Letting it Go

Day 6 of the Daily Stoic’s 14 Day Stoic Challenge was all about the stoic practice of Premeditatio Malorum (premeditation of evils) – thinking about the things that can go wrong, can be taken away from us, ills that can befall us. The idea being, if we steel ourselves by thinking about what it would be like if these things happen 1) we can experience gratitude when, in all likelihood they never happen or 2) we aren’t as upset when they actually do happen because we’ve already practiced it, and maybe even realized it wouldn’t be that bad to get over it.

Nevertheless, seeing it on the calendar several days ago (as “get rid of a prized possession”), I was dreading it, and contemplating what I was going to be asked to do, what I was going to be asked to get rid of. So I was immediately grateful this morning when I read the full instructions that we didn’t (necessarily) have to actually get rid of something, and the value of the activity was made apparent immediately.

My wife and I have been systematically trying to reduce the “stuff” we have – both as a practice in charity and as a way to declutter our minds. One thing I have resisted is getting rid of any books, ones I’ve read and ones I’m never likely to read. So I immediately set about this morning going through all my books. And with the lessons from the other days challenges in mind I decided to really cull down the books to ones I want to re-read. This actually ended up making space in my book shelf for a little stoic section all to itself which was nice. And then I took about ⅓ of my books and put them in the recycling. Felt good and I didn’t have quite so many books staring at me, silently judging me for not reading them. Combined with my Day 2 commitment to read every day I felt totally energized to make reading the daily habit it once was.

Then as I sat down to write my accountability update in the challenge Slack channel, I realized I hadn’t actually completed the challenge. I’m not going to miss any of those books, and if I do I will download the audio book and listen on the commute into Denver. So, I went back to a mental inventory of what is in the house that I would truly miss, something that wasn’t easily replaceable at Best Buy or Amazon.

The one thing in the house that would get me most upset is probably the least expensive thing I have – a little Catholic novena card that my great-grandmother had written on the back. She had given it to my grandfather, and he carried it all throughout WWII. I, in turn, carried it with me all throughout my deployment to Iraq in 2007-2008. So I took some pictures of it, and then sat and contemplated losing it. This little card is an important connection to my grandfather, and the thought of losing it is very painful and I actually got upset, so today’s exercise ended up being very visceral for me.

And the takeaway is just what you would expect, and in fact what the stoics write. That reading about it is a lot different than actually doing it. Which is what these challenges are all about afterall.

Five Books to Re-read This Year

Day 5 of the Daily Stoic’s 14 Day Stoic Challenge is to pick 5 books that were impactful in your life and re-read them, with a focus on studying them more deeply than when you last read them. The idea of course being that with each re-read you will get more and different lessons out of them.

I want to elaborate the why behind my selections, and neither the challenge’s Slack channel, nor my remaining social social media channels seem appropriate, so I am putting these here, mainly for myself to be able to come back to after I’ve read each.

Anabasis by Xenophon

Written by the Athenian Xenophon, it details the return trip of a group of 10,000 Greek mercenaries after the defeat of their patron, Cyrus the Younger, in the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE, outside Babylon. I originally read this when I was an NCO in the US Army National Guard between deployments to Bosnia and Iraq. I remember being struck by how little has changed in terms of leading people, and human dynamics. Certainly technology has changed, our view of the world has changed, and religious views are quite different, but I remember that the leadership challenges he faced were all too familiar.

I have therefore long considered this to be one of the greatest books on leadership (that you’ve probably never heard of). So I am eager to see how that holds up, and as I served right at the site of Babylon for most of my deployment to Iraq, I am curious to see if re-reading this brings out any other connections.

Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu

I am using the Stephen Mitchell translation. The Tao Te Ching was the first book I read from a school of belief that was not the Catholic Bible, and it was the start of a reading exploration that ultimately led to me to Stoicism. I remember that I felt like I had found a whole new way to look at the world, and I remember being a little surprised at how much the Tao seemed to have in common with Lucas’s Force. I feel like there is a lot of shared wisdom between Stoicism and the Tao, including the notion that there is no good or bad beyond the value we choose to assign to things. So we will see how that holds up.

The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

I remember this book from my first philosophy class in college at the University of Connecticut, and I remember that class being the first time I realized that philosophy was not a stuffy subject for insufferable snobs. That it could both be interesting and a tool for thinking deeply about things we assume, and a way to work on oneself and our beliefs.

Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

I am re-reading my original 1993 version, though I may eventually read the revision that several FIRE thinkers have written about including Mr. Money Mustache, who I read regularly. Reading this set me on the path of my own financial education and led me to take control of all of my own finances, and to buck conventional wisdom on money and investing. I never fully embraced the almost hippy approach of having minimal attachments, no home, travel often, extremely minimalist possession, but it did teach me to value my time carefully and not trade it for things I didn’t need. And I never again took on debt other than a mortgage. I do remember Joe advocating buying 30 years bonds as the means of financial independence, so that part won’t hold up, but I do want to see how much of their thinking remains relevant and how broadly it is reflected in the FIRE community.

*A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is simply one of the greatest writers of our time, and I have read nearly everything he has written, but this and A Walk in the Woods are my favorites. This one for the simple fact that it really makes you realize just how much of a miracle just existing really is, for me it was a tonic for being too wrapped up in work and myself. And the stories about the rivalry between scientists and how human they all actually are is just fascinating. (And you have to have some sympathy for someone who has spent their entire professional life invested in something that has turned out to be wrong – you might resist that too.)

I will post back to this as I complete each book and any new observations I have to share.

What will you read?

Epithets for Life

Day 4 of the 14 Day Stoic Challenge put on by the Daily Stoic, was about defining your epithets, and putting them out there in the world. The immediate analogy that came to mind, is the business world’s Values statement that every company seems to have. At Sapient, in the early days, these were our Core Values, which I like better as they are not exclusionary. Meaning that like Core Hours, these are the values we all agree we have in common, each of us as individuals also have our own values, family values, faith based values, etc. At work we held our Core Values in common, and we used them to navigate day to day decisions. I’ve written a little more about that previously.

Although this exercise is a little different, it is constructed in a way that creates more personal accountability for me, as an individual. Not what I say I value, since after all I am likely to tell you, to tell myself for that matter, that I value admirable and intrinsically worthwhile things. The challenge is directly from the writings of Epictetus:

“Say to yourself what you would be and then do what you have to do.”

In other words, not what you value, but what you will be.

There is so much more power, and accountability, in that framing – to be a better version of yourself. It also brings to mind the Scout Law, for anyone who was ever in the Scouts in the US, you likely still have it committed to memory:

A Scout is Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, Cheerful, Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent.

The Scout Law

It’s not some corporate-y, aspirational values statement, it’s a clear call to be a certain kind of person. A Scout IS. Those that know me won’t be surprised to hear that it also brings to mind the US Army’s Soldier’s Creed, which make heavy use of I am and I will statements.

So, now to the exercise itself.

I will be:

  • Forthright
  • Reliable
  • Trustworthy
  • Resilient
  • Curious
  • Generous

Forthright. I really like this word because it mean both being direct and outspoken, so it encompasses openness and honesty, but it also connotes a duty to be so. Which means I cannot avoid difficult conversations. I don’t do this at work, but maybe because of the energy that takes I do put these off in my personal relationships, but no longer if I want to live up to this.

Reliable. This is here because in fact it is something I need to improve on. I am very reliable at work, but that comes at a cost of not being as reliable for family and especially friends. This comes partly as a result of the comment above – I’ve often found it easier to say “maybe” I’ll make to the [whatever] instead of just saying no.

Trustworthy. Another great word, with more accountability than just being open, or honest, or good. It is being someone worthy of someone else’s trust. It isn’t good enough for me to feel like I am honest because I say whatever comes to mind. I need to be honest, and reliable, and diligent, and able to hold something in confidence.

Resilient. This wasn’t one of the first things that came to mind, but I kept seeing it come up in other people’s posts in Slack, and the more I thought about it the more I liked it. It encompasses all the hard work and focus needed to be strong, and healthy, and able to stay in the fight for the long haul. Calm of spirit and mind, while strong of body and will. Lots and lots of training required for this.

Curious. Another word that didn’t come straight to mind, but again pulls together several threads which I really like. It means of course that I need to keep learning, keep reading. But it’s 2019 so that means, listening to lots of podcasts, and watching Ted talks, or my favorite thing on YouTube PBS Space Time. But it also means being open to other points of view, in fact it requires me to seek them out.

Generous. I struggle a bit with this last one, it was in competition with things like kind, calm, empathetic, clear headed, etc. I chose this instead because it requires action, where the others are more a state of being. To be generous, I have to give of myself to another. That can be time, money, experience, and the most exciting aspect of this for me is growth – I get true satisfaction from seeing others grow and by being generous with my time, feedback, coaching, experience, network, etc. I can have a bigger impact than ever.

Burn the Boats Behind You

As you may have read elsewhere here, I am participating in a 14 Day Stoic Challenge, and Day 1 was about letting go of your frustration and anger, and there’s a lot of great research and writing on that topic I won’t try to go into here since you can find it elsewhere. The point of the exercise, from the point of view of Stoicism, is that frustration and anger are external events that you have no control over, rather they are a manifestation of our own lack of discipline. And that is something we can train ourselves out of. The Stoics teach that we should see the world as it is, and then focus on doing the right things where we are able to effect a difference. Nothing is more true of the emotion anger, as if seen in the clear light of day, it is not an intrinsic part of the event or person that we are angry about. Rather, it is our own choice to impact (negative) meaning into that event or person that is the cause of our anger.

Which is actually great news, because that means we decide, we determine if we are going to be negatively affected. We therefore have to work to create a pause in our mind, before our primitive brain is allowed to react, we must assert our executive function, our will, to decide how we must best react. Or, better said:

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

Victor Frankl

And of course this is not a uniquely Stoic insight, we’ve all heard “take a deep breath”, “count to 10 in your head”, etc. But this is where the work is, and this is why perhaps Stoicism appeals to me, because it is not meant to be read and preached, but practiced, drilled, trained into our behaviour so that we don’t have to work so hard to to face forward, maintain our composure and step forward into the unknown. So that it becomes how we are in the world. And it takes work, deliberate practice, and daily reflection, which is all something I am still working on, but we are all a work in progress after all.

Which brings me to the title of this post, one sentence in the material for today’s challenge, but one that really speaks to me. Though not in the traditional sense of that phrase of the commander who burns the boats on the beach so the troops know that there is no choice but to fight forward. For me, it about consciously leaving all our baggage behind, and being unburdened by it, so that we can move forward. Not always easy, but alway worth it.

My No Resolution New Year

It is that time of year again. More precisely, it is the last day of the year, again. This time December 31st, 2018. And as my grandfather always said it seems to come faster and faster each year. This year, I resolve to make no more resolutions, ever. (yes, the irony is not lost on me – only a Sith deals in absolutes, as Obi-Wan would say).

From a Stoic point of view, we should not need a special time of year to focus in improving ourselves and making a positive impact in the areas of lives where we are able to. As Marcus Aurelius says (to himself):

Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue-if you care for yourself at all-and do it while you can.

In other words, do not put off those big things you intend to do someday any longer. For that matter don’t put off all the little things that will help you get there. Eat better, sleep better, exercise, read, reconnect with an old friend or relative, say thank you, save for retirement, travel. If we care about ourselves, where we choose to put our limited time on earth, we must not wait for someday, because, well I can’t say it better than CCR:

Well, I’m here to tell you now, each and every mother’s son
That you better learn it fast, you better learn it young
‘Cause someday never comes
Ooo someday never comes

John Fogerty

As one small step I am starting the work I must do today, and I am not making any resolutions, what about you?

On Becoming a Stoic

A Marcus Aurelius quote I had clipped over 25 years ago.

My journey to Stoicism began before I was born. In fact I am not sure where, when, how, or over what time period, but it began with my grandfather, Rick Leonard.

He always used to say “Learning to live is an art” and he had a copy of the serenity prayer in his bed room for as long as I can remember. If you aren’t familiar with it, it goes:

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

Reinhold Niebuhr, Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

I didn’t know it at the time, but both these sentiments are at the heart of Stoicism.

The notional that learning to live is something you need to work at and practice (some would say train) for, and as an art it isn’t black and white, and you are never done with the job of making your best self.

And for those familiar with Stoicism, the serenity prayer can be said another way:

See things for what they are.
Do what we can.
Endure and bear what we must.

Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way

That latter quote coming from one of the most read recent rearticulations of Stoicism for the modern person. Discovering and then reading it brought together a lot of threads in my life, from the teachings of my grandfather that in hindsight contained so much stoic thinking that it is hard from me to believe he hadn’t read some of its primary texts, to my time in the US Army which is deeply imbued with the stoic ethos, to even my time in the corporate world where I picked up little stoic maxims without realizing it over the decades.

While you might say I have had elements of a stoic mindset for my whole life, it was listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast that formally introduced me to approach Stoicism as a way to live. Ferriss calls it his “personal operating system” and a way to stay focused on activities that make a difference, and avoiding wasting energy and time on things that don’t. Ferriss regularly features Ryan Holiday, who along with a host of accomplishments is a leading thinking and proponent of modern Stoic thought. So I bought and read his books, which led me to the older texts, especially Marcus Aurelius‘s Meditations.

I felt like I had been give access to some secret texts that the Great People throughout history have turned to, not for solace or a promise of a better life in the hereafter, but for the strength to dig deep and keep going, to persevere, to push forward, literally one step at a time in some cases. In fact it is a simple yet powerful life view that has brought me the strength and focus to achieve many things in my life that I had absolutely no business doing. That is not to say that this path is easy, it demands that you hold yourself accountable even when no one else will.

In this day and age it has become a troupe that we are to0 soft and too weak, the younger generation has lost its way, etc. (hmm, when have I heard that before). I have a lot to say about how wrong that is, but the point here is that the fact that stoicism is gaining so attention and interest over the last several years is an encouraging sign that there are plenty of people ready to pick up the mantle of responsibility.

I am about to start a 14 Day Stoic Challenge and will document that process here. So I wanted to put down some initial thought on how I have arrived at Stoicism before that starts, and depending on how it goes, I may write more of my thoughts on relating Stoicism to life and business.