Today’s entrepreneurs are increasingly interested in understanding new practices that will lead them to near perfect discipline. Stoicism is a Greek philosophy that many of them have turned to for help in conceptualizing their next innovation, flourishing in happiness & mindfulness, and cultivating practices of resilience.
Philosophy was a way of life, both in its exercise and effort to achieve wisdom, and in its goal, wisdom itself. —Pierre Hadot”
This article will introduce you to some of the great Stoic philosophers and explain their contributions to Stoicism. We’ll also share insights from several entrepreneurs—like Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday—that are disciples of Stoicism and learn how practicing this philosophy has transformed their business and personal lives.
What is Stoicism?
Let’s start with the basics because Stoicism is not easy to grasp. This is Greek philosophy after all.
Stoicism is a philosophical practice considered to be a complete way of life (that’s askesis as the Ancient Greeks knew it). It focuses on these core principles:
- Make the best use of your time
- Be the master of your emotions
- Walk the path of virtue
- Develop self-mastery
The term “stoicism” is used nonchalantly in many blog articles, but word itself comes from stoa, a public porch. Seriously, a porch? Any philosophical tradition named after a porch is bound to make anyone fall asleep. But it does get interesting! Stoicism takes its name after the space where Zeno (the founder of Stoicism) used to teach, which was called the Stoa Poikile, or “Painted Porch.”
Who are the Stoics?
Several well-known philosophers are commonly known as the leaders of Stoic thought: Zeno the Stoic, Epictetus, Seneca the Younger and Marcus Aurelius. Each of these philosophers focused on leading an ethical life—in other words, being able to distinguish between right and wrong.
Zeno the Stoic
“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”
It all started with Zeno (that’s a dude) in 300 BC, who taught in Athens, Greece. Zeno based his school of thought on the moral ideas of the Cynics, and he put great emphasis on goodness and peace of mind gained from living a life of virtue. The core of his teachings consists of virtue, tolerance, and self-control. Thank you Zeno for naming a philosophical tradition after a porch.
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
Our man Epictetus taught that philosophy should be practiced as a way of life and not just merely as theoretical discipline. According to him, all external events are beyond our control, and we should passively accept whatever happens. However, individuals are responsible for their own actions, which they can examine and control through rigorous self-discipline. Epictetus’ student was Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Seneca the Younger
“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”
You may have heard of this guy. Seneca (fully Lucius Anneaus Seneca) was also a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, tutor and advisor to the emperor, Nero. He was raised in Rome and trained in rhetoric and philosophy. His work involved topics like education, friendship, moral obligation, humility, self-awareness, not wasting time, etc. Seneca is known as one of the most famous Stoic thinkers of his time.
“You have power over your mind, not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Our last Stoic teacher happened to be the Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 (yes, those are years). He was a master of Stoicism, and his journal—which became the book Meditations—reminds us of the importance of humility, self-awareness, service, death and nature. He’s kind of like the Thoreau of Stoicism. Aurelius’ works are considered literary monuments that describe how to find and preserve emotional stability and composure.
The 4 Stoic principles for entrepreneurs
Alright, enough with the philosophical jargon. How can you—the entrepreneur, small business owner or creative thinker—apply Stoicism to your work?
1. Make the best use of time
Seneca reminds us to not waste our time because time is precious. In other words, live your life with intention and be the master over your time.
Be clear with your intentions for the day and be firm on getting goals complete. Here are a few ways you can get started:
- Meditate in the morning and set your intentions for the day
- Create daily to-do lists of achievable tasks to help you get things done each day
- Design your week in a way that makes sense for you
2. Be the master of your emotions
The Stoics taught us that unpredictable things happen in our lives that we can’t control. But we can control how we respond to events. Responding (as opposed to reacting) requires a person to be in control of their emotions and thoughts. In order to be a Stoic entrepreneur, you must be a master of your emotions and in control of your daily habits.
Entrepreneurs have to figure out a way to make something possible within all the things that are impossible. And we can’t waste time complaining or blaming because we have payroll to meet, we have too much on our plate to worry about that.
Stoics focus their energy on these three Greek terms:
- Apatheia is freedom from your emotions or to be without suffering.
- Ataraxis is a state of tranquility where your emotions are impenetrable.
- Autarkeis is your ability to maintain inner freedom.
In other words, take some time to think before responding to conflicts in the workplace and avoid immediate reaction. If you’re frustrated with a business deal, a coworker or any other chain of events, close your laptop and go outside. Turn to meditation to calm your emotions and help you think more clearly.
3. Walk the path of virtue
Virtuous behavior is that which is considered good when compared between two extreme poles. Think courage over cowardice. Or modesty over shamelessness.
As an entrepreneur, there will be plenty of ethical dilemmas in your company. Take a moment to think through the possible ways you could respond. Write them down if that makes it easier. Cross out the negative responses and circle the positive ones. These are your virtuous reactions.
4. Develop self-mastery
The Greeks famously called this form of self-discipline askesis.
Seneca writes: “It is precisely in these days that we need to discipline our spirit… for the spirit gives the strongest proof of its resolve by not being attracted or distracted by pleasures which lead to self-indulgence.”
Why develop self-mastery or rigorous self-discipline? Why deny yourself self-indulgence? Simply put, being a master over your time and your actions can result in incredible outcomes.
Entrepreneurs need to be able to achieve goals within specific time periods. After all, investors want to see quick results. That’s not to say you can’t have any self indulgence, though. We’re human.
Take this principle and apply it as it fits your life. Maybe you decide to have a longer workday but have an extra day off on the weekends. Or, maybe you decide to have a 30-hour work week but commit to a certain level of output each day. Whatever it is, find the mode that works for you and strive toward self-mastery.
Modern day Stoics
Tim Ferriss is an entrepreneur and author. He is a champion of Stoicism for entrepreneurs and has written several books on the topic, including his most recent book Tao of Seneca (which he crowdsourced designs for from 99designs). He was attracted to the philosophy because it can help deal with high stress environments.
Tim advocates using Stoicism to help differentiate between things you can control and the things you cannot. Lead a less stressful life by focusing on the former. He also capitalizes on the idea of becoming a self-master, and how practicing Stoicism systematically trains you to be less prone to overreacting to criticism.
Ryan Holiday is also an entrepreneur and author. Holiday’s book The Obstacle Is The Way, is based on the Stoic exercise of framing obstacles as opportunities. He also compiled The Daily Stoic, a daily devotional of Stoic meditations. Among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, Holiday is known for bringing Stoicism into the twenty-first century.
In this podcast episode, The Stoic Entrepreneur, Ryan says that, “The Stoics get this reputation for being negative or being depressing. I find that, in reality, they’re just very realistic and pragmatic. They understand that things often go the opposite of the way that we want them to go, so they’re resilient.”
Sounds about right, Ryan.
Ready to be your own self-master?
With your new understanding of Stoicism and its basic principles—plus contemporary Stoic masters like Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday leading the way—you’ve got the tools you need to implement this philosophy into your business practice. Doing so will make you a more successful, thoughtful and self-assured entrepreneur.
Of course, Stoicism is not a quick fix for your business. The philosophy is about fundamentally transforming your life and your business practice. It takes time and thought. Enjoy your Stoic ataraxia!
Now, let me know when you want to talk about Enlightenment.
- Selected Letters by Seneca
- Philosophy as a way of life by Pierre Hadot
- Daily Rituals by Mason Currey
- What I Learned Losing A Million Dollars by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan
This article was written by Roze Beverly. Roze recently graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of California at Berkeley from the Department of Anthropology. She has a range of interests from thinking to teaching, developing strategy for political action, and spending time with Michel Foucault. In her free time she enjoys skateboarding halfpipes and being a teaching assistant.