Stoicism: Day 29 – The Value of Repetition

As of yesterday, I am down to one remaining ice bath I need to take before my Stoicism month is over. Once again, the ice bath itself was uneventful.

Let’s talk about that term “uneventful.”

It implies that you have an expectation of something happening, something out of the ordinary. If you go to your office holiday party and say, “oh it was uneventful” it means nothing crazy happened, that no co-workers made out with each other or got into fistfights or passed out. It’s not quite the same as saying it was boring, but rather, it was not exciting.

At the beginning of my Stoicism month, I thought I would notice improvements on a day-to-day basis, that I would have some epiphany or some moment of transcendence that would justify the daily ice baths.

With that expectation in mind, my Stoicism month has been “uneventful.”

But what I have noticed is that I find myself thinking about the same Stoic concepts everyday. When I’m feeling a bit down about life, I think about how it could be worse. When something irritates me, I consider the nature of the offending act or situation and try to lessen its control over my emotions. When worldly ambitions for fame and fortune rise up within my consciousness, I’m reminded that those things come up with great costs, if they ever come at all and I’d be better off pursuing a more noble goal.

One of the key features of modernity is that we’re always searching for the new thing, the quick fix, the 30-day miracle program. We want to tackle a problem once and be done with it, preferably with as little effort as possible, but if it requires significant intensity, for as short a duration as possible. Modernity loves new, one-off solutions.

In the book Made to Stick, the author Chip Heath devalues repetition as a communication strategy, saying that the best stories and marketing narratives can be told once and will be remembered for a long period of time.

The most common refrain in strategic communication is repetition, repetition, repetition. Keep repeating the strategy, again and again, until it finally sinks in. Here’s the problem: Repetition doesn’t prevent the Curse of Knowledge or encourage two-way communication. Indeed, sticky ways of talking strategy, such as salmon stories, don’t need much repetition; innumerable psychology studies tell us that it’s much easier to remember concrete language and stories. 

I agree that good stories and communications are memorable and don’t need much repetition to be remembered. Many myths and religious stories are highly memorable and have good moral lessons built into them.

However, when you are looking to improve yourself, simply remembering a story is insufficient. It’s not enough to say “I read Seneca’s letters so I’m pretty much a Stoic now.” I first read about Stoicism over four years ago and while I remembered the fundamentals of Stoicism, I did not practice it in a consistent and repetitive manner.

The Stoics recognized the value of repetition. For example, they realized it is insufficient to practice fasting one time in order to appreciate normal food. They advocated making fasting a regular part of your life, so that you don’t forget what it’s like to be hungry and that you renew your appreciation for even the simplest foods.

Over the course of this month I felt a little panicked when I would run of things to write about. What new insight can I find and write about that will be immediately applicable to the readers’ lives?

I realized this morning in the shower that new insights are overvalued. Indeed, that is one of the themes of the Ancient Wisdom Project! My modern instincts were surfacing even during my study and practice of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism!

This post is a reminder to myself that there are enough, older insights and practices that are valuable and worth repeating