When we recently published our list of 12 Rules for (a Stoic) Life (a post that got a surprising amount of pushback from students of Stoicism of all things), one of the recurring questions from our audience was in regards to rule #11, the one on taking cold showers. Why cold showers in the first place, and how does one discipline themselves to take one? We reached out to someone who knows a thing or two about cold exposure, and how one can maximize their potential as a human. Our interview today is with Aubrey Marcus, the founder and CEO of Onnit, a lifestyle brand based on a holistic health philosophy he calls Total Human Optimization. You might have seen him on the covers of Men’s Health or listened to his popular show, The Aubrey Marcus Podcast, a destination for conversations with the brightest minds in athletics, business, science, and philosophy with over 10 million downloads on iTunes. His new book, Own The Day, Own Your Life, is now out.
We reached out to Aubrey to learn more about how philosophy factors into optimizing human performance (Aubrey was a philosophy major in college, and he is a fan of the Stoics!), how does one develop the habit of taking cold showers, the best way to start one’s morning with specific tips and routine suggestions, his favorite Stoic quotes, book recommendations, and much more! Enjoy our interview with Aubrey below!
You’re well known for “total human optimization.” How does philosophy play into that? What tools, techniques, and philosophies have you found to best optimize your mindset?
I was a philosophy major at University of Richmond, and the reason I was so drawn to it was because I love solving puzzles. The human body and mind is one of the greatest puzzles in the universe. I wrote over 100,000 word book describing some of the best tools and techniques to optimize yourself, but as it pertains to the mind there are three major themes.
1) Forgive your past mistakes
2) Surrender completely to the process, without worrying about outcome
3) Use every piece of resistance as a point of assistance.
I first came to the Stoics while studying ancient philosophy in school. But it wasn’t until life got a little bit rougher that I really understood the value. There is going to be some gnarly shit that happens to you. Some of it will be your fault, and some of it won’t. You aren’t responsible for that. What you are responsible for is how you respond. Will you use that thing to make you stronger or will you use it as an excuse to play the victim your whole life? That is our choice, that is free will in motion. With a Stoic attitude nothing is really a blessing or a curse, it’s either a heavy day at the mental gym or a light day. Either way you are going to get stronger.
This idea plays into one of my favorite quotes by Epictetus, “People are disturbed not by things, but by the views we take of them.”
Marcus Aurelius had an undeniable austerity about him. It isn’t that he liked getting out of bed on a cold morning, it was that he did it anyway. That is the skill that makes the biggest difference between the high achievers and the ordinary people. It all comes down to the ability to do the shit you don’t want to do. To turn the shower nozzle cold, to sit an extra ten minutes in the sauna, to go for a run when you don’t want to, to finish the work you need to. This is austerity, or something I call mental override. Master this, and with the right plan you can master anything.
The Stoics would have approved of cold showers—if only as a means to build discipline and resilience. And you are also a prominent advocate of cold exposure. What are some practical tips and advice that someone who wants to get started can use? What are the usual hurdles, and how can one overcome them?
Start small. Take your usual warm shower and then at the end turn the nozzle cold. Almost immediately norepinephrine starts to rise, which drops your chronic stress and will leave you feeling more refreshed and energized. Two minutes should be your goal, and this should be a daily practice. Then with a little more experience, dive into an ice bath, and experiment with some deep breathing like the Wim Hof Method. The hardest part of cold exposure is just the willpower to do it—that battle of choice turns lions into lambs, and lambs into lions every day. If you are going to roar into your day, you better be able to handle a little bit of cold water.
Your book offers tips and techniques for optimizing the ideal day. The Stoics of course were big on habits and discipline, so let’s zoom in and focus on the morning. Walk us through the key activities that one should be doing first thing in the morning?
There are three key steps to any morning practice: Hydration, Movement and Light. Hydration should be the most obvious. You lost over a pound of water overnight just from breathing and it doesn’t take much more than that to start the deleterious effects of dehydration. First thing when you get out of bed drink 12 oz of spring water with a dash of himalayan salt and lemon. I call it the morning mineral cocktail. The next most important thing to do is to set your circadian rhythm in motion. Getting as much sunlight as you can on your body, and just moving around for a few minutes signals to the body that you are awake and ready to own the day. Then when it is dark, your body can start the signal that it is time to rest, connect and recover, by producing important hormones like melatonin.
As we said, a key theme in the Stoics was discipline and habit formation. That’s clearly a struggle for most people, and we are curious what can we do to make a habit change lasting? How can we make these behaviors that you recommend stick?
Human beings are funny. We will deliberately not do the things we know we should. Why? Who is really in charge? The key to making a positive habit change stick, is to take control of your life as the higher expression of consciousness, not the emotionally driven ego-self. Then beyond that, you have to forgive your past self for the mistakes you have made so you feel you deserve to change. And finally bring your tribe with you along for the ride, not just for accountability, but so you have something to fight for beyond just yourself. If you know you are making changes not just for you, but for people you love, it becomes a lot easier to make the necessary sacrifices.
The Daily Stoic community is always eager about book recommendations. Can you offer some suggestions? You’ve talked about the Toltec art of living so that might be one thing that could be interesting for our community to explore, so any reading recommendations about that topic are more than welcome.
I love the Toltec Art of Life and Death by Don Miguel Ruiz, because it is a complete philosophical and spiritual system from one of the great living masters. I also love Aldous Huxley’s classic book Island, which is one of the most thought provoking visions of societal utopia I have read.
Another great book is Joe Dispenza’s, You Are the Placebo, which shows just how powerful the mind can be in healing (or hurting) the body.