How to Practice Poverty and Reduce Fear (#137)

The Tao of Seneca

“Establish business relations with poverty.”

– Seneca

These 10-15 minutes are gold. I revisit this letter of Seneca at least once a quarter, and I hope you find this episode equally powerful.

The careful listener will find an extremely practical blueprint (and exercises) for optimizing performance in high-stress situations.

If you only have 60 seconds for one highlight, pay particular attention to this passage.

If you enjoy the teachings, I highly recommend listening to (or reading) more of Seneca’s letters. All of my favorites can be found in the audiobook, The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master. If you prefer a written version of the Tao of Seneca, you can find it here for free.


You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#137: How to Practice Poverty and Reduce Fear

Want to hear another segment of The Tao of Seneca and dig deeper into stoicism? — Listen to On Groundless Fears. In this episode, I dig deeper into the value of stoicism and examining unfounded fears and untested assumptions (stream below or right-click here to download):

#134: The Tao of Seneca

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: How has listening to Seneca’s teachings changed or improved your life? Share your thoughts in the comments

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Show Notes

  • On keeping holiday without extravagance [8:02]
  • Testing the constancy of one’s mind [10:05]
  • The benefits of finding pleasure in scanty fair [13:22]
  • Ungoverned anger begets madness [15:20]

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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57 Replies to “How to Practice Poverty and Reduce Fear (#137)”

  1. I am inspired to write a series of letters to my daughters. I’ve written 5 so far. I’m using Seneca ‘s model of addressing a topic by sharing personal experiences in conversation with the philosophical tradition.

      1. This is a good idea. I’ve done something similar having set up an email account for my new daughter and 18months later have over 300 emails with notes, thoughts photos etc. The aim…is to give her the login in 15yrs…if email still exists.

      2. Tim can i ask you a question: Do you really work 4 hours in a week?

        please reply me it is very important for me.

    1. Brian – Love this idea, I’m about to have twins. To Tim’s point, we don’t know how long we’ll be around for.

      @Tim – Just finished letter 18 I’m juiced! Picking up volume one today.

  2. Lucius Annaeus Seneca was the original psychotherapist. Once a week I fast for 24 hours as part of my Stoic practice and to honor him I call it “The Feast of Seneca.” Thanks for the audiobook Tim.

  3. It is amazing, I will treasure this information in the same way I did with Facundo Cabral and Jorge Luis Borges (both from Argentina). Thanks for sharing this information. Now here come the most interesting part: how to reproduce it to make an impact in the different aspects/scenarios of my life?… in a practical way . This journey will be fun.

    Keep the good work.

  4. True test of free will. Discouraging the habits and appetites that create comfort in order to gain insight. Possession without effort, accumulation without fear. Thanks for sharing Tim.

  5. I’m a big fan of yours Tim and I can thank you for introducing me to stoicism. So when I saw you had an audio book out I wanted to support you and of course listen and discover more about Seneca.

    I signed up to Audible and managed to get your audiobook free as a signing up bonus. All good so far!

    However, I have to say from that point I was disappointed. For a book you’re charging $35 for, I expected much more from the audio quality which at times sounded like you had recorded your intro in a dustbin and the varying audio quality of the narrator. And the narrator? Maybe it’s just me but I found his style off putting and simply had to turn off after the first chapter.

    Being as there’s no copyright on these letters and the low cost production and narration, I’m really surprised you’ve hit such a high price point of $35. No doubt theres some marketing reasoning behind this but to me the overall feel was more like a $5-10 effort.

    I think it’s a real shame you missed the opportunity to put some high quality production into this and justify the price. As it is, I got a refund from Audible and decided to download instead A Guide To The Good Life by William B Irvine which provides a really good background on the history of Stoicism as well as practical tools and methods of applying stoicism into modern day life.

    I’m not hating on you Tim – I have a huge admiration for most of your work but this one could have been executed much better and at a more reasonable price.

    1. you might also use google audio to text tool available in google chrome.

      Type in “google chrome web speech api” in Chrome browser. It will take you to an interface that converts audio into text. Works pretty well. You can run the podcast on some device and read the text there.

  6. Fasting taught me a lot. I don’t think I knew myself before I started regular fasting practice. Uncovered all my fears and taught me to deal with them without any external distractions, external “helpers”. Before when I felt uncomfortable emotions I’d go and immerse myself in some self-created drama, or eat junk etc., now I know it’s time to fast, let the emotions be, take a day off from the world. Cold showers and really heavy workouts help too.

    “Similarly with fire; it does not matter how great is the flame, but what it falls upon. For solid timbers have repelled a very great fire; conversely, dry and easily inflammable stuff nourishes the slightest spark into a conflagration.”

    My favorite there!

    Thank you for introducing Seneca to me Tim!

    I loved philosophy during my college years. Kinda forgot about it for a while. Falling in love with it again.

  7. The practise of poverty has a long and rich history. This post is very well timed thank you Tim. I am currently practising poverty, not by choice but by force of circumstance. I have a family and I’m living in a foreign country. My meditation practise (I have been practising Rudolf Steiner’s 6 exercises for many years – 1.control of own thinking. 2. Control of own feelings. 3. Control of own will etc.) is giving me the strength to calmly take each step and to still feel gratitude for the smallest of victories and joys.

  8. I swore off money after my freshman year of college (2006). Into the Wild and Chuck Phalinuk and others had their effect.

    I wanted to find out what it was to exist.

    What could a person do without money?

    I had always intended to travel around and meet the friends I’d made at the Great Lakes Training Facility a year earlier. Like that Charlie Sheen character… I was just procrastinating until that day that I would “Have enough money to buy a motorcycle and travel across the continent”…

    But, a deferred life wasn’t for me, and I was tired of 1/3 of my paycheck going to causes that I abhorred…

    So. Poverty seemed like the answer.

    A buddy chose to join, and we hitchhiked from Colorado to South Carolina to Orlando to Indianapolis to Chicago then all the way back to Colorado, overshooting our home and landing at a Rainbow Gathering in Steamboat Springs.

    The trip forbid ANY use of money. We did not panhandle or otherwise utilize currency. We helped people in exchange for food. But, no money.

    This was a spectacular way to begin adulthood.

    I had a great time. I loved the interactions took place because of these constraints. It forced creativity, perseverance, and connection.

    One of my friends likes to call money a “tool of isolation”.

    Before this, I was a very timid person.

    Afterwards, my confidence was immeasurable. Not because I was so impressed with myself, but because I had developed a greater faith in humanity.

    I had learned that the worst outcome was people saying “no”, people not taking the time to stop for you.

    Which isn’t bad at all.

    The people you want to talk to will take the time.

    So it’s been for the last ten years. Largely immune to the fears of rejection, hunger, and poverty I’ve been able to work towards my goals with the confidence that Zero isn’t that bad.

    Zero is actually a great place to be.

  9. Not sure if you can really “practise poverty” – when you KNOW that it is only temporary, you don’t experience the same level of fear and vulnerability. Also if you know that you do have funds for emergency’s in the back and can interrupt the experiment at any stage, almost nothing of what makes poverty so horrible actually occurs. Poverty means enduring weeks of dental pain, because you don’t want to lose your tooth, yet extraction it the only available treatment you can afford, it means that you are SO afraid of losing your job, that you let your boss treat you like shit, it means that all you can afford as a treat for your children, is crap that’ll make them sick in the long run, etc. etc. – it’s simply not covered by restricting your diet and wear ill fitted 2nd hand clothes for a while.

  10. May I humbly disagree with Seneca on this one? At least to some extent. You see, the most hard thing of an adverse reality (like poverty) is not the food nor the clothes, it’s rather the impotence, the hopelessness. It’s to know, for example, that if your kid gets sick you won’t be able to pay for good medical care. To sleep every night not feeling safe.

    So yes, of course that fasting and dressing poorly and not showering do make us appreciate more what we have. And yes, it also helps to overcome the fear of losing many of our luxuries. But, please, please, please… Don’t go as far as to think you have experienced poverty. There is no exercise that will give us even a glimpse of what real poverty feels like.

    Yes, By all means, go ahead and try this wonderful and important exercise of playing poor for a couple of days. but don’t underestimate what poverty and misery are. Because if you do, you may begin to lose empathy and compassion. You may begin to think poor people are just lazy or ‘unresilient’. That’s a dangerous thought.

  11. Tim – completely off-topic for this podcast, but I wanted to dash off a note to you about a potential future podcast interviewee(s) – Tony Tjan and John Hamel of Cue Ball Group. I read about them here:

    Loving the podcasts! The last one by Naval Ravikant blew me away.

    All the best!


  12. Tim,

    I would recommend focusing more on Epictetus than on Seneca. Those of us who have spent our lives in high stress situations find the teachings of Epictetus to be much more effective. I personally have followed Epictetus for going on 40 years.

    There was a book on modern stoics written by Philip Gold (Washington Times) and you will find that most of the people interviewed for the book, (people like POW Vice Admiral Stockdale and myself) were followers of Epictetus.


  13. I’ve just finished my first attempt to practice poverty last week. The cheap food, same clothing and sleeping on the floor were bearable, fine infact. What was difficult was having no coffee, especially having started sleep deprived! It was a good test of mindfulness, willpower and acceptance, or “acquiescence” as, I believe, the Stoics would say.

    Although it was cut short after 4 days by having guests for dinner, it was a great experience. He’s right when he mentions jumping for joy for mere food, it really makes you appreciate what you have.

    The first of many experiments I hope, and maybe some longer-term fasting next time. I’d love to hear from others who’ve done the same.

  14. Hi Tim,

    You are money! Great stuff always. Tao is pronounced like Dow. If you want, I have some amazing Taoism resources for you – some are daily practices. As you practice, Knowledge is for sharing – thank you for all that you do – amazing.



  15. Tim,

    LA tickets sold out very quickly. I want to attend and I just need 1 ticket.

    VIP or general admission is fine, please let me know if you will issue more tickets, am happy to purchase.

    Thank you!

  16. There’s much wisdom in Seneca but I don’t really buy the notion of practising poverty. If you want to know the grinding hopelessness of real poverty from the inside, cut the safety rope and give all your money away. I think you’ll find it’s a different experience.

  17. This has become the daily ritual that has made an unbelievable impact on my life. Any advice on where to find “On the Shortness of Life?” Also, besides for listening to a letter a day, do you have any advice on how to implement Stoic practices into ones daily routine?

  18. At first I thought your constant speaking of Seneca was just “your thing”… but I’ve gotten my hands on a dozen letters of Seneca directly translated from latin to my language, Bosnian, first time done ever… MAN it’s good… it’s truly TIMELESS…. can’t believe it was written all that long ago…. like everything you present Tim, this too was and is a gem

  19. There’s great wisdom in Seneca but I don’t really buy the idea of practising poverty. Does a few weeks slumming it really bear comparison with the grinding hopelessness of real poverty? There’s only one way to find out, cut the safety line and give all your money away…

  20. Thanks for the introduction to Stoicism Tim, I’m a long time fan of the of your podcast show on Itunes and have an unrelated comment. Ad’s especially the Wealthfront ad are a bit long and take a little away from the value of the content you are delivering, sure you can look into creative ways to deliver the Ad material in a shorter time. Remember, I love your show and want to see you get paid for the value you bring to us, but not at the risk of taking away form the value of the content,sure you’ll take this the right way. More power to you bro.


  21. Hello Tim, first of all this is the first time I ever comment on a blog, but I just HAVE to thank you.

    I’ve been having the worst 2 years of my life personally, economically, professionally, emotionally, in short words everything has gone wrong. It was so bad I even started having troubles with my wife, I was so angry with myself that I was always angry at everyone. I shot down from my family, my friends and pretty much everyone.

    Then in my “n” attempt to re-invent myself, I came up with Trello and thats how I got to know you. Your podcast and your advices have helped me SO much, this last 2 weeks have been the best time I’ve had in the last 2 years.

    I used to be a very type A personality achieving so much in college studying, working, planning events, president of the student council and such, but then after I graduated I just kept losing and losing and I got really depressed because I was so used to wining that I couldn’t handled it. Now I finally realized that my goals were so ridicules high, and now I’m on a day to day basis of easy to achieve goals and embracing this little wins I am finally restoring my faith in myself.

    Within a week I adopted most of your apps and the Five Minute Journal wow, life changer, Thank you very much for the support and all the information you share with everyone. You really did helped my SO MUCH.

    If sometime there is anything I can do for you, I would be glad to help you.

    P.S. I started listening to your first episodes and you should really go back to having wine in your episodes. AWSOME!!! #TimTimTalkTalk

  22. Hey Tim,

    Thank you for introducing me to the app Headspace. The name of the app is appropriate – it feels like there is literally more room in my mind, and therefore my life, with which I can better handle the daily tests and experiences life brings.

    Looking forward to downloading Seneca, as well. Have loved the two letters you’ve shared through your podcasts already.

    As a request, could you try to get Blythe Masters on your show? She’s one of my favorite role models.

    Your new and avid listener,


  23. I keep hearing about how Seneca advices to wear the scantiest of clothing for a few days to inoculate oneself to the societal ridicule of looking like a bum.

    But really, I think many more of us are afraid to dress up rather than to dress down. I always see Tim wearing basic t-shirts and cargo-pants with mismatched colours, so I think it’s easier for him to exercise looking like a bum than it is for him to exercise looking like a highly fashionable guy. Coupled with the fact that he’s in silicon valley, where hoodies and jeans are the norm, it’s hardly an exercise in fear-innoculation to dress down.

    Tim, how about dressing up in lavish suits, or having a style makeover where you wear expensive luxury, or simply well fitting and colour matched clothes. I think for you this would be more of an exercise in confronting fear and societal pressure than dressing down. The point after all is to set aside a few days to confront a particular fear, if that fear is dressing up and being mocked by friends for it, then Seneca would have you boldly dress up.

    1. I agree! I frequently wear suits to the office, but my co-workers don’t. I get mildly ridiculed frequently because of it. But I persevere despite the peer pressure because I like how I look in a suit. I also find it valuable to learn how to negotiate peer pressure.

    2. I think the point of Seneca’s advice on modest clothing and diet was to experience deprivation firsthand rather than allow one’s imagination to run wild and anticipate a more unbearable outcome—an anticipation that leads to risk aversion.

      Ridicule from others for renouncing constricting vanity attire (dressing “up”) is hardly grounds for fear unless you’re a hedge fund analyst or a trial lawyer, or have a similar profession whose sartorial demands are decidedly conservative. For the rest of the population, who doesn’t dress competitively, fashion advice is more or less taken as entertainment, as it should be.

      In any case, Seneca was talking about bigger issues, IMO—not that I agree that occasional renunciation by the wealthy equates to “practicing poverty”.

  24. I’m getting a little better my listening when I have learned to speak English better able to understand what you teach in your blog, while I’m reading your book. Cheers!


  25. Hi Tim, I have a movie tip for Jon Favreau and since I LOVED your podcast with him and since I know you love Chef, I think there’s a small chance you or your assistant(s) would like to forward it to him. It’s called “Dame La Mano” by Heddy Honigmann, and it’s a small-time documentary on cuban exiles, keeping their culture and their soul alive by dancing their asses off in a small New York café similar to the one in Chef. I think you might love it as well. It’s so real, so human. It’s my favourite movie, and it has so much in common with Chef (there’s even a small food truck in it) that I just had to share. Thank you so much for what you’re doing Tim, your podcasts are making my life better (and are making me a better learner). Sorry for the indirect way of trying to get this to Jon, it’s honestly the only way I could think of right now. If this annoys you, I hope you’ll forgive me for at least trying. I have no commercial interest – I’m just trying to get good underrated stuff to good people 🙂 All the best.

  26. I’m so grateful. I’m enjoying these Seneca teachings.

    I appreciate the short recordings.

    I’m also listening to the translations of the Tao Te Ching from Dr. Wayne W. Dyer – his essays on how to apply the ancient wisdom of Lao-tzu to today’s modern world.

    Thank you Tim for making these audio recordings so easily accessible.

  27. I’m enjoying the practise of poverty myself and the power of the mind. My empowerment coach is teaching me ways to control my fear and instead manifest riches. I have the hardest time believing it though because it’s just so easy. Why do we crave struggle and challenge. Why do we make our lives so much harder then it has to be?

  28. Great work! Very original line of thinking.True test of free will. Discouraging the habits and appetites that create comfort in order to gain insight. Possession without effort, accumulation without fear.The practice of poverty has a long and rich history. Great post

    [Moderator: link removed]

  29. Have you ever thought about inviting on the podcast an academic philosopher specialized in stoicism? I’m an academic philosopher myself, and although I don’t specialize in the period, I have enough training in the area to know that this new appropriation of stoicism by writers such as yourself passes over some essential aspects while misunderstanding others. I’m not at all saying that anyone who doesn’t study philosophy at university isn’t allowed to talk about stoicism, I’m just suggesting that it would be interesting to hear from people who are specialized in the area explain how the stoics understood their philosophy, and what it meant for them at the time.

  30. My boss and I have been soaking up the wisdom from the podcast, books, etc. Wondered if Tim could start mentioning date in his podcasts. It would be helpful for those of us catching up on old podcasts; not always clear in podcast apps what date the podcast was created.

    Seneca letters opened up a conversation with my Dad – had no idea he had read ancient philosophers.

    Thxs for working to make the world a better place.

  31. I’ve enjoyed audio so far, but sometimes I feel like reading. Can you recommend an edition of the print books, or are they all the same? Thanks!

  32. Hey Tim, love the podcast and have been listening for months. I have a guest suggestion for you. His name is Nouman Ali Khan, founder and CEO of Bayyinah Institute. He has 1.7 million likes on FB and a huge following here in the US and in places like the UK and Malaysia. His website, Bayyinah.TV, is quite possibly the best Arabic language program I have ever encountered. He’s American of Pakistani descent who is a teacher of Arabic and Quranic Studies. Many of the stoicism concepts you mention are also in the Islamic tradition. As a scholar of Quran and a successful entrepreneur, Nouman Ali Khan would be a great guest for your show.

  33. As a longtime fan, I’d like to compliment you on your evolution toward interviews that raise questions about the common good, not just self-help, self-empowerment, and individual goals. The podcasts with Chris Sacca and Ed Norton were a pleasant departure from “successful” people giving advice and trying to justify their privilege. This evolution is reminiscent of Phil Donahue’s and Oprah Winfrey’s transition from celebrity interviews to programs grappling with social issues and possibilities for change. All the best to you and your audience as we transition toward a program of life hacks for the common good.

  34. Tim – love your stuff and all personal praise aside, I think you’re doing yourself and Seneca an injustice at times with your practice poverty. This may seem a radical challenge, especially given the tech world circles you run in, but aside from beans and rice and the same clothes, give up the internet. I’ve lived without the internet/tv/most electronic crutches other than music on and off for at least a year, and absolutely for about six months. I couldn’t be more ecstatic about the resulting release from stress in my life. It makes connections with people more meaningful, focuses you on community more and getting out in the world.

    Think it over.

  35. Tim: I’m a Stanford MBA student, longtime listener, fellow croissant enjoyer*. This episode resonates. And since I know you like to challenge people to break their conventional patterns, here’s an invitation for you, inspired by Letter XVIII: if I get five MBA students to eat on the equivalent of food stamp benefits for a week, will you let us take you to dinner in SF? Seneca says a holiday can be celebrated, after all. You can float ideas for that short film you want to produce this year, we’ll ask what you’d put on a billboard at every top business school in the US, and we’ll all agree to fast from MBA jargon in the process. Look forward to hearing from you. (*Your bio reports that you prefer chocolate. Clearly you have been deprived of a good almond croissant. This can change.)

  36. Life-changing information in less than 15 minutes.

    The following highlights I will try to weave into my life from now on:

    At around 11:57: “Even when angry fortune provides enough for us.”

    At around 14:39: “Establish business relations with poverty.”

    Thank you again Tim.

    – Carl Kruse

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