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Everyday Philosophy: How to Turn Trials Into Triumphs

Marcus Aurelius

Editor’s Note: Ryan Holiday will speak at Voice & Exit 2015 on June 20, 2015.

When most people think of “philosophy,” their eyes glaze over. It’s the last thing they want, let alone something they need.

But this is naive.

Philosophy is not just about talking or lecturing, or even reading long, dense books. In fact, it is something men and women of action use—and have used throughout history—to solve their problems and achieve their greatest triumphs. Not in the classroom, but on the battlefield, in the Forum, and at court.

It was jotted down (and practiced) by slaves, poets, emperors, politicians and soldiers, as well as ordinary folks to help with their own problems and those of their friends, family and followers. This wisdom is still there, available to us.

Specifically, I am referring to Stoicism, which, in my opinion, is the most practical of all philosophies.

A brief synopsis on this particular school of Hellenistic philosophy: Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BC, but was famously practiced by the likes of Epictetus, Cato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgment be based on behavior, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.

But at the very root of the thinking, there is a very simple, though not easy, way of living. Take obstacles in your life and turn them into your advantage, control what you can and accept what you can’t.

In the words of Epictetus:

“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”

Amazingly we still have access to these ideas, despite the fact that many of the greatest Stoics never wrote anything down for publication. Cato definitely didn’t. Marcus Aurelius never intended for Meditations to be anything but personal. Seneca’s letters were, well, letters and Epictetus’ thoughts come to us by way of a note-taking student.

And so it was from their example, their actions, we find real philosophy.

Because other than their common study of the philosophy, the Stoics were all men of action—and I don’t think this is a coincidence. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of the most powerful empire in the history of the world. Cato, the moral example for many philosophers, defended the Roman republic with Stoic bravery until his defiant death. Even Epictetus, the lecturer, had no cushy tenure—he was a former slave.

And this shouldn’t really be that surprising…

The modern day philosopher and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb defines a Stoic as someone who, “transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.”

Using this definition as a model we can see that throughout the centuries Stoicism has been a common thread though some of history’s great leaders. It has been practiced by Kings, presidents, artists, writers and entrepreneurs. Both historical and modern men illustrate Stoicism as a way of life.

Prussian King, Frederick the Great, was said to ride with the works of the Stoics in his saddlebags because they could, in his words, “sustain you in misfortune”.

Meanwhile, Montaigne, the politician and essayist, had a line from Epictetus carved into the beam above the study in which he spent most of his time.

The founding fathers were also inspired by the philosophy. George Washington was introduced to Stoicism by his neighbors at age seventeen, and afterwards, put on a play about Cato to inspire his men in that dark winter at Valley Forge. Whereas Thomas Jefferson had a copy of Seneca on his nightstand when he died.

The problem is not that philosophy is useless. It’s that many of us have forgotten that it can be a guide to living well.


Last year, I attended a conference/festival in Austin called Voice & Exit. I didn’t know quite what to expect at first, but the more I experienced, the more I saw what it was all about: the belief that life requires philosophy.

In every talk, every workshop, and even at the evening festival, they have designed the experience to offer answers to these questions:

  • What is a life well lived?
  • How are we to flourish?
  • Who or what is holding us back from flourishing?

The optimistic, sometimes fringe, answers offered at Voice & Exit start in the category of Self, then move outward to Community and World. And that is exactly how living philosophers like Massimo Pagliucci treat their practice:

Basically, I begin with a morning meditation…

I then visualize Hierocles’ Circle, an exercise in which you begin with yourself, then gradually expand your circle of concern to your family, your friends, your fellow citizens, and the world at large.

That progression — self, community, and world — is the order of priority for improvement.


This year I’ll be a speaker at Voice & Exit, and I look forward to bringing my own perspective on human flourishing. I plan to build on ideas that originated in Stoic philosophy, which I set out in The Obstacle Is the Way.

In that book, I update a 2000-year-old way of life that, once I discovered it, has been completely transformative for me. The crux of that philosophy was captured by Marcus Aurelius who said:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

And yet most of us get tripped up by the obstacles, rather than seeing them as a means to personal growth.

The great thing about philosophy is that it doesn’t have to be the latest new thing. That’s why the works of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius have helped me become happier, more productive, and more in control. The ideas are timeless. In The Obstacle is the Way, I just gave them an update.

There are three main ideas in my stoicism:

  • Perception — You will encounter obstacles in your life, fair and unfair. Your power comes in how you regard those obstacles, how you react to them, and whether you keep your composure.
  • Action — Your behaviors define you. If you act with deliberation, boldness and persistence, that is how you will come to be defined and how you will define yourself.
  • Will — Your deepest reservoir of strength is will. Even when it seems your options are dried up and your actions have all but disappeared, your will remains.

I have been working on more ideas to build on the thesis in The Obstacle Is the Way. If you join me at Voice & Exit 2015, I will be sharing some of these new ideas in my Saturday Seeds talk.

The Voice & Exit 2015 conference unfolds June 20–21, 2015 in Austin, TX. I look forward to seeing you there.