A Compass and a Lifeline: 3 Readings

A compass and a lifeline

Before entering the corporate world, the two main things I worked on, were writing and researching/analyzing. I started with the hardest part: short poems. I was six. Then I built from there with short stories and essays. My stories were good, my essays borrowed from them in character development.

The first full on research and analysis project I did was for my finals in middle school. This was in 8th grade. I was 13. My idea is that you could string together all subjects under one umbrella topic. The school district was brand new and they were experimenting with methods. So I proposed what I was going to do. They accepted.

My topic was women—in art, literature, history, other cultures (English major, German elective), mathematics, and so on. I still remember the amount of research and analysis I did to prepare. I was probably the rare student who studied for the pleasure and joy of learning and understanding… and not for the marks.

Many years later, I met an innovator in the field of neurological development. He believed that children would rather learn than do just about anything else. My work with him and his methodology opened a new window into how the brain works.

But I've always been fascinated by the mind. I remember Scientific American dedicated a full  issue of the magazine to the mind. Incidentally, my middle school finals were like a magazine, weren't they? A collection of findings and stories about different ways to see a topic.

Looking back, as we all do to connect a few dots, it's pretty obvious the projects were a path to self-awareness. They were also exceptional ways to meet amazing people. 

Self-awareness and ability to make new friends

are the keys to leaving the world

in a better state than you found it.

A compass and a lifeline. We could use both in our lives and work. 



There's no better relationship than the one you can have with yourself. Without this one, it becomes much harder to have relationships with others. Becoming more self-aware (vs. self-conscious) can help you make new friends.

I've come across two exquisite books that could change the way you look at the process of learning more about yourself.


Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming by Agnes Callard, philosopher

Thesis: aspiration—the form of agency that involves the rational process and work to care about something new—is self-creation.

This book is not for the faint of heart. It's rich and distills complex questions. But, it delivers a completely new way of looking at what is possible. Prof. Callard's style reminds me of philosopher Umberto Galimberti, especially the breath of cultural knowledge and ancient Greek thought.

There's even occasional humor, along with references and allusions to everything from A Tale of Two Cities to popular gangster films. The central question about values and agency is intriguing. How do  you change your mind when what you value is also what you believe in?

External agents seem to come into play. As in social influence. My take is that context plays an ever increasing role in our aspirations. The rate of new discovery has accelerated to the point that we're required to change more than once within our own lifetime.

Aspiration, the choice a person sometimes makes to better themselves in some way despite obstacles and pressures is both rational and mysterious. You're at a certain point in  your life, and all of a sudden, something knocks you down for its allure and beauty. And down you go the rabbit hole, coming out a different person on the other side.

Alcibiades was a student of Socrates. In the beginning of the book, we learn that he was both drawn to his ideas and repulsed by them as they conflict with his comfortable status quo. Handsome and arrogant Alcibiades is only drawn 'to become better' when in the presence of his mentor. Otherwise, he slides into his usual habits.

The mystery is why, once we become even the smallest bit aware of a 'better' choice, we're sometimes drawn to move toward a greater understanding of that 'value' —a value of which we don't, at present, have more than a smidgen of understanding. Maybe no understanding, only a recognition that there is 'something' pulling at us. This lies at the heart of Callard's inquiry.

Callard talks about intrinsic and extrinsic conflicts. Extrinsic don't impact us long term or our sense of self: do you want chocolate or caramel? Intrinsic do: marry, have a child, move to a different country. These are obvious. But what about smaller intrinsic conflicts? For example: going out instead of practicing tennis, which you decided to master. You're breaking a promise to yourself, undermining your own aspirations.

She also examines akrasia, which is weakness of the will. This is when we know better and yet we make poor choices. Those chips after a healthy dinner. They tasted so good!

But imagine if you aspired to something you cannot have. Because your identity gets wrapped into the expectation, you experience grief. It's as if the aspiration had become embodied in you. Says Callard:

Aspirants often open themselves up to a distinctive experience of losing everything without seeming to have lost anything at all. . . Aspirants have, to various degrees and in various ways, put down roots in a possible world.

“When one makes a radical life change, one does not submit oneself to be changed by some transformative event or object; one’s agency runs all the way through to the endpoint. The nature of that agency, as I shall argue, is one of learning: coming to acquire the value means learning to see the world in a new way. But this, in turn, means that the process of valuing motherhood and the process of becoming a mother are not two separate events flanking a moment of decision, but rather one and the same process”

My second selection is also about inside/outside and nature.


The Well-Gardened Mind: The Restorative Power of Nature by Sue Stuart-Smith, psychiatrist and gardener

Thesis: new perspective on the power of gardening to change lives.

When we get our hands in the earth we connect with the cycle of life in nature through which regrowth and renewal follow destruction and decay. This is something many Italian thinkers, writers, and business people have known for centuries. It's been part of my upbringing.

Working with your hands deep in the earth combines the power of doing with that of being. This tending of plants and soil transfers into the tending of your mind.

“The small pleasures of life are not so small really, it is just that we get into the habit of taking them for granted.”

“The chemical components of different floral scents stimulate certain moods and influence how alert or relaxed we feel.For example, it has recently been shown that lavender, the calming effect of which has been known for a long time, increases the serotonin level in the brain.On the other hand, the scent of rosemary is actually stimulating, raising both dopamine and acetylcholine levels in the brain.Citrus blossoms have a stimulating effect due to the combined action of serotonin and dopamine.Rose scent, perhaps the scent we associate most strongly with love, lowers the stress hormone adrenaline – by as much as 30 percent in one study.In addition, rose scent contains phenylethylamine, a chemical that slows the breakdown of our body's own opioids, creating a sense of calm and tranquility..”



Relationships are important to us. Most of our activities require a combination of bonding and bridging.

Friends are one of our most important kinds of relationships. In the 1990s, Dunbar found that human beings typically have 150 friends. The people who know us, and with whom we have a history. Just five of these we can described as intimate friends.


Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships by Robin Dunbar, psychologist

Thesis: the number and quality of our friendships may have a bigger influence on our happiness, health and mortality risk than anything else in life.

Well, maybe except smoking. In other words, friends matter more than we think. The book is out March 4 in the UK. I'm hoping it will be available also in the U.S. As Rachel Cooke says at The Guardian:

Where a book like this can’t go is deep inside friendship: its particular intensity; its singular ease, but also its intricacy; the way it can wax and wane. The territory of novels and movies.

And that is precisely why I read so much fiction and watch so many character- and dialogue-based series and movies.

You've likely come across this guide on how to make friends as an adult. To turn an acquaintance into a friend, start practicing vulnerability… ask the other person questions to get them to share about themselves,” is a good start. At some point, in person will be part of it.