Stand for something or fall for anything

Whether we know it or not – each of us has an operating system.

It’s the combination of beliefs, attitudes, rules and algorithms that shapes our experience of the world.

And just as iOS or Android are the systems which allow our phones to make sense of what we type into them – our operating system (OS) is how we make sense of what we see, hear, smell, taste and feel.

And what sits at the core of our OS, are our fundamental beliefs about what’s true and important.

These beliefs come from everywhere: religion, philosophy, fiction, culture, the internet and Kim Kardashian.

And while that point is quite flippant, the quality of these beliefs is hugely important. Because it’s these core beliefs which we access and draw on when dealing with difficult situations.

They either rouse us to action or invite us to pause and reflect.

They advise us to turn the other cheek, or command us to take up arms against those who have wronged us.

They’re FUNDAMENTAL to how we think, feel and behave. They dictate how we operate, both as individuals and societies.

So, what sits at the core of your OS?

Have you even thought about it?

We each have something within us which steers our every move and thought, and yet what have we done to understand, or shape it?

Are our beliefs helpful? Moral? Optimal? Legal? Just?

When you’re faced with a difficult situation, will your OS help or hinder your progress? Is it geared towards making things better, or settling scores? Is it tuned for the common good, or personal benefit?

The stoics were concerned with building the best practical operating system they possibly could. They wanted something which would work for everyone: from emperors to prisoners, soldiers to artists.

At the core of their operating system, they put 4 virtues:





They believed that if you started from these virtues and if you used them them to inform your thinking and action, you couldn’t go far wrong.

I don’t yet know if the stoics were right or wrong about their virtues, but I do know that it’s a worthwhile project.

For every person on the planet, examining and optimising your OS is a task worth undertaking, because the prize is so great: a better experience of the world.

If you haven’t deliberately decided what’s at the core of your OS, then it’s time to choose. Because if you don’t, someone else will.

If you don’t shape your own beliefs, they will be shaped by others, without your consent.

If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.

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Thanks to Tim Ferriss for the idea of Stoicism as an OS – which let to the overriding metaphor in this post.

The Goldfish

photo by Rabun Warna -
photo by Rabun Warna –

I have a goldfish at home. I wish could say it was for my kids – to teach them about responsibility and life and death. But all of that would be a lie. It’s for me. I dragged it into my life, because I wanted a goldfish.

I’m not even certain what need or want it fills. It’s comforting to watch him/her swim around. It’s pleasant to have a moment of connection through the plastic as we see each other when the rest of the family is asleep. But all this occurs at the expense of whatever liberty and happiness that fish might otherwise have were it not in our flat.

I’m not exactly sure what the natural habitat of the goldfish is – I’ve never see one in the wild. I suspect it’s not “the brief space between a fake plant and a miniature bridge, in an 8 litre plastic tank, on a kitchen bench, in North London.”

The only other place I’ve seen them is in pet shops and toilet bowls, but I don’t think either of those are closer to the natural state.

I have no concept of its happiness or health, concerns or ambitions – and I’m not sure that he/she does either.

Irrespective of what the fish feels, I dragged it into my orbit, to satisfy my needs. Like a drowning swimmer who has latched on to another person and won’t let go, I have bound our fates together and given the other no choice in the matter.

I know this sounds morbid, but it’s not. If it’s horrible, then it’s on a scale which is microscopic enough to not cause much harm to the world (except to the fish).

But it did make me think that we can do the same with people. That we can get needy, start thrashing in the water and become a peril to those within arms reach. That we can drag people into our obit and forcibly bind their fates to ours.

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t reach out when we genuinely need help. That’s one of the main advantages of community, society and family. Perhaps we should just avoid trying to have too many goldfish.