Stoicism: Practical Philosophy You Can Actually Use

June 17, 2014 — 12 Comments

Marcus Aurelius

When most people think of “philosophy,” their eyes glaze over. It’s the last thing they want, let alone something they need.

But this, as you already know, is silly and naive.

Philosophy is not just about talking or lecturing, or even reading long, dense books. In fact, it is something men and women of action use—and have used throughout history—to solve their problems and achieve their greatest triumphs. Not in the classroom, but on the battlefield, in the Forum, and at court.

It was jotted down (and practiced) by slaves, poets, emperors, politicians and soldiers, as well as ordinary folks to help with their own problems and those of their friends, family and followers. This wisdom is still there, available to us.

Specifically, I am referring to Stoicism, which, in my opinion, is the most practical of all philosophies.

A brief synopsis on this particular school of Hellenistic philosophy: Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, but was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Cato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

But at the very root of the thinking, there is a very simple, though not easy, way of living. Take obstacles in your life and turn them into your advantage, control what you can and accept what you can’t.

In the words of Epictetus:

“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”

Amazingly we still have access to these ideas, despite the fact that many of the greatest Stoics never wrote anything down for publication. Cato definitely didn’t. Marcus Aurelius never intended for Meditations to be anything but personal. Seneca’s letters were, well, letters and Epictetus’ thoughts come to us by way of a note-taking student.

And so it was from their example, their actions, we find real philosophy.

Because other than their common study of the philosophy, the Stoics were all men of action—and I don’t think this is a coincidence. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of the most powerful empire in the history of the world. Cato, the moral example for many philosophers, defended the Roman republic with Stoic bravery until his defiant death. Even Epictetus, the lecturer, had no cushy tenure—he was a former slave.

And this shouldn’t really be that surprising…

The modern day philosopher and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines a Stoic as someone who, “transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.”

Using this definition as a model we can see that throughout the centuries Stoicism has been a common thread though some of history’s great leaders. It has been practiced by Kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Both historical and modern men illustrate Stoicism as a way of life.

Prussian King, Frederick the Great, was said to ride with the works of the Stoics in his saddlebags because they could, in his words, “sustain you in misfortune”.

Meanwhile, Montaigne, the politician and essayist, had a line from Epictetus carved into the beam above the study in which he spent most of his time.

The founding fathers were also inspired by the philosophy. George Washington was introduced to Stoicism by his neighbors at age seventeen, and afterwards, put on a play about Cato to inspire his men in that dark winter at Valley Forge. Whereas Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his nightstand when he died.

The economist Adam Smith’s theories on the interconnectedness of the world—capitalism—were significantly influenced by the Stoicism that he studied as a schoolboy, under a teacher who had translated Marcus Aurelius’ works.

The political thinker, John Stuart Mill, wrote of Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism in his famous treatise On Liberty, calling it “the highest ethical product of the ancient mind.”

But those influenced by the Stoics goes on…

Eugène Delacroix, the renowned French Romantic artist (known best for his painting Liberty Leading the People) was an ardent Stoic, referring to it as his “consoling religion.”

Toussaint Louverture, himself a former slave who challenged an emperor by leading the Haitian revolution, read and was deeply influenced by the works of Epictetus.

Theodore Roosevelt, after his presidency, spent eight months exploring (and nearly dying in) the unknown jungles of the Amazon, and of the eight books he brought on the journey, two were Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Epictetus’ Enchiridion.

Indeed, Teddy seems to represent the temperance and self control of the philosophy beautifully when he said, “What such a man needs is not courage but nerve control, cool headedness. This he can get only by practice”. Likewise he expressed the necessity of action advocated by the Stoics when he famously remarked,

“We must all wear out or rust out, everyone of us. My choice is to wear out”.

Today’s leaders are no different, with many finding their inspiration from the ancient texts. Bill Clinton rereads Marcus Aurelius every single year, while Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister of China, claims that Meditations is one of two books he travels with and has read it more than one hundred times over the course of his life.

You see, Stoicism—and philosophy—are not the domains of idle professors. They are the succor of the successful, and the men and women of action. As Thoreau put it: “To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school…it is to solve some of the problems of life not only theoretically, but practically.”

The mantle is ours to pick up and carry and do with what we can.

This column originally appeared on Classical Wisdom Weekly. Comments can bee seen there.

What Matters: Information vs. Knowledge vs. Experience

June 11, 2014 — 10 Comments

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 2.16.56 PM

@gapingvoid

There’s no question that self-education has never been easier.

We can consume countless blog posts, articles, books, videos, TED talks, and Reddit AMAs. We take MOOCs, and can study along with course syllabuses from Ivy League universities. It’s awesome. And best of all, no one can criticize effort spent on becoming informed.

But there is a dark side to this glut of free information. It’s enabled a whole industry of self-help gurus, life coaches, and social media marketers to sell snake oil to the masses, tricking people–people who genuinely want to improve their lives–into thinking they can get something for nothing.

I would never discourage someone from learning, especially extra-curricular learning. I’ll just say that it’s only an education (in the schooling vs. education sense of the word) if that learning is turned into knowledge.

And knowledge requires more than just books and instruction. It requires experience. It needs the interplay–the back and forth feedback loop–between theory and practice, hypothesis and results, ideas and action. Reading case studies and listening to the latest social media gurus isn’t going to get you very far unless you have something practice the lessons on. Education without experience is masturbation. As the saying goes, non scholae, sed vitae discimus—not for school but for life we learn.

So how do you do it? How do you turn you turn lessons into action? Information into insight?

First, you have to just start. As Austin Kleon put it “Don’t wait until you know who you are to get started.” That’s the whole point—you figure it out by doing. So none of this nonsense about “being ready.”

This is both the simplest and hardest way to separate yourself from your peers. Why? Because while everyone else is studying, you’re working. What makes it hard is that we’ve been told our whole lives is that you need a degree, you need prerequisites, you need to be properly trained. Drop out, get started.

Of course, your education is never over. Doing and learning feed into each other and the sooner you start, the better. As Plutarch puts it, “I did not so much gain the knowledge of things by the words, as words by the experience of things.”

So don’t hold out for your dream job or the perfect opportunity. The perfect opportunity is the one that exists, that gives you any kind of experience, the one that allows you to put anything you’ve learned into practice. The perfect opportunity you keep picturing in your head? That’s your ego protecting you from change — the feeling of pain and failure that is deliberate practice and experimentation.

Don’t wait to be paid for it either. The opportunity is the payment. You want a good job for purely selfish reasons here—you want a place where you can experiment with your ideas and theories. Think about it like being a grad student, you want access to the laboratory where you can run experiments (that they pay you a little bit is a bonus). For some more thoughts on this, check out my piece on mentorshipsCharlie Hoehn’s Recession Proof Graduate, or Robert Greene’s chapters on apprenticeships in Mastery.

Second, process. It’s very easy for learning to go in one ear and out the other. Making a concerted effort to record and process what you’re observing and being taught helps prevent that.

If you read a lot, take notes on what you read and transfer those notes into a commonplace book, where you can organize your thoughts. Repeating and reiterating what you’ve learned helps make connections and improve memory. Organizing it into a system means it will be so much easier to retrieve when you need it. There’s a reason that smart people often carry around a notebook.

Writing articles is my favorite. I am always looking for ways to take interesting things I’ve seen, heard or read and see how I can write about themUsing a quote you like forces you not only to recall it better, but means you have to add analysis and interpretation to it. If I experience someone provocative, I try to write about that too. I can still remember snippets and pieces advices I was given (and studies, anecdotes and examples) that I mentioned in blog posts five or six years ago.

It doesn’t have to be writing though. You can process by talking, teaching, or a lot of other means. Struggling to explain what you’re working on feels painful, but it helps. By the end of it, you understand it better. Trust me, it also helps with your sanity.

The point is you have to articulate and analyze what you are seeing. It’s the only way to take the sparks of thought in your brain and turn them into a coherent understanding that you can use for other things, whatever it may be (explaining it to others, writing an article about it, solving a personal problem, etc). Don’t worry about form over function here. It doesn’t matter if no one reads your blog posts, if your girlfriend/boyfriend only half understands your breathless explanations. Just do it.

Third, expose, then apply. Analogous thinking (where thinking from one domain is applied to another) is incredibly powerful—it’s where real creative breakthroughs happen. But you know, there are two critical ingredients there. An interest in something, and the initiative to try to translate it.

I remember exactly how I got into marketing. Before I worked for Tucker, before American Apparel, I had a job working at a restaurant between high school and college. I had developed a relationship with the owner, who could see I was more than just a kid. And I had been avidly reading these local political blogs and noticed that the bloggers would talk about stuff other than politics. I suggested that the guy offer a few of them free meals if they would come in and review the place. The bloggers gave him a bunch of free press. I think he paid me $250 for this idea. Even in my wildest expectations, I never would have guessed I would I later write a book about these exact kinds of transactions.

I was working as a server but I had learned and studied something on the side. I combined the two. My career followed. Connections between ideas don’t magically happen. Knowledge doesn’t become action on it’s own. You have to do it. But my idea was only possible because of step one and two—I’d taken some crappy job rather than sitting at home and I’d been fooling around learning and writing. Then I connected the two.

Read and learn widely, but apply those lessons to whatever you happen to be doing. Make connections–however absurd they may seem. You never know where it will lead.

“Many who have learned from Hesiod
the countless names of gods and monsters
never understand that night and day are one” – Heraclitus

The bottom line is that you can read the best books, have the best teachers and go to the best schools in the world, but compared to people who do things for a living, you’ll still be a fool. I love reading more than almost anything, probably more than I should. But even I’ll admit that it would be a waste of time if I just let it all accumulate in my head. More than that, I wouldn’t truly know what I’d read because I’d never put myself out there, applied it or made connections.

You can’t put your stamp on the world being a passive student. The proving grounds are in the real world. This means taking risks, it means exposing yourself to new things and putting your own spin on them.

So get going.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can bee seen there.

How To Beat Procrastination

June 1, 2014 — 10 Comments

Being productive is really a battle. It’s the worst kind of battle: a battle against yourself.

When most people talk about productivity they miss the point. They talk about external distractions and minimizing those influences. They encourage all sorts of external productivity tools and services. That’s all great but it sort of shifts the blame from where it rightly lies: on us, on our tendencies.

The author Steven Pressfield calls this the Resistance. When we sit down to do any important project whether it’s writing a book or a business plan, we face Resistance. The bigger the project, the more vulnerable or creative it forces us to be, the stronger the resistance.

We’re not productive because of the Resistance. In other words, productivity is not a matter of organization or distractions, it is primarily a matter of dealing with and redirecting the Resistance.

I’ll give you an example. I am working on a book proposal right now that requires me to examine some uncomfortable stuff. I also don’t totally have a handle on the concept as a whole, which basically means that every second I work on it is excruciating and difficult.

This is the reason I seek the relief of distractions. It’s definitely not because I’m unorganized. So I pop open Facebook, I come up with reasons to call people, I go around and bother my animals. I say, “Hey, let’s go out to breakfast, I’ll work there,” even though I know that I won’t.

Now, I could eliminate those particular problems or throw away my car keys, but like any addict I’d just find a new one. You’d find me doing whatever the productivity-equivalent of drinking rubbing alcohol is. Anything to take the edge off.

God knows how much energy is wasted by creative people this way. It’s a nervous energy, a pain-driven energy that must be channeled and sloughed off. White knuckling it? Well, that’s not exactly a solution.

I’m reminded of a quote from the dog trainer Cesar Millan, “Never work against Mother Nature. You only succeed when you work with her.” But how do you work with something that tries to distract and undermine what you’ve set out to do?

The key is to find some way to harness and redirect that negative energy.

When I find myself looking for an escape–I have a list of activities I can do that are productive ways to channel the resistance:

-I will take notes on a book I read for my commonplace book.

-I will go through my starred emails in my inbox (emails that didn’t immediately require a response which I’ve marked from the last 7 days or so).

-I will cross the business items off my to do list (review 15five reports, edit documents or research my team did, etc).

They are little pieces of big, never-ending projects that I can always make a little contribution to. They are always there–no matter what else I happen to be working on. This means I can always turn to them and use them as a productive excuse.

As Jerry Seinfeld put it, you want to find the pain you’re comfortable with. That’s the secret. Those are all activities I hate, but can tolerate. It puts me right between the horns of a dilemma. Work, or different work–and either one I choose moves me forward.

This is also where being good at more than one thing can help you. If all you do is write, then the opposite is not-writing. But if you write and consult, well you can run from writing into the arms of consulting or vice versa.

(On a side note, I think this is why creative people spend a lot of time thinking/producing work on being creative. It’s a way to work and practice their craft even though deep down they know they’re putting off a harder version of it.)

The real benefit of those tasks isn’t just setting up some sort of Sophie’s choice. It’s that when I put off writing or thinking about something and cross those other items off the list, I start to accumulate some momentum. When I switch tracks again, that momentum carries over. It makes it easier to get through whatever Resistance was holding me back.

So that’s my productivity secret. It’s not about systems. It’s not about technology–you don’t need Evernote or 37Signals to do it.

It’s about having a set of tasks that you can always do when you feel like procrastinating. This way you turn your least productive habit–running away from your work–into a potent motive force.

All that’s left to decide is what that happens to be for you.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can bee seen there.

Stoic Lessons From The Front: How To Turn Obstacles Into Opportunity

May 26, 2014 — 3 Comments

The history of war and combat is filled with stories of men (and women) snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. Impossible circumstances, unfavorable odds, somehow they still lead to almost miraculous triumphs. What I set out to do with my latest book was study the traits that make this possible and how they can be applied to life, across disciplines.

It turns out that there is one philosophy—battle tested at the front—that shows us the way: Stoicism. Best articulated by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (who spent 17 years of a 19-year reign at war) with the simple line:

“The impediment to action advances action.

What stands in the way becomes the way.”

parade of military legends followed his example—Frederick the Great, George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and James Stockdale. Not to mention the countless (and nameless) brave men and women who served with and after them. They all figured out how to turn obstacles upside down—how to turn what was in the path, into the path. What follows are three examples of how to follow this formula in our own lives, to turn any and every obstacle we face into opportunity.

Steady Your Nerves

During the Civil War, Union troops were unloading a steamboat near Union headquarters outside Richmond when it suddenly exploded. Everyone hit the dirt as debris and shells and even bodies rained down—everyone but Ulysses S. Grant who, as the leader of the Union forces, was seen running toward the scene of the explosion. Grant’s nerve is an example of someone who has steadied himself with grace and poise to persevere through the trial that was the Civil War.

We can learn from Grant. His choice—and make no mistake, it was a choice—to run toward the chaos was just one of many similar instances over the course of the greatest trial in American history in which he steadied himself with grace and poise in order to persevere. In our normal daily lives things are going to happen that catch us off guard—surprises are almost guaranteed. Regardless of how much actual danger we’re in, stress puts us at the mercy of our baser, fearful instincts for self-preservation. This prevents us from acting with what the English call a “cool head,” or even acting at all. Talent is not what is needed here. It is grace and poise, for they are the two attributes that give us the opportunity to reliably deploy any other skill in our arsenal. Like Grant, we can refuse to be intimidated, and use our steady calm to act boldly and overcome the obstacles that inevitably come our way. There is almost no situation in which a strong nerve does not help.

Work For Something Larger Than Yourself

When United States Navy fighter pilot James Stockdale was captured by the North Vietnamese in 1965, he knew (even as his parachute was deploying) that he would be the highest-ranking Navy POW they had ever taken prisoner. He knew he couldn’t do anything about his fate, but as a commanding officer he knew he could provide leadership and support and direction for his fellow prisoners (who included future senator John McCain). Stockdale made this his cause, and he acted with it at the forefront of his mind for the next seven years; two of which were spent wearing leg irons in solitary confinement.

There are times when we feel helpless, as if there is nothing we can do for ourselves because of the obstacles we face, like the world is against us. That may be true, but when we choose to focus on others—by providing assistance or being a good example—our own personal fears and troubles inevitably diminish. Stockdale gave his fellow POWs a mantra: Unity over Self. Put that in the forefront of your mind.

When it comes to obstacles we face in life and the reactions they provoke—boredom, hatred, frustration, or confusion—we have the power to submit to a greater, larger cause in our most difficult times. To wrest an opportunity from the difficult circumstances we find ourselves in. Like Stockdale, by thinking how we can make it better for other people—wherever we happen to be working, whatever we happen to be doing—we can create a mission for ourselves and get unstuck.

Find The Opportunity Within The Obstacle

The German Blitzkrieg was one of the most intimidating forces in modern warfare. During World War II, opposing commanders simply surrendered rather than face what felt like a terrifying monster bearing down on them. But General Dwight D. Eisenhower took a different tack after the invasion of Normandy. At Allied headquarters in Malta, Eisenhower told his deflated generals: “The present situation is to be regarded as opportunity for us and not disaster.”

Instead of flinching, Eisenhower searched and found the opportunity inside the obstacle rather than allow himself to become overwhelmed by the obstacle that had threatened the Allied forces for years. What Eisenhower discovered was that the Blitzkrieg strategy left their flanks exposed. This allowed the Allied forces to attack from the sides and encircle the enemy from the rear.

This is a textbook example of the role our own perceptions play in the success or failure of those that oppose us. Whether it’s a boss we dislike or a friend that has wronged us, we have the ability to push aside our preconceptions and look for the opportunity in the trials that come our way. When someone is causing problems for you—they are likely also offering you up opportunities. It’s all a matter of how you’re looking at the situation. Eisenhower recognized that the Allied lines were getting demolished by the Blitzkrieg. Well, what if we let them through? A-ha! And thus opportunity was born. It’s an important skill we can all develop, to mentally flip our obstacles on their head and find the opportunity within them. Where is your A-ha! moment?

Late in his reign, sick and possibly near death, Marcus Aurelius received some surprising news. His friend and most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, had rebelled against him. Instead of getting angry or taking it personally, he turned his friend’s betrayal into an opportunity to promote peace and practice forgiveness. He wouldn’t kill Cassius for his treachery, but would instead capture him and forgive him, “to continue to be faithful to the one who has broken faith.” He would use it as an opportunity to teach the Roman people and the emperors who came after him. The obstacle became the way.

As you can see, there is a pattern in these examples. A terrifying obstacle stood in the way of each of these great men, but they didn’t flinch or get intimidated. As soldiers, they had no choice. They leaned into the problem and gave it everything they had. It is an art we can bring to our own lives, in business, and in relationships, turning our obstacles into the way.

This post originally appeared on RangerUp.com. Comments can be seen there.

My Creative Secret: Quantity Over Quality — And Commitments

May 19, 2014 — 12 Comments

I promise I’m not writing this because I have a deadline.

Or, well, I actually kind of am.

See, I’ve found that my output depends almost entirely on my level of commitments (either internal or external).

Consider it kind of a reverse Parkinson’s Law. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will take exactly the amount of time you have budgeted. In this version, I posit that: You will write, produce, do, and turn in more if you have regular, standing commitments that you’d feel bad about breaking.

In The 33 Strategies of War, Robert Greene talks about the “death ground strategy” — that when soldiers have no escape, or are backed into a corner, they fight better and are often impossible to defeat. In it he quotes Sun-Tzu, author of The Art of War: “When warriors are in great danger, then they have no fear. When there is nowhere to go, they are firm, when they are deeply involved, they stick to it. If they have no choice, they will fight.”

This is something we can recreate in our own life. We can make big commitments to produce work — commitments that might seem beyond our limits — and use our desperation as a fuel to power their fulfillment.

The question is: why would you make commitments that stretch your capabilities in the first place? Well that ties into the second thing I have learned. Quantity increases quality.

With creative work, we can get bogged down with perfection — endlessly tinkering and improving, but only as an excuse to delay publishing. Steve Jobs, on the other hand, was notorious for demanding perfect products but also backing the projects against hard ship-dates. In other words, he put his engineers on a Death Ground and they had to fight for their survival — accomplishing more than they thought possible in the process.

We can and should tap into that with our own work, whatever we happen to do.

On my blog, where I can publish as much or as little as I like — I barely squeeze out a post a month. I never feel inspired, I never feel like I have time, I make a million excuses. For Thought Catalog, where I’m asked to contribute one article per week, I almost always hit my mark (and end up with ideas I never would have written otherwise). If I sell a book proposal, I’m going to find time to work on the book — even if I had otherwise felt that my schedule was booked. If I put a writing project on my to do list and schedule the time, I’m going to get a lot more done than if I just waited for inspiration to strike. These external deadlines remove the resistance that may otherwise prevent me from getting stuff done.

At the end of the day, to get good at what you do you have to put thousands and thousands of hours in. But those thousands of hours can’t all happen hidden in your cave like Demosthenes (the Athenian Orator who shaved half his head so he’d be too embarassed to do anything but practice alone). Ultimately, putting your work out — in front of people — is how you grow the most. You get feedback, you develop an intuition for the audience, you learn about your own tastes and preferences.

This is a hurdle young creatives must learn to get over. Ira Glass’ (from This American Life) quote is so good here, I’ll post it in full:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

The same goes for marketing and consulting work: If I sell a certain amount of time or a set of a services, I’ll make it work. If I am just sitting here, thinking about how much time I have for stuff, I feel like I’ll never get it all in. I actually prefer to have someone sell my services for me on commission, because they’ll always push harder than I will. And I will get better and grow in my struggle to meet all those demands.

The point is: our limits are often illusionary. Slovenian cyclist Jure Robic, who may been the world’s greatest endurance athlete, is proof of this. He was also “insane,” which may have contributed to his ability to train 335 days a year in addition to his races.

According to The New York Times, researchers in the 1800s began noticing a link between mental disorders and greater-than-ordinary athletic feats. The German surgeon August Bier once found the long jump of a mentally ill patient measured up near the then-current world record. In the years since, scientists have found links that show that fatigue is at least partially controlled by the brain and central nervous system — and that our actual physical capabilities stretch beyond this.

This is all to say — that resistance you’re feeling? Part of it is just in your head. We have to put ourselves in a position to challenge it. We have to create situations which force us to do more and more and more to see what we’re really capable of. The result is that we’ll improve with each attempt, and like Ira Glass explained, our output will begin to approach our demanding tastes over time.

You can be good at more than one thing. Or you can get really good and master one thing. But either way, the path is clear: lots and lots of work. Think quantity before you give yourself the cop out that “quality” often is.

It’s something I’ve learned over and over again. The more deadlines I set for myself–both internal and external, the more I’m able to produce. It’s the best way I’ve found to prevent lame excuses like “lack of inspiration” or “lack of time” from creeping in. So give yourself some deadlines or force others to set them for you, and when you feel the resistance coming on, think of what Jure would do and sign yourself up for more than you think the body is even capable of taking.

This column originally appeared on Thought Catalog. Comments can be seen there.