This is the last part of my interview with Ryan Holiday. It was great to speak to him since I've looked up to him and his work for so long.
If you want to know a bit more about him and his writing, check out his blog here. And check out his book The Obstacle is the Way. It's a great read. Ryan uses basic principles from Stoicism and examples from history to illustrate how obstacles can be turned into something that benefits us.
If you want, you can check out the two other parts of the interview here and here. In the first part we spoke about how easy it is to delude ourselves and how we can counteract that instinct. In the second part, we spoke about his views on developing empathy and doing what you love for a living.
In this part of the interview, we spoke about impermanence and how we so easily attach ourselves to external circumstances.
"We, and our judgement, and all mortal things go on flowing and rolling unceasingly. Thus nothing certain can be established about one thing by another, both the judging and the judged being in continual change and motion." – Montaigne
Could you summarize the idea of "strong opinions, loosely held" and why it’s important in being objective?
The best part of the phrase is that it doesn't really need any summarization. When you believe in something, believe in it strongly, but be prepared to throw it away if the evidence doesn't support it anymore.
Malcolm Gladwell's profile of Steven Levitt is a testament to someone who aligns their life to that idea.
Another idea that comes up in your blog is this idea of not trusting your first impression when forming an opinion. How do you avoid this?
I don't know if that's exactly the theme I am trying to express on my site. I mean obviously as a researcher and a reader, I believe that really knowing something takes time. Your first impression is likely to be wrong.
What I'm talking about in my writing is a slightly different issue. It's the misconception that a lot of young people have when they enter the world. They've been brought up to think they have all these special skills and knowledge. The internet has deluded them into thinking that they have all the answers and that the world is totally new.
Things are as they always have been: complicated, political, mundane, backwards, and slow. Look at Obama and his team of whiz kids expecting to turn Washington on its head. In reality, change was a lot slower and more methodical than they had predicted.
"We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way." – Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning
The Stoics and a lot of other philosophers talk about this idea of freeing yourself form external circumstances. Could you summarize the Stoic perspective on this?
I think we all know why it’s a relatively good thing to not let bad things get to us. But it's equally important to not get caught up in positive events.
"If you don’t let the good things matter so much to you, then the bad things don’t matter much to you either. That’s freeing yourself from the tyranny of external circumstances."
Let’s say you get a promotion. You might say to yourself ‘This says something about me. I am a special person.’ But that thing can be taken away from you at any time. If you can restrain yourself from feeling ownership of good or bad things, then it doesn’t really matter what happens.
There’s a story about Cato [a Roman philosopher and politician]. He was promoted to military generalship, but they quickly demoted. It didn’t matter to him because they weren't stripping him of anything. If you don’t let the good things matter so much to you, then the bad things don’t matter much to you either. That’s freeing yourself from the tyranny of external circumstances.
You know that everything is temporal. It's only yours in trust. It can go away any second or it can get way better any second, but it’s always in transition. If you embrace that fluidity, instead of trying to hold onto everything that comes your way, good or bad, you'll be jerked around a lot less. I think that’s a much better way to live.
It’s very similar to the Buddhist idea called impermanence. All emotions, thoughts, everything is in a state of constant flux, so you shouldn’t attach yourself to any one thing.
At the very best you’re going to have this thing until you die. So the whole idea that there is any concept of permanence is a construction. That’s what I try to remind myself of. If you remind yourself that the great things don’t say anything about you, it prepares you for when the tide turns.
"In the midst of peace the soldier carries out manoeuvres, throws up earthworks against a non-existent enemy and tires himself out with unnecessary toil in order to be equal to it when it is necessary. If you want a man to keep his head when the crisis comes you must give him some training before it comes. This was the aim of the men who once every month pretended they were poor, bringing themselves face to face with want, to prevent their ever being terrified by a situation which they had frequently rehearsed." – Seneca in Letters from a Stoic
To counterbalance this attachment to positive events, you've talked about how Stoics used to practice misfortune.
It’s a lot easier to practice misfortune if you don’t embrace fortune. As good things happen to you, you don't let them change your lifestyle or your outlook. You still live in the same apartment even though you make twice as much money. If someone steals all of your money or the stock market crashes, it doesn’t sort of affect you because you’re sort of prepared in advance by retaining your lifestyle.
I found out what my basic needs are and I try to meet those them. That's about it. It sort of sets you up not to be disappointed when negative things happen. When negative things do happen, just to remind yourself that not only will this pass, but in a few months you won’t even remember it. It allows you to not be as upset for what you’re going through right now.
"It’s one of those eternal truths that was discovered from a variety of perspectives."
What are some important exercises in not letting external events control you?
I like the contemptuous expressions exercise. Your mind inflates the good or bad about all things. That’s what Marcus Aurelius talks about when he says "stripping things of the legend that encrusts them." Just see things exactly as they are in the moment that you’re experiencing them.
In your article "Philosophy," you write about how we’re the source of our problems and not the outside world. What did you mean by that?
It’s not like that’s my idea, but essentially what those people who are smarter than me are saying is that the world is just what it is. We have a fleeting existence in that world. More often than not, when we’re having problems, it’s not some objective unsolvable issue. We're trying to force something that isn’t natural.
For example, when somebody dies, you're sad. The problem isn’t so much that someone died because although that’s sad, it’s something you had no control over.
So the problem then ultimately is your emotion about that thing. Everyone is sad when someone dies. But what they’re saying is that the problem is not that they died, the problem is how you feel about that thing. Your feelings have no bearing on whether that’s going to happen or not. You’re going to have a really hard time if you get sad and overwhelmed when something that you don’t control happens because it’s going to happen all of the time.
However, there are many times where your feelings about things do matter. Say you’re in a relationship, and you don’t feel it’s working, then you should end that relationship or express what you're feeling. What’s key is discerning whether your feelings matter and have an impact. If they do, then that’s great. If they don’t, don’t go blaming the event for how you feel or think how you feel will change what happened.
I think that’s what Seneca means when he says that there is no good or bad, there is only perception. It's a lot easier said than done.
It’s amazing how often that idea pops in so many different philosophies.
It’s one of those eternal truths that was discovered from a variety of perspectives.
If you enjoyed this interview, try out my interview with Nick Denis, retired UFC fighter and former biochemist. He cut his career short in his prime because he was worried about head trauma. He weighed the glory, money, and fame and chose another path. We spoke about many things, one of those things being why it was easy for him to completely change paths.
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