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 ( 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!


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, is also a great resource. You can also check out the Professor’s new site,

With Trust Me I’m Lying, I accidentally stumbled upon a marketing technique that not only helped the book but in some ways charted a new course for my career. Early on in the book’s launch, I made the following offer: I would speak to or at any school that assigned my book to its students. My thinking was that I was only a few years older than most students, reaching them early would be good for the book’s lifespan and it would help with the prestige of the book.

Slowly but surely professors started taking me up on the offer. Sometimes professors would email me just to say they liked the book or a student would tell me they selected it for a report, and I’d actually ask if they’d let me speak. The answer was yes most of the time. In the nearly three years the book has been out, I’ve spoken everywhere from New School to UVA to NYU to the University of Toronto. Sometimes its in person, most of the time its over Skype. The book is now on the curriculum at tons of different schools from Reyerson to USC. Some of the courses I’ve done several times now. Which is really nice because each new semester the course’s students order the book, genuinely read and interact with the material and then we talk. This is what you write a book for: to reach people and to spread ideas.

I ended up doing the same thing with my other books. Part of the reason we gave away copies of Growth Hacker Marketing to students was so we could reach them early. It turns out, a bunch of professors took advantage of the offer on behalf of their students. Now the book is taught as an introduction to a new way of marketing for prospective media, PR and business students. These are the kinds of things that keep a book in print for a long time. Accordingly to the sales departments at my publisher the efforts have paid off with better conversion rates from marketing efforts to universities.

I’m point this out because it’s the type of book marketing that most authors (and companies) miss out on for a couple reasons. The first reason is that it’s slow. The process of being picked up by these professors was driven by word of mouth and natural adoption. It takes time and school is only in session part of the year. The second is that its a result that is difficult to track. There are undeniable benefits from being required reading for students, both monetarily and prestige. But it is difficult to quantify directly. This turns a lot of data driven marketers off–but just because something is somewhat opaque doesn’t mean it isn’t important. The third, is that this took real man hours and unscalable effort on my part. People want marketing to be easy. It isn’t. Finally, this all happens mostly off the radar. Selling 50-100 books from a blog post or a media article is actually relatively rare, but getting written about is an ego hit. Getting picked up by schools is something that–until I wrote this piece–was a success only I knew about. Sadly, that’s not enough for a lot of people so they chase attention instead of results. They want validation more than they want their book to be successful.

Anyway, the real benefits have been incalculable. It’s made me a better keynote speaker and better in front of an audience (which is where the real money is as an author). These talks I gave to students were some of the first I ever did and now I speak all over the world. It’s added cache to my resume to be able to say I’ve lectured at Yale and NYU and I think increases my fee. It’s introduced a generation of readers–aspiring journalists, marketers and entrepreneurs–to my work in a immersive way. And it’s sold a significant number of books. It doesn’t get much better than that.

I hope this strategy helps and thanks for letting me share. Also, if you’re a professor or a student, feel free to shoot me a note or look at my speaking stuff. We’ll set something up.

Every year, I try to narrow down the hundred plus books I have recommended or read down to just the three or four best. I know that people are busy, and most of you don’t have time to read as much as you’d like. There’s absolutely no shame in that–what matters is that you make the time you can and that you pick the right books when you do. In 2014, I personally read a lot. Most of the books weren’t new releases and strangely compared to 2013, fewer books towered above the others. That made selecting this list a little harder but that didn’t mean there weren’t some potential life-changing standouts. There were plenty.

Before I get into those books, I wanted to share something I’m incredibly proud of this year: I was able to collaborate on a print with one of my artistic heroes, Joey Roth (I’ve written about him a lot). The very limited print is available here and is based on the stoic ideas in my book The Obstacle Is The Way. Here’s a post I wrote with some more background. Can’t wait for you to see it.

Now, to the books!

The Theory of Moral Sentiments by Adam Smith
I was heartily recommend this book by Dr. Drew and since the last book he recommended changed my life as a young man, I did not hesitate to get it. Now this is a tough book, a really tough book, but it is amazing. People think of Adam Smith as being this ruthless economist who studied self-interest but this forgotten book reveals that he was in fact, a great moral and practical philosopher. It is clear to me that Smith was profoundly influenced by the Stoics and by the great classic thinkers of history. Intimidated? Well, good news! It turns out Penguin published a new book this year called How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life by Russ Roberts and it happens to be an eminently accessible access point into Theory of Moral Sentiments. (In fact, I liked both so much, I am buying copies to send as a package to a handful of close friends) I hope you pick up either book and I hope its deep thoughts on the pursuit of fame, of money, and of course, his concept of the “indifferent spectator” to guide your actions, make you think as much as they did for me.

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Wow, did you know that Moby Dick was based on a true story? There was a real whaling ship that was broken in half by an angry sperm whale. But it gets even more insane. The members of the crew escaped in three lifeboats, traveling thousands of miles at sea with little food and water until they slowly resorted to cannibalism(!) Besides being an utterly unbelievable story, this book also gives a great history into the whaling industry and the cowboys/entrepreneurs who led it. Definitely recommend and I promise my spoilers did not ruin anything. Another great narrative nonfiction out this year that I hope you’ll like is: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Life and Love from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed and Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
It was wonderful to read these two provocative books of essays by two incredibly wise and compassionate women. Cheryl Strayed, also the author of Wild, was the anonymous columnist behind the online column, Dear Sugar and boy, are we better off for it. This is not a random smattering of advice. This book contains some of the most cogent insights on life, pain, loss, love, success, youth that I have ever seen. I won’t belabor the point: read this book. Thank me later. Anne Lamott’s book is ostensibly about the art of writing, but really it too is about life and how to tackle the problems, temptations and opportunities life throws at us. Both will make you think and both made me a better person this year.

Some Others:
Of course, I cannot stop at three (or four). I read both of Sam Sheridan’s books A Fighter’s Heart and A Fighter’s Mind this year and they are both spectacular. Don’t be put off by the subject matter. They are good. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was something I reread and cannot recommend highly enough. In terms of big biographies, Ron Chernow’s biography of Washington, Eric Romm’s biography of Seneca Dying Every Day (LOVED THIS) and Edmund Morris’ final biography of Theodore Roosevelt, Col. Roosevelt were all worth every page. If you want a full list of what I learned reading in 2014, well, I put that together too.

So, thank you again for subscribing to this newsletters. It’s been an immense pleasure chatting with you, all 35,000 of you, this year. I hope you had a great 2014 and an even better year of reading in 2015.

My 2014 Writing Roundup

December 29, 2014 — 1 Comment

With the end of the year upon us, I thought I would do a round up of everything I’ve written and published (other than here) since my last round up in August. If you missed any of these, definitely follow me on Twitter, where I post each article when it goes live. Hope you enjoy these articles and feel free to share them.

More to come in 2015!


The New Media Dilemma: Eschewing Crap for Quality, Despite the Incentives (August 11, 2014)

Thought Catalog: Why I Won’t Pull My Pieces, Despite the Outrage (August 22, 2014)

Spare Us The Sanctimony: The Gross Hypocrisy of Online Media in the Nude Photo Leak (September 2, 2014)

Apple’s Free Ride: Why Journalists Treat Product Launches Like News (September 9, 2014)

Facebook Is Getting Rid of Clickbait — But Not Because They Care About You (September 15, 2014)

Who Can You Trust? A Guide To Your Online Media Diet (September 23, 2014)

The Giant Online Ad Scam: Infinite Inventory and Prices That Should Be a Red Flag (October 7, 2014)

Rage Profiteers: How Bloggers Harness Our Anger For Their Own Gain (October 21, 2014)

From Zero to 35,000: How I Built A Big Email List Exclusively About Books I Liked (November 25, 2014)

I Was Summoned by #GamerGate; Here’s What I Saw (December 3, 2014)

You Are So Terrible: A Letter About the Cosby Coverage (December 9, 2014)

No Gray Area: It’s Definitely Not OK to Publish Emails From the Sony Hack (December 12, 2014).

If You Think the Sony Hacks Were a PR Stunt, You’re an Idiot (December 26, 2014)


3 Stages To Actually Knowing What You’re Talking About: Where Are You On The Path? (August 7, 2014)

5 Criminally Underrated Things About LA (August 15, 2014)

No Matter What You Want To Change, It Won’t Be As Terrifying As The First Step You Take Toward Making It (August 21, 2014)

You’ve Been Voluntold. (August 27, 2014)

So You’ve Just Dropped Out Of College (Or Made A Life-Changing Decision) (September 2, 2014).

What Is “Work Aversion,” And Do You Have It? (September 16, 2014)

Alive Time Vs. Dead Time: Which Are You In? (September 22, 2014)

Why Do You Do What You Do? Because You Better Know. (October 2, 2014)

The 16 Best Books About Marketing, Period. (October 13, 2014)

Passion Is The Problem, Not The Solution (October 26, 2014)

13 Quotes On Being Magnanimous From Aristotle (November 3, 2014)

2 Simple Rules That Great Readers Live By (But Never Tell) (November 12, 2014)

Two Questions Every Writer Needs To Ask Themselves (November 20, 2014)

Things I Learned Reading In 2014 (November 30, 2014)

How To See Opportunity Where Others See A Roadblock (December 7, 2014)

The Difference Between Just Saying Something And Having Something Worth Saying (December 11, 2014)

3 Books You Absolutely Must Read Next Year (December 17, 2014)

Every Phone Call Can Be A Walk in The Park (December 23, 2014)


Disrupting How Bestsellers Are Made: Apply Startup-style Growth Hacking To Publishing (October 14, 2014)

Abraham Lincoln as Media Manipulator-in-Chief: The 150 Year History of Corrupt Press (November 5, 2014)

5 Reasons Nobody Likes Tech PR (November 19, 2014)

Ryan Holiday Picks the Best Books of 2014 (December 18, 2014)


Capturing Repeat Customers Is the Magic of Growth Hacking (November 12, 2014)


Productivity Advice I Learned From People Much Smarter Than Me (November 21, 2014)


This Is Why You Don’t Have a Mentor


Three Ways To Refocus Your World (December 12, 2014)


Stoicism Is For Life, Not a Week (November 22, 2014)


Growth Hacker Marketing (Annotated Excerpt)


The Single Worst Marketing Mistake You Can Make (October 29, 2014)


How To Build A Self-Perpetuating Marketing Machine That Reaches Millions By Itself (December 13, 2014)

Here we are at the end of the year once again. It’s ironic to me that sandwiched at the completion of one year and the beginning of another, we have two vastly different rituals.

On the one hand, we have Christmas, which has for too many of us, become so materialistic and gluttonous. We expect gifts and good food and overindulge in both. On the other hand, we have the “New Year, New You” mentality which promotes ambitious new resolutions in which we commit to utterly change ourselves in the upcoming twelve months (or until we abandon these inconvenient goals).

It all seems to be all so misguided. In a way, one creates the problems that the other attempts to solve.

The Stoics provide good advice here, as always. These two thousand year old, pre-Christian philosophers offer us a clearer way to live–without the ups and downs and extra helpings of self-loathing.

Let’s look at three quick insights for the holiday season:

First, practice your “contemptuous expressions.” I know contempt seems like a weird emotion to bring to Christmas but stay with me. As you look out over the bountiful offering of Christmas–the presents, the food, the lights–remind yourself what this stuff really is: a bunch of stuff. As Marcus Aurelius once wrote, sounding like he was almost describing a Christmas dinner:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time.”

What’s important are the people and the thoughts. Don’t let yourself get distracted from them.

Second, live in the present moment. That is, don’t obsess over what has happened in the past or lose yourself in visions of the future. Focus on what is right here, right in front of you. Make the most of it, and enjoy yourself. This moment could be all you have after all–it’s so much better to think that 2015 is not a guarantee and then to be grateful for all of it, then to have expectations and entitlements that go unfulfilled.

As Marcus Aurelius reminded himself:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand.”

What matters right now is right now. Enjoy it.

Third, if you are going to try to improve in the next year or you do have some regrets about the previous year, don’t just hope that this will happen. That’s not how it works. As Seneca wrote to a friend who’d asked for advice, you need to pick a person or a model to hold yourself against.

“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight. ”

So, who will it be for you this year?


Stoicism is not something you “believe”, it’s something you do. It’s a practical philosophy. The more you work it, the more it will do for you. So why not start now? There isn’t a better time.

As a final parting thought, remember that we choose whether this was a good year or a bad year. We choose whether everything is good or bad. As Seneca said, “a good person dyes events with his own color…and turns whatever happens to his own benefit.”

This is the attitude for success and optimism in all situations. By controlling our perceptions, we create a reality in which every situation, no matter what it is, provides us with a positive, exposed benefit we can act on, if only we look for it.

With this in mind, I hope you enjoy the holidays and consider the Stoics when you can.