Stoicism: Day 4 – On Becoming a Failure

I completed my fourth ice bath yesterday. I think they are becoming colder.  My shivering started about 5 minutes in as opposed to 15 minutes in. I also shivered for quite a while afterwards.

However, the ice baths are becoming easier. The pre-bath anxiety is decreasing.  It’s hard to say if this is making me less anxious about work and other concerns, but the baths serve as a reminder to think about Stoic concepts

For example, I’ve tried negative visualization before, but it was very difficult to make it a habit because it is purely a mental exercise. There is no physical ritual built into it.

By taking an ice bath every evening, I’m reminded of the purpose of the exercise and remember to practice it.

Stoicism has also acted as an anchor for other goals. For example, I want to lose 15 pounds, so I started the slow-carb diet this week. It’s not the hardest diet, but it certainly requires me to cut things out that I enjoy, like delicious carbs.

When I have cravings for pasta, I think of the following words from Seneca:

Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.

Though Seneca is writing about overcoming the fear of poverty, they are still applicable to dieting. By voluntarily restricting your diet when you don’t have to, you can train yourself for the times when it won’t be voluntary.

So far, I’m down about 5 pounds in 4 days. Though I blame Tim Ferriss for deluding me into thinking a passive income business would be easy to build and solve all my problems, he does over some good dieting advice. He advises taking ice baths to accelerate fat loss.

I also credit my Stoic practices for helping me wake up at 5:15 AM these past five days to get up early, go to the gym, and write. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I run the half mile to the gym and lift weights. Monday-Friday I also sit down on my laptop to write these blog posts. Many people have succeeded at developing these habits without Stoic practices, but I find that practicing a little negative visualization first thing in the morning (imagining being sick and not having the ability to workout, or having some laborious job that would prevent me from writing), is enough to get me out the door.

Though I’ve been successful so far, it has only been four days, and what I really want to do is train my mind to be comfortable with the idea that I will be a complete failure.

The Stoics and Wealth

Seneca came from a wealthy family and never suffered from poverty. However, he understood how wealth and the pursuit of wealth could drive anyone to spiritual poverty.

At the time, the Roman Empire was thriving economically, and there are some striking parallels to modern America. I read the Wikipedia page on the Roman Empire’s Economy and the entire economic system seems to be very modern.

I was especially struck by this paragraph:

Socially, economic dynamism opened up one of the avenues of social mobility in the Roman Empire. Social advancement was thus not dependent solely on birth, patronage, good luck, or even extraordinary ability. Although aristocratic values permeated traditional elite society, a strong tendency toward plutocracy is indicated by the wealth requirements for census rank. Prestige could be obtained through investing one’s wealth in ways that advertised it appropriately: grand country estates or townhouses, durable luxury items such as jewels and silverwarepublic entertainments, funerary monuments for family members or coworkers, and religious dedications such as altars. Guilds (collegia) and corporations (corpora) provided support for individuals to succeed through networking, sharing sound business practices, and a willingness to work.

The US prides itself on its social mobility; Americans love stories about ambitious people who came from nothing and rose to prominence through hard work and some luck. There’s nothing wrong with that, I love that it’s a fundamental characteristic of American culture.

However, it’s easy to get sucked into the system and pursue wealth at the cost of a rich inner-life. In the passage above, it says than prestige could be achieved by displaying your wealth in an opulent manner.

That is the path to prestige in modern-day American as well. It’s changed its form a bit. Instead of huge mansions and super expensive cars, wealth is now “tastefully” displayed in the form of old-looking but brand new Pottery Barn furniture, by buying local, organic groceries at Whole Foods, and bohemian clothes from Free People that costs hundreds of dollars. David Brooks described the people who participate in this new prestige culture as “Bobos,” which is shorthand for “Bohemian-Bourgeois.”

Seneca doesn’t condemn these things, but he advocates being mentally prepared for a life of poverty.

Suppose that you hold wealth to be a good: poverty will then distress you, and, —which is most pitiable, —it will be an imaginary poverty. For you may be rich, and nevertheless, because your neighbour is richer, you suppose yourself to be poor exactly by the same amount in which you fall short of your neighbour. You may deem official position a good; you will be vexed at another’s appointment or re-appointment to the consulship; you will be jealous whenever you see a name several times in the state records. Your ambition will be so frenzied that you will regard yourself last in the race if there is anyone in front of you.

If Seneca were alive today he’d walk into Pottery Barn and flip out. Actually he wouldn’t flip out, you know, because of his Stoicism, but I’m sure he’d feel sick to his stomach for a minute.

Seneca correctly identifies many of the ambitions that disturb me. The idea of poverty doesn’t freak me out, mostly because it seems so remote and abstract, but the idea that I will have to work a job for the rest of life does. I’m not jealous or envious of the mega-rich, but when I look at Facebook and see my peers taking cool vacations and having fun and making their way in the world, I wonder why I’m not doing as well as them.

I also face the opposite problem; I take joy when I do better than someone else. When I “get ahead” of someone, there’s a bit of guilty pleasure there.

“Failing fast” is still not Stoic

Right now it’s in vogue in the start-up world to “fail fast.” There is some mystique and prestige in the entrepreneur who fails repeatedly but then eventually succeeds and becomes a mega-millionaire.

While I like the idea of accepting failure, the end goal of the “fail fast” movement is still success in the form of a profitable company and personal riches.  Entrepreneurs like the idea of “fail fast” because it means their failure is not permanent; it means that there is still hope to get rich and become a worldly success.  This is not Stoicism because the end goal is still wealth and prestige.

How great would it be if, while pursuing an ambitious, worldly goal, you were mentally prepared to be homeless, poverty-stricken, and friendless? You really wouldn’t have anything to fear in any of your pursuits! You would have complete freedom no matter what fate throw at you.

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.

I will keep these words in mind as I move forward with the Ancient Wisdom Project.