“Stop Trying To Find Yourself” – Life Lessons From Harvard Professor

I’m hungover on a Monday morning on my way to meet Harvard’s most popular Professor at Penguin’s head office on The Strand. Harvard is currently ranked fifth in the world’s best universities (above Cambridge) and Professor Michael Puett’s course on ancient Chinese philosophy is the third most subscribed to course, after the typical Harvard stuff like Computer Science and Economics. I’m downing coffee before he arrives and praying I won’t say 101 stupid things over the next hour to, statistically, one of the world’s most educated men.
When P. Puett walks in looking every inch the Harvard professor, complete with rimless glasses and a caricature voice, my anxiety about being hungover on top of stupid on top of a million other things increases. Until, that is, we start to discuss the 2500-year-old Chinese theories he outlines in his book The Path which, if applied, have the power to change the way we live our lives – and the way we walk into situations like this.
“It’s amazing the degree to which anxieties and fears will define what we do and how we interact with people”, the Professor tells me, “Those interactions can truly define our lives – to very chilling degrees.” What P. Puett spends his life researching and teaching is how to break out of your idiosyncratic patterns and ruts (“I’m hungover, I’m stupid, I’m going to make a fool out of myself”), stabilise yourself, and then let yourself be open to new experiences so that your trajectory is constantly developing and you could, in theory, do anything, be anything, achieve anything. Sounds like the kind of thing they should teach at university, huh?
The book, which broadly summarises the course, starts with Confucius, a very philosopher sounding philosopher who lived in what we now call China 500 years before Jesus from 551 BC to 479 BC. Chapters go from ‘The Age Of Complacency’ to ‘The Age Of Possibility’ and along the way, Puett and his co-author Christine Gross-Loh describe how we should use these ancient theories to inform our present-day decisions about everything from “What shall I have for dinner?” to “Where shall I live?” to “Whom shall I marry?”
The book also rips up the millennial dream of “finding yourself”, arguing that there is no self, and if there is, it’s a complete mess of unhelpful patterns of behaviour that have likely held you back in the past and will likely hold you back in the future. I’ll let him explain…
As a professor of Harvard, teaching young people, what have you observed about the next generation? What defines them?
It’s a generation often critiqued in the press – the millennials who’ve just been brought up in a very stable world which they’re not really trying to question, etc – but I’ve found the opposite, or maybe the flip side, which is that, it’s a group which – more than any generation I’ve taught – seems to be willing to re-think everything. They have grown up in a world that they think is perhaps not going in the best direction, and they seem to be willing and even excited to re-think all of the things they’ve been taught and all of the assumptions they’ve been given, so I find it an extraordinarily exciting generation.
What shall I have for dinner? Where shall I live? Whom shall I marry? Three questions you ask in the book. How do people tend to make these decisions currently, and how do you suggest through the philosophies that they make them instead?
I think we have a really dangerous way of making decisions, from the mundane ones to the really big ones. Basically speaking, the words we tend to use are: ‘I should try to find myself – my true authentic self, and once I find myself, I should always be sincere and authentic to who I really am, loving myself and embracing myself for who I really am, loving my good sides and embracing my bad sides too and part of that loving and embracing means making decisions in life based on what’s best for me, and who I am, and how I will fit in with the world.’ All of this sounds great – we think this means we’re living a liberated life according to what’s best for us, but part of what’s intriguing about these ideas from China is they would say that this isn’t just a wrong way of thinking, it’s a potentially dangerous way of thinking. They would argue that there is no true single self – that we are complex, messy beings filled with many different emotions, dispositions, faculties, with many different possible sides of us that could play out in different situations, so from this point of view, the argument is that as messy beings, we can often fall into patterns and ruts of behaviour that tend to define us as human beings, but the goal is to break out of these limited patterns and ruts, to try to overcome these limited patterns and ruts and open up possibilities we couldn’t even imagine. So they [the ancient Chinese philosophers] would say: ‘No, don’t look within and love what you find, because what you find is probably a bunch of very limited patterns and ruts.’
But if the options are limitless, doesn’t that make it even harder to reach a decision?! If you could be anything and become anything, how on earth do you then decide who to marry and what to have for dinner?
You have to give up the seemingly nice (but ultimately dangerous) sense that you can pre-plan everything. So live your daily life trying to open yourself up to these possibilities, train yourself to see more of the world around you and break out of the restrictive patterns you fall into. We live a lot of our lives according to our fears and anxieties – actively break through these and through that daily training, you can set forth trajectories that you couldn’t even imagine. Be excited by the fact that you won’t know what you’re going to become.
In the book you talk about two ways of making decisions: one is through rational thinking, the other is through gut instinct. How much of each should we listen to?
On the one hand we’ll say ‘I should try to make a rational decision’ and make lists of pros and cons. And then often we’ll say ‘But after I’ve done all the rational thinking, then I should just go with my gut’. These philosophers from China say that both are dangerous – that rational thinking is dangerous because you’re removing yourself from the complexities of a situation and simplifying things, or you’re going with your gut and you’re at risk of going with your worst patterns and ruts, which are often based upon your fears and anxieties. So ‘my gut tells me this’, but maybe your gut tells you this because you’re scared of that. So the philosophers would tell you to train yourself to sense the complexity of situations and think of long-term trajectories.
So… go with the flow… but be aware of the flow?
The danger of simply going with the flow is that we become passive, and the trajectory we’re currently on may not be a good trajectory – and if you’re going with the flow of that, then that could be extremely dangerous, and again, we may be part of that flow because of our ruts and patterns. So the philosophers would say don’t go with the flow, alter the flow, set forward different trajectories.
Tell me a bit about the principle of ‘non-action’…
We fall into this all the time. We’ll walk into a meeting thinking we know where the meeting should go, and we think everything will be fine, but what we’re not paying attention to is, first of all, our own stress, our own worries, things going on in our life that are affecting how we physically walk into the room. People will sense our emotions. We’re also not taking into account that the same thing is true of every single person sitting around that table – they all have anxieties and fears and worries and their own patterns and ruts, and the risk is that we’ll walk into the room with our fears and anxieties and people will play off of those. So the way you break that is you try to calm yourself, still yourself, sense the situation, so you walk into that room and you try to sense what’s going on, and how the things you’re doing are affecting those around you. So by being calm, you give off a sense of calmness, by the way you run the meeting, the way you smile, the way you look up – you shift the mood. When angry things start happening, you shift to another topic where there’s more room to talk to each other, then work back into that more controversial topic. So you are leading the meeting, but you’re leading by seeming to follow, working the complexities of the room, which is what the philosophers call ‘non-action’ which isn’t literally non-action, it’s acting by seeming to not act.
That presupposes that the leader of the meeting does actually know where they want the meeting to go. What would you advise people who are going into meetings unprepared and they haven’t thought about where they want it to go?
That could be even better! Because one of the dangers is that if you have an angle in mind and you try to stick to that, it can restrict your ability to really listen to others and work the room. So if you’re going into the meeting thinking ‘we must go to place X’ then you’re trying to drive everything there, but the truth is place X might not be the most exciting place. Set forth new trajectories that open up new possibilities. It can be more helpful to walk into the room not knowing where you want it to go.
How can this generation [Y, Z] get away from the self and embrace these philosophies when social media pushes us all to create our #authentic selves in an idealised profile online?
A lot of the ways we use technology now encourages some of our worst tendencies trying to define ourselves as a single unique self. You’re always implicitly trying to present a certain side of yourself as ‘the unique you’. So the way you phrase things, the pictures you put up, are all this ‘you’. Google will advertise based on what websites you click on at what time of the day, and the result is that we simply get ads popping up based on these tendencies, which of course encourages us to keep buying the same sort of thing at the same sort of time. Music websites work the same way so you end up listening to the same type of music. So we’re using technology to play into our patterns and ruts, and keep us in our patterns and ruts, but of course this isn’t a problem of technology, it’s a question of how we’re using it. We could use technology to break us out of these ruts, to bring surprising, counter-intuitive music that we wouldn’t know about, precisely at moments when we wouldn’t expect it. Which would create little breaks and surprises. Imagine if we used technology to connect with difference instead of the same. If you’re trying to present a single true unique self, then you limit yourself to only connecting with people presenting similar true unique selves, when actually, you’re much more complex than that, and if you start presenting the complexities and endless possibilities of yourself, then you’ll connect with a lot more people and open yourself up to a whole lot more.
Or lose a lot of followers! So you disagree with creating a Facebook profile or an Instagram profile where you post only the best of yourself?
Yes, because it locks us in. Once you’ve created this one self that you’re presenting to the world, you have to keep play-acting that self day after day, it’s exhausting, and it can come to define you on the internet, and even outside of it. And that’s incredibly restricting.
Do you believe in therapy as a helpful way to change our negative behaviours and patterns?
Yes, but oftentimes therapy is discussed in terms of finding your true self, who you really are, and learning to be sincere and authentic to that true self. But what I would like to argue on the contrary based upon these ideas from China is that maybe the reason therapy works is for the precise opposite reason. Because what you’re doing is entering a ritual space, and in that ritual space, you’re talking to your therapist but at various moments that therapist will become your mother or your father, or your brother, or your sister, and as you’re talking to your therapist, you will at various moments take on your mother or your father or your brother or your sister and it’s in that transference process where you’re working through the complexities of the different relationships that you’re in, playing out these relationships in a safe space, that you can learn make powerful shifts. If we drop the idea that we enter therapy to find our true selves, and realise that we enter therapy to deal with the complexities of our relationships with the goal of breaking ourselves out of the patterns and ruts that restrict those relationships, then therapy could become all the more powerful.
Do you think families are the hardest place to break these patterns and ruts because you’ve known each other for so many years and they’ve put you in a box and you’ve put them in a box?
Absolutely. Family relationships are the hardest to change, but they’re often the most important for us, because they’re the ones which can really help us grow as human beings if we work on them. Familial relationships can become incredibly hardened -– we’ve all seen families where these very dangerous patterns can play out, literally for decades. If we begin working on those, and recognise that in fact we, and the people we’re dealing with (our families), are all messy creatures, who aren’t really any single thing, and realise that a lot of these relationships are simply dangerous patterns, which are changeable, and you can work on them, and if you do, then family dynamics can change dramatically.
You talk about stabilising yourself in the book, so you’re not too much in the gut instinct or too much in the rational mind. How can young people who may filled with anxiety and fear, work on stabilising themselves?
It’s amazing the degree to which anxieties and fears will define what we do and how we interact with people. Those interactions, seemingly mundane, can truly define our lives to very chilling degrees. We often just do the easy thing, which is based on what we’re anxious about and scared of. So practically, do precisely the things you think you’re poor at and the things you’re most fearful of doing, because it’s through these actions that you begin to break out of your patterns and gain that stability. You become the sort of person who is open for the complexities of the world, and actively engaged, rather than the sort of person who is complacently and fearfully avoiding things.
The Path, £8.99, published by Penguin is out now.
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