What do Tim Ferriss and Emperor Marcus Aurelius have in common? Graham Scott has the answer: Stoicism.
Here’s the question: What does the uber-cool marketer Tim Ferriss have in common with the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius? True, they both wrote books, Tim The Four Hour Work Week among others and Marcus Aurelius the Meditations. But that’s not it. They are or were both followers of the Stoic philosophy.
If you spend time online you’ll almost certainly have come across Tim or numerous mentions of him. And you’ll have seen Emperor Marcus Aurelius played by Richard Harris in Gladiator.
How could such different players be influenced in their daily life by a philosophy that started under the Stoa Poikile (hence Stoic, the name actually meaning Painted Porch) in the main marketplace in Athens in 300BC? And what could a Roman slave who served under Nero teach Silicon Valley entrepreneurs?
The answer is that Stoicism is perfect for the modern life. Because it teaches us two main things: to discard negative emotions like fear, jealousy and anger; and to be deeply content with what we have rather than crave what we don’t have. It shows us how to be the best we can be, quietly and without visible effort.
Philosophy in Action
That sounds rather high-minded so here’s an example of each.
You have been made redundant. You’re understandably angry about this, particularly as some useless people kept their jobs. You’re worried about the future.
The second scenario is that a few months ago, partly at the insistence of your partner, you bought a new car. There was nothing much wrong with the old one but it was quite a few years old and maybe a touch shabby. You actually liked it and knew it well, but now you have a new car, new model. It looks cool. You could see yourself in it before you bought it and now you are in it. What’s not to like?
The Stoics started with Zeno in Ancient Greece, and they in turn heavily influenced later Romans including the ex-slave Epictetus and then others like Cato and Seneca as well as one of Rome’s finest emperors, Marcus Aurelius. They all knew about the pressures of work, relationships and money. We’ve changed our jargon and the technology, but our emotions are no different to those felt by those men over 2000 years ago.
Tranquility and Absinthe
What would they say to that angry executive who’s out on his ear? Firstly they would point out that every man should always strive to be the best that he can ever be. And he can only be that if he is happy within himself. Tranquil is the state they often mention.
‘Content in his skin’ as the French would say, probably while sipping Absinthe in a smoky café on the Left Bank while shrugging and draping a languid arm around their young and impressionable Japanese girlfriend.
How can you possibly be tranquil within with so much negative emotion raging? The Stoics don’t expect you to just force these emotions to one side, but to deal with them and let them go.
One major way is to follow the Stoic route, which is summed up by the Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
Past, Present, Future
What this means is that you can quite easily work out whether something is in your power to change. Angry at the ceaseless rain? Can you change it? No. Accept it, let the frustration and annoyance go, they only harm your tranquility and have no effect on the weather.
Angry at your old bosses making you redundant? Can you change that decision? No, it’s done and dusted. So let go of it. It’s not that simple, but try. You’ll be more likely to move forward if you can let that anger go which is holding you back. Does your anger affect your old bosses? No, they’re not even aware of it, and if they were, they might just laugh. Let it all go, begone.
In the bigger picture, the entire past, and indeed this precise second, are all things you can’t change. The past is done, gone. Worrying about things you should have done better, or raging about how your ex screwed you in the divorce won’t change any of it, all it will do is damage you. Let the past go.
But you can influence the future, which will come along in a series of instant moments which are the present. Focus on changing that to your advantage.
There’s a misunderstanding that Stoics don’t have much time for joy or success or anything sunny and lovely. That is simply wrong. When you have let go of negative emotions you are free to enjoy the positive emotions.
They all talk of the feeling of joy, joy at being alive, joy at things going well right this minute. We can have that joy but instead we focus on material things to bring us that joy, like the second example above of a man buying a car he can’t really afford and doesn’t really need.
Dopamine and Simon Cowell
We know from modern research that ‘retail therapy’ does give a nice little jolt of dopamine to the brain. But we all become like drug addicts. Increasing the amount we buy gives us less of a feelgood hit and it lasts for shorter and shorter time.
We’re encouraged to think that if only we have this next new thing – sofa, phone, detergent – then we’ll be happy. But people spotted millennia ago that this can’t keep working, eventually we’re bored of something almost as soon as we’ve got it and crave a new hit. Which kind of explains Simon Cowell.
A car is a bit more than casual retail therapy but the same lessons apply. We know that the feelgood factor from buying a new car lasts about two to three months tops. After that you become aware that you’ve already lost 20 or 30% of its value. The rear seats aren’t quite as spacious as in your last car and the children are already treating it as if it’s years old. The clever electronics are causing a few problems, and not just because you don’t understand them. It’s been back to the garage a couple of times and, now that it’s got road grime on it, it looks like most other cars. The shine really has worn off.
What has been achieved by buying this car? You already feel like you’ve lost a load of money and not really gained anything. Your thoughts already turn to replacing it. Here’s what a Stoic would have done.
He would have looked at his previous car. He’d appreciate its reliability and the service it has done over the miles. He’d keep it because it does its job and to replace it would mean spending money he can’t really afford. He would be content with that car. He would be quietly happier with his older car than our man ever will be with his new car.
Not Now, Cato
From this you might infer that to be a Stoic means being poor. Far from it. Some Stoics, like the unbelievably self-disciplined Cato, dressed like beggars so as to immunize themselves from public ridicule and the attraction of the material, but plenty of Stoics, including Cato, became successful and wealthy. Indeed Seneca could be viewed as one of the earliest investment bankers and was hugely wealthy.
Stoics enjoyed life and they enjoyed wealth when it came. But they never took anything for granted – wealth, fame, health, they knew everything was ultimately beyond their control and could be taken away at a moment’s notice. So what did they do?
They practiced negative visualization. So they imagined regularly what it would be like if they lost, say, the house they were in, or if the wine and food disappeared, or if their dearest friends died. This way they were relatively immune to shock if it actually happened, but that’s not the best part.
The best part is that they therefore enjoyed everything more, knowing it could soon be gone. Every moment, every day, every sip of wine. Imagine living a life like that, it would be intensely beautiful.
A Stoic enjoys the simple things, good, wholesome food, and would enjoy such a meal more than many people would who are eating out at a celebrity Michelin-starred ‘fine dining’ experience. How relaxed are those people under such pressure? How natural is the conversation? How relaxed are their minds and bodies behind the smiles and the amusing bon mots to go with the amuse bouche.
No Gate Guardians
So the life of the Stoics is as relevant today as it always has been, only perhaps we’re further away from their virtues than most societies have been. Stoics were courageous, self-disciplined, generous, thoughtful, sociable and simply people who enjoyed life to the full whenever possible.
Which is why a variety of people see the value in following the life of a Stoic now. You don’t need to join some cult or religion, or give all your worldly possessions to some smart-suited American with big white teeth and a small smile. Back in the day there were Stoic schools where you could be taught to be a Stoic, but now there is a wealth of literature on the subject and of course the internet (see below for some recommendations).
So there’s no entry fee, no obstacle to trying it quietly in your own time. It’s more a way of thinking which leads to a way of being, so you can do this in your own time on your own terms. And the result can be a man with inner peace, who has a plan, a way to live his life, whether that’s as an online entrepreneur or the ruler of one of the largest empires the world has ever seen.
Be More Stoic.
A STOIC DAY
Here’s how Stoicism can help on a normal, working day.
Joe drives to work, does a presentation, works hard and goes home. Just a normal day. Except on the way into work, when he’s a bit stressed as he’s a few minutes late, another car smashes into the back of his at a junction.
Joe is rattled, and becomes furious at the driver. He gets out and shouts at the woman driver of the car behind, who’s reduced to tears. Grumpily, he exchanges insurance details, sees that his car is driveable, and heads into work. He’s really angry, a little shaken, and also worried that now he’s really late for work and they may not believe his reason. (Anger is often just fear with added petrol.)
The Stoic man would also be shaken by the impact of the crash. But after a brief personal check he’d be hugely relieved and thankful that he wasn’t injured at all – it could have been much worse, and he doesn’t forget that.
Relatively calm, he’s alert as he goes to check on the other driver, and finds a woman in tears. Because he’s together, he helps her calm down while they sort out paperwork. Because he’s being so reasonable, she discloses that the reason it happened is because she’s just found out her mother is terminally ill and it ruined her concentration. He makes her feel better for talking about it. He’ll still claim on her insurance, but both parties drive off. He’s okay, she’s almost glad she ‘bumped into him’.
Joe gets to work, defensive about being late. He has a big presentation to some clients to do and he’s nervous about it. This isn’t helped when a senior manager leans on him to make some last minute changes which make the firm’s position look better, even though Joe knows these are claims they won’t be able to deliver. He makes the changes and now has to relearn what he’s going to say.
He’s worried about how his presentation will go down. Will the clients like him, will they think he’s management material, will his own management, who will be sitting in, approve of how he’s put it all together? Will he sound nervous or unsure? In the event the presentation seems to go okay but no better than okay. Joe feels exhausted by his day so far.
The Stoic man gets to work knowing he couldn’t have helped the delay, so makes a joke of it which defuses any tension. Nobody’s that interested and he knows that everyone is busy and thinking about themselves, they’re not that bothered by exactly what he’s up to. He knows the world doesn’t revolve around him.
He prepares again for his presentation. The unwelcome pressure from his superior stops him. He quietly but firmly argues his case as to why he shouldn’t make the changes demanded, knowing that further down the line they’ll look worse than if they left things as they are. This is not well received but he courageously sticks to his guns because he knows what he’s saying is the right thing to do. Grudgingly, the manager, who’s under pressure himself, backs off and leaves our man to prepare.
His focus is entirely on doing the best possible job, presenting the facts and his agency in the most positive light. He can back up everything he says, and believes in the project. He’s not really thinking about what the clients think of him personally, he’s running over in his mind how he’s going to do this to the very best of his ability. He’s not nervous because he’s so focused on his presentation.
Because of this, his presentation is superb and the clients love it. And they feel in their gut that this is an honest, straight, professional agency they can work with long term. Success.
Joe finishes work feeling wrecked. He drives home, hating the damage to the rear of his car, thinking about how it will get fixed. This takes his mind off the presentation which, he knows in his heart, is going to cause serious problems if they win the pitch, and it’s got his name on it. With time to spare, he reflects on how he should have stood up to his manager and all the clever things he could have said. But he knows deep inside that he didn’t say them.
Back in his apartment, after a stressful, horrible day, he pours himself a drink which disappears in seconds. Feeling lonely, he heads out to eat alone. This makes him feel worse and, full of drink, cheap food and additives, as well as a ball of tension in his chest, he stays up late watching television to take his mind off his life. Next morning he feels rotten. This makes him a little late for work. Rinse and repeat forever.
Our Stoic man finishes up at work and heads home knowing the day went well. He’s mildly irritated about the damage to his car but consoles himself with the thought that it will get fixed easily enough on the insurance and he’s not remotely hurt, so it could have been a lot worse. He wonders whether to contact the girl who crashed into him. She was quite cute beneath the running mascara. An interesting thought for later.
He gets home and, as usual, gets that lovely feeling of peace and serenity as he closes the door on the world. He pours himself a drink and enjoys the first few sips particularly, really focusing on it. He’s smiling.
He prepares a good dinner for himself, enjoying the creative steps of the preparation, relaxing in the chopping and blending, any tensions coming out in the well-worn routines. Over dinner he ponders his day, thinking how he could have done better, but also grateful for what has gone well. He’s enjoying his work.
He sleeps soundly, and is ready to go when he wakes up, looking forward to his day, grateful that he has another day to look forward to, acknowledging that one day there won’t be, so he’ll make the most of this one.
This is a Tim Ferriss post about the Stoic Cato and how he’s relevant to today. Check out other Stoic posts by Tim by using the ‘search’ bar at the top of his page.
A Guide to the Good Life by William B Irvine. A really good primer on Stoicism, and how to make sure you don’t ‘mislive’ your life.
Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. He used Stoicism every day in his life as Roman Emperor. Good examples of it in action.
The Golden Sayings of Epictetus. From a man who was a slave and who became one of the principals of the Roman Stoic philosophy.
—originally posted at Fellow HQ.