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How Stoicism Can Hurt You


Give it a bit more time and it might become shameful not to be stoic or even obsessed with stoicism if you are an entrepreneur.

Where does the whole mania around stoicism in entrepreneurship come from? Startup founders, advisors, VCs, angels are embracing it like Japan is embracing vending machines. But, Japan is in so many ways stuck in the 80’s. It makes me wonder where we are getting stuck here.

Instant stoicism

Why is this stoicism an obsession on the go? I guess it’s just easy philosophy to wrap your head around. Stoicism is simple and comfortable. Add a bit of that “instant coaching” flavour, as some commercial stoics do, and you get a “school of thought” that’s perfect for instant problem solving – one with little contemplation needed. Perfect for personal growth on the go – in-between meetings.

Maybe it puts a light perspective on the dark parts of life and that’s something people cling to. Who would want to be bothered with existentialism at the time when they are experiencing existential crisis and darkness in their lives. At the end of the day, Heidegger, Sartre et al are not really the easiest reads you can take on. You will hardly pep-talk yourself with existentialism after you failed in business.

Stoicism today is different. You don’t need to bang your head to understand it. Plus you have all these authors taking ancient stoic philosophers and wrapping their ideas into nice, readable coaching-like snippets.

I like stoicism too. The proper one. Because it puts a perspective on selfish self-absorbance with importance around one’s personal problems. It takes you out of yourself and places you above the world. You actually stop and think about how you are impacting other people; how you are absorbing yourself in stuff that doesn’t matter.

But I do take it with a pinch of salt. What good is it to keep a straight face taking blows in your life. Who are we pretending it doesn’t hurt here? Other people or ourselves? And why is this pretending important to us?

Being strong is not good for you

You don’t have to remain strong when things get to you and you actually should be hurting when they do. You don’t have to suppress it and you don’t have to deny it. If it hearts, it’s meant to be felt, not avoided. Suppress it and the lid will pop open somewhere else. Anxiety, depression, anger, agitation, hate, contempt etc..

On the other hand, the way this all is turning out is that people are starting to accept getting kicked and deny that it in fact hurts. You learn from it, but you still deny it. Do you really have to pretend it doesn’t hurt? Not unless you want to be a stone.

Don’t choose not to be harmed

Was Marcus Aurelius wrong when he implied not to “choose” to be harmed when you in fact are? I think so. Don’t choose not to be harmed, I say. If you are harmed, be harmed. But explore why you are harmed and what that is telling you. Maybe you are harmed because you live in a delusion or because you are used to have people please you. Or you are just plain looking for it. Which might well be completely subconscious.

If you live in this world it is highly unlikely you won’t be dealing with people and come out of at least some of these situations feeling offended, betrayed, rejected, abandoned. Hurt, to be exact. Is it anger you feel when that happens? Whatever it is, it’s most likely not adequate. It’s what you were taught to feel to cover up and suppress sadness, shame, guilt, fear.

So, rather than suppressing it even further and pretending it’s not there, deal with it. Explore it and ask yourself questions. This will be the first step towards change. Getting to a place where you are not harmed is not by denying the pain but by understanding and dealing with it.

Truth, perspective and modesty

Marcus Aurelius said “It’s the truth I am after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance”. So, why would you want to deceive yourself about how you feel? What good can that do other than give you that martyr feeling, which maybe suits you well. Or maybe you just want to be perceived as a strong ruthless person. Whichever it is, it’s probably not very authentic but serves some other psychological purpose.

Modern stoics also tend to forget that stoicism is about stepping back and taking a perspective on ourselves, others and the world. And that is just the opposite from self-absorbance, which is not rare among entrepreneurs, let alone VCs and angels. What’s stoic about that?

And modesty? Tell me how modest you are and I’ll tell you whether you’re stoic or not. This seems to be another virtue of stoicism that instant stoics seem to be conveniently forgetting about. It’s going to be hard discussing philosophy based on modesty and scarcity while you’re having a nice dinner out in a fancy restaurant.

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