Sunday morning Stoic: Stop complaining

Meditations 10.3:

“Everything that happens is either endurable or not.
If it’s endurable, then endure it. Stop complaining.
If it’s unendurable … then stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well.
Just remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.
In your interest, or in your nature.”

So, Marcus, you’re saying there’s never any excuse to complain about anything. Where’s the fun in that?

Actually, I’ve got the complain-out-loud habit mostly under control. I have my moments, like while watching a football game or while driving or while venting to my wife or colleagues. Yes, so under control. But, mostly, my complaining takes place silently in my mind. It’s just as unproductive, though, even if unspoken.

“you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.”

That last point though: “you can endure anything your mind can make endurable, by treating it as in your interest to do so.”

This thought has challenged and delighted me since first reading a passage in the novel Memoirs of Hadrian this summer where the emperor Hadrian, one of Marcus’s predecessors, explained that as a young man he treated anything difficult that happened as though he had chosen it to happen. He embraced trials and hardships and setbacks as something to accept and use for his benefit, not resist.

It is in your interest to make the best of what is, even if it’s repellant or tragic or just annoying. Instead of complaining, what if you accepted what is as if it was somehow part of your master plan for refining and perfecting your character?

You won’t regret being generous

Epictetus in The Art of Living:
IMG_5866.JPG

My 10-year-old will still occasionally remind me of the time a few years ago when she saw me decline a stranger’s request for a couple of dollars. I was in a hurry and didn’t want to be bothered to fish around in my wallet for a guy on the street I would never see again.

My daughter was surprised, and clearly disappointed, I didn’t help the man. I regret the message that sent to her. I regret my failure to model generosity in front of her.

I have never regretted being too generous, though. When you consider an impulse to give, in money or service, see how it feels to up the ante, to offer even more than you think reasonable.

My wife is good like that. I will suggest a reasonable, safe gift, and she will trump it with an offer to do even more. And then I think, “Of course! Why not do better and give more if we can?”

Honor your impulses to do good, to give, and to be kind.

Sunday night Stoic: Calm, purposeful, authentic

IMG_1256.PNG
A new week to practice the traits you want to characterize your life.

Keep calm and rise above the frenzy. Breathe and observe. Choose to respond with poise.

Be intentional in your actions. Don’t worry about appearing to be busy, but know that purposeful action is powerful. Don’t wait and waste what little time you’ve been afforded. Just begin.

And be real, be authentic. Don’t try to be. Just be. Don’t overthink how you are perceived. Speak and act and think as best you know how right now.

Bonfire

IMG_5803.JPG

Many a man has a bonfire in his heart, and no one comes to warm himself at it. –Vincent Van Gogh

Sitting by a warm fire on this cold night in Tennessee reminded me of this great line in a letter Van Gogh sent to his brother, Theo.

Everyone has a fire within, with the potential for it to be stoked into something great with a little attention and care. It is a noble calling to be one who helps others come alive just by listening and encouraging and being present.

Just keep going

IMG_1255.PNG
ht Jason Silva

Times are tough for you? Patience. This will pass.

All is well? Life seems good? This, too, shall pass.

Anxiety, elation, frustration, satisfaction, boredom… No feeling is permanent.

It doesn’t matter how you feel. Just keep going. It’s what you do and how you respond that matters most.

Can you simply observe your emotions and your thoughts without getting lost in them? Me, neither.

But those who are masters of mindfulness have described a state where you can watch your thoughts and feelings flow by as if you were in that empty space behind a waterfall. Sign me up for a comfortable chair in that blissful spot.

Observe and inhabit all you think and feel knowing it’s all impermanent. Don’t get down on yourself for being unable to control the torrent. Learn to observe and be curious. And just keep going.

Toughen yourself

Looking back through my highlights in Ryan Holiday’s The Obstacle is the Way, I found this:

You’ll have far better luck toughening yourself up than you ever will trying to take the teeth out of a world that is—at best—indifferent to your existence.

It’s the same sentiment as this from Ramana Maharshi:

WANTING TO REFORM THE WORLD WITHOUT DISCOVERING ONE’S TRUE SELF IS LIKE TRYING TO COVER THE WORLD WITH LEATHER TO AVOID THE PAIN OF WALKING ON STONES AND THORNS. IT IS MUCH SIMPLER TO WEAR SHOES.

Setting out to change the world seems noble, but the direct path to epic transformation is as simple as changing yourself, steeling yourself against the blows that are bound to come in this world. And helping others do the same would surely change their world.

Epictetus on choices and living artfully

FullSizeRender

My wife put a lamp by the deeply cushioned chair in our bedroom last night to make a new reading spot in our house, and I gave it a go. I sat down to read from an actual book, made from paper. It was my hardcover copy of The Art of Living, Sharon Lebell’s collection of the best of the wisdom of the first and second century Stoic teacher Epictetus.

Epictetus had been a slave who earned his freedom through his excellence as a student and, eventually, a teacher of Stoic philosophy. Nothing he may have written survives, but his students collected and saved his teachings, which went on to influence everyone’s favorite philosopher king, Marcus Aurelius. (Marcus was an emperor, not a king, of course. Philosopher emperor was beyond even Plato’s imagination.)

The single sentence on the opening page above is as good an exhortation as anyone could need. But it’s followed on the next page by this jewel of simple yet often neglected common sense:

IMG_5765

 

We always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives.

We don’t have much control over what happens around us and to us, but we do get to choose our response. Easy to understand. Hard, though, to own that choice standing in the often very small, poorly lit gap between stimulus and response.

I’ve got to at least be more aware that I am making these choices. I am responsible – able to choose my response – and not made to do or be anything not in my choosing. No one or no thing can make me angry, for example. I may choose to be angry in response, but it’s my choice, whether I own up to it or not.

I need these reminders regularly. Searching to share something insightful every day has been a great way to live a more adventurous inner life and to remind myself to do better, to grow and improve. These notes to self that I share publicly have become a daily discipline that I hope will keep me sharp and curious. I recommend this to anyone looking to make better sense of their own thinking and their place in the universe. Oh, that’s everyone. Of course, everyone should write.

We all are artists creating a unique life, a life that’s never been before and never will be again. Choose to craft yours as though you’re sculpting a masterpiece.

Life is asking us a question

From Ryan Holiday’s excellent book The Obstacle is the Way:

The great psychologist Viktor Frankl, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.
In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.

The question to awaken possibility

IMG_1254.PNG
What if you asked “What if …?” like it was your job?

What if you put no limits on the answers?

What if you asked this about your work, your relationships, your dreams for who you want to become?

What if asking this became a habit, a part of your weekly, or daily, routine?

What if you become known for your embrace of possibility?

What if you helped awaken possibility in others?

What if you actually did something to make even a handful of those possibilities become reality?

Dig deep

Meditations 7.59:
IMG_1253.PNG
Digging is hard. It’s easy to just stay on the surface. But the good stuff often is buried down deep and will require some effort to get to. But the good stuff is worth the effort.

That hard conversation? That creative project? The vision you have for the kind of person you truly want to be? Dig deep and conquer the resistance keeping you from the goodness buried below.

Aim to peak at 60

IMG_1247.PNGI was telling a group of college students last night they should aim to peak at age 60. They stared blankly at me. I’m not sure if they were processing the thought or erasing it as ludicrous. When you’re 19, 25 seems old. And 30+ is even hard to imagine.

“But hear me out”, I said. If the decisions you make today are guided by the long game, by the intent to improve consistently over a long period of time, imagine the perspective that will offer you. Instead of attempting to rule the world by age 30, you can slow down and focus on being the best you can be in this moment. No pressure. No need to compare yourself to others and measure your worth by the fleeting and fickle whims of our culture and what “success” means superficially.

Put some blinders on and just focus on getting a little better each week. Use your 20’s to just start figuring out what it means to be an adult, to start mastering something valuable in your work life and in your quest to be fully human in your intellectual and emotional growth.

Build a solid base in your 20’s and you’ll be in a good place for the opportunities bound to come in your 30’s and 40’s and 50’s. Imagine the kind of person you hope to be when you’re 60. Live your way into that vision slowly and surely.

 

 

Get back up

Meditations 5.9:

Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human—however imperfectly—and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.

No need to be down on yourself for failing to be perfect. Accept that you are imperfect. Embrace it, even. But get up and keep aiming for the ideal you have for yourself. Be a human and stand up and try again. This could be the best day of your life.

Dancing animals

Merlin Mann just posted this fabulous quote from a Kurt Vonnegut interview:

“[When Vonnegut tells his wife he’s going out to buy an envelope] Oh, she says, well, you’re not a poor man. You know, why don’t you go online and buy a hundred envelopes and put them in the closet? And so I pretend not to hear her. And go out to get an envelope because I’m going to have a hell of a good time in the process of buying one envelope. I meet a lot of people. And, see some great looking babes. And a fire engine goes by. And I give them the thumbs up. And, and ask a woman what kind of dog that is. And, and I don’t know. The moral of the story is, is we’re here on Earth to fart around. And, of course, the computers will do us out of that. And, what the computer people don’t realize, or they don’t care, is we’re dancing animals. You know, we love to move around. And, we’re not supposed to dance at all anymore.”

“We’re here on earth to fart around.” Delightful, right?

And I’m okay with this less than grand view of our role in the universe. Actually, “farting around” is a good description of what fills some of the best parts of our days. Even what we consider serious pursuits don’t amount to much in the really big picture of the vastness of space and time.

I wake up on a Saturday morning with no agenda, nowhere I have to be, and I get restless. I want to just go somewhere and have a mission or errand to occupy my morning. I want to be in motion.

We all are born to move and do and act and dance. No big deal. Life is not a race or a contest or even a quest. Life is like music. It’s our job to dance.

Accept whatever happens

Meditations 4.33:

Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it.
And those are the ones who shone. The rest—“unknown, unasked-for” a minute after death. What is “eternal” fame? Emptiness.

Then what should we work for?

Only this: proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech. A resolve to accept whatever happens as necessary and familiar, flowing like water from that same source and spring.

What if you embraced whatever happens as if you chose it? Even – especially! – if it is something that seems like a setback.

You have so little control over almost everything external to you. But you always have control over how you respond. If you choose to be curious, intrigued, or fascinated instead of perturbed, discouraged, or angry, imagine how everything changes.

I’m totally winging it. You are, too.

IMG_1205.PNG
Confession: I’m 50 years old, and I’m still completely winging it.

I don’t have rock solid answers to the big questions. I don’t have a sure fire plan, long-term or short-term. Age hasn’t given me the wisdom and confidence I was always sure everyone past middle age must have. Peace of mind can be more elusive now than when I was younger. I’ve even recently had occasional moments of irrational anxiety.

The college students I work with treat me like I’m their resident Yoda, and I oblige with whatever wisdom I can summon. They nod and seem satisfied and leave me to sit and ponder if I’m a complete fraud who’s just making stuff up.

I’m not a mess, mind you. I’m just fessing up to not having it all together in spite of how cool I’m sure I appear to be.

I’m like the duck on the pond appearing to glide effortlessly along while below the surface paddling like hell.

Yet, I am pretty sure this describes you, too.

I’m comforted somewhat by the dawning realization that everyone is winging it with varying degrees of cluelessness, comedy, and sheer terror. Presidents and CEOs and celebrities (definitely celebrities) and parents and grandparents and supposedly wise sages… they all regularly struggle with what the heck to do and why in the world are we here anyway. Not everyone will acknowledge it, certainly not publicly. But I’m convinced that everyone who honestly searches themselves has to say, “Yes, I don’t really know what I’m doing.”

Most of us will fake it as best we can to appear cool and confident, and we sort of have to in order to keep from becoming existential roadkill and bringing chaos down all around us. We will cling to answers handed to us, to a system that seems to keep everything together and that seems to make some kind of sense of the utter mystery we’re all swimming in.

Your level of confidence may be higher than mine, but the only people who seem supremely and inerrantly confident are the ones you need to run away from as fast as you can. They’re kidding themselves more than anyone and have the greatest potential to screw up more than just their own lives.

I’m guessing this growing awareness of my uncertainty is a byproduct of living and learning. The more you know, the more you realize you don’t know.

However, the quiet fears, big and small, we face each day are countered somewhat by the genuine and often awe inspiring wonder of living in such a grand mystery. Moments of sweetness and connection are even more meaningful as I accept just how heartbreakingly short and random I’m discovering life to be.

Being vulnerable is unsettling. And freeing. It’s being real and squarely facing the uncertainties that are part of the deal of getting to live as a human on this planet. But negotiating life honestly, knowing I am indeed winging it more often than not, is a bold way to open myself to what actually is as well as what could be.

Keep on winging it as you best you can, fellow travelers. I’m making this up as I go, too.

Five C’s of leadership

Kevin and Melissa, two of the university students I work with, are taking a leadership class and were assigned to ask questions about leadership. They both had this question for me: “What are the characteristics of an effective leader?”

“Effective” is subject to interpretation. Gengis Khan was effective… in conquering, destroying, and subjugating, but he was a heck of a leader, as were many violent tyrants throughout history.

For this purpose, however, let’s assume effective has a threshold of moral propiety that makes no room for obvious bad behavior or world domination.

Leadership is not a topic I’ve explored with much intention. I’ve always felt like I’ve known it when I’ve seen it, and, more commonly, been very aware where it’s lacking. As I pondered this question from my students, though, some key attributes came to mind. (And after I thought of the first couple, I couldn’t resist continuing with alliteration. Hence, five “C’s”.)

Here’s what I see or hope to see in the most honorable and effective leaders:

Clarity – Effective leaders have a clear vision of the big picture and can communicate with clarity the “why” of an organization or business or movement. “Why?” comes first, and if a leader hasn’t asked and can’t answer that question about the endeavor they’re hoping to lead, they still may be leading effectively but in a completely wrong direction.

Caring – A good leader cares deeply about the mission and the people involved and all the “how’s” and “what’s” necessary for excellence. The leader cares about even small details, about the process as much as (if not more than) the outcome. The intrinsic rewards of a job well done, of creating something of value and quality, outweigh any extrinsic rewards.

Competence – Mastery inspires confidence. We will follow someone who is clearly competent in their abilities, who knows their stuff. Teammates will rally around someone who is committed to excellence and demonstrates extraordinary competence, even if that person has not been entrusted with any official leadership role.

Character – The authentic person of integrity, who treats everyone with fairness and is impeccable with their actions, that person is a leader I want to follow. A leader of character will be wholly themselves regardless of the circumstances or the people around them. And trust is the most valuable asset an effective leader has to offer.

Compassion – A leader I admire is one who is kind and compassionate and who treats everyone with respect regardless of position or title. She is quick to forgive, eager to reconcile, and open to listening to and understanding even, or especially, divergent viewpoints.

My favorite description of a master leader comes from the Tao te Ching, one of the most profound books of wisdom:

When the Master governs, the people
are hardly aware that he exists.
Next best is a leader who is loved.
Next, one who is feared.
The worst is one who is despised.

If you don’t trust the people,
you make them untrustworthy.

The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”

You don’t need to be offered a promotion or run for office to be a leader. Be the CEO of your cubicle or your desk. Lead yourself. Act like you are who you want to be and embody the attributes that lead to an excellent life well lived.

Hustle

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 4.16.24 PM

I was clicking through interesting links last night and tunneled my way through the internet to this great Art of Manliness post: The World Belongs to Those Who Hustle. It’s worth reading if you need a kick in the pants to get going or feel you are lacking in talent. Talent is overrated.

Excellence is yours if you’re willing to put in the effort. In fact, the odds of doing something extraordinary are in your favor because most people are content with ordinary, with safe and secure but not remarkable.

There’s actually more competition for average than there is for awesome, because awesome takes effort and persistence and courage. And only the few will choose that path.

No excuse will suffice if the only thing keeping you from being the person you dream to be is  your commitment to hustle.

*The quotation above could very well be misattributed to Lincoln. Not sure if the word “hustle” had this connotation in the mid-19th century. But the sentiment of this thought certainly seems to fit what we know of Lincoln’s character and his rise to prominence from a poor, illiterate family.