All the data about taking cold showers is bullshit to me.
Sure, some research says that they can reduce anxiety, improve your immune system, increase metabolism to assist in weight loss, reduce the number of days you call out sick from work, and potentially even improve cancer survival.
But I don’t care about any of that.
The reason I interrupt my warm showers by cranking the knob to the side is far more simple, in fact it’s nearly tautological. I do it to do it.
It’s making a statement about who is in charge.
In one of his letters, Seneca describes himself as a “cold-water enthusiast.” He would “celebrate the new year by taking a plunge into the canal, who, just as naturally as I would set out to do some reading or writing, or to compose a speech, used to inaugurate the first of the year with a plunge into the Virgo aqueduct [present day Trevi Fountain].” But then he gives the real reason: “The body should be treated more rigorously that it may not be disobedient to the mind.”
I think about that every morning just before I crank the knob. Who is in charge? The courageous side of me or the cowardly side? The side that doesn’t flinch at discomfort or the side that desires to always be comfortable? The side that does the hard thing or the side that takes the easy way?
In a Sports Illustrated story by Greg Bishop about the Los Angeles Rams’ difficult path to becoming Super Bowl champions, we learn that Rams General Manager Les Snead is a cold-water enthusiast. “As Les Snead watched his grand football experiment unfold over the course of the 2021 season,” Bishop writes, “he decided that, starting on Jan. 1, he would borrow from the Roman philosopher Seneca and plunge into the Pacific Ocean. And he did that, every morning, every week, all the way until Super Bowl Sunday.”
It wasn’t so he could improve his immune system to make it through the long season. It wasn’t to increase his metabolism. It wasn’t to reduce anxiety. Those things might have been nice ancillary benefits but they were not the point. The purpose was to become the kind of person that could do it—that could crank the handle or dive into the surf even though that’s almost certainly not going to be pleasant.
Because that guy is also the guy who can trade a quarterback he just signed to an enormous contract. That guy is also the guy who can say ‘Fuck those draft picks’ even though everybody else in the NFL thinks that insane.
As I write about in Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors The Brave, we can’t just hope to be brave when it counts. Courage has to be cultivated. No athlete just hopes to hit the game-winning shot—they practice it thousands of times. They take that shot in scrimmages, in pickup games, alone in the gym as they count down the clock in their head.
You know there’s that cliché: Do one thing each day that scares you.
It’s hokey but it’s actually not bad advice! How do you expect to do the big things that scare you—that scare others—if you haven’t practiced them? Why do you think you can endure the cold reception of a bold idea if you can’t even endure cold water? How can you trust that you’ll step forward when the stakes are high when you regularly don’t do that when the stakes are low? What gives you any confidence you’ll do the hard thing when people are watching if you can’t do that even when no one is watching?
The person who does something scary every day is less fearful than someone who can’t. The person who does something difficult every day is tougher than someone who doesn’t. And life? Well life is scary and it is tough. There is nothing worth doing that isn’t. You need those traits…unless you plan to cower and hide or get really lucky.
We treat the body rigorously to remind it who is in charge. We push ourselves in little ways so the big ways stop seeming quite so big, quite so out of character. We minimize fear by making the act of overcoming it routine. We test ourselves to prepare for the tests of life.
Courage, self-control—all of the virtues are habits. They are superlatives paid for over the course of a life of virtuous decisions. They are not something you declare, like bankruptcy, they are something you earn, that become part of you. Just as a writer becomes one by writing—we build them by doing. By doing things like them.
We can crank the knob in the shower to cold. We go for the run even though we’re tired. We pick up the phone and start the conversation we’ve been dreading. We agree to try what we have never tried before.
We do something difficult, something scary, something good every day.
We do it to do it.
We do it because we’re in charge.
We do it so we can do it when it counts.
P.S. Also I’m excited to announce we’re re-opening Stoicism 101: Ancient Philosophy For Your Actual Life. It’s a 14-day course designed to show people how to integrate philosophy into their everyday lives. Along with the 14 custom emails delivered daily (~20,000 words of exclusive content), there are 3 live video sessions—what we call office hours—with me where I’ll be taking all your questions about Stoicism. It’s one of my favorite things to get the chance to interact with everyone in the course—I would love to have you join us. You can learn more here! But it closes March 21 at Midnight so don’t wait.