Thursday, May 6, 2010

What I learned from Descartes

Cartesian doubtImage via Wikipedia

A Rule for Success

When a reporter asked the captain of an Olympic crew team, “How do you handle those huge waves, those slamming gusts of winds, and undercurrents?” The captain answered: “We don’t worry about that. Those things are 'outside' the boat. We really concentrate on what happens in our boat only.”

Such anecdote reminded me of Descartes’ Discourse on Method in which he sets some rules or precepts for knowing and accepting the true (instead of the false), and also some rules of ethics, or as he called them, “a provisory code of morals”

Rule # 3 of Descartes’ code of morals has always held my attention:
“This third maxim was to endeavour always to conquer myself rather than fortune, and change my desire rather than the order of the world, and in general, accustom myself to the persuasion that, except for our thoughts, there is nothing absolutely in our power; so that when we have done our best in respect of things external to us, all wherein we fail of success is to be held, as regards us, absolutely impossible: and this single principle seemed to me sufficient to prevent me from desiring for the future anything which I could not obtain...”

How true this maxim is! Why fret over things for which we have no control at all?
Because Descartes’ long complex sentence packs too much wisdom all at once, I’ve broken it down into small more digestible bites:

1.Conquer yourself rather than fortune.
2.Change your desire rather than the world.
3.Other than our thoughts nothing else is really in our power.

Can the captain of the crew change the fortune or misfortune of the elements? Can he and his crew alter the waves, the winds, and the currents of the seas? I think not. Yet, the team can change only its own strategies and efforts to conquer themselves and victory. What is happening outside the boat is of no consequence to the crew.

Conquer yourself rather than fortune

When I plan my day and my week and I see that the weather forecast bodes rain, thunder, and electrical storms for two of three days. What can I do? Should I fight the elements and go on with my daily walks? Not at all. I will adjust my schedule so that I can enjoy some indoor activities instead: gladly I will look forward to reading those untouched books that have been on the shelf for too long.

I recall one incident. Having just received a modest increase in salary, I complained bitterly that my take-home paycheck was still too puny: “with all the taxes and deductions taken out, what I’ve got left is such a pittance…” All the complaining and moaning in the world could not change the fact that I wasn’t about to get another salary increase for at least another year. I soon got the point. My solution was to adjust my expenses—to change my desire rather than the world.

Change your desire rather than the world.
When I was very young and just beginning to make a living in the corporate world, I had a supervisor who –-in my estimation-—wasn’t half as capable as I was. In fact, often he would consult with me, ask for my advice, and later present my ideas as if they were his own. Yet, his salary was way much higher than mine. I often wondered why he had been hired as a manager, given his low acumen and productivity.
So one good day I asked him, “How did you become a manager, and well paid, too?”
“I have a master degree,” was his simple answer.

Did I envy my supervisor? Of course I did, I felt that he didn’t deserve the large amount of money he was being paid. But all the negative thoughts and envy in the world were not about to help me. To give myself a big increase in salary I would need to conquer my own desire rather than fortune. And on I went to night school to get that MBA, which would be the ticket to much higher compensation.

Other than our own thoughts nothing else is really in our power. Descartes was correct!

Having retired from business after 40 years as a corporate controller and later as an investment banker, I can vouch for Descartes' Rule # 3. And now that I teach college, I teach this rule to my students--and they all see the wisdom of it.

Friedman: social responsibility of business is...Image by ocean.flynn via Flickr

After a long (40 years), productive, and successful career in business, I now teach college. The articles that follow are all written from personal experience.



If you are interested in seeing how I achieved personal success in the United States, you may find my book of short stories East of Tiffany's interesting. Some of the stories are based on my life as an executive, investment banker, and financial adviser to wealthy investors in the East Side of Manhattan.
Close to half-million people have read East of Tiffany's so far. Order your copy from either Amazon.com or Barnes and Noble.
Since English is my second language, Mary Duffy --a master of the English language-- aided me not only with the editing, but she also contributed her own stories. I love her writing in "When You Wish Upon a Star." This is a story based on a personal friend's life.

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