Theory and practice in living well

By Martin Vogel

Rodin’s ‘The Thinker’

As part of my continuance professional development as a coach, I try to immerse myself in the psychological perspectives that inform the profession.  But recently I’ve turned as much to philosophical and social theory to make sense of the challenges that people face in their lives.  So it was with some interest that I found Julian Baggini writing in The Guardian this week on the contribution philosophy can make to helping us live well.

Baggini was reviewing a new series of books – called The Art of Living – which aims to give the general reader an overview of philosophical insights into our age.  He finds that the books’ authors have interesting and thought-provoking things to say about such subjects as illness, hunger or even fashion.  But they tend to reach conclusions that others commonly reach without recourse to the likes of Aristotle or Heidegger.

So while philosophy may have a historic mission to help us live well, it is not uniquely placed to do so.  Rather, Baggini sees its value in the scepticism it can bring to more simplistic approaches to finding fulfilment or contentment.  He’s particularly thinking about self-help:

“The most important respect in which philosophy differs from – and is in some sense superior to – self-help is that it encourages us to think about the value of ends and not just the means to achieve them. In theory, self-help could do this too, but in general, the genre is focused on helping you to get what you want, not questioning whether you’re right to want it. Many bestsellers promise you instant confidence, greater powers of persuasion, and stress-free productivity. That we should be more confident, persuasive or productive is taken for granted.

“Philosophy, in contrast, is about stepping back and questioning these assumptions.”

If this is philosophy’s contribution, it is a valuable one.  But it strikes me that philosophy has no unique claim here either.  While no philosopher, I’ve found in my coaching work and working as a strategist in corporate life that scrutiny of assumed objectives, rather than finessing of means, often unlocks development.

A small example from my time in the BBC.  Not many years ago, the BBC used to broadcast its main evening news at 9pm.  Was its purpose to transmit a news bulletin at this given time every evening, or to provide its audience with the best possible take on the day’s news at the optimal time in the schedule?  Once we began to question whether broadcasting the news at 9pm was the best way to serve the audience, it soon became obvious that 10pm was much better.  This was true for editorial reasons because at 10pm the day’s domestic stories were more likely to be resolved.  It was also true for reasons relating to audience availability because people seem to prefer to turn to the news to round off their night rather than have it disrupt the evening’s entertainment.  When the BBC eventually shifted the 9pm news to 10pm, this was interpreted at the time as purely an opportunistic response to ITV vacating the slot.  In fact, the rationale had been laid long before through rational and sceptical enquiry of long unquestioned assumptions – which is why, when the opportunity came, the BBC was able to move so decisively.

Similarly, in my coaching, I find clients seem to benefit most when they take the time to explore why they seek a particularly end rather than fixate too quickly on engineering the means.  I’ve had clients who have come to me feeling stuck in their current job and desperate to leave who end up finding renewed commitment to their role and progressing rapidly.  Equally, I’ve had people wanting to make an impact at their current organisation who, after consideration, form the view that they’d actually rather move on.

Any form of rigorous enquiry takes you out of habitual, day-to-day modes of thinking and gives you perspective.  The paradigm shift helps you understand your situation afresh and, hopefully, make more robust choices. Now it may be that the spirit of enquiry behind such scrutiny draws on philosophy’s logical tradition.  But the distinctive contribution of philosophy to personal development lies in what it can offer as one of many perspectives, not as a standalone methodology.

Baggini says:

“Philosophy is at its most engaged when it is impure. What is being recovered from the Ancient Greek model is not some lost idea of philosophy’s pure essence, but the idea that philosophy is mixed up with everything else. The challenge for those who champion philosophy’s usefulness is to show how it can fit in with the rest of life, not stand as master over it.”

He advocates drawing on philosophy as a rich resource among many that contribute to our understanding of the good life.

I like this idea of eclecticism of theory.  As a coach, I draw on leadership thinking, strategy analysis and, yes, self-help writing alongside psychology, sociology and philosophy.  Diversity of perspective generates greater and richer insights. If the different perspectives ultimately lead to broadly similar truths, that at least points to their robustness.

Image courtesy Innoxiuss.