Stoicism has a bit of an image problem.
There are 2 reasons for this.
Firstly, its philosophy. So people often 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, Mr Money Mustache, 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. He practiced lifehacks that made him stronger. Seneca suggested that we 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.