Embracing, then rejecting, lifestyle design
I graduated college with the intention of becoming a Navy SEAL. I had many reasons for wanting to become one. It appealed to me because it was manly, it cultivated virtues of courage and resilience, and because it was a bit off the beaten path.
So in 2009 I headed off to BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL training), and a few months later I quit. This left me feeling lost and for the next few years and looked for alternative life paths I could take.
It was at this time that I discovered the world of lifestyle design through its creator, Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Workweek. He promoted the goal of achieving your dream lifestyle by creating a business that can earn you passive income with minimal ongoing time commitments so you can do whatever you want.
This vision of success was so attractive that I bought into it immediately. I set up an online business that ultimately failed, and continued to absorb the wisdom of other twenty-something self-help/lifestyle design gurus that suggest it’s your lame 9 to 5 corporate job and conservative parents that are holding you back from being successful.
After a few years of testing this lifestyle design philosophy, I had enough.
The Ancient Wisdom Project
While it’s possible that I was just doing lifestyle design “wrong,” and that I would have been completely happy if any of my business ideas had actually worked (Note: I still think there is a market for cat pajamas), I’ve become skeptical of most of the modern self-help literature.
So a little over a year ago, I decided to look elsewhere for advice, I decided to look to ancient wisdom and created a project for myself that I call The Ancient Wisdom Project.
The rules of the project are simple:
- Choose one ancient religion or philosophy that is 500 years old and that stills exist in some form today
- Select one practice from the religion or philosophy that would help cultivate a desirable virtue (compassion, humility, etc.)
- Perform the practice for thirty days and write about it
I kicked off my project with a month long experiment in Stoicism. I was first introduced to this ancient philosophy in college, and found it quite appealing.
After some research, I decided to embrace Stoicism by taking daily, 20-minute ice baths and practicing negative visualization. Though the Stoics did not specifically recommend ice baths, they encouraged practitioners to periodically and deliberately seek out physical hardship so that they could learn to appreciate times when their lives were relatively tranquil.
Negative visualization (a term coined by the modern Stoic William Irvine) is the practice of imagining all the ways your life could be could be worse. You imagine losing your job, your partner leaving you, your family members dying, etc. This is the mental version of the ice baths. It trains you to appreciate your present circumstances and somewhat inoculate you against actual tragedies that happen to you.
What I learned was powerful, especially when applied to problems of modern life. I share this with you in the hope that you will be inspired to look to the ancients the next time you face some sort of problem or dissatisfaction.
Body and mind in the game
After I prepped my first bath, I just stood there, watching it, imagining how cold it was going to be. I thought to myself that maybe there were other Stoic activities that I could do that wouldn’t involve lowering my core body temperature.
Eventually, I psyched myself up and got in.
It was…not warm.
The second day was tough, but less difficult. As was the third, and fourth, and by day 30, it was no problem getting in.
Stoicism was founded in 3rd century BCE Greece and later spread through the Roman Empire. What is particularly interesting about Stoicism is that it was embraced by a wide variety of people from all parts of the socio-economic spectrum. Epictetus was a former slave, Seneca was a wealthy Roman statesman, and Marcus Aurelius was, of course, the Roman emperor.
Why would these incredibly different people embrace the philosophy of Stoicism?
It appears that regardless of our actual circumstances, all human beings have a knack for creating problems for themselves, both real and imagined.
Epictetus who as a former slave experienced all manners of injustices (it’s rumored his master broke his leg and crippled him), wrote;
Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things. Death, for instance, is not terrible, else it would have appeared so to Socrates. But the terror consists in our notion of death that it is terrible. When therefore we are hindered, or disturbed, or grieved, let us never attribute it to others, but to ourselves; that is, to our own principles.
It is human nature to want to create narratives as a way to understand things. This is generally good and useful. It would be difficult to live life without thinking in terms of scripts, but often, these scripts can cause us significant anxiety.
My first ice bath was particularly anxiety inducing because I was making a judgment about cold water. The “principle and notion” I was operating under was that cold water is bad and painful.
The correct judgment for this situation is that cold water is neither good or bad, it is simply…cold. There is nothing to fear or get anxious about, it is what it is.
When I was in the ice bath, I learned to pay close attention to actual sensations. I paid attention to the initial sensation of the water on my skin, I focused on my fingers and toes becoming numb, and I enjoyed the comfort of the water warming up a bit.
Though it took a week or two, I learned to separate my judgment of ice baths from the actual sensations of ice baths, and while it didn’t become enjoyable, they were no longer terrible.
I chose ice baths because the practice was physically uncomfortable. And this practice taught me how closely linked our minds and bodies are, and how it is sometimes necessary to separate the two.
Though the Stoics did talk about enduring physical discomfort, they were also very attuned to the metaphorical ice baths that we inevitably encounter in our lives
Hell is [your perception of] other people
During my Stoicism month, I was riding the metro and someone was playing their music really loudly; everyone in our car could hear it through the guy’s headphones. That irritated me.
Another day, someone cut me off on the highway; that annoyed me.
Someone at work suggested a stupid idea and everyone else agreed with it. That made me want to smack everyone.
Marcus Aurelius was a second century Roman emperor and practicing Stoic. As you can imagine, someone in his position would have crushing responsibilities and an endless number of people that want something from him.
There’s something unique about annoyances that come from our fellow human beings. Though annoyances of fate (car accidents, stubbing your toe, etc.) can be irritating, they have far less impact on our spirit than we perceive someone else to cause us harm. Because we view others as autonomous individuals with free will and because we are generally self-centered, we believe that others deliberately attempt to get under our skin or that they get up every morning plotting your destruction.
Marcus Aurelius offered this advice to start your day in his Meditations:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.
To start your day thinking other people will be irritating sets the bar pretty low. If you expect people to behave poorly, then they can’t disappoint you.
But the late Roman Emperor didn’t just say expect the worst from the others. He also ended his advice with an uplifting message, one that explains why people behave they way they do and the appropriate response to them.
They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own— not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
To see that we all share a common nature, a “share of the divine,” is a great challenge, but one that ultimately leads us to accept others for what they are and to lessen their power to anger or irritate us.
My girlfriend and I hosted a houseguest for a few days during my Stoic month. She had just moved to D.C. and hadn’t found a place to live yet.
We live in a one-bedroom apartment so while it’s enough room to host an additional person, it felt crowded very quickly.
Benjamin Franklin wrote “houseguests and fish stink after three days.” Mine stunk after one. She rummaged through our fridge and was a complainy-pants about how hard it was to find an apartment, get a job, etc.
Fortunately, I was able to embrace the Stoic practices of negative visualization and “consider the nature of things.” I used negative visualization to imagine all the ways my life could be worse. When I moved back to D.C. I lived in a hostel. I shared a room with 5-8 other strangers every night for a whole summer. Usually, there was a middle aged snoring man in it. My life has been and could be far worse than living in my own apartments with a guest for a few days.
I also rationally examined the sources of my irritation. All the guest was doing was looking through the fridge and making comments about her apartment search. Why should this bother me? It’s only because I think she is violating some houseguest norms and is less optimistic than she should be that I’m irritated. If I wanted to simplify it ever further, it is just movement and noise, nothing to suffer over.
We are still friends with the houseguest and she has successful settled in the DC area. It’s now easy to see that she was simply struggling with the initial transition and that her behavior as a guest was not representative of her true nature.
To see through the fog of our own perceptions is a great challenge, but practicing this can ultimately help us not only be less irritated, but also positively contribute to someone else’s well being.
Success is virtue
Though we often associate being “Stoic” with being some sort of pain endurance machine, there was also an active, positive component to the philosophy as well, one centered on duty and the cultivation of virtue.
I read an article about Goldman Sachs that talked about how awesome it was to work there, and of course, how much money its employees made. After seeing that the average compensation was $380k, I was just about ready to brush up on my stock trading skills and leave for New York.
One of the core beliefs in American culture is that anyone, with hard work and a little luck, can become successful. It’s the land of opportunity. Cadillac released a commercial last year that aptly portrays what many of us value: working hard to buy stuff and attain prestige.
It’s clear how Stoicism can help us when we are striving to achieve something and we encounter obstacles. The lessons of detachment are powerful, and worthy of adoption. But Stoicism can also teach us what things are and are not worth striving for.
Epictetus was a former slave who learned to live honorably and virtuously in spite of his circumstances. He did not complain about everyone that had wronged him, or mourned what could have been. He played the metaphorical cards he was dealt.
Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.
Seneca was a wealthy statesman and advisor who taught that living a life dedicated to philosophy was the highest path one can take. It is not just a pastime, but rather, a way of enriching and adding meaning to life.
Philosophy is no trick to catch the public; it is not devised for show. It is a matter, not of words, but of facts. It is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It molds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone; it sits at the helm and directs our course as we waver amid uncertainties. Without it, no one can live fearlessly or in peace of mind. Countless things that happen every hour call for advice; and such advice is to be sought in philosophy.
Marcus Aurelius did not complain about the immense burden of his position as Roman Emperor. He knew that he had a duty to serve the people of the Roman Empire to the best of his ability, and do it virtuously.
If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, honesty, self-control, courage— than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control— if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed—and enjoy it to the full…
It would be wrong for anything to stand between you and attaining goodness—as a rational being and a citizen. Anything at all: the applause of the crowd, high office, wealth, or self-indulgence. All of them might seem to be compatible with it—for a while. But suddenly they control us and sweep us away.
These Stoics never said you had to join the ranks of the upper middle class to be successful. They never said you had to win awards or fame in order to confidently say your life was worth living. In fact, they said fame and wealth are not worth striving for, and can actually be detrimental to your soul.
For every hour of TV you watch, you are bombarded with approximately 20 minutes of commercials. They seem harmless enough, even entertaining. But the cumulative effect of advertising (TV or otherwise) is highlight detrimental to our search for meaning and happiness. TV commercials are obvious in their intent, but we absorb harmful messages from other medium as well.
The Goldman Sachs article I mentioned, while not explicitly an advertisement, advocates a life dedicated to attaining wealth for wealth’s sake. We might think we’re immune to this message and that we’re not as greedy as those evil investment bankers, but think about all the times you’ve researched other jobs because you felt you were underpaid and that you deserved more. Or perhaps you’ve been disappointed by the fact that you can only afford Ikea furniture and can only window-shop at Pottery Barn.
Unless we explicitly reject the pursuit of wealth and success as a good in and of itself, we are at risk of being swept away by this pursuit.
Better that we learn from the Stoics how to use every moment of our lives as an opportunity to demonstrate virtue. Has someone offended you? Learn to control your anger and remember that you too, share the same flawed nature. Didn’t get that promotion you thought you deserved? Analyze the nature of titles and recognition and discover that they are mostly meaningless. Instead, focus your energies on serving others, to making the life of another a little bit easier.
Make sure you remain straightforward, upright, reverent, serious, unadorned, an ally of justice, pious, kind, affectionate, and doing your duty with a will. Fight to be the person philosophy tried to make you.
Revere the gods; watch over human beings. Our lives are short. The only rewards of our existence here are an unstained character and unselfish act—Marcus Aurelius
During my project, I started volunteering at a homeless service organization that serves meals to the homeless. Though I only make a very small contribution, those few hours a month force me to focus on someone other than myself. It’s actually quite a relief! Thinking about yourself and what you want but don’t have is exhausting.
That lesson spans across all the religions and philosophies I have experimented with to date, which makes me believe that it is worth embracing.
It’s easier said than done.
I recently became an independent contractor and work on a project for my former employer. I now make double what I did before, and I work less hours overall.
I’m happy about the change, but I’ve noticed I’ve become quite obsessed with making more money. I think about different ways I can increase my hourly rate, new projects I can I join, the different investments I can make, etc.
While some amount of this thinking is prudent and useful, it is also a distraction from the Stoic goal of embracing virtue. I think less about how I can serve others and more about my own financial future.
What this tells us is that we must remain vigilant and aware of our own, baser desires and that we must incorporate reminders into our daily lives to ensure we strive to be better than we normally are, to strive to serve others, to be detached from material ambitions.
The virtue-centered path is not easy, and certainly less sexy than trying to become a worldly success, but the benefits will be far more impactful and reach deeper into the core of who we are.
Should you take ice baths and embrace ancient wisdom?
I started The Ancient Wisdom Project not because I wanted to find out which religion or philosophy was the “best” or to try to convert myself. I started it because I felt something lacking in modern life and modern advice wasn’t cutting it. What I’ve learned so far is that ancient philosophies and religions and philosophies that have survived until present-day are far greater sources for advice and wisdom on how to live than the latest self-help/lifestyle design/productivity/business book.
Ancient wisdom prescribes guidelines for dealing with hardship, transcending the ego, and serving others. It teaches us what things can lead us astray from the things we should care about, and how to deal with them. It teaches us how to be okay with our imperfect nature and to move on.
There is nothing about ice baths that will make your life better per se. But anchoring an ancient wisdom idea or principle in a concrete ritual or habit will make it more tangible and help you absorb it in a deeper way. It’s one thing to read about Stoicism, it’s another to manifest them in your daily actions.
If you feel that some part of your life feels off or unsatisfactory, I highly recommend looking to Stoicism or other ancient philosophies and see if any of their advice is applicable to your situation. Once you do so, find some way to actually act on that advice in a routine or habitual way. Every time you perform the ritual, reflect on the ideas you’ve discovered.
I am certain that the results of this exercise will be far more meaningful than reading articles about finding your passion or starting an online business and will ultimately help you live a good and virtuous life, one in accordance with your nature.
The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t.—Marcus Aurelius
Dale Davidson is the creator and author of The Ancient Wisdom Project. He works as a government consultant in the Washington, D.C., area where ancient wisdom is sorely needed.