Strategy isn’t something that’s taught well in school. Hell, most people probably couldn’t tell you the difference between “strategy” and “tactics” (or even know there is a difference.)
This is unfortunate, because strategy is something that is critically relevant to all of us – not just those with careers in the military. We all have goals, we all have obstacles to those goals and we all live in a world we do not control. Those things combine to create the necessity of strategy.
The better we are at it – the better we are at doing what we want and need to do.
How do I accomplish what I need to accomplish? How do I find my way, deliberately, instead of stumbling around, in a reactionary fashion? Too many of us live our lives in a sort of haze, acting without a plan or guidance. Too many of us make unnecessary mistakes (costly ones at that), because we lack the ability to craft a strategic vision and a plan.
Like I said, this isn’t exactly our fault. No one taught us explicitly how to do things differently. But the good news is that such instruction is out there. Wise thinkers have been writing and teaching strategic expertise for thousands of years. The problem is knowing where to start.
In this list I want to give you some of the best (and most accessible) books, essays and documents about strategy. Used properly they will help you craft your strategic mind. You were born to be a strategist, it’s up to you to become that destiny.
This book – of a long forgotten war – really functions as a biography and strategic analysis of some of the greatest minds in the history of war. We have Pericles, Brasidas, Alcibiades and many others.
The anecdotes and the stories in this book are timeless. If you make your way all the way through it, I promise you will not forget it. Because the war was so long, involved so many different countries and was so varied (sea, land, siege, politics), it basically covers every type of situation you can think of.
Think of this book as a textbook. Read it. (But it is dense so if you need some help, try this.)
Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama studied Alinsky extensively as they mapped their individual paths to power. He is the real originator of the concept of community organization.
Alinsky was also a die hard pragmatist, a man who had ideals but also a sense for working with and through the system to get what he needed. In fact, his best examples in these books is actually how to use the system against itself to get what he needed. These two books are classics and woefully underrated. Read them now.
This is probably the most definitive and comprehensive narrative of power ever written.
It maps the entire career of the city planner Robert Moses. I know that doesn’t seem like a particularly illustrative case study for power and strategy but Robert Moses lived power. He controlled the expansion and the building of civilization’s most advanced and important city–and he did it because he was a strategic genius (and of course, a power addict).
This book will take weeks to read but it will stick with you forever. After you are done, I promise you will not forget or ever underestimate the importance of hidden influence, power and levers again.
Of course, I am biased because I trained under Robert. But if I had not, these books still would have given me a priceless education (as they have for millions of other people).
Robert is a crack researcher and storyteller – he has a profound ability to explain timeless truths through story and example. You can read the classics and not always understand the lessons. But if you read Robert’s books, I promise you will leave not just with actionable lessons but an indelible sense of what to do in many trying and confusion situations. Also the extra benefit of reading Robert is that you get mini-bios of strategic geniuses like Napoleon, Edison, Machiavelli, Caesar, Cortez, and others.
This short essay from Plutarch is about an important strategic (and life) lesson. Our enemies and our obstacles are always teaching us. There is always some lesson or advantage we can derive from them. But we must make ourselves open to this. We must cultivate an attitude that welcomes these lessons rather than fights against them.
Like Greene, Hart has the ability to communicate and explain timeless truths about strategy and power. Reading one of his books is the equivalent of reading many other primary texts because he so expertly synthesizes and communicates what lies within them. He is also eminently quotable–which makes the lessons that much easier to recall. For instance, he reduced Sherman down to a simple line: Attack along the line of least expectation, and tactically along the line of least resistance.
Boyd was a world class fighter pilot who changed warfare and strategy not just in the air, but on the ground and by sea. His concepts pioneered the modern concept of maneuver warfare (and were used for the First Gulf War). His method of problem solving and problem analysis – known as the OODA Loop – is now used in boardrooms and everywhere else. He also perfected the art of “Getting Things Done” whether that was in war or in the bureaucracy of the Pentagon. You need to know and understand John Boyd.
Musashi was a different kind of strategist, which is why his book is so important. Most of us won’t find ourselves leading armies anytime soon. As a swordsman, Musashi fought mostly by himself, for himself. His strategic wisdom, therefore, is mostly internal. It’s about the mindset, the discipline, and the perception necessary to win in life or death situations. He tells you how to outthink and outmaneuver your enemies. He tells you how to fend for yourself. And isn’t that precisely what so many of us need help with everyday?
Of course, this is a must read. Machiavelli is one of those figures and writers who is tragically overrated and underrated at the same time. Unfortunately that means that many people who read him miss the point and other people avoid him and miss out altogether. Take Machiavelli slow, and really read him. Also understand the man behind the book–not just as a masterful writer but a man who withstood heinous torture and exile with barely a whimper.
Machiavelli is a glimpse into a time when power was literal and out for public viewing–when he talks about making an example of someone, he doesn’t mean calling them out, he means putting their head on a pike. Don’t let that scare you because we’re not as far from that world as we’d like to think. Deny that at your own peril.
What’s interesting about Jackson’s approach is how eastern it is–he guides by giving up control, he leads by encouraging other leaders, he favors movement over resistance. He has articulated these concepts in an incredibly accessible way in his most recent book and I strongly suggest everyone read it.
These two books are the two best books of political thinking and theater from both the left and the right.
Regardless of ideologies, both are experts in influencing and leading public perception through image and words. It actually matters whether we’re talking about illegal immigrants or undocumented workers, or whether we describe the problem as climate change or global warming.
Strategists need to understand the power of language and framing–it doesn’t matter how right you are, if you lose this battle it can be impossible to rally people to your cause. Read both these books.
I just finished this book and, goddamn, Washington’s status as an icon shamefully understates his genius as a strategist.
The man had an impeccable intuition for timing, for gestures, for politics, for the moment to strike, not just on the battlefield but in relationships, in office and in his private life.
We must study Washington not only for his nearly unbelievable military victory over a superior British Army, but also for his strategic vision which quite literally was responsible for many of the most enduring American institutions and practices.
I admit this book is long, but it is so good. It is packed with illustrative examples, analysis and stories. Read it.
I know this will offend many strategy purists, but for most audiences I recommend these two books only with a pretty strong disclaimer.
While both are clearly full of strategic wisdom, they are hard to separate from their respective eras and brands of warfare. As budding strategists in business and in life, most of us are really looking for advice that can help us with our own problems. The reality is that Napoleonic warfare does not exactly have its equivalents in today’s society.
On the other hand, Sun-Tzu is so aphoristic that it’s hard to say what is concrete advice and what is just common sense. But the books are so convincing that you might still end up leaving thinking that they can be easily applied. So, again, check these books out if you’re really interested, but I think some of the other books are much better places to start.
This might feel like a weird book to include, but I think it presents another side of strategy that is too often forgotten.
It’s not always about bold actors and strategic thrusts. Sometimes strategy is about subtle influence. Sometimes it is framing and small tweaks that change behavior.
We can have big aims, but get there with little moves. This book has excellent examples of that kind of thinking and how it is changing politics, government and business. My favorite example is about the bumblebee that they started putting on urinals–which drastically reduced the amount of spray and spillage because it changed where men aimed when they peed. It’s not exactly the coolest strategy but it solved a problem. So we can learn from it.
I am putting this book on here as a cautionary tale for all the supposed business strategists out there. Because it turns out that most (if not all) genius business strategies are totally misguided and lead to catastrophic failure.
Your planned merger, roll up, pivot–it’s probably got glaring strategic flaws in it. Why? Because you’re too caught up in your own vision to see what can go wrong, to see where you’ve been overly optimistic, to accept how little you control.
Pairing this book with some of the books on war is a good idea. It will humble you and keep you conservative–which all good strategists are. “Boldness” should be used sparingly because it’s often actually just stupidity in disguise.
It probably seems weird to recommend books on pickup artists, pick pockets and con men (nor am I necessarily equating the three groups) but it fits.
Though I would accept that most of what these guys do is tactical rather than strategic—they are still quite excellent at identifying opportunities and weaving such flawless, enveloping plans that the marks often have no idea that anything is actually occurring.
A favorite con example is the one where the con man sets up a fake boxing match that he agrees to “fix” with his mark. Taking the marks money, he then fakes the fake boxing match so that it appears that one boxers kills the other in the ring. He and the mark then flee the scene in opposite direction to avoid the police–the mark thinking he got away with murder, when really he was robbed.
The Game is about seduction, literally, but the other two books are about seduction in their own way as well. These books are all classics and will help you, no matter what you do.
These two men won the Civil War despite numerous obstacles.
In many ways, the war was the South’s to lose–they possessed all the territory they wanted at the beginning of the war, they faced a divided enemy, and all they had to do was wait the North out.
The America we live in today is what it is because of the strategic genius and partnership of the Grant and Sherman. Sherman understood the grand strategy of the war–that it depended on crushing the morale of the Southern cause. Grant understand and held the determination required to muddle through battle after battle (along with the destructive politics).
Sherman’s march through the South was a masterwork of planning and vision. Grant’s slow maneuvering of Lee, meant that Lee (who I think is massively overrated) could do nothing to stop it. These two books, written by the men themselves, are about totally unique and priceless historical documents.
Strategy is a rabbit hole that never ends. I am not saying that my list is conclusion–I know it doesn’t even come close. I am just trying to get you started.
I hope these books help. I hope they begin to bring out the strategist inside you. Because there is one there–and whatever you’re working on it will benefit from cultivating that side of yourself.
Now get reading and then get working. Because every word you read in these books become more valuable the more experience you combine it with. Don’t just read about strategy, live it.
The image of the Zen philosopher is the monk up in the green, quiet hills, or in a beautiful temple on some rocky cliff. The Stoic, on the other hand, is the antithesis of this idea. The Stoic is the man in the marketplace, the merchant on a voyage, the senator in the Forum, the soldier at the front. In other words, they are like you.
Those jobs might not seem like ones well-suited for “philosophy,” but they are. And so are you. For in even the most modern seeming professions, a Stoic is able to achieve peace and clarity. For thousands of years, Stoicism has been a tool for the ordinary and the elite alive—from slaves to emperors—as they sought wisdom, strength and the ‘good life.’ It was a philosophy designed for action—for doers—not for the classroom.
How can we follow in their timeless footsteps? How can we reap the benefits of this operating system in our own workplace? It’s simple. Go straight to the sources. Below are 7 Stoic exercises and strategies, pulled from the new book The Daily Stoic(and daily email at DailyStoic.com), that will help you navigate your workplace with better clarity, effectiveness, and peace of mind.
DON’T MAKE THINGS HARDER THAN THEY NEED TO BE
“If someone asks you how to write your name, would you bark out each letter? And if they get angry, would you then return the anger? Wouldn’t you rather gently spell out each letter for them? So then, remember in life that your duties are the sum of individual acts. Pay attention to each of these as you do your duty . . . just methodically complete your task.”—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.26
Here’s a common scenario. You’re working with a frustrating coworker or a difficult boss. They ask you to do something and, because you dislike the messenger, you immediately object. There’s this problem or that one, or their request is obnoxious and rude. So you tell them, “No, I’m not going to do it.” Then they retaliate by not doing something that you had previously asked of them. And so the conflict escalates.
Meanwhile, if you could step back and see it objectively, you’d probably see that not everything they’re asking for is unreasonable. In fact, some of it is pretty easy to do or is, at least, agreeable. And if you did it, it might make the rest of the tasks a bit more tolerable too. Pretty soon, you’ve done the entire thing.
Life (and our job) is difficult enough. Let’s not make it harder by getting emotional about insignificant matters or digging in for battles we don’t actually care about. Let’s not let emotion get in the way of kathêkon, the simple, appropriate actions on the path to virtue.
IMPOSSIBLE WITHOUT YOUR CONSENT
“Today I escaped from the crush of circumstances, or better put, I threw them out, for the crush wasn’t from outside me but in my own assumptions.”—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.13
On tough days we might say, “My work is overwhelming,” or “My boss is really frustrating.” If only we could understand that this is impossible. Someone can’t frustrate you, work can’t overwhelm you-these are external objects, and they have no access to your mind. Those emotions you feel, as real as they are, come from the inside, not the outside.
The Stoics use the word hypolêpsis, which means “taking up”—of perceptions, thoughts, and judgments by our mind. What we assume, what we willingly generate in our mind, that’s on us. We can’t blame other people for making us feel stressed or frustrated any more than we can blame them for our jealousy. The cause is within us. They’re just the target.
A PROPER FRAME OF MIND
“Frame your thoughts like this—you are an old person, you won’t let yourself be enslaved by this any longer, no longer pulled like a puppet by every impulse, and you’ll stop complaining about your present fortune or dreading the future.”—Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.2
We resent the person who comes in and tries to boss us around. Don’t tell me how to dress, how to think, how to do my job, how to live. This is because we are independent, self-sufficient people.
Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves.
Yet if someone says something we disagree with, something inside us tells us we have to argue with them. If there’s a plate of cookies in front of us, we have to eat them. If someone does something we dislike, we have to get mad about it. When something bad happens, we have to be sad, depressed, or worried. But if something good happens a few minutes later, all of a sudden we’re happy, excited, and want more.
We would never let another person jerk us around the way we let our impulses do. It’s time we start seeing it that way—that we’re not puppets that can be made to dance this way or that way just because we feel like it. We should be the ones in control, not our emotions, because we are independent, self-sufficient people.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom, and justice—giving yourself a break from all other considerations. You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share. You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant and devout life—for, if you keep watch over these things, the gods won’t ask for more.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.5
Each day presents the chance to overthink things. What should I wear? Do they like me? Am I eating well enough? What’s next for me in life? Is my boss happy with my work?
Today, let’s focus just on what’s in front of us. We’ll follow the dictum that New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick gives his players: “Do your job.” Like a Roman, like a good soldier, like a master of our craft. We don’t need to get lost in a thousand other distractions or in other people’s business.
Marcus says to approach each task as if it were your last, because it very well could be. And even if it isn’t, botching what’s right in front of you doesn’t help anything. Find clarity in the simplicity of doing.
NEVER DO ANYTHING OUT OF HABIT
“So in the majority of other things, we address circumstances not in accordance with the right assumptions, but mostly by following wretched habit. Since all that I’ve said is the case, the person in training must seek to rise above, so as to stop seeking out pleasure and steering away from pain; to stop clinging to living and abhorring death; and in the case of property and money, to stop valuing receiving over giving.”—Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 6.25.5–11
A worker is asked: “Why did you do it this way?” The answer, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done things.” The answer frustrates every good boss and sets the mouth of every entrepreneur watering. The worker has stopped thinking and is mindlessly operating out of habit. The business is ripe for disruption by a competitor, and the worker will probably get fired by any thinking boss.
We should apply the same ruthlessness to our own habits. In fact, we are studying philosophy precisely to break ourselves of rote behavior. Find what you do out of rote memory or routine. Ask yourself: Is this really the best way to do it? Know why you do what you do—do it for the right reasons.
YOUR CAREER IS NOT A LIFE SENTENCE
“How disgraceful is the lawyer whose dying breath passes while at court, at an advanced age, pleading for unknown litigants and still seeking the approval of ignorant spectators.”—Seneca, On the Brevity of Life, 20.2
Every few years, a sad spectacle is played out in the news. An old millionaire, still lord of his business empire, is taken to court. Shareholders and family members go to court to argue that he is no longer mentally competent to make decisions—that the patriarch is not fit to run his own company and legal affairs. Because this powerful person refused to ever relinquish control or develop a succession plan, he is subjected to one of life’s worst humiliations: the public exposure of his most private vulnerabilities.
We must not get so wrapped up in our work that we think we’re immune from the reality of aging and life. Who wants to be the person who can never let go? Is there so little meaning in your life that your only pursuit is work until you’re eventually carted off in a coffin?
Take pride in your work. But it is not all.
PROTECT YOUR PEACE OF MIND
“Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadi- ness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom. For what would you sell these things?”—Epictetus, Discourses, 4.3.6b–8
The dysfunctional job that stresses you out, a contentious relationship, life in the spotlight. Stoicism, because it helps us manage and think through our emotional reactions, can make these kinds of situations easier to bear. It can help you manage and mitigate the triggers that seem to be so constantly tripped.
But here’s a question: Why are you subjecting yourself to this? Is this really the environment you were made for? To be provoked by nasty emails and an endless parade of workplace problems? Our adrenal glands can handle only so much before they become exhausted. Shouldn’t you preserve them for life-and-death situations?
So yes, use Stoicism to manage these difficulties. But don’t forget to ask: Is this really the life I want? Every time you get upset, a little bit of life leaves the body. Are these really the things on which you want to spend that priceless resource? Don’t be afraid to make a change—a big one.
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Almost exactly ten years ago, I bought the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius on Amazon. Amazon Prime didn’t exist then and to qualify for free shipping, I had to purchase a few other books at the same time. Two or three days later they all arrived.
It’s a medium sized paperback, mostly white with a golden spine. On the cover Marcus is shown in relief, pardoning the barbarians. “Here, for our age, is Marcus’s great work,” says Robert Fagles in his blurb. I was 19 years old. I didn’t know who Marcus Aurelius was (besides the old guy in Gladiator) and I certainly didn’t know who Robert Fagles or Gregory Hays, the translator, was. But something drew me to this book almost immediately. I suppose it was luck that brought me to the specific translation I’d chosen (Modern Library Edition)—though the Stoics would call it fated—but what arrived would change my life.
It would be for me, what Tyler Cowen would call a “a quake book,” shaking everything I thought I knew about the world (however little that actually was). I would also become what Stephen Marche has referred to as a “centireader,” reading Marcus Aurelius well over 100 times across multiple editions and copies.
In the course of those readings and my study of stoicism, a lot has changed. Marcus Aurelius has guided me through breakups and getting married, through being relatively young and poor and relatively older and well-off. His wisdom has helped me with getting fired and with quitting, with success and with struggles. I’ve carried him to close to a dozen countries and moved him to multiple houses. I’ve turned to him for articles and books and casual dinner conversation. The one pristine white cover is now its own shade of tan, but with every read, every time I’ve touched the book, I’ve gotten something new or been reminded of something timeless and important.
-It was the opening passage of Book 5—about our reluctance to get out of bed and get moving in the morning—that struck me most on my first read. As you can see, I wrote “FUCK” with a highlighter and you can see how important that passage was to me at the time in a 2007 blog post. Later, I would print out this passage and put it next to my desk and bed. I think it was that as a college student I needed that extra motivation. I was a little lazy and entitled. I needed to seize life and take advantage of it—and Marcus served me well in that regard for a long time.
-Though I will say that today, I think less about the passage that motivates me to do more and be more active. If I was to put a different one on my desk, I’d choose from Book Ten, “If you seek tranquility, do less.”
-In my first read of Meditations, I highlighted the line “It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.” In a later read I added brackets around that line, just for more emphasis. And I underlined in pen what came after, “Otherwise, it cannot harm you—inside or out.”
-Pages XXVI and XXV of Hays’s introduction is where I was first introduced to the distillation of Stoicism into three distinct disciplines (perception, action, will). It was this order that eventually shaped both The Obstacle is the Wayand The Daily Stoic. When I get asked to explain the three disciplines, this is usually my short answer: See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must.
-Hays’s introduction also lists Alexander Pope, Goethe and William Alexander Percy as students and fans of Marcus Aurelius. Reading works by all of these individuals—especially Percy (and his adopted son, Walker Percy)—sent me down a rabbit hole that would be one of the most enjoyable of my reading life. I encourage everyone to read Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee.
-In Book Four, Marcus reminds himself to think about all the doctors who “died, after furrowing their brows over how many deathbeds, how many astrologers, after pompous forecasts about other’s ends.” In black pen—somewhat recently it looks like—I added “or plotters, schemers and strategists, outsmarted, outmaneuvered and destroyed.” I suppose that was a dig at myself and other smart people. None of what we do lasts, no matter how clever or brilliant. It’s good to remember that.
-“So we throw out other people’s recognition. What’s left for us to prize?” I answer in blue pen in one read, “To embrace and to resist our nature.” What do I—what did Marcus—mean by that? I think it’s encouraging what is good about us and to fight against what is bad. To encourage the parts of ourselves that are moral, helpful, honest and aware and to fight against what is selfish, petty, shortsighted and wrong. It’s to live by what Warren Buffett calls the “inner scorecard” and ignore the outer one (other people’s recognition).
-In that same passage, Marcus also writes “If you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable.” I have in my copy a jotted note from Fight Club, “Only when you’ve lost everything, you are free to do anything.”
-When I first read Meditations, I was in the middle of some ridiculous drama with my college roommates. I won’t bore you with the details, but at the time, I was frustrated, disappointed and miserable about where I was living. I think this was the reason that I latched on the the meditation in Book Six, about how if you were sparring with someone and they hurt you, you wouldn’t yell at them or whine or hold it against them—you’d just make a mental note about it and act accordingly in the future. I can see where I actually wrote the name of my roommates down to explicitly make this connection. “Do not hate them,” I wrote to myself, “remain aloof.”
-I said earlier that all I’d originally known of Marcus Aurelius was that he was the “old guy in Gladiator.” Future research taught me that depiction was even more interesting than the movie presented. First off, Maximus (Russell Crowe’s character) was based on a real Roman story—the general Cincinnatus, who saved Rome but wanted simply to return to his farm. Second, Marcus’s son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix) was real too—and probably even more horrible in real life. He was in fact, killed by a gladiator and he did enjoy torturing and hurting people. It makes you think: How could such a great man have had such an awful son? What does that say about his teachings?
-Marcus writes “Mastery of reading and writing requires a master. Still, more so life.” I wrote “Tucker, R.G” in the margins next to that passage. R.G stands for Robert Greene—who was and is my master in writing and, more, in life. Tucker refers to Tucker Max, who was a mentor of mine in writing and business. It occurs to me now that I understood this passage only partway—I was focused on the first half, when really the “more so life” line is the most important. Understanding this could have saved me a lot of trouble.
-In Book Twelve, as Meditations is wrapping up, Marcus writes “It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” This passage struck me early on, I can tell. But it struck me hardest in 2014, when I was re-reading the passage. I know this because I wrote an article with that line as the title, as I was dealing with the fact that my book had just been snubbed by the New York Times Bestseller list and I was dealing with the fallout. It was helpful to ask: Why do I care what these people think again? Why does their opinion matter to me? Understanding the words is not always enough, sometimes we have to really feel them—to have their meaning forced upon us. This was one of those events.
-Going back through my copy to write this post, I found a white notecard with some bullet points written on it. At first I couldn’t figure out what these were about. Then I realized they were notes I’d written down before my conversation with Greg Bishop, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, when he interviewed me for a story he was doing on stoicism and the NFL. One bullet is a line from Arnold Schwarzenegger, “always stronger that we think we know.”
-On what I would guess is my third or fourth read, I marked this passage: “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” There are not many reminders of your own mortality at 20. This was one of my first.
-There’s no question that for every first time reader of Meditations, it’s the opening line of Book Two is one of the most striking: “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.”
-And then the passage which follows is great—if not a bit contradictory: “Throw away your books; stop letting yourself be distracted.” Did he mean the very book I was reading?
-One of my favorite lines: “To accept without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” Another translation of the same: “Receive without pride, let go without attachment.”
-In one passage, Marcus justifies his love of art. He points out that tragedies (plays) help remind us of what can happen in life. He also makes an interesting point—“If something gives you pleasure on that stage, it shouldn’t cause you anger on this one.” If you can appreciate it in fiction, you can appreciate it in life—and learn from both.
-In Book Five, I learned what philosophy really was. It’s not an “instructor,” as Marcus put it. It’s not the courses I was taking in school. It is medicine. It’s “a soothing ointment, a warm lotion.” It’s designed to help us deal with the difficulties of life—to heal, as Epicurus said, the suffering of man.
-It wasn’t until last week, re-reading Marcus that I noticed the word “stillness” as it appears in Book Six, 7: “To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind. Only there, delight and stillness.” Stillness was something I had been thinking about a lot—how to find it, how to get it, why it’s superior to activity. I was looking for it in Eastern texts and here it has been in Stoicism the entire time.
-Book Nine, 6 I found not only a potential epigraph for my book The Obstacle is the Way (which I noted in blue pen in 2013) but the best possible summation of Stoicism there is:
“Objective judgement, now, at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now, at this very moment.
Willing acceptance—now, at this very moment—of all external events.
That’s all you need.”
-At some point after I read the Hays translation, I picked up another translation of Marcus—probably one by George Long or A. S. L. Farquharson, that was free online. I was immediately struck by how the beautiful, lyrical book I loved had become dense and unreadable. It struck me that if I had cheaped out and tried to get for free what I’d bought instead, my entire life might have turned out differently. Books are investments. Be glad to put in your money.
-Marcus has a wonderful phrase for the approval and cheering of other people. He calls it “the clacking of tongues”—that’s all public appraise is, he says. Anyone that works in the public eye, who puts their work or their life out there for consumption, could use to remember this phrase.
–“Often injustice lies in what you aren’t doing, not only in what you are doing.” Or, as we say more modernly, ‘The only thing required for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing…’
-Don’t try to get even with other people, Marcus says at one point. Just don’t be like that.
-“The student as a boxer, not a fencer.” Why? Because the fencer has a weapon they must pick up. A boxer’s weapons are a part of him, he and the weapon are one. Same goes for knowledge, philosophy and wisdom.
-Marcus commands himself to winnow his thoughts. He has a great standard. If someone were to ask you right now, “What are you thinking about?” could you give a concise answer? If not, you’re daydreaming and wandering too much.
-“It stares you right in the face,” Marcus writes. “No role is so well suited to philosophy as the one you happen to be in right now.” Was he referring specifically to the role of emperor? Did he mean that any and every role is the perfect one for philosophy? I prefer to think it is the latter.
-I’ve been lucky enough that some generous fans have sent me rare old copies of Meditations. They’re falling apart, worn with age. It strikes me what a Stoic would have thought if given a book that was then a couple hundred years old. They’d think about the person who owned it and what became of them (dead), they’d think about all the things the person did other than study philosophy (mostly pointless stuff), and they’d also think of the difficult times that the wisdom contained within may have helped them (which is what I think now). And then they’d consider how we are all subject to the rhythm of events and that someone may pick up this book after them and have the same thoughts.
-Going through one copy of the Hays translation a few years ago, I found a receipt. It said January 2007 and it was from a Borders in Riverside, California. I’d bought mine on Amazon, so I knew it wasn’t mine. Then I realized, this was my wife’s copy. She’d bought the book shortly after we’d met, on my recommendation. That she’d read it after I mentioned it in passing, made me think our feelings might be mutual. It was one of the first things we’d connected over. Ten years later we are still together.
-In Gregory Hays’s intro he says that “an American president” claims to re-read Marcus Aurelius every year. Some research turned up that Bill Clinton was that president. Was that where I got the idea to keep reading and re-reading the book? To use it as a reminder of all the lessons that success would bring?
-Absolute power corrupts absolutely is what we say. But Marcus had absolute power. To me, his writing and his life are proof that the right principles and the right discipline—if followed rigorously—can help buck this timeless trend.
-Marcus reminded himself: “Don’t await the perfection of Plato’s Republic.” He wasn’t expecting the world to be exactly the way he wanted it to be, but Marcus knew instinctively, as the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper would later write, that “he alone can do good who knows what things are like and what their situation is.”
-It’s funny to think that his writings may be as special as they are because they were never intended for us to be read. Almost every other piece of literature is a kind of performance—it’s made for the audience. Meditations isn’t. In fact, their original title (Ta eis heauton)roughly translates as To Himself.
-It’s also interesting to think that we have no idea if the meditations were once ordered differently. All we have now are translations of translations—no original writing from his hand survives. It all could have been arranged in an entirely different format originally (Did all the books have titles originally—as the first two do? Are those titles made up? Were they all numbered originally? Or were even the breaks between thoughts added in by a later translator?)
-Who hasn’t used the expressions “I’ll be honest with you” or “With all due respect” or “I’ll be straight with you.” It wasn’t until I read Marcus’s specific condemnation of these phrases that I really thought about what they were saying—honesty, respect, straightforwardnessshould be the default. If you have to specifically preface your remarks with it, that’s a sign something is wrong with your normal speech and your normal habits.
-“But if you accept the obstacle and work with what you’re given, an alternative will present itself—another piece of what you’re trying to assemble. Action by action.” There’s no question that we’re going to be stopped from what we’d like to do, or even desperately need to do from time to time. Money will be lost. Plans will be frustrated. Long held dreams will be broken. People (including us) will be hurt. And yet, as bad as these situations are and will be, I think you’ll have to admit, they don’t prevent everything. You can still practice honesty, forgiveness, friendship, patience, humility, good spirit, resilience, creativity, and on and on.
-It must have been many reads in before I came to understand that many of the admonishments—Don’t waste time, Don’t lose your temper, Stop getting caught up in things that don’t matter—must be there because Marcus had recently done the exact opposite. Remember, this was essentially his journal, the meditations are reflections written after a long hard day. They are not abstractions, they are notes on what he can do better next time.
-There is a line in Joseph Brodsky’s essay about the famous equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius (which I went to Rome a few years ago to see). “If Meditations is antiquity,” he says, “then it is we who are the ruins.” What I think he means by that is that when you compare the strength and power and rigorous self-honesty of Marcus’s writings to now, all you can feel is a sense of decay. It feels like we have regressed instead of progressed.
-A great rhetorical exercise from Marcus goes essentially like this: “Is a world without shameless people possible? No. So this person you’ve just met is one of them. Get over it.” It’s a good thing to remember every time you meet someone who frustrates or bothers you.
-One of the benefits of reading a book so many times is that it starts to feel like it’s following you everywhere. It’s like when you get a new car and all of a sudden you start seeing that car everywhere—it’s like you and those drivers are suddenly on the same time. I remember reading East of Eden shortly after Meditations, and guess who is quoted everywhere? Then I read John Stuart Mill, and Marcus appeared again. Then on a trip to New York City I was walking up 41 St and there’s a plaque with a quote from Marcus. It’s one of the most amazing feelings, you find the thread of the work everywhere and it’s like you’re both on the same team, with the same message to propagate.
-One of the most practical things I’ve learned from the Stoics is an exercise I’ve come to call “contemptuous expressions.” I love how Marcus would take fancy things and describe them in almost cynical, dismissive language—roasted meat is a dead animal and vintage wine is old, fermented grapes. He even describes the Emperor’s purple cloak as just a piece of fabric dyed with shellfish blood. The aim was to see these things as they really are, to “strip away the legend that encrusts them.” I try to use this exercise every day.
-The short lines are the best:
“Discard your misperceptions.
Stop being jerked like a puppet.
Limit yourself to the present.”
-Imagine the emperor of Rome, with his captive audience and unlimited power, telling himself not to be a person of “too many words and too many deeds.” How great is that? How inspiring?
-It wasn’t until working with Steve Hanselman on the translations in The Daily Stoic that I was made aware of just how malleable translation was. I assumed that Hays was capturing the inherent beauty in Marcus. In some sense he was, but he was also choosing to write beautifully—someone could just as easily decide to be blunt and literal. It gave me a new appreciation for the art of translation—and how much room for interpretation there is in all of it.
-If there was one translation I would love to read it would be the late Pierre Hadot’s. In his excellent book The Inner Citadel about Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism, Hadot did original translations for the passages he quotes—but sadly he died without publishing a full translation of Marcus for wider consumption.
-It was in reading Hadot that I first got an explicit explanation of what he calls “turning obstacles upside down.” I’d obviously read the original passage he quotes several times in Hays, but Hadot’s translation was different, it made it clearer. The original title of my book was “Turning Obstacles Upside Down.” It was only in reading The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs that I found the Zen saying, “The obstacle is the path” that I was able to combine it all and come up with the book.
-“Everything lasts for a day, the one who remembers and the remembered.” That means something special coming from a guy whose face you can still see on Roman coins you can buy on Etsy.
-From Marcus I learned who Heraclitus was (Marcus quotes him a lot). “No man steps in the same river twice,” is one of the line he quotes. What a beautiful idea. I loved it so much that when I was in college I added a special “Quote of the Week” section to the student newspaper—just so I could use it.
-Marcus talks about the logos—essentially the force of the universe—repeatedly. That word seemed familiar to me when I first read it. Then I made the connection, Viktor Frankl, the psychologist and Holocaust survivor named his school of psychology logotherapy.
-Still, I was a bit confused as to what the logos was. Hays—and many writers—have used the analogy of a dog tied to a cart to explain our connection to the logos. The cart (the logos) is moving and we are pulled behind it. We have a little slack to move here and there, but not much.
-I think instinctively at 19 years old, I rejected this idea. Predetermination? No free will? Please. That sounded religious. College kids are often attracted to atheism for precisely the freedom and empowerment it implies. But as I have gotten older, I’ve started to understand how much we are shaped by chance and forces beyond our control. It strikes me, then, that the debate is not whether we are in fact the dog tied to the moving cart but rather, just how long the rope is? How much room to we have to explore and determine our own pace? A lot? A little?
-Marcus’s Meditations are filled with self-criticism. It’s important to remember, however, that that’s as far as it goes. There was no self-flagellation, no paying penance, no self-esteem issues from guilt or self-loathing. This self-criticism is constructive.
-There is a passage is Marcus where he talks about sitting next to a smelly, rude person. It must have been just a couple months after I first read that that I was on a flight from Long Beach to New York. I was stuck in the middle seat. The person next to me was horrible. They were imposing in my space. They were being obnoxious. I was stewing. Then this hit me: Either I say something or I let it go. All the anger left me. I went back to what I was doing. I probably think of that line every other time I get on a plane now.
-As a reminder of the man and the principles in the book, I ended up buying a marble bust of Marcus carved in 1840 that sits on my desk where I can see it daily. It’s probably the most expensive piece of “art” I own—it cost $900. But for the reminders it’s given me and the calming presence it has had, it’s worth every penny. To think that 3 or 4 generations of people may have owned this thing. That someone will own it after I die.
-Years later, one of my readers created and sent me two 3D printed busts of both Marcus and Seneca which sit in my library. They’re a lot cheaper and they weigh a lot less but they have the same impact.
-I set out to learn everything I could about Marcus Aurelius. At one point, I found an old academic paper that suggested Marcus’s writing was shaped by an addiction to opium—why else would have written down extended, cerebral reflections about spinning away from the earth and looking at things from far above? The answer is because this is a Stoic exercise that goes back thousands of years (and in fact, has also been observed by astronauts thousands of years later). All the things that people do hallucinogens to explore, you can also do while sober as a judge. It just takes work.
-Explicitly setting standards for himself in Book 10, Marcus extolls himself to be: “Upright. Modest. Straightforward. Sane. Cooperative. Disinterested.” In a blog post in 2007, I added the following for myself: Empathetic. Open. Diligent. Ambitious.
-I wrote a piece about Peter Thiel’s long campaign for revenge against Gawker earlier this year. As I was writing it, a line from Marcus came rushing back from the recesses of my memory: “The best way to avenge yourself is to not be like that.”
-In writing The Daily Stoic, I got to parse the words of Marcus Aurelius (and his translators) in ways I otherwise never would have done. I’ve always liked the line, “How trivial the things we want so passionately are.” In my initial readings, I’d always thought it was beautiful the way he was saying “passionately are.” Upon later reflection, I realized Hays/Aurelius were saying “the things are want so passionately, are” which has its own beauty.
-You also come to realize and understand the deeper historical references. For instance, in one passage, Marcus writes “To escape imperialization, that indelible stain.” I know, obviously, what “imperialism” and “imperial” mean but it wasn’t until many reads later that I came to understand he meant to escape the trappings of his office. He was saying: I must avoid being changed and corrupted by my office. Not all of us hold executive power, but we all can use that advice.
-When translating for The Daily Stoic, our editor asked about a line where Marcus says “enough of this whiny, miserable life. Stop monkeying around!” Would Marcus have ever seen a monkey, she asked? Or is this a modern line? Of course he would have! In fact, his psychopathic son probably killed a bunch of them in the coliseum. Marcus supposedly hated the gladiatorial games but he definitely would have been familiar with a shocking amount of African wildlife.
-Another interesting factoid about Marcus—proof, I think that he lived his philosophy. He was selected for the throne by Hadrian who set in line a succession plan that involved Hadrian adopting the elderly Antoninus Pius who in turn adopted Marcus Aurelius. When Marcus eventually ascended to the throne, what was his first decision? He appointed his step-brother Lucius Verus co-emperor. He was given unlimited, executive power and the first thing he did was share it with someone he was not even technically related to? That’s magnanimity.
-His advice on change is amazing. We’re like rocks—we gain nothing by going up and lose nothing by coming back down.
-“Don’t allow yourself to be heard any longer griping about public life, not even with your own ears!” You chose this life, he is telling himself, and that means you don’t get to complain about it.
-I was lucky enough to interview Gregory Hays in 2007. I asked him what his favorite passage was. He quoted: “Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone–those that are now and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river: the ‘what’ is in constant flux, the ‘why’ has a thousand variations. Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see.” I have to admit I missed the brilliance of that one the first time, but it’s stuck with me ever since.
-Did you know that Ambrose Bierce, the amazing Civil War-era writer and Mark Twain contemporary, was a big fan of the Stoics? Clearly his grandparents were too since his father was named Marcus Aurelius Bierce and his uncle, Lucius Verus Bierce (Marcus’s step brother and co-emperor).
-When I interviewed Robert Greene for The Daily Stoic’s companion website, I was surprised to hear he also loved the passage about “seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig.” As he explained to me: “I’ve tried to bring that across in my writing. For instance, to deconstruct things like power and seduction and to see the actual elements in play instead of the legends surrounding them.”
-During our interview he actually showed me his own copy of the Meditations and could remember the camping trip when he had written all the notes on the pages. On several of them he had marked AF in the marginalia, a shorthand for amor fati—a love of one’s fate. As he explained the idea, “Stop wishing for something else to happen, for a different fate. That is to live a false life.”
-The best way to learn and to lead is by example. I think that’s why I liked Marcus’s book so much—he was showing me (us) what is possible. As he put it “Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them.”
-In my own education I’ve always followed Marcus’s dictum to “go straight to the seat of intelligence—your own, the world’s, your neighbors.” He also writes that learning to read and write requires a master—and so does the art of life. To me, people like Robert Greene were that master and so were people like Marcus. You have to go straight to the sources of knowledge and absorb what you can from them.
-During one of his most dangerous and threatening adventures, the journey down the “River of Doubt,” Teddy Roosevelt carried with him a copy of Meditations. I would kill to flip through his copy! Did he sit down at night and read few pages? Are there interesting notes in the margins? What were his favorite passages? A more Stoic question: How many other famous or important men and women have sat down with a copy of Marcus? And where are they now? Gone and mostly forgotten.
-In my work with bestselling authors and creatives there is one line from Marcus that I am often tempted to quote: “Ambition,” he reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do…Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” Doing good work is what matters. Recognition and rewards—those are just extra. To be too attached to results you don’t control? That’s a recipe for misery.
-Despite his privileges, Marcus Aurelius had a difficult life. The Roman historian Cassius Dio mused that Marcus “did not meet with the good fortune that he deserved, for he was not strong in body and was involved in a multitude of troubles throughout practically his entire reign.” But throughout these struggles he never gave up. It’s an inspiring example for us to think about today if we get tired, frustrated, or have to deal with some crisis.
-From the Stoics, I learned about the concept of the Inner Citadel. It is this fortress, they believed, that protects our soul. Though we might be physically vulnerable, though we might be at the mercy of fate in many ways, our inner domain is impenetrable. As Marcus put it (repeatedly, in fact), “stuff cannot touch the soul.”
-Right after the 2008 presidential elections, I remember connecting Obama’s “teachable moment” about the Reverend Wright scandal and how it illustrated Marcus’s principle of turning the obstacle upside down. As Obama put it, turning the negative situation into the perfect platform for his landmark speech about race, he would be “missing an important opportunity for leadership.” It’s something I try to think about in my own life as a boss and as a soon-to-be-father.
-Bill Belichick tells his players: “Do your job.” Marcus makes it clear what that job is: “What is your vocation? To be a good person.”
-Marcus is a beautiful writer, capable of finding beauty in strange places. In one passage, he praises the “charm and allure” of nature’s process, the “stalks of ripe grain bending low, the frowning brow of the lion, the foam dripping from the boar’s mouth.” As a writer, I’ve learned a lot from this skill of his. As a person, I’ve learned more. It’s about looking for majesty everywhere and anywhere.
-At one point Marcus tells himself to “Avoid false friendship at all costs.” I think he’s right, but we can take it a step further: What if, instead, we ask about the times that we have been false to our friends?
-Marcus constantly points out how the emperors who came before him were barely remembered just a few years later. To him, this was a reminder that no matter how much he conquered, no matter how much he inflicted his will on the world, it would be like building a castle in the sand—soon to be erased by the winds of time. The same is true for us.
-It’s interesting how much of Meditations is made up of short quotes and passages from other writers. In a way, it’s really Marcus’s commonplace book (and he’s inspired me to keep my own). One of my favorites is Marcus quoting a lost line from Euripides: “You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.”
-I’ve talked a little bit about my tendency to overwork and to compulsively do. Marcus has a good reminder: “In your actions, don’t procrastinate. In your conversations, don’t confuse. In your thoughts, don’t wander. In your soul, don’t be passive or aggressive. In your life, don’t be all about business.”
-Marcus was one of the first writers to articulate the notion of cosmopolitanism—saying that he was a citizen of the world, not just of Rome. Which is an interesting and impressive thought…considering his job was as the first citizen of Rome.
-Marcus had many responsibilities, as those who hold executive power do. He judged cases, heard appeals, sent troops into battle, appointed administrators, approved budgets. A lot rode on his choices and actions. He wrote this reminder to himself which beautifully illustrates the kind of man he was: “Never shirk the proper dispatch of your duty, no matter if you are freezing or hot, groggy or well-rested, vilified or praised, not even if dying or pressed by other demands.”
-In the first book of Meditations, Marcus thanks Rusticus for teaching him “to read carefully and not be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to agree too quickly with those who have a lot to say about something.” It’s a reminder for us in this busy media world of liars and bullshit artists. Don’t be satisfied with the superficial impression. Don’t be reactive. Know.
-How was Marcus introduced to the Stoics? We’re not quite sure but we do know that he got his copy of Epictetus from Rusticus (and in fact, Rusticus may have provided him his own notes from attending Epictetus’s lectures). A number of my favorite books came to me from my teachers. In fact, I was introduced to the Stoics by asking Dr. Drew for a book recommendation. Who did he recommend? Epictetus.
-Marcus writes, “Don’t lament this and don’t get agitated.” It calls to mind the motto of another statesman, the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli: “Never complain, never explain.”
-Long before modern discussions of self-talk, Marcus understood the notion: “Your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought.”
-At one point, Marcus essentially says to not ever do anything that we would be worried might remain ‘behind closed doors.’ It’s easy to say, but hard to do. Who wouldn’t be embarrassed if their email account was leaked or if a fight with their spouse was made public? We all do things in private that we would never do in front of other people. Which is a good thought/test to evaluate our behavior before we embark on something.
-In Book Six we find one of the strongest encouragements that Marcus gives himself. He says, basically: If someone else has done it—then it is humanly possible. If it’s humanly possible, then of course you can do it too.
-I’ve found over the years that jealousy is a toxic emotion. We want so desperately what others have that we lose the pleasure of the things we already have. Marcus provides a solution: “Don’t set your mind on things you don’t possess…, but count the blessings you actually possess and think how much you would desire them if they weren’t already yours.”
-Repeatedly Marcus warns himself that anger and grief only serve to make bad situations worse. Being pissed off that someone was rude to you isn’t soothing—it’s agitating. Being sad that you’ve lost something doesn’t bring it back, it exaggerates your sense of loss. It’s like the first rule of holes: When you’re in one, stop digging.
-When I was on the Tim Ferriss podcast this summer I learned that he had one of my favorite quotes from Marcus taped to his fridge: “When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it.”
-What is tragic about Marcus, as one scholar wrote, is how his “philosophy—which is about self-restraint, duty, and respect for others—was so abjectly abandoned by the imperial line he anointed on his death.” As I said, Marcus’s terrible son, is an important reminder that it doesn’t matter how good you are at your job, if you neglect your duties at home…
-“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle said, “therefore, excellence is not an act but a habit.” The Stoics add to that that we are a product of our thoughts (“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind,” is how Marcus put it).
-Marcus consistently admonishes himself to return to the present moment and focus on what’s in front of him. This idea of being “present” seems very Eastern but of course it’s central to Stoicism too. “Stick with the situation at hand,” he tells himself, “and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” Yup.
-In Meditations we find one of the most helpful exercises when seeking perspective: “Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend.” Eventually, all of us will pass away and slowly be forgotten. We should enjoy this brief time we have on earth—not be enslaved to emotions that make us miserable and dissatisfied.
I’ll leave you with one final lesson, in fact, it’s the lesson we chose to close The Daily Stoic with. Marcus was clearly a big reader, he clearly took copious notes and studied philosophy deeply. Yet he took the unusual step of reminding himself to put all that aside.
“Stop wandering about!” he wrote. “You aren’t likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you’ve collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue—if you care for yourself at all—and do it while you can.”
At some point, we must stop our reading, put all the advice from Marcus and the other stoics aside and take action. So that, as Seneca put it, the “words become works.”
That’s what I have tried to do over the last ten years. To alternate between the reading and the doing. I’m not perfect at it. I’m not even as far along as I’d like to be. But I am making progress.
This is exciting to me because thousands of new people will be exposed to philosophy for the very first time. I say that half-jokingly, knowing that many people including some who majored in it, think they studied philosophy in school. They didn’t–what they read about and did was an interesting intellectual stimulation but it was not philosophy.
Philosophy, as the Stoics saw it, was not abstraction. It was not theoretical. It was designed to help with the problems of life. And in Ancient Greece and Rome, the problems of life were quite real: murderous tyrants, war, plague, civil strife and banishments existed as very real and daily threats–alongside all the other things we deal with today like jealousy, injuries, greed, sickness, envy, and fear.
The Stoics developed a practical philosophy to make sense of this world, one designed to help its adherents thrive, succeed and live good lives. In my eyes, stoicism posits a very simple premise: We do not control the world around us; we control only how we respond. And so we may as well respond well–respond virtuously.
What does this all mean? It means that whatever problem you’re dealing with this week–or in this life–stoicism can be of help.
A few favorites:
“Ambition means tying your well being to what other people say or do.
Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you.
Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” – Marcus Aurelius
“No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good. Like the gold or emerald or purple repeating to itself, “No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be emerald, my color undiminished.” – Marcus Aurelius
“What progress have I made? I am beginning to be my own friend.’ That is progress indeed. Such a people will never be alone and you may be sure he is a friend to all.” – Seneca
On Other People:
“It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Stick to what’s in front of you—idea, action, utterance.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Don’t let the force of an impressions when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.” – Epictetus
On Success or Failure:
“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” – Marcus Aurelius
“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” – Epictetus
“The wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power, but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.” – Seneca
“Life’s no soft affair. It’s a long road you’ve started on: you can’t but expect to have slips and knocks and falls, and get tired and openly wish–a lie–for death.” – Seneca
I was fortunate enough to be introduced to stoicism when I was 18 or 19 years old. Not during a week of practice and contemplation, but a week where I nonetheless needed it very badly. I was going through a terrible break up. I was stuck in this apartment with some roommates who I absolutely detested. I was in my second year of college, not sure in which direction to take my life.
A chance encounter led to me picking up Marcus Aurelius and his wonderful Meditations. The wisdom in this book not only helped me with my immediate problems–helped me see some perspective about my romantic woes and helped me realize there was no reason to resent these people I was living with. But more importantly, it set me on an intellectual journey (going “directly to the seat of knowledge” as Marcus put it) that changed my life and set me on a course I never would have expected.
In the years since, stoicism has something that strengthened me in failure, comforted me in pain, gave meaning to events and cautioned humility and conservatism in moments of success. It helped me publish five books—one of which, I can proudly say, is about stoicism. How this all would have played out otherwise, I really have no idea. But what stoicism teaches is that it doesn’t matter. What matters is what happened and that we must be grateful for it–the good and bad alike.
I am. I am so grateful for the windows and doors that stoicism opened. And I hope for everyone participating in 2016’s Stoic Week that you feel the same. And don’t let it stop after 7 days either.
Even after two disastrous debate appearances, overwhelming poll numbers and one of the worst campaign scandals in modern history, if you talk to many reasonable people you’ll still hear this whisper: I really think he might win.
It’s the fear of an electoral surprise—that the pollsters are wrong, that faith in logical, rational voters is faith without evidence. Post-Brexit this sort of skepticism seems even more reasonable. In light of recent events—after all the predictions that were wrong before—how do we even know what everyday people even think these days?
I’ll tell you this attitude is absurd and wrong.
It reminds me of a story that Ulysses S. Grant tells in his memoirs about a night he spent on the wild prairies of East Texas. He and a fellow officer were near Goliad when they heard “the most unearthly howling of wolves” directly in front of them. They couldn’t see the wolves through the tall prairie grass, but the men knew they were near. The other officer asked Grant how many wolves he thought were in the pack. Grant, not wanting to seem afraid, tried to lowball the number at twenty—knowing well enough, he said later, that it was still enough “to devour our party, horses and all, at a single meal.” Grant thought that maybe they should turn around, but the other officer, having come from a part of Indiana where the wolves hadn’t been completely driven out, smiled and pushed on.
The men arrived to find just two lone wolves sitting on their haunches. These were the sole animals who had made all the noise that had scared Grant so badly, that had convinced him he was overwhelmingly outnumbered. Four decades later, after a full life in public service and politics, Grant would relate that he often thought of this incident when he heard of a group changing course due to criticism or someone giving up because they were deterred by an unseen enemy. The lesson in such situations, he concluded, was this: “There are always more of them before they are counted.”
Which brings us to a lesson we would do well to remember in modern media when it comes to politics: There is always less behind the noise than you think.
Certainly this is true in our current election, where the media had tried to convince us that behind Donald Trump is an overwhelming mass of white male blue collar workers who will be rising up as one (or in more extreme characterizations, a raging army of white supremacist lunatics who will riot in the streets if he’s not elected.) Conversely, we’re expected to believe that the unexciting Hillary Clinton is supported by no one, that she’s a candidate created by vested interests, defended by “the media”, and propped up by illusory political correctness—but insufficient votes. The results on election day, the narrative goes, may just shock us.
As David Plouffe, President Obama’s former campaign manager and current informal advisor to Hillary’s campaign, has observed:
“This race is being covered in a way that suggests it’s a dead heat. And it’s not…Some polls closely capture where the race stands. But they’re very incomplete. The Clinton campaign is doing large samples for modeling surveys of everybody on the voter file. So you have a very good understanding of how you believe 100 percent of the electorate will be allocated on election day. When you look at how 100 percent of the vote is likely to be allocated in Florida, I get very optimistic….I can get Donald Trump to within two or three in Pennsylvania, but I can’t get him to a win number. The same is true in Virginia and Colorado. I know everybody goes crazy about the latest Cheetos poll, but I feel very confident about both New Hampshire and Florida. So that puts her over 300 [in the electoral college]. Trump has to pull off a miracle in the electoral college.”
To think that since Plouffe wrote that, Trump not only hasn’t pulled off any miracles, he was caught in one of the most embarrassing hot mic scandals since the invention of recorded sound.
But I actually want to put that aside for a second so we can look at the boom-and-bust cycle of political movement in this country, particularly as it pertains to the media. Because it, as opposed to the surprising results of Brexit, is a far more predictable historical record to study.
We seem to have forgotten the burst of enthusiasm and interest in the largely internet and college-driven campaign of Howard Dean in 2004 (then he finished third in Iowa). We forget Ron Paul at the beginning of the 2008 election as another internet-driven sensation which caused many to ask whether we’d finally found a viable outsider candidate. If you spent any time online in 2007, it was really made to look like we might have (when the reality, of course, was we hadn’t). Very few seem to remember that the 2012 election was presented as a horse race (and in fact, Romney so believed it, he thought he might win!) Of course, the results were anything but close, with Obama securing 332 electoral votes and nearly 5 million more popular votes. How quickly we forget just months ago that Sanders was on the rise, that he was activating loyal young voters who would drive him past Hillary (and then, if they didn’t, at the very least wouldn’t back the ultimate nominee)? And let’s not even get into the Gary Johnson and other third party candidate nonsense of earlier this summer.
All these failed movements were defined by their claims to an ascendent voter bloc—one that the elites didn’t understand, that hadn’t been tracked before, that was going to surprise everyone. The only real surprise was how much none of this materialized.
Yet here we are again.
I think it’s about time we start to recognize that in an insatiable media system, fringe candidates—from Dean to Ron Paul to Sanders to Trump—operate a lot like those wolves that Grant met out on the plains. It’s a fact that in a system which favors extreme views and has an insatiable need for conflict, extreme and conflicting stories will be overrepresented. When candidates without a coalition see the bandwagon effect as their only hope, they will attempt to exaggerate their reach and the size of their base. They will over-rely on the rabidity of their fans to compensate for the big gaps in the lines. It will seem like there are many millions of them…until they are ultimately counted. Because noise carries further than signal right up until the point that the signal gets dialed in.
I’m not saying there were no Sander supporters and certainly no one denies that millions of people will be voting for Donald Trump. It’s just that enough non-stop coverage can skew the estimates and expectations of even the most rational observers. When you’re on Reddit or Facebook and every reasonable comment is followed up by dozens of intensely argumentative responses from Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson supporters it can start to feel like there are a lot of them out there—that there is a real movement afoot.
Certainly, the Republican party fell for this in the primary, mistaking the fact that Trump seemed louder and bigger than his early opponents for a realistic chance of putting enough electoral points on the board to win. In fact, Trump has often touted—and exaggerated—the sizes of his rallies, as if that stat mattered. Today, Republicans and Democrats are falling for it again.
When you go on Facebook and see endless amounts of anti-Hillary memes, you might start to think: Man, people really hate her. Sure some do—and many polls show that Americans have trouble finding her trustworthy—but even her “unpopularity” is not as unclear as it looks. The Daily Beast recently outed the almost-billionaire and founder of Oculus, Palmer Luckey, for secretly “putting money behind an unofficial Donald Trump group dedicated to “shitposting” and circulating internet memes maligning Hillary Clinton.” There are also the reports that have shown how potentially a significant number of Trump’s Twitter followers are fake accounts. And of course, there were the internet trolls of suspected Russian origin which broadcast pro-Donald support and propaganda. In Business Insider’s piece on astroturfing, they quote Adrian Chen, who researched Russian trolls for a New York Magazine story in 2015, talking on the Longform podcast,
“I created this list of Russian trolls when I was researching. And I check on it once in awhile, still. And a lot of them have turned into conservative accounts, like fake conservatives. I don’t know what’s going on, but they’re all tweeting about Donald Trump and stuff.”
I don’t know if those were the people who started tweeting at me when I wrote two Trump pieces over the summer, but I can tell you, I don’t normally receive many responses to my writing from people with 7 followers (in one case, the “person” had literally zero followers—which I didn’t know was even possible). I do know that the people who disliked the article were far more vocal and loud and obnoxious that the ones who agreed. I happened to have a pack of coyotes living near my house—which can often sound like they’re right next to my window—and the upside is that I’ve gotten good at ignoring empty noise.
Another version of this throwing of sound is in internet polls, which candidates like Ron Paul, Donald Trump and even Bernie Sanders have often dominated. People don’t understand that this is often deliberate manipulation. For instance, Trump’s fans on 4chan and reddit made an explicit effort to have Trump win in every online poll around the outcome of the first debate—which Trump excitedly tweeted the results of—with users explaining how to cheat the system and vote again and again in each poll. Philip Bump in The Washington Posthas compared this online behavior to a Trump rally: “These online polls are, again, garbage, no more representative of the population as a whole than is the crowd at a Trump rally. That comparison is very apt, in fact. The crowd at a Trump rally 1) is open to all comers, 2) is geographically isolated, meaning that while anyone can attend, it doesn’t include a huge swath of people who vote, and 3) it rewards enthusiasm in a way that tends to obscure actual interest.” (I’d also add that many attendees admit to showing up to Trump rallies “for the spectacle.”)
It’s those last few points that are most interesting to me—in fact, they point to a fundamental reality of the internet. Not only does research show that anger is the most viral and provocative emotion—meaning that angry Trump supporters are going to be far more active than a resigned Clinton voter—but silence is often misinterpreted. Going back to what one programmer defined as Warnock’s Dilemma, it’s very hard to know what to make of a lack of response. The media’s typical reaction is to cater to active audiences. If something is being shared, they cover it more. There is no positive sign of people simply nodding their head and moving on—a common reaction to common sense, middle of the road content—so there is no way to skate to that puck. By definition, normal, reasonable people are not an audience you can pander to.
In the same way that no amount of media fawning makes HBO’s Girls more popular than The Big Bang Theory, no amount of Trump media coverage changes his fundamental demographic issues. It has been the inability of his now alt-right driven campaign to realize this that doomed him from truly capitalizing on voter’s real desire for change. It’s what makes his most recent debate performance irrelevant. He landed plenty of punches on Hillary…but it pleased the crowd and not the referee-like undecided voters he needed so desperately to add to his base.
Yes, it seems like there are huge amounts of Trump supporters out there. They are by definition louder and more motivated. They are naturally more compelling to cover. They are also engaged—or complicit—in forms of manipulation designed to create the sense of a movement which can’t be stopped. Clinton hides from media coverage and doesn’t make herself available even to be interviewed. Both approaches create feedback loops in which support for the former appears greater than support for the latter, because one is vocal and loud while the other is implicit and begins and ends at the ballot box.
All of which brings us to where we are now. A good portion of Trump’s supporters are not dumb—just as Sanders and Dean and Romney’s weren’t. Like Grant, they’ve just fallen for the noise. Some are excited by it, some are scared, some just don’t know what to believe anymore. But it’s all the same fundamental mistake.
The underlying numbers haven’t changed. We’ve just been gaslighted. The path to a Trump victory remains as unlikely—if not impossible—as it always was. Not only electorally, but personally—because every time Trump does get momentum, like clockwork, he rips off his Hannibal Lecter mask and says what he really thinks, ruining the very momentum his discretion had created. The only rotating variable is the media’s interest in keeping things interesting and the natural phenomena of how noise carries.
Hillary Clinton will almost certainly win. It is not a surprise. The only part likely to change is by how much or by how little.
I’m not just telling myself that so I’ll feel better. I’m not hoping that’s the outcome. I know the dangers of that. I’m also not running around getting worried and anxious as a form of virtue signaling.
Both are pointless exercises rooted in the same bad assumption. The Stoic philosopher Hecato has said that hope and fear were the same. They are both based on irrational projections—of following the noise and ignoring the tricks that noise can play on you.
What’s better is truth. What’s better is counting the voices, not measuring their volume.