Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs

“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing harder to learn.”

— Seneca

Few of us would consider ourselves philosophers.

Most of us can recall at least one turtleneck-wearing intellectual in college who dedicated countless hours of study to the most obscure philosophical points of Marx or post-structural lesbian feminism. For what? Too often, to posture as a superior intellect at meal time or over drinks.

Fortunately, there are a few philosophical systems designed to produce dramatic real-world effects without the nonsense. Unfortunately, they get punished because they lack the ambiguity required for weeks of lectures and expensive textbooks.

In the last three years, I’ve begun to explore one philosophical system in particular: Stoicism. Through my preferred Stoic writer, Lucius Seneca, I’ve found it to be a simple and immensely practical set of rules for better results with less effort.

Ryan Holiday is 21 years old and works directly with Dov Charney as his online strategist for American Apparel. He gets more heat, makes more high-stakes decisions, and take more risks in a given week than most people experience in any given quarter. He also happens to be a die-hard Stoic and incredible at putting the principles into practice…

He kindly agreed to write this piece, and I hope you find it as valuable as I do.

Stoicism 101: A Beginner’s Guide for Entrepreneurs

Author: Ryan Holiday

For those of us who live our lives in the real world, there is one branch of philosophy created just for us: Stoicism.

It doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. Just like an entrepreneur, it’s built for action, not endless debate.

When laid out in front of you, it should be instantly clear what it means. If you have to study it to understand it, someone is probably try to pull something over on you.

Popular with the educated elite of the Greco-Roman Empire, and with thinkers like Montaigne, John Stuart Mill and Tom Wolfe, Stoicism has just a few central teachings. It sets out to remind us of how unpredictable the world can be. How brief our moment of life is. How to be steadfast, and strong, and in control of yourself. And finally, that the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.

If this were your average introduction to philosophy, we would have to talk about how Stoicism was started (stoa means porch, where the early followers used to hold meetings) and when it began. I happen to think that the history of a philosophy is less interesting than its proponents and applications. So, for a change, let’s spend our time on the latter.

Stoicism had three principal leaders. Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire, the most powerful man on earth, sat down each day to write himself notes about restraint, compassion and humility. Epictetus endured the horrors of slavery to found his own School where he taught many of Rome’s greatest minds. Seneca, when Nero turned on him and demanded his suicide, could think only of comforting his wife and friends.

Stoicism differs from most existing schools in one important sense: its purpose is practical application. It is not an intellectual enterprise. It’s a tool that we can use to become better entrepreneurs, better friends and better people.

Stoic writing isn’t about beating up on yourself or pointing out the negative. It’s a meditative technique that transforms negative emotions into a sense of calm and perspective.

It’s easy to gloss over the fact that Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor without truly absorbing the gravity of that position. Emperors were Deities, ordinary men with direct access to unlimited wealth and adulation. Before you jump to the conclusion that the Stoics were dour and sad men, ask yourself, if you were a dictator, what would your diary look like? How quickly could it start to resemble Kayne West’s blog?

Stoic writing is much closer Yoga session or a pre-game warm up than to a book of philosophy a university professor might write. It’s preparation for the philosophic life – an action – where the right state of mind is the most critical part.

Stoics practiced what are known as “spiritual exercises” and drew upon them for strength (Note from Tim: I dislike the word “spiritual” for reasons I’ve mentioned before, but scholar Pierre Hadot explains it’s appropriateness here).

Let’s look at three of the most important such exercises.

Practice Misfortune

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.”

— Seneca

Seneca, who enjoyed great wealth as the adviser of Nero, suggested that we ought to set aside a certain number of days each month to practice poverty. Take a little food, wear your worst clothes, get away from the comfort of your home and bed. Put yourself face to face with want, he said, you’ll ask yourself “Is this what I used to dread?”

It’s important to remember that this is an exercise and not a rhetorical device. He doesn’t mean “think about” misfortune, he means live it. Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you’re always afraid that something or someone will take it away. But if you can not just anticipate but practice misfortune, then chance loses its ability to disrupt your life.

Montaigne was fond of an ancient drinking game where the members took turns holding up a painting of a corpse inside a coffin and cheered “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Emotions like anxiety and fear have their roots in uncertainty and rarely in experience. Anyone who has made a big bet on themselves knows how much energy both states can consume. The solution is to do something about that ignorance. Make yourself familiar with the things, the worst-case scenarios, that you’re afraid of.

Practice what you fear, whether a simulation in your mind or in real-life.

Then you, your company, and your employees will have little left to keep you from thinking and acting big.

The downside is almost always reversible or transient.

Train Perception to Avoid Good and Bad

“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.”

— Marcus Aurelius

The Stoics had an exercise called Turning the Obstacle Upside Down. What they meant to do was make it impossible to not practice the art of philosophy. Because if you can properly turn a problem upside down, every “bad” becomes a new source of good.

Suppose for a second that you are trying to help someone and they respond by being surly or unwilling to cooperate. Instead of making your life more difficult, the exercise says, they’re actually directing you towards new virtues; for example, patience or understanding. Or, the death of someone close to you; a chance to show fortitude. Marcus Aurelius described it like this: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

It should sound familiar because it is the same thinking behind Obama’s “teachable moments.” Right before the election, Joe Klein asked Obama how he’d made his decision to respond to the Reverend Wright scandal. He said something like ‘when the story broke I realized the best thing to do wasn’t damage control, it was to speak to Americans like adults.’ And what he ended up doing was turning a negative situation into the perfect platform for his landmark speech about race.

The common refrain about entrepreneurs is that they take advantage of, even create, opportunities. To the Stoic, everything is opportunity. The Reverend Wright scandal, a frustrating case where your help goes unappreciated, the death of a loved one, none of those are “opportunities” in the normal sense of the word. In fact, they are the opposite. They are obstacles. What a Stoic does is turn every obstacle into an opportunity.

There is no good or bad to the practicing Stoic. There is only perception. You control perception. You can choose to extrapolate past your first impression (‘X happened.’ –> ‘X happened and now my life is over.’). If you tie your first response to dispassion, you’ll find that everything is simply an opportunity.

Remember—It’s All Ephemeral

“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.”

— Marcus Aurelius

I understand that entrepreneurs need to dream big and have unshakable faith in themselves in order to do great things. But if recent Valleywag headlines are any example (Cisco Exec Makes Death Threat Over $4,000 Bike), the inhabitants of start-up land can probably benefit from some practice of humility and self control. Not that bad tempers and ego are new problems.

Alexander the Great conquered the known world and had cities named in his honor. This is common knowledge.

Stoics would also point out that, once while drunk, Alexander got into a fight with his dearest friend, Cleitus, and accidentally killed him. Afterward, he was so despondent that he couldn’t eat or drink for three days. Sophists were called from all over Greece to see what they could do about his grief, to no avail.

Is this the mark of a successful life? From a personal standpoint, it matters little if your name is emblazoned on a map if you lose perspective and hurt those around you.

The exercise Marcus Aurelius suggests to remedy this is simple and effective:

“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”

It’s important to note that “passion” here isn’t the modern usage we’re familiar with. From Wikipedia:

One must therefore strive to be free of the passions, bearing in mind that the ancient meaning of ‘passion’ was “anguish” or “suffering”, that is, “passively” reacting to external events — somewhat different from the modern use of the word. A distinction was made between pathos (plural pathe) which is normally translated as “passion”, propathos or instinctive reaction (e.g. turning pale and trembling when confronted by physical danger) and eupathos, which is the mark of the Stoic sage (sophos). The eupatheia are feelings resulting from correct judgment in the same way as the passions result from incorrect judgment.

The idea was to be free of suffering through apatheia or peace of mind (literally, ‘without passion)’, where peace of mind was understood in the ancient sense — being objective or having “clear judgment” and the maintenance of equanimity in the face of life’s highs and lows.

For those interested in browsing the Greek words used in Stoic writing that are often mistranslated or miscontrued in English, here is a glossary of common terms.

Returning to the point of the exercise, it’s simple: remember how small you are.

For that matter, remember how small most everything is.

Remember that achievements can be ephemeral, and that your possession of them is for just an instant. Learn from Alexander’s mistake. Be humble and honest and aware. That is something you can have every single day of your life. You’ll never have to fear someone taking it from you or, worse still, it taking over you.

Tim: To illustrate a few real-world examples, here is an email from me to Ryan as we were working on this post:

Thanks, Ryan. Read it all and ran over all the material again. I think we’re getting there. The piece should be uplifting and empowering without being defensive, so it will still take some working, but no worries. I’ll be reading Epictetus tonight for more ideas. The part that bothers me is the entire “Remember you’re small” bit, which doesn’t jive with start-up founders. To do huge things, I really think you need to believe you can change the world and do so better than anyone else in some respect. It is possible, however, to simultaneously recognize that all is impermanent: the transient pains, bad PR, disloyal false friends, irrational exuberance, hitting #1 on the NY Times, whatever. I think it’s about not dwelling on pain and not clinging to ephemeral happiness. Enjoy it to the fullest (this is where I disagree with some of the Stoic writings), but don’t expect it to last forever, nor expect some single point in time to make your entire life complete forever.

Stoic writings are not arcane arguments for bespectacled professors—they are cognitive exercises proven to center practitioners. To humble them. To keep them free and appreciative.

Stoic principles are often practiced in rehabilitation clinics with alcoholics so that coping mechanisms don’t drive them to drink. One wouldn’t view their new perspective on life as pessimistic or limiting; we celebrate the fact that, for their first time in their lives, they are empowered and unburdened.

We’re all addicts in some respect, and we can all experience that same freedom.

You can be a Stoic, and joke around and have a happy life surrounded by what’s valuable to you.

In fact, that’s the ultimate goal.

Stoicism is Ideal for the Entrepreneurial Life

The Stoics were writing honestly, often self-critically, about how they could become better people, be happier, and deal with the problems they faced. As an entrepreneur you can see how practicing misfortune makes you stronger in the face of adversity; how flipping an obstacle upside down turns problems into opportunities; and how remembering how small you are keeps your ego manageable and in perspective.

Ultimately, that’s what Stoicism is about. It’s not some systematic discussion of why or how the world exists. It is a series of reminders, tips and aids for living a good life.

Stoicism, as Marcus reminds himself, is not some grand Instructor but a balm, a soothing ointment to an injury wherever we might have one. Epictetus was right when he said that “life is hard, brutal, punishing, narrow, and confining, a deadly business.”

We should take whatever help we can get, and it just happens that that help can come from ourselves.

To finish, I want to share some of my favorite Stoic reminders. Look at them as short, mental routines to run through often. Each is a quick reset to recalibrate yourself and be happy with the things that matter:

Marcus Aurelius

“So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature and what I do by my own.”

“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.”

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own–not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.”

“Because your own strength is unequal to the task, do not assume that it is beyond the powers of man; but if anything is within the powers and province of man, believe that it is within your own compass also.”


“‘What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a people will never be alone and you may be sure he is a friend to all.”

“Show me a man who isn’t a slave; one who is a slave to sex, another to money, another to ambition; all are slaves to hope or fear. I could show you a man who has been a Consul who is a slave to his ‘little old woman’, a millionaire who is the slave of a little girl in domestic service. And there is no state of slavery more disgraceful than one which is self-imposed.”

“Count your years and you’ll be ashamed to be wanting and working for exactly the same things as you wanted when you were a boy. Of this make sure against your dying day – that your faults die before you do.”

“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.”

“Cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, never to trust prosperity and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases, treating her as if she were actually going to do everything that is in her power.”


“So-and-so’s son is dead

What happened?

His son is dead

Nothing else?

Not a thing.

So-and-so’s ship sank

What happened?

His ship sank.

So-and-so was carted off to prison.

What happened?

He was carted off to prison.

-But if we now add to this “He has had bad luck,” then each of us is adding this observation on his own account”

Related Post:

Harnessing Entrepreneurial Manic-Depression: Making the Rollercoaster Work for You

The Stoic Reading and Resources List:

(Note from Tim: I have bolded my favorites, the first three from Seneca)

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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370 Replies to “Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs”

  1. I believe if you apply ESP principles some holes show up in the Stoic Philosophy.

    Their argument that misfortune/loss is largely a matter of viewpoint seems quite inadequate when you're on the rack being tortured. You *don't* have control to turn that into a positive. Not if they go far enough to destroy “you” by sufficient abuse. Now, given that, where is the dividing line where you *do* have control by how you change your perception? What, no magic line? An indistinguishable shading from no control to full control?

    Perhaps, as I like to say, you don't have *control* but you do have *input*. Sometimes more, sometimes less.

  2. I'm posting again because your comment system seems to have removed the definition I put in brackets for “ESP”. It stands for “Exaggeration of System Parameters”.

  3. Funny, I've always lived this way and had no clue that there was a whole philosophy around it. Very cool, (as always Tim :)!

  4. Great read … thanks for sharing!

    A few years I read some books by Alain de Botton, the Zurich-born London-based writer and philosopher, and I was really impressed by how practical he made it sound. Alain de Botton manages to make philosophy really accessible and “prescribes” philosophers to tackle certain attitudes, mental predispositions, moods, etc. This is when I discovered that philosophy is not just for an intellectual “elite”, but can be understood and applied by anyone.
    I would strongly suggest The Consolations of Philosophy to dip your toes in the minds of some great thinkers … hmmm, that Idiom didn't really work, did it? 😉

    All the best


  5. (this comment replaces the previous one)
    Great read … thanks for sharing!

    A few years ago I read some books by Alain de Botton, the Zurich-born London-based writer and philosopher, and I was really impressed by how practical he made it sound. Alain de Botton manages to make philosophy really accessible and “prescribes” philosophers to tackle certain attitudes, mental predispositions, moods, etc. This is when I discovered that philosophy is not just for an intellectual “elite”, but can be understood and applied by anyone.
    I would strongly suggest The Consolations of Philosophy to dip your toes in the minds of some great thinkers … hmmm, that Idiom didn't really work, did it? 😉

    All the best


  6. Hi Tim,

    While browsing through some comments, I came across a comment from Alison that not only made me smile, but also reminded me that it would be great if you could dedicate some next-edition-4HWW pages to the aspect of how implementing the 4HWW-teachings impacts on relationships? Some philosophy might come in handy here too, I guess 😉

    Many thanks in advance,
    All the best,

  7. @Robert

    Believe it or not Cicero has an essay on just the topic you mentioned (could you be happy while on the rack being tortured?) Perhaps someone else could take a crack at answering but it could be possible, especially with a mix of some Epicurean principles. No one ever said it would be easy or fun or painfree, though. That's your straw man.

  8. @Tim and Ryan – It has seemed to me for sometime that our species is inching closer to a unified theory of sorts in the realm of what might be called “relational logic” or “transrationality” which exists in a sort of post-religious context (i.e. no dogma, “none, do you hear me?!”) Just kidding.

    Here's what I mean: a physical analogy, large muscle groups and stabilizing muscle groups…analogous to Newtonian Mechanics and Quantum Mechanics. Both are necessary, vital – but accessed differently.

    I happen to think that what you guys are sharing here is another echo of this. Laws of being and thinking…some large and seemingly immovable, predictable, constant; some small and seemingly random, highly powerful…but all connected, participatory – also accessed in different modalities…some physical, some mental, some transrational.

    Perhaps it's a bit neo-platonist combined with a techno-utopianism…I'm not sure labels are useful here. I find it to be simply connected to the breath and a core level anchoring to life long learning. It is rhythmic, physical, and only mental upon reflection or discussion.

    “In times of change learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” Something like that, like true freedom in knowing that no one and nothing can keep you from learning. It may be the only true freedom.

    @ Tony Landreth,
    Studied Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s work in grad school – in particular “Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience” and I highly recommend it for learning psychology and what he calls “steps towards enhancing life.”

  9. Tim,

    Gotta' tell you, you really have the most efficient and incredible assistant with Amy. . .she is a total ROCK STAR!

    Just thought I'd share that with you. . .her professionalism is nothing short of stellar.


  10. I am a Christian, so I take a different approach. I thought that some might find a biblical perspective to these issues interesting. The Christian approach is based primarily on the Christian understandings that God is completely in control (i.e., sovereign) over everything that happens and that everything that happens to a Christian is somehow for his or her good.

    OK, here goes:

    1) Deliberately choose to see everything that happens to you within the framework of the sovereignty of God.

    Ephesians 1:11 In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.

    Matthew 10:29 Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father.

    Psalm 103:19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.

    Psalm 37:23 The steps of a man are established by the Lord, when he delights in his way.

    Romans 8:28 And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.

    2) Deliberately choose to give God thanks in the midst of everything.

    1 Thessalonians 5:18 Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

    Ephesians 5:20 Always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Phillipians 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

    Colossians 4:2 Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

    3) Seek to discover God's purpose for the situation.

    James 1:2-5 Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him.

    2 Timothy 2:15 Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.

    Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

  11. Holy Hell! great article TF and Ryan! I've finally found some philisophical muscle behind positive thinking. So those self help guys aren't just a bunch of wankers! haha!

  12. WILD story about Alexander.

    Tim – I just sent Amy an email about my options this summer – I would love if you could take a look!


  13. Very nice article.

    Gives a very refreshing perspective on philosophy. A lot more practical than what we were teached in high school.

    Shows that positive thinking is nothing new and has very old roots.

    Thanks for the insight

  14. This was an awesome read. I have been interested in the stoic perspective for some time and now taken the time to read again.

  15. @Ryan Thanks for the clarification of reading the texts. I just ordered some books of stoic readings from the local library

  16. Great post Tim, one of your best so far (though you also get a big hat-tip for your helpful insights on finding a rental flat in BsAs, and your post on using twitter is one of the best I've seen yet).

    The two lines I liked best in Ryan's piece were: “helping overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon” and “the source of our dissatisfaction lies in our impulsive dependency on our reflexive senses rather than logic.”

    This to me goes straight to the heart of the matter: how do we manage emotional reactivity and channel that tremendous energy to create productive behaviour by tapping into our natural gifts?

    I think Stoicism's practicality lies its ability to express in words the complex nature of brain function and how it affects emotional reactions and behaviour.

    Tony Landreth has already made lots of really helpful connections to neuroscience and positive psychology, as well as the observation: Neuroscientists and philosophers aren't in the business of offering practical advice and applicable tools.

    So in the spirit of finding tools that we can use to become better entrepreneurs, better friends and better people, I'd like to share some useful (brain) theory and (business) practice from the work that I do.

    Interestingly, in common usage the word “stoic” typically refers to someone “indifferent to pain, pleasure, grief, or joy” and “a person who represses feelings or endures patiently”. This to me suggests either disconnecting from emotions entirely or suggesting they have an on/off switch; I think neither metaphor is accurate or helpful.

    Here's why.

    Put simply: we have two brain systems, a fast emotional limbic brain that is concerned primarily with our survival (it's the oldest part of our brains) and the slower, rational neocortex that does the mental heavy-lifting (which evolved later and gives us the thinking-power that distinguishes us from other animals).

    The limbic brain's basic mode is: act first, consider later (which can produce knee-jerk reactions) while the neocortex gathers information and weighs options: consider first, act later (like asking yourself: “what's the smart move here…?”).

    We cannot disconnect from our emotions or simply switch them off – the survival-drive of the limbic brain ensures that we will always have an emotional reaction to the outside world. In other words, you cannot NOT have a reaction to things…but you CAN (and should!) learn how to manage that reaction and usefully apply the energy that it produces.

    The two comments above by Starfruitman are I think a clear example of this difference. Feeling a bit crappy and frazzled at 8.15AM he indulges in some emotionally reactive commentary, then just under 12 hours later he looks at his behaviour with some detachment and rational objectivity and posts a chagrined retraction. Classic example of fast-emotional brain reaction followed by (somewhat ashamed) rational-brain effort to fix the damage and correct the issue.

    This emotionally-reactive state is where “haters” live 24/7, and never get beyond their tantrums, screeds and bullying behaviour – so well done, Starfruitman for realizing the effects of your early-morning behaviour and seeking a remedy.

    In her comment above Alison (13/04 5.25PM) asks about “markers” to keep track of (as I read it) emotional and mood swings that we all experience in the course of an average day – some pleasurable, some prone to knock us off track.

    Rather than make my long comment here longer still, I'd offer her some ideas and invite interested readers to click on my name in the sidebar to go to a blog post I've written about “Understanding resistance to change” that offers some practical applications of these theories (and philosophies!).

    Thanks again Tim and Ryan, great stuff.

  17. Well, Tim, I like how you are choosing to spend some of your time. It's super helpful to read such a blended (yet footnoted) articulation of philosophical points. To say nothing of the extreme timeliness of this for me personally. (Funny aspect that, to consider your writing to be timely or is it simply my own ability to seek out what is needed in the moment.) It provides a kind of emboldening I can use now.

    I think the most inspiring thing about you is how relevant you make yourself. This is a perfect demonstration of coming from a centered-logical-engaged place in life.

    Tomorrow will be a better day, appreciating myself more, giving less quarter to my demons, chasing comfort less, giving a quiet and even eye to the next steps of my creation. All things I am perfectly capable of.

    Enjoy purpose,
    Suzanna Stinnett

  18. Isn't Spock the consumate stoic? Shouldn't we all aspire to that “neither hot nor cold but lukewarm” mental state?

    My problem is I like to get excited. I know it has it's drawbacks, but if we resort back to the principles of Stoicism we are all eventually food for the worms, so does it really matter?

    Don't get me wrong, theres some good stuff about fearing the thought of failure more than the actual event and to expose yourself to some uncomfortable situations on a regular basis just to show how ridiculous your fear is . But I would be careful about “rationalizing away emmotion”. Instinct carries alot of information that may not be readily apparent at the time but upon further reflection you can gain insight from uncensored impulses.

  19. @Ryan

    You mentioned the Cicero essay. Perhaps it might be possible to be happy or “positive” while being tortured but depending on how long or how great the torture becomes I don't believe *anyone* can maintain a positive attitude. I believe that “strawman” example points to the fact that we are matter that we only influence, we don't “control” it. Another extreme example is a total debilitation stroke that leaves one at a semi-vegetative state. There's *nothing* there to be positive *with* and I believe sufficient torture or other conditions such as being forced to stay awake for 30 or 40 days will demonstrate that we *don't* have a choice in how we react to everything.

    I point that extreme examples out as something where it is easy to see the lack of choice. I wonder how much there is in the day to day reactions the original post is really talking about. There certainly is a lot of choice possible in most of life's situations but not total.

    I also worry about “positive thinking” falling into the Voltaire Dr. Panglos trap.

    Where, no matter what happens if we just look at it right “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds”.

    If you'll forgive me for another extreme if a Serial Killer rapes and kills your 6 year old kid then no, there is no “positive” reaction.

  20. “It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

    Marcus Aurelius (Roman emperor, best known for his Meditations on Stoic philosophy, AD 121-180)

  21. Ryan,

    Having heard Tim previously mention his interest in Stoicism piqued my curiousity. Thanks for the well written article.

    @Ross: As a fellow believer in Christ, just wanted to say thank you for taking the time to contrast of our faith with the philosophies of the stoics. I would add my favorite verse under #2 Deliberately choose to give God thanks in the midst of everything: Prov 3: 5-6 “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct thy paths.” Written by King Solomon, considered to be one of the wisest men who ever lived.

  22. Awesome post. Thanks to Tim and Ryan for researching and writing this article. Just goes to show us all, Great Truth is Timeless. It means the same now as then.

    Thanks again,

  23. Thank you, Ryan and Tim. I don't visit here often but have enjoyed the blog in the past and came today as part of a Web-surfing jag instituted to avoid facing the truth of a fantastic personal crisis that sprung up on me this week. After two days of crying my eyeballs out, obsessively searching the Web for help (or self-help books), and literally making myself ill with obsessive thinking and remorse, I am finally feeling calmed. This crisis will not be over anytime soon, but I am extremely grateful for the leveling moment of clarity. Thanks to all the commenters, too.

  24. Great topic for a post. I love the idea of distilling philosophy into practical applications.

    My reaction to Stoicism is that it could lead to a boring or muted life (in comparison to a life lived without Stoicism). My thinking is essentially that the sweet isn’t as good without the sour. The stronger the sour, the stronger the sweet. Basically I’m saying to appreciate the sweet, you need to fully FEEL the sour. My read of this post makes me think Stoicism would DILUTE the sour by reframing it, or changing the meaning of the sour.

    For example, I think if you feel fear of going bankrupt, allow yourself FEEL the fear and let it propel you towards taking actions that will alleviate it. Don’t reinterpret the fear as an opportunity to learn how to better forecast demand.

    I assume that the counter argument is that Stoicism is not about not reacting, it’s about not overreacting. That to me sounds like an impractical line to tip toe. I would rather overreact to my team winning the championship then having to stop and think about if I am overacting.

    And a small nit-picking point, I don’t think the example of how to deal with grief or sorrow was an example of a practical application. If we feel horribly sad that a person close to us has passed away, I don’t think someone telling us this is a chance to practice fortitude is a practical response.

    I do agree with many of the points in this post. In a future post I’d like to see philosophies of how to live life while maxing out emotions and using them to achieve goals (if there is such a philosophy). All in all I think any post that gets the gears turning is a great post. Keep em coming!

  25. A friend pointed me to a copy of this article by Richard Laliberte about how people who volunteer regularly tend to live longer:

    I thought this might be interesting to readers of this article and definitely fits in the category “Filling the Void.” I'd personally love to hear your take on volunteering as it relates to health and general well-being.

  26. There's nothing better than a little Carl Sagan to help your remember how small you are. From “Pale Blue Dot”:

    “Look again at that dot. That's here. Tht's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”

    Good stuff as always Tim – thanks!

  27. I would also like to look further into this concept as it relates to vegetarianism, in relation to your recent post about such. I found this quote:

    “But for the sake of some little mouthful of meat,
    we deprive a soul of the sun and light,
    and of that proportion of life and time it had been
    born into the world to enjoy.”

    SENECA (C.5 – C.E.65)

    ^Not sure about the source, if someone can confirm, great thanks 🙂

  28. This is total BS. You need to read some Ayn Rand. All the goal of this stoicism is to deny good and bad, black and white, and linger in gray moral uncertainty. And that's where our country is at right now.

  29. Ryan & Tim,

    GREAT post! I never knew I was naturally Stoic — thanks!

    Here's some “Reminders for the Advanced Soul” quotes you two will enjoy from Richard Bach’s “Illusions”:

    “Remember where you came from, where you’re going, and why you created the mess you got yourself into in the first place…”

    “Learning is finding out what you already know. Doing is demonstrating that you know it. Teaching is reminding others that they know just as well as you. You are all learners, doers, and teachers…”

    “There is no such thing as a problem without a gift for you in its hands. You seek problems because you need their gifts.”

    “You are never given a wish without being given the power to make it true. You may have to work for it, however.”

    “Argue for your limitations, and sure enough, they’re yours.”

    “The world is your exercise-book, the pages on which you do your sums.
    It is not reality, although you can express reality there if you wish. You are also free to write nonsense, or lies, or to tear the pages.”

    “Every person, all the events of your life, are there because you have drawn them there. What you choose to do with them is up to you.”

    “In order to live free and happily, you must sacrifice boredom. It is not always an easy sacrifice.”

    “Here is a test to find whether your mission on earth is finished: If you’re alive, it isn’t.”

    “The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy. What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.”

    “You’re going to die a horrible death, remember. It’s all good training, and you’ll enjoy it more if you keep the facts in mind. Take your dying with some seriousness, however. Laughing on the way to your execution it not generally understood by less advanced lifeforms, and they’ll call you crazy.”

    “Everything above may be wrong!”

  30. I just watched your talk on I frequent that site on a daily basis for the past year and this is the first time I find myself inspired to comment.

    I find myself really taking a second look at my life after your video. I followed the similar path of being deathly scared of swimming, taking Japanese and quitting, and not believing in the 9-5 rat race. However, I realize that I may not have used fear to motivate me to success but rather to beat me into submission and forcing me to shrink to inactivity.

    I find myself re-inspired to find the right methods of achieving what I initially set out to do and I will do my best to realign myself with past dreams.

    I thank you so much for sharing your experience and I want you to know that you've made a difference in my life.

    Thank you.

    Gun K

  31. In Band of Brothers there is an officer who faces the horrors of war by convincing himself that he is already dead. Using this outlook he survived the horrors of WW II with his sanity intact.
    Nothing is ever as scary as the second before the unknown becomes the known.
    Just two thoughts brought to mind by this comment.

  32. I like your “be cool” comment rules. And I think Tim Ferris and American Apparel are likable, affable things in the world. Good things even.

    But you need to know that this post lands somewhere between the court case against Don and Tim's shoes on the unintentional comedy scale.

    Do yourselves a favor and pick up a copy of Aristotle's Nicomancean Ethics (if you don't already have it). You'll learn what the Stoics were responding AGAINST and, more importantly, why the history of philosophy deserves a bit more credit. Context matters.

    And please read this:

  33. For me a “spiritual exercise” is being on a trail in the woods or the helm of a sailboat at sunrise on the ocean. I learned that from Thomas Paine in The Age of Reason.

  34. Tim / Ryan,

    This is absolutely brilliant. Many of us fail to pursue our dreams for fear of rejection, whether it is asking our dream girl out on a date, cold calling prospects, asking for a raise, starting up that company or whatever.

    For me, one of my worst fears was to have no money. And then, I actually realised that fear and it ended up being one my of greatest blessings because being broke and having next to no money was no where near as bad as I thought. Sure I had to make some changes but I truly had to ask myself, “Is this what I used to dread?” Now that what I feared most in my life actually happened and I realise it was far worse in my head than in reality, I have been starting to look at some of my other fears. However your point about practising what you fear is amazing. I'm committing to taking that on every day. I can see how once we actually encounter what we fear and realise it's never as bad as we imagined, life becomes so much easier and there is so much more freedom to live and I mean really live rather than just exist!! As someone once said to me, “I cannot choose how I will die; I can only choose how I will live”. Practising your fears can definitely give you an access to that.

    Thanks so much guys,

    Cheers, Niro

  35. Mik,
    That's not exactly true, of the ancient Greek Philosophiers believed in what they called the “transmigration of souls” basically the same thing as Incarnation. But yes the Stoic/Buddhist parallels are very prominent.

  36. I'm half-English, so I've got stoicism built in! 😉

    (In all seriousness, I have yet to read this article (though I will), but as Tim is asking for test comments, I am replying from a new email address. Here's to hoping this isn't an email grab. (It seems I've got some cynicism to go with my stoicism… :-o))

  37. Tim, this is just a test comment, as per your Twitter request. But it gives me a chance to say how much I get out of your blog and your site, lurker though I am. Many thanks,


  38. I like Marcus Aurelius' strategy of writing about restraint, compassion, and humility…I think I'm going to try that for a couple weeks and see how it turns out

  39. @Tim

    Pumped to see that you are using Disqus, great decision.
    Posting this w/ diff email as requested. Good luck!


  40. I wish I had something insightful to say, but honestly haven't had time to read the entire article yet; but I’m just responding from the Twitter post. Please delete this as I'm sure I will look at it later and feel like a moron.

  41. Test comment as per Tim's request on twitter. Stoicism is out and out the simplest philosophical doctrine to follow, and is well advised for those who fear the unknown.

  42. This is just a test.
    By the way im wondering where in Vietnam you went. I was down south from hsmc and took the public bus to rach gia, phu quoc, and long xuyen. Great trip but I stood out a little (6'4″ 255 lbs football player), but had a great time.

  43. Sorry, brain is that fried I didn't even click the right “link” … arrgh, so please don't take notice of my previous reply, which doesn't make sense at all 😉

  44. Oh ok, so you have a new Comments platform … was slightly confused at first but I can see why you need something more interactive with the amount of comments, and the information available in these.

  45. Good reading, Tim and Ryan. It's reassuring to know that some advice given to me by my father and to which I still adhere shines through in this post. If I became upset by another's behavior toward me, my dad's 2¢ was that I was letting said behavior affect me. Perception is indeed reality and being aware of that fills any situation, no matter how dire, with opportunity.

    Just finished reading “The Celestine Prophecy” and while it's not totally aligned with the stoic thoughts above, it does share the philosophy of staying objective and therefore staying in control.


  46. Well as usual a fascinating post. What was the inspiration for this article? I'd like to know how you come up with such cool stuff.

  47. Did not read this entire post, but you asked to comment from your twitter update as a test… here it is.


  48. Great post, love these guys, thanks for involving their voices in the forum. Almost majored in Philosophy, cept I already had a job waiting tables.
    Commenting per your twitter request, “testing the site”. I expect you have some intention that is a little more nuanced than just “testing”, but then again so do I. Comments about you. First the good stuff. You are inspiring, clever, a “smashing young man”, and it is often a great pleasure to read your blog, which I have shared with many friends. Your apparent arrogance is far overshadowed by what you have to offer, and I like your strong stance and your a apparent ability to receive feedback. Just two nights back I befriended a young man who was moving to Spain as a result of reading your book, and we shared some good appreciation and criticism of your work.
    Now the bad stuff. You appear to be a hack in some regards, claiming some mastery in areas that have more nuance than a dilettante survey can offer, and some of your authoritative voice is lost after seeing exactly how you, for example, won the kick boxing championship. It almost appears that you did so for the wrong reasons, or for reasons that are so instrumental as to appear contrary to some of the intrinsic values you espouse on philosophy. I and a a few of my colleagues speculate that you are at times an over-achiever, seemingly motivated by some feeling of lack, inadequacy or fear. There seems almost a desperation on some of your actions that belays a lack of trust in the world you experience. If this is so, perhaps it has helped you to accomplish great things, but I think true mastery lies beyond. Here is a book by an old friend on the subject.

    My deep gratitude for your work.

    – L

    Obviously this is meant for Timothy Ferriss, and it is at the readers discretion as to it's publication.