Teaching Children About Ancient Philosophy: An Interview With Entrepreneur, Investor, and Author Eric J. Wilhelm

We’re often asked here at Daily Stoic about the best way to teach kids about Stoicism. How can we get our children interested in an ancient school of philosophy? How can we get them to see the value in applying the wisdom of Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, Cleanthes, Chrysippus, and Cato? Entrepreneur, investor, author, and long-time student of Stoicism Eric J. Wilhelm learned how Stoicism can help to live a good life, and he wanted to give his children the same experience. In our interview with Eric below, he details how he’s found success doing that, as well as explaining the genesis of the Marcus Aurelius and Musa adventure books he’s created, how he finds stillness amid balancing so many things in his personal and professional life, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with Eric J. Wilhelm!

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First, could you tell the Daily Stoic community a little bit about yourself?

Professionally, I’m an engineer, entrepreneur, and investor. I’ve started several companies, most notably Instructables.com. Currently, I’m the CEO of a solar energy company, SafeConnect.

What was your first exposure to Stoicism? Do you remember your initial reaction? How did your study progress from there?

While I can’t place the exact idea or author, I absolutely remember the feeling of first being introduced to Stoicism: “The way I’ve been thinking has a name? That’s awesome!” Growing up, I’d held some naive stoic thoughts, and recall conversations with friends about how I didn’t care what other people thought because I got to control my own thoughts. Discovering the framework of stoicism for these ideas was deeply refreshing. 

Can you tell us about the Marcus and Musa books and what motivated you to create them?

I often read aloud passages of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca to my family. For my kids’ current ages, common themes are control of other people versus control of your own behavior and not responding — “the best answer to anger is silence”. While this often elicits groans, I find it amazing — and useful! — that ancient stoic thoughts are directly applicable to our life. In short, the family is familiar with the major stoics.

While we were visiting the Naples archaeological museum, we found busts of Marcus (expected) and a Star Wars exhibit with a full-sized fiberglass Jabba the Hutt in the courtyard. The Star Wars exhibit had something to do with “a hero’s journey”, but it frankly didn’t make any sense. However, it did open my mind to the idea that Marcus might be friends with some unexpected characters — characters quite a bit different from him. For the rest of the trip, my wife and I drew scenes of Jabba, Marcus, and others in the kids’ notebooks for them to color and narrate. It was so much fun that I started making travel activity books ahead of our trips. The books were a hit with friends and family, so I decided to see if there was anyone else out there with an interest in stoicism, barfing frogs, and going to the dentist, Boston, and/or Hong Kong. 

Is it safe to assume Marcus is your favorite Stoic? Have you read much of the other Stoics? Do you have a favorite quote or passage from them or from Marcus that you particularly love?

I’m drawn to the stoics because it’s evident that they were real people with flaws, uncertainties, doubts, and struggles. From these flawed people — putting Commodus in charge! — come powerful ideas, and I find that both humbling and motivating. That said, I think “a favorite stoic” isn’t the right question for me; however, I do regularly think of Epictetus’s “Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will.”

We’re often asked about the best way to teach kids about Stoicism. Your books seem to be a great way to help with that. Have you found any other successful ways to explain or convey this essential wisdom to young people?

Thanks for the kind thought about Marcus’s and Musa’s adventures! They are primarily intended to be ridiculous and to give kids something fun to do while traveling. If a little stoicism gets in too, that’s a bonus. Despite the groans — which may be more a function of the dad-kid relationship than stoicism in particular — I see these ideas getting into my kids’ thinking based on the merits of the ideas alone. So, my experience would indicate that exposure might be the most effective route.

Furthering this thought, recently I was talking with my kids about how stoicism has no hidden messages nor any need for someone to be a conduit between you and the ideas or any part of it, and how this was different than some other schools of thought and religions. (We were actually talking about why I didn’t put a hidden message in Marcus’s word searches in the books, unlike Musa’s word searches which do have hidden messages.) Maybe a doorway to stoicism is a good articulation to young people that it is accessible and practical to them without the need for others to tell them how to do it.  

In addition to the books, you are a parent, an engineer, and an entrepreneur. The Stoics were often writing about finding stillness and tranquility. In balancing so many things in your personal and professional life, are there any daily rituals or routines that help you stay calm and sane? How do you keep your life in order when so much is being thrown at you?

First, I think it’s important to recognize that I’m really lucky. Being born whom I am, at this time, in the US, and other factors have given me access to amazing opportunities. Beyond that, my daily rituals are pretty pedestrian: I go to bed at the same time every night and sleep eight hours, I eat (almost only) food I know is good for me, and I have a daily meditation and gratitude practice

What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?

Nassim Taleb’s Incerto Series. Professionally and personally, I expose myself to positive outcome risk: known cost and unknown, uncapped upside. That’s why I’m an entrepreneur, investor, and author!  

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