PERSONAL OPERATIONS—A GUIDE TO LIVING WELL
By Steve Davidson
The Montréal Review, October 2023
The Walk to Paradise Garden, photograph by W. Eugene Smith, 1947.
Philosophy, social science, books, and magazines, as well as your mother and your next-door neighbor, all offer hints as to how to live well. There’s the Id, which you have to watch out for. And the Superego, which you also have to watch out for. There’s cognition, with its false beliefs and distortions. There’s decisions, with their merry-go-round approach-avoidance dilemmas. There’s behavior, which everyone can see, including the police and the town gossip. Then there’s good intentions, and “best-laid schemes”, which, as the Scottish poet Robert Burns pointed out, “Gang aft agley”, as you likely have said to yourself many times. And finally, there’s all those defensive stories you tell, to try to cover your tracks.
Now, I’m not one to complain. Okay, I am. But what sense are we to make of all this? It seems like there is no single, consistent model for understanding the mind and life, and no corresponding sensible protocol for living well. I got so frustrated, I was driven to the desperate measure of coming up with my own formulation of how to live well. Here it is:
Life is an Operation
Everyone has asked, “What is life all about? How does it work?” Everyone from Plato and Shakespeare, right through to Kafka and Bridget Jones. But it’s not really so complicated, is it?
First of all, people have needs. Like, companionship, shelter, a little bread and wine, and maybe some music. Then, people have to somehow meet those needs. That means setting objectives that likely will meet the needs.
But just setting an objective isn’t sufficient. People also have to figure out a path to the objective, then start down the path, and keep going until they get there.
All that suggests that life is about successfully setting and reaching goals. In other words, life is an operation. There is a whole academic field called operations, which can rise up into fearsome realms of mathematics. But that needn’t concern us here, in a discussion of personal operations (personal ops). The basic idea is that establishing and pursuing relevant, feasible goals is utterly fundamental to surviving and thriving.
Now, I know what you’re saying. If operations were that fundamental, the brain would be designed to carry out operations. But it is.
The frontal lobes estimate probabilities and develop plans based on the probabilities. Behind the frontal lobes, the motor cortex carries out the necessary tasks. The left brain double-checks to make sure everything makes logical sense, and the right brain comes up with creative solutions when operations bog down. The whole thing is powered from below, by the limbic system, which gets fired up about potentially gratifying options.
So, living successfully can be seen, overall, as developing effective operations. That thought applies to individual life-planning and task accomplishment, as well as to finding a mate, to raising children, and to managing organizations, including nations. This is what the famous linguist Noam Chomsky called deep structure—the simple principle that underlies all the surface variations that dazzle and confuse us.
The personal ops model of mind contains seven components: (1) ideals and values, (2) cognition, (3) feelings, (4) decision-making, (5) action, (6) objectives, and (7) feedback. Those seven components work together to get things done (as well as to squeeze in some fun, of course).
1. Ideals and Values
Economics, going back to that savvy Scot, Adam Smith, tells us there is a tradeoff between larger principles of social good and immediate profit. The same thing can be seen in the behavior of nations, which strive to “do the right thing”, and certainly strive to be seen as behaving honorably, but all too often have trouble resisting the temptation, should profits beckon, to take advantage of a weaker body politic. And, naturally, it’s true of individuals, who also strive to follow high principles, but sometimes stoop to, shall we call it, convenience. (As Oscar Wilde admitted, “I can resist everything except temptation”.)
But when situations really head south, as with embezzlements that bankrupt companies, or with brutal invasions, many are wont to ask, “What happened? What happened to character? What happened to compassion?” The answer is . . . well, it’s just not that easy to stick to high principles in the face of serious threats, or temptations.
That’s why it’s so important for people to really commit to high principles, and for families, schools, organizations, and the media to not only consistently teach good character, but to expect and to hold people accountable for honorable behavior, noble ideals, and generosity. One useful motivator is to realize that high principles, in the long run, reap greater rewards than low principles.
I hear you. “Puh-leeeze! No one can figure out what high principles are, what good character is, what honorable behavior would be, what noble ideals would be, or what generous values are!”
But is it so?
If we try to discern good values in an abstract sense, yes, we immediately can be plunged into a maelstrom of incredibly sophisticated, long-standing casuistry that goes nowhere. And if we try to establish good values for ourselves, similarly, we quickly can find our minds awash in in a bewildering cost-benefit analysis; for every seriously good deed, it seems, there is an uncomfortable price to pay—then it’s confusing as to the right way to go.
However, if we try to identify good values and behavior for other people, such as children, teachers, neighbors, and coworkers—Shazam! All is revealed: friendly, honest, courteous, considerate, punctual, neat, clean, helpful, charitable, hardworking . . . and the list goes on, as the cliché people say. That is, we do have an intuitive sense of right and wrong, good and bad, which is quite available when we wish to call on it.
Ideals and values are the necessary qualities that allow us all to live together in harmony. Ideals, our highest aspirations, and our values, our working principles of cooperation, are the frame of our lives. If our actions are not guided by higher order principles of compassion and justice, we can easily find ourselves coming into conflict with other people, in the position of competing leopards jammed together in a small cage.
If you want to provide for yourself a Personal Ten Commandments, you can draft a list of five noble ideals, and five working values which you feel would give you good direction in life. If you get stuck, you can try to come up with rules that would be good for someone else. That “someone else” could give you a little emotional distance from the list, and make it easier to compile. Then you can apply the ten rules to yourself, and see how they fit.
You needn’t feel trapped by your list. You can always make adjustments as you discover what’s reasonable, and what’s too much to ask of yourself.
At the revered Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) they don’t have a “Department of Psychology”. It’s the “Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences”. (The brain, of course, being the foundation of cognition.) That linguistic designation indicates how central cognition has become to the world today. Computers, for example, are, in essence, pure logical thought, pure cognition. And so it is in the mind; the cognition component in the personal ops model is the start of the through-line of operational power (Cognition-Decisions-Actions-Objectives-Feedback).
Cognition, overall, could be defined as the mental processes which organize perceptions so that they match reality, or match what appear to be, at least, plausible possibilities.
The cognition component in the personal ops model of the mind is like the computer center of a hospital, or the accounting department of a business, or the engineering department of a government, or a law office in a community—rational, factual, precise, logical. This is the part of the mind that estimates whether some idea is true or false, and whether some plan is likely to work, or not. Very important, very valuable.
The public sometimes wonders what it is that raises the upper 1 percent above everyone else in wealth and power. This is it: Zeus-level cognition—extensive, factual, quantitative, causal learning, rigorously focused on important goals. This is MIT and Wall Street, Stanford and Silicon Valley, Oxford and the City of London, the Sorbonne and Paris, McGill and Montreal.
This could be you.
Intellectual fashions come and go, whether sensibly justified, or alarmingly in error. So it is with feelings. Back in the day, say, Buddha’s day, the relationship between cognition and emotion was clear—rational thinking should dominate emotions, the way a rider dominates a horse.
The Victorians leaped on that analogy, then fell off the horse. What they tried to do was to totally eliminate what they saw as questionable emotions, such as sexual desire. Not wise. Hence, mysterious disorders appeared, such as hysterical blindness, that Gordian Knot of Victorian psychiatry.
Sigmund Freud tried to help, then a misreading of his extensive, persuasive writings concluded that the solution to mental disorder was to elevate emotion to a dominant position in the mind, the life, and the culture. Works such as William Barrett’s Irrational Man, emotion-focused encounter groups, and the popular phrase “If it feels good, do it” echo the same theme. And so the intellectual pendulum swung, from rational self-regulation to dangerous emotional excess. (Unfortunately, emotional excess is good for sales, and for demagogues, thus it thrives.)
In the personal ops model the relationship among values, cognition, and feelings is hierarchical—values dominate cognition, and cognition dominates feeling. Emotions power the mental system, but they don’t guide it. Guidance is according to values—what the right thing is, and according to cognition—what will work.
Therefore, the usual technique for dealing with emotions is to (1) ask yourself what you feel about this or that, (2) calmly think the situation over, then (3) sensibly choose among options.
Decision-making is surprisingly central to social science, government, and finance. Decision science, as it is called, while blazingly rational, is often fiendishly mathematical. Again, exotic computations needn’t concern us here.
In the personal ops model of life and the mind, the central decision-making component is first-among-equals, superior-but-not-arrogant. That is, the decision-making component is not autocratic, bossing around the other components of the mind. Yet, for the mind to function, there must be some central organizing nexus, some component somehow largely in charge, and coordinating everything, something like the showrunner of a television series.
A television show is a highly complex operation in which numerous people (actors, writers, camera and lighting crews, etc.) must be coordinated towards an excellent objective, within stringent limits of energy, time, and money. So, the showrunner, to be an effective manager, must be very firm, keeping track of all the details, and ensuring that everyone honors limits of time and money. (Anyone who can’t get with the program can go see if I Love Lucy is casting again.) At the same time, in addition to providing firm direction, the showrunner must be warm, enjoyable, motivating, and respectful of all involved, or the operation starts to be a winter of discontent, plagued by ugly mutterings of rebellion, then possible defections.
It’s similar in the mind. The decision-making component must keep track of what is going on in the self and in the environment, and ensure that everything is proceeding more or less smoothly towards goals, within budgets and deadlines (think tax time). Simultaneously, the decision-making component must respect values and feelings, and maintain a positive view of the self’s sensitivities and preferences, despite those periodic irritating, disappointing mishaps by errant mental components. (“I saw that hand reach for that chocolate cake! Is that really the action we want to be taking?”)
The decision to be a little stoical can be useful here. A brave and serene mind can more accurately evaluate options, and manage relevant actions, than a frightened and upset mind.
Nothing really gets going until someone takes action. The biggest heroes are usually action heroes. So, action is a big deal. This is a truth known to everyone who has ever dreamed of losing weight, getting in shape, going back to school, or painting the garage. There is a large and formidable gulf between thought and action, between planning and execution, between a jazzy little color swatch and a hot day with brush in hand.
But not to worry.
Behaviorists and organizational trainers have articulated a vast and reassuring panoply of techniques for easing away from the splendid plans on that yellow legal pad, and getting those feet moving in the right direction.
First, identify your goal, and the need you are trying to fulfill, so you’ll be clear about the larger reason for the action you want to take. You may have to remind yourself of this rationale as you move forward, because an action hero’s days can get long.
Then, break the job into sections. That makes a project less intimidating. Three sections, five sections, seven sections—something manageable.
Then sequence the sections of the job. It’s your call, but you may want to start with the most interesting section, or the easiest, or maybe the most important one, so you can make sure that gets done.
Assign some kind of a measure to the job. For example, if it’s painting the garage, and you’re painting from left to right, your measure of completing a section is getting all the way to the right-side edge. If it’s writing a report, page numbers would probably work. In weight loss, it’s pounds. Measuring your progress, keeping track of how you are mastering the job, is both motivating and rewarding.
Starting a job is easier if you prompt yourself, say, with your favorite special cup of tea, as you survey the task ahead of you.That cup of tea then means you are starting to take action, which is usually a rewarding feeling. Continuing and completing a job is easier if you give yourself a little reinforcement at the completion of each stage, even if it’s just putting on your favorite music, and practicing those cool moves.
Perhaps the most important part of all this is recognizing that taking some kind of targeted action is the core of successful achievement. No boat sails until it is put in the water.
Plus, giving yourself encouragement every step of the way is usually necessary to get going, and to keep going until you are successful, whether it’s home repairs, education, career, romance, or that long-fantasized voyage to Tahiti. Sure, there will be a little procrastinating, some mistakes, unforeseen shoals, and setbacks along the way. Just don’t be too hard on yourself!
There’s a classic piece of business wisdom that says many otherwise profitable enterprises falter because the objective of the activity wasn’t made sufficiently specific. In other words, the CEOs didn’t quite know where they were going, so ended up someplace else. That sounds foolish, maybe even impossible. But there is an explanation.
Big, vague goals are more exciting than specific goals, which often seem pedestrian by comparison. Specification takes some of the thrill out of the dream. Further, as options get specified, territories get threatened, and personnel can see their careers pushed into, or out of, the fast lane. So, there’s a certain pressure not to decide on an exact destination.
The same thing happens in the mind. For example, some people might say, “I want a good education” without quite clarifying what they mean by that. As they narrow down the options, say—Montreal, classical literature, start in twelve months, fill out forms for financial aid—ooohhhhhh . . . it’s suddenly no longer a golden, hazy, tantalizing vision of future greatness, it’s a specific sequence of objectives. And those objectives clearly represent lots of work, high fees, gallons of coffee and late nights, then, after four years, trying to get a job in an uncertain market.
Or, some people might say, “I want to be rich!” That sounds desirable. Vague, romantic visions of dining with famous friends, helicopter rides over Monte Carlo, the midnight blue Rolls Royce parked in the driveway, and Chandler the butler bringing coffee, croissants, and berry jam on a silver platter out to the stone patio in the morning.
By contrast, thinking specifically about acquiring substantial wealth is kind of painful—get an interesting yet marketable degree, such as accounting, then get a high-paying job, work long hours, focus on a reasonable sequence of career promotions, peruse the financial press at least weekly, put aside twenty percent of your income every payday, review your finances monthly, set a yearly income and savings target, invest your money conservatively . . . then, in twenty-five years, or so . . . you may be independently wealthy.
Not nearly as much fun! So that’s why, typically, people don’t set specific objectives in life. It hurts.
Yes, you guessed it—it’s time for a little stoicism. Because there is just no way people are going to reach their goals in life unless they translate them into specific objectives, and corresponding practical paths of action. (Unless that Nine of Pentacles card shows up in your Tarot reading.) Determining objectives and paths calls for developing an adequate amount of mental toughness—the ability to calmly and consistently pursue a goal despite emotional threats. This is an ability which can be developed through conscious practice. (Ask a Buddhist monk.)
As stoicism, mental toughness, increases, it becomes easier to sit down once a month or so with the old yellow legal pad and walk yourself through your various goals for the coming month and year. What salary do you want to be getting in one year? How much money do you want to put aside for your vacation? Where do you want to go? What books do you want to read? How much weight do you want to lose? Who do you want to meet this month, next month? Where could you meet them? What kind of a relationship do you want? As you specify objectives and action paths, you get more comfortable with the practical mechanics of planning. (Then that dream of beach-front property in Mexico gets a little more real.)
Ironically, practicality is the only way to make dreams come true. (Barring the odd lottery win, of course.)
Cybernetics is another one of those concepts which has been kicked to the curb by the linguistic fashion police. But, in its day, it was very useful. Cybernetics refers to the precise adjustment of a process based on information regarding the accuracy of the process relative to a target. Sound confusing? It’s not so bad.
Most entertainers, such as stand-up comedians, or singer-songwriters, will swear that they initially honed their craft in small venues. Fifteen, twenty tables, a small stage, and a sympathetic crowd. Then, “A judge, a priest, and a gorilla walked into a bar . . .”, or, “My love shall take me where it wills/Beyond the cold cities and into the warm hills . . .”. In an intimate environment, performers get exact information as to where the laughs are, and where they are not; and where the applause is, and where it is not—that is, what works, and what doesn’t work. Then, they adjust their presentation according to the feedback, until they get it right.
Then they go big time. Once the comedian Steve Martin became famous, he was able to reveal that he was Born Standing Up.
Life works the same way. Children learn how to present themselves to parents so that the pizza keeps rolling in, how to relate to friends so they have someone to play with, and how to deal with teachers to stay out of trouble. Adolescents learn how to approach someone for a date, and how to handle themselves once on the date. Young adults learn how to dress for a job interview, what to say and what not to say, and how to get along with coworkers, and the boss, once their career begins. Learning depends on good communication going out, and coming back.
Feedback will teach. It’s up to us to learn.
It’s sobering to consider that so much of life comes down to . . . love and money! But maybe that reality provides two practical checklists, which can show how the personal ops theory, with its broad coverage, can be used as a system of guidelines for successful living.
The point of asking questions systematically like this is that the personal ops components pretty much cover the ground of most areas of living. Then, people who address these issues, and ask these questions, can feel they haven’t missed too many items of importance.
Here’s a parable:
A philosopher was sitting alone on a rock near the edge of the sea. By and by, a mermaid washed up on the rocks below him, and sat drying her long hair in the sun. When she noticed him, she said, “Hello”, and they began to chat. “Oh”, said the philosopher, “How I wish I could swim in the sea as you do, free and happy.” “Well”, said the mermaid, “I often wish I could walk around on the land, as you do.” “Yes”, said the philosopher, “I suppose we all have our realms.” “That is so”, said the mermaid, “And our wisdom, I think, is to love and appreciate who we are, and what we can do.” Just then, the philosopher glanced over at a dog led by a child walking along the beach. When the dog spied the mermaid, it began leaping and barking fiercely. When the philosopher looked back at the rocks, the mermaid was gone.
Just so, the operations theory of living won’t necessarily provide easy, quick, or complete solutions to the problems of living. And, as the mermaid said, living wisely primarily flows from the realistic acceptance of verities.
But the personal ops theory does offer a practical overall explanation of who you are, and a relatively simple, straightforward program as to how to be authentic, as well as how to get what you want in the world—that is, how to succeed in being you, and in living well.
Know thyself—then set your goals, and pursue them with confidence, cheerfulness, and passion.