One of my favorite quotes is from Robert Louis Stevenson: To know what you like is the beginning of wisdom. He also says it’s the beginning of being old, but I ignore that part.
The point is I make a point to find out what I like and stick to it. While I am generally pretty minimalist—the Stoics were not big on extraneous possessions—I do have a handful of things that are of great utility (or meaning) to me and I carry them with me. And that’s the purpose of today’s piece: to show you what is in what you might call my “everyday carry.”
Some of these things are cheap. Some of them are not. Some of them are replaceable, others are not. To Seneca, the key was to be able to live—and act—as if all one’s possessions were equal, to live without worry of losing. I can’t say that I’m there yet, but I try to be.
I also try to know what is best so I don’t waste time and energy with flawed design or products that make my life worse.
Apple Watch — Our lives are tick… tick… ticking away. I like having the reminder on my wrist. At the same time, I don’t use it for any form of alerts or messaging. Honestly for me, it’s just an expensive pedometer/run tracker. It has actually helped me swim better because I don’t have to count laps. I post my swims/runs on Instagram and people ask what kind of watch it is all the time. Literally the most popular watch in the world!
Wedding ring — I have to be honest, I don’t wear my wedding ring everyday. Not because I don’t love my wife, but because I am afraid of losing it in the pool and also it gets too hot in Texas (and your hands swell). But I do carry my marriage with me everywhere. I cannot recommend getting married highly enough. I have a whole chapter on the importance of finding a partner in Stillness is the Key for a reason.
Signet ring — You’ll notice in most of my author photos that I am wearing a black agate signet ring. This was my grandfather’s ring, and he left it to me when he died. Wearing it makes me feel connected to him. When I’m not wearing it, I wear a Memento Mori signet ring (which has Marcus Aurelius’ famous quote on the inside: You could leave life right now… let that determine what you do and say and think). People have been wearing signet rings for thousands of years, I love the symbolism of it, and here’s a piece we put together on the history of them.
Power Wash Tee (or vintage tee) — Being able to wear and dress as I please is important to me—at least the freedom of it is. So I am in a T-shirt most days. I basically live in the American Apparel Power Wash Tee, which is the standard American Apparel T-shirt but treated so it mimics a shirt that has been washed roughly 50 times. Unfortunately, the company is basically a ghost ship these days, so the shirts are harder to find than they used to be. If I’m not wearing one, I usually wear vintage concert t-shirts, either that I bought myself or I found on Etsy (if you care about the environment, wearing vintage clothes is actually a basic thing you can do to reduce your footprint).
Memento Mori challenge coin — In my left pocket, I carry a coin that says Memento Mori, which is Latin for ”remember you will die.” On the back, it has one of my favorite quotes from Marcus Aurelius: “You could leave life right now.” I firmly believe the thought of our mortality should shadow everything that we do, not in a way that is depressing, but liberating. It should let you cut out bullshit, it should let you decide how you’re going to treat other people and let yourself be treated, and it should determine the quality of the work that you’re going to do.
Amor Fati coin — In my right pocket, I carry another coin that says Amor Fati on the front, and the line Friedrich Nietzsche called his formula for greatness on the back: “Not merely bear what is necessary… but love it.” The reason? To constantly remind myself that nothing bad can really happen—there is only fuel. That everything I face can be of some purpose. The line from Marcus Aurelius was that a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it. The artist that turns pain and frustration and even humiliation into beauty. The entrepreneur that turns a sticking point into a money maker. The person who takes their own experiences and turns them into wisdom that can be learned from and passed on to others. The Stoics talk about it over and over: we don’t get to choose so much of what happens to us in life, but we can always choose how we feel about it, whether we’re going to work with it or not. Why on earth would you choose to feel anything but good? Why would you choose not to work with it? What would that accomplish? Those are the questions I have to remind myself of.
A book — You should always have a book with you. Always. People often assume something about me: that I’m a speed reader. It’s the most common email I get. They see all the books I recommend every month in my reading newsletter and assume I must have some secret. They want to know my trick for reading so fast. The truth is, even though I read hundreds of books each year, I actually read quite slow. In fact, I read deliberately slow (more on this below). But what I also do is read all the time. I am always carrying a book with me. Every time I get a second, I crack it open. I don’t install games on my phone—that’s time for reading. When I’m eating, on a plane, in a waiting room, or sitting in traffic in an Uber—I read. There’s no trick, no secret, no shortcut. I like B.H. Liddell Hart’s old line that sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home. If you put the time in, you get the results. If you are serious about wanting to commit to being a better reader, I think you’ll like the reading challenge I put together.
Journals — I only have to carry these with me when I travel (the rest of the time they stay at home) but when I do, I lug them everywhere. In the first one—a small blue gold-leafed notebook—I write one sentence about the day that just passed. Then in a black Moleskine, I quickly journal yesterday’s workout (how far I ran or swam), what work I did, any notable occurrences, and some lines about what I am grateful for, what I want to get better at, and where I am succeeding. Last is The Daily Stoic Journal where I prepare for the day ahead by meditating on a short prompt; the key is setting an intention or a goal for the day that I can review at the end of the day. I got asked a lot on podcasts and at events and appearances for Stillness Is The Key about the best way to develop stillness in your life. Journaling is usually at the top of that list, and so I put together this comprehensive guide to journaling.
Pen (stolen from the last hotel I stayed in) — I always carry a pen with me to mark up the book I am carrying. As I said above, I’m a slow reader. I take notes, I ask questions, I mark anything that sticks out at me as I read—passages, words, anecdotes, stories, info. It’s what the best readers do, period. It’s called “marginalia.” Then I fold the bottom corners of the pages of the particular passages I want to come back to and when I finish a book, I go back through and transcribe them onto notecards for my commonplace book.
AirPods — I balked at the price too, but turns out they were worth every penny. Not just because I never get frustrated with tangled wires, but because it helps me leave my phone in my pocket. The more that it’s in my pocket, the more alive, present, and in control I am. Cal Newport calls it “digital minimalism”—the idea that we need to be in control of these technologies rather than be controlled by them. Because as my watch and Memento Mori coin are reminding me, this is my life and it’s ticking away every second. I want to be there for it, not staring at a screen.
iPhone — The phone is probably the antithesis of philosophy but unfortunately a part of modern life (and work). I use it only for music, podcasts, calls, and emails. No alerts. No social media. No news. No watching TV or movies. It stays in the pocket most of the time (thanks to the AirPods). For tips on using your phone less, try this piece I did a few months ago.
There’s a beautiful story about a Buddhist teacher named Ajahn Chah. He lifts a crystal goblet from his side table and holds it up to the sun. “Do you see this glass?” he says to his students. “I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. Yet for me, this glass is already broken. When the wind knocks it over or my elbow knocks it off the shelf and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When you understand that this glass is already broken,” Chah says, “every minute with it is precious.”
That’s what I try to remind myself with all of these things, especially the ones that really mean something to me: that the cup is already broken. The ring is already lost. The screen on the phone is already cracked. My dog-eared copy of Meditations just fell apart. Ownership—much like existence—is transitory. So while I prize these possessions, they are also a great reminder of how ephemeral all of this is. The Stoics talk a lot about detachment, loosening the hold that possessions have on us, embracing the truth of uncertainty, having the ability to enjoy whatever is in front of you, whether that’s a brand new Tesla or a beat-up Taurus. “He is a great man who uses earthenware dishes as if they were silver,” Seneca wrote, “but he is equally great who uses silver as if it were earthenware.”
That’s the idea. You don’t have to abstain from having nice things. If you can afford it, or if it was given to you, what’s the point? What you do have to reject is the idea that they say anything about you as a person. You have to reject the idea that these things are somehow special because they are valuable or because other people desire them. The Stoics would urge us to remember that things don’t make the man.