JUNE 18, 2020 – Last June 8, the fifth of the seven sessions of the Back to the Basics Online Course was held via Zoom Webinar. This time, however, instead of Universitas President Atty. Oliver Tuazon giving the talk, it was Mr. Paul Graas who facilitated the discussion, primarily focusing on the subject of “depth.”
Paul presently works at Instudo Foundation, where he sets up activities focused on character building and social impact for students and young professionals. Inside Instudo, he is a director of Studiecentrum Lepelenburg (Utrecht), a residence for students and a study centre, where young people come to receive academic, cultural and spiritual formation.
Paul is also research manager at Interaxion Group, giving workshops both in The Netherlands and abroad for parents, teachers and other educators about the impact of the digital world and social media on the development of the youth. He aims to answer the question, how can you educate the youth in freedom and responsibility in a distracted and impulsive society?
At once a Dutch and Spanish national, Paul lived in Spain for 10 years, and at the age of 20, decided to settle in The Netherlands, where he continued his studies and established a professional career.
Going Deep in a Digital Age
As earlier mentioned, the last session of Back to the Basics was dedicated to the topic of depth. In particular, Paul’s talk revolved around a simple yet striking thesis, namely, that “for all the important and beautiful things in this life, we have to go deep.”
He began his talk by pointing out a difficulty faced by many societies in the present age, that is, going deep amidst all the distractions around us.
But what does it actually mean to “go deep”? To understand this concept, Paul tied it together with another distinct concept – “character.” And this he defined by borrowing the words of the American author Joan Didion, who wrote that “[c]haracter is the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life.”
“Life is given to us,” he stated, “and we can decide what to do with it.” In the end, Paul posits, character is about freedom and responsibility. We are given the freedom to do what we want with our life; but in order to accomplish things that are meaningful, it is important that this freedom is focused on responsibility. Responsibility, on the other hand, comes from the Latin “respondere” which means to respond. It is an answer to a call which comes from someone.
Put in more concrete terms, Paul elucidated that character is about discovering, embracing and pursuing ideals (or, “dreams” and “life goals”, if you want). A person who doesn’t live with clear ideals in his life, according to Paul, takes the risk of living a life of mediocrity; a life in which one simply goes with the flow, without having a sense of direction.
Ideals, as explained by Paul, can refer to the big and more general idea of what the meaning of life is. However, it can also be seen in the context of one’s concrete circumstances – i.e., what one’s ideals are in their friendships, in their romantic relationships, in their work, etc.
“In the end, we all want to have ideals, but do we think enough about what are the ideals in my life? And how can you actually determine if an ideal is more or less important?” After having discovered our ideals, Paul said that there is a need to embrace them – an act that requires freedom on our part. It must personally come from ourselves and not imposed on us by our parents or other people around us. Finally, we must pursue these ideals, which entails using all the means necessary to achieve them.
Virtues, Dedication and Focus
Paul then dug deeper into the question, how can we determine if an ideal is more or less worth it? In finding an answer to this, he noted, it is important to think in terms of what it is, for instance, that we want to find in marriage; in our career? It is also important to weigh what is more valuable for us: is it that I earn a lot of money? Is it the kind of social impact I want to have? Is it having an environment that inspires me to grow personally? These, according to Paul, are questions that only each of us can answer personally after deep reflection.
But in determining if an ideal is worth it, Paul suggests that one can characterize an ideal according to how much one needs to give in order to achieve it. In relation to this, he underscored that “the more beautiful, the more true an ideal is, the more it is worth it.” As such, whether an ideal is in fact true or beautiful is related to the means necessary to achieve it.
“So if it is a very easy ideal, one that doesn’t demand any effort from my side, doesn’t demand from me that I go outside of myself and give myself to something, then you could already ask yourself, is it worth it to live according to this ideal?” Paul said.
On this point, he suggests three elements that we can keep in mind in evaluating our ideals, these are: virtues, dedication and focus.
Paul defined virtues as good habits. At the same time, however, he shared another unique definition, which provides that virtue is “a disposition of your heart and soul towards something that tastes good.” For example, Paul turned to the idea of work. Living virtuously is not only about working a lot; it is also about enjoying and appreciating the good that is found in working.
Dedication, on the other hand, means doing all that can be done in order to achieve one’s ideal. This is very much related to the third element, which is Focus. This element, according to Paul, implies that if you go for one ideal, you cannot get distracted by other things that could affect this ideal. For instance, if you want to work hard in order to achieve a job position that you really want, it means that you cannot get distracted by too much partying, by sleeping too long, by watching too much netflix, among other things. You need to have an order that will help you prioritize, and that, in turn, will help you to focus.
Paul further dwelt on the element of Focus being that, according to him, going deep has to do a lot, if not mainly, about focus. Unfortunately, it is very challenging for us to have focus in the society we presently live in.
In working to achieve your life goals (and together with it, to acquire focus and depth), Paul noted that the challenge is to make sure that your behaviour is in accordance with your highest ideals. What we often fail to realize, he said, is that our behaviour influences the way we think.
Paul shared a number of examples to illustrate this point. For instance, neglecting your study or work and becoming lazy eventually influences your perception of the added value of work. Aside from this, based on an observation Paul gathered from his experience dealing with people in universities, those who are in “open relationships” or those who don’t commit themselves to having a serious romantic relationship with just one person tend to become cynical about the idea of love.
Hence, as an exercise, Paul advised the attendees to examine their habits, the way they live in their daily lives, and ask themselves, “what are my ideals? Do my habits actually help me walk towards my ideals or not?” After this exercise, Paul recommended that they form concrete daily resolutions.
A Distracted Society
As already adverted to above, a big challenge we face today is that many of us live in a society that is ever more distracted. A lot of people are on their smart phones. Paul noted that smart phones and social media have brought a lot of good into our lives. At the same time, he said that there is a need to correct the thinking that these new technologies are neutral, inasmuch as they are neither good nor bad. Perhaps it is true that these are neither good nor bad, but they are certainly not neutral.
It is a fact attested to by key people who work in high tech companies, such as former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris, that these companies are working to make sure that people spend as much of their conscious time on screen as possible.
Paul also shared a statistical finding stating that US teenagers and adults check their phone up to 150 times a day. Although this finding referred only to the US, from Paul’s observation, the same could probably be said of Western Europe and even the Philippines, which Paul had already visited on a number of occasions.
To go deep, according to Paul, requires concentration. But not only concentration on work, but also concentration in a conversation with a friend in a bar, in reading a book, in taking time for prayer, in spending some time with nature, in sports. To have to check one’s phone 150 times in a day is to entertain a lot of interruptions.
Paul then pointed out that multitasking is actually a myth. “You cannot multitask. What you can do is to change quickly from one task to another.” He also shared that there are a lot of studies in universities all over the world affirming that people who take time to do one task and, after finishing it, move on to another, do better than those who would take minor interruptions from what they are doing in order to start another task.
Paul cited a number of other statistical findings that reveal our dependence on and attachment to our smart phones and social media accounts. Such is the case not only because we are weak, but also because high tech companies know how our brains function and how to get our attention.
On his slide presentation, Paul showed the following quote by Steve Jobs: “Focus is about saying no.” The whole thing about going deep, noted Paul, is using your freedom in a very conscious way. “What you’re doing is saying ‘I want to go for this, but I also can go for another thing, but I decide to go for this because I think that this concrete thing is what is giving me more purpose and what is going to lead me in the way to my ideals, and that implies that I don’t focus on other things,’” he remarked.
After his talk, the audience were given the chance to ask him questions. Several interesting questions were posed, which paved the way for more insightful discussions.
One member of the audience asked Paul for some advice on how to go into deep work while working from home. In answer to this, Paul gave some very practical points. If it’s possible, he suggested, work in another room that isn’t like the room where you sleep, or where you eat. This is because our brain associates places with activities. Thus, if you chill, eat, sleep, and work all in the same place, it’s easier to get distracted. If this is not possible, having a clear desk and organizing your work beforehand also helps a lot.
Lastly, he also suggested having clear and separate schedules for weekdays and weekends. For example, waking up at a particular time during the week every morning and having a routine, like taking breakfast, going for a walk and starting to work, and setting some time for short breaks. And then on weekends, he suggested waking up later than during the weekdays, taking more time for leisure, but making sure that there is a structure.
“I can imagine that this can be really tough. But what can help you is to convince a friend to do it at the same time. For example, make a call to a friend to start your work day, and then make another call so that both of you take your lunch at the same time. In this way, you are helping each other, creating a livable social pressure with people you are confident with. It’s a challenge, but challenges are there to form character. So for you, I think it’s a wonderful challenge,” he said.
Another member of the audience asked how we can deal with this time of pandemic when, although there are online classes and people can connect with each other online, there is still that lack of depth in online communications, making them subordinate to the face-to-face human interactions.
In answer to this, Paul went back to the idea of freedom. He said that there are times when we have choices, but there are also times when we cannot choose but simply do with what we have. At present, we have online education and online meetings as alternative means for learning and interacting. They may not be as good as the real thing, but at the very least they continue to facilitate useful interaction and relaying of information.
“It’s about attitude,” Paul said. “It’s about what is the best I can get out of this situation; what is the thing that will bring me closer to my ideal. Going deep, in the end, is thinking about what you’re going to do. Take the time to think and reflect about the best possible way of doing it. Don’t get discouraged, and get the best out of it. Be very mindful of that thing that will best help you achieve the ideal that you want to achieve.” -universitas.ph
NOTA BENE: The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author, and the speakers mentioned in the article, and not necessarily to the Foundation.
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