When you think philosophy, you don’t usually think successful business titans, but maybe you should.
Around 304 BC, a wealthy and successful merchant named Zeno was shipwrecked on a trading voyage. He lost nearly everything. Making his way to Athens, he was introduced to philosophy by Crates of Thebes, a famous Cynic, which changed his life. Within a few years, Stoic philosophy would be born. As Zeno later joked, “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered shipwreck.”
There was another famous Stoic named Seneca, a man so wealthy that when he called in some of his loans to the Roman colony in Britain, it crashed their economy and sparked off a rebellion. Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s number two at Berkshire Hathaway, is a Seneca fan and quotes him often. The investor Nassim Taleb loves the Stoics, too, and oil and gas billionaire Thomas Kaplan funds a course on Stoicism at Brown University.
If you are a student of the men and women who have conquered the heights of business, you will inevitably find that they have incorporated — knowingly or not — many of the life principles and standards of behavior espoused by Stoicism, a philosophy designed for solving life’s problems and leading a good life.
As investor and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss has put it, Stoic philosophy is “a simple and immensely practical set of rules for better results with less effort.”
Which is why you should add their type of thinking to your repertoire. Below are seven exercises in Stoic thinking taken from my site The Daily Stoic (and the DailyStoic.com’s daily email) that will help you reach the heights of success — both in business and, more importantly, in your personal life.
1. IF YOU WANT TO LEARN AND SUCCEED, BE HUMBLE.
“Throw out your conceited opinions, for it is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.” — Epictetus, “Discourses,” 2.17.1
Of all the Stoics, Epictetus is the closest one to a true teacher. He had a school. He hosted classes. In fact, his wisdom is passed down to us through a student who took really good lecture notes. One of the things that frustrated Epictetus about philosophy students — and has frustrated all college professors throughout history — is how students claim to want to be taught but really secretly believe they already know everything. You see this regularly in today’s upcoming entrepreneurs — arrogance combined with a lack of humility until the inevitable crash.
The reality is that we’re all guilty of thinking we know it all, and we’d all learn more if we could set that attitude aside. As smart or successful as we may be, there is always someone who is smarter, more successful, and wiser than we are.
The 19th century writer Ralph Waldo Emerson put it well: “Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.” We regularly see this type of thinking in some of the most successful business leaders. They are humble and actively solicit feedback and learn from anybody they meet. Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, put it more simply, “You can learn from everybody.”
You also see it in Microsoft cofounder and philanthropist Bill Gates, a voracious reader who tries to understand the world a bit better every day, one book at a time. Perpetually exposing oneself to new knowledge and ideas is a humbling reminder of how little you know, even if you are one of the most successful business moguls in history.
2. FIND THE RIGHT SCENE.
“Above all, keep a close watch on this — that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined. … You must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends … if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.” — Epictetus, “Discourses,” 4.2.1; 4–5
The late motivational speaker and author Jim Rohn‘s widely quoted line is: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” Rohn advised young writers and entrepreneurs to find their “scene” — a group of peers who push them to be better.
This may remind you of your parents warning you when you were caught spending time with some bad kids: “Remember, you become like your friends.” One of the philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s maxims captures it better: “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.”
And if these examples are not enough, here is a quote from Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett, arguably the most successful investor of all time: “It’s better to hang out with people better than you. Pick out associates whose behavior is better than yours and you’ll drift in that direction.”
Or here is one of the most tenacious and strategic CEOs today, Amazon’s founder Jeff Bezos: “Life’s too short to hang out with people who aren’t resourceful.”
Consciously consider whom you allow into your life — not like some snobby elitist but like someone who is trying to cultivate the best life possible. Ask yourself about the people you meet and spend time with: Are they making me better? Do they encourage me to push forward and do they hold me accountable? Or do they drag me down to their level?
Now, with this in mind, ask the most important question: Should I spend more or less time with these folks? Remind yourself of one of investor and author Nassim Taleb’s rules in life: “Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network.”
3. RUTHLESSLY PROTECT YOUR TIME.
“Were all the geniuses of history to focus on this single theme, they could never fully express their bafflement at the darkness of the human mind. No person would give up even an inch of their estate, and the slightest dispute with a neighbor can mean hell to pay; yet we easily let others encroach on our lives — worse, we often pave the way for those who will take it over. No person hands out their money to passersby, but to how many do each of us hand out our lives! We’re tightfisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.” — Seneca, “On the Brevity of Life,” 3.1–2
Today there are endless interruptions in our days: phone calls, emails, visitors, unexpected events.
American civil right leader Booker T. Washington observed that “the number of people who stand ready to consume one’s time, to no purpose, is almost countless.” It is no surprise that a lot of us can’t get any work done.
A philosopher and a business leader, on the other hand, both know that their default state should be one of reflection and inner awareness. This is why they so diligently protect their personal space and thoughts from the intrusions of the world. They know that a few minutes of contemplation are worth more than any meeting or report. They also know how little time we’re actually given in life — and how quickly our stores can be depleted.
Buffett intuitively understands this: “The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” Because when you say no, you’re protecting your time and your energy to focus on the big and important items in your life.
Seneca reminds us that while we might be good at protecting our physical property, we are far too lax at enforcing our mental boundaries. Property can be regained — there is quite a bit of it out there and some of it still untouched by man. But time? Time is our most irreplaceable asset, and we cannot buy more of it. We can only strive to waste as little as possible.
Today, when other people and events try to steal time from you and your work, remind yourself of what the founder of IKEA, Ingvar Kamprad, has observed: “You can do so much in 10 minutes’ time. Ten minutes, once gone, are gone for good. Divide your life into 10-minute units and sacrifice as few of them as possible in meaningless activity.”
4. 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 is, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done things.” This response 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 red by any thinking boss.
Do you think this is the attitude that a hyper successful serial entrepreneur like Elon Musk has? Of course not! As he said, “I think that’s the single best piece of advice: Constantly think about how you could be doing things better and questioning yourself.”
We should apply the same ruthlessness to our own working habits. In fact, we should study philosophy precisely to break ourselves of rote behavior. Find what you do out of memory or routine and ask yourself: Is this really the best way to do it? Know why you do what you do — do it for the right reasons.
5. KEEP IT SIMPLE — DO YOUR JOB.
“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 simplify and 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.”
We don’t need to get lost in a thousand other distractions or in other people’s business. This understanding of human folly has led Buffett to observe that, “There seems to be some perverse human characteristic that likes to make easy things difficult.”
Marcus Aurelius said 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 your job today.
6. CONSTANTLY ADAPT AND LEARN FROM FAILURE.
“If you are defeated once and tell yourself you will overcome, but carry on as before, know in the end you’ll be so ill and weakened that eventually you won’t even notice your mistake and will begin to rationalize your behavior.” — Epictetus, “Discourses,” 2.18.31
It’s been said that the definition of insanity is trying the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result. Yet that’s exactly what most people do. They tell themselves that today they won’t get angry, or overeat, etc — but then don’t actually do anything differently.
They try the same routine and hope it will work this time. Of course, it doesn’t. As Warren Buffett rightly said, “You know … you keep doing the same things and you keep getting the same result over and over again.”
Failure is a part of life we have little choice over. Learning from failure, on the other hand, is optional. We have to choose to learn. We must consciously opt to do things differently — to tweak and change until we actually get the result we’re after. But that’s hard.
The billionaire investor George Soros says that “Once we realize that imperfect understanding is the human condition, there is no shame in being wrong, only in failing to correct our mistakes.” And to bring back Bill Gates again: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”
Sticking with the same unsuccessful pattern is easy. Using success to justify complacency is too. It doesn’t take any thought or any additional effort, which is probably why most people do it. But you can do more and be better.
7. LIVE BELOW YOUR MEANS.
“What’s left to be prized? This, I think — to limit our action or inaction to only what’s in keeping with the needs of our own preparation … it’s what the exertions of education and teaching are all about — here is the thing to be prized! If you hold this only, you’ll stop trying to get yourself all the other things. … If you don’t, you won’t be free, self-sufficient, or liberated from passion, but necessarily full of envy, jealousy, and suspicion for any who have the power to take them, and you’ll plot against those who do have what you prize. … But by having some self-respect for your own mind and prizing it, you will please yourself and be in better harmony with your fellow human beings, and more in tune with the gods — praising everything they have set in order and allotted you.” — Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations,” 6.16.2b–4a
Warren Buffett, whose net worth is approximately $65 billion, lives in the same house he bought in 1958 for $31,500. John Urschel, a lineman for the Baltimore Ravens, makes millions but manages to live on $25,000 a year. San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard gets around in the 1997 Chevy Tahoe he’s had since he was a teenager, even with a contract worth some $94 million. Why? It’s not because these men are cheap. It’s because the things that matter to them are cheap.
Buffett, Urschel, and Leonard didn’t end up this way by accident. Their lifestyle is the result of prioritizing. They cultivate interests that are decidedly below their financial means, and as a result, any income would allow them freedom to pursue the things they most care about. It just happens that they became wealthy beyond any expectation.
This kind of clarity around what they love most in the world means they can enjoy their lives. It means they’d still be happy even if the markets were to turn or their careers were cut short by injury.
Living below your means is a strategy understood by many business leaders. Jeff Bezos has purposefully built Amazon with a culture of frugality. Why? “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do,” he said. “One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.”
Billionaire investor Mark Cuban has also advocated for ruthlessly eliminating frivolous expenditure: “The more you stress over bills, the more difficult it is to focus on your goals. The cheaper you can live, the greater your options.”
Marcus Aurelius famously sold many of the palace furnishing to pay down his empire’s debt. He didn’t need luxuries, and they were weighing him and his people down.
The more things we desire and the more we have to do to earn or maintain those achievements, the less we actually enjoy our lives — and the less free we are.
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