All Is Fluid – The Daily Stoic – Part 12 of 366

The universe is change. Life is opinion.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.3.4b

When our hair grows long we cut it. If our nails grow long we cut them. When our cells die they are replaced by new ones. The skin on your body is entirely different than the skin you had 27 days ago.

Are you still the same person? Or are you a new one? Strictly speaking the matter that makes up who you are is entirely new. And yet I think most would all agree we are still the same person; these molecular changes do not change who we are.

But what about your thoughts and memories? Those are constantly changing. What about your job? That is likely to change several times throughout your life. Where you live? Where you live now is probably different than where you grew up or went to college. How much do these things define who you, your family, and your friends are? How much do these things inform how you think and act?

The book notes that, “Our understanding of what something is is just a snapshot — an ephemeral opinion.” This is exactly right. How you view something today is based on so many different variables it is impossible to list them all. How you think about something tomorrow could be drastically different than how you thought about it today if something changes.

And it will. It always will. Change is the only constant.

It follows then that the more fluid and malleable you are in your thoughts, actions, and opinions, the smoother your journey through life will be. Being rigid should never be a point of pride as it shows a refusal to acknowledge the weight of the universe, and that is a losing battle.

Actors In A Play – The Daily Stoic – Part 11 of 366

Remember that you are an actor in a play, playing a character according to the will of the playwright — if a short play, then it’s short; if long, long. If he wishes you to play the beggar, play even that role well, just as you would if it were a cripple, a honcho, or an everyday person. For this is your duty, to perform well the character assigned you. That selection belongs to another.”

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 17

Play the hand you are dealt, and play it well. It is the only hand you get. This is the lesson the Epictetus is trying to impart. The book goes on to mention that accepting and fulfilling our part is not at odds with ambition which is not obvious at first glance. After all, if we are assigned a part then why try rising above our station? If we must play the beggar then how are we not locked into such a poor life?

There are many stories where the mighty fall, and there are many stories where the less fortunate rise. You may be assigned a part when you enter the story, but the story itself is not yet written. The question really is this: what do you want your story to be? If someone tells your tale, what will they say?

In order to change your story you must first accept and understand the role you have been tasked to play. You cannot change where the story starts or where it has already been, but once you are in control then your story will go wherever you wish.

How To Be Powerful – The Daily Stoic – Part 10 of 366

Don’t trust in your reputation, money, or position, but in the strength that is yours — namely, your judgements about the things that you control and don’t control. For this alone is what makes us free and unfettered, that picks us up by the neck from the depths and lifts us eye to eye with the rich and powerful.

Epictetus, Discourses, 3.26.34-35

The book talks about a story in which a philosopher stands eye to eye with Alexander the Great, unwilling to move out of the way of him and his army. When asked what he has accomplished compared to Alexander, he replies, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.”

Reputation, money, position, fame, and so on can all be stripped away. They are things conferred unto us by other people and society. All humans desire these things to varying degrees. Unfortunately, they are not entirely within our realm of control.

This too is a hard lesson. Money truly seems very important, and when you don’t have enough life is indeed miserable. It is understandable why most people make such concessions to obtain it, even if they must do so at the expense of their individual freedoms. But I do think many (including myself) put perhaps too high a premium on it.

It doesn’t always feel like it, but you can always earn more money. It is worth making sure that you are not trading too much in return for it, both in terms of time, stress, and moral authority.

This is a timely and relevant passage. I don’t normally think of myself a kingdom builder, but I am more that than many I know. It has taken more deliberate action than I expected in passing the baton and handing over the keys to things I have spent five or more years building. Letting go is not easy for me. And yet I know that for the next cycle to begin I must learn to accept these things and cherish the chance to create an opportunities for others around me while I get out of the way.

Following The Doctor’s Orders – The Daily Stoic – Part 6 of 366

Just as we commonly hear people say the doctor prescribed someone particular riding exercises, or ice baths, or walking without shoes, we should in the same way say that nature prescribed someone to be diseased, or disabled, or to suffer any kind of impairment. In the case of the doctor, prescribed means something ordered to help aid someone’s healing. But in the case of nature, it means that what happens to each of us is ordered to help aid our destiny.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.8

Doctor’s orders. Somehow this simple phrase does carry enough weight to get people to accept unpleasant things. There is the promise that in following through with the unpleasant course of action we will find ourselves in a better place. And yet we often don’t apply this same thinking to fate or destiny.

Again, as in part 5, this one is harder for me to swallow. It implies that there is a destiny for each and every soul, and while I agree that each creature in this universe will follow a path to an eventual conclusion, that conclusion may not be one we readily desire and accept.

Many people are dealt an unfair and uncaring hand by the universe. Should you accept and welcome a destiny where you are permanently disabled and nearly die in a car crash in your 40s? That is what happened to my father. Although he survived, he lived another 20 years of declining health and ability, and he gradually watched as the world he was leaving to his kids seemingly became worse at every turn.

Perhaps the stoics would say that his destiny was in fact to have a family and be lucky enough to watch his kids grow up — a gift this universe did not grant my mother — and that this is enough. Framed in this light I can accept what Marcus says. I generally think being a good parent is by far the most important thing most humans will do with their lives.

It took me what feels like a long time, but I have come to appreciate my life experiences even though my younger years were extremely challenging and frequently consisted of loss and hardship. These experiences have indeed helped me become who I am today, and I know I would not be where I am without them. They have made me more grateful for what I have, and they have motivated me to stay on my purpose in a way that seems very uncommon amongst my peers.

I am still amazed at how insights into life from 1800 years ago are still incredibly poignant today.

Accepting What Is – The Daily Stoic – Part 5 of 366

Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will — then your life will flow well.

Epictetus, Enchiridion, 8

It is easy to praise providence for anything that may happen if you have two qualities: a complete view of what has actually happened in each instance and a sense of gratitude. Without gratitude what is the point of seeing, and without seeing what is the object of gratitude?

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.6.1-2

The book mentions that in Stoicism this is called the “art of acquiescence” — to accept rather than fight every little thing. Indeed, when considering an event we wished had not occurred it is only possible to change our opinion and perception of the event since what has occurred is already in in the past.

After a very long break from writing this seems a to be a poignant topic to return with. Few would argue that 2019 and 2020 were not years utter chaos and disappointment in so many ways. Political turmoil, frequent natural disasters, a war on science, and a global pandemic all seek to occupy the mind and destroy all sense of stability, control, and happiness.

And yet, as consuming as these things are, for most people these things are still largely on the periphery of life. The worry over these things has far more damaging effects than many of these things for most people. Although it is not easy in times of turmoil, there is a great deal of virtue and value to be had in accepting the things you cannot change.

Integrate your learnings from these events into the decisions you make going forward, and then move on. Do not linger; dwelling on the past does not change it. There is more life ahead of you to live.

Interestingly the book also discusses the mental hack of wishing for what has occurred. Wishing for fate to play its hand never results in disappointment, and may very well be a source of joy by avoiding frequent anguish over any and every negative thing that occurs.

I personally find this a bit of a stretch. Wishing fate to play its hand and accepting it are two different things. It is not an inherently bad thing to experience disappointment or regret over something that has happened. In fact, I would consider this a primary source of empathy and solidarity that is important in society. Regretting that someone has cancer and expressing your sadness and disappointment seems a more human response than telling them that it was fated to be. But perhaps the point here was more in dealing with acceptance of one’s own experiences specifically. If you get cancer then regret and frustration would be natural feelings, but they do not change what has or is about to happen. In such a scenario I can see the virtue in acquiescence to the situation and focusing all effort on the future.

High Performers Double Check Their Work

It seems simple and obvious. However, I seem to have this discussion with seemingly everyone, so I’m going to assume this is actually some secret sauce that I have uncovered: the quickest and easiest way to up your skill level is to double check your work.

I think math class burned the phrase “check your work” into our minds with some negative connotations. I also think people are just generally trying to move too fast, and attention to detail really suffers in an era of incessant multitasking. Doing something 80% or 90% of the way may be good enough, but good is the enemy of great. If you want to be a high performer and to have a sterling reputation then you need to set the quality bar high and keep it there. If you hand off work that is actually incomplete or wrong then you gum up the works, you look unprofessional, and you waste valuable time and money. Don’t make people double check your work for you unless that is what they are literally paid to do (i.e. editors, auditors, etc). Even then, your goal is to make their lives as easy as possible so they can work efficiently instead of cleaning up stuff you could have caught yourself.

One of the great things about this piece of wisdom is that it is universally applicable. Ordering, writing, cleaning, coding, building, planning, presenting, calculations. It doesn’t matter what you are doing, it will always be to your benefit to double check the quality before handing something off.

Should you re-read that email you wrote to make sure you don’t sound like an idiot? Yes, you should. Should you review your own pull request, or better yet, review your code before making a pull request? Yes, you should. Should you double check that everything in your Amazon order is correct before buying? Yes, you should.

Start building the habit, and eventually it will become second nature. It is amazing how many things you will catch and how many snafus you will avoid by simply taking a few extra minutes to look things over. And, if something is really important, then go over it three or four time for good measure. Call it quits there though. There are diminishing returns, and it will either be good enough or it needs peer review from someone else with fresh eyes.

Professor Scott Galloway’s Career Advice

Scott Galloway is a professor of marketing at NYU’s Stern School of Business. His company L2 creates some amazingly funny and insightful content, including this video on Scott’s “unsolicited career advice”:

There is a lot of wisdom into what Scott says, and I will incorporate some of these ideas into the core values section in the future. I have taken his advice on many fronts, and I shown this video to direct reports as an example of things to keep in mind.

In particular, developing skills that differentiate you, are key to the success of the business, and your colleagues do not seem to want to do them will make you insanely valuable. One of these for me was focusing on being good at software engineering, project management, and people management. Most engineers are completely uninterested in the latter two which provided plenty of opportunity to shine.

I have marked all of my favorites in bold below.

  • Get certified
    • College graduates had half the unemployment rate of those with a high school diploma during the 2008 recession
    • College graduates will, over the course of a lifetime, earn 2x as much as those with just a diploma
  • Be remarkable
    • Develop not just one area of expertise, but two skills that don’t always naturally go together
  • Invest in variance
    • Look at the six or eight things that are key to your firm’s success, and identify one or two that you can differentiate yourself by becoming an expert in
  • Move to a city
    • 2/3rds of economic growth will take place in cities
    • Being in a city forces you to work with the best so you improve
  • Boring is sexy
    • The sexiest of careers are hard to get into and may not make you wealthy
    • A lot of money is in things that aren’t sexy
  • Delay gratification
    • “The power of compound interest is the most powerful force in the Universe.” ~Einstein
    • This is true not just for money, but for your own efforts
    • Invest in areas of your life where the payoff is in the future, but your efforts aggregate over time
  • Demonstrate strength and grit
    • Fortune 500 CEOs exercise every day
  • Don’t follow your passion
    • Be passionate about being great at something
  • Ignore the myth of balance
    • You are only young once. Take advantage and work your ass off
  • Fight unfair
    • What are you willing to do that the majority of the people around you aren’t?
    • What are you willing to do that your colleagues won’t?

You Were Born Good – The Daily Stoic – Part 4 of 366

The human being is born with an inclination toward virtue.

Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 2.7.1-2

I remember the very moment I moved from the religious segment of the population to the non-religious segment of the population. My family is Catholic on my mothers side, and I spent a decent amount of my childhood doing all of the traditional things: Sunday school, religious readings, countless church ceremonies, and painfully long services during the holidays. In general it seemed fine; it was even fun sometimes. And then one day it came time for First Confession, and I just did not understand the concept.

Why does everyone assume they are bad? Sure, maybe we have done some stuff we regret and we may want to talk about it, but why is the assumption that I need to confess that I did something wrong? I mostly felt like I was just being a pretty normal kid that did normal kid stuff. What was wrong with that? And then I started thinking more about original sin, and it pushed me away even further. Everyone is a sinner because someone screwed up thousands of years ago? That doesn’t even make sense.

But what Musonius Rufus says above does make sense. We are born with an inclination toward virtue. Evolution favors those who are willing to work together and be kind to each other. Our default mode of operation when we are born is to not be an asshole; that is something a few people learn along the way. That means there is hope in this too. You were born good. If you are no longer good, or perhaps just not as good as you would like to be, you have simply deviated from your baseline. It is not your destiny. It is a matter of seeking out better ideas and behaviors, and then spending the time and energy to focus on returning to the original you.

Who Get’s The Lion’s Share? – The Daily Stoic – Part 3 of 366

Aren’t you ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnants of your life and to dedicate to wisdom only that time can’t be directed to business?

— Seneca, On The Brevity Of Life, 3.5b

“I’m so busy! But it is better to be busy than bored!”

Hang around me long enough and you’ll eventually hear me say this. It is like a catch phrase. And, to a certain extent, I think there is some truth to it: I would rather have too much interesting stuff to do than not enough. I honestly don’t remember the last time I was actually bored.

However, I started to introspect this earlier this year. Sure, I’m busy. Everyone is busy. It is a chronic problem in America. Can I stop being busy? Am I busy with the right things? Also, if people are so busy, how do we find so much time for Netflix, Youtube, Facebook, and so on? Most people delegate their reading activities to be occasional, or a few minutes before bed when their brains are already tired, but this is backwards. We should make time for the important things, and that includes time to “dedicate to wisdom.”

Stop being busy, and stop making excuses. Take a look at where you spend your time, and be intentional about dropping things that do not add value and maximizing time on the things that do. In particular, make time for thinking about the biggest questions in life so that you are always working towards some answers.

Nourishment of your mind and soul are not second to anything else. Focusing on them will pay dividends into everything you do.

Some parting thoughts on this concept:

  • Reserve for yourself the lion’s share. Tend your own garden, and then give the rest of your time graciously to those people and things deserving of it. The remnants are for things that don’t matter, not the other way around.
  • Everyone has time to study philosophy. Maybe its a podcast while you are in the shower, a Youtube video on the toilet, a book before bed time, or an hour every weekend. The time is there, you just need to make use of it.