Stoicism for winners


Stoicism has a bit of an image problem.

There are 2 reasons for this.

Firstly, its philosophy.  So people assume its all poncey horseshit where perpetual students with goatee beards and berets bicker in cafes over the meaning of words whilst smoking French cigarettes and generally being a bellend.

Not true. I don’t smoke French cigarettes.

Secondly, people think that stoicism is just about enduring hard times, coping with disappointment and generally putting up with shit.

In other words, it’s for losers.

If I had to guess 2 images that popped into people’s minds when they thought of the word stoicism, they might be the World War I soldier marching grimly towards a fate that involved mud, rats and scattered body parts.

Or it might be a horse in the rain, standing motionless in the corner of a muddy field waiting patiently for the rain to stop falling.

But wait! Stoicism is actually much more interesting and more powerful than that.  It’s an operating system for making high stakes decisions, used in action by the most successful people in the ancient world.

In other words, stoicism is for winners.

The best 2 guides we have to stoicism are Marcus Aurelius and Seneca.  Now, you may think that anyone called Marcus can’t have been that good in a fight.  Or that Seneca sounds like a pharmaceutical company.  So let’s take a quick at their CVs to see whether Aurelius and Seneca were winners or losers.

Marcus Aurelius was not a lowly foot soldier. Nope, he was the Emperor of Rome for 19 years (from AD 161 to 180).   In other words, he was the equivalent of The President of the United States.

Actually, he was probably more powerful.  A Roman Emperor didn’t have to deal with the checks and balances of the US constitution, nor a population with access to the internet and social media. So Aurelius could probably have done just about anything he wanted.

And yet, by all accounts, the power that Aurelius held never seemed to go to his head – neither did the stress or the burdens of office.  He rarely rose to anger and never to hatred or bitterness.  But he still got results. According to Wikipedia:

During his reign, the Roman Empire defeated a revitalized Parthian Empire in the East: Aurelius’ general Avidius Cassius sacked the capital Ctesiphon in 164. In central Europe, Aurelius fought the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmatians with success during the Marcomannic Wars, although the threat of the Germanic tribes began to represent a troubling reality for the Empire. A revolt in the East led by Avidius Cassius failed to gain momentum and was suppressed immediately.

And when Aurelius fought wars he would often have been on the battlefield… not just sitting in a conference room thousands of miles from danger.

If only we had access to Aurelius’ thoughts, his operating system, the principles by which he kept cool and made good decisions whilst under the stresses of war, politics and treacherous plots.

Hold on…what’s this?…we do!

Whilst fighting a series of wars, he wrote a book. Meditations, written while on campaign between AD 170 and 180, describes how to stay cool in the midst of conflict, how to deal with other people and use nature as a source of inspiration.

Meditations was Aurelius’ private journal and was probably never intended to be published. The amazing thing about it is that you have a window into the private world of an actual Roman Emperor and the most powerful person on the planet.  Who, as it turns out, was into self improvement.

You can go to source and read his thoughts…straight from the horses mouth.  Or, if you’d like an easy introduction to the ideas of stoicism, I recommend The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. You can read the book or, perhaps easier, just listen to this free podcast.

The “obstacle is the way” refers to how stoics reframe challenges and setbacks as things we can learn from.  In this mindset, challenges are not just something to be tolerated, they are essential for growth.

Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt.  The mind adapts and converts to its own purpose the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

For me, the personal proof of this was experiencing a career crisis where I thought I was going to be unemployed during a downturn.  But this “crisis” turned out to be a blessing in disguise, shocking me out of consumer complacency. I slashed our spending and realised that a saving rate of over 50% was easily possible for me. And it showed me that, once you have the basics of food and shelter taken care of, spending does not bring happiness.

That experience set me on The Path to financial independence. Without that obstacle, I would have never raised my game.

And when I look at other aspects of my life, it seems like the good stuff has come from things that initially seemed ridiculously difficult.  For example, at school I was lousy at maths.  I did an AO level in Maths and my grade was….errr, well, ungraded. So to then do an economics degree and qualify as an accountant often felt like rolling a boulder up a hill.  As did working in Corporate Finance.  What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

What about Seneca then?  Was he some poor loser? Hardly. Back in Ancient Rome, Seneca was the equivalent of Warren Buffet today. He was one of the richest businessman and investors in the ancient world and a wise man.  Like Buffet, Seneca was a great writer of letters.  Both realised that getting rich was a great game but that money could not buy happiness.

One difference was that Seneca was physically fitter than Warren Buffet.  Seneca’s ideal way start to the day was to go running and then swim in the sea.  Its fascinating to me how Seneca and Aurelius seem to have been as interested in physical fitness and strength as they were in thinking, writing and debating.  Is it possible that part of their mental clarity, their thinking process was helped by this physical fitness?

It’s interesting that Nassim Taleb, Richard Branson, Aristotle and Tim Ferriss all say that exercise in general (and lifting weights in particular) is a keystone habit, one that underlies success in other areas life.  I can’t prove that’s true but I’m pretty sure there’s something to this. I’m currently loving the feeling you get from BodyPump (which is basically weights to music…and the only form of weight training that I’ve found fun and motivational…with no self discipline required).

Although he was not emperor himself, Seneca was probably the most powerful person in the world in his day. He was tutor and then adviser to the child emperor Nero before Nero went off the rails.  It was a bit like on Game Of Thrones: when the king was a child, the Hand of the King was usually a senior elder statesman that was the real power behind the throne.

And Seneca was rich. With a fortune estimated at 300 million sesterces according to Wikipedia.  Which in today’s money is approximately….errrr…lets just say its a shit load of money.

But Seneca, like many successful people, was still prone to worrying about money.  So he figured out ways to worry less about poverty.  Seneca advises us to expose ourselves in manageable doses to the things we fear.  Think innoculation, where a weakened version of the virus is deliberately injected to build resistance.

Seneca advised taking a week each year to practice poverty where we eat the plainest food (e.g. bread or rice), wear plain clothes and sleep on the floor (or sofa) so we stop being so squeamish about losing money or our job.

Seneca would do this and then ask himself: is that it?  Our fears are often far worse than the reality.

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?”

In this way, Seneca trained himself to thrive on simple living and to stop worrying about money. And this had the helpful side effect of making him richer than ever.

Seneca also wrote about the importance of Digging A Well Before You Are Thirsty.  In personal finance, saving money has a double benefit.  Firstly you’ll have less debt / more savings to tide you over a rough patch.  The financial benefits are pretty obvious.

Secondly (and less obvious) are the creative and psychological benefits from toughening up ahead of the challenge.  And before the apparent necessity to do so. So, just as Usain Bolt goes to the starting line having done the work in training, when the inevitable challenges of life come, we’re equipped to deal with them.

It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.

In days of peace the soldier performs manoeuvres, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil.

If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes. Such is the course which those men have followed who, in their imitation of poverty, have every month come almost to want, that they might never recoil from what they had so often rehearsed.

We shall be rich with all the more comfort, if we once learn how far poverty is from being a burden.

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  1. FrugalFox · · Reply

    I’ve notices stoicism has become more and more popular over the last few years. Many of the big future tech entrepreneurs all seem to read one of the two main stoic writers. Personally I prefer Seneca. I am especially keen on reading “on the shortness of life” it does a great job of keeping me focused on enjoying life.
    To leave with a quote from Seneca “But life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future.”

    1. The Rhino · · Reply

      I think Epictetus would be turning in his grave to be associated with Ferris? Actually, maybe he’d just take it on the chin and get on with things..

  2. FrugalFox · · Reply

    Yes that I would absolutely agree with. Not sure any of my friends would know who Seneca was. Maybe that’s a sign I need to expand my circle slightly!

  3. I’d agree with the exercise thing – when I’m not able to exercise (eg through illness or injury), I not only feel lethargic but also less motivated.

    I prefer Body Attack to Body Pump – sure sometimes the routine’s so tough that I feel a bit sick but I always feel great afterwards! I also like a bit of Body Balance.

    1. Ha…I’ll have to try Attack!

      1. donaldtramp1 · · Reply

        I’d also recommend attack. One of the few guys in the class (not my main reason for attendance, but it helps!). It’s really interesting to see guys who usually do weights turn up to the class. After half an hour they are usually doubled up breathing through their ears!
        I’ve also read The Obstacle Is The Way and enjoyed it. Currently working through “A guide to the good life.” To see if there are any other gems of wisdom from the stoics.

  4. I was baffled by maths at school as well – taught it to myself after leaving – got a couple of degrees, qualified as an accountant and since trained in 6 Sigma which uses statistics – dove into head first.

    Maybe it wasn’t taught right in school…..

  5. Great to see the use of “bellend”, that most English of insults.

    1. Haha I think I just learnt a new word ;P

  6. Currently reading Derren Brown’s “Happy”. Lot’s of background information on stoicism and its roots, only 200 pages in (it’s a long book) but am interested to read his thoughts on incorporating the principles into everyday life. Has anyone else read the whole book?

  7. Nice post. MMM recommended “A Guide To The Good Life” which talks about stoicism. Currently reading it now. Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca have all been referenced several times. Good stuff so far!

  8. Patty · · Reply

    “…once you have the basics of food and shelter taken care of, spending does not bring happiness.” ~~The Escape Artist

    You said it!!!

  9. […] religions and philosophies taught that tough times are inevitable, so we better get used to that. Stoicism is the western philosophy that deals best with this. And Buddhism’s 4 Noble Truths includes the […]

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