Ancient Wisdom Paper 2: Why Ancient Wisdom Trumps the Personal Development Genre


My previous post outlined the reasons why most of the modern personal development (PD) advice is generally terrible, which begs the question, how and where can we find good advice?

By avoiding sources of advice that have the same weaknesses as the PD genre, we stumble on ancient wisdom.

To give some background if you aren’t familiar with my website, a few years ago I devised a project in which I would

a) Select a virtue or trait I wanted to develop
b) Select an ancient wisdom tradition that is at least 500 years old and still surviving
c) Select at least one ritual or practice from that tradition and perform it for 30 days

You can find my posts about each project on the Traditions page.

Below are a list of reasons describing why ancient wisdom is a superior source of advice and counsel than the PD genre.

Ancient wisdom is time tested

In 2001 I was a freshman in high school and enrolled in a “computer applications” class. The goal of the course was to teach students how to use Microsoft Excel (a spreadsheet program) and Microsoft PowerPoint (a presentation program). You would think by now there would be more advanced software that is more popular with business users. After all, if there is any environment in which “newer is always better” it would be in business technology right?

Well, I currently spend 99% of the time in my in job using both these programs. Excel was released on the Macintosh in 1985 and Powerpoint in 1987.

Is there more modern and powerful spreadsheet and presentation software out there? Absolutely. But should you immediately switch to the latest software? Absolutely not.

These Microsoft programs have been time tested (at least by technology standards) by millions of users, many of whom probably tested newer software and returned to the tried and true. It has worked for enough people in enough situations that the value is proven. The burden of proof is on the new software.

Extrapolating this analogy to the advice world, there is a better chance of finding useful and robust advice in the legacy Microsoft business applications software section than in tech start-up section.

As a starting point for searching for advice, finding the time-tested is more likely to yield better results. The problem is you probably won’t find the time-tested in the advice section in the bookstore. You’ll get better results in the religion, philosophy, or literature section. The advice section is littered with self-help books written by celebrities (or their ghost-writers) telling you you can do anything with the right attitude. The philosophy section will give you Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius (also a Roman Emperor) who teaches that cultivating the correct mindset will help you live virtuously in a world that often seems made to thwart your personal desires. The words of Marcus Aurelius were important enough to enough people over history to preserve, and the advice you gleam from his writings will be worth more than what the book You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life has to say about success.

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose.

-Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

For The Ancient Wisdom Project, when selecting the ancient wisdom traditions for my monthly experiments, I chose traditions that are at least 500 years old and have survived in some capacity today. Stoicism dates back to the 3rd century BCE and much of the literature survives to date. Islam is over one thousand years old and is currently practiced by billions of people. Taoism is a few thousand years old and its impact is still felt, particularly in China, in many forms including martial arts, religious practices, and cultural attitudes. 30 days of experiments with each of those traditions yielded better results than reading dozens of modern advice books over several years.

Choose the ancient and tested over the new and unproven.

Ancient wisdom is non-profit

There is a difference between authors that write advice books and authors that write books that yield good advice. The former tries to make money off of his advice while the latter tries to make money from his art. Purchasing a bad advice book can be incredibly detrimental to your well-being as it can take you down the wrong path. If you purchase a terrible novel, the worst thing that happens is you lose 10 bucks and a few hours of your time. There is significantly more downside risk to following advice from those whose business model is to sell advice than extrapolating advice from sources who make money via other means.

Contrast advice sellers with literary writers, say, novelists. A good novel, and great literature generally, can reveal interesting insights and truths into, at the risk of sounding snooty, the “human condition.” George Orwell’s 1984 makes us think about how society could devolve into a tyrannically surveillance state. After reading the book, we might become aware of similar trends in our own countries and think about what steps we could take to avoid such a dystopia.

“The choice for mankind lies between freedom and happiness and for the great bulk of mankind, happiness is better.”
-George Orwell, 1984

We can get just as much and often better “advice” from a novel than an advice book.

Let’s also look at religious institutions. Religious institutions do give advice and provide counsel, however, they are not businesses. Though they may ask for the occasional donation or volunteer commitment, they never deny anyone support for lack of payment. It’s rare to see wealthy clergy and if you do, I might consider going to a different church, mosque, synagogue, or temple.

18 A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 
19 “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone. 20 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not commit adultery, you shall not murder, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.’[
21 “All these I have kept since I was a boy,” h said.
22 When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”
23 When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy.
Luke 18:18-23, NIV Bible

If someone is selling advice as the primary money-maker, be suspect of the advice. If someone is selling something where knowledge and “advice” is a secondary effect of the primary money maker (a novel), just make sure the primary product is good and feel free to take a risk. If the institution does not sell you advice but offers it for free, take it more seriously.

Ancient wisdom promotes virtue

Though freedom is a necessary pre-condition for human flourishing, somehow the idea has been bastardized into a weird sense of entitlement in which many think they should be able to do whatever they want without consequence (assuming they don’t hurt others). From a civil liberties/legal standpoint, we should lean that way. However, when translating legal and civil freedoms into cultural freedom, things get far messier.

Many of my secular friends believe religion to be oppressive, that it forces them to do things that they would rather not do and to avoid things they would rather not avoid. Indeed, I have sat through a few boring sermons myself and have wished I were elsewhere.

But what my friends don’t realize is that there are upsides to participating in religious institutions. By demanding things of you, that you be and act better, religions can give you a sense of deep connectedness and purpose.

A secular freedom without obligation does the opposite, it makes you feel adrift. When this happens, many seek to cure their malaise with “advice.” They think that a new job would bring fulfillment, so they look for job hunting advice. They think finding the perfect romantic partner will make them happy, so they look for dating advice. They think traveling the world and Instagramming beautiful photos and blogging about their adventures (okay, the blogging is somewhat satisfying) will  permanently cure their boredom, so they’ll look for advice on how to save up money and start a travel blog.

The thing is, none of that advice is necessarily bad for the purpose in which they were intended. There are good and bad ways to go about looking for a job or finding a date and its good to look to knowledgable people for good and specific advice.

But from what I can tell, many people that are desperately looking for new jobs have a meaning problem, not a job problem. People that are looking for dating advice have a connection problem, not a Tinder profile optimization problem.

The solution then is not to solely rely on modern sources of advice, but rather, to seek institutions and people that emphasize the things that truly matter to your soul. Ancient wisdom traditions, whether they be religions or philosophies, have a broad mandate to make you a complete and virtuous person.

Consider Islam, which asks its followers to pray five times per day. While seemingly onerous, the inconvenience of it is a feature, not a bug. It asks you to interrupt whatever it is you are doing to keep God and your relationship to God forever in your mind. The ritual reminds you to be humble, to understand that while you have free will, you do not control everything and that you should use your freedom to serve the greater community.

Righteousness is not that you turn your faces toward the east or the west, but [true] righteousness is [in] one who believes in Allah, the Last Day, the angels, the Book, and the prophets and gives wealth, in spite of love for it, to relatives, orphans, the needy, the traveler, those who ask [for help], and for freeing slaves; [and who] establishes prayer and gives zakah; [those who] fulfill their promise when they promise; and [those who] are patient in poverty and hardship and during battle. Those are the ones who have been true, and it is those who are the righteous.

-Koran, 2:178

Contrast this with say…the latest meditation fad. While meditation is an ancient practice, today it is used by the stressed out Silicon Valley/professional crowd to reduce stress and anxiety. There is nothing wrong with that. But meditation is supposed to be a tool to reach enlightenment. It is meant to teach us to see how reliant our minds are on narrative interpretations of reality that we confuse for reality itself. We suffer when we become too attached to these narratives, basing our entire ego on fulfilling the narrative according to modern expectations. The deeper examination of reality might yield more lasting results (hey it worked for Buddha) and have the benefit of reducing your stress levels at the same time. The modern form of this ancient practice is removed from its ancient context and is fundamentally weaker for it.

Advice books are (possibly) good for specific problems. But your problems may have a deeper cause than the superficial one you can see, one that is better addressed by wisdom traditions that teach how us to fulfill the deeper human needs that are masked by superficial desires. Look for traditions that teach you how to treat others with dignity. Look for philosophies that explore the nature of your relationships with others and society at large. Look for wisdom that makes demands of you in the service of a greater good. These will yield far greater results than the latest guide to making your LinkedIn profile attractive to a recruiter.

Ancient wisdom embraces complexity

In Judaism, there is an important text called the Talmud, which functions as a sort of commentary on the Hebrew Bible (Torah) and Jewish law. There is a joke about Judaism that goes “two Jews, three opinions.” The Talmud does its best to work its way through these contradictions and is still studied by Jewish clergy and scholars for insights and clarifications. The contradictions and internal disagreement are not seen as a weakness of the text, it is considered a strength.

Contradiction and disagreement alone are not virtues, but what’s interesting is that all the ancient wisdom traditions I looked into are very smart about it. The discourse is intelligent.

Take the Catholic’s church position on abortion for example. They are firmly against it. But to get there, the Church had to think through important doctrinal issues. A quick Wikipedia search reveals that abortion has been an issue in the Church since the 1st century AD! There has literally been two millennia of thought behind this particular topic. When is a fetus considered a life? Under what circumstances can the life of the unborn be sacrificed for the life of the mother? Is an abortion equivalent to murder? Should women who get abortions be excommunicated from the Church?

Contrast that with the current politicized debate on abortion. Both sides seemed to have reduced their position to slogans. For the pro-choice crowd, “keep your hands off my uterus” seem to be the top slogan and for the pro-life crowd, variations on “abortion is murder” dominates the field. There is no debate, just yelling.

While you may not agree that with the Church’s position, you can’t say they haven’t thought it through.

Much of the source of internal disagreement within the ancient wisdom tradition is the result of trying to merge the hard won bottom-up empirical wisdom of people’s life experiences with top down theoretical knowledge. Look at the Ten Commandments. It’s full of very good, practical advice. Thou shall not kill is good advice because hey, killing someone can cause rifts within community. Same with adultery. Same with theft.

The Abrahamic religions then emphasize that these rules come from God. Indeed, that’s why they are are called commandments, not just “10 good rules to follow.” They came from the divine and given to Moses to share.

The Ten Commandments are good starting points for avoiding big things that can destroy a community, but of course, later stories in the Torah, Bible, and Quran offer other stories that seem seem to contradict the commandments. Sometimes killing is okay (especially in a righteous war) and while adultery is never okay, there are often shades of gray and nuance in how one handles an incidence of adultery. The stories in these sacred texts merge the profane and the sacred. How can we reconcile God’s will and our conception of what it means to be a good Jew, Christian, or Muslim with complicated life situations? It’s messy, but yields smart, nuanced, and useful advice.

Since each of the two principles [halakha and aggadah] moves in the opposite direction, equilibrium can only be maintained if both are of equal force. But such a condition is rarely attained. Polarity is an essential trait of all things. Tension, contrast, and contradiction characterize all of reality. In the language of the Zohar, this world is called alma deperuda, “the world of separation.” Discrepancy, contention, ambiguity, and ambivalence afflict all of life, including the study of the Torah; even the sages of the Talmud disagree on many details of the law.

-Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism 

Even the more philosophical ancient traditions tend to synthesize the experiential and theoretical. Stoicism seems eminently practical in its advice, but you’ll see that the Stoic philosophers had a conception of a higher, natural order of things. They believed that we should aspire to be virtuous in our dealings with others and our larger environment, as nature intended. Buddhism teaches very smart ideas about the nature of suffering, how we can overcome it, and  our obligations to others who are suffering. Some Buddhist sects (not all) use gods and deities to reinforce ideas about suffering and our own human natures. Taoism emphasizes that there is a natural flow or way of things (the Tao) and offers practical, if paradoxical, advice on how avoid working against this natural flow.

Give up sainthood, renounce wisdom,
And it will be a hundred times better for everyone.

Give up kindness, renounce morality,
And men will rediscover filial piety and love.

Give up ingenuity, renounce profit,
And bandits and thieves will disappear.

These three are outward forms alone; they are not sufficient in themselves.
It is more important
To see the simplicity,
To realize one’s true nature,
To cast off selfishness
And temper desire.

-Tao Te Ching, Chapter 19

None of these ancient traditions have perfectly synthesized the empirical and the theoretical, but the imperfect results should be a cue that many smart people have thought long and hard about these ideas and they should be taken seriously.

Bringing it back to the advice space, I mentioned in the previous paper that PD books tend to be overly coherent. Most PD gurus can get their message across in a single book (and probably in a few chapters if they were willing to shorten it). This is largely because PD gurus create everything themselves. It originates from a single brain.

Our brains don’t like ambiguity, so we take mental shortcuts and rely on easy-to-digest narratives. When a PD guru gives advice, his brain tries to make his work consistent. It will do this by simplifying reality. In a book about the virtue of working hard to achieve success, the “luck” factor may be glossed over. A website about attracting the right mate will neglect to say that 90% of the hard work of a relationship comes after you meet the person.

It’s unrealistic to expect a single person to challenge his own work rigorously and consistently. Critics can play a valuable role, but rarely do consumers of PD literature seek out critics of a favorite PD guru. PD gurus cultivate a brand that attracts “true fans.” It’s certainly possible to find PD gurus that contradict each other, but there is no effort at synthesis. The end result is that people latch onto a favorite PD guru’s message that “makes sense” and ignore contradictory information from other sources.

Ancient wisdom traditions attempt to synthesize or resolve conflicting viewpoints. What is left is smart discourse and useful wisdom. It may not be perfectly consistent, but I argue that in the advice space, this is a symptom of strength, not weakness.

If you can read a PD book in a few hours, easily understand and summarize the message, it’s probably not very good or useful. Instead, look for sources of advice that contain and acknowledge their own contradictions and that attempt to resolve them.

Ancient wisdom rejects selfishness

I detailed in the first ancient wisdom paper that one of the great flaws in PD literature is that it is too “selfish” in the sense that it only focuses on what you want for yourself. Ancient wisdom traditions by contrast focus on both your needs and your obligations. They can teach you how to deal with your own personal pain, but they will also teach that you should help others with their pain.

Take Hinduism for example. In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna, a young prince, struggles with the decision to go to war with his family. He does not want to kill them and sees the whole battle as senseless. His charioteer, Krishna (who is also a god), counsels Arjuna. What is interesting is the way he counsels Arjuna. He tells Arjuna to fight because that is his duty as a warrior. He didn’t choose this role as a warrior prince, but he can choose to do what he is obligated to do. The path to enlightenment lies in being able to do your duty in a sort of detached manner. Indeed, the central concept of the Gita is that much of our misery comes from being too immersed in the “self” or your ego. Only by detaching from the self, the ego, and performing your duty can you truly serve the world.

Every selfless act, Arjuna, is born from Brahman, the eternal, infinite Godhead. Brahman is present in every act of service. All life turns on this law, O Arjuna. Those who violate it, indulging the senses for their own pleasure and ignoring the needs of others, have wasted their life. But those who realize the Self are always satisfied. Having found the source of joy and fulfillment, they no longer seek happiness from the external world.They have nothing to gain or lose by any action; neither people nor things can affect their security.

-The Bhagavad Gita

What is striking is that the wisdom traditions I have looked into all advocate this combination of internal reflection and external engagement. I suspect this is due to the fact that these traditions were designed for the lives of normal people. Very few people will become monks and move to a monastery and completely disengage from the world. The expectation is that everyone has some sort of role to play and that to be spiritually fulfilled they must perform their role to the best of their ability. These roles do not exist in a vacuum, they exist in relationship to others.

The best advice then is not just about you. Your needs are part of it, but your needs to be balanced with your obligations. Any advice that advocates a permanent or semi-permanent withdrawal from the world is circumspect. Advice that asks you to disengage and engage as appropriate is on the right track.


Ancient Wisdom Paper 1 listed the reasons why the modern PD genre is weak. Paper 2 primarily focused on why ancient wisdom avoids those weaknesses. In the next batch of papers I will dive into a series of topics that are poorly covered by modern PD and describe the various ancient wisdom perspectives.

Image via Ancient-Origins