Concept map your life to check if you are doing what is meaningful to you

[image: from; this is essay #300 in the Figs in Winter series]

Have you ever made a concept map? If not, you may be missing out on one of the most widely used and effective learning tools available today. A concept map is a diagram that helps you visualize your own understanding of whatever subject matter you happen to be interested in.

Although concept mapping can be done in a variety of ways, the typical structure begins with a core concept at the center top of the diagram. A number of high-level sub-concepts are then connected to the central one by arrows, often with words that help specify how the connections works. Further down there may be multiple levels of sub-sub-concepts, directly or indirectly connected to the level(s) above. Here, for instance, is a very simple concept map about concept mapping (from this site):

Concept mapping is used at all levels of the educational curriculum, from elementary to graduate school, and its usefulness is limited only by the imagination of the user. For instance, I have drawn concept maps of technical papers I’ve read, or of books, or even of individual book chapters. In order to concept map a particular topic you have to understand it fairly well, and if you don’t your gaps in understanding will become immediately clear, giving you guidance about what you need to revisit or delve into more deeply.

The application of concept mapping I wish to discuss today, however, is of a different nature. Socrates famously said that “the unexamined life is not worth living for human beings” (Apology 38a). He may have slightly exaggerated, as we all can point out the lives of some people who were not particularly prone to philosophical self-analysis and yet who did live meaningful lives. Nevertheless, I firmly believe that self-examination is an important part of growing as a human being, which is why I keep a regular philosophical journal.

Philosophical journaling, however, is often focused on what is current in our lives, as suggested by Seneca:

“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? how sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously: do not for the future argue with ignorant people: those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways: in dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.’ A good person delights in receiving advice: all the worst people are the most impatient of guidance.” (On Anger, III.36)

Doing what Seneca suggests is very helpful, particularly when coupled with other practices for ethical self-improvement, such as asking ourselves what one of our role models would do if she were in our situation, or comparing notes with a close friend whom you can trust. But from time to time it’s a good idea to zoom out and look at the broader picture, that is, at your life as a whole. Here, for instance, is what a concept map of my own life looks like at the moment:

The map is simplified, in that I did not draw many of the connecting lines. Also note that sub-sub-concepts within each major category (identified in boldface) are arranged in hierarchical order, with the most important ones higher up and the least important ones near the bottom. The hierarchy, however, is not equivalent across the major sub-concepts, meaning that “my friends,” for instance, is not less important than “daily practice” or “book writing.”

From a first glance at the map you can see that I concern myself with four major areas of endeavors: personal life, Stoicism, skepticism, and philosophy. Going down the first branch (personal), my top priorities are my daughter and my wife. Below them you find my extended family, especially my brothers, sister, nephew, and niece (not mentioned individually in the map). One more level down we have my friends and the Latin motto mens sana in corpore sano, a healthy mind in a healthy body, a generic container for activities meant to keep both my body and my mind in decent shape (e.g., exercise regularly, read books, etc.). Finally the lower level of the first branch is occupied by the preference to live in a stimulating place (currently, Brooklyn, New York) and to travel whenever possible.

Let’s move to the second branch, Stoicism. This is my chosen philosophy of life, so the top priority here is to practice it (I would be quite a hypocrite if I didn’t). Below that is book writing (about Stoicism), which I consider more important than other kinds of outreach activities, such as writing essays, producing podcasts, giving interviews, and so forth. While there is no imperative for a practicing Stoic to try to teach others about the philosophy, I think this is a valuable activity, and it represents one of the major ways in which I can contribute, however little, to the welfare of the human cosmopolis.

The third branch (skepticism) refers to my interest in so-called scientific skepticism, that is the never ending fight against pseudoscience and other assorted kinds of nonsense, particularly the dangerous ones (e.g., climate change denialists, anti-vaxxers, homeopaths, etc.). This branch is a second example of my contributions to the cosmopolis, however small they may be.

Finally, we have the branch devoted to my profession as a philosopher. You might notice an anomaly here: scholarship — which typically is the top priority for academics — is at the bottom of the list. There was a time earlier on in my life where it would have been at the top, but at this point I am convinced that I can do more good by writing books for the general public, engaging in a variety of outreach activities, and teach my students at City College. I still do a significant amount of scholarship (here is a list of my technical publications, in philosophy and in biology), but it is far from being my chief activity.

There are several reasons for engaging in this sort of exercise. First off, you force yourself to carefully think about what is important in your life, and how various activities approximately rank with respect to each other. What you are looking at in the above map is pretty much what gives meaning to my life. Second, revisiting the map from time to time (I do it at least once a year, and usually more often) reminds you of the big picture of what is important to you. Lastly, whenever you find yourself modifying the map — by adding or deleting entries or by rearranging the hierarchy — you cannot avoid to reflect on why you feel the need to make that particular change and what it tells you about the path you have decided to chart in the course of your life.

One piece of advice, though. Much of the map we just discussed pertains to one of the two components of a good life, the eudaimonic one, having to do with meaning. The other component is the hedonic one, related to fun and pleasure. There is no contradiction between taking the above exercise seriously and yet giving yourself a break when you need it. As Seneca puts it:

“It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine. At times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine, for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.” (On Tranquillity of Mind, 17)

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at

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