Life-Hack Stoicism – Is It Worth It?

Is Stoicism a life hack philosophy or is it something more?

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This article originally appeared on the Partially Examined Life website in April 2018. It was co-authored with Leonidas Konstantakos.

Millennials in the West have graduated into or grown up in one of the worst and most prolonged recessions. Granted, this isn’t 1929, and most young people caught up in it are stuck in their parents’ basement and not on the breadline. And, with that, any notion of public sympathy is generally tossed aside and replaced with calls of “toughen up” and “get over yourself.”

Increasingly, those burdened with such sweeping statements are turning to the unlikeliest of heroes. Step up, Jordan Peterson and Marcus Aurelius. Given that both men have taken the world by storm, philosophy has shown that it is a powerful antidote to chaos. Evidently, it’s not as “dead” nor as “useless” as Stephen Hawking and Neil deGrasse Tyson would have us believe. Just ask anyone trying to squeeze out that extra rep in a decked-out CrossFit gym or clocking in an extra hour of work: they’ll tell you that their highlighted copy of The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman helped.

Yet many academic and armchair philosophers make the argument that pithy quotes for a temporary courage boost or swallowed like a pain-relief pill is not philosophy at all. And maybe they’re right. Analogously, committing to throwing waste plastic into the recycling bin is not exactly an eloquent understanding of environmental issues. But before we get overly critical, let’s take a step back to contemplate the fact that an Ancient philosophy called Stoicism and an otherwise obscure psychologist (whose most cited lead-authored paper is on acute alcohol intoxication and cognitive functioning) both appeal to disenfranchised youth as much as they offer a survival strategy to operators of Silicon Valley desktops.

First, philosophy, as this blog’s name attests, moves people (at least partially) to examine their life and the world around them. Secondly, and despite the objections you might have heard from within the academic community, both Stoicism and Peterson’s philosophy have, when used as life hacks, inspired individuals who normally would not give philosophy a second glance. Undoubtedly, they have caused them to re-evaluate their views on life, death, anxiety, personal responsibility, suffering, and pain. It is not for no reason that people look to Seneca when he says in On Providence:

God himself is beyond suffering evil; you are above it. Despise poverty; no man lives as poor as he was born: despise pain; either it will cease or you will cease: despise death; it either ends you or takes you elsewhere: despise fortune; I have given her no weapon that can reach the mind.

Words of wisdom offer comfort in a hostile world beyond one’s control. Granted, millennials might live in a less violent place than Ancient Rome, but that doesn’t mean that they live without challenges. Following the banking collapse in 2008, there was no New Deal put in place to re-establish the common good that had been eroded by corporate interests. Instead, banks were judged “too big to fail,” laws were passed to deregulate Wall Street further, and far too many impressionable teenagers and young adults were led to believe that greed was good and that selfishness, rather than selflessness, was a source of strength.

Millennials have been affected on a personal level too. They are overwhelmed when the job market and salaries continue to shrink. They remain anxious to get on the property ladder, especially when their earnings and savings pale in comparison to the deposits they are asked for. And, to make matters worse, they have been frequently shown that, even if they do land a decent wage, there is no job for life, no opportunity to mature into the role, and next to no pension pot for years of service. For many, if not most, it is a case of “take the crumbs” and embark on “an up or out” mentality.

As a millennial, lack of job security does a lot of things to you. You can either decide to invest in the story that with a blog and a few half-baked ideas, your dreams, aspirations, and efforts will mimic the lifestyle success described in Tim Ferriss’s 4-Hour Workweek, or you can force yourself, as Cal Newport suggests in his book of the same name, to be so good they can’t ignore you.

While the concept in the second book is more realistic, if not entirely more reasonable, neither trajectory is easy. Both take long hours of dedication and network building. Both require more than skill and grit. They also take that master stroke of luck. And, while some may argue that luck is only a question of probabilities, you can only ever hope to increase your chance of winning if you know the game you’re playing and can play it better than others who have otherwise stacked the odds against you. Knowledge won’t cut it. A PhD (post-higher education disorder) won’t cut it. What you need, allegedly, is the ultimate life hack. And, popularized “Silicon Valley Stoicism,” concentrated and sugar-coated, at your convenience, can give it to you—at a price.

For Stoics, life is built on the progression toward virtue, with virtue alone—expressed as wisdom, justice, self-control, and courage—being the one true good. This is because it is, according to Stoics, the only guarantee for a life that is worth living. Other goods, such as wealth and status, which many adherents to Silicon Valley Stoicism chase, are merely preferred indifferents because, while one would rather have them than not, they are not sufficient in their own right to lead to anything more than a fleeting sense of happiness.

Furthermore, to believe that wealth is good, or at least something worth chasing after, means that one’s progress towards virtue is hindered by external forces outside of one’s control. By definition, such a position is foolish, and given that the fool is the opposite of a wise person, it is also in direct conflict to the higher path Stoicism calls its students to follow. To quote Seneca again, this time in On the Happy Life:

Those things that attract men’s eyes, that make them stand still, that they point out to each other, open-mouthed, shine brightly on the outside but have no value within… Accordingly the happy life is one that is in harmony with its own nature, and the only way it can be achieved is if , first, the mind is sound and constantly in possession of its sanity, and secondly if it is brave and vigorous, and, in addition, capable of the noblest endurance, adapting to every new situation, attentive to the body and to all that affects it, but not in an anxious way, and, finally, if it concerns itself with all the things that enhance life, without showing undue respect for anyone of them, taking advantage of Fortune’s gifts, but not becoming their slave.

That said, Seneca did not mean that Stoics should disparage wealth accumulation or a work promotion. However, they should recognize that wealth and professional progression will not improve one’s morality and that one’s journey towards virtue (and therefore happiness) should not be sacrificed so they can be obtained. Cicero even goes as far as saying, in De officiis, that death and poverty are preferred to wronging one’s fellow man (or woman). This view exemplifies the Stoic ideal of preserving the rational being over the physical and why, incidentally, suicide is not just defensible or permissible but the preferred or most appropriate action, if preserving one’s own life comes at the cost of sacrificing their progress towards virtue. Indeed, many prominent ancient Stoics including Zeno, Cleanthes, Cato, and Seneca are recognized as having taken their own lives, often in the opposing of imperial decisions. Marcus Aurelius, an emperor and Stoic philosopher himself, states in his journal (which later became what we know as Meditations):

Life is warfare and a stranger’s sojourn, and after-fame is oblivion. What then is that which is able to conduct a man? One thing and only one, philosophy. But this consists in keeping the daemon within a man free from violence and unharmed, superior to pains and pleasures, doing nothing without a purpose, nor yet falsely and with hypocrisy, not feeling the need of another man’s doing or not doing anything; and besides, accepting all that happens, and all that is allotted, as coming from thence, wherever it is, from whence he himself came; and, finally, waiting for death with a cheerful mind, as being nothing else than a dissolution of the elements of which every living being is compounded. [Emphasis added.]

In other words, there is no “Stoic” life hack that is going to lead to meaningful success. Rather, it is the whole virtue ethos, pursued as a lifelong active commitment to striving for the full expression of one’s humanity, that will help you to progress toward a higher sense of purpose (and happiness).

In this respect, and we are sorry to break it you, there are no Stoic shortcuts or strategies. There are just choices to be made. And, as we showed in this open access journal article, the car we buy, the food we choose to put in our mouths, the phones we place in our pockets, and the clothes we have on our backs all express our values. Such values then either inch us closer to virtue or move us further away.

The danger of Silicon Valley Stoicism is that while it may help you find that extra momentum to climb the corporate ladder or to earn enough money to put a down payment on a house, it may also distract you from a more holistic and coherent comprehension of what Stoic philosophy can offer you. It will not, for example, help you to fully understand that if we are all subject to luck/fortune/fate, then no one is deserving of anything, good or bad.

The problem with life-hack Stoicism is that one typically uses it to overcome tragedy or to aid resilience when things don’t go according to plan in the negative sense, but then fails to acknowledge the role of luck when things go better than one expects. A fuller understanding of Stoic logic demonstrates that the good things that happen to us are not fully, if at all, under our control. So over-crediting ourselves or rejoicing in the good is just as foolish as over-punishing ourselves and dwelling on the bad. This reality is, in effect, what Seneca reminds us of in Letters:

My eyes shall no more be overwhelmed by the glitter of gold than by the glitter of a sword… I shall spurn with magnificent strength of purpose the things all other men pray for and the things all other men are afraid of.

Let’s be clear that, from a Stoic perspective, there absolutely should be consequences for bad behavior or poor judgement, and Stoics should be among the first to advocate for justice when money is diverted into tax havens instead of public education and health systems. But, this activism comes down to the Stoic understanding that justice is a virtue and is not something given (or not) because someone does or does not “deserve” it.

The deserving mentality is echoed in the sweeping statement that “all homeless people are homeless because of something they did.” Yet saying and believing this is as ignorant as it is untrue. It is also every bit as absurd as using “Social Justice Warrior” as an insult when there are, for instance, many developing world environmentalists that have lost their lives in the fight against guerrilla rebels and conglomerates, who are mining, ranching, and logging in the remaining rainforests to the detriment of indigenous communities and future generations. By the same logic, self-labelled Social Justice Warriors who think that social justice amounts to campus arguments about who should have dreadlocks and who shouldn’t, or who’s Hispanic enough to open a taco shop and who isn’t, should be called out on the facts and reasoned with. After all, reason, or rational thought, has no political wing and thus neither does Stoicism.

Another important consideration, under a Stoic framework and echoing the wisdom of Seneca, is that meritocracy does not and cannot exist. Yes, the American Dream does exist in the minds of many individuals (and certainly not just Americans) because a small percentage of people are lucky enough to make it. However, for the vast majority it is the work of others, passed on in the form of inheritance—not their own hard work—that is the greatest determiner of personal wealth. This is a fact pointed out by French economist Thomas Picketty, as much as it is factually asserted by Shawn Rochester in his Google Talk. In other words, it is the luck of being born into the “right” family, the “right” country, “right” gender, or “right” skin color at the “right” moment in history that will determine your odds of success more so than anything you actually put your mind to.

Consequently, it is only after “luck” is properly considered for what it is, that the nature of the game changes. It is where we stop seeking that which simply makes us better versions of ourselves and instead strive for a version that goes beyond ourselves and seeps into the rest of the world. It is where courage is transformed from the personal into the political, and where greed is seen in its true colors: a lack of self-control. It is where wisdom abounds; where we all take steps to know, in any given situation, what to do, why to do it, and how it should be done.

Does this mean that life hacks are of no value? Well, as practicing Stoics, we can say that they hold no moral value. We can also say that a nonmoral sense of value is relative. Is it better to get your words of wisdom from Marcus Aurelius quotes or Donald Trump’s Twitter feed?

A more important question we would ask you is: “Why stop there?” The price you pay in only seeking life hacks is a high one. It might save you your job or move you out of your parents’ home, but it also means that you miss the opportunity to really make a difference in your life and the lives of others. Also consider this, life hacks represent a “little philosophy” and, if we consider Epictetus’s warning in Discourses, then we should be wary of relying on them:

God save me from fools with a little philosophy—no one is more difficult to reach.

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