Stoicism, Suffering, And Training The Coward Inside You: An Interview With Entrepreneur and Former Infantry Officer Nick Palmisciano

Nick Palmisciano is the creator of Ranger Up , the first military lifestyle brand, in 2006, which kicked off a decade of veteran entrepreneurial endeavors focused around social media.  Ranger Up has been a leader in the veteran community, with such strong support that it has landed in Internet Retailer’s Second 500 every year since 2012. In 2008, he launched he award-winning veteran news site, “The Rhino Den”, also in many ways, the first of its kind. In 2014, he co-wrote, produced, starred in, and served as managing partner for Range 15, the first veteran-made “Hollywood Film”.  Range 15 would open in over 650 theaters and rose to the ranks of #1 on Amazon and #2 on iTunes for all digital downloads in its first week. Before entering the entrepreneurial ranks, he spent the best and hardest six years of his life serving as an infantry officer in the United States Army, and is a graduate of the United States Army Ranger School. Before all of it, he was a student of Stoicism and, as his Twitter bio reads, is still an “aspiring stoic.”

There’s a long-standing connection between philosophy and soldiering. Marcus AureliusCato, Socrates, and many other philosophers were all soldiers. And of course, there’s James Stockdale, who, when his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over Vietnam, as he recounts, “I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’” Lke Stockdale, Palmisciano credits Stoicism with helping him get through some tremendously tough situations. Palmisciano details some of those in our interview below, as well as explaining what being in the Infantry and Ranger community has taught him about living a good life, how he’s learned to remain balanced and steady amid chaos, the skill sets that have helped him find success across a wide range of industries, and much much more. Please enjoy our interview with Nick Palmisciano!

Do you remember how you first got introduced to Stoicism? Was it at West Point? Reading on your own later?

It was actually much earlier than that.  My father has always been a reader.  It was a big thing in his generation to have a nice set of the great books.  I think they used to have one sent a month.  For most people the books were just ornamentation – kind of a Ron Burgundy “I have many leather-bound books” motif.  But my dad read all of them.  If he wasn’t reading old books, he was reading science fiction or fantasy, like Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or Dune.  Anyway, one of his favorite books was Marcus AureliusMeditations. He used to chuckle at the fact that here’s this guy – arguably the most powerful man on the planet at the time – and he’s dealing with the same bullshit we all deal with.  He turned some of the concepts into sayings:

“See everything to its rightful conclusion.”

“Who cares what other people think?  What do they know?  Do what you think is right.”

“Control what you can control.  Ignore the rest.”

“Nothing is impossible if you are willing to work for it.”

“No matter where you are – in the White House, in the boardroom, in the military, or at McDonald’s – you meet the same four or five people.  One of them is awesome, most of them are average, and everyone else sucks.  So don’t expect more or less from people just because the room is fancier or simpler.  It’s always the same.”

I can go on and on with them, but it made me want to read what he was reading.  So I grabbed his copy of Meditations and started powering through it.  I think I was 10 or 11.  It was a hard read for a kid, and while I typically read it now in a few hours, I remember it taking me over a week because I couldn’t read too much before I started losing the context, but it was important to me to understand it.  At that point, I don’t think I appreciated the content, or really absorbed it in any meaningful way.  It was more about doing it.

Stoicism became more real to me when I was a thirteen-year-old freshman in high school.  My wrestling coach and AP history teacher Nick Peachy was a devout stoic. So I was getting the principles of the great Greek and Roman stoics in class and then I was living a stoic existence cutting weight, relentlessly trying to improve, and dealing with the wins and losses of the hardest sport there is after school.

By the time I hit West Point, I was already of the belief system that I could endure and deal with anything that life brought me.  I was nowhere near the best cadet, but I was one of the best at dealing with suffering.  

There’s a long-standing connection between philosophy and being a soldier–James Stockdale is one example, obviously. Marcus Aurelius and Cato were both soldiers. What do you think being in the Infantry and Ranger community taught you about living a good life? What virtues stuck with you from your instructors and the people you met?

This is a tough one to answer because there is so much here for me.  The Army gave me far more than I will ever give it and I mean that emphatically.  I’ll keep my answer to three, because no one wants to hear more than three.

Taking Life as it Comes.

Being in the military is living in a world without control.  In fact, the hierarchical structure and exercises in discipline exist because deep down the military knows all of its plans turn into garbage 90% of the time and you’re left with the moniker “adapt and overcome.” Regardless of what you’re planning to do and how well you plan it, the chain of command, politics, the weather, and the enemy may have drastically different plans.  You routinely get fed a shit sandwich and are not only expected to eat it, but eat it using the proper utensils, table manners, and a smile on your face so that the men and women under your command maintain motivation and discipline as you tackle the new surprise mission.

And that’s an incredible gift, because after a period of time you stop wishing or hoping or expecting good things to happen.  That probably sounds negative, but it isn’t.  When you stop counting on an outcome, you tend to start taking things as they come.  “Oh, we were supposed to be stopping here tonight and sleeping?  Well, we have an all-night mission now.”   “Oh, we were supposed to have hot food tonight?  Well, the First Sergeant’s vehicle broke down and now we’re eating MREs.”  “We finally made it to the landing zone after walking all night and the Blackhawks will be here any minute to pick us up?  Well, it’s raining now and they can’t land so we’re walking another ten miles in.”  These things happened literally every day in the Army on either a large level or with the everyday minutiae.  And over time, you begin to expect the unexpected and it simply cannot affect you.  It becomes a joke.  You almost aren’t comfortable unless things have gone wrong, because everything was always going wrong.  And when you get to that point, nothing can break you.  You’ve programmed yourself to deal with the hands you are dealt and not waste unhappy time pining for conditions or an outcome that simply doesn’t exist.

Do Your Job.  (And Respect the Jobs of Others)

One of the biggest lessons that the military taught me is the importance of doing your job and appreciating the jobs of others.  I was an officer and a West Pointer at that, and that comes with some baggage, both good and bad.  It’s easy when you’re an officer to believe that your role is extremely important, but that mentality will burn you quickly.  The infantry is designed so that the most important entity is not the upper echelon leadership and staff, but the fire team.  The fire team is made up of one team leader and three soldiers.  The idea is that you’re pushing down decision-making to the lowest possible level so that you stay flexible enough to handle any situation.  If the fire teams are well trained, then you should be able to handle any obstacle.

My job as a platoon leader was to ensure that I set the conditions so that my platoon would operate just as well if I was killed.   And when you look at life in that light, you realize something that hurts most people’s ego:  my unit could operate without me, but it could not operate without the teams.  I was not the most important piece of the puzzle, even though I was in charge.  That allowed me to approach my job differently.  In training, I had to delegate more.  I had to take risks that might make our unit not look as good as it could have if we played by the normal rules.  I had to make sure the guys knew each other’s jobs.  I had to make sure the squad leaders and platoon sergeant knew my job.

This is hard for a lot of people because it involves letting go and knowing that sometimes things won’t get done the right way at first or will be done in a different way than they would like.  The result of those feelings is micromanagement and low performing employees.  You have to let people own it, sometimes fail, and figure it out.  In the long run its better for everyone involved.

Where I saw this pay off the most was when I was a platoon leader in Kosovo at the turn of the millennium.  We were one of the first units in there when that conflict kicked off and in the first fourteen days, we were shot at for the first time, had to fix a roof that was raining rat feces down on us when it rained, had to figure out a weigh to get power to a wedding, and had to broker a peace in the towns in our sector.  My platoon of 40 guys was responsible for six towns, and later the first American/Russian shared mission since World War II at a checkpoint at the Serb border.  I couldn’t be everywhere.  My platoon sergeant couldn’t be everywhere.  Most of the patrols were squad leader or team leader led.  They had to solve these problems and make good decisions every single day and have the confidence that I would support them.  Had I been afraid to let them do their jobs during training because I was worried about “grading” then they wouldn’t have been as comfortable on the ground.  Or at least that’s what I tell myself.  Who knows?  Maybe I sucked!

You can’t ever quit.

Everyone has a breaking point.  For most people, that point is very low, which is why many people never push themselves past their comfort zone.  The military demands suffering.  It provides you with increased opportunity to suffer at every turn.  Basic training.  Airborne School.  Ranger School.  Special Forces Selection.  BUDs.  You name it.  The guys we revere are the guys that have suffered the most.  No one really cares if you’re the fastest runner or the best at combatives or the best shot, but they do care when you fall out of the run, or you get on the truck from exhaustion on the road march, or you won’t step on the mat.  And the dirty little secret is that everyone has a coward inside them, and if you really want to be tough, and I mean that both physically and mentally, you have to push that coward to the breaking point and then push past it every day.  You have to embrace suffering, or in military parlance, embrace the suck.

I had a day in Ranger School where I had eaten a bad MRE.  It had been punctured and I didn’t realize it until it was too late, so it was rotting, and it destroyed my stomach.  So here I am in the dead of the Georgia summer and I have food poisoning and I’m puking my guts out.  My squad mates were awesome and their plan was to give me the easiest day possible in terms of duties, when all of a sudden, the Ranger Instructor called my name out.  I was in charge as the squad leader.  There were three grades on the line now: the alpha team leader and bravo team leader under me, and of course mine.  At this point I was halfway through the course.  If you haven’t been in the military and you’re a normal person you’re probably thinking, “Why didn’t you tell the cadre you’re sick?”  But when you’re at a school that is essentially in place to test mental fortitude that concept doesn’t really occur to you.  So I dug in, even though I had a fever and my vision was fuzzy.

We started out on the mission and a couple miles into our movement, I realized I was sick.  I thought about stopping the mission, so I could slide behind a tree, but we were already late and the pressure from the RIs to move faster was constant.  I tried to hold it in until I couldn’t.  I had tears hit my eyes as I basically filled my pants with diarrhea.  It was an awful feeling.  I was sloshing around in my own feces, my head was throbbing, and I had the gag reflex every few steps, but I kept putting one foot in front of the other.

At the end of the mission, I borrowed baby wipes from everyone in the squad and went into the woods and cleaned myself off and buried my pants and changed my boots.  I wasn’t supposed to be away from the unit, but I was trying to spare them.  Unbeknownst to me, my Ranger Instructor, Sergeant White, followed me.  “What the hell are you doing out here?” he asked.  I gave him the cliff notes version, at the end of which he chuckled.  “So you shit yourself and Charlie Miked (continued mission) all day and never said a goddamn word?”

“Roger Sergeant,” I responded.

“That’s a GO Ranger,” he replied, meaning I had passed that patrol.

I think about that moment often, because I’ve been in the proverbial shit many times since then, whether in the military, in life, or in business, and while the challenges have been varied, the answer is always the same – keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Another thing that Stoicism and the military both foster is the importance of a disciplined routine. Can you tell us about yours? What’s your day look like?

My twitter profile reads aspiring stoic for a reason.  This is a major hole in my game.  When I start something, I have a tendency to race until it’s done.  I’ll do four consecutive 15-18 hour days and then crash for two days one week, and then have five 10-hour days the next week, and then run 18 hour days nonstop during the holidays.  Once I get going on something and I feel like I hit my stride and am making progress, I just prefer not to stop.  I know this is not optimal, but I’m north of 40 and I don’t think I’m going to change this aspect of who I am.

What I do in my work life though, is I start everyday with a set of goals that I put on my whiteboard so they stay with me throughout the day. Whether my day starts at 7:00am because I wanted to be in before everyone else or it starts at 10:30am because I slept in after working late the night before, I have a clear progression of what I want to get done.  If the task is big, I make sure that I break it down into pieces so that I can check off parts of the task daily.  Knocking out the checklist ensures progression and movement forward and keeps me from letting myself wallow in feelings of being overwhelmed or stagnant.

If left to my own devices I have a tendency to move towards being a workaholic.  So to guard against that, one thing I do pretty well in my personal life is signpost key events in my week.  On Mondays I teach kids and adult wrestling, so no matter how grizzly work is, I’m at the gym from 5-8:30pm.  My daughter does both classes, so it’s a fun thing we get to do together.  Wednesday I teach Judo.  Thursday, my wife Suzy and I have date night, where we both try to forget the pace of our lives for a few hours.  Saturday I go shooting with my wife, my buddy Matt Phinney, and whoever wants to join us.  We’ll drop 500 rounds each, call it a day, and then grab tacos with the kids.  Sunday, I have a private lesson with Mazi Heydary (https://www.chapelhilljiujitsu.net/), my awesome jiujitsu instructor and mentor.  Then I jump into open mat and try to find the guys who can beat the crap out of me to roll with, because I have to get my suffering in and push the coward inside me past my breaking point.  Saturday and Sunday afternoons and nights are for the kids.  If I do any work those days, it is after they go to bed for the night.  So those signposts are what keep me sort of on the disciplined stoic path.  The fact that sleep is sometimes negotiable keeps me off of it.

Which one of the Stoics is your favorite? Do you have a favorite Stoic quote? Any Stoic practices you’ve adopted in your own life?

As a New Englander, I have to say it’s a 50/50 tie between Bill Belichick and Tom Brady!

But if I have to give a more serious answer, it’s between Marcus Aurelius and George Washington.  With Washington, I have a hard time thinking about a person in history who has been up against a greater challenge, and still held himself to a high and noble standard, while inspiring those around him.  He was up against the greatest military the world had ever seen, his soldiers were undisciplined, unpaid, and starving.  The civilian populace was not helping the way one would expect.  His political rivals were trying to supplant him.  His personal fortune was dwindling and in dire straits.  Yet he held steadfast and accomplished the impossible.  And then, in his most impressive act, relinquished power.

With Marcus Aurelius, it’s more about his profound wisdom.  Here’s the most powerful guy in the world and he is still taking the time to essentially remind himself to do the right thing.  Meditations is such a work of art because he wasn’t writing it for others, so it was honest in a way that is much harder when you know you’ll be judged for your work.  He’s telling himself not to be a dick.  Not to be big headed.  To remember that he will soon be forgotten, just like everyone else.  It’s just really an impressive work that’s been very important to me, both when things have been very good for me and for when they’ve been very bad.

I had a situation a few years ago where I made a poor vendor choice because I made the mistake of wanting something to work instead of seeing the reality of the situation.  In four months, I had to refund almost $500k to customers to make things right, had lost $3M in sales compared to the previous year, and had to cough up most of my 401k to keep the business afloat.  It was a very dark time, and like all people, I began to feel sorry for myself.  So I grabbed Meditations and a glass of wine, and was reminded that he was writing all of this while he was waging war in the North, while Cassius was trying to supplant him as emperor, and while his wife was dying.  It calmed me.  It didn’t solve my problems.  But it focused me.  The obstacle is the way, so to speak.  You know…that’s a good name for a book.  I told my customers what had happened, and erased from memory where we were only a few months earlier, and focused on where we were now, in this moment, and began making the best decisions I could.

Similarly, there was a moment where we had just launched our movie Range 15, Ranger Up had just had a record year, and I was getting stopped all the time for the movie, or our YouTube stuff, and I sat down once again with my trusted Meditations, and read the passage, “Soon you will have forgotten the world, and soon the world will have forgotten you.” It was a great time to be reminded of that, because success can sometimes be the biggest threat to keeping your soul intact.  I am not a big deal, and I know that.  If I died tomorrow, there would a couple days of online RIPs in the military community, and then everyone would go back to shitting on each other over politics.  Remembering that keeps me grounded on doing what I think is right, rather than what I think will get me likes or shares or whatever.

As for stoic principles, as I said previously, I try hard to keep myself grounded and not let successes or failures define me. I plan for the worst so that I am always mentally prepared to deal with what could happen. Maybe most importantly, I try like hell to always do the right thing, maybe not at a Cato level, but I have the Captain America quote framed above my desk:

“Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right.

This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, YOU move.”

I know it’s cheesy and it’s a comic book, but man if there is a more inspirational and aspirational quote, I have yet to find it.

And finally, I ask myself every day, “If I died today, would I be satisfied with how I lived my last day?”  Most days I get to say, “Yes.”

When you turned down a promotion and left a great job to go all-in with Ranger Up, that must have been both exciting and terrifying. Can you talk about how you’ve dealt with that stress? How did you keep yourself stable and balanced, as crazy and scary and busy as that time period must have been?

That time period was one of the best and worst periods of my entire life.  I went from being a junior executive just over 30 years old at a Fortune 100 company making almost a quarter million dollars to having no salary.  One month later, my ex-wife and I separated, and then agreed to divorce.  We had a one-year old and a three-year old.  She began working more, as one would expect, and neither of us could afford additional childcare, so those kids spent a lot of time running around the tiny warehouse that Ranger Up moved to after it left the garage.  The divorce turned what had been planned as a 9-12 month horizon before I needed to be getting paid moved into a 3-6 month horizon.  I was renting two rooms from my buddy Rob Hallford, a business school friend, but he was giving me the kindest deal imaginable. One room was for me, and one was for my kids.  At my lowest point, I had $50,000 in credit card debt, and $1300 in my checking account and I had no idea how I was going to make it to the next month.

But instead of thinking about throwing in the towel, I planned on getting a second job.  I gave myself 30 days.  If I couldn’t have more in my account on this same day in one month, I was going to get additional employment until the business turned the corner.  I worked harder that month than I ever have in my entire life.  A month later I had $1350.  That likely seems like nothing, but to me it was everything. I remember having tears streaming down my face.  I was able to pay myself enough to not make it any worse.  The next month it was $1500.  Then it was $10k.  I rented a home so my kids could have a place of their own and so I could give my generous buddy a break from housing a single dad and his toddlers, even though he never asked.  15 months later I was able to buy a beautiful home in Chapel Hill.

Emotionally, there has been no time in my life more challenging.  The fear of failing my children, the guilt over failing in my marriage, and the stress over whether my business would succeed should have been overwhelming, and when I stopped to give it a moment’s thought, it absolutely was, but I focused on each moment because I had no choice.  If I was working, I was fighting like I was the third monkey trying to get on the arc, because I HAD to make it, and when I was with my kids, I gave them every second of my attention, because I was so worried that they wouldn’t feel loved enough.  To be honest, I didn’t know what the way through it all was, but I just held fast to the knowledge that there was one and I would find it if I just kept putting one foot in front of the other.

You’ve found success across a wide range of industries—the military, business, entrepreneurship, writing, filmmaking. What traits or skill sets do you think have helped you to do that? What would you recommend to people who maybe feel stuck or simply want to be more well-rounded?

First and foremost, I am willing to suffer. That’s my superpower.  I’m willing to be miserable, to be poor, to be uncool, to be tired, to be whatever I need to be if I believe strongly in something.  I think this is a critical skill for an entrepreneur, if you’re a real one.  If you’re starting out with 250k in seed money from mom and dad or if your idea right out of college received a raise of $2M you have no idea what I’m talking about, but if you really made your company, then you know suffering.  That’s almost non-negotiable.

Second, I look around at the experts in the area that I am working in and try to figure out what they know.  For Ranger Up, it was originally modeled after Busted Tees for the way the website was laid out, and the shirt styles we made because I thought they had a really cool thing going at the time.   On the content side, I modeled a lot of our writing after Tucker Max.  He had just published, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, and my business partner Tom was friends with him.  We met a few times and I picked his brain, as well as Nils Parker’s, and I kind of found my own voice.  I didn’t want to copy Tucker because I would never do any of the things that Tucker did, but what I did try to copy was his honesty.  It sucks to admit your failures, but without doing so, anything you’re writing is just a business book, and everyone knows business books are bullshit.

Third, I take that baseline that I copied and try to improve it or reinvent it.  With our film Range 15, which we did in conjunction with Article 15, we attempted the typical Hollywood model of raising money and were laughed at, so we crowdfunded it and broke some records.  Typical crowdfunded movies showed a trailer to let people know what the movie would be.  We didn’t do that.  Instead we made a skit about the idea of veterans making a movie, and that idea became bigger than any plot.  We ignored all of the rules because we felt like they didn’t apply to us.  We really wanted William Shatner in the film.  We were told that was impossible.  So I wrote him a letter, explaining what we were doing and why I admired his work, especially playing Denny Crane on Boston Legal.  He said yes.  Everyone said that shouldn’t have worked.  And they say that because they’ve been told there is a way to do things.  A hierarchy.  None of that’s true.  I wrote a really nice guy a letter and he received it, knew it was genuine, and decided to take a chance on us.  Once he said yes, other amazing actors like Sean Astin came on board.

We wanted to be in theaters but didn’t want to pay a couple theaters in LA and NYC 10k to show the film, so we crowdsourced theatres through TUGG and sold enough tickets to open in 650 theaters nationwide by building a series of Facebook pages broken up by state or city with all of our amazing fans.  And then we launched on Amazon and iTunes and became the first independent film to hit #1 on Amazon and the first independent film to hit #2 on iTunes (damn you, Angry Birds movie!).

So that’s my whole secret formula.  Decide what I want to do.  Suffer through whatever it takes to get it done. Copy great ideas.  Improve them into something better.

We know you’re a big reader. What books and writers have had the biggest influence on your thinking and how you live your life?

Meditations is an all-timer.  I read that book every few months.

Washington, A Life, by Ron Chernow.  It’s just a magnificent book that lays Washington out, warts and all, without judgment, and in doing so, made me appreciate the man so much more.

The Book of Five Rings by Miyamoto Musashi, arguably the greatest Japanese swordsman that ever lived.  I also love the accompanying fictionalized account of his life entitled Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa. Yoshikowa used historical accounts to build the skeleton of the book and took artistic license with the rest, but it tells the tale of Musashi beginning as an egotistical and selfish bully and transforming into a man that believed to become a perfect swordsman you must seek perfection in all aspects of your life.  There was a time to fight, a time to paint, a time to practice calligraphy.  I’ve been a martial artist since 1987, and when I started judo, my godfather gave me the book of five rings and a copy of Musashi, so they’re both very special to me.

I’ve also recently revisited, Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.  I found it too preachy compared to Marcus Aurelius in my youth, but I’m appreciating it more now.

Could you leave the Daily Stoic community with one message or piece of advice? It could be a question to journal on, a philosophical practice to try, or just something to think about as they go about their day.

Just remember that no one cares about you.  At first that notion is horrible and lonely.  After all, we are all heroes in our own story, so how can we be of little consequence to everyone else, but the fact remains.  Whatever amazing or terrible thing you’ve done might be gossiped about for a moment, an hour, or a few days or weeks, but everyone has their own bills, problems, families, wives, husbands, jobs, etc. to deal with.  Think about your own life.  Do you really care what anyone around you is doing or are you focused on your own challenges?

As soon as you accept this idea, you’re free.  You don’t have to get the job mom and dad or your college peers think you should get.  You don’t have to drive a car to impress others because no one cares what you drive.  You don’t have to wear the right clothes or live in the right place or any of that nonsense, because there is no “right” as defined by others.  There is only the right that you define for your own life, for your own standards, and for your own morality.

I’ve found that every time I’ve lived to this maxim, I’ve been very content with myself and my work, and every time I’ve strayed from it, I get lost in a sea of anxiety.

Also, learn how to make your own pasta sauce.  It’s not hard, and pre-made sauce is garbage.

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