true WELLth Podcast: Iddo Landau Episode Transcript

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Stan Hall:

The true WELLth podcast is made possible by Brighton Jones. Brighton Jones is the financial wellbeing firm that helps you align your wealth, your passions and your purpose. Learn more about how you can live a richer life at brightonjones.com.

Iddo Landau:

Well, I think that we often continue to do what we do just because we did it yesterday. And we’re not stepping back to think about things that we’re doing, the presuppositions behind them, our ends or norms. And stepping back and looking in a wide perspective about whatever we do, can be very helpful in many ways. I found that discussing the question, philosophically, helps many people. There are many aspects of our lives that are philosophical. And when we miss on philosophy, we can miss on these important aspects of our lives.

Stan Hall:

Hello, and welcome to true WELLth. The show where we explore the four areas of wellbeing; emotional, social, physical and financial. We do this by bringing on experts in areas, and gleaning from them the knowledge on how to live a more contented life. Regular listeners of our show will know our pension for using philosophers to help frame these concepts. And I couldn’t be more excited to introduce our guest this week. Philosopher, professor and author, Dr. Iddo Landau.

Stan Hall:

Dr. Landau is a professor of Philosophy at the University of Haifa, in Israel, and has authored a book that is incredibly germane to this moment titled Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World. As unexpected as this year has been, it has also forced upon all of us to consider what we value as important, and what in this world gives us meaning and contentment. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has struggled to find their meaning in life, or ask the question, “What do I find important?”

Stan Hall:

Our conversation today will focus on defining and finding one’s meaning within the world. But to get us into that conversation, it’s important we go back with Dr. Landau to his eureka moment that started him on this project.

Iddo Landau:

Well, it happened a few years ago, that one of my students, out of the blue, in the middle of an introduction to philosophy class, claimed that it was pointless to discuss the issue we were deliberating about then. And she claimed that this is so, because life is completely meaningless. And for a second, I considered ignoring her statement and just continuing on with what I did. I even thought of telling her that what she raised was irrelevant to the theme of the session.

Iddo Landau:

But then, luckily, I decided to focus on her question. And I asked her whether she would agree that we do, with her question, what that philosophers often do before they even start considering arguments for and against various positions. They try to clarify more precisely what these positions are. And I wondered whether I might ask her some questions that will help me to understand better her question and her claim that life is completely meaningless, and she agreed.

Iddo Landau:

And my first question was whether she believes that all people lives are meaningless or that only her own life is meaningless. And she thought a bit, and then she said that, in her view, not all people’s lives are meaningless, although hers is meaningless. I asked whether she thought that her life was meaningless necessarily or meaningless only because of certain events that happened to be true of her life. So that if these events were not to occur, her life would not have been meaningless. And she thought a bit and said that the latter was the case.

Iddo Landau:

And then I asked whether I can ask a third question and she agreed. And my third question was whether she thought that her life is irredeemably meaningless so that it must continue to be so also in the future, or that, in her view, if she would do some things, her life might turn out to be meaningful. And again, she thought a bit, and again she picked the latter alternative. Then she said that she retracts her initial statement that life is meaningless. And she would like to think about it more and maybe come to speak with me after class.

Iddo Landau:

And when she did come to speak with me after class, she said that she does not think that her life is meaningless anymore and that things could be better. And I was very impressed to see how helpful a few simple, clarifying questions so typical of the way philosophers routinely address new issues have been. And then another student raised his hand and said that the discussion was very interesting for him. Other students nodded and agreed. And he said that he always thought that Hamlet’s questions, “To be, or not to be.”

Hamlet:

To be, or not to be. That is the question. Whether it is nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them, to die.

Iddo Landau:

That is, whether to continue or if not to be, that is to die. He thought that this is a very important and relevant question, and he would like to talk about it more. And I said that I always found it odd that Hamlet presents only these two options, either to die or to continue to suffer. Failing to discuss also, a third alternative, the alternative of improving the way things are. And again, this is rather a simple observation, typical of the way philosophers enumerate alternatives.

Iddo Landau:

Whenever you say to philosopher, “Choose between this and that,” then a good philosopher steps back and says, “Well, are these the only two options?” Just enumerating the alternative seemed to have had effect on the student and others. And it then occurred to me, for the first time, that many, many people may find rational philosophical discussions over the meaning of life very helpful to them. And since then, I spoke with many people about it, both in classes and after classes, and I saw it can help them very much. And they became much more interested in the topic and started reading more about it, and then writing more about it.

Stan Hall:

Dr. Landau is shining a much needed light on a conversation we often either shirk or fear, what is our unique meaning in life, and how does that influence align with our passions and purpose? At the risk of offending any Bardolator listeners, which, I just learned, is the correct terminology for a Shakespeare fan, I agree with Dr. Landau that perhaps Shakespeare kind of got it wrong. Too often, we approach the questions of our life’s meanings in this reductionist way that is just plain unrealistic.

Stan Hall:

And though we consider just the despondent ones among us, like the student in Dr. Landau’s story, grappling with the question of meaning. In fact, every single one of us has grappled with the questions, or rather, the consequences of not examining our own meaning and purpose. Dr. Landau’s book is an amazing piece of work with great passages and categories that help one derive meaning in all aspects of their life. And we could spend episodes on each category.

Stan Hall:

However, for today’s show, we’re going to focus on the concept of perfectionism as he defines it. Dr. Landau makes the case that perhaps those of us who grappled with perfectionism are in the same predicament as his misanthropic student, struggling with what we ought to value as a meaningful life and blind to the things that could be giving us meaning and contentment.

Iddo Landau:

What is typical of perfectionists is that they take what is valuable to be only in what is perfect or of extremely high quality. Whatever is less than that, does not think to them to be of any worth at all. The difference between a perfectionist and non-perfectionist, I think, is in the blindness of the perfectionist to the value in what is not perfect. So, I might agree that writing books as William James or Henry James is a wonderful thing, and I cannot write it. But if I’m a perfectionist, I will not be able to see the value of the books that I write.

Iddo Landau:

So, take me for example. I’m a philosopher. There is, of course, a greater difference between the quality of the philosophy that I write and the philosophy that Aristotle write, a huge difference. But a perfectionist would not be able to enjoy or to value the philosophy that they write, because it’s not as good as Aristotle. And the non-perfectionist might see that although it’s not as good as Aristotle’s, their philosophy is still valuable. It contributes much to people. It is interesting. You understand things, you develop things, you add to the philosophical knowledge, and this is a very good thing.

Iddo Landau:

They can see also the value in that. That is the main difference between perfectionist and non-perfectionist. And perfectionists, about meaning in life, or meaning of life, often think that because they are not as great as Beethoven, or Aristotle, or Einstein or Mother Teresa, they are nothing. Or if they did not find love as the fictional love of Romeo and Juliet, theirs is not real love and they are going to forsake it.

Iddo Landau:

And I think that’s a pity, because there is immense value also in the less than perfect. There are so many things that are not perfect and still very valuable, and we can enjoy them so much, and gain from them so much, and we can also help, with them, others so much. That, I think, would be the main difference between perfectionist and non-perfectionist.

Stan Hall:

Dr. Landau’s observation on perfectionism, I think, is an important topic to pause and genuinely reflect upon. Consider for an instant, our cultures decorum on perfectionism encourages it. If you sense someone is about to compliment your house, you may preemptively say, “Please excuse the mess,” while gesturing to a very clean house that you spent all afternoon tiding. When displaying a DIY craft you just completed, you may feel the urge to point out all of its flaws to any onlooker.

Stan Hall:

And I’ve even heard many a golfer, after a round rate themselves and their technique when asked how their afternoon on the course went. We, as a culture, deem this posturing to be a form of humility and deference. And though humility can be a virtuous trait, when overexerted, it can rob you of meaning and having focusing on only the less attractive parts, missing the forest for the trees of a clean home, a relaxing evening hobby or an enjoyable game on the lengths.

Stan Hall:

Dr. Landau frames this in the lens of competitive value. Said differently, what in life do we benchmark against competition or perceived competition? To use our earlier example, are we perhaps not enjoying our clean house, because we’re comparing it to Marie Kondo’s?

Iddo Landau:

I think that perfectionists very often might be blind to what may be called non-competitive value. We live in a very competitive society. In my own country, in Israel, through the years, I saw how people become more competitive, and not only in places that they should be competitive. And they, more and more, focus or interpret everything in terms of competition or competitive terms. It is so odd for me to see a person, for example, playing the piano and enjoying it, and everyone enjoys it. And then when he hears someone else playing the piano better, he feels that it is worthless and he stops enjoying it.

Iddo Landau:

Let me try to explain the difference between competitive and non-competitive value. I think we’re usually blind to non-competitive value, because we’re so geared at competitiveness. I’ve done philosophy for many years. So, I gained some proficiency in philosophy. Well, I might be thinking to myself, “I probably know philosophy more than anyone else who’s now walking the streets.” Now, let’s say that God’s hand comes from heaven and touches everyone’s forehead. And everyone knows philosophy as well, or just as much as I do.

Iddo Landau:

Will my enjoyment of philosophy, my love for philosophy, the value of that I give to philosophy and to philosophy of my life, will it diminish? I’m sorry to say that it will diminish to an extent. And the extent to which it will diminish is the extent to which philosophy has had for me competitive value, rather than non-competitive value. Because it’s somehow caressed my ego to think secretly, because these are the type of things that we do not always like to say out loud, “Wow, I’m so great. I know philosophy more than almost everyone around me. I know, and they don’t. Ha, I’m so happy about it.”

Iddo Landau:

This is very childish and, in a way, stupid urge. And to the degree to which I will continue to enjoy philosophy, although everyone else knows philosophy as much as I do, that would be the degree to which philosophy has had for me non-competitive value. That I liked it for its own sake or for its own real value, not because it’s helped me to caress my ego, but because I really thought that it is a valuable thing.

Stan Hall:

Consider for a minute what activity occurs in your life that you derive meaning from, because of its competitive nature. Said another way, what in your life would you still value if you pulled away the competitive aspect? Would you be as happy in your career progression, your station in life, your child’s honor roll accolade? Because without divorcing competitive value and non-competitive value, you risk letting your ego assign worth to aspects that won’t provide nearly as much meaning and contentment.

Iddo Landau:

And I think that perfectionists are locked in competitive value. Or at least the balance of competitive value and non-competitive value in their lives is, well, it’s unbalanced. And it would do many of us a lot of good, I think, to try to heed more the non-competitive value, or to see more the non-competitive value in our life.

Iddo Landau:

Think about runners. Some people run in the Olympiads. And there, if you don’t get the gold medal, or the silver medal or the bronze medal, when it’s clear to you during the race that you are not going to get them, then there is really no point in continuing to run. And what you’re doing is meaningless, you’re wasting your time and your effort.

Iddo Landau:

And people who live very competitively sometimes have this feeling that what they’re doing or their life is meaningless, because they interpret their lives as running in the Olympics, and it’s already clear to them that they’re not going to get the gold medal, or the silver medal or the bronze medal.

Iddo Landau:

But what would happen if instead of running in the Olympics, they’ll be running in the park. Not in order to win against anyone, but because running is healthy, and running makes you feel good. And when you run in the morning, it’s very nice. You see the birds and you hear the birds, and there is dew on the plants. It’s a very pleasant experience. What I’m suggesting can be presented as a stop running only in the Olympics, and start running maybe much more in the park.

Stan Hall:

A reoccurring theme in Dr. Landau’s work on finding meaning is the concept that meaning is self-derivative. What I mean by that is it is within your power to decide what is important and meaningful. Mental illnesses aside, there are plenty of external pressures that perhaps warp or skew our perceptions on meaning.

Stan Hall:

Consider the Keeping Up with the Joneses mentality. It’s an excellent example of meaning is skewed by cultural pressure. It’s more, if you subscribed to the meaning derived by society, you may end up becoming the harshest critic of yourself, because you’re benchmarking your own life and success against an impossible metric.

Iddo Landau:

It’s very odd. We talk a lot about discrimination, and discrimination is thought to be a very bad thing. And indeed, it is a very bad thing. But usually when we talk about discrimination, we think about where the token case of discrimination is one in which I have double standards. And I judge other people worse than I judge myself, or I treat other people worse than I treat myself. And many people who feel that their lives are not meaningful, are people who discriminate against themselves.

Iddo Landau:

In the sense that they too have double standards, but they treat themselves much more harshly than they treat other people. They tell themselves that because they are not as rich as, I don’t know, Warren Buffett, or not as intelligent as Einstein, they’re worthless, they’re nothing, their lives are meaningless. However, when they look at their children, parents, siblings, friends, neighbors, they would never think that. They would never say about their child or about the child of the neighbor next door, “Ah, this guy is not going to be a Beethoven, or a Mozart. Then, wow, he is rubbish.”

Iddo Landau:

They would call themselves rubbish secretly, but they wouldn’t treat so other people. They would think that other people are valuable and that they do valuable things, and that they achieve valuable things, even if those valuable things are just having a good family life or good friendships. But they would have much harsher standards for themselves. And this also involves cruelty. If they were to say about other people the things that they say to themselves, we would probably tell them that they’re cruel people.

Iddo Landau:

Let’s think of someone who tells a friend or a stranger, “You didn’t reach the peak of your profession and that means that you’re a nothing.” We would think that this is a very cruel thing to say, also wrong, but a very cruel thing to say. But many people treat, in such a cruel way, themselves. If cruelty is a heinous attitude, which I think it is. And if we can morally forbid people to be cruel, then that goes also for self-cruelty.

Stan Hall:

Dr. Landau, before we go, what are some actionable ways listeners today can begin to introduce meaning into their life?

Iddo Landau:

I think that there are two main ways of making one’s life more meaningful. One of them might be called the way of achieving. And it is very interesting to see that many people are not doing, in their lives, what would make their lives more meaningful. They’re doing in their lives what their peers are doing, or what is expected of them, or what their parents told them to do or what they did yesterday. But they’re not asking themselves what would make their lives more meaningful.

Iddo Landau:

And there are also some questions that people can ask themselves in order to identify for themselves better how they could change their lives to make them more meaningful. One of them is simply to ask this question, as simple as that, “What would make my life more valuable or meaningful?” And another, is to ask yourself, “What elements in my life already make it more meaningful? And then maybe I should try to enhance them.”

Iddo Landau:

No less importantly, people can ask themselves what should be removed from their lives in order to make them more meaningful. I think that, as with health, sometimes just stopping to do some things helps to gain a lot. And we can also ask, “What do we take to be meaningful in other people’s lives?” This, too, can help us very much to identify what is meaningful to us and what, if we will do, will make our life more meaningful. So, this is one way of making one’s life more meaningful, trying to think, following all sorts of questions that one can ask oneself, how one should achieve more meaning in one’s life? What should one change in one’s life?

Iddo Landau:

And the other way of doing that is what might be called the way of recognizing. If to present an analogy. If we want to experience more beauty in our home, we can do it in two ways. One of them is to, well, take out the old carpet, which is not very beautiful, and the unpleasant pictures and replace them with better, a nicer carpet or more beautiful pictures. But another thing that we can do, and this is very neglected, unfortunately, is to try to resensitize ourself to overcome or numbness to the beauty of the things that we already have.

Iddo Landau:

After some time they become, so to say, transparent to us. We cease to see their beauty. Actually, we cease to see them altogether, as if they were not there at all. And we can train ourselves to see the beauty or the value in what there is all around us, and there is so much value in that. This numbness also comes from perfectionism, that we discussed, and also from other things. And one can practice to see beauty or sense beauty, just as one can practice to sense value.

Iddo Landau:

It also has to do with an attitude that we have, or do not have. One of the reasons that we enjoy things aesthetically when we enter into a museum is because we know that here in a museum, we should see the beauty of things, and we are very focused on that. But we don’t always have to enter into a museum, especially with modern art. Some of the things that we see may seem very plain, but since we sensitize ourselves to beauty, then we see the beauty there.

Iddo Landau:

But we can also take the museum attitude outside of the museum. And on the way of the museum, see the beauty in, I don’t know, in the cars, in the trees, on the sidewalk, in the sky. And in the same way I can make myself, I can train myself, I actually trained myself, to sense the great value, the great meaning in many simple non-perfect things. And in this way, too, I think we can make our lives much more meaningful. So these are two ways. One of them is more intuitive and still we have to learn how to use it, the way of achievement. But there is so much to gain maybe even more than there is to gain from the way of achievement and the way of recognizing.

Stan Hall:

My takeaways for today’s episode are, one, to be, or not to be, or to just get better. When searching for meaning, we can get into this rut of framing things into a reductionist viewpoint that can lead us down a path of perfectionism or nicheism. Though it can be hard to find meaning in any particular moment, let’s say, taking the longer view of knowing you can find meaning at a later date, can lead you on a path to contentment.

Stan Hall:

Two, perfection robs us of our ability to find meaning in the important. Like the Japanese practice of kintsukuroi, or repairing cracks and pottery with gold, it is imperative we learn to love the imperfect and find it beautiful. When we set ourselves up in a binary world of perfectionism or nothing, we are always going to come up with the latter. Just because we didn’t beat Usain bolt’s record does not make our morning run worthless.

Stan Hall:

Three, to find meaning and contentment, you have to be nice to yourself. Dr. Landau’s litmus test of, would you say the things you say about yourself to others? Is a great tool to please your inner dialogue, when feelings of inadequacy bubble up. And finally, sensitize yourself to beauty and meaning. Treat your world with the intrigue of a museum. Beauty and meaning are present everywhere, in a session of fetch with your dog, the way the pot of coffee makes the kitchen smell in the morning, even the elusive dandelion that keeps trying to grow in your lawn. Approach the world like you are in a museum.

Stan Hall:

And if you come upon something you have a hard time assigning meaning or beauty to, perhaps, treat it like a modern art installment. To learn more about Dr. Landau, you can visit our show notes page at truewellthpodcast.com. There, we will have links to his book, Finding Meaning in an Imperfect World, which I highly recommend. If you enjoyed today’s episode, we would be much obliged if you left us a review, or recommend this episode to a friend. Every little bit goes a long way in elevating the concept of wellbeing to a larger audience, to get in touch with the team, visit truewellthpodcast.com. And again, that’s true WELLth, W-E-L-L-T-H.com. Until next time.

Stan Hall:

The true WELLth podcast, made possible by Brighton Jones. Whether you want to save for the future or celebrate today, get back to the community or explore the globe. Brighton Jones believes your values are every bit as unique as your fingerprints. Brighton Jones aligns your time and resources to those values, so you can go after the things that you truly care about. Explore your richer life @brightonjones.com. Today’s episode was edited and produced by Stan Hall alongside the rest of our true WELLth team, Michael Stubel, Marc Asmus, Lindsey Hurt, Tara McElroy, and John Dougherty. To get in touch with the team, visit truewellthpodcast.com.