In their works, the Stoic philosophers repeat over and over again the same timeless message: It doesn’t matter what other people do. It doesn’t matter what other people say. It doesn’t matter what you think. It only matters what you do. That’s what this philosophy of Stoicism is about at the end of the day. Putting aside the endless debates on internet messageboards, turning off the voice in your head and getting to work—on yourself, on your duties, on the world.
We wanted to reach out to interview author Kyle Eschenroeder because in addition to being a student of Stoicism, he’s also the recent author of The Pocket Guide to Action. What follows is our chat with him about what right action means and how it differs from what most of us do, how he first discovered the Stoics, his favorite books with direct connections to Stoicism, and much more. If you are not yet familiar with his work, Kyle is a talented writer who offers practical ideas on his blog and newsletter. Enjoy our interview with him below!
You’ve said that Nassim Taleb is one of your favorite living thinkers. Nassim is a modern-day Stoic and has devoted entire chapters in his books to the Stoics, especially Seneca. What are the most important lessons and principles you’ve learned from Nassim? What do you return to the most in your day-to-day thinking and decision making?
This is a perfect first question, as I think he has the best two-sentence summary of Stoicism around:
“… Stoicism is about the domestication, not necessarily the elimination, of emotions. It is not about turning humans into vegetables. My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.”
This definition corrects what I see to be some of the more common mistakes people make when they begin to study Stoicism. It’s not about being emotionless, it’s about using emotions. It’s not about eliminating all desires, it’s about transmuting them into action.
It’s hard to overstate how much Taleb has changed my view of the world, so I’m sure he’s changed my defaults in ways I don’t realize. The following are some of his ideas I use daily or weekly (I’ve used his quotes to help expand on some of them):
- More reasons to do something is actually an argument against doing it.
“[I]f you have more than one reason to do something (choose a doctor or veterinarian, hire a gardener or an employee, marry a person, go on a trip), just don’t do it. It does not mean that one reason is better than two, just that by invoking more than one reason you are trying to convince yourself to do something. Obvious decisions (robust to error) require no more than a single reason.”
- Observe what people do and weigh that much heavier than what they say.
- Emphasize the potential impact of something rather than its probability when making decisions.
- Remember what you’re trying to do.
“Suckers try to win arguments, nonsuckers try to win.”
How did you first discover the Stoics? Who is your favorite one and why? And do you happen to have a favorite Stoic quote?
It’s hard to remember, I think I’d come across them in random books, but my first memory of wanting to learn more was after reading Ryan Holiday’s 2009 article on on Tim Ferriss’ blog, Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs.
I don’t know if I have a favorite Stoic, I find different Stoics to be useful for different things. I tend to pick up Epictetus when I need a pick-me-up, Seneca when I need to get centered, and Aurelius when I need to toughen up.
I do feel most “connected” to Seneca. Maybe because he was a writer? Maybe because he was the first Stoic whom I really dug into? Maybe I just like his style (or translator’s style). I don’t know.
There’s no favorite quote for me (I’ve always been bad at favorites, by the way, I remember being paralyzed in grade school when filling out those sheets with favorite colors, animals, etc), but the one that comes to me the most regularly and sums up a huge part of Stoicism for me comes from Marcus Aurelius:
“The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around. That’s all you need to know.”
That’s all you need to know. I use it when I’m trying to do something, but that something is drowning in ten different narratives I’m telling myself about it. When I’ve got to get something done but I’m worried about how it’ll be received, if I’ll have enough energy to finish it, if I’ll change my mind about it later, blah blah blah — just do the thing in front of you. Don’t think about it, forget the thoughts, engage fully.
I think you can consider almost everything else the Stoics wrote as a kind of footnote to this.
What lessons from the Stoics did you apply during the release of your book, The Pocket Guide to Action: 116 Meditations on the Art of Doing? These moments tend to be very nerve-wracking for authors and we are curious to hear how you handled the release?
The overarching Stoic principle here was focusing on what was in my control. The Stoics have this idea called ‘the dichotomy of control’. Basically, we can control some things and can’t control others–and we should focus on what we can control.
William Irvine, a Stoic scholar, updated this idea in A Guide to the Good Life to add a third segment, making it ‘the trichotomy of control’. The idea here is that there are things we can control, there are things we can’t control, and there are things we can kind of control. Still, we should focus on the things we can control, or at least have a chance of influencing.
I could control how much I put into the book and marketing. This would influence how many people were exposed to the book, and how well it was received.
There’s also a couple other factors that made the launch less nerve-wracking than it might be otherwise:
- Plenty of people had read the thing beforehand and the response was great, so we knew it wouldn’t be hated. (Ryan Holiday had also tweeted a quote from it, which is about as much proof as I needed that it didn’t totally suck.)
- Art of Manliness, who has maybe my favorite audience to write for, was publishing the book. They have a massive, highly engaged audience, which guaranteed that the book didn’t totally flop.
- I wasn’t aiming for the top of any best sellers list. Instead, my fantasy was to have a slow build, like what I imagine the build for The War of Art was. You know, something perennial. (I did say ‘fantasy,’ by the way.) So the neuroses around a perfect launch weren’t front and center.
- This was a fun project for both Art of Manliness and I. As all projects do, it balooned into something huge, but neither of us were counting on this to put food on the table. If either of us were, it probably would have required much more intense Stoic practice.
I use quite a few Stoic quotes in the book, too, so there were constant reminders to throw out the bitter cucumbers, to go around the brambles, and to trust that that was all there was to do.
The Stoics have stressed the importance of focusing on what you do. Right and virtuous action then becomes critical. You are well known for writing about the difference between just taking action and taking right action. Can you clarify this distinction for us? And perhaps give some examples?
Everything we do, by definition, is an action. Of course, we have a specific breed of action in mind when we say we’re “taking action.” When we read, “right action,” what comes to mind?
Perhaps it’s action that’s “on the path”. Or, the Stoics might say that it’s acting “according to Nature” or “according to the Logos/Reason”. These are far from prescriptive, they may not even work for some of us as very good compasses. The Aurelius koan-esque quote from your poster might be more helpful:
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
We already have a sense of what right action is. It’s what we do when we’re at our best. It’s the kind of action that feels right even if it means getting less, sweating more, or denying ourselves some kind of pleasure.
There’s not a list of right actions, because the same action may be right or not depending on the posture or intention behind it. Taking right action has to do with the texture of your attention and where that attention is focused.
Right action is when you can answer questions like “Is this the right thing to do?” or “Is this the way I should be handling this?” in the affirmative.
Right actions bring us closer to understanding reality, they’re virtuous, they’re often not the thing we feel like doing, they’re deliberate, and they’re satisfying whether or not they end in victory.
Let’s look at some examples.
Action may be reacting to unimportant, incoming emails while right action would be focusing on a high priority item.
Action is eating whatever you want, right action is eating what you will want to have eaten in an hour from now.
Action is flailing around looking for the perfect system, right action is beginning to build.
Action is yelling about your political opinions, right action is focused on making change.
Action is telling people what to do, right action is focused on getting them to do it.
Action wants to be busy, right action wants to be effective.
You’ve talked about thriving in uncertainty and the first thing that you mention is one of the key Stoic tenets of focusing only on what you control. Can you elaborate a bit why that is critical for us to thrive in uncertainty and what are the other tools that you recommend? What are some mental models and tools that the Daily Stoic readers can use?
We talked earlier about the trichotomy of control. This is so important in the midst of uncertainty because of how it changes us internally. In uncertain times, it becomes even more important that we’re able to respond to events with a kind of instinctive “fingertip-touch” (or Fingerspitzengefühl) and if we can’t keep a cool head, we lose this intuitive sense.
When we focus on what we control, we maintain a sense of control and calm that allows us to act more effectively. To unpack this, let’s consider two types of uncertainties, I call them “hard” and “soft”.
Soft uncertainty is the uncertainty we feel. Sometimes it comes from actual uncertainty in the world, and sometimes it comes from something more airy, like the uncertainty of an existential crisis.
Hard uncertainty is actual uncertainty in the world. It’s the randomness that we see all around us, it’s the chance that we hit Blackjack or are born in the United States or that our project succeeds.
When we focus on what we can control, our soft uncertainty decreases to give us our best chance in the world of hard uncertainty.
Being able to maintain this focus on what you can control is a powerful tool, and incredibly difficult. Meditatation (focus on breath flowing in and out of your nose for ten minutes) and freewriting (writing a stream of consciousness for ten minutes) are both powerful tools that assist in utilizing the trichotomy of control.
A few more tools and mental models that are helpful in uncertainty:
- Lumpy returns. Very few worthwhile things in life have perfectly linear returns. You have to slog, sometimes for years, with no visible sign of progress. Then one day something clicks or hits or appears and you get a massive return. If you understand that the work you’re putting in today isn’t for results today, it makes things a bit more bearable.
- Optionality. Create options for yourself. Have an out. Have the ability to respond to new opportunities. This could mean saving cash to invest if something comes up, meeting new people, or starting a side business.
- Embrace uncertainty. When faced with uncertainty, many of us run to the warm embrace of numbers or anything else that feels like solid ground. These are often dangerous illusions that tempt us into wasting resources. In many cases it’s better to take action based on the information we do have than wearing ourselves out chasing the mythic grail of complete information.
- Small bets with asymmetric outcomes. “Heads I win, tails I don’t lose much.” Poke and prod in the direction you want to move, then, if it feels right, go bigger.
I expand on all these much more in this post.
You are clearly very well read. What would be your top book recommendations with Stoic themes or anything that you think will resonate with our audience?
This is a big question! I’ll try to stay away from directly Stoic books and offer a few with interesting connections to Stoicism.
Trying Not To Try. Stoicism and eastern thought have some really interesting intersections that compliment each other, I think. This is a quick read that traces four movements of eastern thought and shows how each evolution of thought tried to attain tranquility.
Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones. Every time I pick this book up and read through my notes I’m amazed at how good it is. It’s a history that shows what happened to Roman emotionally as the Republic gave way to the Empire. It gives context to the world in which Stoicism initially flourished.
Antifragile. If you haven’t read this book, you’ve probably at least seen a bunch of people like me quoting Taleb. The quotes are not enough. Like Hristo mentioned in a question above, it has full chapters devoted to Stoicism, which enable you to read the rest as applying Stoicism to various areas of life.
On Caring. This was my most-gifted book of 2016 and remains so in 2017. It’s a manifesto on what it means to care about something and how we might learn to care better in order to live better. It also helps frame Stoic thought. When we read the Stoics we may be tempted to become aloof or to think we ought to not care about anything. This may be because we don’t understand what it truly means to care about something.
What are your next projects? What are you excited about?
I’m publishing another short book with Art of Manliness in October, this one is about how we can use the ideas from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay Self-Reliance today. We’re also doing something special with that project that I’m excited for you to see.
Each week I collect the very best ideas I’ve come across (books, articles, podcasts, videos, conversations, Twitter, games, everywhere) and share them on Sunday mornings. I just started doing this a couple of months ago and the response has been phenomenal. You can start getting those here.
I’m excited about the ideas you’re spreading. Whenever I see quality, honest content get the kind of traction you have, the world just seems brighter. Thank you!
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