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?

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.