How One Struggling Entrepreneur Found Solace In The Ancient Philosophy Of Stoicism
I tend to write often about the stress of entrepreneurship and the toll it often takes on a founder's overall health and mental well-being.
It isn’t a particularly fun subject, but it is an important one.
Not a day goes by that I don’t receive an email or LinkedIn message from a fellow entrepreneur who is struggling with anxiety, fear, depression, or emotional exhaustion.
When people struggle with prolonged emotional stress, they seek out ways to mitigate its effects. For some, it’s overeating. For others, it may be something more insidious like excessive drinking or self-medication.
I’ve learned, however, that you can never find solace in external action. Instead, you have to find ways to shift your mindset and the way you perceive the world.
Over the past few months, a number people have written me to ask my advice on how to accomplish this shift.
My answer is always the same: do what I did and embrace the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism.
My introduction to Stoicism came in the form of a New York Times article about Vice Admiral James Stockdale.
Stockdale, aside from serving as Ross Perot’s running mate back in the early 1990s, was one of the most highly decorated officers in the history of the Navy.
In 1965, his plane was shot down over Vietnam, and he ended up as a prisoner of war for the better part of a decade.
As with many other American P.O.Ws, he was subjected to torture and long periods of solitary confinement.
Before his capture, Stockdale had read and largely memorized first-century philosopher Epictetus’ classic treatise “The Enchiridion,” also known in English as “The Handbook.”
As he parachuted down into the Vietnamese countryside, he remarked to himself “Five years down there at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
Throughout his time in captivity, and despite all of the isolation and torture, Stockdale remained remarkably resilient and did not succumb to crushing despair as many of us would in his situation.
His secret weapon, he later shared, was the Stoic philosophy preached by Epictetus.
At the time I read the NYT article, I was struggling with the stress of a new baby, holding down a full-time job, and launching a startup.
Sure it was challenging, but in the scheme of things, it paled in comparison to the struggles that people like Stockdale faced. Why then was I having such a hard time?
I decided to buy a copy of The Enchiridion and see what it had to offer. After all, if Stoicism could help Stockdale keep his sanity throughout eight years of torture at the Hanoi Hilton, perhaps it could help me handle the rigors of entrepreneurship.
An Entrepreneur’s Philosophy
Stoicism, at its core, reminds us that life and everything in it, is impermanent. Focusing on our circumstances or pinning our happiness on the attainment of possessions is a surefire recipe for disappointment.
The Stoics, such as Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, instead encourage us to free ourselves from the control such pursuits exert over us and focus on the things that are in our direct control: our thoughts, feelings, and desires.
In this sense, Stoicism is uniquely suited to serve the needs of entrepreneurs.
After all, entrepreneurs such as myself tend to fall victim to what is known as hedonic adaptation.
Put simply; we are driven by the pursuit of certain goals or rewards that, once attained, lose all value to us.
This, in turn, leads us to ever more grand pursuits and leaving us chasing an unattainable satisfaction.
Stoicism teaches us to avoid this satisfaction treadmill, which I believe is at the heart of most entrepreneurial angst.
In helping us to identify what we can control in our lives and to find happiness in what we already have, Stoic philosophy allows us to mute the terrible emotional roller coaster that is entrepreneurship.
A Practical Guide
The beauty of Stoicism is its practicality. It doesn’t ask much of its adherents. Instead, it teaches us to process and come to terms with exactly where we are at the moment.
In fact, Stoicism encourages us to recognize that we alone are in control of our emotions, and can turn the obstacles we face into opportunities.
As I navigate the ever-changing world of entrepreneurship, I find myself returning time after time to a quote from Marcus Aurelius:
"Our actions may be impeded, but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." - Marcus Aurelius
It’s hard to miss the inherent beauty of this sentiment, and it’s the reason why I have a bust of Marcus Aurelius in my office. It reminds me daily that the obstacles we face while building a business can serve as guides.
Any entrepreneur looking for a practical framework to help them navigate the uncertainties and challenges they encounter would be well served to look into Stoicism. My recommendation would be to pick up a copy of The Enchiridion,or Ryan Holiday’s fantastic “The Obstacle Is The Way.” Both books are quick reads that provide a solid overview of Stoicism and how it can be applied in your daily life.
This way of thinking has changed my outlook on life and business, and it can do the same for you.