This post covers week 2 of the Daily Stoic New Year New You Challenge. Click here for week 1!
Day 8: Open Your Mind: Read Something by Someone You Disagree With
“It is likely that you will ask me why I quote so many of Epicurus’s noble words instead of words taken from our own school. But is there any reason why you should regard them as sayings of Epicurus and not common property? How many poets give forth ideas that have been uttered, or may be uttered, by philosophers! What a quantity of sagacious verses lie buried in the mime!” —Seneca, Letters From A Stoic, 8.8
Our goal is for the new you to forsake no sources of knowledge, to cultivate the ability to engage with your opponents—and even learn from them. Today’s challenge is to read something by someone you disagree with, and find within those writings something you do agree with. Challenge yourself today by opening yourself up to learn something new from the unlikeliest of teachers—your intellectual, philosophical, political opposite.
Choose something concise for this first attempt: an essay, or an article. Find a podcast you would normally never listen to, with a perspective you would typically shield yourself from. Pick the author or host carefully. You need to be discerning. Find a reputable source, someone with whom it is possible to have measured, considerate disagreement.
We’re not talking about Alex Jones here. The point isn’t to put money in the pocket of charlatans or demagogues. We want you to find the ones making well-reasoned arguments, the ones who have respect for the intellects of their opponents and seek to persuade with evidence rather than fast talk, angry rhetoric, or appeals to the crowd.
Someone who sequesters themselves away from dissenting thoughts stagnate will find themselves becoming artifacts of yesteryear. It’s a waste of your potential, and it’s a disservice to the person you can become.
I used today’s challenge as an opportunity for learning. I’m not a vegan and probably view veganism with the same scepticism as other non-vegans, but I admit I haven’t previously looked in much detail as to why people actually go vegan. For that reason I watched the above TEDx talk for more information. While it didn’t do enough to convince me to go vegan, it was very informative and Ed Winters’s approach of systematically tackling common objections to veganism was a clever one.
Day 9: Find Your Most Prized Possession—and Get Rid of It
“And if you can’t stop prizing a lot of other things? Then you’ll never be free—free, independent, imperturbable. Because you’ll always be envious and jealous, afraid that people might come and take it all away from you. Plotting against those who have them—those things you prize. People who need those things are bound to be a mess—and bound to take out their frustrations on the gods. Whereas to respect your own mind—to prize it—will leave you satisfied with your own self.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.16
Your challenge today is to teach yourself the same lesson: Pick one of your prized possessions and “get rid of it.”
Maybe you take your brand new gaming computer or video game console and loan it to a friend for a few days. Or you hide your expensive chef’s knife on a high shelf and go buy a $10 version from the grocery store. Or you park your fancy car in the garage for a week and take the bus to work instead. Whatever it is, pick something that you love and find a way to make it inaccessible. Or, better yet, get rid of it for good—if you’ve got the stomach.
Being deprived of your favorite object may cause some unease. You’ll sit down on the couch and grab for a game controller that you’ve lent out, or search through your bookshelf for a minute or two for a prized book that you belatedly realize you’ve hidden in the back of a closet. If it feels like the phantom pain some people feel after losing limbs to accident and to war, take a moment to think about what is causing this feeling and to get some perspective.
Is it the monetary value of this possession that has you anxious? Is it a proxy for other feelings? Like self-worth? Or is it actually an escape, a distraction? Are you absorbed in the Cadillac of video games setups because it’s a way to avoid studying for classes you don’t really want to take?
None of this is great. So try to live without your prized possession for a good chunk of time. Try not to use it for a week. The idea is to truly deprive yourself of this thing that you care so much about. That’s the only way you’ll be able to break its hold over you.
I found it difficult to think of a prized possession which made me realise there’s not too much I own that can’t be replaced. I decided that a good thing to put away for a week would be my iPad as I hope to reduce my screen time as much as possible this year and replace that with reading books.
Day 10: Free Yourself from One Social Media Account or News App
“Wipe it clean—every annoyance and distraction—and reach utter stillness.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.2
“We should spend our time with those who are calmest, more easygoing and least anxious and depressed, since we take on the natures of our associates; just as some diseases jump over onto those we have touched, so the mind infects those closest to us with its evils.” —Seneca, De Ira, 3.8
Today your challenge is to take a small but critical step backwards (and yet forward) by deleting one social media or news app from your phone.
We want you to remove a single digital distraction. That one icon on your phone’s home screen that your fingers navigate to without thinking. It’s really that simple. We want you to free up space for the important things in life. And we believe with this simple action, a measure of time returns to you, time that you can use productively toward self-enrichment.
So right now, pick one social media or news app and hit delete. Or have a friend change the password and promise not to give it to you for another 11 days, or maybe the rest of the month even. If you’re careful, if you make sure that your use of other social media apps doesn’t expand to fill the void, you’ll find something new, something valuable: free time.
Instead of pursuing retweets and shares, gathering likes and comments like they’re actual tangible things, you’ll have time to devote to things that matter, things of value: friends, family, education, the study of Stoicism.
You don’t have to get rid of social media or swear off the news entirely, to be clear. This is not an intervention. But you should establish some boundaries with your remaining accounts. Commit to a time limit each day. Only use them after you’ve done the important things. Use it like a reward for a job done. Bring a little more consciousness to that reach for the phone. Put some hurdles up. Regain control of your actions.
As I try to post useful content on the @whatisstoicism social media accounts regularly, I decided that rather than delete an account I would set aggressive time limits on them all. I’ve started with a time limit of 25 minutes per day which should give me enough time to post and check a couple of times during the day for notifications. I’ll try this for a week and hopefully have made good enough use of the extra free time that I won’t want to increase the limits.
Day 11: Go Outside and Pull Weeds
“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” — Marcus Tullius Cicero
Your challenge today is to model Scipio later life in your own; to get outside and down in the dirt as he did, and “pull weeds” to seek in that work the same sense of satisfaction he did in manual labor.
Abandon the warm creature comforts of the inside today, get down and dirty in the earth, and get a garden in order. If you don’t have a yard with a garden, head to a local public space that could use some tending. Walk the local park with a trash bag and a hand shovel. If it’s snowed recently, visit your neighbor and volunteer to shovel their driveway. The point is to do some hard, physical, dirty labor.
Ben Franklin talked about how living virtuously was “a task of more difficulty than I had imagined…while my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another.” It’s better to approach improvement, he realized, like a person who, “having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his strength, but work on one of the beds at a time.”
Whether pulling weeds or working on improving ourselves, we can’t think about the end. We move forward one step, one habit, one problem at a time. We focus on the thing right in front of us and get to the others later. We take care of pulling the weeds currently visible, not the ones that might pop up sometime in the future. We roll up our sleeves and go to work.
Getting into the garden is something I like doing anyway but doing it in the context of the challenge made me think more about what I was doing and how it translated metaphorically to the rest of life. As the challenge text said, I was able to focus on what was in front of me, to take care of pulling the weeds currently visible, not the ones that might pop up sometime in the future.
Day 12: Pick A Physical PR to Beat…and Re-Beat This Year
“The human soul degrades itself…when it allows its action and impulse to be without a purpose, to be random and disconnected: even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal.” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 2.16
Your challenge is to set a fitness goal, a personal record, that you will accomplish in 2020. And in so doing, you will demonstrate to yourself and to those around you that slow and steady really does win the race—maybe even literally, in your case.
What does that look like? Well that’s up to you. What do you want to set yourself to? Running your fastest mile. Lifting the most weight in the bench press. Swimming all the way around the lake by your house without stopping. Your max pushups in under two minutes.
Any kind of fitness goal will do. But whatever it is, just make sure it is something specific—and something you are (to be honest) slightly skeptical about achieving. Start this challenge today. Pick a physical activity where you want to up your game in 2020. Anything physical will work. Then do a fitness test. Find out how many reps you can perform, how many miles you can go, how much weight you can lift, and so on. In order to beat yourself, you’re going to need to set a baseline.
The point of this exercise is to become a person who is making progress toward something, someone who has a goal they are inching their way towards that does not depend on other people (on their boss, on the economy, on their co-workers or even on the weather).
As an occasional weight lifter I’m going with bench press for this one. I don’t particularly know what my bench press PR is so that’ll need to be set first before I can beat it, but once it is I’ll try to steadily improve on it as 2020 progresses.
Day 13: Set Up Your Personal Board of Directors
“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” —Epictetus, Discourses, 33.6
A ruler, a CEO, a head coach, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do or even what your goals are, if you listen to advisors who possess talents and skills and insights you lack, you can achieve great things. If you don’t? Success is much harder and the risk of spinning off the planet into delusion because much more real. Which is why your challenge today is to create your personal board of directors.
A trusted college professor, a parent or sibling, a personal or business mentor, a friend, or a friend of a friend—whatever the relationship—pick five people to appoint to your board. Five people with skills you need, with experience you lack, with relationships you can leverage, with perspectives you can trust, if not always agree with. You don’t have to tell these people that your board of directors exists, but you do have to commit to checking in with them over the next twelve months on important matters in your life.
You’ll want to come up with some way to mimic the function of a corporate board but in your personal life. Maybe it’s quarterly calls? Maybe it’s taking individual members out for drinks or coffee once a month? You’ll figure out what works for you, just remember that we’re not talking about gathering a group of people here who have power over you. In this case, the board of directors is fulfilling an advising role. It is those experts in your life who can be trusted to give you good advice and sound information when you really need it. People you keep apprised of all you’re doing so they can get you to think about what you’re not thinking about, so they can ask you tough questions and so you can benefit from the fact that they flat-out have more experience and wisdom.
This is an interesting challenge and one that could prove useful even if it only serves as a reminder to ask a particular person for advice every now and then. I think a list of five people like this has to have variety – people who will support but also challenge ideas, people who won’t simply try to advise but who will also ask the right questions, people who will, above all, be honest. It’s also a list that can keep being revisited; directors come and go based on performance, right?
Day 14: Sit Down, Write a Letter to a Friend About the New You, and Send It
“Your letter has given me pleasure, and has roused me from sluggishness.” —Seneca, Letters From A Stoic, 74.1
Today, your challenge is to write and send a letter to someone close to you. A real letter, one that you’ve handwritten, stamped, and dropped off in your mailbox.
Use that letter to reach out to someone important to you—maybe even someone on your new board of directors—and talk to them about the ideas we have been challenging you with over the last two weeks. Talk to them about the person you plan to be in the next twelve months, talk to them about the changes you are making and how you plan to get there.
This isn’t just going to be a letter where you shoot the breeze, exchange pleasantries, or catch up on life. We want this letter to help you realize the goals we have set and begun our work on for 2020—specifically, the goal of becoming the new you.
Tell the letter recipient about the New Year New You Challenge. Tell them what you’re struggling with. Be vulnerable and tell them something real.. Bring them into your headspace and along on your journey, so you’ll be more likely to actually continue on it…and so that they can help hold you accountable.
This is a worthwhile exercise to clarify thoughts and intentions. There’s no better way to be clear about the type of person you want to become than to write it down and read it back. Writing to someone about yourself means you can’t let yourself off the hook, you can’t be lazy with half-baked explanations or unreadable scrawling as you might if you writing only for yourself. Having written this letter with clarity and purpose, only one question remains – will I have the guts to send it?