropic views, or whatever. This inevitably leads to a little guilt and maybe the purchase of a new yoga mat or a self-help book with a predictable title like How to Be Mindful in a Busy World or How to Get It All Done in Three Easy Steps! and so on.
A third approach, the one I recommend whenever a Zen quote is involved, is to loosen things up a bit. I say this because Zen quotes are notoriously slippery and rarely intended to be understand literally. If you find them annoying or if they make you angry or if they cause you to go shopping, then your angle of approach is most definitely off the mark.
THE TAKEAWAY: The point of this quote is actually quite simple and practical. Here it is: The things we need most are often the very things we give ourselves the least. That’s it.
Like I said, it’s not about Zen, not really. And it’s not necessarily about meditation either. The saying could just as easily be rephrased like this: “You need to read to your kids at least ten minutes every day. If you don’t have ten minutes, then you need to spend an hour.” Or like this: “You need to spend time outside at least ten minutes every day. If you don’t have ten minutes, then you need to spend an hour.”
"The things we need most are often the very things we give ourselves the least."
Ultimately, this saying, boiled down, is about priorities, which is what Thoreau was talking about when he said that being busy makes us no better than ants. “Busyness,” to Thoreau, was just another word for “priority problem.” Thoreau said that what we really need to ask ourselves is this: What are we busy about? If we ask this question, and ask it honestly, it leads inevitably to a second question: What gives life and what takes life away? Once we focus on this second question, then our priorities become clear.
#4: Kick the Can More Often
Hemingway's exotic adventures are legendary. There are hundreds of iconic photos of him hunting, fishing, and watching bullfights in far-flung, exotic places. But Hemingway’s favorite photo of himself might surprise you.
In the photograph, he is caught mid-kick, punting an empty beer can into a steely sky on a slushy road in Idaho. That’s it. A can of beer. An Idaho backroad. An unremarkable winter afternoon. There’s not much to it, yet this simple moment was one of Hemingway’s fondest memories.
THE TAKEAWAY: When we long for the exotic or the thrilling or the spectacular, we invite a tendency to disengage from the here and now. In doing so, we blind ourselves to the potential of the extraordinary in the ordinary. Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary is a way to practice gratitude, it’s a way to emphasize the positive, and a way to make the best of a world than can often be messy.
The other day, I overheard my son tell my wife that he had been doing summersaults. There was a pause, and then he added, "They were just summersaults, though."
My wife's response: "What's better than summersaults?"
Exactly. What's better than summersaults? That's the approach we want. That's the spirit of Hemingway's can.
#5: Invert, Always Invert
Carl Jacobi, the great 19th century German mathematician, lived by the maxim: “Invert, always invert.” The basic idea is that the solution to most problems can be found by turning the problem upside down and looking at it in reverse.
Jacobi’s maxim has been championed in modern times by Charlie Munger and his investment partner, Warren Buffett. Munger often speaks of his love of the invert maxim, claiming that it’s the single most important reason that he and Buffet have been so successful. Munger puts it like this: “Tell me where I'm going to die . . . so I don't go there.” Taken out of context, this oft-quoted line sounds a bit grim, but Munger doesn’t mean it that way.
THE TAKEAWAY: Jacobi and Munger's point is that viewing scenarios from every angle possible helps to identify possible problems and mistakes. So in Munger’s case, the best path to success in business is to think about what failure might look like and then do everything possible to avoid that scenario. When he’s looking for companies to invest in, for example, he begins by identifying companies not to invest in and carefully examines why they are dangerous investments.
Another example: If you want to experience more happiness, think about what makes you unhappy and then avoid those things. As obvious as this thinking technique sounds, it’s actually quite uncommon. Most of us approach life’s questions—particularly those involving happiness—from only one angle. When we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change too.