I’ve never been punched in the mouth. At least not literarily. And not in recent memory. Perhaps last in some childhood scuffle. But I get punched in the mouth every week. Some weeks, I get punched every day. Metaphorically speaking. By life. By adulting.
Especially as a creative, as a freelancer, as an entrepreneur. Life can be sometimes feel like a series of fires to put out, and punches, mis-steps and mistakes. If there is one thing that is for sure, is that things will not go your way. The client will not pay on time, the job will take longer than you think to be commissioned, it will take even longer to get done.
Bad things are sure to happen.
How do you live in such an unfortunate and uncertain world? Do you hide and try to maximize certainty, or do you find a way to embrace the chaos and work with it?
Just under a decade ago, I began to open my mind up to other schools of thought, spiritual ideas and ways of looking at the world. In my transition into young adulthood, there were a lot of incongruencies and uncomfortable paradoxes in my belief system, and I sought to figure out a way to view the world and a way to live. The prevailing criteria for whether I would adopt a worldview or not, was its efficacy. I didn’t care where the idea came from, as long as it worked.
Life post-faith, or life after the walls of your previous belief system have been blown off can feel like free floating in the vast void of space, far from any planet or ship to orient you. This was the mental image I consistently pulled to mind as I wrestled with things in that period of my life. But sometime in 2011, I came across a blog post written by Ryan Holiday on Tim Ferris’ website that introduced me to a school of thought that would prove an anchor, and a guide. It is one I still hold dear. In fact, I count Ryan as one of my favorite authors, and his books on the school of thought as some of the most important books I’ve read. That school of thought is Stoic Philosophy.
Every now and again, a friend would come to me for advice, usually panicking, overwhelmed with some situation or event, and I would offer some perspective. I’d often refer to stoic philosophy as a possible solution or framework to analyze the problem and offer a solution. And then they would ask, ‘what is Stoic Philosophy”. There, I would stumble on my words trying to articulate something I understand quite well but can’t often express as well. This post is my attempt to do so.
Stoicism is a philosophy that is immensely practical in its approach. In other brands of philosophy, there is usually a lot of deliberation on the nature of life or reality. Or they are marked with arcane concerns that are more about jumping through intellectual hoops than anything else. Not stoicism. The main focus here is simple. How to live well.
Founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, stoicism was famously practiced by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Epictetus, and they are considered the main leaders of the philosophy. But over the course of history, many have illustrated stoicism as a way of life. In their ranks, leaders and statesmen, thinkers and athletes.
The core of stoicism is this. Real life is unpredictable, and much is outside our control. Our lives are fleeting, and we are plagued by anxieties. How then shall we live? How can we be steadfast, strong and in control of ourselves?
The stoics offer what are known as “spiritual exercises” meditations and patterns of thought that offer perspective and strength. I’ll highlight a few.
- Practice Misfortune
“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” – Seneca
Comfort is the worst kind of slavery because you are always afraid that something or someone will take it from you. – Ryan Holiday
Seneca, who was immensely wealthy man in his time, suggested that we ought to take some time every month to practice poverty. Eat little food, wear your worst clothes, expose yourself to embarrassment. Place yourself in the uncomfortable situation you fear and ask yourself ‘Is this what I used to dread?’
If you practiced the worst-case scenario, when it actually happens, it loses its ability to disrupt your life. You are already familiar with it. If you get punched every now and again, you get desensitized to it, better able to handle it.
- Train Perception to avoid good and bad
“Choose not to be harmed and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed and you haven’t been.” -Marcus Aurelius
Nothing is good or bad. It is our judgement that makes it so. Management of perception is one of the core tenets of stoicism. In fact, the first theme in Ryan’s book ‘The Obstacle is the Way’ is all about the ‘discipline of perception’.
When tragedy strikes – you don’t win the pitch, you have a bad day at work, your colleagues undermine you, it is easy to judge what has happened as bad, getting wrapped up in the resulting emotion, anger, distress, worry. To the Stoic, everything is opportunity. Things simply happen. We decide if its good or bad. We choose to see the good in it. We choose to turn the obstacle on its head.
The failed pitch becomes a teachable moment, an event to mine for lessons to fortify ourselves for the next one. It becomes practice. Problems at work with colleagues becomes an opportunity to learn, to practice virtue – compassion, equanimity, leadership, forgiveness. The bad day teaches us resilience and a chance to maintain an inner citadel of peace in a chaotic harsh world.
- Is this within my control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .” – Epictetus
Perhaps the most important practice in stoic philosophy is discerning what we can control and what we can’t. You can’t control the weather, you can’t control traffic, you can’t control the actions of others. You can’t make someone like you or love you. No amount of huffing and puffing and crying and whining will change certain things. Why expend energy on them?
There are only a few things that really matter and only a few things you can control. Focus on those.
You can’t change where you were born or who you were born to. You probably can’t change the job market, or the prevailing economic conditions. Not without immense coordination and collaboration with others anyway. But you can change your perspective, you can change your actions. Focus on what you can do and take action along those lines.
This meditation dovetails nicely with the discipline of action. As a person with goals and aims, all I can do is focus on what I can control and consistently take the actions I can to move me closer to them. I can’t control when the client will pay, but I can focus on drumming up new business, I can focus on finding better clients, I can focus on increasing my streams of income. There is no use crying about how unfair it all is, all I can do is focus on what I can do. And take bold action.
Everything must be done in the service of the whole. Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us. With persistence and flexibility, we’ll act in the best interest of our goals. – Ryan Holiday (The Obstacle is the Way)
So, what do you do when you have been punched in the mouth?
Take a step back. Wipe off the blood. Learn from the punch.
Was it inevitable? Was it just bad luck or misfortune? Did you fail to account for something? Were you too relaxed? Did you let your guard down? Maybe it’s okay that you got punched. Punches make you tougher, they build your resilience. Perhaps you can learn to pull a punch like that. How can you avoid another punch? How can you deal better with it next time? How can you use the momentum of the punch against your opponent, against your obstacle?
Don’t get mad. Don’t let it throw you off balance for too long. Don’t let it ruin everything you have been working for.
I have borrowed liberally from this primer on Stoicism here, to articulate the philosophy and some of its meditations. I also highly recommend Ryan’s books ‘The Obstacle is The Way’ , ‘Ego is the Enemy’ and ‘The Daily Stoic’. Also Robert Greene’s books The 48 laws of power, The 50thlaw, The 33 strategies of war and Mastery are very much in the stoic vein…at least in my opinion
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of watching Barack Obama speak live at the 16th Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in Johannesburg.
I thought of capturing some of my thoughts on his lecture, and the title ‘The audacity of hope’ came to mind. It is the title of one of his books, and ties in powerfully with the themes he expressed.
His pleasantly meandering talk took us on a 100-year journey from the birth of Madiba until present day. Who would have thought that a young boy born in Mvezo, in the Eastern Cape of South Africa a century ago, would have such an effect in history, altering the destiny of a nation, and in a way, the world.
He called on us to appreciate just how much progress has taken place in that 100-year period, a blink of an eye in the larger context of our human heritage and history. In that time, nations have been liberated from colonial rule, countries have shifted from unjust arrangements to more democratic ones. Globalisation has brought the world closer together, and all in all, billions have been lifted from poverty. We live in a world that is safer, more prosperous and more tolerant than ever before.
Not to say that we have not made mistakes. Ideological and tribal conflicts still happen with heart-breaking frequency. The things that have brought us progress and made us closer in some ways, globalisation, technology, trade, have made it easier for the rich to get richer and exert more control. Social Media, supposed to connect us has been weaponised to keep us misinformed and outraged. Unfettered capitalism has decimated communities and environments. We have failed at many of the bold claims we have made.
Which is why today, the world seems teetering on the edge of return to days gone past. From the ideals of democracy to politics of the strong man, the authoritarian. It can seem that we are on the regress, back to the historical cycles of competition, mistrust and conflict.
And that is where the audacity of hope comes in.
Progress has always been as a result of people fighting relentlessly for it. The fact that you are ‘right’, or ‘good’ does not mean your win is automatically assured. There is the prevailing sentiment, that things will work out, that ultimately the arc of progress is always forward, that technology will solve the problems, that our politics will eventually work for our benefit.
But that is not the case. We mustn’t just hope for the best, we must also fight for the best.
In his book, Zero to One, Peter Thiel outlines four main philosophical tendencies – definite optimism, indefinite optimism, definite pessimism and indefinite pessimism.
An indefinite pessimist looks out to a bleak future, but he has no idea what to do about it.
A definite pessimist knows the future can be known, but since it will be bleak, he must prepare for it.
To an indefinite optimist, the future will be better, but he doesn’t know how exactly, so he won’t make any specific plans. He expects to profit from the future but sees no reason to design it correctly.
To the definite optimist, the future would be better than the present if he plans and works to make it better.
Peter Thiel (Zero to One). Emphasis mine.
In a postmodern society like ours where repeated disappointment has made it far easier to be cynical than to believe, easier to disengage rather than hold firm convictions and advance forward, it is rebellion to believe. It is activism to hold on to hope and act accordingly.
We can create a better world. We have knowledge, we have technology, we have several billion people on the planet. We can do it. But it will not happen automatically or by accident. It will take us working together towards definite goals. Keeping the wheels of progress moving forward is perpetual work handed from generation to generation.
It will happen with great leadership. Individuals across all strata and levels of society, government and business. People with the Madiba spirit. People without ego, people with a passion for people. People with firm convictions, a stoic attitude and a steady patient hand. From the president of the nation, to the student leader.
It will take all of us. In his article, Umair Haque (one of our present day greatest thinkers in my opinion) outlines the idea that the forces of darkness and authoritarianism are not defeated by any one person. The idea of the lone ranger, the sole hero is a myth perpetuated by western thinking. But what’s the opposite of a hero? A chain reaction. Real change is as a result of a chain reaction, of waves of actions multiplied by the masses. Of people around the world being inspired by an incarcerated Mandela and continuing the struggle. Of people risking safety and even laying down their lives in service of an ideal. That is how change happens. When the people move as one, with leaders to steady the course and ensure safe landing.
So, we must believe. So, we must have hope. So, we must challenge ourselves to imagine a better world. To imagine new ways of engagement as a society, as businesses, as nations, as a human race. Our greatest challenge ahead is not one of technology, or ideology, or conflict. It is one of imagination. It is one of resolve.
Amandla Awethu. A luta Continua. The struggle continues. In solidarity, we will prevail.
I asked this question on WhatsApp the other day, and I got back a few interesting answers from friends. Most people said something along the lines of they would sacrifice time, or energy to get what they want. To be honest, the first thing that popped into my head when I asked the question was…myself.
…I know right. I’ll explain just now, but let’s talk about desire and sacrifice for a bit.
So, this whole year, I’ve generally been writing on the theme of how to get what you want. The idea has been to share the concepts and lessons I’ve picked up from reading too much and thinking too much, so you don’t have to.
When I think about ‘what you want’, I think about the general drive to be successful and to acquire things. We all want to grow and achieve and climb. It is hardwired into our nature as human beings. We are driven by dissatisfaction and desire. And there are great things to want that are part of the human experience – success, education, money, relationships, family, safety, stability, etc.
But should you always get what you want though?
Desire is a tricky thing. How many times have we desired a thing, eventually gotten it and then realized we wanted the wrong thing. We strive for it, get it and tragically realize that we were worse off. Sometimes not getting what you want is the better outcome. Sometimes for what you avoid in not getting it, sometimes for the person you become or the perspective you gain from not getting it.
It might seem the better strategy, to want things, and to focus on achieving them while being completely open to the universe bringing things of the highest good to you. Things that you may not be able to imagine right now.
What you want is a reflection of what you value, and what you value is a reflection of who you are and what you believe. And you are probably not that great, so you can’t want properly.
But let’s assume your desire is valid and noble. What are you willing to sacrifice what to get what you want? That is the question that tests the strength of your desire and willingness to do whatever it takes.
For every move upwards and onwards, two things usually happen in tandem. We must gain something – a new skill, a new perspective, a new connection, a deepening sense of mastery, whatever. We must also lose something to move up, something that is keeping us anchored to this level – a habit, a perspective, an emotional kneejerk reaction, an unresolved fear, trauma, a grudge, a fear, etc.
The gaining we sometimes find easy enough. It is the sacrifice that gets hard.
To move to the next level, and to get what you want, you have to cut away things that don’t serve you anymore. And that is the crux of sacrifice – giving up something you value, something you are attached to, to gain something of greater value or good.
Sacrifice is the release of attachment. There is the call to sacrifice when there is a need for a change in the status quo. And when this need arises, it is a sure sign that there is something, someone, a situation, a behaviour, a habit, a belief pattern, a mental model that does not serve you anymore. This thing that you are so attached to, this thing that may have brought you here, is also the reason you are stuck. It should not be there anymore. You must identify it and you must sacrifice it.
And it is painful. Sacrifice is violent, and bloody and fatal. Sacrifice means death.
But sacrifice is powerful. It is an explosive release of power, and as an archetypal idea, it is the idea of submitting something of great value to the highest ideal.
But sacrifice must be done with skill. A half-hearted sacrifice is no better than no sacrifice at all. That is why in the bible, Abel sacrificed correctly, and Cain didn’t.
If you will sacrifice, you must come correct. The higher the value of the thing you sacrifice, the more power you release.
And what greater thing to sacrifice than the self.
The self is our biggest source of agency and our biggest stumbling block. It is the self that holds desire and strives towards them. It is also the self that holds on to patterns and habits and behaviours that keep us trapped and stagnant.
And so, to sacrifice something of greatest value we must go within. You go looking for the chaos dragon, for the shadow, the sacrificial lamb. You do deep self-introspection to realise that if you want something, if you are to achieve it and hold it, you must give up something of yourself. You must let go of an attachment.
It could be as innocuous as hitting the snooze button or as life threatening as shooting up drugs. It could be a relationship or interaction that does add some value to you while crippling you in fundamental ways. Many times, it is precisely the thing we don’t want to address.
Brian Tracy in an article about life-long learning makes the following claim.
The weakest key skill sets the height of your results and the height of your income. You can be excellent in a variety of areas, but the one essential area where you are the weakest, determines how far and how fast you move upward and onward.
Your breakthrough, your potential for explosive growth is precisely in the place you have refused to look. It is the place you have allowed yourself to be the weakest. That is the place your sacrifice is. The thing we refuse to address is where the key to what we desire is hidden.
And so there we must go, we must descend into the depths. Sometimes to the very foundation of our thoughts and emotions. Sometimes the thing we must sacrifice is ourselves, the things we have built our identity on, the perception we hold of the world, the perception we hold of ourselves, the self-doubt, the fear, the comfort, the limiting beliefs, the grudge, the hate.
To get better, we must become better, and that means continual perpetual skilful self-sacrifice.
You are not who you think you are. Who you think you are is who you think you are.
A friend called me egotistical the other day. It’s not the first time I’ve been accused of having an ego. Usually, I just laugh and brush it off, even take it as a compliment. I don’t mind being a little cocky. The statement was laced with undertones so I knew she wasn’t simply referring to me as arrogant, she was poking at something deeper. I was defensive about it naturally, but I’ve been turning it over in my mind lately.
There is the idea of ego as arrogance or pride, the internal narrative of being superior to others. we all know some people like that (yours truly, lol..just half kidding). And yes, this element of pride always comes into play in some form when we talk about egos. But there is the deeper layer of the ego as the ‘false self’ according to Eastern and Verdic tradition. This false self is a bundle of expectations, anxieties, insecurities and neurosis. Your ego/self is so desperate to remain alive and validated it becomes a scared tyrant attacking every perceived threat or thing that contradicts it. You clam up, you wall off, you resist life, only accepting the things that make sense to your ego.
Lately I’ve been thinking…’Sometimes you don’t accept a thing into your life because you think you need or deserve other things because of who you think you are in your head, things that actually wouldn’t fulfil you when you get them but are really just accessories to complement your ego. You miss out on the things that would actually make you happy’.
Your true self is deeper than that. Once you strip away everything, the ideas of who you are, and the boxes that places you in, you get the opportunity to meet life as it truly is. To connect authentically with others, to be vulnerable, to hurt and forgive, to learn, to grow, to expand, to be truly and harmoniously human.
Abundance is not something we acquire, its something we tune into – Wayne Dwyer
If you want to birth any reality on the physical plane, you must first create it in your inner realm – the realm of spirit. Whatever exists in the physical world will always revert to its corresponding state in the spirit. If you want to be prosperous, you must first be prosperous within. This is the foundational concept.
The second is to realize that the universe is an abundant one. There is more than enough for everyone and still more being created every day. With this knowledge, you can shift your perspective from one of scarcity and zero sum games to one of abundance. Your wealth would not mean another person’s poverty, in fact the opposite, your wealth blesses all around you.
The third is to recognize the abundance already present in your reality. It might be quite difficult even when you are facing bills and lack, but shift your focus a little bit and you will see where you already have abundance. You have life and energy, air in your lungs. You have friends and comrades to help you. You have ideas. You live in a time of great potential, of many problems and challenges waiting to be solved. You have the next meal. You have the internet, the portal to all human knowledge. What you focus on expands…when you express gratitude for what you already have, its raises your vibration and attracts even more to you.
The fourth concept is to raise your energy. You cannot attract opportunities and prosperity if you are carrying around dead, depressed energy. Clean your surroundings, cook a good meal, take a long walk, meditate and focus on your desires, do some exercise, spend time with friends. Do what you can to lift your spirits and increase the joy in your life.
The fifth is to give. If you want to be truly prosperous, then you must become a conduit. Freely give of the value that you possess – your ideas, your skills. Do more than is required, bless the world with your true gifts and the world will give you the things you desire and more.
This is the path to prosperity.
Some days, all you have is the process…
If you want to achieve anything spectacular, it’s not going to happen in one furious instant of glory. It will take time and effort and death by a thousand cuts. You have to major in the day to day. You have to break down the big project, the big hairy audacious goal into its component parts and integrate those pieces into ur daily life. If you just focus on getting each day right, on eating the proverbial elephant one bite at a time, eventually the elephant will be done.
But you have to focus, and trust the process. Not just on the days when you are motivated and fired up, the days where everything goes your way. Even the days it seems like nothing is going right, when the challenges and pressure mounts up, or when people fall away because your thing is taking too long. All you need to do is focus on the process. One step after the other. On the good days, on the bad days, just keep ploughing through. One day, you will find yourself on the other side.
As you can see, this requires patience, and a clear long-term view. You have to be playing the long game here, and you have to be playing to win. It will help you stay focused, it will keep you from falling prey to distraction. The process helps to keep you accountable. It doesn’t matter what happened today, if that deal fell through, the client didn’t pay, your boss shouted at you, your girlfriend ignored you. Shit happens! The question is, did YOU do YOUR job, did you trust the process, did you handle that lil chunk of elephant meat for the day?
Especially if you feel like you are starting from the bottom, with the odds stacked against you; but you got big dreams and the stars in your eyes, then you better hunker down and get started on the process. Ignore all that noise around you, the naysayers, the social media, the petty shit and keep your mind and eyes dead focused on the prize. Write the piece, make the call, make the art, learn the skill, read the book, watch the documentary, take the chance, do your job for the day, rinse, repeat.