Stoic Mid-Week Meditations: An Interview With Lifehacker’s Patrick Allan

Patrick Allan is a writer for one of the biggest productivity sites in the world. It’s an enormous platform which he uses, once per week, to teach his readers about Stoicism. Patrick’s popular Lifehacker.com series “Mid-Week Meditations” offers short insights and wisdom from the Stoics as well as tips for being better, thinking more clearly and managing the stresses of life. We reached out to Patrick learn more about his Stoic journey, why he started the column, the “life hacks” aspect of Stoicism, and much more. Aside from writing about the Stoics, Patrick is also a screenwriter, the producer behind the YouTube series Threshold, and he is currently finishing up a feature-length horror screenplay based on American Indian folklore, and exploring the darker aspects of modern life with short fiction. You can follow Patrick on Twitter, Instagram and don’t forget to check out his prolific work over the last several years on Lifehacker, including his posts on the Stoics. Enjoy our interview with Patrick below!

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Last summer you started “Mid-Week Meditations,” and now it’s ongoing series on Lifehacker of short posts which, as you write, “dip into the pool of Stoic wisdom.” How and why did you decide to start it? Even much before starting the column, you have described Stoicism as your “favorite source for advice and life lessons” so we’d be curious to learn more about that journey.

I’ve been a reader of philosophy, Stoic and otherwise, since college, where I was introduced to many of the classics, and I’ve always wanted to write about it in some form or another. Honestly, I’d like to go back to school someday and devote myself to philosophy further. Stoicism puts both virtue and reason together in a way that makes sense to me. It doesn’t sugarcoat the harsh reality of our world, and shows you how and why you need to accept it—all while still giving legitimate reasons to be good to your fellow man. When I finally wrapped my head around the basic Stoic principle of “it’s not about what happens to you, but how you choose to react to it” I was hooked. I realized I didn’t need to be in control of the world around me to be in control of myself.

I knew I wanted to share these morsels of enlightenment with others, and my editors at Lifehacker were happy to let me give it a try. Mid-Week Meditations has been well received so far, and I’m very thankful for that.

Do you remember how you were first introduced to Stoicism? Walk us through that first experience.

I had read some Marcus Aurelius and Seneca in college, but honestly, it wasn’t until I read and reviewed The Obstacle Is the Way for Lifehacker that I actually realized how applicable Stoicism could be to modern life. At the time, I was dealing with some difficult things in my personal life, and the basic principles of Stoicism and other philosophies highlighted in that book helped me get through it all mostly unscathed, and mentally stronger too. After that, I dug out my old copy of Meditations and really started to study. Since then, I’ve been reading more and more of it from all the greats.

You wrote in the series’ inaugural post that Marcus Aurelius is your favorite Stoic. Why is that? What are your favorite exercises and quotes from Marcus?  

Meditations spoke to me, as if Marcus Aurelius had written his journal just for me to read. More importantly, Aurelius wasn’t just a philosopher, he was a leader too. It’s hard to say if he always practiced what he preached, but there’s something so hopeful about a leader who puts others before himself, thinks before he acts, and attempts to be as virtuous as possible. The fact that he even took the time to question himself and ponder what it meant to be a good man is endearing.

In terms of some favorite lessons, I like:

“If he is going wrong, teach him kindly and show him what he has failed to see. If you can’t do that, blame yourself – or perhaps not even yourself.”Meditations, 10.4

And:

“The external things whose pursuit or avoidance troubles you do not force themselves on you, but in a way you yourself go out to them. However that may be, keep your judgement of them calm and they too will stay still – then you will not be seen either to pursue or to avoid.”Meditations, 11.11

Which have been the most popular posts in the series that our readers should check out? And did the reception of a particular post surprise you?

Some of the more popular posts include:

You’re Supposed to Struggle

The More You Want, the Poorer You’ll Feel

Life Isn’t Short, You Make It Short

You Cannot Learn What You Think You Already Know

I was surprised by the response to the post Don’t Pray for Outcomes, Ask for Strength. It’s a lesson from Marcus Aurelius about shifting our perspective on the things we want in life. Instead of hoping for a situation to go a certain way, you should ask for the ability to handle that situation well no matter what happens. I actually got a lot of positive responses from religious folks that appreciated some open-minded philosophy that could allow there to be a higher power. Whether you’re asking the universe or praying to some god, the lesson still stands. Hopefully a few of them became interested in learning more about Stoicism.

There is a kind of possessive criticism in some Stoic circles of so called “life hack Stoicism”—that it’s somehow wrong to look at this philosophy and try to apply it to being more efficient or productive or successful. They say the Stoics were about virtue, not about getting ahead at work. Given that you write for Lifehacker, what’s your reaction to that?

You know, I understand their grievance here, and I agree to some extent that trying to use these concepts as some sort of shortcut to wealth and praise is not what they’re intended for. It’s true, the Stoics looked down upon the pursuit of such things. But at the same time, I think if you were to apply many of the principles of stoic philosophy to your modern life and career, efficiency, productivity, and success could follow. It’s not about using stoicism as “life hacks” so much as it’s about shaping a better perspective on yourself and the world you exist in. Just because one has learned to control their reactions to negative experiences, knows how to more easily let go of material and nonmaterial things, and has stopped fearing inevitable change doesn’t mean they should shun success should it come their way. Marcus Aurelius said, “Accept humbly, let go easily,” so do so.

Putting that aside, is there something in Stoicism that jumps out at you at being a great little life hack?

My two favorites for that are…

From Marcus Aurelius, opinions are optional:

“You always own the option of having no opinion. There is never any need to get worked up or to trouble your soul about things you can’t control. These things are not asking to be judged by you. Leave them alone.” – Meditations, 6.52

Thanks to blogs, Facebook, and Twitter, opinions are everywhere, and everyone feels like they need to have one on everything. Wrong. You have no idea how freeing it is to simply decide you have no opinion on something.

From Zeno of Citium, listen more than you speak:

“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”

You’ll always do well to listen more. It gives you more information for you to use as you see fit, it makes people like you more because they’ll feel heard, and the less you talk the lower the chances you’ll say something you regret.

The Stoics were often writing about finding stillness and tranquility. We’ve read that you practice a form of ‘walking meditation’ to clear your head. Can you describe what it means and how they can try it?

I was blessed with the ability to fall asleep quite easily, so when I tried traditional meditation I was accidentally napping most of the time. To battle that, I added movement to my routine. My version of meditation, or what I dubbed “walking meditation,” is nothing fancy. It involves me taking a very long walk (at least a couple miles) while I do my deep thinking. If I’m in the city—which is most of the time—I wear headphones and listen to music that I think will help me work through whatever’s on my mind. Usually this music has no words, and is very peaceful. Sometimes I will put on my noise-cancelling headphones and opt for near silence instead. If I’m away from the city where there is nature, I’ll walk along trails and listen to the breeze and the birds. The key to my approach to meditation is that I don’t come back home until I’ve reached a good place mentally. Sometimes it takes me longer to get focused when I walk, for example, or sometimes I have more thoughts than usual that I’d like to mull over. I don’t head home until I’ve actually reached a deep, self-reflective state and spend some time there.

One description of you reads that you have “been writing for the website Lifehacker for over three years, but when he’s not striving to improve people’s lives with tips, tricks, and science, he’s trying to scare them to death.” Scare people to death how and why?

Ha! I love horror. I write horror stories and screenplays on the side, and I like to host scary movie or scary game nights. Beyond the creative aspects of horror, I also believe scaring yourself in controlled environments is something everyone should do. That kind of “fun” fear is good for you. It clears your head by forcing your mind to focus on the present, it keeps your fight or flight systems lubricated, it brings people to together and helps them bond, and you feel a tremendous amount of catharsis when it’s all over. You feel like you’ve survived something, and that feeling gives you courage for the next scary thing you have to confront. Life is full of fear, so why not accept that and train yourself to handle it more confidently?

Any good book recommendations, Stoic or otherwise?

Outside of the usual classics, nothing Stoic at the moment.

However, I’ve recently read and recommend Afoot In Japan by Yasumi Roan and translated by William Scott Wilson; Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo; and The Demonologist by Gerald Brittle.

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