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Crazy rich stoics

Peter Switzer
25 January 2020

Most of us find life crazy at times and it not only gets in the way of being happy but it distracts you off course from what’s really important. Call me a money-loving philosopher, which might be a contradiction in terms but I think most of us want happiness and to be well-off, simultaneously.

It’s the ultimate double play and creates an equation that only the really crazy people of the world would argue with and it looks like this:

Happiness + money = a damn good life!

Over the Christmas break, aside from worrying about the bushfire that was a few streets away from our Blackheath property, I sought some really smart advice of life from the greatest thinkers of all time on happiness and money. Call me crazy but I figure lots of people would love access to the insights that can deliver happiness and money!

In the history of Rome, some of the smartest guys of all time made their names by thinking better than most of the people around them. They included people like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor and a renowned philosopher. He was the Emperor that Russell Crowe’s character, Maximus Decimus Meridius, served in the film Gladiator! Here’s a line from the blockbuster film that says it all: "My name is Maximus Decimus Meridius, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius.

Seneca was a hotshot smart Alec in Rome — that’s probably the first time he’s been called that, so I apologize to philosophical buffs. He was also a politician, a writer of dramatic plays and was known for his satire. When he spoke, people listened and even today, his quotes are used by coaches of all kind. Here’s an example: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”

He also said “There are more things…that frighten us than injure us, and we suffer more from imagination than in reality.”

So true. And you can see why listening and being mentored by the smartest and brightest people who have walked this planet makes a pile of sense.

Epictetus was a Greek who hung out in the then centre of the world — Rome. He was simply a wise guy who people found hard to ignore. One of his gems was: “We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

He also had a crack at what we all should do to be happy in a crazy world.

“The chief task in life is simply this: identify and separate matters so that I can clearly say to myself, which are the externals not under my control and which have to do with the choices I actually control?”

The three legends I’ve mentioned so far — no not Russell but our Rome-based geniuses on life — were known as Stoic philosophers. You could sum up Stoicism as developing the practice of being able to work out what you can and can’t change.

This same life practice is used in the prayer that they use at AA meetings: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The Stoics provided a guide to living, avoiding going crazy and relying on drink and drugs to cope, while putting you on the road to sustainable happiness. Bring on Stoicism, wherever and whenever it came from!

Stoics told us we need to use our reason to make sense of external, uncontrollable events so we categorise them, rate them as important or not important, threatening or not threatening in the whole scheme of things and then reorient or change ourself to deal with the issue.

In a nutshell, they advise us to embrace a more disciplined approach to coping with a mad, bad and potentially dangerous world that can kill your happiness and sanity.

They said to be disciplined in how you look at the world. Then be disciplined in how you react to that world. Then be disciplined in how you commit to dealing with these external, uncontrollable crazies you have to deal with!

By controlling how our thought processes and what we see via our eyes and brains, which threaten our happiness, we can end up with mental clarity or a sensible way to deal with happiness-killing issues in our complicated lives.

In their great book The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman say this ancient philosophy of Stoicism has been embraced in the modern world. The US NFL champion team — the New England Patriots — rapper, LL Cool J and American entrepreneur, writer and broadcaster, Tim Ferriss (to name a few) are fans of stoicism.

Another new age stoic was US war veteran, Captain James Stockdale, who was featured in one of the greatest business books of all time i.e. Jim Collins’s Good to Great. Stockdale’s seven years of torture and how he coped while others around him in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp perished under the deprivation, torment and torture blew Collins away.

Collins actually coined the term the Stockdale Paradox, which Stockdale sums up this way: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end — which you can never afford to lose — with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”

In simple terms, he hoped for the best but he acknowledged and he prepared for the worst. It was this discipline that kept him sane and alive and while few of us will ever live through a Stockdale drama, there is a lot to learn from this standout human being.

As someone who often wrongly labelled as an excessive optimist, I love Collins’s use of the word “paradox”. A paradox is something that is seemingly absurd or contradictory as an idea but after investigation proves to be true.”

Collins actually explained why a Stoic-like approach to optimism worked for Stockdale. This is what Jim got from James when Collins was writing his book:

"Who didn't make it out?"
"Oh, that's easy," he said. "The optimists."
"The optimists? I don't understand," I said, now completely confused,
given what he'd said a hundred meters earlier.
"The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by
Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then
they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and
Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas
again. And they died of a broken heart."

In Good to Great, Jim Collins was trying to work out why a group of companies such as Walgreens, Wells Fargo and Gillette did so well. He argued that leadership and the leaders of these businesses were crucially important.

Having realistic optimism isn’t a bad strategy for success and happiness. Undoubtedly, one the greatest investors of all time — Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffet (who’s known as the Oracle of Omaha) has to be an optimist because he invests in stocks, companies, businesses and their people. He reads for nearly five hours a day so he can remain stoically realistic about these investments.

The high achievers of the world are huge readers as a BusinessInsider.com story from December, 2019 underlined:

“According to an HBR article, “Nike founder Phil Knight so reveres his library that in it you have to take off your shoes and bow."

Oprah Winfrey credits books with much of her success: “Books were my path to personal freedom.” She has shared her reading habit with the world via her book club.

These two are not alone. Consider the extreme reading habits of other billionaire entrepreneurs:

• Warren Buffett spends five to six hours a day reading five newspapers and 500 pages of corporate reports.

• Bill Gates reads 50 books a year.

• Mark Zuckerberg aimed to read at least one book every two weeks.

• Elon Musk grew up reading two books a day, according to his brother.

• Mark Cuban reads for more than three hours every day.

• Arthur Blank, a cofounder of Home Depot, reads two hours a day.

• Billionaire entrepreneur David Rubenstein reads six books a week.”

Anyone looking to add happiness as a pathway to success could well become more stoic and then start hanging out with the smartest people who have ever lived by reading more and more each day.

If you liked this article you'll love the Switzer Report, our newsletter and website for trustees of self-managed super funds. Click here for a FREE trial and to hear more of Peter’s expert commentary and advice.

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