I’m not sure when the exact moment hit me, to be honest with you. The great epiphanies in life, while radical and perspective changing, can often sneak up on you over a period of time before you suddenly have it all up in your face with complete and utter clarity. But this happened to me… when I realized Taylor Swift is a Stoic.
Oh sure, even as I sit in front of my computer and type these words out in a blog post that is only at its outset, I can sense your total skepticism in the future and across the Interwebz. But that’s my magical superpower…umm, pre-guessing skepticism. Yeah, I got it… it’s not adamantium claws or super strength or anything wicked cool like that, but we seldom get to choose such things, OK? I make the best use of the gifts bestowed upon me.
See, I’ve been rather enamored with the lessons set forth by Marcus Aurelius in his timeless Meditations (my favorite translations thus far being this one) and recently began reading “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday, a more modern take on applying the wisdom of the Stoics to the modern day notion of using your trials, failures and obstacles as the means to personal success. Nothing quite like using ideas developed more than 2,000 years ago to tackle things in our hyper-connected world of today, right?
If you were to boil down Stoicism to its most basic elements, it’s the view that while you have no control over the events of the world or the actions of others towards you, you always have a choice on how you react to those events/actions and the decisions you make in living your life. No one can take your free will from you for anything – your freedom is always your own and you hold responsibility for that at all times. In doing so, reason and knowledge make up your inner fortress where you move beyond being shackled to the whims of pain and pleasure. It’s all on you… which is a profoundly liberating way of thinking of things.
So, at some point in the combination of reading Holiday’s book and popping through one of my Spotify playlists that some T-Swizzle hit my earpieces and it struck me… Ms. Swift is actually a Stoic.
I feel like it should have been clear all along, really. The parallels are there if you are willing to open your eyes to them.
For example, Epictetus wrote:
Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test.
Contrast this to Ms. Swift in “The New Romantics”:
We are too busy dancing
To get knocked off our feet
Baby, we’re the new romantics
The best people in life are free
She’s living her life, dancing away as she so chooses and because of that, has no time to be knocked off her feet. I’m sure Epictetus could turn quite a jig back in his day as well (OK, this is utterly wild conjecture) and would appreciate that (a) she’s not getting knocked off her feet; and (b) she recognizes that those who live freely are the best kind of people. And what is Stoicism if not these two things?
Oh you need more? Then I submit for your consideration the following:
Yup – T-Swift has no time for your tomfoolery and jibber-jabber and unto all of that she will drop the universal sign language for “Suck it” on you, endlessly in the magic loop of this GIF. (As an aside, if you pronounce as JIF like the peanut butter, you are an awful person who takes themselves with a level of seriousness that I cannot abide). For her, it matters not the slings and arrows of the world nor the endless hollow praise heaped upon her for she finds only respite within reason and clear thinking. And telling punks to suck it.
I can sense it… I can sense you beginning to see the parallels between Swifty and Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca. Now it’s time to bring this all home rapidly… quickly…dare I say…swiftly. I present to you the capstone of my argument and the magnum opus of Ms. Swift’s artistic canon… “Shake It Off”:
I mean, where to even begin with such a rich trove of philosophical nuggets?
First off, regardless of the negativity brought her way from those who speak ill of her intelligence or dating life, she’s going to (a) keep cruising; (b) can’t stop and will not, in fact, stop moving; and (c) has this music within her affirming all of this.
Sure, the players may continue to play, the haters continue to hate, the heartbreakers continue to break and yes, the fakers continue to fake as they are wont to do…but Tay-Tay? Oh, my friends, she will only shake it off, shake it off. That’s the benefit of never missing a beat and being lightning on your feet, in the end. It’s an entire song devoted to taking the negatives that come your way in life, those things over which you have zero control and letting them slide right past because you are the only one who can choose how to observe those events and place them into their proper context. Seriously.
In the end, Stoicism can seem like the drab, humorless philosophy of a bunch of Romans from a few thousand years ago and confined to musty tomes or Intro to Philosophy courses in your first year of college. But in reality, it’s not at all – you can still have moments of sadness or elation, but you act not to be ruled by such things entirely, especially when they come at the whims and interests of others. Stoicism is a remarkable way of creating resiliency within yourself and while it’s not easy (mild understatement), it is effective.
And sometimes you just need to widen your perspective a bit and realize while probably was always in your heart all along, even as you fought against admitting it…that T-Swizzle is not just the philosopher you wanted, she’s also the one you need.
As the sun shines and the wind blows on this chilly Sunday in Connecticut, I stand at the cusp of Day 5 of Lent and my social media diet. This diet is comprised of no Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for the 40 days of Lent…and I will confess that list clearly does not include Snapchat since I find it silly, fun and not nearly the level of distraction that those other apps prove to be. It’s my social media diet, damn it and I will do it how I wanna.
This isn’t my first ever foray into doing this kind of social media clear out for Lent since I also did this with just Facebook several years back. Not surprisingly, the first few days are the most interesting and the most telling.
It’s funny to begin to truly notice how often when a moment of delay, boredom or small time gap in my days occurs, I reach for my phone for instant distraction before even realizing I’m doing it. It’s only as the phone effortlessly slides into my hand from my pocket and I get read to click the Facebook app do I then realize… ohhhhh, right. I deleted that sucker on Fat Tuesday.
Or the moments where I have a thought that pops into my head, whether an observation about the day or something utterly silly to share for a mild guffaw…and I remember that I won’t be doing that.
And even more importantly than the idea of I won’t be doing that, I begin to think “Huh…why do I feel the need to always do that?”
By virtue of writing this blog post for others to read, I clearly am not against the sharing of thoughts and ideas to the world at large. Heck, that’s something I enjoy doing quite a bit…but the reasons behind all of this do matter. Am I doing it because I have something to say, regardless of whether there is a defined response? Or is there a desire to have someone validate my ideas? Like most things, it’s probably a combination thereof.
The time away from these social media platforms is spurring me to reconnect, live and in-person, with my family and friends to a great extent. If for no other reason, this alone makes it worth it. Sure, I could have done this while keeping up my steady stream of inane babble on Facebook about Lord only knows what, but there is something impactful about combining the time away from one with the concerted effort to be more connected with the people I care about. This has been lunches, dinners, phone calls and any a number of ways of being with important people and truly present in those moments without a temptation to check what else is going on out there.
And as the photo suggest, I’ve also found a lot more time to read and catch up on news straight from sources and without the argumentative precursors that have become the norm in my Facebook feed the last year.
I encourage anyone else thinking about this to try it (and this article from the always excellent Eric Barker at Barking Up The Wrong Tree has research-backed ideas). The hardest pull is a combination of fear-of-missing-out (the weird acronym of FOMO that prompts an eyeroll from me every time) or thinking you will lose touch with people. You won’t – you just adapt to a different way of connecting. (But the irony of the fact that when I post this blog it will automatically post to my Facebook page is not lost on me.)
And perhaps the greatest thing I am noticing in this period of time? That maybe… just maybe…when Lent comes to a close for 2017…that I will stop, look around and realize the fear-of-missing-out was just a fear…and I should have been far more concerned of missing out on the important things right in front of me…not on my phone screen.
A common piece of guidance that people mention a lot is you are the company you keep. It’s meant to be both a reflection on who you are based on the choices you make of friends, associates and colleagues, but it’s also about the influence those people you spend so much time with have on you. It’s summed up nicely by Jim Rohn as follows:
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
(Side note – If you are one of those high-minded goobers who get twitterpated over the idea of ending your sentence in prepositions, y’all need to take a deep breath and reassess your priorities. You should also read this.)
From a macro level view, this advice makes sense, provided you take it as general guidance to be reflective on who gets your precious time. We should all be mindful of that since, let’s be frank, some people get far too much time from us who simply don’t deserve it.
However, the thing that’s always struck me in a weird way about this phrase is when it’s used as advice, it implies you then have complete choice over who those people are. We often cannot choose our coworkers. Are you going to upend your career every time there are less-than-awesome folks in your immediate work groups? Every workplace has them in some form or another and while you shouldn’t settle, you also probably shouldn’t think you will eliminate those kinds of people 100% of the time.
And what about your family, especially if you are a parent with kids? I don’t think protective services is going to cast a kind eye in your direction if you sit down with your middle schoolers to tell them they need to go away because they are seriously harshing your mellow, bro.
So the question is what to do in those situations since we all likely have some of those Fab Five who aren’t that fabulous or don’t add positive value to our lives.
I think it’s one of three approaches:
- Replace those people if you can. (And that’s a bit IF).
- Reduce the amount of time you do spend with them.
- Increase the positive content you bring into your own life.
It’s #3 that I have been thinking about the most because while it has it’s shortcomings, I think there is often more value here than people may realize.
If there are people who occupy time in your life that you cannot simply get rid of, you can still proactively bring good things into your life. I am continuously surprised by the extent to which reading the right things, listening to the right things (lectures, podcasts, etc.) and spending the right time (prayer, meditation, quiet time, etc.) can blunt the effects of negativity.
It’s better to have the right 5 people, I do think, since I think their impact is hard to match, but given that we live in a time when we have more options available on the kinds of information and content we bring into our lives, why wouldn’t anyone fill their gray matter up with that as much as they can? Because even if you cannot choose those 5 people freely, you certainly can choose freely that content in your life.
In fact, this is a big part of my upcoming social media break for Lent because I am finding the amount of negative I get from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. is high (drama, negativity, habitual need to check for updates and likes and mentions and comments while not spending enough time being present with the people right there in front of me) and dwarfing the positive I receive. I would even argue that, for most people these days, one of those five people may be a social media presence… or perhaps Facebook as an entity is one of those five. It has been for me.
So assess the people most in your life and think about if they portray who you are and want to be. That’s good for any of us to do… provided we do it without a sense of smug superiority like we are a queen choosing suitors for our clearly much-desired attention. But remember we can each make more subtle shifts to change what the daily content of our days can be.
Come Ash Wednesday on March 1st, mine will change quite a bit. Time to see where it goes.
I spent this past weekend in the Columbus, Ohio area for some lifting-related shenanigans. One thing I’ve found with traveling, is I get really reflective during my trips. There’s nothing miraculous about the fact that travel changes your perspective – it’s been written about countless times on the power of seeing other places to broaden your worldview. What’s interesting is that I think this occurs regardless of whether you travel to the other side of the planet or just a few states away… at least, if you are open to it.
During my trip back home to Connecticut, I received a Facebook message from someone that completely caught me off guard, but really in the best possible way. They hit me with a series of extremely kind compliments, just as an observation of what they saw of me and how I live my life. Now, the details of what they said are immaterial and, quite frankly, listing them out just really amounts to me giving myself a high-five for being awesome… and not in the typical snarky way I like to do in not taking myself seriously, but in a fashion that feels braggy. (Is that a word? “Braggy”? No idea… but I’m running with it).
Upon this person telling me that “you have your shit together”, I said “I might need to remind myself of that, then, on occasion”. This is a big understatement. Like hyooge. I am inordinately hard on myself – hell, a lot of us are.
The response – “I’ll give you some help. Name me all the things you love most.”
OK, I am down for this – I like to have a little bit of a thinking challenge, certainly as I am sitting in an airport waiting for my next flight. I began by thinking of this in order and working my way down.
I started typing back via FB Messenger “My family, especially my nephews and nice. My closest, true friends.” At this point I was thinking over what #3 would be… my health or the experiences I have been fortunate enough to have had in my life… what else would I put in there?
Before I could finish the response back, this note was sent to me:
“How long would it take for you to name yourself?”
I sat there for a minute or so, just looking at that message. I understood the words, how they were structured and all of that good stuff drilled into me from an early age about how English grammar operated. However, I honestly did not get what was being said.
That’s when it hit me – the notion of putting myself on that list was never, ever going to occur to me. Seriously. For all the bluster I like to create with my grandiose self-compliments in my writing, they are done so over-the-top so as to actually be self-deprecating. But to really and truly put myself on a list like that? Yeah, no… would never happen.
The crazy thing is that despite how narcissistic the world can seem these days with how social media creates a look-at-me environment, I think most people are in that same boat. If I may play truly amateur psychologist for a brief moment, whenever I see people going deep down the rabbit hole of self-aggrandizement, I cannot help but see someone who is putting up a brave front in an effort to convince themselves that they deserve that praise. They are trying to make themselves believe it far more than they are trying to make their audience believe it.
Hence why I post this picture, profanity and all (yeah, sorry about that Mom)… because in the moment I took this a year and a half ago, I felt what the shirt said and felt pretty-darn-fantastic about myself… without any sense of guilt over that fact. While I share it with you, the photo was really more for me and enjoying the fact I had that moment.
I will never be the person who boasts about himself – I am just simply not wired that way and I am glad for that fact. I do hope to work on that for myself, quietly, in the background and with as little fanfare as possible.
I share all of this because so much of this blog is to, hopefully, give you something to think about in my own personal challenges. In any sense where this blog is about advice or coaching or guidance or counseling, it is only that in so much as I am trying to lay bare how I am fighting to achieve the same things I speak of. I have an inherent distrust of people who speak from a place of self-claimed expertise without any sense of struggle. It feels horribly inauthentic to me.
Rather, I prefer to show you how I am putting in my own work… even if it is to allow myself an occasional self high-five.
One of my favorite things at work these days is the fact that my company is in a strong hiring mode. Times like this put me in a good mood because they’re about growth, something I always feel hugely positive about, whether personal, professional or in the business sense. Being stagnant tends to make me feel itchy… I mean, not like literally. I don’t get hives from it and need a soothing balm. And yes, I went with that entire analogy just for the sake of using the word “balm” since it’s soothing on its own just to say it.
What’s been great about this hiring push is that it’s brought in so many new employees just out of college, which is a big change for how we do business (at least in many parts of our company – our engineering group regularly hires right out of college). In my row at work there are 4 colleagues where the senior-most of them is maybe 3 or 4 years removed from college. Honestly, it’s great because they bring new ideas, fresh perspectives and really challenge a lot of our company’s commonly-held thinking on issues. We need all of that.
The gym I train at, when not at Fierce & Mighty, is also on the much younger side too. Nothing quite like talking to a few of them and realizing: a) they are literally half my age; and b) one that is a Cowboys fan has no idea what it’s like for our beloved team to be… well… GOOD.
Being surrounded with people much younger than me does make me reflect a lot on my own life, where I have arrived at age 44 and what lies ahead. Our culture definitely celebrates youth in a big way… and why the heck not? There’s such energy and vibrancy in every younger generation that comes along.
But for me? If I was somehow afforded the chance to become 25 again via means mystical or otherwise, I would never take it. Ever.
For all of the things that are a downside of aging (such as the amount of mobility drills I need to do every day to battle against being in deskbound jobs for 20 years), I am such a stickler for the benefits of perspective I’ve gained, I cannot imagine ever relinquishing that for anything.
I cannot imagine giving up the level of comfort I currently enjoy about being me and living in this skin of mine, which may involve me lifting in a bright pink shirt all alone in my basement.
I cherish the things I’ve learned (which I hesitate to call “wisdom” since I am not one to pat myself on the back with such a weighty notion) that allow me to value what is truly important in my own life versus what is not, while constantly trying to give more time to the good and less time to the useless.
I enjoy a level of personal freedom to be myself, say what I think, know when to relent and know when to dig in and fight like hell that I never had 20 years ago.
Giving up those things for the sake of springier knees and a full head of hair is not a trade I would ever make.
(Although springy knees are something that should never be underestimated. Ever. Cherish those suckers. HARD.)
We should continue to celebrate youth with the fresh perspectives, ideas, energy and general change-the-world positivity that accompanies each generation on the cusp of its stepping to the forefront of the culture.
Roger Daltry can sing about hoping to die before he gets old… and we can endlessly debate about what age that constitutes…but I refuse to take the value of the years and diminish them like some kind of trash or some inevitable decline in life.
I am still in the process of getting a little better than I was yesterday…and I don’t see a cap on that any time soon. The only thing that makes you old, in my mind, is when you decide growth is over… and that’s not an inevitable consequence. That’s a decision.
I’ve decided to keep going.
It’s interesting to me how people choose to present themselves to others the first time they meet. Some people are highly conscious of their demeanor, facial expressions, tone of voice and think about each word they say. Others just kind of roll with whatever happens in the moment. Then there are those who fall somewhere in between that spectrums of polar differences.
This all came back to mind for me recently during a conversation I was having with someone I met for the first time at the gym. It was a pleasant enough little chat at the outset about the gym, training and the like… and then less than 5 minutes into the conversation… this person tells me their powerlifting total.
For those of you who are not powerlifting aficionados (shame upon you and your houses, heathen!), a total is the total amount of weight you lift in a competition, comprised of your best weight for the squat, bench press and deadlift. Simple enough to understand and calculate. It’s not a weird thing at all.
However… it’s pretty weird to flash that number to me within 5 minutes of meeting you. For one, it implies I should care about how much you lift (I don’t). Second, it also suggests I should be impressed by it (I may find the number impressive, but please see point #1 again).
This is to the lifting world what:
- in the business world would be meeting someone in your company for the first time and they go out of their way to tell you their grade level or how high they fit in the organizational structure;
- in the golf world, someone telling you their handicap right after meeting; and
- in just real life, introducing yourself to your new neighbors and immediately telling them how your kids are on honor roll or are all-state or have perfect dental hygiene with no cavities and dentists across the land singing unto the heavens the marvels of their molars.
It’s mystifying. It’s why my Facebook status a few days ago was simply this:
Quick meathead life lesson: If within a mere 5 minutes of our meeting for the first time, you tell me your total… we’re really not off to a great start.
If you have good things going in your life? Awesome. I am genuinely happy for you and hope they continue and flourish. The world needs more positive mojo rocking out these days anyway.
Why anyone then feels the need to make that part of their introduction is where it all gets 9 kinds of funky. You don’t need to knock people back on their heels with all the awesome (or just allegedly awesome) things in your life right out of the gate… in fact, please don’t.
The truly awesome things just become apparent on their own without them being forcefully driven into the conversation like a really awkward handshake… the kind where the person holds your hand a little TOO long and a little TOO firmly and shakes your arm a little TOO vigorously.
Who you are is what impresses people, in the end… not what you do.
And who I am is one handsome SOB. Clearly.
There’s a funny aspect of coaching where you need to strike a balance between your involvement and your objectivity. I think the best coaches are driven by a passion to make those they have the privilege of working with better, but they then need to take the proper steps back not to let their own desires become the focus. That’s a little bit of the secret sauce of it all, really. You are trusted with being the steward of your trainee’s talent and desires. To use a legal concept (because why the hell not), you are like the executor and manager of a trust – you have a good faith obligation to what has been entrusted to you.
And trust is such a perfect word and concept because it hits the dual-meaning of duty and also that you are entrusted with the faith your trainee placed in you.
This takes on a new level if the trainee/athlete/student is personally very close to you. The thing that drives you as a coach adds in a new, very strong variable of that relationship… which can be good and bad. Good in that you are even more committed than usual to a great end result, but bad if… again… the objectivity is lost or the desired end state of your trainee gets steamrolled.
I just started working with my oldest nephew just over 2 weeks ago to really get him weight training for the first time. He did a little bit in fits and starts with the high school baseball team this past year, but this is his first foray into a structured and very consistent program. I had my own coach work this up for him as I guide him through it.
Each session we’ve had is a learning experience for both of us. For him, he is seeing what a well-thought out program of strength, power, mobility, movement prep and conditioning looks like. For me, I’m seeing what it means to consistently coach someone else on all aspects of strength & conditioning and figuring out how to do this for what he wants… not what Uncle Kevin wants.
It’s essentially a twist on the baseball coaching I’ve done with my 2 oldest nephews for the last 8 or 9 years. The difference here is in baseball, it’s balanced by the need to focus on all the players. In this case? It’s one-on-one. It would be easy to get all out of sorts and take every bit of how each session goes overly personally.
So what to do? How to find the magic point in all of this between passion and objectivity? I think for the near future (and maybe longer), it’s going to be fairly simple: focus on getting my nephew to enjoy the whole process. That’s honestly it – if I make that my success criteria, the rest of the details will take care of themselves. Progress will be made and progress, my friends, is the great hook of hooks.
Sometimes your best course of action as a coach is to get out of your own way, stop spending so much time overthinking every nuance with your trainee and just let their enjoyment be the guide. And maybe you’ll have a little fun more coaching fun in the process too.
I remember telling my parents in the Spring of 1987, my freshman year of high school, that I was going out for the baseball team. Now, they never said anything specific to me about it or made any attempts to dissuade me from trying, but I always had the feeling they were a bit uneasy about it.
My older brother was always an excellent athlete… but me? Not quite so much. I had a generally unremarkable Little League career, didn’t play baseball on the middle school team and there really wasn’t anything to suggest my trying out for the high school team would end in anything but my being cut and coming home devastated.
Somehow, some way… I made the JV team. We didn’t have a freshman team back then like many high schools do these days.
Fast forward ahead to this photo in the Spring of 1990, my senior year at Avon High School and the varsity baseball photo:
There I kneel in all my handsome best and pretty proud to play for a team that would end up ranked #2 in the state. We lost our first game, won 18 in a row and lost our last game in the state tournament to a team we should have annihilated.
This photo explains a lot about my personal philosophy on coaching and actually explains a hell of a lot about me generally.
I played on the Varsity team my junior and senior years of high school with my prime motivator being really damn simple: Don’t. F**king. Screw. Up.
Inspirational right? Almost akin to a battle cry on a bloodstained field of battle from days of yore. But in reality? It was the truth. I was far more concerned about the wrath of my coach if I screwed up than the potential amazing outcomes that would come from playing loose and free. Now, what kind of fun could THAT possibly be?
It came to a head during the final game of my senior year as we lost in the state tournament (as a #2 seed, mind you) to a team we outclassed in seemingly every way possible. I had probably 3 errors in the field that day and my baseball playing career ended with my coach pulling me out of the game and saying to me as I was directed to the bench “My God, Kuz… everything is an adventure with you out there today.” My athletic pinnacle it was not.
That moment has always stuck with me, even now 25 years later and completely affects how I approach every kid I get the privilege of coaching. My philosophy is simple: kids who are relaxed have more fun and play way better than the kid who sees his first at-bat of the season as a life-or-death struggle. As ridiculously simple as that sounds, the trick is being mindful on this point and consistent with every kid you coach. I acutely felt that awkward and self-directed pressure, so for me, it’s really easy to stay on task.
And in fact, I think this is something I seek to do all the time anyway now. When people feel comfortable, they’re just in such a better place as a friend, work colleague, family member or even just a stranger you bump into in line at Starbucks to get a coffee with a complicated name. (Caveat: I love me some Sbux and will fight you to the death if you try and swipe my gold card)
My advice? Find a person who looks out of sorts and see what you can do about it. It’s actually ridiculously easy because all you need to consider is the fact that YOU have been there too. Why not fix it for someone else?