“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind,” the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
Does that mean Marcus Aurelius and the ancient Stoics believed in the Law of Attraction, as popularized by Rhonda Byrne?
It’s a good question. And we will spend the rest of this article answering it. This is a long post. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:
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The Law of Attraction was made popular by The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. The Secret has been translated into 50 languages and sold over 35 million copies. It was made into a movie in 2006 and the two combined have grossed well over $300 million.
Oprah Winfrey gave it perhaps its biggest endorsement on The Larry King Show, saying, “The message of The Secret is the message I’ve been trying to share with the world on my show for the past twenty-one years.”
Byrne was then on The Oprah Winfrey Show, where we learn the story of how reading The Science of Getting Rich by Wallace D. Wattles led to her writing The Secret. When asked about the title, Byrne told Oprah, “we really needed to contain the knowledge in a couple of words and ‘the secret’ is the law of attraction.”
What do you mean by that? Oprah asks.
“The law of attraction,” Byrne responds, “is the most powerful law in the universe. It is the law by which we are creating our lives. So whether we realize it or not the law of attraction is working all of the time. Now clearly, if you don’t know what the law does then then you can’t be creating the life you want. The law of attraction says that like attracts like. What we do is we attract into our lives the things that we want and that is based on what we’re thinking and feeling.”
The law of attraction (LOA) is the belief that the Universe creates whatever it is you focus your thoughts on.
Oprah’s not the only famous advocate. When he was promoting the movie The Pursuit of Happyness, Will Smith talked about how he felt connected to the character, based on a man named Chris Gardner who went from homeless to becoming a millionaire. “We both believe, wholeheartedly, that our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, our ideas are physical in the universe…That we are going to command and demand that the universe become what we want it to be.”
Jay Z has said, “I believe you can speak things into existence.” Conor McGregor believes, “If you truly believe in it and become vocal with it, you are creating that law of attraction and it will become reality.” And in the documentary In Wonder, there is a scene where Shawn Mendes shows a journal. On November 24th, 2018, he wrote line after line for a whole page, “I will sell out the Rogers Centre.” Tickets were going on sale that day. The next day, we see a full page in the journal, “I sold out the Rogers Centre.” He sold out the Rogers Centre—a more than 50,000 seat stadium in his home city of Toronto—“because I wrote it in my manifestation journal.”
LOA believers say it is a universal law: “like always attracts like.” They say things like that through “cutting edge science,” we can show that our thoughts have magnetic powers. That the energy and frequency of a thought radiates out into the Universe and attracts similar energies and frequencies of thoughts, people, things, then brings those things back to you. That thoughts become things. That if it’s on your mind or your vision board, it will eventually be in your real life. That creating the life of your dreams is just a matter of thinking about it with more intention.
LOA believers call it “placing an order.” Write down what you want—the more specific the better—then wait for them to happen. That’s right, as you’ll hear from one LOA guru, no action required!
LOA believers write themselves a check for millions of dollars, carry it around in their pockets, and wait for the money to pour in.
They write down, day after day, that they want millions of followers on TikTok and wait for the followers to pile up.
They put a picture of a mansion on their vision board and tell their manifestation coach that they planted the seed for their reality.
Then all that’s left is to meditate and journal and visualize and say your affirmations and then, as one LOA expert would say, “be receptive for what [you] wish to manifest.”
It’d be wonderful if it were true. If we could, by the power of our thoughts, manifest the reality we wanted. Needless to say, this is not true.
Here’s a perfect example:
In 2014, Rhonda Byrne, the author of The Secret—the famous book about the Law of Attraction—listed her Santa Barbara mansion for sale for some $23.5 million. A year later, she reduced it to $18.8. Then again to $14.9. Finally, after languishing for over five years, it sold for $13.6. $5 million less than she paid for it. $10 million less than she wanted for it.
Reality—in this case the market—doesn’t care what you think. No amount of manifesting changes what something is worth. In fact, a reporter at The Wall Street Journal asked Rhonda Byrne why she didn’t just wish for her home to get the full asking price. It wasn’t a priority, she said, so she hadn’t “put in the time and energy.” That answer is a bit more palatable than admitting you’re a con artist.
Dave Chappelle’s joke was that Rhonda Byrne should fly to Africa and tell those starving children her secret. That all they need to do is just visualize some roast beef, some mashed potatoes, and some gravy. They’d beg her to stop filling their minds with delicious impossibilities. “No, no, no,” Chappelle says, pretending to be Byrnes, “the problem is you have a bad attitude about starving to death.”
There’s no science that says your thoughts can will reality into behaving how you wish it to. Or that thinking negative thoughts will invite negative outcomes. In fact, literally all of science contradicts this.
Here are just a few examples.
- Research has shown that “positive fantasies about the future predict poor performance.”
- Research has shown that positive fantasies also predicts both low effort and successful performance.
- Research has shown that consistent exposure to an ideal body type leads people to gain weight.
It’s worth repeating: literally all of science contradicts the law of attraction. Like magnets and electricity—often, like repels like.
That’s not to say that positive thinking isn’t important. It’s to say that positive thinking is different from the law of attraction…
In The Laws of Human Nature, the great Robert Greene makes the diction between having a constricted (negative) attitude an expansive (positive) attitude. The way we see the world is important. To illustrate this, he uses the example of a young man and a young woman studying abroad in Paris.
The young man has a constricted attitude. He finds reasons to not like the people, the weather, or the food. Notre Dame Cathedral wasn’t what he hoped, not to mention it is overcrowded with annoying tourists. He has a miserable experience in Paris and swears to never return.
The young woman has an expansive attitude. She’s not great at speaking French but she is thrilled to be learning the language. She finds the Parisians to be awesome and makes a lot of new friends. She finds the gloomy weather to be the perfect match for this romantic city. Everyday feels like an adventure. She’s enchanted and wants to stay as long as she can and then return as often as she can.
Two people saw and experienced the same city in opposite ways. How does that happen? “With our particular perspectives,” Robert writes, “[we] add color to or subtract it from things and people. We focus on either the beautiful Gothic architecture or the annoying tourists.”
So yes, positive thinking is important. Our reality is largely created by what we decide to see: the positive or the negative. If you have positive thoughts, you will have positive experiences. If you see everything as negative and nasty, you will see annoying people and crappy weather.
But the law of attraction leaves out the crucial variable. As Ryan Holiday explained to Lewis Howes on The School of Greatness podcast, “Our perceptions do color our reality…But the Stoics don’t say, ‘oh, if you just see everything positive, it will all be positive.’ It’s that the positivity sets up the action that can make the positivity real.”
The law of attraction says to write yourself a check for a million dollars and then wait for it to happen. The Stoics would say it’s fine to write yourself that check, as Ryan continues, “and then go do the work.”
The tricky part is, as we just talked about, the Stoics did believe our thoughts are extremely powerful. Our worldview does influence what we see. Telling yourself that something is possible or impossible can function as a kind of effective truth.
Much more rigorous and less mystical thinkers than the Secret gurus have known this for centuries.
Marcus Aurelius said, “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes the color of your thoughts.” He also said, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.”
Before Marcus, the slave turned teacher Epictetus said, “Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadiness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom.”
To the Stoics, the discipline of perception was essential. If you saw the world as a negative, horrible place, if you saw other people as your enemies, if you believed that you were screwed, you were right.
Marcus Aurelius didn’t believe you manifested the future through “energy,” but he did believe that you had the power right here and now to determine whether you’d be “harmed” by something. If you decided to see what happened as good, you could make it good.
The Stoics would say that our thoughts determine the character of the reality we live in. If you see the awfulness in everything, your life will feel awful—even if you are surrounded by wealth and success. If you hold a perpetually negative outlook, soon enough everything you encounter will seem negative. Close it off and you’ll become closed-minded. Color it with the wrong thoughts and your life will be dyed the same. If you have a growth mindset, if you consider the very real chance of adversity, you won’t be easily discouraged when you fail. If you find something to be grateful for in every situation, you will feel blessed and happy where others feel aggrieved or deprived.
The problem with the Law of Attraction is that it cuts both ways.
By believing that thinking positively produces positive outcomes, it actually makes practitioners very vulnerable—because they will deliberately avoid thinking of potentially negative outcomes. And then guess what? When these outcomes do happen—because, well, life—they’re caught off guard.
That’s why the exercise of premeditatio malorum (“the premeditation of evils”), which we talk more about below, is not dangerous, as many Secret manifesters might fear, but the epitome of safe. “Rehearse them in your mind,” Seneca said, “exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” The unexpecting are crushed, he said, the prepared, resolute.
The key is that the discipline of perception is worthless on its own. What matters is what follows—the discipline of action.
As a kid, Demosthenes—one of the greatest orators of history and someone the publicly-minded Stoics would have studied carefully—was sickly and frail with a nearly debilitating speech impediment. He was the awkward child no one understood and everyone laughed at.
Stuck in his young mind was the image of a great orator, a man he’d once witnessed speaking at the court at Athens. That a lone individual could keep a crowd hanging on his every word for hours—it inspired and challenged Demosthenes, who was well aware this confident speaker was in many ways the opposite of him.
So he did something about it.
To conquer his speech impediment, he would fill his mouth with pebbles and practice speaking. He rehearsed full speeches into the wind or while running up steep inclines. He shaved half his head so he’d be too embarrassed to go outside and have no choice but to stay inside and practice with his voice, his facial expressions, and his arguments. He even locked himself underground in a dugout he’d built to study and educate himself.
All this training would pay off. Just like that confident speaker whose image he long held in his mind, Demosthenes earned the ability to command a crowd and would become the voice of Athens, it’s great speaker and conscience. make him one of the greatest orators of Athens.
Some academic would at some point ask Demosthenes what the three most important traits of speechmaking were, his reply says it all: “Action, Action, Action!”
Whether your dream is to be a great orator, a great writer, a great entrepreneur, a great athlete—the road to realizing that dream is exactly that: a road. And just like you travel along a road in steps, accomplishing anything is a matter of steps. And taking steps means taking action.
This seems obvious. That action is the critical variable in achieving your goals and dreams. But not to LOA believers. According to one LOA guru, Esther Hicks, “You did not come into this environment to create through action.” Uh what, that is literally the only way to create things. Hicks and her followers believe that to take action is to doubt the Universe’s powers of manifestation. Better to show your unquestionable belief in the Universe through your inaction.
This is obviously the antithesis of the way the Stoics lived. “You have to assemble your life yourself,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “action by action.”
“What is quite unlooked for is more crushing in its effect, and unexpectedness adds to the weight of a disaster. This is a reason for ensuring that nothing ever takes us by surprise. We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of events…Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.” — Seneca
A CEO calls her staff into the conference room on the eve of the launch of a major new initiative. They file in and take their seats around the table. She calls the meeting to attention and begins, “I have bad news. The project has failed spectacularly. What went wrong?”
The team is perplexed: What?! But we haven’t even launched yet…!
It may seem strange and maybe even counterproductive to demand that employees think negatively instead of optimistically. In LOA circles, it’s forbidden. “That thinking of what you do not want,” as LOA guru Esther Hicks says, “only attracts more of what you do not want into your experience.”
The technique that the CEO above was using was designed by psychologist Gary Klein. It’s called a premortem. In a premortem, a project manager must envision what could go wrong—what will go wrong—in advance, before starting.
Why? Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they are only considering how the Universe will manifest exactly what they hope and wish for.
In business circles today, everyone from startups to Fortune 500 companies and the Harvard Business Review are doing this exact exercise. In a direct response to that optimistic-only, feel-good thinking, these leaders are encouraging their employees to think negatively.
But the practice goes back much further than psychology. It dates back many thousands of years, in fact—to the great Stoic philosophers like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. And they had an even better name for it: premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils).
Marcus Aurelius actually learned one premeditatio malorum practice from Epictetus. “As you kiss your son good night, says Epictetus,” writes Marcus, a father of fourteen, “whisper to yourself, ‘He may be dead in the morning.’”
Your tempting fate! we can hear LOA believers shouting.”Don’t tempt fate, you say,” Marcus continues. “By talking about a natural event? Is fate tempted when we speak of grain being reaped?”
The point of thinking about this unthinkable thing is not to invite it to happen. It has a purpose. A parent who faces the fact that they can lose a child at any moment is a parent who dares not waste a moment. A wise parent looks at the cruel world and says, “I know what you can do to my family in the future, but for the moment you’ve spared me. I will not take that for granted.”
Or take a writer like Seneca. His premeditatio malorum practice would begin by reviewing or rehearsing his plans, say, to take a trip. And then, in his head (or in writing), he would go over the things that could go wrong or prevent it from happening—a storm could arise, the captain could fall ill, the ship could be attacked by pirates.
“Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation,” he wrote to a friend, “nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.”
By doing this exercise, Seneca was always prepared for disruption and always working that disruption into his plans. He was fitted for defeat or victory. And let’s be honest, a pleasant surprise is a lot better than an unpleasant one.
“Make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty.” — Seneca
Wallace Wattles—whose book The Science of Getting Rich inspired Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret—said, “Do not talk about poverty; do not investigate it, or concern yourself with it. Do not spend your time in charitable work, or charity movements, all charity only tends to perpetuate the wretchedness it aims to eradicate…Give your attention wholly to riches; ignore poverty.”
That is a great way to set yourself up to be in very, very bad shape if anything were ever to happen to the economy or to your job. Yikes.
Seneca, one of the wealthiest men in Rome during his lifetime, had a lot to say about poverty The word “poverty” appears nearly a hundred times in his Letters to his friend Lucilius.
He talked repeatedly about how poverty is far from the burden most fear it to be. He talked about how the poor man has a better grasp on true and tried friendship than the rich man. He talked about the kind of people welcome at his dinner table—impoverished or wealthy, it didn’t matter, what kind of character did they have? What kind of person were they? He talked about how it is not the person who has little that is poor but the one who craves more.
Needless to say, Seneca would scoff at a Wattles or a Byrne’s advice to ignore poverty. His advice was in fact the opposite. He said we should do what he did routinely: practice poverty. As he described:
“Set apart certain days on which you shall withdraw from your business and make yourself at home with the scantiest fare. Establish business relations with poverty…For he alone is in kinship with God who has scorned wealth. Of course I do not forbid you to possess it, but I would have you reach the point at which you possess it dauntlessly; this can be accomplished only by persuading yourself that you can live happily without it as well as with it, and by regarding riches always as likely to elude you.”
Seneca wasn’t a rare exception. Others have practiced poverty without the Universe making poverty their reality.
From the late Roman collection of biographies known as the Historia Augusta, we get this story of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “He studied philosophy with ardour, even as a youth. For when he was twelve years old he adopted the dress and, a little later, the hardiness of a philosopher, pursuing his studies clad in a rough Greek cloak and sleeping on the ground; at his mother’s solicitation, however, he reluctantly consented to sleep on a couch strewn with skins.”
More recently, when we interviewed Tim Ferriss, we asked him what tactical advice or practices he’d recommend to our readers who want to cultivate resilience. Tim’s answer? “The first would be practicing poverty,” he said. Once a month, Tim does a three-day fast “to simply expose myself to the rather, often unfamiliar, sensation of real hunger.”
He also mentioned how his friend, a wealthy CEO, schedules a week every quarter where sleeps in a sleeping bag in his living room and survives on instant coffee and instant oatmeal. With this reassurance that he can thrive with with next to nothing, his decision making improves. He can think big picture rather than do things out of fear or obligation.
“The more you schedule and practice discomfort deliberately,” Tim explains, “the less unplanned discomfort will throw off your life and control your life.”
Meditate On Your Mortality
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” — Marcus Aurelius
Rhonda Byrne’s advice would be to avoid thinking about your mortality. As she writes in The Secret, “If you think or talk about diseases, you will become sick. What you think or surround yourself with – good or bad, is what you will bring upon yourself.”
But here’s the thing: you already have a terminal diagnosis. We all do! As the writer Edmund Wilson put it, “Death is one prophecy that never fails.” Every person is born with a fatal disease.
Which is why for nearly 3,000 years, the great minds have been saying essentially the same thing: think about death. Indeed, the Stoics would hardly be alone in disputing Byrne:
Socrates: “The one aim of those who practice philosophy is to practice for dying and death.”
Shakespeare: “Every third thought should be my grave.”
Michelangelo: “No thought exists in me which death has not carved with his chisel.”
Tolstoy: “If we kept in mind that we will soon inevitably die, our lives would be completely different.”
Moses: “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”
And Mozart: “As death, when we come to consider it closely, is the true goal of our existence.”
Again, that’s over 3,000 years of wisdom on the same theme…
Every era and every culture has its own way of teaching the same lesson: Memento Mori, as the Romans would remind themselves. At a Roman triumph, the majority of the public would have their eyes glued to the victorious general at the front—one of the most coveted spots during Roman times. Only a few would notice the aide in the back, right behind the commander, whispering into his ear, Memento Mori. “Remember, thou art mortal.”
Did that cause all of them to die premature deaths? Um. No.
Memento Mori is not about being morbid. It’s not to tempt The Universe. It was as Samuel Johnson wrote, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”
The Stoic finds this thought of their mortality invigorating and humbling. It is not surprising that one of Seneca’s biographies is titled Dying Every Day. After all, it is Seneca who urged us to tell ourselves “You may not wake up tomorrow,” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again,” when waking up as reminders of our mortality. Or as another Stoic, Epictetus, urged his students: “Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible— by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.”
Use those reminders and meditate on them daily—let them be the building blocks of living your life to the fullest and not wasting a second.