Find Time to Contemplate the Great Human Questions
Header Image Credit: Copy of Lysippus — Jastrow (2006)
A few months ago I found an adjunct teaching gig for a basic Introductory Psychology class that worked around my normal work schedule pretty easily. Having taught part-time in the past, I figured I’d give it a try and see exactly how demanding the extra work would be (if nothing else it would add some extra income).
Devoting time to exploring the great human questions of purpose and meaning, moral virtue and ethical reasoning, and the mysteries of subjective conscious experience help put better perspective on how to handle typical day-to-day stress and tension.
I was aware of some other extremely valuable intangibles, such as meeting new and interesting people, intending to open their minds to exciting insights about human behavior, and also further honing my own “stand up and delivery skills”. And I do mean “stand up ” in a comedic sense too- I tend to use the classroom as a way to live out some secret fantasy I have of being a stand-up comic, sometimes to the chagrin of my students, but most of my jokes tend to land successfully (psychology has some low-hanging fruit to be sure).
Piaget’s a great example!
I didn’t really plan on the intangible benefits of becoming more attuned to my psyche though. Lofty, and amorphous? Sure. But this intellectual rejuvenation has started to serve plenty of practical aspects in my professional life, in addition to any philosophical life I might have. Devoting time to exploring the great human questions of purpose and meaning, moral virtue and ethical reasoning, and the mysteries of subjective conscious experience help put better perspective on how to handle typical day-to-day stress and tension. And I’m honestly not too sure how well-known or accepted that position might be for people.
Everyday mistakes and missteps potentially lead to our unhealthy tendency to ruminate, running the risk of performance gaps in our professional and personal lives, or worse. As Guy Winch says, “we often neglect our psychological wounds until they become severe enough to impair our functioning.”
However, carving out time for any form of contemplative study doesn’t seem to vibe with the normal uses for our discretionary effort and leisure activities e.g., time could be better spent refining your startup’s Go-to-Market strategy, gaining some directly-related professional development, hanging out with your friends and family, binge-watching the entire series of Game of Thrones, or a host of other activities, either mundane, interesting, or intellectually neutral.
The catalyst for me came from teaching content in this course on consciousness, and trying to reconcile what I considered a dull pedagogical approach in the text (i.e., chemical consciousness versus religion versus quantum computing) with some of the more interesting and radical ideas I happen to be slightly aware of. I played this David Chalmers TED talk (most students find this neither funny nor riveting). Despite that, I’ve been motivated to finish reading a couple of books (Barbara & Sam) I’ve had sitting around, and also seek out other information (e.g., did you know that vast networks of fungus in the root systems of plants have been shown to “communicate” information about impending plant disease). A possible operational definition of consciousness in this case being an awareness and concern for the interconnected organisms in an ecosystem. Collective consciousness is another radical idea, but interesting to me nonetheless. The overall gist being that I’ve been dedicating my time to exploring what is arguably a great human question- i.e., the mysteries of subjective conscious experience for all life!
Diving into the deep end!
And if you, the reader, are interested in my “opinion”, I skeptically tend to lean more toward the camp that suggests consciousness as being an illusion, an evolutionary adaptation that helps us make sense of our subjective reality. Basically a pretty funny joke if it were true, i.e., the possibility that our need to define, understand and prioritize this ultimate subjective experience of reality is akin to any other phylogenetic needs we’ve evolved, such as physical needs, social needs, and psychological needs- maybe consciousness simply is an emergent phenomenon, programmed to meet Malsow’s highest order need?
Benefits to Everyday Life
Aside from any intrinsic value of delving into all of this contemplative “Dorkdom”, there are practical and professional utility gains to be had for sure:
Spending time with this type of difficult content builds conversational experience pertaining to the presentation and organization of complex ideas, especially with the intent of allowing your audience to comprehend and formulate their own ideas. Listening to podcasts, and audio books, and actually reading about great human questions will step up your game for presenting to your teams and clients, as well as drafting clear, concise, intelligent, and impressive emails. (Counterargument evidence might include my own writing of this article however).
Self-reflection opens up the empathy pathways in the brain (to a certain extent) and most likely improves EQ, or emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is extremely important in professional settings and some would say could be a make or break ability for leadership positions. However, I’m sure there are other ways to build up EQ aside from contemplating great human questions, such as meditation for example. Although, there is a (dark side) associated with developing levels of EQ that border on the maniacal manipulation of others of course. I believe that contemplating another great human question, i.e., philosophical implications for moral virtue and ethical reasoning, as a way of building EQ that also mediates this dark side to a certain extent.
Through technology, work has encroached into what was traditionally “time away”, and contemplative thought is a great way to literally escape email, texts, over planning and ruminating, etc. That’s right. Just finding your arena for engaging with great human questions takes you away from work-related triggers both physically and mentally.
In sum, I am feeling a million times better since I’ve begun my own “philosophizing” and I think you will too. I hope this article does more than just sit in the bottom of a few of my closer connections’ news feeds, and possibly even make it to the #Pulse. I’m becoming increasingly disappointed with the content LinkedIn shows me day-to-day, which has basically amounted to an endless stream of Apple Watch ads (there are some of you that keep me coming back though, such as Paul Thoresen, M.A., Chris Mason, PhD, and Tom Briggs to name a few, and your writing contributions are greatly appreciated).
I’ll close by saying that I’m sure many of you are already contemplating these questions, if not in a philosophical or psychological way, perhaps in a religious or spiritual one. But for me, taking the discretionary time and effort to pursue arenas to contemplate these great human questions has had a tremendous positive effect on my feelings of overall well-being, and measurable performance improvements in my professional life.