“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” —Epictetus, Discourses, 33.6
Nero is perhaps the most infamous of a long list of Roman Emperors who, even if they possessed some good qualities, spiraled out of control and reigned over a frightened, cowed populace. There’s Caligula, who declared himself a god and brought charges of treason against enemies real and imagined—he declared war against the sea and is said to have told his troops to attack the waves with their swords. There’s Domitian, who also demanded to be called a god and arbitrarily banished all philosophers from Rome (Epictetus was forced to flee as a result). And, of course, Commodus, the son of Marcus Aurelius, is one of the worst examples, having indulged his own fascination with the gladiatorial games to the point where the rest of the realm suffered for lack of attention.
What did they all have in common?
According to the great ancient Roman historian Cassius Dio, Commodus became “the slave of his companions, and it was through them that he at first, out of ignorance, missed the better life and then was led on into lustful and cruel habits, which soon became second nature. And this, I think, Marcus clearly perceived beforehand. Commodus was nineteen years old when his father died, leaving him many guardians, among whom were numbered the best men of the senate. But their suggestions and counsels Commodus rejected.”
What’s most interesting though, as Dio wrote in his Roman History about Commodus, “[He] was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless as any man that ever lived.” This innocent young man became one of history’s most wicked beings because he made the deliberate decision to reject the advisors his father had bequeathed him and, as a result, had no one to protect him from his worst impulses. He inaugurated a megalomaniacal cult of personality in the Roman capital, one that ended only with his assassination.
Commodus’ story is similar to that of Nero. The fatal flaw of Nero’s reign was perhaps best captured in a fascinating statue of the emperor with his advisor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, created by the Spanish sculptor Eduardo Barrón in 1904. It shows Nero sitting across from Seneca…definitely not listening. Seneca was one of the wisest advisors an emperor could have. Yet Nero wasted Seneca’s obvious acumen, and eventually turned on him completely.
Now, let’s compare Commodus and Nero to Marcus. From his deathbed, Marcus was arranging for the best and brightest to advise his son. Why? He knew he was nothing without the advisors and mentors who influenced his own life—Antoninus and Rusticus and Herodes Atticus and Fronto and Cinna Catulus and Apollonius. “Even when he was emperor,” Cassius Dio writes of Marcus, “he showed no shame or hesitation about resorting to a teacher.”
A ruler, a CEO, a head coach, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do or even what your goals are, if you listen to advisors who possess talents and skills and insights you lack, you can achieve great things. If you don’t? Success is much harder and the risk of spinning off the planet into delusion because much more real.
Which is why your challenge today is to create your personal board of directors. A trusted college professor, a parent or sibling, a personal or business mentor, a friend, or a friend of a friend—whatever the relationship—pick five people to appoint to your board. Five people with skills you need, with experience you lack, with relationships you can leverage, with perspectives you can trust, if not always agree with. You don’t have to tell these people that your board of directors exists, but you do have to commit to checking in with them over the next twelve months on important matters in your life.
You’ll want to come up with some way to mimic the function of a corporate board but in your personal life. Maybe it’s quarterly calls? Maybe it’s taking individual members out for drinks or coffee once a month? You’ll figure out what works for you, just remember that we’re not talking about gathering a group of people here who have power over you. In this case, the board of directors is fulfilling an advising role. It is those experts in your life who can be trusted to give you good advice and sound information when you really need it. People you keep apprised of all you’re doing so they can get you to think about what you’re not thinking about, so they can ask you tough questions and so you can benefit from the fact that they flat-out have more experience and wisdom.
Whether this decade is kind or harsh to you, you’ll want that help. And it will require some serious self-analysis. What are your weaknesses and deficiencies? Who is smarter than you? Where do you still have a lot left to learn? What do you routinely struggle with? These might be hard questions for you to answer. It will require humility to admit your weaknesses and to accept you need help. It will require courage to seek it out and ask for it. But it’s a fact of life that we need it. “Don’t be ashamed to need help,” Marcus wrote.
For 11 years, Jordan Harbinger hosted one of the most successful podcasts in the world with over 4 million monthly downloads. He interviewed countless influencers—people like Tim Ferriss, Robert Greene, Gretchen Rubin, and Kevin Rose. An amicable split with his business partners went awry, and Jordan was left with nothing. But he overcame it and rebuilt his career from scratch. How? We asked him exactly that:
I decided I’d whined enough and sought advice… I spoke to a lot (-A LOT!) of wise people who had been through situations similar to what I had, and more.
In other words, Jordan went to his “board of directors” to help him through. It was nothing miraculous or remarkable. He needed advice, he was in a situation where he had no experience, he admitted it, and he asked people who held the crucial knowledge that he sought. Like Marcus, Jordan resorted to his teachers, his advisors. People with whom he’d developed and maintained meaningful relationships over time. And that is the key to the personal board of directors: cultivating relationships, relationship management, building rapport. Calls and emails out of the blue from someone you haven’t heard from in ten years—or ever—tend not to get returned or replied to.
So create what Jordan had: a team of people who can help you recover when you hit your lowest point—or push you to maximum performance when the time is right.
We all get stuck. We’ve all experienced a lack of motivation, struggle, less progress than we know we’re capable of. And we’ve all been thrown problems we’ve never had to face before—you are not alone. The Jordan Harbinger and Marcus Aurelius types, they know this, and they call on their board of directors to help them keep moving forward. The Nero and Caligula types think they can do it alone—and inevitably they self-destruct.
Who are you going to be?
- Letters From A Stoic, 109: On The Fellowship of Wise Men
- Letters From A Stoic, 6: On Sharing Knowledge
- Letters From A Stoic, 52: On Choosing Our Teachers
- Letters From A Stoic, 94: On The Value of Advice
- Assembling Your Personal Board of Advisors from MIT Sloan Management Review
- Finding a mentor by Ryan Holiday
- What Nobody Tells You About Finding Mentors by Ryan Holiday
- More On Mentors by Ryan Holiday
- Tribe Of Mentors by Tim Ferriss