I stumbled across Stoicism in a Tim Ferris podcast some years ago. At the time, I was quick to dismiss it after hearing ‘Philosophy’ and ‘Roman Empire’. No wantrepreneur has time for that noise, so I thought. I was clearly wrong.
This is by far the most simple, elegant, and practical framework for improving your life. Practicing stoicism is a small commitment that can lead to enormous improvement.
Think of it as the 80/20 rule but on steroids. Or the silver bullet everyone claims doesn’t exist.
What is stoicism?
Stoicism is a famous philosophy originating from Athens. It was founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC. Zeno was a very wealthy merchant until he became stranded in Athens after losing everything in a shipwreck. He was only 22 years old at the time.
It was in Athens that he began studying Socrates. This led him on a journey to eventually educate his own students. Virtue, tolerance, and self-control were among his teachings. Stoicism was then born. The stoic philosophy was designed to make us more resilient, happy, and virtuous.
The modern Google definition of stoic is “a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining”. Whilst this is partially true, it is rather simple. Stoicism is primarily focused on logic, ethics, and action. Stoics see the world as it is, not as they wish it would be. They take appropriate action based on this.
The principles of stoicism are articulated differently depending on what resonates most with the person interpreting them. These principles are also derived from letters, diaries, and lectures many centuries ago where each philosopher’s experiences are different.
Who are the Stoics?
The philosophy is wеll known аmong thе Romаns. Especially Sеnеcа, Еpіctеtus, аnd Mаrcus Аurеlіus. These are all names you may have heard thrown around in a Tim Ferris podcast or Ryan Holiday tweet.
So why are they popular, and what can we learn from them?
Lucius Annaeus Seneca often referred to as ‘Seneca’ was born in Spain and educated in Rome. He was a philosopher, poet, playwright, and politician. Seneca was wealthy until his life took a turn for the worst. He was exiled to the island of Corsica in 41A.D after supposed adultery with the emperor’s niece and sister.
Eight years later he was granted permission to return provided he becomes Nero’s tutor and advisor. Nero, one of the most tyrannical leaders in Roman Empire history eventually ordered Seneca’s death in another far-fetched conspiracy.
Seneca is famous for urging us to examine the notion that life is too short. Which is often the result of filling our time with business, stress, other people's agendas, and anything that isn’t aligned with our core values.
In his essay On the Shortness of Life, he makes it clear that life isn’t short. It only seems so because much of it is unknowingly wasted. This is evident in one of his well-known quotes “It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”
Side note for the entrepreneurs: You may have heard or seen the term ‘Momento Mori’. It’s supposed to be a symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. Stoic Reflections is a company capitalizing on this. They have a newsletter, wallpapers for sale, and framed reminders of the inevitability of death. They currently have 650k followers on Instagram. Ryan Holidays site DailyStoic is similar with a whopping 1.1m followers. I’m sure there are more opportunities in the space.
Epictetus was born in Turkey around 50 A.D and lived in Rome until his banishment.
He spent a portion of his life as a slave under Epaphroditus, who graciously granted him permission to pursue liberal studies. In his pursuit, he was introduced to philosophy through the Stoic Musonius Rufus.
Epictetus was set free after Nero’s death and started teaching philosophy in Rome. However, emperor Domitian banished all philosophers in Rome forcing him to flee to Nicopolis in Greece. He then founded a philosophy school where his most remarkable work was captured.
Epictetus is famous for framing our perception to see what is truly in our control and what is not.
Again, this is evident in his work.
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
Marcus Aurelius is arguably the most popular and well-respected Stoic philosopher. He was born in Rome 121 A.D. The philosopher emperor was often referred to as ‘The last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome’.
How Marcus came to the throne isn’t exactly clear. However, he was related to several of the most affluent families of the Roman establishment. Discourses, written by Arrian had a lasting influence over Marcus Aurelius.
He is best known for his meditations on Stoic Philosophy. This was a diary of all his private thoughts and frameworks. He would often reflect and give himself advice. Mostly related to self-discipline, ethics, virtue, self-actualization, and strength.
The reason this is so interesting is that Marus Aurelius held one of the most powerful positions in the world at the time. With it came almost anything he desired with little to no consequence.
This is what distinguishes Marcus from the rest of the Stoics. He continually adhered to his stoic values.
His key lessons are focused on worrying about one’s self and living in the present.
“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people but care more about their opinion than our own.”Marcus Aurelius
Disciplines of Stoicism:
There are many principles and frameworks for practicing Stoicism. However, the Daily Stoic articulates three common disciplines worth practicing in a simple manner.
1. The discipline of perception:
How we view what happens around us and what those events mean is important. It requires skill and discipline to take a step back and view the situation for what it truly is. Not for what we wish it would be. Maintaining objectivity is crucial. Being emotional, short-sighted, and subjective is usually detrimental.
A quote by Seneca illustrates this nicely
“A good person dyes events with his own color…and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.”
Imagine one day you’re looking for a new job, you’re on LinkedIn and you spot the perfect opportunity. You truly believe you’re a great candidate so you start imagining yourself in the role. You quickly apply.
Three months evaporate and you haven’t heard a peep. It’s devastating and you take it personally. You got attached to the outcome and you can’t help but feel like it’s not fair.
But have you considered there are people better suited?
The possibilities for why you weren’t chosen are endless and potentially justified.
2. The discipline of action:
Taking action is usually easy, but taking the right type of action is not.
“Some things are in our control, while others are not. We control our opinion, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything of our own doing. We don’t control our body, property, reputation, position, and, in a word, everything not of our own doing.”Ryan Holiday on Right Action
We must be sure to act with deliberation, boldness, and tenacity. Our actions must also be virtuous.
Are we doing something because it’s easy or because it’s the right thing?
Maybe we’re avoiding action because it’s too hard and uncomfortable.
Are we giving in to our impulses even though we know it’s wrong?
The stoics reflected and asked themselves these questions to navigate their energy in the right direction. It evidently led to personal growth.
3. The discipline of will
How we deal with things outside of our control is one of the most important practices of Stoicism. Our struggles help us become resilient.
Identifying the opportunity to change the direction of something whether an illness, a loss, hardship, or other misfortune is crucial. Sometimes we may not have a choice but knowing the difference is key.
I had mild dyslexia in school. Even the slightest touch of dyslexia is enough to throw all hopes of academic success out the window. My essays never made logical sense and words were usually spelled wrong. In exams, I would read a question and answer on a completely unrelated topic or format. Math was no better.
Knowing that I was inherently going to make mistakes I made a point to revise my work more than once. I took extra caution reading questions. Eventually, I built a mini process for approaching my work.
For each task I was presented I asked myself three questions:
- Do I understand the question and does it make logical sense?
- Have I reviewed my work properly?
- Will I be disappointed with the results due to a mistake I could easily fix right now?
So whatever your situation is, if you’re unhappy ask yourself “is this in my control?”
If the answer is yes then it’s your responsibility to do something about it.
If the answer is no then it’s still your responsibility to come to terms with the outcome and deal with it appropriately.
Is Stoicism really that useful for the current reality?
By now you should know that Stoicism is absolutely relevant and useful for our current reality. Perhaps more than ever, given we’re experiencing a global pandemic.
The philosophy can be embraced by anyone, regardless of religious, political, or philosophical views. Whether you’re an entrepreneur or an athlete stoicism is going to improve your life. David Goggins and Francis Ngannou are examples of modern-day Stoics.
Referred to as the Hardest Mo**er Fu**er on earth, David Goggins is a retired Navy SEAL and Air Force Tactical Air Control Party member. He is one of the only US Armed Forces members to complete US Navy SEAL training, US Army Ranger School, and Air Force Tactical Air Control training.
Goggins is now an ultramarathon runner, ultra-distance cyclist, triathlete, public speaker, and author. If that wasn’t enough, he also holds the world record for the most pull-ups in 24 hours. An impressive 4,030 in 17 hours.
Although, his accomplishments are not a true reflection of his life. Growing up Goggins was subject to violence from his father, racism from his community, learning difficulties, and heart issues.
While working a dead-end job spraying for cockroaches in restaurants he would fix himself a large milkshake. He often indulged at any opportunity. One night he came across the ‘mother load’ of cockroaches. He broke down and quit his job on the spot.
After a lot of self-reflection, he decided he had the ability to change the direction of his life. Goggins forced himself to exercise, study and work towards his goal of becoming a United States Air Force Pararescue member.
Francis Ngannou is a Cameroonian-born UFC Heavyweight Champion. He is by far one of the scariest and strongest UFC fighters. Literally. He holds the world's hardest punch. His podcast episode with Joe Rogan captures how tough his journey to becoming a champion really was.
In Cameroon, life was depressing for Ngannou. At the age of 10, he was forced to work in the local sand quarry to provide for his single mother and auntie. After failing at school, working odd jobs, and feeling sorry for himself he decided to leave Cameroon. Ngannou admitted to hating his life.
He knew things weren’t going to change unless he took action. For a chance at a better life, he decided to chase a boxing career. The first step was making it to Algeria.
After many failed attempts Ngannous eventually made it through Algeria, Morocco, and to Paris where a boxing gym gave him the opportunity he needed.
“One year in illegal situations, crossing borders, living in the bush, finding food in the trash, living this terrible life.”Francis Ngannou
These may seem like extreme examples but they still display how practical Stoicism is. If Goggins and Ngannous weren’t true stoics there’s no way they would be so successful. Not to mention, without them openly sharing their story we would never know the struggles they faced.
How can you practice Stoicism in everyday life?
There’s really no need to completely flip your life upside down to practice stoicism. It can be as simple as journaling, meditating, and building better habits. The benefits of these practices stretch far beyond being a more virtuous person. They’ll likely improve your mental and physical health.
According to the University of Rochester Medical Center journaling reduces stress, manages anxiety and helps cope with depression. The Five Minute Journal is a popular way to journal and practice gratitude. It’s simple, short and effective making it an easy habit to stick with.
If you’re like me this still seems like too much effort to commit to every day. As a result, I decided to replicate (and modify) the questions into a google doc on a separate Google account. I don’t really like the idea of having to carry around a physical journal with all of my personal thoughts. Not to mention, it’s expected you complete this morning and night which I know I won’t do.
Instead, I try to log in and journal right before I start my workday. Now that it’s on a google drive account it can be accessed anywhere. If you’re interested in creating an anonymous journal you can start here.
The stoics would self-reflect often. It’s how they audited their thoughts and directed their actions. Meditation is a simple way to do this.
According to Mayo Clinic meditation seems to help everything. From reducing stress to lengthening your attention span the benefits are too impressive not to meditate.
3. Building positive autonomous responses
Every day we are asked the same boring question “how are you?”. If you’re in Australia your response is likely to be “not bad”. Don't believe me? Here’s a video of Carl Barron proving it.
My response to this question is “always good”. Three reasons I always answer this way:
- It prevents me from thinking about all the things I could complain about.
- Even if I’m not good, if it’s in my control I will change it. If not then there’s no point being upset about it.
- Other people adopt similar positive energy when they hear it.
- Have the courage to change things in your control and the discipline to endure things that are not.
- Meditation and journaling are small investments to help you become more stoic.
- Take risks, even if things don’t pan out you’ll be more resilient in the long run.