Editor’s Note: My knowledge of the ancient Stoics is still embryonic, but I've read enough now to formulate my own interpretations of their works. I'm not an actual scholar, and have no desire to argue the merits of Stoicism -- or any other philosophy of life, for that matter. What I’ve written below are some personal thoughts on my attraction to Stoicism, and how I’ve applied it to my personal life.
Sitting atop my reading backlog for a long time, but never making it off for one reason or another, has been the collected writings of the ancient Stoics: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, names I was somewhat familiar with, but only at a surface level.
At the behest of my favorite openly practicing Stoic, Tim Ferriss, I finally put everything else aside and indulged myself in the masterpieces of these ancient Stoic philosophers. What I uncovered was both fascinating and enlightening, and has me leaning towards deliberately adopting a ‘philosophy of life’.
What is a philosophy of life, you ask? Well, since I am a product manager, and am thus unable to avoid using metaphors to explain things, a philosophy of life is simply a prioritization framework for making life decisions. It enables you to extract the maximum amount of value out of each day, based on your core values and goals.
It’s the north star to guide you on your daily journey through life, if you will.
As with any other framework, a philosophy of life must be practical. It should make things easier and provide clarity in situations that were previously murky. What it won't do, however, is choose your core values and goals for you. For that, you are on your own.
The principal reason that Stoicism is so attractive to me is that it is a very practical philosophy of life to adopt.
Unlike other philosophies, Stoicism isn't so focused on intellectual pondering and "what if?" explorations. It is practical, grounded in human psychology, and, my favorite part, ruthlessly focused on logic and reason. My brain has always responded to logic, I think. I won't bore any readers, including my future self, to a long winded history lesson, but I think it's probably good to to clear up some common misconceptions of Stoicism and its practitioners, otherwise it won't be clear as to why it's a good candidate to adopt as a philosophy of life...
What Stoics Are Not
Anti-pleasure or Anti-Wealth
Stoics are not against deriving pleasure from friendship, family life, food, and even wealth. They only warn to not get too attached to anything, as it can be taken at any time.
Mainly in the context of responding to insults from others. Reacting with humor or indifference to people attacking you is more damaging than responding in turn with an insult. Stoics do occasionally react more forcefully to insulters, but not because the insulter has harmed her, only to correct the improper behavior of the insulter.
Apathetic or Lazy
Stoics were some of the most ambitious people of their time: Seneca was a invest banking savant and built up sizeable wealth, Marcus Aurelius was the fuckin' Emperor, and others owned their own schools of philosophy.
In fact, the ancient Stoics were admirable; courageous, temperate, reasonable, self-disciplined, and believed in fulfilling personal obligations while helping others. They were always searching for what is truly valuable, and along with most other religions and philosophies, determined that material wealth and social status are not the ultimate values of life.
Instead, they sought tranquility, which is ‘a psychological state marked by the absence of negative emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive emotions, such as joy.’
As you can probably imagine, it's pretty hard to lead a tranquil life when you define it that way. To do so, stoics deploy a wide array of psychological techniques.
In short, things can always be worse. By practicing this technique, you will learn to value what you already have, instead of never being satisfied with your life because you always want more. Seneca advises that we should all remember that everything we have is on loan from fate, and can be taken back at any time.
The trichotomy of control
Basically, don't be foolish and worry about things that are not up to you. Focus on things you can control, and things you can sort of control. To make that distinction, some scholars advocate for a trichotomy of control, as opposed to a black and white dichotomy.
The past cannont be changed. In fact, the immediate present cannot be changed either. Learn from the past, but don't dwell on it; and definitely don't be fatalistic towards the future. As far as I am concerned, Stoic fatalism is basically the same thing as mindfulness, which advocates for living in the present.
Stoics advocate for periodically choosing not to do things that would make you feel good (e.g. eating a bowl of ice cream). The idea is that you will develop the willpower needed to be courageous and maintain self-control.
Stoic meditation is different from the types meditation taught by other schools. To practice it, you periodically examine your actions as an objective and passive observer. The goal is to understand your motivations, consider the value of whatever you were trying to accomplish, and continually ask if you are being governend by reason or something else.
It would take many more words to do a deep dive into the techniques here, but I will say that it's fascinating, and even somewhat fun, to experiment with them. In the short period of time I have been practicing them, my outlook on a number of important life things has changed, mostly for the better, and my productivity has skyrocketed.
Out of all the techniques, negative visualization and the dichotomy of control have resonated the most. As someone who works in the technology industry -- or any competitive industry, for that matter -- those techniques are highly applicable in a profession that too regularly deals with great swings of emotions, including:
- navigating the whirlwind of constant pressure to make an upwards climb, whether that means changing the world, getting more money, or both
- maintaining a schedule that is unmanageably fast-paced, laden with distractions, and yet demanding of so much focus
- the presence of anger or envy that creep into your psyche when you see other people making it, and feel as if you deserve it, too -- whatever "it" means to you
Part of practicing the dichotomy of control -- focusing your energy and emotion on things you can control, and not thinking about things you can’t -- is attempting to internalize personal goals when faced with situations in which you don't have complete control over the outcome, and to not get worked up about external, uncontrollable outcomes. By doing this, you ironically maintain a more tranquil state while also setting yourself up for greater success, as your tranquil state leads to less anxiety, and improved focus.
This stuff rocks.
I'm going to keep trying to practice Stoicism to see if it makes a positive impact on my life. Build, measure, learn, amirite? (lol, jk...but really). It's almost guaranteed I'll tie this in with product management in some capacity. Stoics would've been baller PMs because they essentially were just PM'ing their life every single day: continuously triaging a storm of shit and ruthlessly prioritizing what is valuable and what is not.
Below are some of the things I've read that led me to my conclusions.
- A Guide to The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy -- the quote I used about tranquility is from this book
- The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph -- this one is a little bit too preachy/self helpy, but still some solid concepts