For those of us who live in the real world, there happens to be one branch of philosophy created just for us: Stoicism.
As Ryan Holiday popularized in Obstacle is the Way, stoicism doesn’t concern itself with complicated theories about the world, but with helping us overcome destructive emotions and act on what can be acted upon. Just like an entrepreneur, it’s built for action, not endless debate.
I’ve recently rebuilt my life and business under these seven guiding principles, or maxims as I like to call them. I consider each elemental in my growth as a man, entrepreneur and leader.
Principle #1: “I can always improve.”
As CEO of Rich20Something, I’ve learned that there’s always something you can do to be better. A better entrepreneur. A better son, sibling, friend, or partner. There might be times where you are haunted by mistakes from your past, and you mistakenly equate yourself with your mistakes. It sounds corny, but every day that you wake up is an opportunity to change. And the decision to makes these changes start with a single decision.
Principle #2: “I persevere when I am frustrated.”
Resilience is in short supply these days. I blame the internet. Because everything promised is easy. Because everybody wants things now. The world has been around for over four billion years. Modern civilization has only been here for about six thousand. Don’t rush the process. Things necessarily, and without exception, take time. While that time is elapsing, don’t give up because you’re frustrated. Persevere. Consistency compounds like interest over time. If you’re interested in learning more, check out Meditations by Marcus Aurelius.
Principle #3: “I don’t run from mistakes. I learn from them.”
You are supposed to make mistakes. Every single piece of human knowledge is the result of an initial failure. Every book that’s been written, every idea that’s been thought, every invention that’s been made, has been to solve a problem because somebody, somewhere, made a mistake.
Mistakes push us forward. If you’re categorically avoiding them, you’re not risking enough to reap big rewards. Rather than being afraid of making mistakes, look at them as necessary rites of passage, discard the anguish and retain the lesson. Be courageous. Then help other people to avoid the same traps.
Principle #4: “I am inspired by people who succeed.”
I think we all have a subtle tendency to conflate admiration with a bit of hater-ism and self-doubt. At least I know I did this for a while. Instead of looking for subtle reasons to invalidate the accomplishments of others, we should be inspired by their success. In fact, of all the emotions in the human spectrum, I think jealousy is the most useless. When somebody accomplishes something that you’d also like to accomplish, the question you should be asking is not “why are they better than me?” it should be “how can I do the same?” Once you have that made mental shift, you’ll be able to focus much more clearly on growth, and you’ll eliminate a ton of subconscious negativity in your life.
Principle #5: “I can learn anything that I want to.”
From a very early age, we are told by our parents, friends and teachers that we are good at some things and not at others. Sometimes blatantly, sometimes much more subtly. But the indications are very clear—over time, we start to believe this and identify with it. I was always a reading/writing kind of guy. I excelled at anything literary very early, and because of that, those traits were reinforced. My teachers would cater to my strengths. My parents would reinforce it by saying things like, “This family doesn’t really do well at math.” And for a time, I thought there was something truly different in my brain that made it harder to me to understand more left-brained, mathematical concepts. Thus, I became what the evidence supported. My test scores were always crazy good with anything involving reading or writing, while my math scores and science scores were mediocre at best.
I’ve worked hard over the past few years to undo that sort of fixed mindset. Deep interest is the key to acquiring elite level skill. Your brain is incredible and anything that you want to become good at is within your realm of natural abilities. Nothing you need to learn will ever require a genius-level IQ. From rocket science to starting a business. You just need the right approach, patience and above all, confidence in yourself. Oh, and then you need to put in the work. Show up every day and practice and you can do anything.
Principle #6: “I can make a difference with my effort and my attitude.”
The way you perceive things influences the way they turn out, and those results, in turn, influence your beliefs. It all starts with you and your attitude. This is similar to what’s called the Observer Effect in physics, whereby the very instruments used to measure a phenomenon alter the phenomenon itself. You are the instrument! This means that you must guard your thoughts accordingly. If you continually focus on why something will be too hard, the task will seem that much harder because you are magnifying the hard stuff. If you focus on why something is possible, why you’ll succeed, why a task will be enjoyable, you’ll experience those effects much more profoundly. After a short time doing this, you’ll come to realize that in many cases, events are just events—and the impact they have on our lives is almost entirely chained to how we understand and perceive them. This slightly dispassionate worldview is a core component of stoic philosophy, which I’ve deeply integrated into my life. When you change your behavior and your attitude, you will greatly influence the outcome of whatever obstacle you are dealing with.
Principle #7: “I like to challenge myself.”
Just like our tendency to avoid mistakes, we often avoid challenges…because, in our brain, “challenge” usually leads to error, or psychological strain, which is painful and unpleasant. But avoiding challenges is trading long-term fulfillment for short term safety.
By and large, the very nature of challenges is they start off difficult and become progressively easier. Along that path, you learn both the skills you need to succeed at your discipline and the person you need to become to rise to the occasion. I’ve learned this in nearly everything challenging I’ve ever done—from jiu jitsu to learning how to solve a Rubik’s cube. Through continuous challenge and with relentless persistence, frustration always gives way to understanding. Then competence. And finally, mastery.
So, my prescription for you is to intentionally, actively seek things that will challenge you. If you understand everything in your life, you’re doing it wrong. There should be at least one element of your day that frustrates you enough to constantly seek a solution. It could be something like a complex business problem, or something simple like reading a book that’s above your comprehension. Begin to see challenge and confusion as an indicator that you are on the right path, rather than a sign that you should turn back and head towards more familiar territory.
A mind once stretched will never return to it’s original shape.
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