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Harish Jose


Three Reminders for a New Year

Embracing change agents

Published: Wednesday, January 25, 2017 - 13:03

As our new year unfolds, I wanted to write an article to remind myself of three pieces of advice. They are from Epictetus (55–135 AD), Marcus Aurelius (121–180 AD), and George Pólya (1887–1985). Epictetus and Aurelius are two famous Stoic philosophers of the past, and Pólya is a famous Hungarian mathematician.


Epictetus spent his youth as a slave, which set the backdrop for his stoicism. His original name is unknown. The name “Epictetus” in Greek means “acquired.” Epictetus himself did not write any books; however, his follower, Arrian, wrote down his teachings. One of the most famous quotes attributed to Epictetus is:It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it, that matters.

Epictetus’ famous work, The Enchiridion (translated by Elizabeth Carter, published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2016), starts off with:
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

In the same book, Epictetus continues:
With every accident, ask yourself what abilities you have for making a proper use of it.

My thoughts
The above quotes combine to form an important lesson. Not all of my ventures are going to be successful this year. There may be several setbacks. However, all setbacks are experiences to learn from. They provide lessons that I can only learn from the school of life. They increase my knowledge and prepare me for the next, harder setback. My triumphs are built on the setbacks I faced before. The setbacks provide an opportunity for reflection. To loosely paraphrase a lesson from information theory, failures have more information content. They provide a reason to challenge our hypothesis. Successes do not necessarily challenge us to take a second look at our hypothesis. We thus learn more from failures. The point is to not look for failures, but to keep an open mind. This is a great lesson to remember as a new year starts.

Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, was a Roman Emperor. His famous work is Meditations (translated by Maxwell Staniforth, Dover Publications, 1996). My lesson from this book is as follows:
Were you to live 3,000 years, or even 30,000, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours.

My thoughts
Far too often, we let the past dictate our present actions. Either we stay complacent and stay in our comfort zones by relying on our past victories, or we let our past failures control our actions and we remain in that same comfort zone. Both these attitudes keep us from taking risks or trying something new. The past is past, and the future is not yet here; what we truly have is the present moment. This Zen-like teaching is an important lesson. We can only change the present moment by taking the right action. Of course, not all of our actions will lead to tremendous successes. This is covered under the first lesson above.

George Pólya

George Pólya was born in Hungary and later came to America and taught at Stanford University. One of the famous quotes attributed to him is:
If you can’t solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve: find it.”

This quote was referenced by the famous mathematician John H. Conway in the foreword to a 2004 edition of Pólya’s book, How to Solve It (Princeton University Press, 2015 edition).

My thoughts
How to Solve It is a gem of a book written in 1945 by Pólya. The above quote attributed to Pólya is a great lesson for when we try to solve a problem, and we get stuck. Pólya offers two different plans of action. One is to find a similar but easier problem to solve. He says:
If you cannot solve the proposed problem, do not let this failure afflict you too much but try to find consolation with some easier success, try to solve first some related problem; then you may find courage to attack your original problem again. Do not forget that human superiority consists in going around an obstacle that cannot be overcome directly, in devising some suitable auxiliary problem when the original one appears insoluble.

The second plan of action he offers is called as the Inventor’s Paradox. Loosely put, to prove what you want, try proving more than what you want so that you get the flow of information to work properly. Pólya says that “the more ambitious plan may have more chances of success.” This idea is quite paradoxical. He advises that going to a more general problem is going to create more questions that may be easier to answer than just one question. This approach may offer us a new view of the problem that will help us solve the more general problem along with the original problem.

The two plans allow us to step back from the current problem and look at it in a different light. Pólya points out the importance of “some vision of things beyond those immediately present.”

Final words

The three lessons above have a common theme: obstacles. We can be certain that this year will come with obstacles; it is up to us to decide how to treat them.

I will finish off with a lesson from the great Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. In his book, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, (Shambhala Publications, 2010 edition), Suzuki Roshi talks about the story of four horses. He recalls the story from the Samyuktagama Sutra:
“It is said that there are four kinds of horses: excellent horses, good horses, poor horses, and bad horses. The best horse will run as his master wishes before it sees the shadow of the whip. It can run fast and slow, right and left, and always at the master’s will. The second-best horse runs as well as the best horse, and he does that just before the whip reaches its skin. The third-best will run when it feels the pain on its body. Finally, the fourth one will run after the pain penetrates to the marrow of its bones. You can imagine how difficult it is for the fourth one to learn how to run!

“Almost all of us want to be the best horse. If that is not possible we want to be the second-best horse, and so on. However, in Zen this is the wrong approach. When you are determined to practice zazen [a form of sitting meditation], it is valuable to be the worst one. In your imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind.”

Suzuki Roshi continues by saying that those who can sit perfectly physically usually take the most amount of time to obtain the true way of Zen. But those who find great difficulties will find more meaning in it and thus obtain the actual feeling of Zen—the marrow of Zen. Thus the “worst one” may be the best student.

Always keep on learning.


About The Author

Harish Jose’s picture

Harish Jose

Harish Jose has more than seven years experience in the medical device field. He is a graduate of the University of Missouri-Rolla (U.S.), where he obtained a master’s degree in manufacturing engineering and published two articles. Harish is an ASQ member with multiple ASQ certifications, including Quality Engineer, Six Sigma Black Belt, and Reliability Engineer. He is a subject matter expert in lean, data science, database programming, and industrial experiments. Harish publishes frequently on his blog harishnotebook. He can be reached on LinkedIn.