So, this happy pic of me was taken in 1999. I was a senior in college, and it was right after a dance practice. I was really, really happy. And I remember exactly where I was about a week and a half later. I was sitting in the back of my used minivan in a campus parking lot, when I decided I was going to commit suicide. I went from deciding to full-blown planning very quickly. And I came this close to the edge of the precipice. It’s the closest I’ve ever come. And the only reason I took my finger off the trigger was thanks to a few lucky coincidences. And after the fact, that’s what scared me the most: the element of chance.
So I became very methodical about testing different ways that I could manage my ups and downs, which has proven to be a good investment. Many normal people might have, say, six to 10 major depressive episodes in their lives. I have bipolar depression. It runs in my family. I’ve had 50-plus at this point, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve had a lot of at-bats, many rounds in the ring with darkness, taking good notes. So I thought rather than get up and give any type of recipe for success or highlight reel, I would share my recipe for avoiding self-destruction, and certainly self-paralysis.
And the tool I’ve found which has proven to be the most reliable safety net for emotional free fall is actually the same tool that has helped me to make my best business decisions. But that is secondary. And it is … stoicism. That sounds boring.
So why would people of action focus so much on an ancient philosophy? This seems very academic. I would encourage you to think about stoicism a little bit differently, as an operating system for thriving in high-stress environments, for making better decisions. And it all started here, kind of, on a porch.
So around 300 BC in Athens, someone named Zeno of Citium taught many lectures walking around a painted porch, a “stoa.” That later became “stoicism.” And in the Greco-Roman world, people used stoicism as a comprehensive system for doing many, many things. But for our purposes, chief among them was training yourself to separate what you can control from what you cannot control, and then doing exercises to focus exclusively on the former. This decreases emotional reactivity, which can be a superpower.
Conversely, let’s say you’re a quarterback. You miss a pass. You get furious with yourself. That could cost you a game. If you’re a CEO, and you fly off the handle at a very valued employee because of a minor infraction, that could cost you the employee. If you’re a college student who, say, is in a downward spiral, and you feel helpless and hopeless, unabated, that could cost you your life. So the stakes are very, very high.
And there are many tools in the toolkit to get you there. I’m going to focus on one that completely changed my life in 2004. It found me then because of two things: a very close friend, young guy, my age, died of pancreatic cancer unexpectedly, and then my girlfriend, who I thought I was going to marry, walked out. She’d had enough, and she didn’t give me a Dear John letter, but she did give me this, a Dear John plaque.
I’m not making this up. I’ve kept it. “Business hours are over at five o’clock.” She gave this to me to put on my desk for personal health, because at the time, I was working on my first real business. I had no idea what I was doing. I was working 14-plus hour days, seven days a week. I was using stimulants to get going. I was using depressants to wind down and go to sleep.
I felt completely trapped. I bought a book on simplicity to try to find answers. And I did find a quote that made a big difference in my life, which was, “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality,” by Seneca the Younger, who was a famous Stoic writer. That took me to his letters, which took me to the exercise, “premeditatio malorum,” which means the pre-meditation of evils. In simple terms, this is visualizing the worst-case scenarios, in detail, that you fear, preventing you from taking action, so that you can take action to overcome that paralysis. My problem was monkey mind — super loud, very incessant. Just thinking my way through problems doesn’t work. I needed to capture my thoughts on paper. So I created a written exercise that I called “fear-setting,” like goal-setting, for myself. It consists of three pages. Super simple.
The first page is right here. “What if I …?” This is whatever you fear, whatever is causing you anxiety, whatever you’re putting off. It could be asking someone out, ending a relationship, asking for a promotion, quitting a job, starting a company. It could be anything. For me, it was taking my first vacation in four years and stepping away from my business for a month to go to London, where I could stay in a friend’s room for free, to either remove myself as a bottleneck in the business or shut it down.
In the first column, “Define,” you’re writing down all of the worst things you can imagine happening if you take that step. You want 10 to 20. I won’t go through all of them, but I’ll give you two examples. One was, I’ll go to London, it’ll be rainy, I’ll get depressed, the whole thing will be a huge waste of time. Number two, I’ll miss a letter from the IRS, and I’ll get audited or raided or shut down or some such.
And then you go to the “Prevent” column. In that column, you write down the answer to: What could I do to prevent each of these bullets from happening, or, at the very least, decrease the likelihood even a little bit? So for getting depressed in London, I could take a portable blue light with me and use it for 15 minutes in the morning. I knew that helped stave off depressive episodes. For the IRS bit, I could change the mailing address on file with the IRS so the paperwork would go to my accountant instead of to my UPS address. Easy-peasy.
Then we go to “Repair.” So if the worst-case scenarios happen, what could you do to repair the damage even a little bit, or who could you ask for help? So in the first case, London, well, I could fork over some money, fly to Spain, get some sun — undo the damage, if I got into a funk. In the case of missing a letter from the IRS, I could call a friend who is a lawyer or ask, say, a professor of law what they would recommend, who I should talk to, how had people handled this in the past. So one question to keep in mind as you’re doing this first page is: Has anyone else in the history of time less intelligent or less driven figured this out? Chances are, the answer is “Yes.”
The second page is simple: What might be the benefits of an attempt or a partial success? You can see we’re playing up the fears and really taking a conservative look at the upside. So if you attempted whatever you’re considering, might you build confidence, develop skills, emotionally, financially, otherwise? What might be the benefits of, say, a base hit? Spend 10 to 15 minutes on this.
Page three. This might be the most important, so don’t skip it: “The Cost of Inaction.” Humans are very good at considering what might go wrong if we try something new, say, ask for a raise. What we don’t often consider is the atrocious cost of the status quo — not changing anything. So you should ask yourself, if I avoid this action or decision and actions and decisions like it, what might my life look like in, say, six months, 12 months, three years? Any further out, it starts to seem intangible. And really get detailed — again, emotionally, financially, physically, whatever.
And when I did this, it painted a terrifying picture. I was self-medicating, my business was going to implode at any moment at all times, if I didn’t step away. My relationships were fraying or failing. And I realized that inaction was no longer an option for me.
Those are the three pages. That’s it. That’s fear-setting. And after this, I realized that on a scale of one to 10, one being minimal impact, 10 being maximal impact, if I took the trip, I was risking a one to three of temporary and reversible pain for an eight to 10 of positive, life-changing impact that could be a semi-permanent. So I took the trip. None of the disasters came to pass. There were some hiccups, sure. I was able to extricate myself from the business. I ended up extending that trip for a year and a half around the world, and that became the basis for my first book, that leads me here today.
And I can trace all of my biggest wins and all of my biggest disasters averted back to doing fear-setting at least once a quarter. It’s not a panacea. You’ll find that some of your fears are very well-founded.
But you shouldn’t conclude that without first putting them under a microscope. And it doesn’t make all the hard times, the hard choices, easy, but it can make a lot of them easier.
I’d like to close with a profile of one of my favorite modern-day Stoics. This is Jerzy Gregorek. He is a four-time world champion in Olympic weightlifting, political refugee, published poet, 62 years old. He can still kick my ass and probably most asses in this room. He’s an impressive guy.
I spent a lot of time on his stoa, his porch, asking life and training advice. He was part of the Solidarity in Poland, which was a nonviolent movement for social change that was violently suppressed by the government. He lost his career as a firefighter. Then his mentor, a priest, was kidnapped, tortured, killed and thrown into a river. He was then threatened. He and his wife had to flee Poland, bounce from country to country until they landed in the US with next to nothing, sleeping on floors.
He now lives in Woodside, California, in a very nice place, and of the 10,000-plus people I’ve met in my life, I would put him in the top 10, in terms of success and happiness. And there’s a punchline coming, so pay attention. I sent him a text a few weeks ago, asking him: Had he ever read any Stoic philosophy? And he replied with two pages of text. This is very unlike him. He is a terse dude.
And not only was he familiar with stoicism, but he pointed out, for all of his most 13
important decisions, his inflection points, when he stood up for his principles and ethics, how he had used stoicism and something akin to fear-setting, which blew my mind.
And he closed with two things. Number one: he couldn’t imagine any life more beautiful than that of a Stoic. And the last was his mantra, which he applies to everything, and you can apply to everything:
“Easy choices, hard life. Hard choices, easy life.”
The hard choices — what we most fear doing, asking, saying — these are very often exactly what we most need to do. And the biggest challenges and problems we face will never be solved with comfortable conversations, whether it’s in your own head or with other people.
So I encourage you to ask yourselves: Where in your lives right now might defining your fears be more important than defining your goals? Keeping in mind all the while, the words of Seneca: “We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”
Thank you very much.