Seneca on Being Content With What We Have

“It is not the man who has too little, but the man who craves more, that is poor,” wrote Seneca in Letters to a Stoic. A big challenge in the United States today, and across the globe in our social media connected world, is being content with what we have. There is always a temptation to do and have more. We want to have the most exotic vacation photos on Facebook, we want to have the best decorations during the holidays, and we feel like we need to get a new car when the neighbor gets a new car. The things we possess and the memories we have become stale quickly and the remedy that we turn to first is purchasing more and going further.

 

Seneca continues, “What does it matter how much a man has laid up in his safe, or in his warehouse, how large are his flocks and how fat his dividends, if he covets his neighbor’s property, and reckons, not his past gains, but his hopes of gains to come? Do you ask what is the proper limit to wealth? It is, first, to have what is necessary, and, second, to have what is enough.”

 

A key theme of stoicism is that we cannot rely on standards and measures set by other people to determine our own value or whether we are successful. We cannot compare ourselves to other people who have had different opportunities and challenges in their own lives. The best we can hope for is good luck and to do the best with what we have. These ideas become very freeing and have become very popular following the great recession where many hard working individuals ran into an economic downturn and faced obstacles that were beyond their control. Defining success by things that can be measured from the outside always leaves you in a place where your own success is beyond your control.

 

Seneca would describe the state of needing other people’s approval and needing certain possessions to impress people as being in a state of true poverty. If you can only feel wealthy and successful because you have more than someone else, then you will never be able to enjoy the richness of life. Self-awareness and a deep focus on the world around us helps us to see great wonders in even the mundane and banal aspects of life. Having material and financial success is great and can make for a more exciting life, but you will never be able to enjoy that life if you cannot find your own value in who you are as a person separate from the adulation and praise of others. If you can only define success for yourself as somehow being more than another person, you will always live in poverty and fail to truly enjoy the moment you have and place you are at right now.

Individual Circumstances

For many of us, things in our life and our mental states begin to break down when we look around and compare ourselves to others. We can be perfectly happy on our own, enjoying our own flow of life, but when we see the neighbors buy a new car, when a friend posts vacation pictures on Facebook, and when a family member gets a promotion, we suddenly feel inadequate. Conversely, when we have overcome obstacles it is easy to look at everyone else who has not been as successful as us and look down on them, criticizing them for not being as strong as us and for not making the smart decisions that we had to make to get to where we are.

 

In my first example of comparing ourselves to others, I am referring to jealousy and envy that we can feel relative to others. Our status in the world will always be relative, which means that as someone else does better, our status relative to  that person is in a worse position. There is no global status meter ranking us all, but we unconsciously rank our status against one another all the time. It is stressful, and it is also all made up. Recognizing our status comparing impulses and choosing not to allow these impulses to drive our lives will free up our mind, our goals, and what we feel we must do to show that we are just as successful as other people in our orbit.

 

The second example from the opening paragraph of comparing ourselves to others is something I have been thinking about more recently. Once we become successful, I would argue that we have an incentive to over-hype the obstacles we faced and to make it even more challenging for other people to follow in our footsteps. If I had come from nothing and succeeded, and a hundred thousand people after me also came from nothing and found success, then my achievements would look smaller. If, however, I came from nothing and achieved great success and suddenly found myself in a rare group of individuals with very few other people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then my accomplishments would look even more impressive. What I did to achieve success may not have changed, but how it is perceived will change based on how many others also become successful. We have plenty of incentives to build up our story, trump up the obstacles we had to overcome, and to then criticize those who don’t make it. We shouldn’t believe the story we tell ourselves, because it is probably and exaggeration and will likely make life unnecessarily challenging for others, just so we can hold a special place in our own minds and in the eyes of society.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, Colin Wright writes the following, “Don’t compare your efforts to that of your peers. Everything you do should be customized for your individual circumstances.” We never know all of the challenges that another person faces. We never know what advantages another person has in life. And ultimately, for ourselves, neither of those things matter. What does matter is whether or not we are making efforts to be well-rounded individuals and whether we exist in society for ourselves or with the goal of making all of society better for everyone. Comparing ourselves to others in an attempt to monitor who is working hard, who is cheating, who deserves what they get, and who is high or low status will simply burn us out and lead to negative thinking and negative interactions with others.

Getting Beyond Economic Success

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be author Colin Wright examines the way we think about and operate as a society around money. He suggests that money has grown in importance and engulfed every aspect and function of our lives in ways that are damaging but often hidden from us. He writes, “As we grow into adults who care about things like self-actualization and happiness defined in ways other than the color-within-the-lines manuals we’ve been provided, we still often limit ourselves to defining happiness in economic terms. If I can make this much money each month, I can leave this soul-sucking job I hate. If I can reduce my expenses, I won’t need to work so much and can free up time to spend on that hobby I’ve been neglecting. If I invest properly now, I may be able to not work at all at some point in the distant future.”

 

Wright argues that money has become our default measurement of success and happiness.  The idea that we can be both happy or successful without large amounts of money does not align with the ways we actually live our lives. We see the story of people getting away from this mode of thinking in movies all the time, but we rarely live our lives with something other than money at the center of all that we do. As a result, our goals, daily routines, and attention are all focused on helping us make more money or use our money.

 

Money itself will not make us happy, but it does provide us with new opportunities. I recently listened (I think to an episode of Tyler Cowen’s podcast but I can’t remember) to an economist suggest that money does not make us more happy above a certain level, but that our level of life satisfaction does continue to increase as we have more money. Our overall happiness may not continue to increase as we have more money, but having more money seems to open up new possibilities in our lives and give us more ability to engage in the world in a satisfying manner.

 

A question we should think about, is whether there is a way to change how we approach life so that we can have a high level of satisfaction without needing ever more money. Does our satisfaction come from distinguishing ourselves from others by purchasing court side tickets to the game? Do we get satisfaction from displaying our status with a large RV? Is our satisfaction contingent upon fancy trips and traveling to exotic places? I don’t know if there is specific research around this idea, but perhaps we can shift what we use on an individual level as our default for success away from money and begin to find more satisfaction in our lives in things that are more meaningful than purchasing expensive and fancy items that show off to our Facebook friends and broadcast our status. Exactly what the alternate version of success will be for us will likely vary from person to person, but it will probably favor relationships and connections with others over material possessions and purchases.
Training Daily

Training Daily

Life is hard and each day can be its own struggle and battle, but learning measured approaches to life can give us the tools and training that we need to face those challenges successfully. We all hope to have success, to have an easy life with plenty of opportunities, but we know we will face failures, frustration, confusion, and stagnation. If we can build a solid routine, we can face these obstacles nobly and act accordingly to move forward.

 

In his book, Ego is the Enemy, author Ryan Holiday writes about the daily effort to prepare ourselves for the challenges life will present us with. Holiday writes, “My friend the philosopher and martial artist Daniele Bolelli once gave me a helpful metaphor. He explained that training was like sweeping the floor. Just because we’ve done it once, doesn’t mean the floor is clean for ever. Every day the dust comes back. Every day we must sweep.”

 

Anyone who has ever gone to the  gym knows you don’t leave looking like an Avenger after just one workout. It is continual effort that slowly gets us where we need to be. Accordingly, for us to build our mental fortitude and prepare for failures and successes, we must build our self-awareness, focus on disarming our ego, and concentrate on growth, learning, and improvement daily. If we do not, the skills that will help us climb from our low point will grow dusty and be buried in the daily grit of life. Each day doesn’t need to be a grueling exercise, but we do need to continually dust off our skills for approaching life.

Ryan Holiday’s Anti-Ego Mantra

Ryan Holiday includes three sentences in his book Ego is the Enemy which he calls a mantra, “Not to aspire or seek out of ego. To have success without ego. To push  through failure with strength, not ego.” Holiday reads a lot, and this mantra that he has developed comes from the lessons he has learned from truly great men and women. He explains that everyone faces challenges and great difficulties in their lives, and that without checking ones ego, no one can rise to the top or become the best that they can be.

 

Aspiring and seeking out of ego is the drive to be better than others and the drive to be recognized for selfish reasons. There is a difference between being great at a what we do and pursuing greatness because we want to fully apply ourselves and bring the best version of ourselves to our lives versus trying to be great to show off. When we recognize that the praise of others is hollow and that our value as a person is based on more than what we accomplish and what awards other people give us, we can be more authentic, build a life based on relationships, and find more fulfillment.

 

For the ego, success is defined by what other people want and what other people think is impressive. The ego clamors for attention and status, constantly trying to one-up everyone else. The ego wants to be the best, to show off the best car, to show off the biggest house, and to flaunt what one has achieved. For the ego, what brings success is not as important as the attention and adulation that success brings. Achieving success without ego requires that we focus on solving problems in our lives and in the lives of others. We may become financially well off, but that is never the purpose and is not what defines our success. Great people find success by aligning themselves and their mission so that they can perform their best and make a meaningful impact wherever they are.

 

The ego fears failure because anything less than a perfect outcome takes away from the legitimacy of the ego. Any imperfection, flaw, or vulnerability is a potential crack in the shell of the ego, and as a result those who become successful with their ego will deflect all criticism and place the blame for failure elsewhere, so that it cannot damage the ego. If you do not bring ego with you on your journey, then you can embrace failure in a way that helps you learn, grow, and become stronger. The ego is fearful of mistakes and of being seen making mistakes, but when we push the ego aside we actually look closely to identify even our small mistakes to see opportunities where we can make improvements and grow.

 

Holiday’s mantra is a quick guide to finding a balanced pathway toward success. At each step the ego throws us off and opens us up to exploitation, fear, and distortion. We cannot aim toward a future driven by what we think will impress others, unless we want to live in a world where we never feel fulfilled. We cannot bring ego with us on our quest for success, or we will only find a finish line that continually moves back as we approach it and an appetite to show off that can never be satisfied. When we do fail, which we will at some point, our ego will deflect the failure from ourselves and undoubtedly damage relationships and the organizations we have been using as vessels for success. This is why recognizing and abandoning the ego (or at least trying to keep it from being our main driver) is important if we wish to have a fulfilling life that makes a difference in the world.

Value as Human Being

Ezra Klein has had a few interesting conversations on his podcast recently that hit at the work we do and where we find value in our society today. On my way into work this morning, I was listening to an interview that Klein recorded with David Brooks. At one point Klein and Brooks discussed the shortcomings of our nation’s meritocracy, our system where the people who achieve the most, who become the most capable, and who have the right credentials and education are able to rise to the top. We align ourselves with people who are successful and claim that we are deserving of our success because we have put in the time to get an education and build the right experience to lead to where we are at now. Meritocracy is well aligned with our system of capitalism and ideally works to reveal who is worthy and deserving of praise and who is not.

 

What meritocracy misses, David Brooks argued in his interview, is any sense of moral or spiritual fulfillment. Meritocracy puts us in a position where we only find value in ourselves and others based on our achievements and outcomes. It narrows the scope of what is possible for us and our family. Any decision that does not clearly lead to a better economic position, a better career, and higher status is abandoned. Any friendships that can’t help us climb the social ladder or give us some future benefit are left behind. Praise and love are only given based on whether someone is working, what type of car they purchase, and what bumper sticker is on the back of the car. This works well with capitalism, but it doesn’t seem to work well in a cooperative society that depends on trust and love.

 

The biggest downfall of the system of meritocracy is that at any given time, our level of merit or success is not a permanent fixed quality. Success and status change. Basing our life and value on either will always lead to competition, frustration, and fear. “With wisdom, we understand that these positions are transitory, not statements about your value as a human being,” writes Ryan Holiday in his book Ego is the Enemy. We cannot put all of our faith in our accomplishments because we will find that we cannot be fulfilled with just our work and with just what we accomplish. If we look at ourselves and others as only being valuable and worthy based on the ideas in our meritocracy, we will look for things to critique all around us and we will fail to build meaningful connections in our lives.

 

Brooks argues that relationships are what give life meaning and make us feel fulfilled. If we can find a way to base our value as a human being on the fact that we are a human being who is capable of connecting with others in a social bond, then we can build more permanence into who we are and what we do. We can be more accepting of our failures and more honest about our success. Rather than defining us directly, our success can be something we share with those around us and something we use to help improve the lives of those around us. Our failures will no longer destroy our value as a person, and we can better accept and learn from our shortcomings, giving us a chance to be vulnerable and accept the support of those around us.

Blind Spots From Pride

“The question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from, with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments?”  This quote comes from Ryan Holiday and his book Ego is the Enemy. In the quote, Holiday is encouraging us to have enough self awareness to recognize the times when we are acting out of pride and when we are thinking so highly of ourselves that we do not clearly see our own shortcomings and the areas where we need to improve. Developing an awareness of our pride and being able to look at ourselves clearly is a powerful skill to cultivate to better connect with others and to learn and grow as we work toward our goals.

Feeling proud of ourselves is comfortable. After a good workout, when we receive praise at work, and when we buy that shiny new thing we had our eye on for a while, our pride steps in and tells us how amazing, hard working, and smart we are. People applaud our good outcome on a project, give our gym post a like, or turn heads as we drive down the street, and these reactions make us feel validated as though we are doing all the right things. Unfortunately, none of this truly matters and if we start to believe that all of these things define us and are what make us a great person, then we are building a false foundation to stand on. Our pride takes over and we begin to tell ourselves how amazing we are because of the praise and attention we have received which can be divorced from the actual value and positive impact we bring to the planet.

The danger here is that we become blind to what really matters. Focused on ourselves, we likely allow our relationships with others to wither, we likely miss the new market trends and opportunities, and we likely fail to recognize other areas in our life where we can improve ourselves to prepare for future challenges. Believing we are great sets us up to fail by making us overconfident in our own abilities. It takes away the focus on improvement and growth that tells us that we must put in extra effort on the small details and must cultivate strong habits that help us grow each day.

As Holiday writes in his book, being more humble about our successes, our abilities, and who we are will allow us to better engage in the important things in the world. When we recognize that we don’t know everything, don’t have all the skills necessary to stay at the top of the mountain in a changing landscape, and don’t have innate abilities that will never fail, we are more likely to treat those around us with more kindness and compassion and we are more likely to be comfortable with the daily work that helps us overcome the obstacles we face. Humility builds a self-awareness and an accurate sense of our strengths. Through this humble self-awareness, we can take a more measured approach to ourselves, our goals, and the actions we take each day. Learning to turn the ego off can also help us think about what truly matters and is important in our lives and in the lives of others. When you limit the ego, a new car is less appealing (or at least an overly expensive and luxurious new car is less appealing) and the possible uses of the money that you would direct toward the car are expanded. Without ego we can use our time, attention, money, and other resources to make a greater impact than we would if we allowed the ego to pursue its own hedonistic goals.