Summary: This post describes a peer-supported, self-directed, free (gratis y libre) method of self-improvement by means of practical exercises designed to deliberately instill useful habits. We have just gone public and I invite you to join us.
The “Society of the Free & Easy” is a group of people who are trying to help one other become better and more effective. We use self-directed, peer-supported, practical exercises to strengthen the skills that lead to a thriving, flourishing life.
The theory we’re operating under is this:
There are many character traits that help people to thrive.
These character traits are, by and large, habits that can be acquired and integrated into one’s character through practice.
We can help each other design and practice exercises that establish and strengthen these habits.
By doing this, we will improve and also benefit the culture around us.
In classical philosophy, the skills and habits that tend toward a thriving, beneficial life were called “The Virtues.” There was no single, canonical list of virtues that everybody agreed on, though many people and traditions came up with lists they liked.
We don’t have a canonical list either. Instead, we have collected (so far) about 250 different words that describe traits that may count as virtues. We use our list more as a menu than a scripture; we don’t have any dogma about which ones are the right ones or the most important ones. Each of us decides for herself or himself which virtues we think are most important and which ones we want to work on.
These virtues can be roughly divided into three categories:
Intellectual virtues, like imagination, rationality, curiosity, or attention
Social virtues, like honesty, hospitality, leadership, tact, or justice
Internal virtues, like honor, courage, endurance, hope, or initiative
Some virtues we learned as children, and they’re second-nature. Others we never picked up, and we find them difficult or frustrating to practice even as we admire them in others. Everybody has a different mix of virtues they’re fluent in and virtues they struggle with.
The key theory animating our project is this: A virtue is a sort of habit. You can acquire or strengthen such a habit by practicing it. With regular, deliberate practice, the habit will eventually become part of your character.
We also suspect that virtues have a way of building on each other. If you strengthen the virtue of tenacity for instance, you will better be able to put in the effort to acquire other virtues. If you strengthen the virtue of curiosity you will be better able to inquire into what is holding you back from practicing a virtue. If you strengthen the virtue of honor you will increase your motivation to become a more virtuous person. And so on.
The Society of the Free & Easy is meant to be something like a gymnasium for the virtues. In the same way that you would go to a gym to work on physical strength, endurance, balance, or flexibility, you go to the Society of the Free & Easy to work on a broader set of virtues.
Another analogy would be to “rationality dojos” which are similar in being peer-supported, self-directed programs that aim to instill good habits, but which tend to concentrate more exclusively on the intellectual virtues.
Our process is flexible, and people are encouraged to tweak it to suit their own needs or to experiment with new techniques. But so far we have had luck with this approach:
Find a buddy or form a small team to work together.
Each of you choose a virtue to work on (this can be an involved and interesting process!).
Take a close look at that virtue, and at any obstacles you feel when you try to practice it.
Work with your partner(s) to come up with exercises in which you will frequently, deliberately practice that virtue in ways that challenge your current level of fluency.
Check in with your partner(s) regularly to keep each other accountable and to adjust your curriculum as you learn more about what works and what challenges you face.
When you feel that you have integrated the virtue adequately into your character, start the process again with a new virtue.
Peer-support and -accountability helps us to be more helpful than the sorts of “self-help” programs that sound wonderful when you read the book or watch the TED Talk, but then never quite get integrated into your life.
Along the way, we hope to learn from each other’s experiences with specific virtues so that we can assemble virtue-specific toolkits and helpful hints.
We are free & open source.
We are not associated with any particular religious creed or organization.
We are non-partisan.
We’ve been developing and alpha testing our process in a small, private group for a few months now, and we’ve just recently opened up the beta test. If you think you might like to join, here are more detailed instructions for how to start a virtue development team.