I love learning. Part of me wishes that this phrase was in my repertoire during my younger days, but I am a believer that our individual paths to growth and enlightenment are not mapped out according to external measures, schedules and expectations.
When I learn about something new, I often reflect on my path to that particular topic. Today, I am writing about my path to a personal journal that is almost eight times older than the United States. While the journal may not be widely known, it’s principles and philosophies have been echoed throughout our history.
Marcus Aurelius was the most powerful man in the world between 170 – 180, and most of his days during that time were spent in battle. At the end of each day, he would write to himself in a journal for the purpose of self-awareness and personal discovery. He was the Emperor of Rome and was known as one of a group of Stoic philosophers including Seneca and Epictetus. More than a thousand years after his death, his journal was eventually published under the name Meditations in 1558.
Seneca was a philosopher, playwright, statesman and one of the richest men in Rome.
Epictetus was born as a slave, who eventually gained his freedom to become a philosopher.
If an emperor, a playwright and a slave could all subscribe to the same philosophical framework, it’s probably worth looking into.
Stoicism is a philosophy that was prevalent for about 480 years in ancient Greece and Rome. In present times, it often gets a bad wrap as it is perceived to be harsh and void of actual emotion. Philosophy, in general, can seem very abstract and not relatable to everyday life. To some (including myself), Stoicism is actually one of the most applicable philosophies to our world today. Nick Saban, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichek have incorporated the teachings of Stoicism into their coaching and player development.
My view of Stoicism can be broken down as follows:
- Mindfulness is a priority.
- Expectation and judgement create anxiety.
- You can’t control everything, but you can control your mind.
- Managing your reactions can be the key to happiness.
- Keep fear in check by rehearsing worst case scenarios.
Much of my reading over the last few years has pointed to Meditations, but I remember actually purchasing the book after reading one of Ryan Holiday’s books, The Obstacle Is The Way. Holiday was formerly the Director of Marketing for American Apparel before becoming an author and starting his own creative agency, Brass Check. Holiday presents the idea of Stoicism in a very approachable way, and his books provide a modern application of Stoic principles.
I would highly recommend these two books:
In The Obstacle Is The Way, Holiday views Stoicism through a lens of optimism. We don’t like to talk about it often, but life can be difficult. The optimism comes in with how we react to the adversity that we are presented.
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
– Marcus Aurelius
On December 9, 1914, an explosion caused a catastrophic fire that destroyed the majority of Thomas Edison’s East Orange Laboratory. The fire resulted in millions of dollars in damages and massive delays to productivity.
Watching the blaze, Edison, in his late sixties at the time, had this to say to his children:
“Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.”
The fire was out of his control, however he could control his response to this adversity. In six months, Edison’s new factory was in full swing and more productive than ever.
Fast forward thirty years, and the United States is in the full throws of World War II. Coming off a major victory at Normandy, the momentum seemed to stall for the Allied forces. Germany was responding with a series of brutal counteroffensives culminating in the Battle of the Bulge. The German Blitzkrieg strategy was to show such a direct and massive force (200,000 troops concentrated together) that any opposition would be overwhelmed in their attempt to triumph over such a daunting obstacle.
Before getting his team together to formulate the response plan, then General Eisenhower said, “The present situation is to be regarded as opportunity for us and not disaster. There will only be cheerful faces at this conference table”.
Holiday explains in the Finding the Opportunity chapter of The Obstacle is the Way,
“It is one thing to not be overwhelmed by obstacles, or discouraged or upset by them. This is something that few are able to do. But after you have controlled your emotions, and you can see objectively and stand steadily, the next step becomes possible: a mental flip, so you’re not looking at the obstacle but at the opportunity with in it.”
Eisenhower was able to think clearly and understand the opportunity that Germany’s strategy presented. The Allied forces were able to withstand the offensive long enough to expose the flank of the German forces and defeat them.
So, if an emperor, a playwright and a slave walked into a bar, the conversation may have looked something like this …
“Jettison the judgement, and you are saved. And who is there to prevent this jettison”?
– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
Judgement and comparison can be major causes of anxiety and stress. The actions of another cannot be controlled, but we are in absolute control of our response. My mom used to say, “if you don’t have anything nice to stay, don’t say anything at all.” As usual, Mom is right. However, it can be challenging to not engage in some good, old fashioned shit talking, but avoiding it altogether can keep you calm.
“Keep constantly in your mind an impression of the whole of time and the whole of existence – and the thought that each individual thing is, on the scale of existence, a mere fig seed; on the scale of time, one turn of the drill.”
– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
This is a great reminder that we are a mere blip in the larger picture of the universe. I find this notion calming during moments when external pressure can seem overwhelming. Maybe it’s not actually the end of the world when my five year old flag football team would rather spin around in circles than learn the nuances of the quarterback-running back exchange.
“When you have done good and another has benefited, why do you still look, as fools do, for a third thing besides – credit for the work or a return?”
– Marcus Aurelius (Meditations)
Remember that Marcus Aurelius is writing this to himself. He is not dictating what you or I should do. When I was younger, I remember weighing decisions to act based on outcome and specifically my own personal benefit. Now, nothing feels more liberating that helping someone without any expectations, or any need to tell the world about it.
“To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as it occurs.”
What is the sense in worrying about the things that are out of your control? You can’t control everything or, in my case, most anything, but you can control how you respond. This concept provides almost a laser-focus of sorts to simplify chaotic situations. Another way to view it is to stop, breathe and get from step #1 to step #2, without worrying about step #34, step #97 and step #113.
“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?”
– Seneca (Letters from a Stoic Philosopher)
Fear can be significantly life-limiting. Fear is a manifestation of half-baked, potential what-ifs generated by an overactive pre-frontal cortex. Seneca’s quote presents an interesting idea. What if I rehearse what I fear most? If my body gets stronger by exposing it to weights heavier than I previously lifted, could the same be true for my mind?
Closing time …
After bellowing, “Last Call”, the bartender sets in motion the end of this particular moment in time. The three Stoic philosophers, or at least their words and wisdom, turn from bold faced type in a blog post to a congealed mass with potential to carve out a few new neural pathways.
Thank you, Ryan Holiday, for bringing me closer to the principles of Stoicism.
A belated thank you to Marcus Aurelius for sharing his personal journal, Seneca for writing letters to Lucillius, and Tim Ferriss for putting an amazing audiobook together for those letters.
Some quick takeaways …
- LISTEN TO THIS … (10:15-12:15)
- Are you stalled on a major decision? Try this fear setting exercise.
- Would love to hear about your experience in the comments section below.
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Thanks for reading!