[Question] Would you join the Society of the Free & Easy?

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:

  1. There are many char­ac­ter traits that help peo­ple to thrive.

  2. Th­ese char­ac­ter traits are, by and large, habits that can be ac­quired and in­te­grated into one’s char­ac­ter through prac­tice.

  3. We can help each other de­sign and prac­tice ex­er­cises that es­tab­lish and strengthen these habits.

  4. 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:

  1. In­tel­lec­tual virtues, like imag­i­na­tion, ra­tio­nal­ity, cu­ri­os­ity, or attention

  2. So­cial virtues, like hon­esty, hos­pi­tal­ity, lead­er­ship, tact, or justice

  3. 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:

  1. Find a buddy or form a small team to work to­gether.

  2. Each of you choose a virtue to work on (this can be an in­volved and in­ter­est­ing pro­cess!).

  3. Take a close look at that virtue, and at any ob­sta­cles you feel when you try to prac­tice it.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

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