In a very personal TED talk, Tim Ferriss shares the story of his almost-suicide. Struggling with depression more than the average person, he says he’s spent a great deal of his life finding ways to improve emotional resilience.
The best tool he’s found so far also happens to be the source of his best business decisions, he claims: Stoicism.
Right after, he admits: “That sounds…boring.”
How could something that helped one person both prevent the worst kind of death and make millions be boring?
Right Time, Wrong Dress
I chose Latin as my second foreign language in high school when I was 13 years old. It turned out to be a great choice, not just because Latin holds the roots of many European languages, but because of the history education you get alongside those.
In a German book with the translated title Latin Is Dead, Long Live Latin!, author Wilfried Stroh notes:
“Let’s not forget Cicero, the self-made man who turned from humble beginnings to Consul of the Roman Republic. Understanding him and other ancient philosophers, like Lucretius, Seneca, Augustus, and of course poets and historians, that’s why we study Latin, not in order to decorate ourselves with fancy quotes.”
Isn’t this the exact thing we’re trying to do today? Some of the most popular articles online try to help us understand people like Ray Dalio, Taylor Swift, and Elon Musk. Rome’s emperors, poets and philosophers are our modern day billionaires, singers, and hedge fund managers.
We want to decode their way of thinking, their philosophy, for our success. It is no coincidence, then, that many of the people who are building the future use the same, ‘old’ thinking that worked for our ancestors. Their brain software is Stoicism.
However, because of its origins, we don’t look at it that way. Since it’s hidden behind the intimidating curtains of education and history, most of us don’t look at it at all. We hear the right buzz words, like success, wisdom and living a good life, but then words like virtue, fortitude, and providence enter the picture, and we’d rather flip right back to Youtube.
It’s funny. Language is the perfect gateway to this incredible area of study, yet today it might also be the biggest obstacle. We’re scared to read texts written in Old English, let alone learn Latin or Greek, so we miss out.
Hence, when people like Tim call Stoicism “an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments; for making better decisions,” what they’re doing is translating to help us pick up the thread.
It’s always the right time for Stoicism, but it’s always wearing the wrong dress. To the outsider, it looks like a raincoat for a sunny day. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
In fact, you can find everything you need to know about Stoicism in a single table.
Three For Three
If only we dare to look just a little closer, we can instantly see that Stoicism is, above all, about simplicity — and a philosophy built around this idea can, by definition, not be complicated.
Take its location of origin, for example, the stoa, which you see in the titular image of this post. Nothing more than a walkway with a roof, it was a place for people to gather and exchange ideas, so the first Stoic, Zeno, just stood up and started talking.
Another one of modernity’s great translators, Ryan Holiday, therefore hits the nail on the head when he says:
“Stoicism is a philosophy designed for the masses, and if it has to be simplified a bit to reach the masses, so be it.”
He promptly delivers on said promise at the end of The Daily Stoic, a collection of quotes from famous Stoics, with the following table:
It contains everything you need to know. Everything. Let’s break it down, starting with the labels.
The blue, left column contains, bottom to top, the three parts of the self, which determine how you navigate your life.
- First, you perceive the world and its events, which prompts you to desire certain outcomes while wanting to avoid others.
- Second, those two prompt you to want to act in certain ways, while refusing to do other things.
- Third, whether your will allows or rejects any given impulse determines what you’ll actually end up doing.
The idea is that the better you get at perceiving the world, the faster you become at cataloguing impulses, which, in turn, makes it easier to give in to the right ones and block the rest.
While Ryan described these three elements extensively in The Obstacle Is The Way, the main takeaway here is that everything — everything — starts with perception.
Moving to the green, top row, left to right, we see the Stoics’ three disciplines that shape our perception, action and will.
- First, we must study and learn more about the world and our place in it. Which events can we influence? What’s best for the common good? And, most importantly, what is true?
- Second, this learning enables us to practice certain behaviors and character traits, like duty, taking initiative and good judgment.
- Lastly, by practicing these things we receive excellent training in the highest goods of the Stoics: discipline, justice, courage, and wisdom.
Once again, while this is technically a chain to work through, it is important to remember that all it takes for the rippling effect to kick in is to start studying.
One Question Is Enough
So far, we learned that good will and good action start with clear perception. Proper practice and training are the consequence of study. As a result, we get a singular starting point for becoming Stoics: studying our perception.
If the goal is to move up and to the right, towards wisdom, then the place to start is at the bottom left, in the realm of physics.
Therefore, you really only need to do one thing to become a Stoic: Learn to recognize what’s in your control and what’s not. Sure, there are specific habits to practice and more to find out, but if you intently focus on this one aspect, the rest will follow.
Epictetus, another famous Stoic, confirms:
“Of these areas, the chief and most urgent is the first which has to do with the passions, for strong emotions arise only when we fail in our desires and aversions.”
Hence, again and again, Stoicism comes down to a single question:
Imagine you looked at every situation in life that way. The weather, annoying people, your mood, frustrations at work, unlucky, even disastrous events, it’d all spin around you like moons orbiting a planet — they’re there, but you don’t mind them. Effort, goodwill and hope, on the other hand, will be at an all-time high. After all, these are fully within your control.
That doesn’t sound boring at all, does it?
What Philosophy Is Really For
Further selling Stoicism to the audience, Tim says it “decreases emotional reactivity, which can be a superpower.” Given it could save a student from suicide as much as it could keep an NBA star from losing his temper, he claims the stakes are very, very high.
But there’s more to Stoicism. A bigger end game. Something…simpler.
Think back to your happiest moments in life. What went through your head, if anything? Who were you with? What did you do or had just achieved? Chances are, they were like listening to a Stoic talk on a sunny porch: simple.
Happiness is rarely the result of pulling off complex schemes. It’s raw, like the events that precede it. Kissing the love of your life, knocking out a great stretch of work, sitting in the grass, feeling the wind.
This is something even fewer people understand about Stoicism than its simplicity: It’s a philosophy of happiness.
It might be just a side effect, but it’s a profound one nonetheless. That’s why it’s no surprise that Tim ends his talk on a note sent to him by one of his most treasured mentors:
“I could not imagine a life more beautiful than that of a Stoic.” – Jerzy Gregorek