William James —
One Daring Act a Day
Do every day or two something for no other reason than that you would rather not do it, so that when the hour of dire need draws nigh, it may find you not unnerved and untrained to stand the test.
I’ve gone skydiving, climbed Kilimanjaro, and lived in Cuba, but none of these acts feel as daring as starting this website.
Political philosophy professors like me have a strict code of conduct. We’re supposed to teach the classic texts in classrooms with desks and white boards. We’re supposed to write in peer-reviewed journals and speak at professional conferences with acronyms that sound like military combat controls: APSA, WPSA, MPSA, APA.Read the original post
The idea of living philosophically – of using life as a testing ground for ideas – is viewed as quite simply insane. Nowadays, most philosophy is about rigorous logical argument, not living well.
So what better way to kick off Life Beyond Logic than with William James’ call in his essay “Habit” that we do one daring act a day.
This week’s experiment – do one act each day “for no other reason that you would rather not do it.”
This might sound like a mildly masochistic experiment but James had a good reason for encouraging us to take such daily detours out of our comfort zone. Like Aristotle, James saw human behavior as resulting from habit.
Most habits serve us. They streamline our actions, making us more efficient. When I jump on my bike, for example, a lifetime of habits help me balance, shift gears, and brake with almost no conscious thought. Without these habits, each bike ride would be like a five-year-old’s first time out on two wheels. It would involve training wheels, a cheering section of friends and family, and the occasional face plant into the bushes.
But not all habits increase efficiency. Smoking, drinking, drugs, over- or under-eating – these kinds of habits hurt, rather than, help us. Bad habits also arise in relationships. Gossip, blaming, angry outbursts, resentment, or complaining – these reactive emotional habits drain our energy and the energy of those around us.
James’ good news – we can transform bad habits into good ones. Like contemporary neuroscientists, James saw the habits of our nervous system as plastic – “weak enough to yield to an influence, but strong enough not to yield all at once.” Translation: through conscious practice, James saw that we could change our brain and nervous system to shift out of bad habits.
Here’s the idea – habits are like superhighways running through the brain and the nervous system. Without awareness, our actions will quickly follow the high-speed route of habit. But through practice, James thinks we can exit the superhighway – we can drive on the smaller, less efficient, side roads. And the more we drive these side-roads – the more we begin to create new roads of thought and action – the easier it becomes to shift off the superhighway of bad habits.
So for James, doing one daring act a day offers a training in emotional and physical off-roading. The more we shift out of our comfort zone, the more skilled we become at transforming bad habits into good ones.
James paints a rosy picture of our ability to shift out of deeply ingrained habits. So I plan to test it for myself. This week I will live according to his habit-busting method. I will do one daring or uncomfortable act each day and see whether my capacity to shift bad habits into good improves. I’ve already got a few ideas — jump in the freezing cold pacific ocean (I have an intense aversion to being cold), wear a business suit all day (I hate dressing up), and spend a day loitering around a local shopping mall (spending hours in front of JCPenney’s feels like death to me).
Please join me and keep me posted on your experiences. You can leave comments on this page. By “liking” Life Beyond Logic on Facebook, you can also leave comments and post videos or pictures on our Facebook page.
James describes this practice of doing one daring thing each day as a form of insurance: “it is like the insurance which a man pays on his house and goods. The tax does him no good at the time…But if the fire does come, his having paid it will be his salvation from ruin.”
During the week, I experienced this first-hand. Each time I did a daring act, I could feel resistance in my body and mind. I felt a rush of adrenaline and my heart racing. Each time I did an uncomfortable act (like hanging out at Walmart), I felt a less intense but longer-lasting form of resistance. It felt like boredom tinged with discomfort and a bit of disorientation.
I came to see that James doesn’t recommend daily doses of this kind of resistance because he’s a masochist. He recommends engaging in such unnecessary acts because he wants us to strengthen our capacity for enduring discomfort. He sees that any attempt to shift out of bad habits often brings up fear, disorientation, discomfort, and other forms of resistance. So to master the art of habit-shifting, we must also master the art of remaining calm when experiencing this kind of resistance.
I’ll leave you with one last quote from James about the benefits of this practice: “So with the man who has daily inured himself to habits of concentrated attention, energetic volition, and self-denial in unnecessary things. He will stand like a tower when everything rocks around him, and when his softer fellow-mortals are winnowed like chaff in the blast.”
Here’s a short video about the first three days of the William James Experiment. I’m dying to hear about what happened for you. Let me know by leaving comments here or on the Life Beyond Logic Facebook page.