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All My Writing for 2015 So Far

July 27, 2015 — 1 Comment

It’s been a busy first half 2015. In case you don’t follow me everywhere (twitter is best for articles), I wanted to put together a quick roundup of all the writing I’ve done so far.

 

THOUGHT CATALOG

Amor Fati: Learning To Love And Accept Everything That Happens

If You Do This, You’re A Monster

Here’s Your Productivity Hack: Go The F*ck To Sleep

Shut Up When They’re Talking To You: Always Say Less Than Necessary

I Just Turned 28: Here’s What I’ve Learned In Another Year

Tell Me Who You Spend Time With, And I Will Tell You Who You Are

Anything Can Have Meaning If It Changes You For The Better

Things This Dropout Actually Learned In College

How To Learn The Art Of Speed Reading

Why I Run

24 Fiction Books That Can Change Your Life

9 Short Quotes That Changed My Life And Why

30 Things People (You) Need To Stop Doing Right Now

3 Questions You Need To Answer Before You’ll Have The Life You Want

This Is What Email Overload Looks Like

Man Drowning In Email Before Honeymoon Pens Epic Autoresponse

Three Positive Habits To Practice Every Single Day

24 Things That Only Writers Know (From Writers)

5 Documentaries You HAVE To Watch

33 Ways To Be An Insanely Productive, Happy Balanced Person

5 Life Lessons I’ve Learned From My Pet Goats

6 Reasons Your Book Will Fail

A Writer’s Routine

How To Be A Public Speaker — Or, The Art Of The Keynote Address

 

NEW YORK OBSERVER

Is Gawker Destroying Itself From The Inside? Let’s Hope So.

I’m a Millennial and I Don’t Understand My Peers—Not Even a Little Bit

Why Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between The World and Me’ Is Not the Masterpiece We Hoped For

I’ll Miss Working With reddit’s Victoria Taylor

An Interview With the 16-Year-Old Media Manipulator Who Deceived The New York Times

Exclusive Interview: Meet Maddox, Owner of the Internet’s ‘Best Page in the Universe’

How Much Do I Love T-Mobile? You Don’t Want to Know

Here’s the Real Solution to Millennial Angst

Meet the Journalist Who Fooled Millions About Chocolate and Weight Loss

EXCLUSIVE: Behind the Facebook Prank That Gamed Reddit And Reached 1M Pageviews

EXCLUSIVE: ‘Digital Darth Vader’ Charles C. Johnson On Manipulating Politics and Media

5 Subreddits That Will Make Your Life Better

7 People Who Overcame Huge Obstacles to Become Famous

The Surprising Value of Negative Thinking

Journalism’s Biggest Problem Is Not What You’d Expect—And It’s Entirely Fixable

Things Heavy Metal Taught Me About Life

The 7 Strategies That Helped Me Write 3 Books in 3 Years

The Shame of Our Public Shamings

An Annotated Interview: The Superficiality Behind Viral Nova

A Guide to Stoicism, From One of NYC’s Greatest Stoics

The Perfect Spouse Is the Best Life Hack No One Told You About

The Hypocritical Degradation of Brian Williams

EXCLUSIVE: How This Left-Wing Activist Manipulates the Media to Spread His Message

I Discovered a Billion-Dollar Business, and All I Got Was This Free Self-Help Book

EXCLUSIVE: How This Man Got the Media to Fall for ShipYourEnemiesGlitter Stunt

Intentional Insanity: The Occupational Hazard of Writing Online for a Living

 

ART OF MANLINESS

36 Books Every Young and Wildly Ambitious Man Should Read

 

99U

How to Get More People to Actually See Your Work

Marginalia, the Anti-Library, and Other Ways to Master the Lost Art of Reading

BUSINESS INSIDER

‘The Canvas Strategy’ is the fastest way to become indispensable at work

 

 

THE NEXT WEB

The single worst marketing decision you can make

 

VOICE AND EXIT

Everyday Philosophy: How to Turn Trials Into Triumphs

Making Sure You Get My Reading List Newsletter

May 28, 2015 — 5 Comments

If you’re wondering where the May issue of my Reading List Email is…it sounds like we have a problem. It appears that Gmail’s tabbed inbox layout is finally starting to catch up with my newsletter because the email definitely went out. In the last few days, a bunch of readers on Twitter informed me that Inbox Tabs have been shuffling my Reading Recommendation newsletter into their Promotions tab–or worse, to Spam. For whatever reason, this month’s email had to lowest delivery rate I’ve ever had.

If you’re one of the 40,000 people who enjoys getting the recommendations each month, there are two ways to ensure that it always ends up in your Primary inbox where you can see it.

Drag and Drop

The easiest way is to drag and drop.

Locate the Reading Recommendation Email in your Promotions tab. Left-click and drag the email from Promotions over to Primary.

RyanHoliday-PromotionalTabsPost1

Once dropped, Gmail displays a yellow box that asks if you want to make this change permanent. Click Yes to ensure that all messages from ryan.holiday@gmail.com appear in the Primary tab going forward.

Create a Filter

Locate one of my Reading Recommendation Emails in your inbox by searching for “Ryan Holiday” or “ryan.holiday@gmail.com.”

Create a filter for “ryan.holiday.com” and check the box next to “Never send it to SPAM” on the second screen.

RyanHoliday-PromotionalTabsPost44

That should do it.

Thank you to all the readers who brought this issue to my attention. If you’re not already getting my monthly reading recommendations, you can sign up right here.

The Strategies That Helped Me Write 3 Books in 3 Years

March 30, 2015 — 17 Comments

Writing a book can be a long, hard slog.

The “miserable” parts of the experience have been documented over and over again. Or just ask any author on a book deadline — or let the thousand-yard stare speak for itself.

Not all of us can have an entire corporation behind them like James Patterson does, churning out novels, taking the stress off, after all.

And though authors are unquestionably helpful to each other, they don’t always give the best advice. Think how many times you’ve heard this old trope: Just put your butt in the chair and write. It’s true, but that doesn’t help you right now, does it?

I don’t want to give you advice like that. I want to show that there is a way to publish prodigiously while baking the marketing into your work. That sounds like a scheme, I understand. But I know this is true because I have done it.

You can do it too

It’s hard to say exactly when a book truly begins.

I sat down to write my first book on June 17th, 2011. I know this because it was the day after my 24th birthday, and I’d left my job, my city, and my home to start it. This was the day I first allowed myself to actually write.

Roughly three years later, that book is done. And so are two others, now all released (along with an expanded paperback of the first). I’m also the editor at large for a prominent media outlet, and in that time I’ve written for publications as varied as CNN, Fast Company, The Columbia Journalism Review, Copyblogger,The New York Observer, Thought Catalog, Forbes, and Marketwatch.

My writing career is still very young. I’m still figuring out where it’s going. But if I have one thing to share it’s this: it can be done.

There are strategies you can develop to ensure that you will always be publishing content, and that your content can find an audience. And I’m happy to show how those were developed.

Here are the seven strategies I’ve developed that have allowed me to write three books in three years along with countless articles and columns:

1. Always be researching

I’ve talked about research before, so I won’t tread on old ground. But I will say that my notecard system and commonplace book have been essential to my productivity as a writer.

The beauty of this system is you collect what you’re naturally drawn to, so you start to recognize patterns and interests, which gives you direction for what you should write next. It’s a great cure for writer’s block.

  • What are you clipping, saving, and writing down?
  • What is a common theme or subject matter?

That is the muse is telling you where you should go next.

For instance, I was first introduced to Stoicism at age 19. Since then I’ve been following the thread in my reading and observations in life. So when it came time to write my latest, I had not only read something like 100+ books related to the topic in some way, I had already amassed and organized all the material. All I had to do was put it on paper. It wasn’t as if I was suddenly scrambling to start from scratch.

I had also written about the subject many times over the years on my blog and saw the kind of response it got and knew it would resonate with readers. In fact, all my books have come from these note cards and from blog posts.

Because I am always researching, I have somewhere close to 10,000 cards on various themes. Each potential book, once it gets enough cards, gets its own box. And I just bought a box for my next book … before the paint is even dry on this new one.

This is the kind of feedback loop that creates impressive returns in your writing.

If you are constantly ingesting new material through research, you will naturally follow threads that keep you interested and most importantly — writing.

2. Know where you’re going (have a plan)

An author friend recently told me that he’d written 115,000 words for the book he was working on; a book that contractually was only going to be 60,000 words. And worse, it was only just now that he’d really figured out the thrust of the book.

It almost broke my heart.

Obviously there are many different ways to skin a cat, and I’m not hating on another writer’s style because there are many legitimate ones. But this writer could have written that book in half the time if he’d simply started with a clear outline before he started.

I strongly suggest that writers avoid the temptation to “find the book as they’re writing.” It’s not going to happen. And if it does, it will be a costly discovery.

Crack the code of the book first. Understand the whole before you address the particular.

Writing is easy — there are thousands of graduates out there every year who can do it. But being able to wrap your head around a big idea and knowing how to present to the reader? That’s the tough part. That’s where the race — and the sale — is won.

It’s not only about where you’re going with your book, but knowing where you’re going as a writer.

For instance, on my first book, I moved across the country to write the manuscript before I’d even sold it to a publisher. I knew this was the next big step for my life. Yet, even then the gem of the idea for my Stoicism book was there.

For The Obstacle Is The Way, I sold it in August of 2012 (also for a six-figure advance) just weeks after Trust Me, I’m Lying came out, because I was already planning my next move.

Because my research for that book was nearly done (ultimately the book’s 40,000 words took a little over three months to write), I was able to squeeze in an ebook in between the two releases.

The point is not to go flailing into the process churning out page after page — or book after book — with no defined structure or purpose. All you do is cause more work down the road when it comes time to make a finished product.

You must put in the time, crack the code of getting the material for your book, structure it, and have a spreadable message before you get to writing.

You must map out the path if you ever plan to make it to your destination alive.

3. Use everything you do as fuel for something larger

In The Obstacle is the Way, I write about great icons in history who used the adversity and trials in their lives as fuel, instead of getting buried by it. I take the same approach in my writing.

This isn’t something I came up with. It was passed to me by my mentor Robert Greene, who has a saying:

It’s all material.

He means that everything that happens in your life can be used for something useful, whether it’s your writing, your relationships, or your new startup.

Frustrated about someone wronging you? Follow the example of Demosthenes, who became the greatest orator in ancient Greece essentially to get vengeance in court against the guardians who stole his inheritance. In other words, even terrible things can drive you and produce some benefit.

Trust Me, I’m Lying came out of my frustrating experiences with a broken media system. I couldn’t stop talking about it, but I never felt like people really understood how bad it was, so I had to write about it.

My second book, Growth Hacker Marketing, came from an article I wrote about a development that was affecting the marketing industry. I was confused by it and was trying to figure it out for myself. That process led to an unexpected (and unsolicited) book deal.

Writing is ultimately about communicating part of the human experience to the readers. Sometimes it’s a business experience, sometimes it’s an emotional struggle, sometimes it’s an escape.

The point is: your life has to fuel your work. If it doesn’t, you’ll have a harder time connecting with an audience. You’ll have a harder time getting up to work every morning. Use what happens to you, good or bad. Write about what you know and feel and experience. Write what only you can write, not what you think other people want.

4. Have something to say

My theory on writing books is that you have to have something you really must say. Anything less than that and you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

As George Orwell once said:

Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

James Altucher has a great technique: he writes what he is afraid to reveal about himself. He puts it all out there.

When you’re sharing what’s important to you, when you’re sharing truth that you feel people need to say, you will find that the difficult parts of writing fall away. You’ll stay up late at night to work on it because it matters to you. You’ll put up with rejection because you have no choice.

I knew I had to write my first book, so much so that I quit everything, my job, the city I had lived in for past five years, and moved across to country to get it out. In some ways, that’s what it takes to propel you across the chasm.

We live in an attention economy. The most important thing is saying something that no one else is saying, or even better, can say.

Having something to say is actually an effective marketing tool. Who hasn’t read a book (or rather quit reading a book) where it’s transparent that the author either isn’t really into what he’s writing or he’s just trying to sell an idea, instead of writing with authority in a compelling way. That is bad marketing.

It’s also just a bad way to spend your relatively limited amount of time on this planet.

5. Make commitments

This is one of my productivity secrets in my writing.

If any good opportunity to write comes my way, I almost always say yes, even if I don’t think I’d possibly have the time to. What I’ve come to find is I always find the time, and it’s in stretching my limits that I become a better writer.

When other people are depending on me for my work, I’m not going to let them down.

But when it’s an internal, personal commitment, that’s when the excuses and the Resistance start to creep in. Which is is why I’m committed to doing at least two articles a week on Thought Catalog and Betabeat, plus my monthly reading list newsletter, plus copywriting I do for clients.

That means my estimated output per year, without counting my books, is at least 100,000 words … and probably much more. This has led to literally hundreds of articles across many sites. I’ve even written something like 200 Amazon reviews.

It’s like your rent — you never miss it because you have to pay it.

This is why I’ve resisted self-publishing so far.

I could easily self-publish my next project. But the plain reality is that books are hard to write, and as you trudge along you’ll make a million excuses. I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this just with potential clients of mine. But when you read the date your book is due, and sign your name on that publishing contract, you know you’re going to hustle and work to write that book.

It’s why I’ve turned in a book proposal for my next book before my latest one even comes out: to keep the chain going, to have a commitment that I know I have to meet so Resistance doesn’t have the time or space to creep in.

6. Work with great people (don’t try to do it all yourself)

Too many writers take the approach of locking themselves in a room writing until they think that they have a finished book. Or they pay someone on Craigslist to edit for them or design the cover. And then they blog about how cheap it was.

I can imagine why!

This is the exact wrong strategy to take.

You are the CEO of your book. As the CEO, it’s your job to make sure that you surround yourself with great professionals who will make this company a success.

It’ll be the best investment you make while you’re writing your book. Behind every seemingly “overnight” book success was a team of people who all contributed in a major way.

I’ll open the kimono a little on who I use and what I pay:

  • For all three of my books I’ve hired Nils Parker at Command+Z Content to edit them (which cost about $10,000 each).
  • All three of my book covers, which I love, were created by Erin Tyler — which cost about $3,000 each.
  • And even though I have my own marketing company that has worked tirelessly on my books, I’ve also hired a traditional business book publicist to support us in pitching legacy media — to the tune of $30,000+ dollars.

But it was well worth it to work with pros who made the project not only better, but more successful.

You don’t have to use the people I do. There are tons of professionals out there doing great work. You just have to find them and have the strength to relinquish control to them.

The point is: I hire great people to take tasks off my plate or do things that I’m not qualified to do.

It’s also about paying it forward. I got my start as a researcher for a successful author. Now I want to give other people a chance.

7. Link it all together

For me there is no separation of work and life. Both fuel each other, both make each worth doing. It’s what allows me to produce so much without burning out, because each part sustains the other.

Too many writers separate their “work” life from their real life so they can justify simply spending time “writing” without any urgency. They don’t make the connection that it’s all part of a larger whole that can be used to their advantage.

And they all link back to each other in some way.

In my personal life, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of a great line or solved an intractable writing problem while running or swimming.

I take insights I’ve learned from a client crisis and use them in my writing like I knew it all along. I learn lessons on marketing my own projects, which I can use as case studies to bring in more clients. I try to make connections in everything I do to create a feedback loop that is always producing something.

As you strengthen this muscle, the more connections you can make … and the odds you’ll come up with something new or creative increase.

Remember … it’s all material

No one will argue that writing is an easy profession. Getting someone to pay you for your words isn’t easy. But there are strategies you can use to simplify the process and transform what you can produce. By simply asking, “How can I use this to my advantage?” more often, we can find ways around the inevitable obstacles that come along when writing.By finding ways to use the adversity we face as fuel for our writing, we can never be stuck or lost without direction.

This post originally appeared on Copyblogger.com

28 Pieces of Productivity Advice I Stole From People Smarter Than Me

March 25, 2015 — 10 Comments

Like all people, I’d like to think I am a productive person. If I am, however, it’s because I’ve been ruthlessly efficient at one thing: stealing secrets and methods from people a lot smarter than me.

In my career, I’ve had the fortune of coming in contact with bestselling authors, successful entrepreneurs, investors, executives and creative people. Some I didn’t meet, but I found their thoughts in book form. Whether they knew it or not, I cased all of them and took from them what I thought were their best ideas on productivity.

Below are the secrets I learned from them. Thanks guys! You helped me get more done and be more creative.

Casey Neistat

From this popular YouTube filmmaker and artist, I picked up the trick of keeping a small Moleskine journal that I write in everyday: thoughts, reminders, notes, lessons. I prefer one that can fit in my back pocket, this way I always have paper on me. The last few months have been incredibly difficult and this journal helped me cope. More important, I learned how to keep track of these journals (and everything else I own) in case I lose them: In big letters writer “If Found Please Return [INSERT NAME & NUMBER]”

Tim Ferriss

From Tim I learned the art of the to do list. A simple, straight forward one. One notecard, 5-6 big items and that’s it. Everyday, I cross these off and tear up the card. That’s it. That’s the system.

Robert Greene

Robert Greene, renowned author of the 48 Laws of Power, showed me how he creates books. His notecard system has changed my life. Every book I read, I fold the pages of and then go back through and transfer the information on to notecards which I then organize by theme in card boxes. At this point I have hundreds of thousands of these cards, which I always turn to if I need an anecdote, a fact, inspiration, a strategy, a story or an example.

Dov Charney

The first time I called Dov, I got his voicemail. It said: “I don’t use voicemail, email me.” This is a way better system. I’ve taken it a step further, I don’t even have a voicemail set up. If it’s important, they’ll call back. If I have time, I’ll return the missed call. Either way, having “6 unchecked voice messages” is something I’ve haven’t worried about in years…because they don’t exist.

Ramit Sethi

Ramit has built a 40 plus employee, multi-million dollar education business right before our eyes (he and I grew up in the same small town actually). One trick I learned from Ramit–after ignoring the advice several times–is that if you’re going to hire an assistant, make sure they are older or more responsible than you. Too many people make the mistake of hiring someone young and cheap…which is ridiculous. Because it’s impossible for them to understand the value of time and organization and they will end up making you less productive, not more. If you’re going to have an assistant, do it right.

Tobias Wolff

In his book, Old School, Tobias Wolf’s semi-autobiographical character takes the time to type out quotes and passages from great books. I do this almost every weekend. It’s a) made me a faster typer b) a much better writer c) a wiser person.

Robert Greene

From Robert I also learned that swimming is a great productivity tool. Why? Because it requires total isolation: no music, no phone, no possible interruptions. Just quiet, strenuous exercise. I’ve had some of my most productive brainstorming sessions in the pool.

David Allen & Merlin Mann

Inbox Zero. Never touch paper twice. Let these phrases sink in and use them.

Ramit Sethi

Another from Ramit. You don’t have to answer every email you get. The delete key is a quick way to get to inbox zero.

Napoleon

There’s a great quote from Napoleon about how he would delay opening letters so that by the time he did, the unimportant issues would have resolved themselves. I try to do the same thing with email and issues from staff.

Marco Arment

Instapaper changed my life. I don’t play games on my phone, I read smart articles I queued up for myself earlier in the day. I don’t get distracted with articles while I am working at my desk–because I can easily put them in the queue.

James Altucher

“No” is a powerful, productive word (he also wrote a book about it). We think we’re obligated to say yes to everything, then we wonder why we never have enough time. Learning to say no–“No, thank you” more specifically–will energize you and excite you. Use it–as much as you can.

Montaigne

From Montaigne I also learned the importance of keeping a commonplace book. If something catches your eye, write it down, record it somewhere. Use it later. Simple as that.

Andrew Carnegie

He has a great line about “being introduced to the broom” at an early age. In other words, know even the most lowly tasks intimately. Doesn’t mean you have to do them still, but know them.

Aaron Ray

Aaron Ray was my mentor in Hollywood. He’s a hugely successful movie producer and manager, but I noticed one thing: He was never in the office. And he always had some ridiculous excuse why he wasn’t. Eventually, I realized why: He was avoiding the office BS that sucks up most people’s time. By staying away, he got way more done. He could see big picture. And as an extra bonus, everyone was always talking about him: “Where’s Aaron?” “Has anyone seen Aaron?”

Tucker Max

You wouldn’t guess it but Tucker has the biggest library you’ve ever seen. Why? He buys every book he wants. I don’t waste time thinking about what books I want, or where to get them cheapest. I buy them, I read them, I recommend them, I benefit from them. End of story. (see my library here) I’m never without something to read, and I’m always driven to read more–because the shelves are looking down on me as a reminder of what I have left to do.

Nassim Taleb

Speaking of books, from Nassim Taleb I learned about the “anti-library.” Don’t just collect books you have read, collect the books you haven’t read. It’s a testament to what you don’t know–and an on hand resource whenever you need it.

Samantha Hoover

From my fiancee, I got a nice little trick. Delete Facebook from your phone. Just do it. Trust me. (note: pretty sure she’s relapsed, but I haven’t)

Bryan “Birdman” Williams

The guy founded Cash Money records and is worth about $500M. I was shocked the first time I was supposed to meet him…at the studio…at 1am…on a Sunday. His day was just starting. He works at night, sleeps during the day. Like I said, at first it was weird, but then I realized: He picked the hours that were most productive for him–screw what most people think is “normal.”

Tucker Max

I think Tucker was the guy I stole listening to the same song over and over from. It lets you space out and get into the zone (or flow state). My iTunes playlist is embarrassing, but I don’t care. Listening to the same song hundreds of time is how I get so much done.

Samuel Zemurray

The entrepreneur behind United Fruit (and one of my favorite books) used to say: “Don’t trust the report.” We waste a lot of time trusting numbers and opinions we’ve never verified. Going backwards and doing something over ends up costing us far more than we saved by skipping over the work in the first place.

Tim Ferriss

Another one from Tim: you don’t have to be the first one to sign up for things. Wait a bit on the new apps and social networks. Wait for things to sort themselves out, let other people do all the trial and error, then when you come, just be the best.

Anonymous

I forget who gave me the idea, but never buy in-flight Wifi. Go off the grid for the whole flight. Catch up on stuff. Think. Read.

Adam Corolla

On Loveline Adam used to complain about how the producers wanted him to get their 15 minutes before the show started. His refusal was simple: every week that added up to an extra show–for free. Important people can get a lot done in “just 15 minutes” so they don’t give it away easily. And they don’t mind looking bad in order to protect.

Niki Papadopoulos

My editor always says: “Ok, well, try writing it then.” In other words, she means “Get started.” She usually says this right after you explain some big sweeping idea you have for a book or a chapter or an article. Planning it out is great, but productive people get moving.

Frederick Douglass

“A man is worked on by what he works on.” Steer clear of quagmires, toxic work environments, busy work and unsolvable problems.

James Altucher

Entrepreneurs and writers are nuts. To save yourself many wasted hours of time and insanity, find yourself a spouse who is better adjusted and balanced than you. James and his wife Claudia are an inspiring example of this important pairing.

Aaron Ray

As a talent manager, Aaron showed me why you never waste your time, or your own money, doing your own negotiating. This has served me well. I pass incoming inquiries to a speaking agent, book projects to a book agent, interview requests to an assistant, movie/TV stuff to Aaron, etc etc. Yes, this means I pay them a fee, but guess what? All valuable services have a cost. Only a fool represents himself or herself.

**

This piece originally ran on Inc.com.

An Interview on Stoicism with Massimo Pigliucci

March 4, 2015 — 10 Comments

As a student and proponent of stoicism, I was incredibly excited to see the New York Times not only publish an article about stoic philosophy last month but watch as the article become of the most emailed and viewed pieces on the entire site. At the same time, as a writer on this topic, I also had an embarrassing human reaction: jealousy. Why did Professor Massimo Pigliucci get this opportunity and I didn’t? Why are things so unfair?

Of course, this is selfish–and like most selfish things, also short-sighted. Because this article almost certainly introduced tens of thousands of people to a topic I care about, people who would be better of for it, and perhaps eventually check out my work. Most importantly though, here was someone that I could reach out and learn from, someone that without having published, I would not have known either. And so with stoicism, we learn to fight these negative reactions and attempt to counteract them with positivity, with excellence or with virtue.

I ended up sending an email to Massimo, who is a professor of philosophy at CUNY-City College and he was kind enough to consent to an interview. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to interview Gregory Hays, one of the translators of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and considered this an opportunity to pick up where that chat left off. (and ironically, I ended up getting featured in the Times myself for totally unrelated reasons shortly after). I suppose it’s fate.

Tell us about your introduction to stoicism. Which book/philosopher did you read first? How old were you? How did it strike you?
Must have been Marcus Aurelius, when I was in high school in Italy. You see, there you have to take three years of philosophy (if you enroll in the type of high school called a “scientific lyceum,” which I did), and of course you start with the pre-Socratics and keep going through late modern philosophy. The Stoics were not a large part of the curriculum, but we read them, especially Seneca (also in Latin classes); moreover, the concept of Stoicism was familiar to me from studying Greco-Roman history, both in middle and high school.

The whole thing struck me initially as interesting, but a bit alien. I suppose I was under the (misguided, as you know) impression that Stoicism was a kind of Spock-like attitude toward life, and as much as I loved the homonymous Star Trek character, I just couldn’t see myself (or anyone else, really) actually practicing the thing.

But I returned to Stoicism more recently, after years of looking for a more organic philosophy of life than the somewhat heterogenous approach known as secular humanism. First I studied virtue ethics, especially Aristotle and Epicurus, and then I arrived (again) at the Stoics, largely through reading some of the stuff posted at the Stoicism Today blog (the same people who organize Stoic Week every year).

What do you think the biggest misperception of stoicism is?
What I call the Spock Syndrome, the idea that Stoicism is about suppressing emotions, going through life with a stiff upper lip. As you know, it is nothing of the kind. Stoics considered theirs to be a philosophy of love (an emotion!) toward all humankind as well as nature itself, and they were very concerned with social action (unlike, say, the Epicureans).

What the Stoics taught was to acknowledge our emotions (which are, after all, inevitable), but also reflect on them and their sources, distancing ourselves from them enough to be able to give (or, as the case may be, withdraw) our “assent.” That way we begin to cultivate positive emotions (like a concern for others), and reject as unhealthy the negative ones (like envy, or anger).

How did your New York Times op-ed How To Be A Stoic come about and what has the response been like?
I had published another article in the NYT last year, on the difference between science and pseudoscience, what in philosophy is known as the demarcation problem, which is close to my academic specialty and scholarship. The more I thought about Stoicism, the more it seemed like the topic would be appropriate for a second op-ed, especially since The Stone had recently published a piece critical of Stoicism.

So I wrote to Simon Critchley, the managing editor of The Stone, pitching the idea. He liked it, and after the usual back and forth editorial bouts, the piece got published.

The response was surprising: the NYT editor wrote to me the day after publication, saying that my essay was the most emailed, and the 7th most read piece on the entire New York Times site, which is astounding. As a result, I was approached the same day by several major publishers asking me to “turn” the op-ed into a small book. As you might imagine, it doesn’t quite work like that, but my agent and I are now working on a proposal for such a book, loosely inspired by the NYT piece.

I’ve often wondering if part of the reason stoicism is less popular with academics is because it tends to be a toolkit designed for a world very different than the ivory tower. Do you find there is any truth in that? How has stoicism helped you in academia and as a professor?

Oh yes, very much so. As much as I love being an academic philosopher (which for me is a second career, after more than 20 years as a practicing biologist), there is a widespread skepticism, if not disdain, in our circles for anything that smells too much of practical utility — gods forbid that philosophy actually be useful to people outside the ivory tower!
Indeed, it is in part as a reaction against this attitude that recently I started an online magazine (scientiasalon.org) devoted to nudging professional academics to explain to the general public what they do and why it is important, or just cool.

But back to Stoicism: my interest in it, and my practice of it, have not so far either helped or hindered my academic career. They have largely been on the side of it. But things may be about to change: this coming Fall I will be teaching a course on ancient and modern (practical) Stoicism at City College, after which I will take a sabbatical to travel in Italy and Greece to deepen my understanding of that philosophy. We’ll see…
Tell us about your stoic meditation practice. It sounds like you have a very interesting 21st century adaptation of it.

Oh, I doubt it’s original. It is my personalized version of what is recommended by the folks at Stoic Week, or by authors like Donald Robertson (in Stoicism and the Art of Happiness).

Basically, I begin with a morning meditation which includes a few components (depending on how much time I have before going to work): certainly a contemplation of the challenges that I expect to face during the day, during which I remind myself of which of the four cardinal virtues (courage, self control, equanimity and wisdom) I might be called to exercise.

I then visualize Hierocles’ Circle, an exercise in which you begin with yourself, then gradually expand your circle of concern to your family, your friends, your fellow citizens, and the world at large.

Next, I do a premeditatio malorum, a visualization of some bad thing that might happen that day. This can be as simple as getting irritated on the subway by inconsiderate fellow riders to my own death (I suggest people don’t start with the latter, and don’t do it often, as it can be disturbing). The point is to get acquainted with those “dispreferred indifferents,” as the Stoics called them (indifferent to one’s virtue and moral character), so that one is better prepared if and when they actually happen (this is similar to techniques used in cognitive behavioral therapy to deal with one’s fear, techniques that were, in fact, directly inspired by Stoicism).

Finally, I pick one Stoic saying that I particular like (I have an ever growing spreadsheet of them, available for public use) and read it over a few times.
I also engage in an evening meditation, just before going to bed. This takes the form of a Marcus-style philosophical diary (not for publication!), during which I revisit the events of the day, asking myself the three famous questions posed by Epictetus: What did I do wrong? What did I do (right)? What duty’s left undone?

What is your favorite quote or line? Perhaps one you think of most often?
It’s hard to have a single favorite, but this one, in my mind, both captures one of the essential points of Stoicism (the distinction between things we have control over and things we cannot control and therefore should not worry about), as well as the Stoics’ sense of humor:

“I have to die. If it is now, well then I die now; if later, then now I will take my lunch, since the hour for lunch has arrived – and dying I will tend to later.” (Epictetus, Discourses I, 1, 32)

What’s next for you?

As I mentioned earlier, a small book on “how to be a Stoic,” followed by a larger project to be carried out during my sabbatical. The first book will be about Stoicism as a modern practical philosophy, updated to the 21st century. In the second project, which at the moment is a bit more fuzzy, I’d like to write about the times and lives of four of the “Roman” Stoics: Cato the Younger, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. This will not be primarily either a historical or a biographical project (though both history and biography will figure into it), but a philosophical one, in which I will try to see what moderns can learn from the writings and actions (and, as the case may be, failures) of these four famous Stoics. Should be fun, fate permitting!

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I hope you’ve enjoyed this interview on stoicism with Professor Pigliucci and if the topic interests you at all–and I promise it can change your life–I strongly suggest you pick up one of the original texts such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations or Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life. Here are two quick introductions I’ve done on stoicism, as well as a TEDx talk, and of course, reddit.com/r/stoicism is also a great resource. You can also check out the Professor’s new site, HowToBeStoic.org