The Daily Stoic: Problem Solving

Please note: Most of the text in these notes is owned by Ryan Holiday. I am posting them here for purely educational purposes. I condensed the book myself, but I don’t own any of the content. Some of my notes are paraphrased, but most are written verbatim.

You can buy the book ‘The Daily Stoic’ by clicking here.


The book is sectioned into three parts:

  • Part 1: The Discipline of Perception
  • Part 2: The Discipline of Action
  • Part 3: The Discipline of Will

Note: The date following each block of text indicates the source from the book, which is organised into a ‘message a day’ style.

In this post, I will share my condensed version of the most important take-away messages and instructions from:

Part 2: The Discipline of Action


Problem Solving

  • Always have a mental reverse clause in mind.
  • For example, if a friend betrays us, our reverse clause is to learn from how this happened, and to forgive this person’s mistake.
  • If we’re thrown in prison, our reverse clause is that we can refuse to be broken by this change of events and try to be of service to our fellow prisoners.
  • If a computer error erases our work, our reverse clause is that we can start fresh, and do it better this time.
  • Our progress can be impeded or disrupted, but the mind can always be changed – it retains the power to redirect the path.
  • Remember the usual course of things – Murphy’s Law states that “if anything can go wrong, it will.” We keep this reverse clause handy because we know we’re probably going to have to use it. (01/06)

  • Many problems can be solved with the perspective of Plato’s bird’s-eye view of situatios.
  • Using this, you’ll see how small even the richest people, biggest estates and even empires look from above.
  • Many problems are petty when seen from afar. (02/06)

  • We must remember the flexibility and determination of Stoicism. If we can’t do this, perhaps we can try that. If we can’t do that, perhaps we can try some other thing. And if that thing is impossible, there is always another.
  • Even if that final thing is just being a good human being – we always have some opportunity to practice our philosophy, to make some contribution. (03/06)

  • No one said life was easy. No one said it would be fair.
  • Don’t forget, though, that you come from a long, unbroken line of ancestors who survived unimaginable adversity, difficulty and struggle.
  • You are capable of what they were capable of. (04/06)

  • “We cry to God Almighty, how can we escape this agony? Fool, don’t you have hands? Or could it be God forgot to give you a pair? Sit and pray your nose doesn’t run! Or, rather just wipe your nose and stop seeking a scapegoat.” – Epictetus
  • Succumbing to the self-pity and “woe is me” narrative accomplishes nothing – nothing except sapping you of the energy and motivation you need to actualy do something about your problem.
  • We have a choice: Do we focus on the ways we have been wronged, or do we use what we’ve been given and get to work?
  • Will we wait for someone to save us, or will we listen to Marcus’ empowering call to “get active in your own rescue – if you care for yourself at all – and do it while you can.” (05/06)

  • “Think of those who, not by fault of inconsistency but by lack of effort, are too unstable to live as they wish, but only live as they have begun.” – Seneca
  • Just because you’ve begun down one path doesn’t mean you’re committed to it forever, especially if that path turns out to be flawed or impeded.
  • At the same time, this is not an excuse to be flighty or incessantly noncommittal. It takes courage to decide to do things differently and to make a change, as well as discipline and awareness to now that the notion of “Oh, but this looks even better” is a temptation that can’t be endlessly indulged, either. (06/06)

  • Some of the greatest men and women in history have recorded their wisdom in books and journals. Remember that we can easily access the wisdom of those who came before us – those whom we aspire to be like.
  • We not only owe it to ourselves to seek out this hard-won knowledge, but also to the people who took the time to record their experiences, so we can carry on traditions and follow their examples. (07/06)

  • “You must build up your life action by action, and be content if each one achieves its goal as far as possible—and no one can keep you from this. But there will be some external obstacle! Perhaps, but no obstacle to acting with justice, self-control, and wisdom. But what if some other area of my action is thwarted? Well, gladly accept the obstacle for what it is and shift your attention to what is given, and another action will immediately take its place, one that better fits the life you are building.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • Keep in mind the philosophy of “The Process”. It involves ignoring the big picture – important games, winning championships, etc – and focus instead on doing the absolutely smallest thing well – practicing with full effort, finishing a specific play, etc.
  • A single play lasts just seconds, but entire games and even seasons are constituted by seconds.
  • If you follow The Process in your life – assembling the right actions in the right order, one right after another – you will do well.
  • Not only that, you’ll be better eqipped to make quick work of the obstacles along that path. You’ll be too busy putting one foot in front of the next to even notice the obstacles were there. (08/06)

  • “There is no vice which lacks a defense, none that at the outset isn’t modest and easily intervened—but after this the trouble spreads widely. If you allow it to get started you won’t be able to control when it stops. Every emotion is at first weak. Later it rouses itself and gathers strength as it moves along—it’s easier to slow it down than to supplant it.” – Seneca
  • “Rivers are easist to cross at their source.” – Publilius Syrus
  • The raging waters and deadly currents of bad habits, ill discipline, chaos and dysfunction – somewhere they begin as no more than a slight trickle.
  • Which would you rather do – nearly drown in a dangerous crossing in a few weeks, or cross now while it’s still easy? It’s up to you. (09/06)

  • “If you find something very difficult to achieve yourself, don’t imagine it impossible—for anything possible and proper for another person can be achieved as easily by you.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • There are two kinds of people in the world. The first look at others who have accomplished things and thinks: Why them? Why not me?
  • The other looks at those same people and thinks: If they can do it, why can’t I?
  • One is zero-sum and jealous (if you win, I lose). The other is non-zero-sum (there’s plenty to go around) and sees the success of others as an inspiration.
  • Which attitude will propel you onward and upward? Which will drive you to bitterness and dispair? Who will you be? (10/06)

  • “How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!” – Marcus Aurelius
  • The first rule of holes, is that “if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.”
  • What most of us do when something goes wrong or is inflicted on us is to make it worse – first by getting angry or feeling aggrieved, and next by flailing around before we have much in the way of a plan.
  • Today, give yourself the simplest task: Just don’t make things worse. Whatever happens, don’t add anger or other negative emotions to the equation. Don’t react for the sake of reacting.
  • Leave it as it is. Stop digging. Then plan your way out. (11/06)

  • “In this way you must understand how laughable it is to say, ‘Tell me what to do!’ What advice could I possibly give? No, a far better request is, ‘Train my mind to adapt to any circumstance…’In this way, if circumstances take you off script…you won’t be desperate for a new prompting.” – Epictetus
  • We spend most of our lives preparing and studying for specific situations, along with saving for or anticipating some arbitrary point in the future.
  • But plans, as Mike Tyson pointed out, only last until you’re punched in the face.
  • Stoics don’t need to have the answer to every question or a plan for every contingency. Yet, they’re also not worried.
  • Why? Because they have confidence that they’ll be able to adapt and change with the circumstances.
  • Instead of looking for instruction, they cultivate skills like creativity, independence, self-confidence, ingenuity, and the ability to problem solve. (12/06)

  • ‘Vivere est militare.’ (To live is to fight.)
  • Today you’ll be fighting for your goal, fighting against impulses, fighting to be the person you want to be. (13/06)

  • “Every event has two handles—one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other—that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.” – Epictetus (14/06)

  • “To the youngster talking nonsense Zeno said, ‘The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and talk less.’” – Diogenes Laertius
  • Why do the wise have so few problems compared with the rest of us?
    1. They manage expectations as much as possible. They rarely expect what isn’t possible in the first place.
    2. They always consider both the best and worse case scenarios; not just what they wish to happen, but what could happen if things were to suddenly turn.
    3. They act with a reverse clause – meaning they not only consider what might go wrong, but they are prepared for that to be exactly what they want to happen – it’s an opportunity for excellence and virtue. (15/06)

  • “Don’t be ashamed of needing help. You have a duty to fulfill just like a soldier on the wall of battle. So what if you are injured and can’t climb up without another soldier’s help?” – Marcus Aurelius
  • Nobody ever said you were born with all the tools you’d need to solve every problem in life. (16/06)

  • “Let Fate find us prepared and active. Here is the great soul—the one who surrenders to Fate. The opposite is the weak and degenerate one, who struggles with and has a poor regard for the order of the world, and seeks to correct the faults of the gods rather than their own.” – Seneca
  • Whatever happens today, let it find us prepared and active: ready for problems, difficulties, for people to behave in disappointing or confusing ways and ready to accept and make it work for us.
  • Let’s not wish we could turn back time or remake the universe according to our preference. Not when it would be much easier and better to remake ourselves. (18/06)

  • “Don’t let your reflection on the whole sweep of life crush you. Don’t fill your mind with all the bad things that might still happen. Stay focused on the present situation and ask yourself why it’s so unbearable and can’t be survived.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • How was it possible for you to overcome all of the scariest and daunting moments of your life? As Marcus described, you were too busy with the details to let the whole sweep of the situation crush you.
  • “The trick to forgetting about the big picture is to look at everything close up.”
  • Sometimes grasping the big picture is important, but it’s most times counterproductive and overwhelming to think of everything that lies ahead.
  • So by focusing exclusively on the present, we’re able to avoid those intimidating or negative thoughts from our frame of view. (19/06)

  • “If then it’s not that the things you pursue or avoid are coming at you, but rather that you in a sense are seeking them out, at least try to keep your judgment of them steady, and they too will remain calm and you won’t be seen chasing after or fleeing from them.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • “Calm is contagious” – Navy SEAL maxim.
  • This is espectially true when that calm is coming from the person in charge.
  • If the men begin to lose their wits, or is unsure of what to do, it’s the leader’s job to instill calm – not by force, but by example.
  • That’s who you want to be – the casual, relaxed person in every situation, who tells everyone else to take a breath and not to worry.
  • Don’t be the agitator, the paranoid, the worrier, or the irrational.
  • Be the calm, not the liability. It will catch on. (20/06)

  • “We should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing.” – Seneca
  • “It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.” – Nietzsche (21/06)

  • “If you are defeated once and tell yourself you will overcome, but carry on as before, know in the end you’ll be so ill and weakened that eventually you won’t even notice your mistake and will begin to rationalize your behavior.” – Epictetus
  • Failure is a part of life that we have little choice over. Learning from it though, is optional.
  • We have to choose to learn. We must consciously opt to do things differently, until we get the result we’re after.
  • Sticking with the same unsuccessful pattern is easy – it doesn’t take any thought or additional effort, which is probably why most people do it. (22/06)

  • “You could enjoy this very moment all the things you are praying to reach by taking the long way around—if you’d stop depriving yourself of them.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • The reason people work hard at becomming successful is that they want freedom, happiness and the respect of their peers.
  • But freedom is in your choices. Hapiness is in your choices. Respect of your peers is also in the choices you make. (23/06)

  • “The beautiful and good person neither fights with anyone nor, as much as they are able, permits others to fight . . . this is the meaning of getting an education—learning what is your own affair and what is not. If a person carries themselves so, where is there any room for fighting?” – Epictetus
  • The next time you face a political dispute or personal disagreement, ask yourself: Is there any reason to fight about this? Is arguing going to achieve anything?
  • A wise person would take a breath, relax, and resist the temptation for conflict.
  • Think about what that would accomplish – how much better you’d feel – if you could conquer the need to fight and win every tiny little thing. (24/06)

  • “This is why we say that nothing happens to the wise person contrary to their expectations.” – Seneca
  • Always say less than necessary.
  • We talk because we think it’s helping, but in reality it’s making things hard for us.
  • When someone has a problem, they often just want somebody to listen, not be told what they should do.
  • When the world is trying to give us feedback or input, trying to talk ourselves out of the problem only makes it worse.
  • So today will you be part of the problem or part of the solution? Will you hear the wisdom of the world or drown it out with more noise? (25/06)

  • “How does it help, my husband, to make misfortune heavier by complaining about it? This is more fit for a king—to seize your adversities head on. The more precarious his situation, the more imminent his fall from power, the more firmly he should be resolved to stand and fight. It isn’t manly to retreat from fortune.” – Seneca
  • A CEO takes interviewees to breakfast and asks the staff to purposely mess up the candidate’s meal. He’s testing to see how they react.
  • How you handle even minor adversity might seem like nothing, but in fact, it reveals everything. (27/06)

  • The writings of the great Stoics are filled with self-criticism, but that’s as far as it went. There was no self-flagellation, no paying penance, no self-esteem issues from guilt or self-loathing.
  • Their self-critisism is constructive.
  • Laying into yourself, unduly depriving yourself, punishing yourself – that’s self-flagellation, not self-improement.
  • There’s no need to be so hard on yourself. Hold yourself to a higher standard, but not an impossible one. And forgive yourself if and when you slip up. (28/06)

  • “It is possible to curb your arrogance, to overcome pleasure and pain, to rise above your ambition, and to not be angry with stupid and ungrateful people—yes, even to care for them.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • “I was born this way.” “I never learned any different.” “My parents set a bad example.” “Everyone else does it.” – These are excuses people use to justify staying as they are, instead of striving to become better.
  • Of course it’s possible to curb our arrogance, control our anger and be a caring person. How do you think others do it? They weren’t born perfect either.
  • They simply worked on it. They made it a priority. They found solutions by making incremental progress. (29/06)

  • “While it’s true that someone can impede our actions, they can’t impede our intentions and our attitudes, which have the power of being conditional and adaptable. For the mind adapts and converts any obstacle to its action into a means of achieving it. That which is an impediment to action is turned to advance action. The obstacle on the path becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • You have the power to use the Stoic exercise of turning obstacles upside down, which takes one negative circumstance and uses it as an opportunity to practice an unintended virtue or form of excellence.
  • If something prevents you from reaching your destination in time, then this is a chance to practice patience.
  • If an employee makes an expensive mistake, this is a chance to teach a valuable lesson.
  • If a computer error erases your work, it’s is a chance to start over with a clean slate, and do better.
  • If someone hurts you, it’s a chance to practice forgiveness.
  • If something is hard, it is a chance to become stronger. (30/06)

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