I was listening to a podcast yesterday where Arianna Huffington, founder of The Huffington Post & Thrive Global, discussed the influence the writings of Marcus Aurelius have had on her life.
Written over 2,000 years ago, Meditations, & Stoic philosophy in general, nowadays forms some of the guiding principles of authors like Tim Ferriss & Ryan Holiday for its practical insights & advice on dealing with life.
(Tim Ferriss is a double New York Times Bestseller, is host of iTunes’ no.1 podcast, investor in companies including Facebook & Uber, etc. The list goes on.)
She said that, for her, Aurelius’ writing is so powerful because of the simple fact that you are listening to somebody ‘from the arena’ i.e. he is experiencing the difficulties of real life at the highest level.
Meditations was formed from his personal diary whilst Emperor of Rome, literally the most important job in the world at the time.
Things he had to deal with during this period: an unfaithful wife, an incompetent son, illness, being the most powerful person in the world & hordes of wild Germanic tribes that didn’t really understand the concept of borders, nor what a state of not-being-at-war-at-all-times looked like.
The point she’s trying to make is that you can dismiss a lot of writing as academic & theoretical. It’s not relevant to you because you’re in the daily struggle, in the real world.
A Buddhist monk who has only ever seen the insides of a temple high up in the Himalayas doesn’t know what it’s like navigating an economic crisis, for example.
And I agree with this, to a certain extent. Yes, a principle like ‘respect your neighbour’ is valuable & one that you should follow to be a good, happy person. However, it feels somewhat incomplete & unrealistic in comparison:
However, by dismissing an author’s writing based on their ‘real world’ experience, we give ourselves a free pass. We allow ourselves to excuse inaction & to dismiss too much writing as ‘not really relevant to me specifically’.
Reading is a powerful tool
How many times have you read something that has resonated with you? How many times has something you read radically changed your beliefs? How many times have you taken action from reading something powerful?
For me, reading The One Thing by Gary Keller was hugely influential on my life. Whereas before I would juggle a large number of inconsequential tasks, I now ruthlessly focus on the essential. I now start each day defining & completing one high-impact task that gets me towards my life goals before letting the distractions of the day lead me elsewhere.
This book has had a significant impact on my life, changing not only the direction I have taken, but my very approach to decision-making & the very actions I take every single day.
However, this is a rare case. I read a book every 2–3 weeks & a few articles per day, as well as listen to 10+ podcasts. The vast majority are high-level & full of actionable advice, but why haven’t I taken action with them?
I am starting a business, yet I still find myself excusing inaction when listening to advice from entrepreneurs.
Say, for example, Tim Ferriss* offers advice on starting a successful freelancing business. I think:
“OK, well that’s all well & good for him. He’s completely financially secure, has 15 years more experience than me, a great network in San Francisco, speaks 7+ languages, has two best-selling books, etc.
Yes, he’s in the arena, but he’s not in my arena.”
This is an excuse. There’s no two ways about it: I regularly excuse my inaction by trying to find plausible reasons to not take action.
The excuses we make are always plausible, but that does not mean that they are right. These guys are just normal people a few rungs further up the ladder than us. They started in the beginners’ arena, skilled up & climbed up the ladder.
You can always find an excuse
Therefore, coming back to Arianna Huffington’s point, I agree that advice from somebody ‘in the arena’, that has experienced life in all its beautiful & ugly forms, is advice to be listened to — particularly when they have demonstrated they get results.
However, do not let yourself find excuses to narrow that definition down.
Unless you are specifically reading Buddhist philosophy by hermetic monks, then the chances are that the author of whatever you are reading or listening to is a normal person.
They have life experiences similar to your own, they have faced similar struggles to you, they have tried to answer similar questions about life as you. They still face the same struggles as you.
They are as ‘in the arena’, just as you are.
Yet I know that you & I will continue to make excuses. We will cherry-pick the advice we deem suitable for us & ignore the advice that is hard to accept or to act upon. This is fine when we are honest with ourselves, but usually we are not.
We will continue to excuse not acting upon hard truths or taking action when we know it will be tough to follow through.
If you find yourself reading my work, however, the excuses must stop. What have I experienced that is radically different from you? I am a normal guy, with no outward signs of success, slowly navigating the intrepid waters of entrepreneurship in my own way.
What’s your excuse now? That I’ve seen & done it all before? Because I haven’t. That I lack substance & results? A valid point, but it doesn’t explain why you’re still reading this. Something I have said must have resonated.
Just remember that we are all ‘in the arena’, regardless of the level each of us is currently at in our journey. Take advice when you see it & act upon it next time you learn something new. Don’t build up a scrapheap of excuses.
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