Tag Archives: stoicism

3/23/2020 – A Renewed Perspective

“Your principles can’t be extinguished unless you snuff out the thoughts that feed them, for it’s continually in your power to reignite new ones… It’s possible to start living again!  See things anew as you once did – that is how to restart life!   

 ~ Marcus Aurelius, “ Meditations”

This morning when I was trying to figure out what to write, this Aurelius quote that I had previously jotted down in my notes stuck out to me. Now seemed like the perfect time to reflect on it.

I don’t have to tell you how crazy the world is right now. In fact, many out there are looking for anything other than another reminder of how serious the situation is. And in the midst of all this, understandably, I have been completely knocked off my metaphorical horse. I’m sure you have to, to some degree.

Most of 2020’s theme for me has been about focus, determination, and most importantly, discipline. That discipline has been channeled specifically into routine. This is the first year of my life that I’ve been able to truly realize the power of routine, and the effective outcomes that it can yield. But for the last 2 weeks, I’ve been struggling.

My whole normal routine, the thing that had acted as the stabilizing anchor to my change in behavior and mentality in 2020, has been completely broken. 

All the things that I normally do every day in the order I do them? Kinda pointless.  The way that I usually do them? Kinda not relevant. Finding motivation in a quarantine with a total societal stoppage has been a lot more challenging than I could have possibly imagined.

And I think that’s how my perspective is shifting through this crisis so far. Not that “everything is pointless,” but rather that even though everything has changed, on the other hand, nothing has changed. We still need to get up every morning, feed ourselves, dress ourselves, clean ourselves (admittedly a little more frequently than before), and care for our own lives in some fashion or another. 

Reduced to life’s most basic needs, none of that has changed. If I want more (like health & fitness goals, or professional accomplishment, etc.), I can still achieve it. And I still need a system, a routine, to reach for and accomplish it. Perhaps the system I was using yesterday no longer applies to the system I need today. Fine. Time to take a step back, reevaluate what I need, and structure a plan, a new plan, to continue reaching higher.

So that’s what I’ll be committing to doing this week. I’ll be reevaluating my daily routine and short term goals to find a daily routine and mindful focus that is more suitably adapted to the world’s current situation. I hope you will too.

It’s a Thing You Learn Every Day  

“What we fear doing most is usually what we most need to do.”

~Tim Ferriss

Last week I was speaking with a friend, hashing through some things they were frustrated with in what seemed to be stuck in a lack of progress. One of the core issues discussed was the mind’s desire to control, and the difficulty in letting go and trusting outcomes to arrive positively through patience. It is something I identify with extremely closely.

For as long as I can remember, whenever I’ve decided to commit to something, I commit to it wholeheartedly, with all my effort and energy. An admirable trait to be sure, but there is a darker side of that coin: an almost obsessive propensity to want things to be perfect, even if they don’t need to be. That intensity can have a lot of unintended consequences, particularly when it comes to working with other people.

Have you ever worked on a group project in school? Ever notice the way personality types quickly emerge once the work starts? There have been too many articles written on this very topic to count, so I’ll spare you that rabbit hole. But if you think back, I’m sure you can remember some of the best and worst team projects you’ve worked on previously and the people you worked on them with. 

There’s the analyst or researcher, willing to do the book work. There’s the organized planner type. There’s the communicator, who volunteered to do most of the talking during the presentation. There’s the team player, a generally agreeable, well rounded person okay with whatever responsibility the group needs from them. There’s usually a creative type. You also undoubtedly encountered the slacker or procrastinator that just didn’t seem to care that much, nor did they volunteer for anything. There’s usually also a leader type, for better or for worse. That was usually me.

The thing about being a perfection-obsessed alpha type who usually assumes the leader role is that you typically have a hard time letting go of responsibilities and allowing others to drive. That’s a recipe for really bad teamwork, and one that took me a long time to learn. I grew up playing team sports, but mainly baseball, which is actually a 1 on 1 chess match masquerading as a team game. So I didn’t really learn to start trusting and relying on teammates until I got promoted into a Manager role at the call center I was working in at 30. It didn’t take me long to realize I couldn’t just get on the phone and make sales for my employees. I had to trust that they could get the job done so I could focus on other responsibilities.

One of the things that really helped me work through this subtle neuroses was the point where I learned how to differentiate what I could control and what I couldn’t. It is still something I haven’t quite mastered, but the better I get at it, the easier my life seems to get.

As I discussed these challenges with my friend, I conveyed the importance of this concept using “The Serenity Prayer,” a memorable mantra authored by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr in the early 1900s:

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.

It sounds so simple when it’s in a cute little poem, but in practice, this is extremely difficult for some people (like me). My friend, familiar with the Serenity Prayer, responded with:

“I’ve been trying to remind myself of this, but it just doesn’t seem to get through to me” they said in a discouraged tone. 

This made me think of the Tim Ferriss quote above.

“You know, if it is that difficult, it probably means it’s the thing you need to work on most,” I suggested, trying to avoid sounding like an asshole by quoting Tim Ferriss.

“Let me show you something,” I said, retrieving my daily planner. I paged through the last 2 weeks, showing how I have been starting every morning by writing down a quote by Cato (the one I wrote about last week). I then showed my Google Calendar, where every day at 2pm, I have an alert set to remind me of that daily focus again.

“This isn’t a thing you just learn one day. It’s a thing you learn every day,” I said reassuringly.

All productive, ambitious individuals have things they are working on to improve. Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t getting the quick results you desire. Instead, find ways to remind yourself and repeatedly force yourself to keep at it. You’re only really stuck if you give up.

The Virtue of not Actually Feeling any Better

Every morning i wake up, since the beginning of the year, I’ve been reading from “the Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday. It has been a useful way to begin each day with a thought, quote, or idea that I can attempt to carry with me throughout the day and give me something to chew on & think about.

February’s running theme and focus has been on “passions and emotions,” two things i’ve never been short on. Perhaps the easiest way to see my emotions get the best of me is when I’m playing sports. Sometimes my tunnel vision in the competition for a W is so intense that I completely forget about my manners, and i say or do things i regret later. Or perhaps it is when I’m driving and I have to endure the insufferability of hapless, oblivious drivers with no respect for concepts like flow of traffic, or merging appropriately, or focusing on the road instead of one’s mobile device.  All of these things get me quite worked up. But obviously these minor things are indicative of a greater battle I have been fighting most of my adult life with managing anger. I’ve gotten better in the last couple years, but anger is a devil that one never completely vanquishes once it has a hook into your emotions.

One thing I’ve noticed lately in particular is that little inconsequential things have been getting to me. Like not even anything worth speaking of. So small, I can’t even articulate a proper example accurately. It might be something like my phone taking an extra couple of seconds to execute whatever command i’ve just issued it. Or missing a yellow light when I’m not even in a hurry to be anywhere. But these little things happen, my blood pressure faintly and momentarily spikes, and I inexcusably might let a quick, unnecessary obscenity fly. There’s no reason for it, and it means nothing, but for half a moment, a mild form of tourette’s appears to take over, and the anger monster makes a brief appearance before disappearing back into its prison cell of domestication. 

By most accounts, this seems like a victimless crime. There’s usually no one around, and the moment passes and I move on. But I can’t let go of why I allow this to happen. Perhaps it’s just a side effect of how hard I’ve been focusing on getting back into shape with extreme diet and exercise (seriously, I’ve never worked as hard in my life at watching what i eat and working my ass off in the gym as i have in the last 45 days), and moments of low blood sugar yielding short bouts of “hangry” are breaking through like some sort of micro seizure. Or maybe I’ve just been experiencing moments of weakness a little more frequently lately.

When the calendar flipped to February, I was both wary and excited to see that “Emotions” would be a theme. Excited, because i relished the chance to focus on improvement, and wary because growth is rarely comfortable. I am enthused by the opportunity to turn a weakness into a strength, but aware that such a mission will be painful.

Just two days ago, the topic for the day was “Did that make you feel better?”   …Rather than recap it, I’ll just quote directly:

“The next time someone gets upset near you — crying, yelling, breaking something, being pointed or cruel — watch how quickly this statement will stop them cold: “I hope this is making you feel better.” Because, of course, it isn’t.”

On my first thought after reading this, the theatre of my mind played this scenario out and I laughed out loud at how much worse saying something like this would likely make things. But on the 2nd reading, I felt shame. Shame of the knowledge that this piece was specifically for people like me. Why? Because a logical examination of this behavior yields only one result: that losing your cool simply does not accomplish anything. And if it does not accomplish anything, why should it make one feel any better? If I look back, I can’t say that behaving badly has ever made me feel better. In point of fact, it has always led me to regret something.

But the best part of this learning process is the strategies and tactics for improvement you gain when doing the work, and for this topic, the latter half of the writing suggested the following:

“The next time you find yourself in the middle of a freakout… just ask: is this actually making me feel better?”

The answer will undoubtedly be “no.” I won’t feel any better in that moment. And the shame won’t suddenly evaporate. But I will be using this new tool, this strategy to improve. And I’ll suddenly be aware. And I’ll be doing the work. And that will make me feel a little better.