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Stoic Technology: Learning to Love Adversity

This is a life lesson learned through technology. I’ll try to keep it on topic but I can’t promise that you’re not going to be able to apply the information in this post outside of your technological life.

stoic

I should mention, this post was inspired by a great piece (guest posted) piece over at Tim Ferris’s blog about stoicism and entrepreneurship. After reading that post, I broke out the old philosophy textbook and read a little further.

A Stoic Introduction

First, a very brief introduction to stoicism via Wikipedia:

“…stoics considered destructive emotions to be the result of errors in judgment…Stoicism teaches the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions”

Basically, a stoic understands that, in life, sh*t happens and the only control we have is how we react. Computers break, software crashes, and hard drives go bad. When these things inevitably occur, we can curse the gods, curse ourselves and others, and throw things like a child but none of these actions help the situation. Getting past anger and frustration is but a mental exercise.

But try to tell that to the woman learning CSS or the guy with an aging Windows Mobile device or the company who just lost a server array. During times like those, there doesn’t seem to be a mental exercise that can relieve the pressure. If only “mind over matter” were as easy as it sounds in a blog post.

Pre-Stoic Approach

This idea of “mind over emotions” and finding self-control where there once was none is an idea I’ve been exploring in my personal and professional life for many years. Though I took a philosophy class several years ago, I was not ready at that time to understand the benefit of stoicism and put it to work in my life. I only recently have been able to apply that term to what I assumed was a basic practice for anyone looking to find some kind of zen in their day-to-day existence.

Since the stoic approach is to move past harmful emotions stemming from conditions and experiences outside of our control, the first step is to find a reason to move past these emotions. In other words…

Find the Silver Lining

To move away from swearing at and physically destroying your computer or its I/O components (like your keyboard or mouse) when a problem occurs, you have to move towards some kind of positive outcome from your misfortune. For example:

  • If you lose 5 years worth of digital pictures because you didn’t have a back-up, you’ll learn to always back-up your data in the future.
  • If your printer breaks at the last possible minute and you’re left scrambling for a paper copy, you’ll learn that last-minute work like that always leads to pain and frustration.
  • If your phone battery dies in the middle of a phone conversation, you’ll learn how to keep it charged.

You might look at the “silver lining” of the items I listed above and think “that’s pretty lame; I certainly wouldn’t choose to trade my digital photos for a quick tip I could read on a CNet blog.” If that’s the case, you’re missing the point. Here it is…

Know That You are Utterly Powerless

You’re just one corrupted disk away from losing everything on your computer. You’re one well-timed battery loss from losing a job opportunity. You’re one faulty circuit away from burning down your house. Morbid? Yes, but certainly important to come to terms with.

Knowing you are powerless doesn’t mean you take no precautions, however. In fact, it should clue you in to take even more precautions than those around you, especially when it involves things/stuff that cannot be replaced. You don’t have control over the sun, moon, tides, and weather but you can certainly lessen the impact of catastrophic failures.

Here’s what I recommend as the minimum you should do to guard against digital disasters:

  1. Back up your contacts online: I’m always shocked by the number of voicemails I hear every year instructing me to “leave your name and number because I dropped my phone in the toilet from Transpotting.” It’s likely that your phone can be plugged into your computer and your numbers downloaded. At the very least, keep Gmail (great contact management) updated with the important ones. If you have to use Outlook, make sure to export these every month or so and save the spreadsheet to a Google Docs account. I have names and numbers from 10 years ago, only because it’s easy to keep it all around.
  2. Back up your computer online: This is key, ESPECIALLY if you’re a Windows user. Viruses, hardware failure, and theft happen with disturbing regularity. By putting off creating a backup plan of some kind you’re playing with fire. Go ahead and back up on an external hard drive too if you’d like but if you have a robbery or a fire in your house, that’s not going to help much. I use JungleDisk to backup my photos, music, and archived documents. For day-to-day stuff, I can’t recommend Dropbox enough. You can get 2 gigabytes (more than you’ll need for your documents, at least) for free or 50 gigabytes for some small amount. Everything stays synced and you can hook it up to several different computers (if you have a desktop and a laptop).
  3. Stay off of sensitive sites if you’re on public wifi: Don’t log into your bank account or PayPal while you’re on an open coffeeshop wifi signal. The chances of something happening are slim but it’s better not to take the chance if you can. Along these same lines, don’t assume that a password on your wifi is going to protect you.
  4. Speaking of passwords, don’t use the same, easy password for all of your accounts. This is an annoying one but there are plenty of ways around it. I have an inordinate number of passwords that have to stay secure so I use KeePass. It generates good passwords for you and stores them all with some serious encryption. Use a few easy-to-remember ones for your most-accessed accounts for, for god’s sake, don’t use “123321” on your web host!
  5. Do the recommended updates on your computer: It’s annoying, I know, but make sure you always do your main operating system updates, Flash updates (very important), and Java updates. If you’re running a good anti-virus on a Windows computer (I recommend Microsoft’s own Security Essentials), keep that up to date too.

The point with taking these precautions is not to avoid the unpleasant; that isn’t possible. The point is to make it easier to say “I couldn’t control that but it could have been worse.”

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