The Daily Stoic: Pragmatism

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


Pragmatism

Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected.


  • “That cucumber is bitter, so toss it out! There are thorns on the path, then keep away! Enough said. Why ponder the existence of nuisance? Such thinking would make you a laughing-stock to the true student of Nature, just as a carpenter or cobbler would laugh if you pointed out the sawdust and chips on the floors of their shops. Yet while those shopkeepers have dustbins for disposal, Nature has no need of them.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • We tell ourselves that we’ll start once the conditions are right, or when we have our bearings. But really, it’d be better to focus on making do with how things actually are. (01/08)

  • “Indeed, how could exile be an obstacle to a person’s own cultivation, or to attaining virtue when no one has ever been cut off from learning or practicing what is needed by exile?” – Muonius Rufus
  • Nothing can prevent us from learning. In fact, difficult situations are often opportunities for their own kinds of learning. (02/08)

  • “At this moment you aren’t on a journey, but wandering about, being driven from place to place, even though what you seek—to live well—is found in all places. Is there any place more full of confusion than the Forum? Yet even there you can live at peace, if needed.” – Seneca
  • We tell ourselves that we need the right setup before we finally buckle down and get serious. Or we tell ourselves that some vacation or time alone will be good for a relationship or an ailment. This is self-deceit at its finest.
  • It’s far better that we become pragmatic and adaptable – able to do what we need to do anywhere, anytime.
  • The place to do your work, to live the good life, is here. (03/08)

  • “You must stop blaming God, and not blame any person. You must completely control your desire and shift your avoidance to what lies within your reasoned choice. You must no longer feel anger, resentment, envy, or regret.” – Epictetus
  • No matter what happens today, no matter where you find yourself, shift to what lies within your reasoned choices.
  • Ignore, as best you can, the emotions that pop up, which would be so easy to distract yourself with. Don’t get emotional – get focused. (04/08)

  • “Silence is a lesson learned from the many sufferings of life.” – Seneca
  • Think about a time you said something regrettable. Why’d you say it? Chances are you didn’t need to, but you thought doing so would make you look smart, cool, or part of a group.
  • “The more you say, the more likely you are to say something foolish.” – Robert Greene
  • The inexperienced and fearful talk to reassure themselves.
  • The ability to listen, to deliberately keep out of a conversation and subsist without its validity is rare. Silence is a way to build strength and self-sufficiency. (05/08)

  • “Apply yourself to thinking through difficulties—hard times can be softened, tight squeezes widened, and heavy loads made lighter for those who can apply the right pressure.” – Seneca
  • You need faith in yourself in order to get out of tough situations.
  • Defeatism won’t get you anywhere, except defeat.
  • But focusing your energy on the tiny bit of room, the tiny scrap of opportunity, is your best shot. (06/08)

  • “Do now what nature demands of you. Get right to it if that’s in your power. Don’t look around to see if people will know about it. Don’t await the perfection of Plato’s Republic, but be satisfied with even the smallest step forward and regard the outcome as a small thing.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • “Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough.” – this is telling us not to settle or compromise your standards, but rather to not become trapped by idealism.
  • There’s plenty you could do right now, today, that would make the world a better place. There are lots of small steps that you could take to help move things forward.
  • Don’t excuse yourself from doing them because the conditions aren’t right or because a better opportunity might come along soon. Do what you can, now.
  • And when you’ve done it, keep it in perspective, don’t overblow the results. Shun both ego and excuse, before and after. (08/08)

  • “Don’t tell yourself anything more than what the initial impressions report. It’s been reported to you that someone is speaking badly about you. This is the report—the report wasn’t that you’ve been harmed. I see that my son is sick—but not that his life is at risk. So always stay within your first impressions, and don’t add to them in your head—this way nothing can happen to you.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • Sometimes the approach of critical thinking and not accepting things at face value can be counterproductive.
  • What a philosopher also has is the ability to stop courageously, at the surface, and see things in plain, objective form.
  • Today while people are getting carried away, that’s what you’re going to practice – a kind of straightforward pragmatism – seeing things as their initial impressions make them. (09/08)

  • “We don’t abandon our pursuits because we despair of ever perfecting them.” – Epictetus
  • This is an example of ‘all-or-nothing thinking’. Other examples include:
    • If you’re not with me, you’re against me.
    • Because this wasn’t a complete success, it is a total failure.
  • Perfectionism rarely begets perfection – only disappointment.
  • Pragmatism, however, will just take what it can get.
  • Epictetus is saying that we’ll never be perfect, as we’re just human. Our pursuits should be aimed at progress, however little that is possible for us to make. (10/08)

  • “Philosophy isn’t a parlor trick or made for show. It’s not concerned with words, but with facts. It’s not employed for some pleasure before the day is spent, or to relieve the uneasiness of our leisure. It shapes and builds up the soul, it gives order to life, guides action, shows what should and shouldn’t be done—it sits at the rudder steering our course as we vacillate in uncertainties. Without it, no one can live without fear or free from care. Countless things happen every hour that require advice, and such advice is to be sought out in philosophy.” – Seneca (14/08)

  • “This can be swiftly taught in very few words: virtue is the only good; there is no certain good without virtue; and virtue resides in our nobler part, which is the rational one. And what can this virtue be? True and steadfast judgment. For from this will arise every mental impulse, and by it every appearance that spurs our impulses will be rendered clear.” – Seneca
  • People develop strong characters because of consistency. They are honest not only when it’s convinient. They are not only there for you when it counts. The qualities that make them admirable come though in every action (arise with every mental impulse).
  • You become the sum of your actions, and as you do, what flows from that – your impulses – reflect the actions you’ve taken. (15/08)

  • “Just as the nature of rational things has given to each person their rational powers, so it also gives us this power—just as nature turns to its own purpose any obstacle or any opposition, sets its place in the destined order, and co-opts it, so every rational person can convert any obstacle into the raw material for their own purpose.” – Marcus Aurelius (16/08)

  • “For nothing outside my reasoned choice can hinder or harm it—my reasoned choice alone can do this to itself. If we would lean this way whenever we fail, and would blame only ourselves and remember that nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind and uneasiness, then by God, I swear we would be making progress.” – Epictetus
  • Today, see if you can go without blaming a single person or thing.
  • If someone messes up your instructions – it’s on you for expecting anything different.
  • If someone says something rude – it’s your sensitivity that interpreted it this way. (17/08)

  • “It is said that if you would have peace of mind, busy yourself with little. But wouldn’t a better saying be do what you must and as required of a rational being created for public life? For this brings not only the peace of mind of doing few things, but the greater peace of doing them well. Since the vast majority of our words and actions are unnecessary, corralling them will create an abundance of leisure and tranquility. As a result, we shouldn’t forget at each moment to ask, is this one of the unnecessary things? But we must corral not only unnecessary actions but unnecessary thoughts, too, so needless acts don’t tag along after them.” – Marcus Aurelius (19/08)

  • “It’s ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery, engulfed by anxiety that the things it desires might remain its own until the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest—by longing for things to come it will lose the ability to enjoy present things.” – Seneca
  • Nerously worrying about some looming bad news is pointless. By definition, the waiting implies that it hasn’t happened yet, so feeling bad in advance is completely voluntary.
  • The pragmatist, the person of action, is too busy to waste time on such things. The pragmatist can’t worry about every possible outcome in advance.
  • Best case scenario – if the news turns out better than expected, all this time was wasted in fear.
  • Worst case scenario – we were miserable for extra time, by choice.
  • You could use that time in more productive ways. This day could be your last – do you want to waste it worrying?
  • Let the news come when it does. Be too busy working to care. (21/08)

  • “It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • Don’t spend your time (the most valuable and least renewable of all your resources) on the things that don’t matter.
  • What about the things that don’t matter but you’re obligated to do? Spend as little time and worry on them as possible. (But ensure that quality isn’t sacrificed, as this will cost you more time down the line.)
  • If you give things more time and energy than they deserve, they’re no longer lesser things. You’ve made them important by the life you’ve spent on them. And sadly, you’ve made the important things – your family, health, true commitments – less so as a result of what you’ve stolen from them. (22/08)

  • “Therefore, explain why a wise person shouldn’t get drunk—not with words, but by the facts of its ugliness and offensiveness. It’s most easy to prove that so-called pleasures, when they go beyond proper measure, are but punishments.” – Seneca
  • People aren’t persuaded by being lectured or fed abstract notions. That’s why the Stoics don’t say “Stop doing this, it’s a sin.” Instead they say, “Don’t do this because it’ll make you miserable.”
  • Other examples:
    • Not, “Pleasure isn’t pleasurable.” But, “Endless pleasure becomes its own form of punishment.”
  • In order to persuade somebody a certain way, appeal to their self-interest, never to their mercy or gratitude.
  • So if you’re trying to persuade someone to change, it’s not that this or that is bad, but that it’s in their best interest to do it a different way. And show them – don’t moralise. (23/08)

  • “I’ll never be ashamed to quote a bad writer with a good saying.” – Seneca
  • Simply look for wisdom. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. All that matters is whether it makes your life better, whether it makes you better.
  • What wisdom or help would you be able to find today if you stopped caring about affiliations and reputations? How much more could you see if you just focused on merit? (24/08)

  • “Won’t you be walking in your predecessors’ footsteps? I surely will use the older path, but if I find a shorter and smoother way, I’ll blaze a trail there. The ones who pioneered these paths aren’t our masters, but our guides. Truth stands open to everyone, it hasn’t been monopolized.” – Seneca
  • Traditions are often time-tested best practices for doing something. But remember that today’s conservative ideas were once controversial, cutting-edge and innovative. This is why we can’t be afraid to experiment with new ideas.
  • If new ideas are true and better, embrace them – use them.
  • You don’t need to be a prisoner of dead old men who stopped learning a thousand years ago. (25/08)

  • “I was shipwrecked before I even boarded . . . the journey showed me this—how much of what we have is unnecessary, and how easily we can decide to rid ourselves of these things whenever it’s necessary, never suffering the loss.” – Seneca (26/08)

  • “Heraclitus would shed tears whenever he went out in public—Democritus laughed. One saw the whole as a parade of miseries, the other of follies. And so, we should take a lighter view of things and bear them with an easy spirit, for it is more human to laugh at life than to lament it.” – Seneca
  • Even when things are really bad, when the world makes you wanto to weep in despair or rage, we can choose to laugh about it.
  • There is more humour than hate to be found in about every situation. And at least humour is productive – making things less heavy, not more so. (27/08)

  • “The founder of the universe, who assigned to us the laws of life, provided that we should live well, but not in luxury. Everything needed for our well-being is right before us, whereas what luxury requires is gathered by many miseries and anxieties. Let us use this gift of nature and count it among the greatest things.” – Seneca
  • Seneca might have had wealth, but he didn’t need it.
  • This is the pragmatic, rather than moralistic approach to wealth. We can still live well without becoming slaves to luxury.
  • And we don’t need to make decisions that force us to continue to work and work and drift further from study and contemplation in order to get more money to pay for the things we don’t need.
  • There is no rule that says financial success must mean that you live beyond your means.
  • Remember: humans can be happy with very little. (28/08)

  • “No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” – Seneca
  • “A man’s wealth must be determined by the relation of his desires and expenditures to his income. If he feels rich on $10 and has everything he desires, he really is rich.” – John D. Rockefeller (29/08)

  • “Anything that must yet be done, virtue can do with courage and promptness. For anyone would call it a sign of foolishness for one to undertake a task with a lazy and begrudging spirit, or to push the body in one direction and the mind in another, to be torn apart by wildly divergent impulses.” – Seneca
  • If you start something and instantly feel yourself getting lazy and irriatated, as yourself: Why am I doing this?
  • If it really is a necessity, ask yourself: What’s behind my reluctance? Fear? Spite? Fatigue?
  • Don’t forge ahead hoping that someone will explain why what you’re doing matters, or even relieve you of the task at hand.
  • Don’t be the person who says yes with their mouth, but no with their actions.
  • “Quality is much better than quantity … One home run is much better than two doubles.” – Steve Jobs (30/08)

  • “Whenever you take offense at someone’s wrongdoing, immediately turn to your own similar failings, such as seeing money as good, or pleasure, or a little fame—whatever form it takes. By thinking on this, you’ll quickly forget your anger, considering also what compels them—for what else could they do? Or, if you are able, remove their compulsion.” – Marcus Aurelius
  • The clearest proof of Socrates’s “no one does wrong on purpose.” are all the times we did wrong without malice or intention. Remember? The time you were rude because of lack of sleep, the time you acted on bad information, the time you got carried away, forgot, didn’t understand.
  • This is why it’s so important not to write people off or brand them as enemies. Be as forgiving of them as you are of yourself.
  • Cut them the same slack you would for yourself so that you can continue to work with them and make use of their talents. (31/08)

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