“Someone has to be stoic, for the sake of, in spite of, and in the face of all those who are, not. Someone, has to be serious.
Someone has to choose to forgo choice, so that there is an option left for others to consider. Everyone can’t be, someone.”
― Justin K. McFarlane Beau
I have worked for great leaders. Unsurprisingly, all of them could be called stoics, although they probably didn’t even know about stoicism itself. They might not have known that their ability to forge an extraordinary willpower was unusual.
Willpower is often considered one of the building blocks for excellent emotional leadership. As an approach to honing willpower, stoicism can then be considered as just another mindfulness doctrine that’s very practical and therefore being applied to ever more industries where perseverance matters.
Great leaders, often also great people, are the ones who have the will to patiently persevere whilst at the same inspiring others to stay calm as well. These are the people you want to talk to when things get tough for you because it can so often seem that no situation is too tough for them. They are stoic; they are in tune with their thoughts; they don’t deal with the good and bad ego-driven dichotomy, things are as they are.
Can a person become that way? If you’re not one of those people who already have a strong stoic core within them, don’t feel discouraged. You can develop that core in yourself and it starts by sowing the seeds of stoic thinking in your consciousness: reading the works of revered stoics.
The following list of books is what I consider the perfect starter list to understand and internalise the key principles of stoicism. If reading books is exercising your brain muscle, then reading stoic books is like weight-lifting for your brain versus the usual cardio exercise. These five books helped me strengthen my mind, the stoic way. They are what I would consider manuals for good living:
1. On the Shortness of Life by Seneca
I reread this book at least once a year. It’s one of my go-tos when life seems to get tough. In reality, it only seems to be that way due to self-indulgence and excuses or whining being our default mode.
It’s true isn’t it? A lot of us excuse our actions (or a lack thereof) too easily. In front of Seneca however, there is no excusing yourself – he doesn’t hesitate to call you out on whether you’re living your life purposefully or wastefully:
“The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours. What are you looking at? To what goal are you straining? The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
“So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not Ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”
Reading this piece by Seneca brings back in you a sense of urgency. He reminds you that although we’re all allocated a limited amount of time, each of us have full power over how we use it. His matter-of-fact perspective on life can sow in you the seed for a new mindset where you can simplify your life and achieve more by strengthening your focus and will, both of which are lacking in people who Seneca believes waste their lives.
2. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius
Many of today’s influential people, who are influential as a result of their successful actions–think Tim Ferris, Ryan Holiday, Chase Jarvis, Shane Parrish, Mark Sisson, and many other entrepreneurs you aspire to be like–they all name this book as one of the go-to books for understanding stoicism.
Meditations are notes from the personal journal of Marcus Aurelius, considered to be one of the greatest Roman Emperors.
Roman Emperor? Yes, as you’d expect this was written many centuries ago. However, there’s never a point where you feel this journal is outdated while you’re reading it. The problems Marcus Aurelius faced are the human problems that we struggle with today. Might as well learn from someone who’s weathered through them with amazing calm.
Another great thing about this being a private journal, is that Marcus Aurelius writes to himself. “Do this, don’t do that.” This adds to the reading experience so that it almost feels like you’re sitting down with him soaking in all of the wisdom of his many years.
“Tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. <…>
Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been. <…>
The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.
It’s silly to try to escape other peoples’ faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own.
Leave other peoples’ mistakes where they lie.
That kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere—not ironic or an act.”
A powerful passage. Acknowledging this and accepting in one’s daily life prepares and eases the daily struggles you will experience.
As a stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius also has a matter-of-fact view on life, taking things for what they are:
“Death: something like birth, a natural mystery, elements that split and recombine. Not an embarrassing thing. Not an offense to reason, or our nature.”
Marcus Aurelius’ writing will never not be true and as I said, it’s very applicable to us today. So this book should remain as one of your key stoic reads which you can always return to for advice.
3. Discourses by Epictetus
Officially, half of the books of discourses have been lost, but the four we have salvaged are some of the best reads of the stoic philosophy. Most pieces are what’s considered to be the roots of stoicism, the key pieces which set off its development in those ancient times.
Born a slave, Epictetus knew the hardships of life from an early age. Where weaker men would feel cheated by fate, Epictetus came to understand that whatever happens to us in our lives is at least partially out of our control. As such, it is best to accept that not everything can be changed, which allows you to streamline your focus into things you can impact instead:
“On the occasion of every accident that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have for turning it to use.”
One of the underlying themes of Epictetus’ writing is this hypothesis that some things are out of your control but that you are never powerless.
What affected me most were the writings on how we default to trying to impress others in order to feel validated:
“Who are those people by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not these whom you are in the habit of saying that they are mad? What then? Do you wish to be admired by the mad?”
4. Rome’s Last Citizen by Rob Goodman and Jimmi Soni
Cato the Younger was not only a follower of Stoic philosophy, but he was also a politician known for his defense of the Roman Republic against authoritarian power seekers. When forced to submit to the reign of Julius Caesar, he committed suicide instead, becoming a symbol for republican liberty to other politicians, from from Cicero to George Washington.
Because of his actions, Cato the Younger is is considered to have brought stoicism to the mainstream. His sacrifice is today still one of the most important cornerstones of the Stoic philosophy.
This biography covers a variety of aspects of Cato’s life, but the most important message is his unique take on living. Cato lived on his own terms: without fear and never compromising. This is what makes him an inspiration for forging unbreakable will to become a great leader.
Such will is forged through virtues of taking action and constantly solving problems, always learning and remembering that
“bitter are the roots of study, but how sweet their fruit”.
Be honest with yourself, and externally, say only what has to be said and when it is important to say it.
5. The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday
Jimmi Soni, the co-author of the previous book about Cato the Younger, said that The Obstacle is the Way is “a kind of user’s manual for life, you will turn to it time and time again and learn to tear through any obstacle and resolve any conflict”. Based on the principles of stoicism, this book is about turning trials into a triumph.
Ryan himself is a Stoic who has written online about this philosophy for years. Thanks to his own experience, he was able to combine the ancient wisdom with those unaware Stoics of our days for a fresh take on the discipline: Steve Jobs fighting to deliver the world’s most innovative phone, Barack Obama overcoming obstacles to win his first election, and so on. Older heroes like Theodore Roosevelt, John D. Rockefeller, Ulysses S. Grant and many others are also mentioned in this book.
What unites these great people is that they all shared the same outlook on obstacles, with a mindset of growth (what can I do to fix this?) rather than a fixed mindset (why is this happening to me?). They tackled the problems they had control over and accepted the things they couldn’t affect.
As stated by author Robert Greene, Ryan’s mentor and a great student of history himself: “This is a book for the bedside of every future – and current – leader in the world.”
Books can be your mentors if you choose them wisely. I read over 50 useful books last year and I aim to do the same this year, except I’ll be sharing all of the best insights right here on the High Achiever Diet. Want to stay up to date on the best books to lead you to success? Subscribe to my monthly newsletter below:
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