Some Stoic End of the Year Thoughts

December 22, 2014 — 1 Comment

Here we are at the end of the year once again. It’s ironic to me that sandwiched at the completion of one year and the beginning of another, we have two vastly different rituals.

On the one hand, we have Christmas, which has for too many of us, become so materialistic and gluttonous. We expect gifts and good food and overindulge in both. On the other hand, we have the “New Year, New You” mentality which promotes ambitious new resolutions in which we commit to utterly change ourselves in the upcoming twelve months (or until we abandon these inconvenient goals).

It all seems to be all so misguided. In a way, one creates the problems that the other attempts to solve.

The Stoics provide good advice here, as always. These two thousand year old, pre-Christian philosophers offer us a clearer way to live–without the ups and downs and extra helpings of self-loathing.

Let’s look at three quick insights for the holiday season:

First, practice your “contemptuous expressions.” I know contempt seems like a weird emotion to bring to Christmas but stay with me. As you look out over the bountiful offering of Christmas–the presents, the food, the lights–remind yourself what this stuff really is: a bunch of stuff. As Marcus Aurelius once wrote, sounding like he was almost describing a Christmas dinner:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time.”

What’s important are the people and the thoughts. Don’t let yourself get distracted from them.

Second, live in the present moment. That is, don’t obsess over what has happened in the past or lose yourself in visions of the future. Focus on what is right here, right in front of you. Make the most of it, and enjoy yourself. This moment could be all you have after all–it’s so much better to think that 2015 is not a guarantee and then to be grateful for all of it, then to have expectations and entitlements that go unfulfilled.

As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand.”

What matters right now is right now. Enjoy it.

Third, if you are going to try to improve in the next year or you do have some regrets about the previous year, don’t just hope that this will happen. That’s not how it works. As Seneca wrote to a friend who’d asked for advice, you need to pick a person or a model to hold yourself against.

“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight. ”

So, who will it be for you this year?

**

Stoicism is not something you “believe”, it’s something you do. It’s a practical philosophy. The more you work it, the more it will do for you. So why not start now? There isn’t a better time.

As a final parting thought, remember that we choose whether this was a good year or a bad year. We choose whether everything is good or bad. As Seneca said, “a good person dyes events with his own color…and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.”

This is the attitude for success and optimism in all situations. By controlling our perceptions, we create a reality in which every situation, no matter what it is, provides us with a positive, exposed benefit we can act on, if only we look for it.

With this in mind, I hope you enjoy the holidays and consider the Stoics when you can.

How To Think About Obstacles

December 11, 2014 — 9 Comments

The obstacles we face in life make us emotional. Yet, being emotional is pretty much the easiest way to make a problem worse. In fact, in order to overcome obstacles is to keep a steady and clear head about us at all times.

The ancient Stoics had a word for this state: apatheia.

What follows are the 7 critical ways to think about every obstacle, every problem and every and any kind of adversity you face.

Step 1: Steady Your Nerves

 “What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can only get by practice.” — Theodore Roosevelt

 During the Civil war troops were unloading a steamer when it exploded. Everyone hit the dirt except Ulysses S. Grant, who instead ran towards the scene.

That is nerve.

Like Grant, we must prepare ourselves for the realities of our situation, steadying our nerves so we can throw our best at it.

Step 2: Control Your Emotions

“Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.” — Publius Syrus

 When America first sent astronauts into space, they trained them in one skill more than any other: the art of not panicking.

Here on Earth, when something goes wrong we trade in our plan for a good ol’ emotional freak-out.

As Nassim Taleb put it, real strength lies in the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.

Step 3: Practice Objectivity

“Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” — Epictetus

 In our lives, how many problems seem to come from applying judgments to things we don’t control?

Perceptions give us information at the exact moment when it would be better to focus on what is immediately in front of us.

We must question our animalistic impulse to immediately perceive what happens. But this takes strength and is a muscle that must be developed.

Step 4: Practice Contemptuous Expressions

The Stoics used contempt to lay things bare and “strip away the legend that encrusts them.”

Roasted meat is a dead animal. Vintage wine is old, fermented grapes.

We can do this for anything that stands in our way, seeing things as they truly, actually are, not as we’ve made them in our minds.

Step 5: Alter Your Perspective

“Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant.” — Viktor Frankl

 Remember: We choose how we’ll look at things.

What we must do is limit and expand our perspective to whatever will keep us calmest and most ready for the task at hand.

Think of it as selective editing—not to deceive others, but to properly orient ourselves.

Step 6: Live in the Present Moment

“The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up.” — Chuck Palahniuk

It doesn’t matter whether this is the worst time to be alive or the best, whether you’re in a good job market or a bad one.

What matters right now is right now.

Focus on the moment, on what you can control right now. Not what may or may not be ahead.

Step 7: Look for the Opportunity

“A good person dyes events with his own color…and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.” — Seneca

 The reality is every situation, no matter how negative, provides us with a positive, exposed benefit we can act on, if only we look for it.

Maybe you were injured recently and are laid up in bed recovering. Now you have the time to start the book or the screenplay you’ve been meaning to write. That business decision that turned out to be a mistake? See it as a hypothesis that was wrong. Like scientist you can learn from it and use it in your next experiment.

Remember: This a complete flip. Seeing through the negative, past its underside, and into its corollary: the positive.

The new way to think…

Does getting emotional about this provide you with more or less options? The Stoics knew the answer to that question and it’s why they worked so hard to see their obstacles with clarity, with optimism and from new angles.

It was with this approach that they turned negatives into positives and thrived amidst unthinkable chaos and turmoil. You can do the same.

 

 

The Obstacle Is The Way PRINT (from Joey Roth!)

December 5, 2014 — 10 Comments

I have something I’m so incredibly excited about that I barely have the words.

Joey Roth has been one of my artistic heroes since I first discovered his work. His prints hang in my office and I look at them every single day. We first met a few years ago when he randomly emailed me about books and we were going to try to get drinks but the scheduling didn’t work out. My blog was very small then and I just thought he was some nice guy that I would occasionally chat with. I remember very vividly sitting at the porch of Dov Charney’s house reading the New York Times and seeing the name Joey Roth in the design section. How cool is this, I thought? I bought his first poster about hustling when it came out.

So it feels very fated that we would one day collaborate on something. It’s even cooler to me that the collaboration involves one of his famous prints and our mutual fascination with stoicism and strategy.

This very limited edition print (only 1,000 are being made) is loosely inspired by the stories in The Obstacle Is The Way about Grant’s siege at Vicksburg and Eisenhower’s turnaround at Normandy. It’s the timeless idea of how military obstacles can be turned into advantages–and how advantages can so quickly be turned against someone. It took a lot of iterations to get it right and I think we did.

TOITW_web

Here is Joey’s explanation of the images:

The poster shows that when the competition is established, dug in and secure, it looks like an insurmountable obstacle, but in fact gives you freedom maneuver. This mirrors the agility of a startup vs. an entrenched player, or the beginner’s unencumbered approach beating the expert’s finely tuned but rigid technique. It’s also a reminder to stay flexible as you advance in your work and develop processes and expectations.

In other words, the obstacle becomes the way. And conversely, the fortress becomes a prison. It’s something I try to think about constantly and now this print is a daily reminder in bright color.

It’s very easy to say something in words in a book (or in a blog post), but communicating it visually is another story. I think that’s what makes Joey so unique.

I hope you like this poster and I hope it helps with your obstacles.

Ryan

Growth Hacker Marketing: The Course!

December 2, 2014 — 1 Comment


Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 6.22.57 AM

The Growth Hacker Marketing experiment continues! After a bunch of requests from readers for an additional medium, I partnered with Fedora to create a multimedia course version of Growth Hacker. Fedora is a super cool company (its investors include Naval Ravikant, the Winklevoss twins, Aaron Batalion, and myself actually, through a fund) and basically they were able to take the book, combine it with videos, links, some exercises from me as well as all my original notecards from the research to create a new way to experience the book.

As far as I know, I’m the first traditionally published author to do a book this way. It’s only $20 and at my insistence, comes with an extra copy of the book in physical or digital form and other cool bonuses. It’s already doing super well (was the #2 product on Product Hunt last week) and has gotten a great response. If you already have the book, this is a great way to get something extra for yourself, a way to re-read it and share your extra copy with a friend or colleague (see…Step #3 Create Viral Sharing). There also some bulk options if you want to use it for your department or start up.

Follow along with the lessons and interact with me on this new version of Growth Hacker Marketing. Enjoy!

 

 

It’s Not About Stoic WEEK, But Life

November 25, 2014 — 3 Comments

Here we are, with Stoic Week upon us once again.

This is exciting to me because thousands of new people will be exposed to philosophy for the very first time. I say that half-jokingly, knowing that many people including some who majored in it, think they studied philosophy in school. They didn’t–what they read about and did was an interesting intellectual stimulation but it was not philosophy.

Philosophy, as the Stoics saw it, was not abstraction. It was not theoretical. It was designed to help with the problems of life. And in Ancient Greece and Rome, the problems of life were quite real: murderous tyrants, war, plague, civil strife and banishments existed as very real and daily threats–alongside all the other things we deal with today like jealousy, injuries, greed, sickness, envy, and fear.

The Stoics developed a practical philosophy to make sense of this world, one designed to help its adherents thrive, succeed and live good lives. In my eyes, stoicism posits a very simple premise: We do not control the world around us; we control only how we respond. And so we may as well respond well–respond virtuously.

Stoicism, as passed down to us by Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and a host of other ancients, is a tool for that response. Epictetus’s “handbook” was picked up by everyone fromJames Stockdale to George Washington. Seneca was widely admired by the Christians, Thomas Jefferson and the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Marcus Aurelius proved to be equally inspirational to writers like Ambrose Bierce and Robert Louis Stevenson as he has been for statesmen like Theodore RooseveltWen Jiabao and Bill Clinton.

What does this all mean? It means that whatever problem you’re dealing with this week–or in this life–stoicism can be of help.

A few favorites:

On Ambition:

“Ambition means tying your well being to what other people say or do.

Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.

Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” – Marcus Aurelius

On Temptations:

“No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like the gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, “No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.” – Marcus Aurelius

On Self-Criticism

“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.” – Seneca

On Other People:

“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” – Marcus Aurelius

On Distractions:

“Stick to what’s in front of you—idea, action, utterance.” – Marcus Aurelius

On Objectivity

“Don’t let the force of an impressions when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” – Epictetus

On Success or Failure:

“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” – Marcus Aurelius

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus

On Fortune

“The wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power, but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.” – Seneca

On Endurance

“Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired and openly wish–a lie–for death.” – Seneca

**

I was fortunate enough to be introduced to stoicism when I was 18 or 19 years old. Not during a week of practice and contemplation, but a week where I nonetheless needed it very badly. I was going through a terrible break up. I was stuck in this apartment with some roommates who I absolutely detested. I was in my second year of college, not sure in which direction to take my life.

chance encounter led to me picking up Marcus Aurelius and his wonderful Meditations. The wisdom in this book not only helped me with my immediate problems–helped me see some perspective about my romantic woes and helped me realize there was no reason to resent these people I was living with. But more importantly, it set me on an intellectual journey (going “directly to the seat of knowledge” as Marcus put it) that changed my life and set me on a course I never would have expected.

In the years since, stoicism has something that strengthened me in failure, comforted me in pain, gave meaning to events and cautioned humility and conservatism in moments of success. It helped me publish three books–one of which, I can proudly say, is about stoicism. How this all would have played out otherwise, I really have no idea. But what stoicism teaches is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is what happened and that we must be grateful for it–the goodand bad alike.

I am. I am so grateful for the windows and doors that stoicism opened. And I hope for everyone participating in 2014’s Stoic Week that you feel the same. And don’t let it stop after 7 days either.