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#9: The Search for Anti-Mentors

Copyright © 2014 by William B. Irvine


In my previous post, I explained what mentors are and how they differ from teachers and coaches. I also said that we 21st century Stoics will be on the lookout for mentors, people who have insights into living. We will observe them, ask questions, and learn what we can from them.

Many people, as I explained, eschew mentoring because they don’t feel any need for personal improvement. It is an attitude that makes self-improvement unlikely. A Stoic, though, will regard himself as a work in progress and will always be on the lookout for ways to improve himself.

Besides being on the lookout for mentors, a 21st century Stoic will be on the lookout for anti-mentors, people who are making important mistakes in how they are living. Such individuals can offer the Stoic valuable lessons on what not to do if he wishes to have a good life.

People are much more willing to look for anti-mentors than for mentors. This is because by exposing ourselves to an anti-mentor, we can feel better about ourselves: we may not be perfect, but at least we are better than this guy! Indeed, one of the primary reasons people watch reality television shows is because they are, in many cases, populated by individuals whose character flaws and general ignorance of the world doom them to a miserable existence. How amusing!

A 21st century Stoic, though, will not seek anti-mentors for their entertainment value or so he can feel superior. Instead, he will seek them in order to learn from them.

At the first level of learning, a Stoic will try to identify the mistakes an anti-mentor is making. She might, for example, have chosen the wrong values by which to live. Alternatively, despite having chosen the correct values, she might have adopted a defective strategy for attaining the things she values.

At the next, more profound level of learning, a Stoic will try to fathom how a rational human being could make such mistakes. How, in particular, could someone choose a defective strategy for living? It turns out to be remarkably easy to do.

Consider, by way of illustration, one common strategy for dealing with desire. Many people are unhappy because they detect in themselves an unsatisfied desire. They respond to this desire by working to satisfy it. They reason that once it is satisfied, they will be satisfied as well and will therefore be happy.

What they fail to realize is that as soon as this desire is satisfied, another will likely pop into existence to take its place, leaving them no better off than they were before. To adopt the strategy of pursuing happiness by satisfying our desires is therefore to put ourselves on a treadmill. We can labor for years on this treadmill and be no closer to our goal than we were before setting foot on it.  (For more on this phenomenon, see my On Desire: Why We Want What We Want.)

So why do people adopt the desire-satisfaction strategy? In many cases, they simply mimic the strategy the people around them are using, on the assumption, usually mistaken, that these other people have given careful thought to their choice of a strategy.

In other cases, they adopt the desire-satisfaction strategy because it is the one that should work—except that it doesn’t! Indeed, it is a solution that not only doesn’t solve their problem but makes that problem worse! It is an example of what a Stoic would call a counter-solution.

A Stoic will be quite interested in this and other cases in which people’s misery is self-inflicted. He will be interested not so he can gloat over other people’s mistakes but so he can avoid making similar mistakes himself. Thus, besides seeking mentors who will teach him how to live, a Stoic will seek anti-mentors who will teach him how not to live.

As a result of his examination of people who have adopted the desire-satisfaction strategy, a Stoic will adopt the radically different and somewhat counterintuitive strategy of dealing with the desires he detects in himself not by trying to satisfy them but by trying to extinguish them. A Stoic will also work to prevent the recurrence of these undesirable desires in the future.

It is, curiously, the strategy that Buddha also hit upon. And like the Stoics, Buddha was “taught” this strategy by the anti-mentors he chose to study.

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