Category: Philosophy

Rethinking Fear

Fear is a state no one wants to embrace, yet for many of us it’s the background music to our lives. But by making friends with fear and understanding why it exists, we can become less vulnerable to harm—and less afraid. Read on to learn a better approach to fear.


In The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence, author Gavin de Becker argues that we all have an intuitive sense of when we are in danger. Drawing upon his experience as a high-stakes security specialist, he explains how we can protect ourselves by paying better attention to our gut feelings and not letting denial lead us to harm. Our intuition, honed by evolution and by a lifetime of experience, deserves more respect.

By telling us to value our intuition, de Becker isn’t telling anyone to live in fear permanently, always alert for possible risks. Quite the opposite. De Becker writes that we misunderstand the value of fear when we think that being constantly hypervigilant will keep us safe. Being afraid all the time doesn’t protect us from danger. Instead, he explains, by trusting that our gut feelings are accurate and learning key signals that portend risk, we can actually feel calmer and safer:

Far too many people are walking around in a constant state of vigilance, their intuition misinformed about what really poses danger. It needn’t be so. When you honor accurate intuitive signals and evaluate them without denial (believing that either the favorable or unfavorable outcome is possible), you need not be wary, for you will come to trust that you’ll be notified if there is something worthy of your attention. Fear will gain credibility because it won’t be applied wastefully.

When we walk around terrified all the time, we can’t pick out the signal from the noise. If you’re constantly scared, you can’t correctly notice when there is something genuine to fear. True fear is a momentary signal, not an ongoing state. De Becker writes that “if one feels fear of all people all the time, there is no signal reserved for the times when it’s really needed.”

What we fear the most is rarely what ends up happening. Fixating on particular dangers blinds us to others. We focus on checking the road for snakes and end up getting knocked over by a car. De Becker writes that it matters that we’re receptive to fear, not that we’re watching out for what scares us the most (though of course, different things pose different risks to different people, and we should evaluate accordingly.) After all, “we are far more open to signals when we don’t focus on the expectation of specific signals.”

Fear vs. anxiety

Fear is not the same as anxiety. Although people experiencing anxiety are often afraid of both the anxiety and what they presume to be its cause, these two states have different triggers. De Becker explains one of the key factors that differentiates the two:

Anxiety, unlike real fear, is always caused by uncertainty. It is caused, ultimately, by predictions in which you have little confidence. When you predict that you will be fired from your job and you are certain the prediction is correct, you don’t have anxiety about being fired. You might have anxiety about the things you can’t predict with certainty, such as the ramifications of losing the job. Predictions in which you have high confidence free you to respond, adjust, feel sadness, accept, prepare, or to do whatever is needed. Accordingly, anxiety is reduced by improving your prediction, thus increasing your certainty.

Understand that when we’re anxious, it’s because we’re uncertain. The solution to this, then, isn’t worrying more—it’s doing all we can to either find clarity or working to accept that uncertainty is part of life.

Using fear

What can we learn from de Becker’s call to rethink fear? We learn that we’ll be in a better position if we can face possible threats with a calm mind, alert to our internal signals but not anticipating every possible bad thing that could happen. While being told to stop panicking never helped anyone, we benefit by understanding that being overwhelmed by fear will hurt us more. Our imaginary fears harm us more than reality ever does.

If this approach sounds familiar, it’s because it echoes ideas from Stoic philosophy. Much like de Becker, the Stoics urged us to be realistic about the fact that bad things can and will happen to us throughout our lives. No one can escape that. Once we’ve faced that reality, some of the shock goes away and we can think about how to prepare. After all, catastrophe and tragedy are part of the journey, not an unexpected detour. Being aware and accepting of the inevitable terrible things that will happen is actually a critical tool in mitigating both their severity and impact.

We don’t need to live in fear to stay safe. A better approach is to be aware of the risks we face, accept that some are unknown or unpredictable, and do all we can to be prepared for any serious or imminent dangers. Then we can focus our energy on maintaining a calm mind and trusting that our intuition will protect us.

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

— Seneca


The Stoics also taught us that we should view terrible events as survivable. It would do us well to give ourselves more credit—we’ve all survived occurrences that once seemed like the worst-case scenario, and we can survive many more.

Ayn Rand on Why Philosophy Matters

Nearly four decades after her death, many of Ayn Rand’s works remain controversial and divide people into two camps: love them or hate them. Her lesser known book on philosophy provides broad, timeless insights. Here are her thoughts on the value of philosophy.


A note on keeping an open mind:

Ayn Rand is a controversial figure. Responses to her ideas seem to land on extremes. The problem with this kind of discourse is that it prevents dialogue. We encourage taking advantage of grey thinking and trying to avoid viewing people and ideas as good/bad binaries. We can learn from people we both like and dislike. We can agree with one idea from someone without having to buy into all their ideas.

There is no doubt that Rand’s essays are polemic. Her writing, like all recorded knowledge, needs to be understood in context. The 1970s saw the height of the Cold War, when capitalism versus communism was set as a battle that would decide the fate of humanity. One need not agree with her political and economic prescriptions to get something interesting from her writing. Accepting this complexity is aligning with the complicated nature of the world. With this in mind, let’s continue!

In Philosophy: Who Needs It, Rand raises questions that dive into the heart of metaphysics, the branch of philosophy that seeks to explain the nature of reality. What can be known? What are our core responsibilities as human beings? The title of the book comes from a talk she gave at the United States Military Academy in 1974. It is a collection of essays written mostly in the 1970s, and explores ideas about the requirements of living a full life and participating well in the world.

Here are two key takeaways from this book:

We All Need Philosophy

To answer the original question of who needs philosophy, Rand argues that everyone does.

She suggests we need philosophy to help develop our values, and to defend ourselves against manipulation and control. Rand posits that everyone has a personal philosophy. In her view:

[y]our only choice is whether you define your philosophy by a conscious, rational, disciplined process of thought and scrupulously logical deliberation—or let your subconscious accumulate a junk heap of unwarranted conclusions, false generalizations, undefined contradictions, undigested slogans, unidentified wishes, doubts and fears, thrown together by chance, but integrated by your subconscious into a kind of mongrel philosophy and fused into a single, solid weight: self-doubt, like a ball and chain in the place where your mind’s wings should have grown.

She goes on to advocate for the process of learning to identify first principles in our thinking processes. This involves picking apart assumptions about the foundations of our knowledge by asking questions like, “Why?” or, “How do I know this to be true? What are the standards a statement must meet in order to be considered true?” This kind of questioning is an important component of deliberate thinking. When we avoid challenging ourselves and others, we remain vulnerable to the influence of ideas that would ultimately do us harm.

Reflection is the key to thinking well

Rand claims that reflection is a responsibility we all have, and that it is a critical step in gaining useful knowledge.

The men who scorn or dread introspection take their inner states for granted, as an irreducible and irresistible primary, and let their emotions determine their actions. This means that they choose to act without knowing the context (reality), the causes (motives), and the consequences (goals) of their actions.

Letting our emotions dictate our actions results in rationalizing experience to fit what we feel, instead of dealing with the world as it actually is.

Rand makes an interesting distinction when she says, “What objectivity and the study of philosophy require is not an ‘open mind,’ but an active mind—a mind able and eagerly willing to examine ideas, but to examine them critically.” Being willing to listen isn’t enough. We must be willing to engage with what we hear, not accepting at face value the often misinformed opinions of others.

She discusses how lazy thought processes hinder progress. Discussing the person who avoids reflection, she writes, ‘When such a man considers a goal or desire he wants to achieve, the first question in his mind is: “Can I do it?”—not “What is required to do it?”’ It’s a handy approach to keep at the forefront. When confronted with obstacles, we can first consider the conditions necessary to tackling them, not if we have the capacity to do so.


There are many philosophers and essayists that we continue to learn from, even as we gingerly pick our way around their flaws. One disappointment in the book is that Rand’s philosophy often doesn’t live up to the requirements she herself argues for. But she isn’t the first thinker whose questions are far more interesting than her answers.

The Best of Goethe’s Aphorisms

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749–1832) Maxims and Reflections is a terrific source of philosophical wisdom. The German writer, statesman, lawyer, playwright, and polymath was brilliant at distilling complex questions and concepts into simple, reflective statements. His wisdom was derived from a life spent learning, thinking, and transmitting knowledge across a wide variety of fields. He crafted volumes of poetry, dramas, and thought pieces on botany, human anatomy, and even the science of color. From his 590 aphorisms, here are our favorites which we hope you enjoy pondering:

#2. How can a man come to know himself? Never by thinking, but by doing. Try to do your duty and you will know at once what you are worth.

#7. Tell me with whom you associate, and I will tell you who you are. If I know what your business is, I know what can be made of you.

#19. It is only men of practical ability, knowing their powers and using them with moderation and prudence, who will be successful in worldly affairs.

#20. It is a great error to take oneself for more than one is, or for less than one is worth.

#33. Everything that frees our spirit without giving us control of ourselves is ruinous.

#34. A man is really alive only when he delights in the good-will of others.

#37. When a man is old he must do more than when he was young.

#60. Wisdom lies only in truth.

#65. Generosity wins favor for every one, especially when it is accompanied by modesty.

#91. Certain minds must be allowed their peculiarities.

#102. So obstinately contradictory is man that you cannot compel him to his advantage, yet he yields before everything that forces him to his hurt.

#124. One need only grow old to become gentler in one’s judgments. I see no fault committed which I could not have committed myself.

#130. Hatred is active displeasure, envy passive. We need not wonder that envy turns so soon to hatred.

#131. There is something magical in rhythm; it even makes us believe that we possess the sublime.

#134. The most foolish of all errors is for clever young men to believe that they forfeit their originality in recognizing a truth which has already been recognized by others.

#143. No one should desire to live in irregular circumstances; but if by chance a man falls into them, they test his character and show how much determination he is capable of.

#152. Ingratitude is always a kind of weakness. I have never known men of ability to be ungrateful.

#162. There are people who make no mistakes because they never wish to do anything worth doing.

#184. We may learn to know the world as we please: it will always retain a bright and a dark side.

#211. Enthusiasm is of the greatest value, so long as we are not carried away by it.

#223. We cannot escape a contradiction in ourselves; we must try and resolve it. If the contradiction comes from others, it does not affect us: it is their affair.

#231. Nothing is more terrible than ignorance in action.

#239. To live in a great idea means to treat the impossible as though it were possible. It is just the same with a strong character; and when an idea and a character meet, things arise which fill the world with wonder for thousands of years.

#264. A man’s manners are the mirror in which he shows his portrait.

#270. Against the great superiority of another there is no remedy but love.

#276. Fools and wise folk are alike harmless. It is the half-wise and the half-foolish, who are the most dangerous.

#278. Difficulties increase the nearer we come to our aim.

#320. A man is not deceived by others, he deceives himself.

#324. It is not enough to know, we must also apply; it is not enough to will, we must also do.

#332. Nothing is more highly to be prized than the value of each day.

#345. A man is well equipped for all the real necessities of life if he trusts his senses, and so cultivates them that they remain worthy of being trusted.

#346. The senses do not deceive; it is the judgment that deceives.

#383. Every man hears only what he understands.

#485. There is no surer way of evading the world than by Art; and no surer way of uniting with it than by Art.

#486. Even in the moments of highest happiness and deepest misery we need the Artist.

#488. The dignity of Art appears perhaps most conspicuously in music; for in music there is no material to be deducted. It is wholly form and intrinsic value, and it raises and ennobles all that it expresses.

#529. We more readily confess to errors, mistakes and shortcomings in our conduct than in our thought.

#554. A man must cling to the belief that the incomprehensible is comprehensible; otherwise he would not try to fathom it.

#579. There are two things of which a man cannot be careful enough: of obstinacy if he confines himself to his own line of thought; of incompetency, if he goes beyond it.

#584. Every one knows how to value what he has attained in life; most of all the man who thinks and reflects in his old age. He has a comfortable feeling that it is something of which no one can rob him.


If you enjoyed reading these you may also be interested in digesting similar lists of aphorisms we wrote about:

From Eastern Philosophy: Aphorisms for Thirsty Fish: The Lost Writings of Wu Hsin 

From the mind of Nassim Taleb: The Bed of Procrustes — 20 Aphorisms from Nassim Taleb

And an interesting discussion criticizing aphorisms: Susan Sontag: Aphorisms and the Commodification of Wisdom

Maya Angelou on Living

Letters to My Daughter is both a simple and a complex read, which makes it at once engaging and thoughtful. Simple because we can see ourselves in the various stories it shares. Complex because it demonstrates how hard it can be just to live.

While the time to read the book is short, the writing is so evocative that when you put the book down, you feel like you have lived an entire life, with all the accompanying laughter and tragedy and accumulated wisdom.

At the beginning of the book, Maya Angelou offers this advice: “You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution.”

In slices of her life that somehow capture the essence of the whole, she proceeds to explain how she arrived at those words. She gives us this message because we are all her daughters, her children. The accessibility of the prose can make you forget that you are learning about humanity and race, about grief and love.

The chapters cover the long arc of her life, and the lesson there is that learning never stops. Our experiences can often teach us something, right up to the end. Here are some of her lessons.

On charity: “The ensuing years have taught me that a kind word, a vote of support is a charitable gift. I can move over and make another place for someone.”

On parenting: “The birth of my son caused me to develop enough courage to invent my life. I learned how to love my son without wanting to possess him and I learned how to teach him to teach himself.”

On honesty: “I wish we could stop the little lies. I don’t mean that one has to be brutally frank. I don’t believe that we should be brutal about anything, however, it is wonderfully liberating to be honest. One does not have to tell all that one knows, but we should be careful what we do say is the truth.”

On self-esteem: “I am never proud to participate in violence, yet, I know that each of us must care enough for ourselves, that we can be ready and able to come to our own defense when and wherever needed.”

On loss:
“When I find myself filling with rage over the loss of a beloved, I try as soon as possible to remember that my concerns and questions should be focused on what I learned or what I have yet to learn from my departed love. What legacy was left which can help me in the art of living a good life?”

On living: “The ship of my life may or may not be sailing on calm and amiable seas. The challenging days of my existence may or may not be bright and promising. Stormy or sunny days, glorious or lonely nights, I maintain an attitude of gratitude. If I insist on being pessimistic, there is always tomorrow. Today I am blessed.”

Maya Angelou’s words remind us that there is power in reflection. It is how we learn from our experiences, widening our perspectives to appreciate that life has all manner of ebbs and flows. Indeed, I would argue that we cannot learn without reflection.

Angelou did enough living for two lifetimes. Her book doesn’t shy away from the pain that led to wisdom. There are very honest chapters about violence, rape, and racism, but one of her gifts is to show us that fighting for a better world while finding peace is a process of lifelong learning from our experiences.

She shares what she learned through hate and fear, as well as through humility and love, perhaps so that we can see, through the tumult of our own experiences, the value of the lessons we are learning and pass them forward within our own spheres of influence.

The Wrong Side of Right

One big mistake people repeatedly make is focusing on proving themselves right, instead of focusing on achieving the best outcome. This is the wrong side of right.

Most people never work as hard as they do when they are trying to prove themselves right. They unconsciously hold on to the ideas and evidence that reinforce their beliefs and dismiss anything that counters. When this happens, it’s not about the best outcome, it’s about protecting your ego. If you’ve made this mistake, you’re not the only one.

“You should take the approach that you, the entrepreneur, are wrong. Your goal is to be less wrong.”

— Elon Musk

One of the biggest differences between running a company and working for a company is how you tend to think about solving problems.

As a knowledge worker employed by someone else, I wanted to be right. I saw being right as how I proved my worth to both myself and the company. The best outcome was my being right. Because …

If I wasn’t right, then what was I? Wrong?

But … I couldn’t be wrong. My ego wouldn’t let me.

Other people? They could be wrong. But not me.

If I was wrong, then what was I?

I worked toward achieving the best outcome I came up with myself and not the best outcome that was possible.

For the longest time, I thought that if the winning idea wasn’t my idea, I’d be nothing. I thought no one would see me as valuable. No one would see me as insightful. People would think I wasn’t adding value. And worse, I’d see myself as not contributing.

I’ve never been so wrong.

“Avoid having your ego so close to your position that when your position falls, your ego goes with it.”

— Colin Powell

I had so much of my identity wrapped up in being right that I was blind to how the world really works. I was acting like an amateur — I worked toward achieving the best outcome I came up with myself and not the best outcome possible.

At Farnam Street, one of our principles is that we work with the world as it really is, not as we want it to be. My desire to be right reflected how I wanted the world to work, not how it actually worked. Instead of trying to be right, I try to be less wrong.

The most important lesson I’ve learned from running a company is that the more I give up trying to be right, the better the outcomes get for everyone. I don’t care who gets the credit. I care about creating the best

The Value of Play As a Driver of Innovation

Innovation does not always have to be the result of serious study and agonizing progress. As Steven Johnson so eloquently argues in Wonderland: How Play Made the Modern World, many of the activities and endeavors we have undertaken for pleasure have fueled an exceptional amount of innovation and discovery.

The story of play, of how it fits into the human experience, can teach us how to embrace the possibilities that can come of being frivolous. Initially, play might seem like an indulgence, but it can lead to some amazingly consequential developments. As Johnson writes:

History is mostly told as a long fight for the necessities, not the luxuries: the fight for freedom, equality, safety, self-governance. Yet the history of delight matters, too, because so many of these seemingly trivial discoveries ended up triggering changes in the realm of Serious History.

Play and Technological Innovation

The desire to both amuse and be amused can lead to the development of technology that has wide-ranging applications.

Johnson traces a direct line between devices described in The Book of Ingenious Devices, by three brothers known as the Banu Musa in Baghdad in 760 CE, and the programmable software that drives our computer-based culture. Play is the connection that links the inventions from ancient pictures of self-playing instruments to the relatively recent development of the internet.

Some of the devices described in the book were programmable in a very rudimentary sense. And it was this idea that contained the seeds of the future. “Conceptually, this was a massive leap forward: machines designed specifically to be open-ended in their functionality, machines controlled by code and not just by mechanics.”

These machines were designed to entertain, but for this entertainment to come alive, some significant technological advancement needed to happen. We had to develop the working parts, the engineering know-how, the language to create machines that could move on their own, and a whole host of other innovations. Johnson traces “how long the idea of a programmable machine was kept in circulation by the propulsive force of delight” until the skills and technology developed gave us such things as the typewriter, the frequency hopping technology used on navy ships, and Bitcoin.

This power of play to inspire technology that does more than entertain reminds us that there is no specific prescription for innovation. New ideas can come from a chain of thoughts and circumstances that are not obvious in terms of what they produce. Take the story of Charles Babbage, considered one of the fathers of modern computers. His mother took him to a Mechanical Museum, a place to be entertained by artistic, whimsical devices. He was taken up to the attic to see rare specimens, the most captivating of which was a mechanical dancer.

The encounter in [the] attic stokes an obsession in Babbage, a fascination with mechanical devices that convincingly emulate the subtleties of human behavior. He earns degrees in mathematics and astronomy as a young scholar, but maintains his interest in machines by studying the new factory systems that are sprouting across England’s industrial north. Almost thirty years after his visit to [the Mechanical Museum], he publishes a seminal analysis of industrial technology, On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures, a work that would go on to play a pivotal role in Marx’s Das Kapital two decades later. Around the same time, Babbage begins sketching plans for a calculating machine he calls the Difference Engine, an invention that will eventually lead him to the Analytical Engine several years later, now considered to be the first programmable computer ever imagined.

“Because play is often about breaking rules and experimenting with new conventions,” Johnson explains, “it turns out to be the seedbed for many innovations that ultimately develop into much sturdier and more significant forms.”

For most of us, play is a special time away from the ordinary tasks we undertake every day. It can open us up to possibilities because it requires an atypical engagement with our surroundings. Sometimes, this openness provides a space for innovation.

Play is a gateway to possibility.

Play and Social Innovation

Johnson also demonstrates how play led to social innovation. Certain types of recreation, like attending theater performances, seeing exhibits of the weird and wonderful, or visiting amusement parks, are play experiences that we partake in as a group. When we started doing this, it was revolutionary because those groups were made up of equals. The usual social hierarchies were temporarily suspended, as all audience members were there to have the same experience of entertainment, diversion, and wonder. It was equally thrilling for rich and poor, women and men.

This shared play experience set up new possibilities for social interaction. The ability to come together in a leisure environment with no particular agenda other than to enjoy it unleashed collaboration. “Escaping your lawful calling — and your official rank and status in society — not only created a new kind of leisure, it also created new ideas, ideas that couldn’t emerge in the more stratified gathering places of commerce or religion or domestic life.”

Take, for example, the development of the bar. “The birth of the drinking house also marked the origins of a new kind of space: a structure designed explicitly for the casual pleasures of leisure time. The tavern was not a space of work, or worship; it was not a home. It existed somewhere else on the grid of social possibility, a place you went to just for the fun of it.” Johnson argues that these spaces, these places we went to just for fun, gave birth to movements of democracy, of equality. In an interesting example, he describes how taverns were directly responsible for the colonists’ success in the American Revolution.

The pursuit of play gave us the ability to organize ourselves differently, to make connections with people we would not normally have interacted with. Not that this ability necessarily transformed each individual, but it changed our ideas of what was proper and right, gradually allowing the concept of the common space to become critical to how we design our cities and organize our societies.

A Final Musing on Play

Why is play so powerful? Johnson explains that “humans — and other organisms — evolved neural mechanisms that promote learning when they have experiences that confound their expectations. When the world surprises us with something, our brains are wired to pay attention.”

And the whole point of play is to be surprised. The unknown factor is part of what entertains us. Play is a gateway to possibility. Whether it’s through new music, a new spectacle, or a new round of a board game, play can get our senses tingling as we wonder what we will experience in the coming minutes. This is why Einstein called play the essential feature of productive thought. Seneca was also a fan of combinatorial play.

Play can transport us out of the realm of “things we already know” (the route to work, the importance of saving money and of brushing our teeth) and into the realm of “things we haven’t yet figured out.” And it is here that innovation happens.

It is in this sense of the concept that Johnson suggests that play is a gateway into the future. “So many of the wonderlands of history offered a glimpse of future developments because those were the spaces where the new found its way into everyday life: first as an escape from our ‘lawful calling and affairs’ and then as a key element in those affairs.”

Exploring play is about understanding that innovation can happen when we are driven by enjoyment. Innovation doesn’t always have to be a serious pursuit. So if you are in a creative funk, fresh out of good ideas, try playing.