Category: Philosophy

John Stuart Mill’s Philosophy of Equality

Sometimes in the debates about how to improve equality in our society, the reason why we should desire equality gets lost. In his classic text The Subjection of Women, John Stuart Mill explains why equality is critical for solving the world’s problems—because it allows everyone to decide how they can best contribute to society.

“The loss to the world, by refusing to make use of one-half of the whole quantity of talent it possesses, is extremely serious.”

The Subjection of Women was released in 1869, a time when, in most of the world, women were considered the legal property—objects, not subjects—of men, specifically their fathers and husbands. John Stuart Mill, a nineteenth-century British philosopher who not only wrote political philosophy but also served in Parliament and advocated for many liberal reforms, challenged the status quo by pointing out the incredible cost to society of maintaining inequality between the sexes.

Mill was specifically addressing the equality of women in relation to men, but his reasoning as to why equality is desirable transcends that one case. Because his argument rests on the social cost of inequality, a modern reading of his text is easily reframed as “the subjection of people.” Even if that was not his initial intent, we can use our current understanding to adapt his ideas.

He argued that we need to give people a choice as to how they will best contribute to society. If we don’t, we prevent ourselves from accessing the best ideas and contributions. Humans face enough natural challenges, Mill thought, that to cut ourselves off from any part of the available pool of brainpower costs society timely and insightful solutions to our problems—solutions that may be better than the existing ones. People need to have equal freedom to choose the paths that they want to pursue.

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Equality of opportunity

Mill was not delusional about equality and did not assume that everyone is equally capable of doing everything. His was more an equality of opportunity as opposed to equality of outcomes. That is, all people should be in a position to determine how they can best contribute to society. “It is not that all processes are supposed to be equally good, or all persons to be equally qualified for everything;” he explains, “but that freedom of individual choice is now known to be the only thing which procures the adoption of the best processes, and throws each operation into the hands of those who are best qualified for it.

In his time and place, he observed that women were not allowed to decide on how they would or could contribute to society. But, more importantly, their opinions and feelings on the subject of their lives were not even solicited.

He observed that the lack of testimony and perspective of women in both history and contemporary society, as well as the lack of access to education to enable them to contribute, meant that men’s general understanding of them was weak at best. Most men derived their opinion of women based on their feelings about the women with whom they had direct contact and the opinions of other men. “Accordingly, one can, to an almost laughable degree,” Mill wrote, “infer what a man’s wife is like from his opinions about women in general.

The cultural conditioning of the time rendered women obscure. Mill notes that men often criticized women for possessing the qualities that men insisted they have:

When we put together three things—first, the natural attraction between opposite sexes; secondly, the wife’s entire dependence on the husband, every privilege or pleasure she has being either his gift, or depending entirely on his will; and lastly, that the principal object of human pursuit, consideration, and all objects of social ambition, can in general be sought or obtained by her only through him, it would be a miracle if the object of being attractive to men had not become the polar star of feminine education and formation of character.”

For women, it is a catch-22. You must be what you are expected to be in order to be seen, but then you are seen only for what has been culturally prescribed.

The lack of access to women’s perspective often means that cultural stereotypes continue. Mill asks, “Who can tell how many of the most original thoughts put forth by male writers belong to a woman by suggestion?” To give just two of many examples, Zelda Fitzgerald probably contributed a fair amount of ideas to the books attributed only to her husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald. And William Wordsworth reputedly used passages from his sister Dorothy’s writing journal in his own works. Not to mention the many male writers whose wives were their editors, typists, and critics. The question Mill asked is still relevant today. The history of the Nobel Prize alone demonstrates how often men are given credit for the ideas of women. Aside from being an annoying injustice, the problem is that it obscures the contributions of women and reinforces antiquated notions of women’s capabilities.

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For most of history, Anonymous was a woman

Mill was fully aware of the reinforcing feedback loop that made it hard for women to challenge the status quo. He supposed that women did not write more about their true feelings and perspectives because the power difference made it almost impossible. “As yet very few of them dare tell anything,” he writes, “which men, on whom their literary success depends, are unwilling to hear.” Thus, the feedback loop is that women could only express those opinions that men would support in order to achieve literary success, but then that success simply reinforced those opinions.

But in history, as in travelling, men usually see only what they already had in their own minds.”

The fact of cultural bias, and how it perpetuates itself, is easily extrapolated from the specific case Mill was arguing against to many similar power dynamics throughout history. One group has power. They justify that power as being natural in order to keep it. That idea of naturalness becomes part of the cultural rhetoric and becomes the lens through which the powerless are viewed. The powerless struggle to change because before they can attain rights they have to change the cultural narrative.

When we take away someone’s freedom to choose where they can best contribute based on cultural biases, it does not benefit society as a whole. It does us no good “to ordain that to be born a girl instead of a boy, any more than to be born black instead of white, or a commoner instead of a nobleman, shall decide the person’s position through all of life.

When we don’t organize society on the premise of equality, we miss opportunities for improvement and development. We hold everyone back.

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No one wants to be at the bottom

Mill was aware that to promote equality one had to deal with overcoming the influence of legalized power, which can be understood as one group having the power to direct the lives of another powerless group. His conclusions about the role and expression of power are applicable to any instance of systemic inequality.

For everyone who desires power, desires it most over those who are nearest to him, with whom his life is passed, with whom he has most concerns in common, and in whom any independence of his authority is oftenest likely to interfere with his individual preferences.

It is an argument we have all heard time and time again: because the inequality is assumed to be just the way things are, the power difference must be normal as well. Mill exposes the fallacy in this type of thinking when he asks, “But was there ever any domination which did not appear natural to those who possessed it?” The exercise of power by one group over another certainly does not feel natural to those who are being dominated, even if they may have internalized the same oppressive beliefs about themselves.

In the case of women in Mill’s society, the power to dictate their choices and options in life was not given to select men, but all men. In many cultures, the legal subjection of women to men is still the norm. In both cases, there is no evaluation of any man’s ability to exercise their power. As Mill pointed out, no one verified if a husband would be any good at being a husband.

In systems in which women have no power, there are fewer incentives for men to treat them well. He explains the backwardness of, for example, requiring marriage to a man to be the sole role for women when he says, “Those who attempt to force women into marriage by closing all other doors against them lay themselves open to a similar retort. If they mean what they say, their opinion must evidently be that men do not render the married condition so desirable to women as to induce them to accept it for its own recommendations.” When something is desirable, people want it for themselves. If the choice is between some degree of liberty or total subjugation, people will choose the former. Thus, for the power to enforce the latter to exist, it has to be mandated and justified as “natural.”

Mill argued that “it is perfectly obvious that the abuse of the power cannot be very much checked while the power remains.” It is very unlikely that people who have power are inclined to give it up. In order to justify power accorded solely because of who you happen to be born as, the power must be conceived of as earned.

It’s often a case of making up arguments in order to justify the status quo, rather than deciding on a status quo based on objective observation and evidence.

For the same reasons that the way we justify our actions on an individual level makes it hard for us to admit we are wrong and change our minds, the justifications that a society produces to maintain a power structure are very hard to dislodge. Mill observed, “So long as the right of the strong to power over the weak rules in the very heart of society, the attempt to make the equal right of the weak the principle of its outward actions will always be an uphill struggle.

Why bother to try to change power structures? For Mill, when power is concentrated in the hands of a section of the population, the people in the society with that power imbalance cannot exercise freedom. “The love of power and the love of liberty are in eternal antagonism,” Mill writes. “Where there is least liberty, the passion for power is the most ardent and unscrupulous.

According to Mill, liberty is the goal. His idea of liberty is incompatible with systemic inequality. To legislate inequality, to make it part of the social fabric, has two problematic effects. First, those who are considered “less than” cannot have liberty. But those who run the show do not have liberty either, because of the effort required to maintain inequality.

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An accident of birth

The real problem is not that inequality works as the best state of affairs for everyone, but that there is fear of what an equal society might look like because we have yet to experience one. Essentially, there exists a fear of the unknown. Because an equal society would necessarily function differently, there is, of course, a hesitation regarding what one might be giving up.

Mill argued against the idea that the various states of inequality that he saw around him, the ownership by one group of people over another, were the result of careful decisions. “Experience cannot possibly have decided between two courses, so long as there has only been experience of one.

Inequality is often explained by some version of “that’s just the way things are.” Certain groups of people are assumed to have certain intrinsic, unchangeable qualities and thus must be treated accordingly. Mill, however, felt that a lot of what we attribute to biology was actually a product of cultural conditioning. We inaccurately assume that what is common practice represents objective truths about the world, as opposed to being deliberately created and perpetuated because it benefits certain groups. Mill writes, “So true is it that unnatural generally means only uncustomary, and that everything which is usual appears natural.

The dishonesty of conflating the privileges you happened to be born to with your right to have those privileges was observed by Mill. He saw all around him evidence of those who were unable to acknowledge the extent to which their achievements were a result of the accident of birth. “Those whom privileges not acquired by their merit, and which they feel to be disproportioned to it, inspire with additional humility are always the few, and the best few,” he wrote. “The rest are only inspired with pride, and the worst sort of pride, that which values itself upon accidental advantages not of its own achieving.” It’s like congratulating yourself for winning a race without acknowledging, or even being aware, that you started closer to the finish line than all the other participants.

Mill suggests that maintaining inequality distracts us from addressing more pressing challenges:“One feels that among all the lessons which men require for carrying on the struggle against the inevitable imperfections of their lot on earth,” Mill explains, “there is no lesson which they more need, than not to add to the evils which nature inflicts, by their jealous and prejudiced restrictions on one another.” There are struggles that we have to face together because they affect all of us.

In Mill’s time, he might have been thinking of the vulnerability of humans to disease, or the environmental and social effects of the Industrial Revolution. These same struggles frame the challenges we face today. We conquer one disease only to become vulnerable to another, and we are now trying to figure out how to not destroy our environment so much that we cause our own extinction. Reading his polemic suggests that expending any effort to maintain “prejudiced restrictions on one another” is a waste of energy that could be more effectively spent dealing with the very real threats we face as a species.

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The greater good

Although Mill was writing about the specific case of the subjection of women in the society in which he lived, his arguments about the detriment of inequality to society are more broadly applicable. Thus, when he observes: “Is it not a mere truism to say that such functions are often filled by men far less fit for them than numbers of women, and who would be beaten by women in any fair field of competition?” we can say we agree that fitness for a position matters far more than the cultural attributes of the person filling it.

And when he questions: “Is there so great a superfluity of men fit for high duties that society can afford to reject the service of any competent person?” we can easily answer no.

When we limit people’s access to society based on assumptions about broad categories of attributes, we hurt everyone. Mill writes:

To ordain that any kind of persons shall not be physicians, or shall not be advocates, or shall not be member of Parliament, is to injure not them only, but all who employ physicians or advocates, or elect members of Parliament, and who are deprived of the stimulating effect of greater competition on the exertions of the competitors, as well as restricted to a narrower range of individual choice.

Just as monopolies on goods distort the value and availability of a commodity, a monopoly on choice by one social group distorts competency and achievement.

Mill suggests that “the legal subordination of one sex to the other is wrong in itself, and now one of the chief hindrances to human improvement.” Regardless of how we go about promoting equality, it’s important to always remember why equality is desirable. The more equal we are in our freedom to choose how we can contribute to society makes it more likely that the best contributions will be realized.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 possible work.