Stoicism for a Better Life (Part 5)

Testing Moments

“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.” ― Epictetus

About two years ago, I was going to Savannah, Georgia (US), for an email marketing conference. I had taken the non-stop Air India flight from Mumbai to Newark and was waiting for my next flight at the gate at Newark airport. I then heard an announcement that the flight had been cancelled. My first reaction was that of panic. I knew that there were not that many flights to Savannah, and I had a conference to attend the next morning. I walked up to the agent’s counter and asked for options. The first response was that the next available flight they could book me on would be on the following morning – about 20 hours later. In a quiet voice, I told the agent I had come a long way and I could not possibly afford to miss a third of the conference. Were there any other options? All this was happening as I saw tempers rise around me of fellow travellers who saw their own plans getting disrupted. The agent then suggested an option: if I was willing to travel to La Guardia airport immediately, there was a flight from there which could help me get to Savannah by late evening. My checked bag would not be on that flight and would be delivered either late night or the next day. I had minutes to decide. She offered to cover the cab fare to La Guardia.

A younger me would have thrown a fit, and argued that they should put me on a later flight from Newark itself. (There were flights, but they were all booked.) But a “Stoic” me stayed calm, and took the La Guardia option. I have come around to the belief that “there is some good in everything that happens.” The flight cancellation was beyond my control. What I could control were my reactions. Getting angry at the agent would not get me to Savannah. It was not her fault. The worst case was either that I missed a few hours of the conference the next morning or I landed in Savannah in the evening without my checked bag. I took the latter option.

I made it on time for the flight from La Guardia. When I landed in Savannah and reached the hotel, my first task was to get myself some clothes for the next day – just in case my bag didn’t make it at night. (I normally always carry a set in my carry-on baggage, but had not done so this time.) After checking in at the hotel, I rushed out and found a Gap store that was just about to close for the day. I persuaded the manager to wait a few minutes and managed to buy some clothes. All’s well that ends well! My checked bag arrived just after midnight – for once, I was delighted to be woken up in the middle of my deep sleep! Come morning, life was exactly how it was supposed to be. My bag and I were united, and I was making my way to the conference right on time.

As I thought about the incident, I was surprised at how calm I was. At a younger age, I would perhaps have not been so, and would have gone into a negative frame of mind. But through the years, I have learnt to accept things as they come.

The “excitement” on that trip did not end there. When I checked in at Savannah airport after the conference to take a flight to Los Angeles via Atlanta, I forgot my credit card in the self-check-in machine. I had to pay for the baggage, and two of my credit cards did not work. I was a bit flustered and then made a mistake. The third card worked but I forgot to remove it from the machine. I only realised it as the flight was landing in Atlanta. I told myself that the worst case was that someone would take it and ring up some charges – money was the only loss, and I could presumably get that back from the credit card company. So, I once again stayed calm, messaged my office in Mumbai, and asked them to cancel the credit card, even as I rushed to make the connecting flight to Los Angeles.

Both were small incidents – one beyond my control, and one where I erred. I could have let both consume me, but I did not. I accepted what had happened, thought through the worst case scenario, and worked out the best possible option, and moved on with life. In both cases, my Stoic mindset helped me navigate the situations.

Thinks 288

Steven Pinker: “The most powerful means of getting people to be more rational is not to concentrate on the people. Because people are pretty rational when it comes to their own lives. They get the kids clothed and fed and off to school on time, and they keep their jobs and pay their bills. But people hold beliefs not because they are provably true or false but because they’re uplifting, they’re empowering, they’re good stories. The key, though, is what kind of species are we? How rational is Homo sapiens? The answer can’t be that we’re just irrational in our bones, otherwise we could never have established the benchmarks of rationality against which we could say some people some of the time are irrational. I think the answer is, especially for publicly consequential beliefs: We achieve rationality by implementing rules for the community that make us collectively more rational than any of us are individually. People make up for one another’s biases by being able to criticize them. People air their disagreements, and the person with the strongest position prevails. People subject their beliefs to empirical tests.”

Umakant Soni: “The next 15 years are going to be critical for India’s growth story. We will have an opportunity to combine demographic dividend with artificial intelligence (AI)-driven hyper-innovation, in which 50 billion smart things (machines and devices) will combine with billions of connected humans. Unlike previous innovation cycles, the AI wave is different in which rapid technology innovation (combination of AI, Robotics, 5G and Quantum technologies) will occur together with business model innovation (digital intangibles-driven experience economy)…For India to play a massive role in this upcoming ecosystem, we need to launch ambitious technology moonshots, which will create the innovation ecosystem necessary to dominate the experience economy.”

FT: “In advanced economies, cryptocurrencies are viewed by many in the financial world with suspicion — the domain of zealous “crypto bros” and a speculative and highly volatile fad that can only end badly. Regulators in Europe and the US have issued stark warnings about the dangers of trading crypto. But in the developing world, there are signs that crypto is quietly building deeper roots. Especially in countries which have a history of financial instability or where the barriers to accessing traditional financial products such as bank accounts are high, cryptocurrency use is fast becoming a fact of daily life.” Vietnam and India have the highest levels of crypto adoption.

Stoicism for a Better Life (Part 4)

Principles

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.” ― Epictetus

Daily Stoic offers nine core Stoic beliefs by Stephen Hanselman:

  1. If You Want a Smooth Flow of Life, Live According to Nature
  2. Happiness Isn’t Found in Things, but in Virtue Alone – It’s All About What We Value and the Choices We Make
  3. We Don’t Control External Events, We Only Control Our Thoughts, Opinions, Decisions and Duties
  4. We’ve Each Been Given All the Inner Resources We Need to Thrive
  5. We Must Eliminate Toxic Emotions – Why Hope, Fear, and Anger are Always the Worst Strategies
  6. We Are and Must Remain a Unified Self – We Can’t Complain or Blame Anyone Else (Best to Deal with Our Own Demons)
  7. No Man Is an Island: The Stoic Golden Rule
  8. Our Personal Development is Bound Up in Cooperation with Others
  9. Persist and Resist: It’s All about Progress, Not Perfection

N.S.Gill lists eight of the main ethical notions held by the Stoic philosophers.

  • Nature: Nature is rational.
  • Law of Reason: The universe is governed by the law of reason. Humans can’t actually escape its inexorable force, but they can, uniquely, follow the law deliberately.
  • Virtue: A life led according to rational nature is virtuous.
  • Wisdom: Wisdom is the root virtue. From it spring the cardinal virtues: insight, bravery, self-control, and justice.
  • Apathea: Since passion is irrational, life should be waged as a battle against it. Intense feelings should be avoided.
  • Pleasure: Pleasure is neither good nor bad. It is only acceptable if it doesn’t interfere with the quest for virtue.
  • Evil: Poverty, illness, and death are not evil.
  • Duty: Virtue should be sought, not for the sake of pleasure, but for duty.

Paul Jun writes about 9 principles, distilled from the ideas of Stoicism:

  1. Acknowledge that all emotions come from within
  2. Find someone you respect, and use them to stay honest
  3. Recognize there is life after failure
  4. Read purposefully, and apply your knowledge
  5. Challenge yourself to be brutally honest
  6. Reflect on what you spend the most time on
  7. Remind yourself: you weren’t meant to procrastinate.
  8. Put the phone away and be present
  9. Remind yourself that time is our most precious resource

Chris Loper offers a list of 10 principles and practices:

  1. Focus on what you can control
  2. Take action
  3. Be virtuous
  4. Lead by example
  5. Diminish your ego
  6. You’re not entitled to anything
  7. Exercise your will
  8. Practice resilience when faced with obstacles, failure, or tragedy
  9. Choose your response
  10. Be grateful

Modern Stoicism elaborates on the key ideas:

  • It’s not things that upset us, but our judgements about things, said Epictetus. How we think about things is key. You are only frustrated or disappointed or angry about any given situation because you have judged that something terrible has happened. But is that judgement correct?
  • Negative emotions such as fear, anger, or jealousy should be avoided because they are based on mistaken judgements, are unpleasant to experience, and can lead to bad actions. Anger is a temporary madness, Seneca said, and should be avoided at all costs, for all too often it can escalate to violence.
  • It is a mistake to think that external circumstances and objects are inherently good. The only thing that is genuinely good is having a rational mind / virtuous character; this is the only thing the Stoics say we need in order to live a good life. While everything else – money, health, status – might be preferable (we’d all choose them over their opposites), none of these things are essential and it is possible to live a good life even without them.
  • With this in mind, the Stoics argue that it is possible to live well in any and every situation, so long as one has the right frame of mind. Whatever bad luck or adversity someone might experience, these external shifts in fortune can never undermine their frame of mind, so long as they guard it well.
  • Our focus, then, ought to be on cultivating this excellent state of mind. This means paying attention to the judgements we make and avoiding negative emotions. It also means developing positive character traits such as justice, courage, moderation, and wisdom. These virtues will enable us to act as ‘good citizens’, in line with our nature as social animals.
  • The ideal Stoic will thus be clear headed and rational, but also unselfish and social, as well as ecological and global in outlook. They will value their own integrity higher than material success. They will appreciate what they have and, if they lose it, accept with good grace that nothing can be kept forever. They will behave the best they can, without getting frustrated when things don’t work out as hoped.

As one thinks about these ideas, beliefs and principles, what is striking is their simplicity and how obvious they are. At the same time, it requires immense self-discipline to make them part of our life’s daily operating system.

Thinks 287

Ben Thompson: “The PC epoch had Windows as its operating system, productivity software as its killer app, and email was the dominant communications medium. The Internet epoch had the browser as its operating system, search as its killer app, and social networking, particularly Facebook, was the dominant communications medium. The mobile epoch had iOS and Android as its operating systems, the sharing economy as its killer app, and messaging was the dominant communications medium…If consumer tech’s second epoch — the Internet — was built on and enabled by the first — the PC — then it follows that the fourth epoch is built on and enabled the third. Both the creator economy and metaverses fit the bill: yes, some creators can make a go of it on the web, but I’ll be the first to say that that is only possible because of social networks. What seems more likely are that creators emerge on platforms built to accommodate them, and those platforms themselves will sit on top of mobile. That is even more likely to be the case when it comes to metaverses, which are likely able to deliver superior experiences as a native app than as a web app.”

David Cutler: “One of the most important things that we’ve observed about the world is that people who are better educated are in better health. That’s true virtually systematically, and it’s increasingly so over time. That is, the gap between people with a college degree and people without a college degree is growing over time, even as other gaps, for example, between whites and Blacks, are shrinking over time.”

Simon Kuper: ” If you write, a book is the highest expression of yourself. It will probably outlive you on Amazon. A book is an end in itself.”

Stoicism for a Better Life (Part 3)

Origin Story

“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” – Zeno

The ideas of Stoicism originated in Greece and were then built upon by Romans.

N.S.Gill: “The Stoics are one of five major philosophical schools in classical Greece and Rome: Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic, Epicurean, and Skeptic. The philosophers who followed Aristotle (384–322 BCE) were also known as the Peripatetics, named for their habit of walking around the colonnades of the Athenian Lyceum. The Stoic philosophers, on the other hand, were named for the Athenian Stoa Poikile or “painted porch,” the roofed colonnade in Athens where the founder of the Stoic philosophy, Zeno of Citium (344–262 BC), held his classes.”

Brad Inwood’s book, “Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction” offers a timeline for the history of Stoicism. Much of what we know now comes from the works that survived – of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, Epictetus, a slave, and Seneca, a Roman author, politician and philosopher. They all built on the earlier works of the Greeks, which unfortunately, have not survived.

Ryan Holiday in “Lives of the Stoics”: “Across the first five hundred years of Stoic history, its members form an astonishing spectrum of stations in life, ranging from Marcus Aurelius, the all-powerful emperor, to Epictetus, a lowly slave who was crippled in captivity but whose writings and life were an example that inspired many, including Marcus. Some of their names you may already be familiar with, and others (Aristo, Diogenes of Babylon, Porcia, Antipater, Panaetius, Posidonius, Arius, and Musonius Rufus) likely not. But each is worth knowing about, whether they were merchants or generals, writers or athletes, parents or professors, daughters or diplomats. Each has something important to teach us. Each walked the path of virtue in a way that we must learn from.”

New World Encyclopedia offers more details: “The Stoic school was founded by Zeno of Citium (334-262 B.C.E.) in Athens, Greece, around 308 B.C.E. After studying under Crates the Cynic and several other Athenian philosophers, Zeno developed his own system of thought and began teaching in the Agora of Athens at the stoa poikile (Painted Colonnade), from which the school takes its name. Upon his death in 262 B.C.E., he was succeeded by his disciple Cleanthes (331-232 B.C.E.), and then by Chrysippus (c. 280-c. 206 B.C.E.). Chrysippus was a prolific writer, and is credited with organizing and developing the teachings of Stoicism into the form in which it continued for the next four centuries. Except for a short “Hymn to Zeus” by Cleanthes, only fragments of the written works of the early Stoics are preserved. In the first century C.E., Flavius Arrian (c. 86–160 C.E.) composed two books, Discourses and Handbook, based on the teachings of the Greek Stoic Epictetus (55 -135 C.E.). These works clearly explain the Stoic system of ethics and lay out a detailed course of exercises in self-examination and self-discipline to be followed by anyone striving to become a Stoic. The power of Stoic thought is evident in the writings of Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) and of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.), who both applied Stoic theory to political life … The early Stoics provided a unified account of the world, consisting of formal logic, corporealistic physics and naturalistic ethics. Later Stoics focused on ethics, and progression towards living in harmony with the universe, over which one has no direct control.”

Thinks 286

Rita McGrath: “A lot of marketing dollars are wasted because it isn’t entirely clear what specific target market you are trying to reach. A closely connected question is what it is you want the members of that target audience to do. An awful lot of people emphasize things like “likes” “follows” and “re-posts” without drawing any connection whatsoever to the behavior they are really interested in, which is turning that potential customer into an actual customer. If you have done a good job of defining the potential customers’ “jobs to be done,” you are ahead of the game. Once you are clear on the problem you are solving, try to put a name to the customer persona, the circumstances in which they have the need, and when they are most likely to be looking for a solution. You want to be “present” at those moments.”

Akash Prakash: “Investors will have to decide whether they wish to participate in this wave of new listings. Not an easy decision if you are a disciplined valuation-conscious investor, worried about market cycles. The short-term odds are stacked against buying. However, longer-term investors may have a different point of view. The future leaders of India Inc are being created in front of us. Can you afford to be totally absent?”

David Perell: “In contrast to the sprint to read every book on Kindle, Charlie Munger once said: “Take a simple idea and take it seriously.” Many of the most successful people I’ve studied have found their edge by putting their faith in one big idea. They’ve committed to the idea, and studied it so much that its implications have become second nature.”

Stoicism for a Better Life (Part 2)

What It Is

“A Stoic is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” – Nassim Taleb

So, what is Stoicism?

Wikipedia: “Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness, or blessedness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly. The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “virtue is the only good” for human beings, and those external things—such as health, wealth, and pleasure—are not good or bad in themselves (adiaphora), but have value as “material for virtue to act upon”.”

Daily Stoic: “In its rightful place, Stoicism is a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom: something one uses to live a great life, rather than some esoteric field of academic inquiry … Courage. Temperance. Justice. Wisdom. They are the most essential values in Stoic philosophy … Everything we face in life is an opportunity to respond with these four traits.”

Paul Jun: “The Stoics focus on two things: How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life? How can we become better human beings? The goal of Stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, practicing self-control, being conscious of our impulses, realizing our ephemeral nature and the short time allotted … It’s important that we understand the obstacles that we face and not run from them; it’s vital that we learn to transmute them into fuel to feed our fire.”

Holstee: “Simply put, Stoicism was designed to help people live their best possible lives. It’s a philosophy of life that maximizes positive emotions, reduces negative emotions and helps individuals to hone their virtues of character. At any moment, in any situation, and at any stage of life, Stoicism provides a framework for living well. It reminds people of what is truly important, providing practical strategies to get more of what is valuable. Stoicism was deliberately created to be understandable, actionable and useful. Practicing Stoicism doesn’t require learning an entirely new philosophical lexicon or meditating for hours a day. Instead, it offers an immediate, useful and practical way to find tranquility and improve one’s strengths of character.”

John Sellars: “Stoicism holds that the key to a good, happy life is the cultivation of an excellent mental state, which the Stoics identified with virtue and being rational. The ideal life is one that is in harmony with Nature, of which we are all part, and an attitude of calm indifference towards external events. [There are] two foundational principles … The first is that some things are within our control and some are not, and that much of our unhappiness is caused by thinking that we can control things that, in fact, we can’t.”

Thinks 285

McKinsey: “In the COVID-19 era, three attributes appear to be vital to corporate success. The first is speed. The pace of technology innovation and adoption by Asian companies and consumers is fast and, indeed, unmatched by other regions. The second is collaboration. There is a strong case for corporations working in partnership within their ecosystems. The third is resilience. The pandemic demonstrated the fragility of supply chains in the case of a global shock; making those supply chains more resilient in what could be a more explicitly multipolar world in innovative technologies and geographies is a priority if companies and investors are to access the full variety of opportunities. Asia already has strengths in all three on which it can build.”

Art Carden on Economics in 3 I’s: “Incentives Matter.Institutions Matter. Intentions Don’t Matter.”

PN Vijay: “Government spends a lot of money just on itself!! 6.4 per cent is paid as pensions to retired government employees, over 8 per cent on salaries; entire establishment expenses are in excess of 12 per cent. Government spends 11 per cent on defence. To be fair to this government, in spite of the threats on our borders, this percentage has not gone up. Subsidies on food/ fertiliser/ fuel take up another 7 per cent; here again the government has managed to bring this percentage down in the last few years by stopping leakages. In the states, the pattern is similar though there is no expenditure on defence but salary expenses range from 12 to 30 per cent, depending on every state. When we tot up the interest, defence, pensions, salaries, paying tax officials, subsidies etc., we see they make up more than half of the total inflows into government (borrowings and other capital receipts make up other inflows of the government apart from taxes). This is also 90 per cent of the tax collection. The balance is taken by rural development, roads, ports, airports, railway lines, healthcare, education, agriculture and all other areas.”

Stoicism for a Better Life (Part 1)

A Stoic is Discovered

Before you get going in the morning say to yourself, ‘Today I’ll meet people who are meddlers, ingrates, bullies, cheaters, envious and antisocial people. All of this happens because they don’t know the difference between what’s good and what’s bad.’” – Marcus Aureliuis

“You are a Stoic,” said a friend to me a few years ago. I replied with a puzzled look. I knew the definition of “stoic” (suffering pain or difficulty without complaining), but the “a” before Stoic meant something else. He then explained, “You have an almost Zen-like calm through ups and downs. You  control your emotions, do not let external events upset you, reflect a lot on what happens, are generally happy and content, and are always wondering how to become a better version of yourself. These are the key ideas behind Stoicism. You should look it up.”

That was the first time I had come across Stoicism. The fault was entirely mine: the focus on engineering early on in my career meant that the liberal arts were given short shrift. This is the one thing I would undo if I had a chance to live life again. Philosophy was a word I dreaded after doing a compulsory course during my undergrad in IIT. It took me almost three decades to forget those scars and take a fresh look at philosophy, economics and the related arts.

As I read about Stoicism, I realised that my friend was right. I had lived life on the principles of Stoicism without understanding that there was a name for it. Since then, I have read up more on Stoicism and have even advocated it to many others. What the Greeks and Romans came up with a couple thousand years ago has modern-day relevance. They also tie in with some of the ideas in Jainism around detachment. These ideas have helped me not just in personal life but also in business as an entrepreneur to live through more than 30 failed ventures and maintain equanimity through the 3 successes I have had in the past three decades.

When I spoke to others about Stoicism, I realised most were like me a few years ago – very few had heard about Stoicism. Hence this series – to summarise the key ideas, provide some stories from my life, and offer suggestions on leading a better life. We cannot control the events that happen, but can control our reactions to those events. The writings and wisdom of people like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca can help us lead a happier life and also create a continuously improving version of ourselves. It can mean better relationships with those around us – at home and work. And by doing so, we will have less stress and greater mental calm. Each of us may have our own way to reach that state – meditation, long walks, journaling, and so on. But what I like about Stoicism is that it provides a holistic approach rather than point solutions.

Philosophy is the study of ideas and beliefs about the meaning of life. I wish I had studied it more when I was younger. This series is a way to correct that mistake and offer advice to others who are younger and likely to find it useful. In today’s always-on world where it can be hard to find peace and tranquillity amidst a constant flurry of meetings and messages, Stoicism offers a guide to a more fulfilling life.

Thinks 284

Businessweek on Marc Lore’s plans to build a utopian megapolis: “Lore is particularly attracted to the strain of Georgism that involves creating a trust that holds the land in a community and uses the income it generates to fund social services. From that idea, he’s come up with the modest proposal to start a private foundation, buy 200,000 acres or so of land, probably somewhere in the American West, and build a 5 million-person city from the ground up—a Georgist utopia that will serve as a demonstration project for a new, fairer phase of capitalism.”

Jeff Bezos: “”I very frequently get the question: “What’s going to change in the next 10 years?” That’s a very interesting question. I almost never get the question: “What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?” And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two. You can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time… When you have something that you know is true, even over the long term, you can afford to put a lot of energy into it.”

WSJ on becoming a morning person: “To shift earlier, start by getting into bed 15 minutes earlier than usual, says Rebecca Robbins, a sleep scientist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. Cut out screen time at least 30 minutes before bed, and quit with the snooze button, which just interrupts the flow of natural sleep, she says. Once you’re up, head outside. Exposure to light will help reset your circadian rhythm. After two weeks, you’ll feel good, Dr. Robbins says. Being awake is only half the battle. You also need a solid morning routine, says Wendy Ellin, a workplace productivity consultant based in Atlanta.”