Keeping it Under the Hat

In Essays, Philosophy, Self Improvement

As a general rule in life, it’s worth keeping your mouth shut when you can.

It doesn’t matter if you’re right.

It doesn’t matter if you have a razor-sharp brilliant witticism to offer.

5% of the time you will not be wrong if you can keep it under the hat.

Often when we speak we are trying to convince other people of our point of view. To do this, we must show that their current point of view is wrong. People hate being told that they are wrong. We’ve covered this topic before.

I often see the advice that whenever you start a change in your life, you should tell the people around you to encourage you to have responsibility and for the added benefit of having social pressure. I think on a superficial examination, these appear to be valid reasons to announce to others the changes you are hoping to implement but I think that there is large flaw in this way of thinking.

True responsibility is responsibility to yourself, not to others and if one of the major reasons that you are doing a change is because of social pressure, well, you need to have a long hard think about where your values lie. Doing something because you think that is what other people want you to do is a fast path towards frustration.

I think it is simpler, easier and more effective to let your actions do the talking.

The philosopher Epictetus was famous in his day for telling people that they can talk and discuss all they want but the most important point is that they actually shut up and get on with living their lives according to these often-discussed principles. The last chapter of Epictetus’s manual of life sums this up very nicely:

The first and most important field of philosophy is the application of principles such as “Do not lie.” Next come the proofs, such as why we should not life. THe third field supports and articulates the proofs, by asking, for example, “how does this prove it? What exactly is a proof, what is logical inference, what is contradiction, what is truth, what is falsehood?” Thus, the third field is necessary because of the second, and the second because of the first. The most important, though, the one that should occupy most of our time, is the first. But we do just the opposite. We are preoccupied with the third field and give that all our attention, passing the first by altogether. The result is that we lie – but have no difficulty proving why we shouldn’t.

Don’t worry – the irony of running a website purely dedicated to essays is not lost on me, but I do try and actually live according to the principles you can find on this website. Do I always follow everything to the letter? Of course not, but I don’t beat myself up when I make mistakes, I simply note that I’ve made a mistake and then try to avoid repeating it in the future. For myself it is far more important that I live according to a correct set of principles, than to simply write about them.

Interestingly, I find the reception online to my ideas far better than the rare occasion when I discuss ideas with people face-to-face. One reason is that if you are reading this website then you are already looking for a different approach to life and so you are open and receptive. The vast majority of people are deeply ingrained into their own – often incorrect – way of living.

That’s partly why I shut down my previous popular website that was home to some of these essays.

One of the main reasons I often just keep it under the hat is that I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s either impossible or extremely difficult to change other people in any way, shape, or form. If they want to change, then you can perhaps help them but if they are in ‘neutral’ mode, then it takes so much energy to get them moving that it’s often better invested in developing yourself and then hope that your change will influence them.

Let’s remember that at any give point, everyone acts in accordance to what they think is right and correct. So the smoker who wants to give up smoking actually believes it’s correct to smoke the next cigarette at that very moment he or she is smoking it. Yes, later they may rationally regret that decision but while they were smoking they felt like they were doing the right thing, most probably due to their bodies craving the nicotine and their minds craving the “feeling” of the cigarette. Apply this way of thinking to all behaviours and you soon realise that even when you angry and want to say something to someone, it’s worth pausing to think about it and you will realise that it’s worth keeping it under your hat.

This does not mean being completely passive in life and accepting all actions that other people do, but how often do we open our mouth for the really important stuff compared to the petty things in life? Perhaps less often than we should. Many people may not discuss or try to change a friends’ unhealthy lifestyle (such as by inviting them running in the morning) but will quickly snap at them if they turn the music up too loudly. Perhaps we have our priorities upside down?

Perhaps less often than we should. Many people may not discuss or try to change a friends’ unhealthy lifestyle (such as by inviting them running in the morning) but will quickly snap at them if they turn the music up too loudly.

Perhaps we have our priorities upside down?

So, if you have to go away today with just one point to remember, let it be this:

Speak with your actions, not your words.