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FFN 034: A Primer on Stoicism

I want to talk with you today about a concept and a way of thinking that has literally changed the course of my life. In fact, this is more than just a way of thinking – it’s a way of life..

Tim Ferriss refers to the philosophy I’m going to share with you  as his “personal operating system.”

My wife and I were out on a date the other night and we were talking about they way we’ve grown not only in our relationship but how we’ve grown individually. Among other things, she told me that I am a lot more patient than I used to be and definitely more level-headed.

At first I wrote this off to the fact that I’m getting older and, as I result, I’ve become more mature. I believe that there’s validity to that but after I’ve thought about it more, I think there’s more to it than that.

What I wanted to share with you today is the concept and philosophy of Stoicism. This is something I’ve really latched onto as a way of thinking about my life but, more importantly, the way I live it.

I think you’d agree that most men, including you and me, would not consider ourselves to be philosophers. Studying philosophy is the last thing you’d ever catch me studying when I was younger but, the more I delve into this world of Stoicism, the more I understand that I’ve misunderstood what philosophy even is.

I used to believe that philosophy was studying theories and questions about why we’re here, what we’re meant to accomplish, and how to live. I also believed there was a huge disconnect between those who merely thought about this stuff and those who actually applied it.

I pride myself on being a man of action and so, for me, philosophy just didn’t sit well – especially with my misunderstanding of what it actually was.

What I know now is that philosophy and, Stoicism in particular, is about the way we think and the way we apply.

If any of you have heard of the Serenity prayer, you’ll get a good understanding of what Stoicism is all about.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.

And this, in my opinion, is the basis for Stoicism. There is a lot of misconception about the way stoics think and behave.

Most people believe that Stoicism is about controlling or eliminating emotions. I used to believe the same thing.

What I know now is that Stoicism is not about eliminating your emotions – it’s about understanding them and, more importantly, using them to your benefit and to the benefit of those you have a responsibility for.

The basis for Stoicism is this: Perception, Action, and Will

Let’s break each one of these down and then I’ll give you a couple of resources where you can learn more.

Stoic Perception

I used to get consumed with “should’ve, could’ve, and would’ve.”

But, what I came to realize is that life is not about what has happened in the past or what will happen in the future – it’s about what’s happening right now. It’s not about they way I think and why – it’s about what actually is.

Stoic perception is about dealing in reality. Most of us don’t. We get so consumed with what happened in the past, they way someone treated us, or the results of some endeavor. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing but when it keeps us from moving forward – when it keeps us from learning a lesson to apply in the future – it becomes a hindrance. We all know a friend who is stuck in his past glory days of high school or college sports but has failed to do anything great with his life moving forward.

There’s one question you should learn to ask yourself over and over again when it comes to the way you see the world: “What is happening right now?” Not what should be happening or could be happening but what is actually happening?

Stoic Action

It’s ciritical to ask yourself what is actually happening because it drives us to take action and, not only action, but the right action.

If we’re too focused on what could have been or what might have been, we’ll get stuck in the never ending cycle of contemplation and continue to relive past memories. Or, potentially worse, dream of what the future might hold without a willingness to do anything about it.

Asking yourself what actually happened gives you the framework for making the correct decisions moving forward.

As difficult as it may be to ask yourself what acttualy happened (espeicially if you come to the conclusion that something may have been your fault) is exactly what you need to make powerful decisions moving forward – decisions that will propel your life in the right direction in the future.

This was the disconnect I had with philosophy until recently. Philosphy is about the practice of understanding truth for the sole purpose of taking massive action designed to improve your life and those you care about.

The question you should be asking yourself when it comes to action is this: “Armed with a clear idea of what actually happened, what is the best course of action moving forward?”

Stoic Will

The third domain of stoicism is will. When I say “will” I’m not talking about the will to go on. I’m talking about the willingness to come to terms with and accept things that are beyond your control

Maybe you had a rough upbringing. Maybe a client or a business partner took you for your money or business. Maybe a natural disaster ruined your home or business.

But, here is the reality. There is nothing you can do about some of those things. Focusing on them does not allow you to improve your life. In fact, it makes it worse because you’ll become so consumed with things you cannot change which will lead to a life of frustration and bitterness.

Instad of focusing on the things you cannot control, choose instead to focus on the things you can like how you respond to the circumstances.

This is not meant to be a detailed description of what stoicism is all about. It’s meant to give you an overview so, if you want to, you can dive into this a little more in depth.

Remember, the core principles of Stoicism are perception, action, and will.

If you want to learn more about Stoicism and how it will help you as a man, you can check out the writings of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and/or Epictetus. These are the three major figures of Stoicism.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius is a great resource but you might also want to check out Ego is The Enemy and The Obstacle is The Way both by Ryan Holiday (listen to my interview with Ryan Holiday here). And a new book I just started reading is The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.

Outside that, study Stoicism, focus on what actually is, take action moving forward, and only work on what you can control.

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