“The tool I’ve found which has proven to be the most reliable safety net for emotional free fall is actually the same tool that has helped me to make my best business decisions. And it is … Stoicism”Tim Ferris
Modern Stoic thought “hold[s] fascinating promise for business and government leaders tackling global problems in a turbulent, post-recession slumpWant an Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy , Forbes 2013
“The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers”Aaron T. Beck – Father of Cognitive Therapy and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
It has been highly praised by Silicon Valley heros like Tim Ferris to pioneers in psychotherapy.
It is a guide to living and toolset for managing yourself in any situation.
During this pandemic you may find yourself anxious, ill, grieving, and financially compromised.
Maybe you find yourself motivated, making use of this time to yourself. Perhaps you’re finding new interests you never had before the quarantine.
Or maybe you’re crushing quarantine snacks after waking up at noon.
No matter your situation we can be sure of one thing – the road ahead is unchartered territory and many things will change. And while COVID-19 may be flipping the script on most things we’ve come to know, panicking will not help.
For as long as people have existed, we have dealt with tragedy. And time and time again we have grown stronger, wiser, and more conscious.
Stoic Philosophy is a toolset that uses reason to maintain emotional wellbeing (especially through chaos) and to take effective action.
With Stoic Philosophy you can expect to:
- take the challenges life throws at you, and make them work for you.
- Remain grounded; understand what is within your control and what lies outside of your control (take action with what you can control, but don’t sweat the things you can’t!)
- Build up your inner strength and resolve
- Make decisions that serve you (and are aligned with your core values)
Which is why it is more important than ever for us and our leaders to apply.
The philosophical school was founded in Ancient Greece. Its theoretical scaffolding was then furthered with actionable wisdom in Ancient Rome. Emperors making critical decisions during times of war, plague, and other crises relied upon Stoic philosophy to keep a level head and to view opportunities and obstacles clearly. Not to mention clear their head of previous traumas and attempt to resolve things diplomatically.
Stoicism is not academic philosophical drool. It’s a collection of actionable insights and wisdom from some of the greatest leaders and thinkers in history. It’s a way to position yourself mentally. And you don’t need to become an expert to start putting it to work immediately.
One of the most notable works of Stoic Philosophy is Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Meditations is a collection of reflections and thoughts from the personal journal of the Emperor that were published after his death. (He actually died from illness while leading Rome through a pandemic).
A well-developed mindset can help you sustain setbacks, transform your life, and shift your perspective so that you can endure and accept what life throws at you… and smile while you’re at it.
A wounded mindset can lead you to believing there is nothing in your power to change your situation or improve your life. That everything seems like it is out to get you. That others are to blame for what is happening to you. That life is unfair.
Chances are we’ve all experienced some degrees of each. I know I have.
The pandemic has brought upon loss, financial catastrophe, illness, and great uncertainty for many – all in the blink of an eye. Not to mention working from home and being isolated in a city. I’m sure many of you can relate.
About two years ago I felt like I was on top. At age 25 I was approached to co-found a company with my previous CTO in an exciting and promising industry. I was working remotely and traveling the world with my girlfriend at the time. We were having the best time of our lives and I had already become a Lead Engineer.
Then things started to change.
What started as adventure soon took a rapid turn. My girlfriend and I became seriously ill with a parasitic infection from something we ate. For about a year we made our way to hospitals in Canada, the United States, and Japan. Probably over 30 of them. No doctors could help us. We were told that all of our tests came back negative, and that we should check in after another 6 weeks.
Every day was a new wave of suffering. Most foods, drinks, and even activities would evoke vertigo, hallucinations, and a belly of fire. We were reduced to a diet of grilled cabbage and unseasoned meat for months. The agony was constant. It didn’t take long before we were emaciated and the color in our faces had faded to match the color of dry-wall.
At this point I would have traded just about anything in the world for a cup of coffee if it wouldn’t end my day and corrode my insides.
We scoured the internet constantly, feebly attempting to solve this mystery from a laptop computer. After a few months past, it had became clear our bodies were not able to fend this off by themselves. The medical system we interacted with largely shrugged their shoulders and pushed us on to the next perplexed professional. How long would this last for, and were we going to die? It was only getting worse.
In the middle of all this, the industry our startup was in decidedly took a sharp nose dive (blockchain).
My CTO and our team had a falling out. I lost some of my closest friends and colleagues. Now I was the technical lead. 14+ hour work days on top of the illness were draining my life.
Then my parents’ house was damaged during the Woosley Fires in LA. It just so happens I was keeping all of my possessions there since I was traveling. And so between the whimsical ravaging of a deadly wildfire and the unintelligible response of a decades-old sprinkler system I had lost everything.
Then my girlfriend and I drove to San Francisco, signed a lease together and our relationship fell apart the next day. Shit.
And my dog died. All in a few months. I was sick and psychologically devastated. Stress from work was at an all time, and now I was stranded trying to find a place to live.
I share this because the pandemic has brought upon loss, financial catastrophe, illness, and great uncertainty for many – all in the blink of an eye. Not to mention working from home and being isolated in a city. I’m sure many of you can relate in some way to where I found myself 18 months ago.
Things started to get interesting one day when Audible recommended “Meditations” by Marcus Auerulius, the Roman Emperor. I decided to give it a download and see what wisdom this ancient guy had in store.
The next day I woke up with an overwhelming sense of peace and direction. It was hard to explain the realization that an hour of content had produced a deep shift within me. The hardships and pain I had faced had pushed me to my limit. There was no where to go but up.
It was as if by taking in the passages from Meditations, I was coming to terms with what I had experienced. As if something had clicked into place.
After finishing “Meditations” I felt inspired, and like I could start to mentally pick myself up off the floor and orient myself back to where I was before. I quickly read the Stoic classics. As I regained my footing I promised myself I would spend the next year decompressing as much as possible. No starting companies or side projects until I had healed. And I sure as hell wasn’t much into dating at the time either.
Once I had properly dusted myself off. I began a continuous process to transform my mind into a fortress (as the Stoics would call it). It didn’t happen overnight. For the next 6 months I read everything I could on philosophy, psychology, business, and spirituality. About 70 books or so in all. I learned 4 meditation techniques, and I started to become grateful for the opportunity to face hardship and grow.
How Can This Help You?
Hardship and challenges are part of the bundle of life, and they bring about the most meaningful change and growth if we allow ourselves to fully face them.
Despite my reading rampage and flirtation with Zen Buddhist meditations, it is Stoicism that stood out head above the rest as the most powerful tool to hone mindset and effectively deal with crisis.
Processing the events through the lens of Stoicism totally changed the way I viewed my past and the world itself. It helped to clarify areas of opportunity both personally and in business. And it has led to decisions that have dramatically altered my life and view of uncertainty.
It’s not like something devastating won’t be upsetting. You’ll just experience it differently. You’ll bounce back faster and won’t get pinned down as easily.
Perhaps you have heard of CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy).
- Learn techniques for coping with stressful life situations
- Identify ways to manage emotions
- Resolve relationship conflicts and learn better ways to communicate
- Cope with grief or loss
- Overcome emotional trauma
- Cope with a medical illness
- Manage chronic physical symptoms
Mental health disorders that may improve with CBT include:
- Anxiety disorders
- Sleep disorders
- Eating disorders
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
- Substance use disorders
- Bipolar disorders
- Sexual disorders
“The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers” wrote the Father of CBT, Aaron T Beck.
And it’s not just your health that could benefit.
In an editorial titled “Want an Unconquerable Mind? Try Stoic Philosophy” published by Forbes in 2013, the publication claims:
Modern Stoic thought “hold[s] fascinating promise for business and government leaders tackling global problems in a turbulent, post-recession slump.
They mention the 5 Following Principles for Business:
- Immediately recognize what is out of your control
- Fear, Anger, and other emotions are personal choices no matter what circumstance you find yourself in
- Live a life centered on principles, not wealth, awards, family, or power
- People who misbehave do not deserve an emotional reaction from you
- Meditate daily to revive your commitment to a principle-centered life
Visualization techniques are a major part of Stoicism. Negative Visualization is one that was new to me.
With negative visualization, you actively face the toughest truths. It’s meant to encourage you to break down the reflex to avoid fear and discomfort. It’s also meant to save your ass.
An exercise of negative visualization at a time like this could be for instance Bill Gates’ Ted Talk in 2015 detailing what would happen if we encountered a global pandemic.
If the Stoic thought was more common in government and how we collectively value leadership, we could have been much better prepared for a major pandemic – saving countless lives and massive economic devastation.
Since Bill Gates thought through this years ago, he is using his funds to operationalize vaccination initiatives with an exponentially higher probability of success in much shorter time.
Expect that all the bad stuff can happen. Build your inner resolve when times are good, so you can ride out when times are bad.
In fact, a quarantine can be in many ways an exercise of Stoicism.
Seneca the Younger would recommend taking breaks from crowds every so often to wean off of their influences (primarily peer-pressure to indulge in vices), as well as to get in touch with one’s personal truths.
He would also advise occasionally setting aside days to strip yourself of all luxuries. To eat, dress, and live as plainly as possible. The idea is it would dissolve the illusion that poverty and lacking physical goods is something to fear. It was also a tool to gain perspective on life.
How to get Started
While I want to go in-depth on what Stoic Philosophy is, I’ll leave that for another post.
Hopefully by now you’re excited by the superpowers that await you. The best way to learn Stoic philosophy is by reading the original books and reflecting on what the passages are saying.
Honestly, they’re so interesting once you get started you’ll probably finish each in a sitting or two. They aren’t difficult reads, and they aren’t very long so don’t be intimidated!
The following reads are a must for the aspiring and practicing Stoic.
*Special Mention – a modernized guide to turn each obstacle into opportunity. Writer Ryan Holiday synthesizes a modern approach to transforming your perspective of obstacles into opportunities. He quotes the Stoics throughout the book and provides incredible analysis.
By now you probably understand what all the hype is about. A philosophy thousands of years old has never been more powerful or relevant to our world today.
If you have any questions, please feel free to comment below or shoot me an email.
Enjoy and stay well!