How to Use Stoic Philosophy for Lifestyle Design and Entrepreneurship

Stoic Philosopher Epictetus
Stoic Philosopher Epictetus (picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

Several years ago when I was going through a military course, we had a reading about Admiral James Stockade, who won the Medal of Honor for his actions during 8 years as a Prisoner of War during Vietnam.  In the article, Stockdale was describing the mission where he was shot down over North Vietnam and talked about how he was flying along at hundreds of miles an hour, had to eject, and realized he was suddenly entering the world of Epictetus.  I had never heard of Epictetus and thought how significant it must be that in that moment, of all the things that might have been going through his head, Stockdale was thinking of someone named Epictetus.  Intrigued, I started to do a little research and found that Epictetus was a Greek philosopher who belonged to a school of philosophy called Stoicism.  I wanted to learn more and during one of my business trips, found a copy of Epictetus’ Discourses in a used bookstore.  The Discourses are lectures written down by one of Epictetus’ students.  I don’t agree with everything in the Discourses, but there are some useful concepts for designing our lives, entrepreneurs and woodworkers in Stoicism.  We can learn much from studying philosophers.  As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living”.  We can get so caught up in the tactical details of life that sometimes we don’t step back to ask the question of whether what we are doing is even important.  Shouldn’t we be continually asking that question?

That being said, Stoicism seems to be enjoying a resurgence these days.  Some of the more popular Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.  Epictetus was born a slave, taught philosophy in Rome, then was exiled to Greece.  Seneca was a Roman Stoic philosopher and advisor to the Emperor.  Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor who wrote the Meditations on Stoic philosophy.  It’s important, though, when someone declares “Stoicism says” that you take that with a grain of salt.  Each of the Stoics has a slightly different take on things.  If you’d like to read more, I highly recommend The Daily Stoic.

There are three principles of Stoicism that I think are very relevant to lifestyle design, entrepreneurship, and woodworking.

Clarify our perceptions

Many times what we perceive is going on is not what is really going on.  For entrepreneurs it’s especially important to think about what data you need to gather to tell you if you are on track to your vision.  Sometimes entrepreneurs analyze the data that’s readily available, rather than what’s important.  The important data may be difficult to get, but is not usually impossible to develop.  If someone asks you “how is your business doing?” how do you you know rather than just saying “fine”?  For example, if you are writing a blog it’s important to install at least a couple plugins that gather metrics to let you know how you are doing.  The blogger needs to look at the data to find out what ground truth is.  They tell you exactly how many users there are every day, where they are coming from, what they are looking at, etc.  For example, if someone asks me how the blog is doing, I’ve got the data and it’s clear this blog is growing.  This month’s traffic is on track to be double last month’s.  In addition, we can see that the hits from search engines are increasing, which means the search engines are finding us or we’re writing about things that more people are interested in, or just having more published posts is drawing more search.  We’ve made mistakes with the blog such as running into a photograph interface issue between WordPress and Facebook, but it’s clear we are on the right path.  We wouldn’t know that if we hadn’t decided which data to collect to clarify our perceptions.

Another aspect of clarifying our perceptions is to control our thoughts, which is especially important for entrepreneurs.  I think over the past 2 years, I’ve gotten much better at banishing negative thoughts about what could go wrong.  This is a skill any small business owner can exercise and develop.  For example, I noticed that most of the time these thoughts are late at night before I’m going to bed or in the middle of the night.  Knowing that, if one of these thoughts rears its ugly head, I can say to myself “oh, it’s late and I’m just tired” and let the negative thought go.

As the famous French philosopher Montaigne said “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened” (see brainy  Why dwell on something if it will probably never happen?

Act reasonably and wisely

In an earlier post, I wrote about failing fast and cheap which aligns with acting reasonably as the Stoics recommend.  An entrepeneur probably shouldn’t do an experiment that would bankrupt the company, but should instead place small well-thought-out bets.  For example, many entrepreneurs following a strategy of doing A/B experiments.  This means “A” is the current method and “B” is an experiment trying something new.  If “B” is successful, you switch to that method even if it’s only an incremental gain.  If “B” wasn’t successful, you default back to “A” then dream up some more A/B experiments.  Over time, these incremental gains of the “B”s that worked will add up to big gains.  It’s important to not agonize over “failed” experiments, but to consider that you learned something in the process.  Make sure you know how much you want to pay for those failed experiments ahead of time to cap your risk.

The third Stoic principle is related to the second.

Know what is in our control and what is not

This is one of the most fundamental Stoic principles.  Epictetus says at the most basic level, all we can really control is our will.  That’s why Stockdale referenced Epictetus when he was shot down.  He realized that if he was captured, he would be in a test of wills with his captors, which he was…for 8 years.

This relates to entrepreneurship as well, especially blogging.  One of the most successful bloggers right now is Maria Popova who has 5 million readers per month and writes a blog called Brain Pickings.  I’ve listened to interviews with her and done some reading of her blog and she shares some terrific points on successful blogging.  One thing she emphasizes is to write for yourself.  This is within our control as the Stoics would advise.  Popova’s point is that we shouldn’t chase an audience.  We won’t be interesting if we try to write what we think most people will like, rather than what we are really passionate about.  In addition, we’ll likely lose interest if we are constantly writing about what we think others want to read rather than what really interests us.  Readers can tell if a blogger is passionate about something.

This also relates to woodworking in that woodworkers should focus on the task as hand; it’s in our control.  We can control the level of craftsmanship in our project as we’ve written about previously in the post on the Soviet gulag and the post on glue, but have limited ability to control external factors.

It’s important to be present when we create which is something I have not mastered, but am always striving for.