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5 Life Lessons A Philosophy Degree Taught Me

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Today I have a guest post from Josh at The Investor Kid. He previously completed a Dollars & Debts interview – check it out here. Josh has a degree in philosophy and has a passion for becoming debt free. Aside from his passion for becoming debt-free, he also has a passion for new financial apps and services available to ordinary folk like himself! He believes there’s so much on the market today that can help newly minted investors make the most of their money. He’ll be cataloging his experiences over the next few months/years on his blog. If you’d like to follow along and read his reviews of the various apps and services he’s tried before diving in yourself, check out some of his posts!

Philosophy is one of those disciplines that forces you to re-evaluate your beliefs. After a short time studying philosophy, truths you thought to be self-evident no longer seem quite as certain. Some people like to joke that the study of philosophy can even cause you to doubt the existence of objects like the chair that you’re sitting on in class. That’s a bit extreme, but it certainly forces you to question the nature of your own existence.

Aside from studying things like ontology (the study of being), or epistemology (the study of knowledge or the theory of knowledge) which only appeal to a few select individuals, there are branches of philosophy that attract a wider audience. The study of Ethics & Moral Philosophy, for example, is definitely a favorite for a lot of students.

I learned a great deal in my four years studying philosophy. Much of what I studied has followed me since leaving university. There are lessons I learned that have helped to guide me in my work life, in my personal life, and that I believe have also helped to guide my financial decisions. Here are the top 5 lessons I learned from philosophy that I still benefit from to this day, and that you can benefit from as well!

It’s important to develop good work and lifestyle habits

Many of you have likely heard of John Stuart Mill, the 19th century political and moral philosopher from England. Lawyers may know him for his “Harm Principle” from his book On Liberty. Others may know him for being an early proponent of Utilitarian Ethics.

I had the opportunity to read Mill’s book Utilitarianism in a moral philosophy class, and one passage from that book has always stuck with me:

“How can the will to be virtuous, where it does not exist in sufficient force, be implanted or awakened? Only by making the person desire virtue- by making him think of it in a pleasurable light, or of its absence in a painful one.”

In this passage, Mill asks the reader how a person can love virtue for its own sake. He knows there are people who strive to be virtuous, not for their own personal gain, but because they believe virtue is its own reward. Mill recognizes, however, that this is not our natural state. As children we did not strive to be virtuous because virtue was important to us. Rather, we learned to do good because we were rewarded for it, and when we were not good we were punished. Over time, Mill argues, we no longer require reward or punishment to direct our actions. Why? Because of habit.

Habit is something we must cultivate. When you decide that you want to get in shape, you start going for jogs in the morning. Do you initially enjoy your morning jogs? Probably not. They’re probably a bit painful, they tire you out more than you’d like to admit, and you’re likely ready for a nap by the time you get home. After 6 months of jogging every day, how has your attitude changed? Many people who have active lifestyles enjoy going out for jogs, bike rides, etc. Over time, they no longer exercise merely for the sake of getting in shape. Instead, they actually enjoy exercise for its own sake.

This is Mill’s point, and it’s one we can all learn from. Reward and punishment are great motivators, but their purpose is to help us develop good habits. Reward yourself for going for a jog, or for going a week without going out to eat. Don’t be too harsh on yourself when you slip up, but guilt can also be a powerful motivator. The goal is to get yourself to the point where you no longer need to reward yourself for doing well or guilt yourself for a slip up.

Related: 8 Habits That Destroy Productivity

You don’t need much to be happy

This idea is the foundation of the minimalist movement, but even if you’re not a minimalist there’s a lesson to be learned here. The idea that you can get by and be happy without much is not a new idea. In fact, the ancient Stoic philosophers believed this as well. At some point between 160 – 180 A.D. the then emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius, wrote in his Meditations:

“Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself in your way of thinking.”

Marcus Aurelius was a practitioner of Stoic philosophy, and used the teachings of the Stoics to guide his life. His reign in Rome was filled with conflict, but he believed that no matter what life threw at him it was always within his power to be content. The power to alter our frame of mind rests with us alone, and nothing external can affect our mental or emotional state unless we allow it to.

It is only in response to life’s many challenges that we are at times tempted to alter course, or to be brought to our knees. Marcus Aurelius teaches us that no matter what we’re going through, we can always rise above it and come out on top. At times it will be harder than others, and for some people there will be many more challenges than for you and I. What’s important is to not let ourselves get distracted, and to always focus on bettering ourselves.

Spend your time focusing on things you can change, not things that you can’t

It is so easy to get bogged down by our mistakes. Failure is inevitable, and the more risks we take the more often we are bound to fail. Being burdened by failure keeps us from focusing on what can be learned from it.

Simone de Beauvoir, a 20th century feminist philosopher, once said in her book entitled The Ethics of Ambiguity:

“We must not confuse the present with the past. With regard to the past, no further action is possible.”

Mistakes in the past will always remain just that – mistakes in the past. What we can do is take our mistakes and use them as springboards for growth. I dropped out of school twice before I found a program that I was passionate about. The years between dropping out of school and going back to university were difficult at times. I was often down on myself for not following through with what I started. I still wonder to this day how further along I could be in my career had I stuck with school the first time. What matters now, however, is not what I did with my time at age 18. What matters is what I do with my time today.

Can I spend today making someone else’s life better? How about spending today to further myself in my career? Can I spend today learning and growing in my personal life? Yes, yes, and yes.

Enjoy the present, but plan for the future

Sometimes we are held captive by the past, and sometimes we compulsively focus on our plans for the future. It’s important to be able to enjoy life each day. Planning for your retirement is important, but so is today. A balance needs to be struck between planning for the future and not giving up all of your enjoyment in the present.

With that being said, it is also important to remember that some of the things we like to spoil ourselves with in the present are only temporary. That $30 meal at my favorite restaurant will only make me happy for a short period of time, and by tomorrow, or even a few hours later, the pleasure will have passed, and I will be $30 poorer.

That’s not to say you should not ever spend money or treat yourself. On the contrary, sometimes our favorite activities cost money (sometimes a lot of it!). Again, balance is the key. Aristotle once said in his book The Nicomachean Ethics:

“One swallow does not make a summer, neither does one fine day; similarly one day or brief time of happiness does not make a person entirely happy.”

Enjoy the present, but remember to invest in your future as well. Remember as Jean-Jacques Rousseau was once purported to have said:

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

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Never stop trying to improve yourself

You work hard at your job or in school, maybe both. At the end of the day it is so easy to settle in, relax, and do nothing. Relaxing is important. We all need to take time to ourselves and to spend time with our loved ones. It’s also important, however, to make use of the time that you have.

Voltaire once said:

“Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.”

When it comes to what we can learn or earn in a lifetime, the only limit is time. We can always be striving to better ourselves, whether at work, in our communities, or even at home. Life is a gift and we can show appreciation for it by making the most of the time that we have.

Warren Buffett recently said in an interview that he can buy anything that he wants, but he can’t buy time. Many of us have so much that we want to do with our lives. The last thing that any of us wants is to have to think about all the things we wanted to do but never got around to doing. It’s not too late to start now!

Philosophy & Personal Finance – Conclusion

The study of philosophy taught me so many valuable lessons and I’m so glad I was able to share a few of them with you. As a young investor, each of these lessons helps to guide my decisions. None of them are a foolproof guide to success, but they are a great start to building the sort of life you can be proud of.

My challenge to you is to make the most of today. Allow yourself time to rest, but don’t allow yourself an excessive amount of time. In your spare time, pick up a book, write, build something, volunteer. Work on bettering your own life and the lives of those around you.

Thanks so much for reading. Leave me a comment and let me know what lessons you learned in your studies, either in university or on your own time!

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