“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.
“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:
“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
His son is dead
Not a thing.
So-and-so’s ship sank
His ship sank.
So-and-so was carted off to prison.
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”
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 Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master (free eBook)
- The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master (audiobook)
- Dialogues and Letters (includes “On The Shortness of Life”) by Seneca
- The Obstacle Is The Way by Ryan Holiday
- The Meditations (Gregory Hays translation. I strongly recommend this translation over all others. It’s the difference between liking and hating it.)
- The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius by Pierre Hadot
- Philosophy as a Way of Life: Spiritual Exercises from Socrates to Foucault by Pierre Hadot
- The Stoic Philosophy of Seneca: Essays and Letters
- To Philosophize is To Learn How to Die (essay) by Montaigne
- Discourses and Selected Writings of Epictetus by Epictetus
- An Essay on Marcus Aurelius by Matthew Arnold
- An Amazing Lecture Series on Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism
- A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe (Wolfe, Bonfire of the Vanities etc, wrote an epic book that is a modern allegory of the teachings of Epictetus)
- Seneca on Trial: The Case of the Opulent Stoic The Classic Journal, Vol. 61, No. 6 (1966)
- Rudius Media Book Club Discussion of Stoicism (led by Ryan Holiday)
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.
Comment Rules: Remember what Fonzie was like? Cool. That’s how we’re gonna be — cool. Critical is fine, but if you’re rude, we’ll delete your stuff. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (Thanks to Brian Oberkirch for the inspiration.)
370 Replies to “Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs”
Me all-over, loved it! Wish more of my friends thought like this..
“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.”
Do you not see the “Entrepreneurial Life” as a self-imposed slavery to money/ambition/hope/success?
More intellectual ransacking of our cultural past by the corportate world.
Suggest anyone interested in the subject read William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy – beautifully written and very accessible to the novice philosopher http://www.amazon.com/Guide-Good-Life-Ancient-Stoic/dp/0195374614/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1293828525&sr=1-1-spell
“Turning the Obstacle Upside Down”…NICE!!
For more information on Stoicism there is an on-line community at http://www.newstoa.com. I would recommend reading the Stoic handbook that provides a very good overview of the philosophy including history and relevancy for us in the 21st century as well as some advise on how to apply it in your daily life
Three all-encompassing principles:
1. non-attachment (i.e., you are not your job title, you are not your possessions, you are more than your relationship, etc.)
2. non-judgement (who is really able to say what is “good” or “bad” especially while it is happening?)
3. non-persistence (“this too shall pass” attitude raises the “lows” and tempers the “highs”)
Once upon a time, this “die-hard Stoic” wrote on his blog: “I get really angry when I get behind a slow driver […]” (source: http://www.ryanholiday.net/going-slow-in-the-fast-lane/).
Real Stoic indeed 🙂
lol nice find
do women have a harder time being stoic? Is it something in our biology? hormones? experiences? conditioning? i wish it wasn’t so, i put on such a good game face but ppl say i’m being cold or a b*tch, which i’m not…
rough crowd, rough crowd…
Hey AB ….
Nope, gender experience not to come into it. (I suggest).
A punch on the nose is a punch on the nose whtvr your gender.
A rough ride is a rough ride for all. Most attracted to Stoic antedotes via “rough rides.” Trick is ( I find): to make a list of the all the likely negative stuff perverse Fortune can send you and write down in advance your objective response for as and when a relative experience occurs. Nullify and move on. (Plus some considering/meditating on the teachings to assist the learning curve …) (I suggest).
I happen to share the same questioning. Why are there fewer women attracted to or shown in active dialogue of stoicism? Is it due to less exposure? I’ve read anecdotes and references to Porcia/Portia, Brutus’ wife being stoic, but nothing much beyond that.
One anecdote I heard while living in Senegal for six months back in 2004 was this expression of “letting the water boil on the stove,” which meant that, for women, the main household chefs, in cases of extreme poverty with no food to eat, could find solace in this proverb and expression in that they would literally boil water in a pot on the fire to keep up the appearance of food in the household while they silently suffered (not drawing attention to themselves or their household’s condition) through until there would be enough food again. The expression in modern times is used quite often as well, but to describe hardships beyond hunger and poverty, and seems quite similar to my novice understanding of stoicism.
I do agree that stoicism isn’t taught or read with gender in mind, but the current lack of female contributors provides an interesting perspective and opportunity nonetheless.
Surely the teachings of Zena and his offprings and such of Jesus (the Man) complement each other … and reading* some of both each day help to break through those barriers and help the new Sage on his way ….
* And acting out ….
I’m 78 and this new road to take is going to be fun (and therapeutic) … if it aint no point in the trek …. Momma said it aint going to be easy …. why not? Let’s go …. It aint that heavy if you transalte into 2011speke …
Wow, I’ve been slowly adding these principles to my life over a large part of my life since I started really focusing on “becoming a better person”… but had no idea that my own principles and philosophies actually had a name!
So, I guess I can call myself a Stoic then 🙂
I can say with personal experience that living this kind of life makes you a much, MUCH happier… healthier… wealthier and just better person all around.
Thanks! Reading Taoist and Buddhist texts brought me to similar approach. What worked in Rome, worked in China, and India, and still works today.
It is really great to see how people takes strength from their efforts to condition themselves every morning. This will not affect only their personal lives but their business ventures too.
I have used some of this through some really trying experiences. High anxiety situations. It worked most of the time, but needs practice like anything else.
I’m glad you mentioned to read letters from a stoic at some point, I’ve read the book and it’s truly changed my life for the better.
For Tim and anyone else who who might be interested, I came across a truely great book exploring the practice of Stoic philosophy in a modern sense. It is called “A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy” by William B. Irvine.
I highly recommend it as a thoughful exploration of the topic from a modern practitioner.
Thanks for being the man. Your work has added a truckload of value to my life.
I’ve got a deeper psychology/philosophy question related to this post that I’ve been researching/mulling over for a couple weeks now and it would make my month to hear your thoughts:
Once you’re aware of the possibilities of maximizing life results by doing the most important thing in the moment, and you’re also aware of the shortness of life, how do you appropriately manage the fear/anxiety of NOT doing the best thing all the time and losing out on potential results for your time? The awareness that right now, you’d better be doing the best thing, or you’re losing out on potential value?
Because then everything becomes a “have to” and not a “want to”, which usually tarnishes (if not destroys) its value and the quality of experience of achieving it. But if you only “wanted to” do the best thing right now, you could be getting those greater results!
Or, in a more general scope:
Excluding physical danger, in what situations is fear/anxiety an appropriate and useful reaction? When should it be ignored?
If I have a looming deadline with permanent irreversible consequences, I’d better have a little fear to at least put it on my radar so I don’t decide to blow time I don’t have. On the other hand, a constant anxiety if I’m not doing the best thing is certainly not healthy. Where’s the balance? Am I even seeing this from the right perspective?
A moving piece at so many levels. I’m hooked!
Good article, but the Obama-Rev. Wright example was silly and forced.
LOVE the way you weave Stoicism into the entrepreneurial spirit topic and find these topics really intriguing!
Broken link was found for “Kayne West’s blog”, best fix for a better read for the next fella!
Hey there! I’ve been reading your weblog for a while now and finally got the courage to go ahead and give you a shout out from New Caney Texas! Just wanted to say keep up the good job!
Found your blog this evening and I salute you! Some fabulous articles and this is one of them…
Amazing! This blog looks exactly like my old one!
It’s on a completely different topic but it has pretty much the same layout and design. Wonderful choice of colors!
>Epictetus endured the horrors of slavery
I don’t know where you get this from but it isn’t true. Slavery back in Epictetus’ day was normal. The father was the the first master, his children the first slaves. Slavery wasn’t invented but developed naturally out of the family. Out of the family slavery as a societal institution grew. Afterwards it was regulated. You don’t see Epictetus talking about the horrific experience of slavery because it wasn’t – it was normal. You don’t see Aristotle finding fault with slavery, or Horace, or Diogenes the Cynic, or any ancient. It was a fact of life. Of course there were cruel masters just like there are cruel parents, etc., etc., but slavery was part of the ancient world.
Thanks for sharing. I really didn´t have no idea about Stoicism! Now, you made everything clear.
Great post, Tim! In addition, it is also a powerful mantra for “money blocks.” Thanks for being an inspiration to entrepreneurs like us!
Those of you who are attracted to Stoicism as a guide for living in today’s world would profit enormously from a recent book called PRAGMATIC RATIONALISM: AN INTRODUCTION by Frank Robert Vivelo (available from Amazon.com and other online booksellers). It combines Stoicism, Epicureanism, Empiricism, and Existentialism into a startlingly coherent, practical philosophy for achieving a rewarding, satisfying life. Anyone who actually adopts the principles and perspectives presented in this book will find their lives less troubled and more pleasant than ever before. Its unique definition of “happiness,” which owes a lot to the two Hellenistic schools of Stoicism and Epicureanism, and its strategies for pursuing it are bound to change—and improve—your outlook and your day-to-day behavior. It is by far the best book on practical philosophy that I’ve ever encountered.
Begin to acknowledge the nature of reality is much like a
dream. It alsdo give you “signs” on what to look out for.
In Aliens, as Ellen Ripley battles corporate
greed she develops an increasing kinship toward the aliens.
Tim – I love almost all of your work and you are a huge inspiration. For some reason my bullshit radar goes flying with Ryan Holiday.
Great post and worth revisiting even after a few years. Thank you! I was fortunate to have studied philosophy at university and found the Stoics particularly useful subsequently to help deal with much of the BS prevalent in IB. B-). In addition to what you talk about in the blog, my favourite ideas expressed by Marcus Aurelius continue to be of value in an entrepreneurial context and centre around the fact that the only control which we can exert is over ourselves (our reasoning and our actions) and that our (mistaken) lingering after things outside our control is a major component of our dissatisfaction: “There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you, Leave them alone.” ( VI,52) and “Nothing outside the mind can disturb it – trouble comes from the mind’s opinion of what lies outside it” (IV, 3). So…if Google hasn’t yet bought your start-up for $100m+ then don’t despair, whether you are happy or not is entirely up to you!
My personal favorite daily dose of Stoicism? A 100% cold shower in the morning.
I’ve a forex system that is risk free. Meaning I’ll not lose but in recent spate the drawdown has been significant and I close because of what if. Eventually the system supposed to win if I hadn’t close.
Question how to use stoicism in trading where the barriers of emotions doesn’t get injected into the system.
I’m a small ball guy. I have fear as huge as a mountain yet wishes to travel the world before I kick the bucket. Help me.
Stoicism lives today as a component of rational emotive behavior therapy (REBT). Modern people need such a system to remain calm in the face of so much environmental stimulus.
I like Charlie Munger’s paraphrased comment, “never complain, never feel bad for yourself.”
I was a natural stoic through college until I got sick. I felt lousy most of my waking day and wanted to understand suffering from a Christian perspective. In one sermon, Tim Keller talked about how the stoic’s advice for someone hurting is to buck up- you’re only depressed because you expect to be prospering. A Christian however is able to meet that person in their suffering without dismissing it. Keller later wrote this, “Because Christianity gives us an assured hope that we will have infinitely greater and unending love relationships (with God first and foremost but with others too), this gives us not only a greater basis for hope, but it also gives greater room to express our sorrow. We don’t have to detach our hearts from loved ones the way the ancient and modern stoics have done in order to protect themselves emotionally from the hopelessness of death.”
Tim Keller sounds like someone who goes around slandering people through generalized categories. The stoic’s advice for someone hurting is to “buck up”? What’s the reference? Which stoic said, “Someone hurting should buck up”?
Later, Tim Keller is quoted as saying, “Christianity gives us an assured hope that we will have infinitely greater and unending love relationships.” One problem with that assertion is that it is baseless. Christianity doesn’t give me any such hope at all. Sure, some people within “christianity” have composed elaborate stories about heaven but they’re just stories. One may establish for themselves some wavering amount of hope by narrowly focusing on “heaven” stories combined with a blind belief in their authority. But there is a far greater number of ridiculous stories about the universe being created in seven days, ritual slaughters of “enemies” (much of the old testament), ridiculous prohibitions (“Do not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material.” [Leviticus 19:19], “Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard.” [Leviticus] 19:27), etc.
Furthermore, people within “christianity” have tortured “witches”; tortured non-christians to try to force them to convert; sexually abused children; and prioritized defending the institution in the face of accusations of sexual abuse of children over admitting the truth and taking care of the victims. So christianity is not unquestionably authoritative. The presence of some stories about heaven does not give “assured hope” at all. Defining chrisitanity as something that gives us hope because of “heaven” stories is reductive and requires steadfast ignorance of the broader details.
Later, Tim Keller is quoted as saying, “(…) detach our hearts from loved ones the way the ancient and modern stoics have done (…)”. Again, the reference? Which stoic has done that?
Either Tim Keller actually knows nothing about stoic philosophy or he is KNOWINGLY slandering a whole field of thought just because it is OTHER, i.e., it is not christianity.
good shit man
Excellent read! What immediately strikes me is the similarity between stoicism and non-dualism (advaita) /https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nondualism), and the ending of “suffering”. Ref. Sam Harris and Tara Brach.
It’s interesting: this post is over six years old and there is at least one mistake (and most likely two) in the introduction.
#1) The initial quote from Seneca is as follows: “There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living; there is nothing harder to learn.”
Are you sure that is a correct translation? Consider just the first part of the sentence (“There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living”). Now consider a busy man. If there is anything that the busy person is NOT doing (let’s say, eating bark off trees), then that the person is NOT busied by that thing: eating tree bark is not busying that person because he is not doing it. Now, if the person is busied by living to any degree, then eating tree bark is busying him less than living. This would contradict the first part of the quote. According to the quote, a busy person is defined as someone who is busied with literally everything, including “living”, and “living” is the thing that busies him the least. Really? It seems similar to people who say, “I could care less.”
So, what does the first part of the quote have to do with the second part of the quote?
#2) Later on, there is a sentence that begins with, “Though my preferred Stoic writer (…)” Presumably, that should be “through”, not “though”.
The post doesn’t mention women stoics who were mostly left out of history but worth noting it wasn’t just men.
I have a question for anyone reading. Buddhism and Stoicism (and probably other schools of thought) preach a path to perfect neutrality. I am having difficulty trying to balance ambition and trying to become consistent and neutral. It seems to me a sage in the stoic sense or someone who has attained enlightenment in the Buddhist sense, would not have any ambition. I am in a constant battle with myself over this, one half focused on acting on ambition and the other saying ambition, in itself, is a manifestation of attachment and insecurity. Does anyone have any thoughts or references to help the debate for either side?
Dear Tim –
On Being Small
Check out this photo. It was taken on 2013-07-19.
It is how we shine bright and stay small.
The photo is the earth and her moon on The Day The Earth Smiled.
A woman scientist spread the word that our planet was going to be photographed from space (Jupiter mission). She encouraged everyone to step outside, gaze at the sky, and smile for the photo.
People all over the planet, who couldn’t even see Jupiter at the time participated. Many acting as one.
Just as our planet is big and bold and beautiful, just as our planet shines in the sky, it is simultaneously a small spec in an endless sky, so too are we big and bold and beautiful, accomplishing great and miraculous feats, shining brightly and simultaneously specs of stardust on a tiny planet wandering the universe.
I think Entrepreneurs would be ok with that. What do you think?
The woman’s name is Carolyn Porco,
Thanks for this article. It was unenlightening, and by that, I mean to say, I think I have been a stoic all my life and just not realized it. 🙂
P.S. the URL isn’t mine, it’s NASA’s – hope that’s ok!
Saturn! oh my goodness, it was the Saturn Mission
I literally made an outline for 2016 objectives and the previous bullet point before Googling “Stoicism 101” was as follows.
I. Perception Discovery
a.Being able to mentally take a step back and become aware of other
perceptions to best discern next step actions.
b.Seek knowledge from both sides of an argument along with a relative real-time assessment of a current matter to critically think the best possible solution moving forward.
Very practical tips. I was aware that perception can alter your reality but it is very interesting to hear early philosophy that seems to have roots in this.
If I take back one thing from this. That will be the opportunity to turn a negative into a positive each time it happens. Would be reading more about stoicism. Cheers Tim.
This is totally up my street… Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are as relevant today as they ever where and well worth reflecting on…
Thank you for sharing this beautiful Stoic insight! It’s so difficult to find approachable philosophical discussion online, these days. Massive Epictetus fan, here. I’m sharing the heck out of this piece because everyone should read it. Seventeen thumbs up for clarity!
Like many, I normally scim. But with this, I dove in and devoured every word. Stoicism was an ancient version of Life Hacks that are still relevant today. It even begins to cross the blurred line that divides philosophy from metaphysics when it speaks to the divine inherent in us all.
I had to scroll up and recheck to make sure that I remembered that Ryan Holiday is only 21 years old. This article is the articulation and insight of a learned scholar twice his age. And so I will address him with a suffix.
Mr. Holiday, thank you very much.
-Robb Edward Morris
I’m glad I stumbled on this.
Just wanted to break the silence in over six years. Very interesting, glad you turned me on to Stoicism Tim. An acquaintance of mine also recommended me checking out Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse.
I would like to add something to the conversation about practitioners of stoicism.
I believe that you be better served by looking at the actions of modern stoics who have truly put it to the test. A good example is Admiral Stockdale. He was a strong follower of Epictetus and after his retirement, he devoid the rest of his life to studying and teaching the works of Epictetus. As you may remember, the Admiral did 7 and 1/2 years in one of the worst Vietnam POW camp, and stated that it was a true understanding of Epictetus’ works that enabled him to survive when so many other brave military men and women perished in that camp.
Comparing Ryan Holiday’s stress to the stress of what the Admiral went through for 7 1/2 years is like comparing the candle on birthday cake to a California wildfire.
Years back when the Admiral was still alive, a book was written that consisted of interviews with various modern stoics who the author felt had truly put stoicism to the test. The chapter containing my interview was the one right before the Admirals. I have been a practicing stoic for 40+ years.
After reading Ryan’s piece on stoicism all I can say is, with all due respect, his understanding of stoicism is a bit light.
“It doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world.” Actually it does – the ancient Stoics were really into metaphysics, semantics and a load of other stuff that’s been largely forgotten these days.
Your podcast rock. I listen to this podcast today. Philosophy is a great tool but the guy who wrote spartan up, in my opinion was way better. I relate to Jocoh with the darkness and the light as well. Being relentless and listening to heavy metal are awesome ways of living a good life. As long as you use your head.
As I read your post I could hear the faint whisper of those two lines from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If-” repeating in my head – “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster, and treat those two imposters just the same…” Thanks for a great read, and for helping a frightened kid find his spine.
All the Best,
This kind of Stoic temperance is the need of the hour in today’s world. I am glad that such a literature exists in today’s day and age.
What I’m concerned with is that the image of Stoics is that of an emotionless and dispassionate people — very cold, always concerned with misfortune and adversity, never smiling and always uptight.
Thus, I have reservations regarding the above, besides that I’m all for Stoicism in our day and age.
Great post Tim. Ryan did an outstanding job with this piece. Thanks for sharing it. Wishing you all the best my friend.
Mr Ferriss, and Mr Holiday,
I just had to thank you so much for your heard work and effort to make such a great article and introducing me to Stoicism. Three months ago my life changed forever, I’ll save you the details but turning 40 was part of it. I’ve dedicated myself to becoming a master learner. This article is going to feed me for a very long while. But I need more. I need personal interaction. “Rulers to make myself straight” men who encourage, motivated and inspire others to real lasting change. More of those “Ah ha” moments.
I have The Obstacle is the Way, and the Daily Stoic by Ryan, and you Tim have inspired me deeply with your battle to find balance, hunger for wisdom and how you seek out clarity and perspective. Keep up the good work. The deep work. Hopefully you are recovering nicely from the Silent retreat Tim. You are much loved my man. And Ryan, thank you for the Books!!! You both are in my “Tribe of Mentors.”
Your Friend Nathan O’Neill
I’ve been reading Seneca and Aurelius almost every morning for the last 8 months or so. It first helped when I was fired off my last job. The adversity turned into an opportunity and I’m in a better position now. The best thing is now that I’m doing well, I’m no more taking things for granted and preparing hard for an unexpected fall. Stoicism truly liberates you into a person who is ready for anything.
Another stoic I was reminded of while I was reading this post was Gary Vaynerchuk. He is a practitioner.
Dear Ryan, dear Tim,
Thank you very much for this post. I am truly delighted to see philosophy finally coming back into our world. “Philosophers should become kings, and kings should become philosophers” – this is not Stoic but Platonic, but relevant as today’s societies and governments unfortunately lost base with philosophical thinking. Therefore, I am very happy about this post, and the way you made the link between modern living and stoicism. In fact Marcus Aurelius embodied the philosopher king himself. Seneca and Marcus Aurelius both tried to find a manageable way to cope with their own lives in face of adversity. While not being an ideal but rather practical, the same recommendations are applicable today.
Thanks also for your list of further reading resources. John Stuart Mill, however, was a utalitarian.