The Founding Fathers of the American Revolution are commonly thought of as Stoics, in the sense that they were uncomplaining, long-suffering--and effective at achieving their goal.  

George Washington, for example, did not relish his position as head of the Continental Army, and to many Washington's attitude of service and humility directly led to military victory. John Adams, the political theorist, saw his service as necessary even as he withstood the absence of his brilliant and affectionate wife. And Jefferson virtually quoted a Stoic philosopher when he wrote a mild joke in a letter to Adams, saying, "How much pain they have cost us--the evils which have never happened."

Examples of Leadership 

These men practiced the ancient Stoic attitude of humility, service, and control over the emotions. In this they were inspired by Marcus Aurelius, the last great Roman emperor, who wrote Stoic meditations every day. It was Aurelius who said, "Your life is what your thoughts make it." He also believed in living simply--hard for a Roman emperor to do. "Remember that very little is needed to make a happy life." 

In a sense, he, and the Founding Fathers, has been setting high standards for leaders ever since. At a time when emotional upset is fashionable in the political world--thankfully, not in the commercial one--Stoicism is making a comeback. And when materialism is running rampant, some are questioning whether our striving leads to happiness.

I've had my copy of Marcus Aurelius's writings since college. But the trend toward this old-but-new mindset has been fueled by a new writer who is remarkable for his clarity as much as for his youth.

Old Soul

Meet Ryan Holiday, a 30-year-old marketing guru. In his apparently abundant spare time, he quotes from ancient self-improvement writers. Holiday is the author of The Daily Stoic and The Obstacle Is the Way, among others best-selling books that promote this ancient way of thinking.

This kid has made improving our habits into his short-life's work. Holiday's marketing acumen neatly dusts off the old and makes it new. And CEOs, along with just normal people, are noticing. 

His Daily Stoic book is organized by month, with each one carrying a theme for daily practice. Clarity for January, for example; unbiased thought is the theme for April, and duty is the word for July. The whole book has a kind of orientation toward pragmatism (which is the theme for August, incidentally).

So What the Hell Is Stoicism?

To tell the truth, I've been aware of stoicism as a kind of thought for the day, but until finding these books, I would not have been able to tell you any governing principles.  Luckily, Ryan provides a kind of wiki view on his website. Here goes:

Practice misfortune. Our love of comfort and fear of loss are conditions of slavery--and we spend untold energy in worry. Holiday tells us that the Stoics would actually practice discomfort as a means of becoming accustomed to, and actually happy with, what we had previously feared.

Train perception to avoid good and bad. The Stoics turned problems upside down--taking something that appears to be bad as a cue to practice new virtues. For example, you can turn the experience of working with someone who is a pain into an exercise in patience. In that way, take all things that happen to you in a neutral fashion without labels. They are your opportunities.

Remember--it's all ephemeral. Our anger, our ambition, our deepest desires are fleeting, and the more we concentrate on them the unhappier we will be. Concentrate on the moment--it can't be taken away.

Tony Robbins for the Ages

In Rome, and in the early days of this country for that matter, aspiring leaders studied the lives of successful people who came before them. (It is that impulse, by the way, that led to today's so-called elite education.)  

It is easy to disparage that practice as an old and tired one, but then again, one of our most-admired leaders of today, Tony Robbins, modeled his success on those he admired.  He also gets paid big bucks to provide that same advice.

I think Holiday and Robbins are onto something. Might be a good idea to take a crack at this ancient practice.  

If anyone asks you if it works, you can say it did for others. Like Marcus Aurelius, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson.

Published on: Oct 30, 2017
Like this column? Sign up to subscribe to email alerts and you'll never miss a post.
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.