There are four cardinal virtues recognized by almost all of the world’s philosophies: courage, temperance, justice, and wisdom. Ryan Holiday examines the first in his latest book, Courage is Calling: Fortune Favors the Brave. His other books include the bestselling Stoic trilogy of The Obstacle is the Way, Ego is the Enemy, and Stillness is the Key. He has a popular newsletter and podcast, The Daily Stoic, and on top of all that, he’s a runner! On today’s episode we talk about philosophy, running, and how they intersect.
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“Seneca talks about this word euthymia, which basically he defines as tranquility, but his definition is that it’s when you have the sense of the path that you’re on and you’re not distracted by the paths that crisscross yours.”
Seneca was speaking about a basis of human life goals, but it can apply at any level, including being disciplined in your running. Years ago Ryan was out on the track when someone came alongside him, “and now all of a sudden we’re racing for no reason. And I remember thinking, he has no idea how long I’ve been here; he has no idea how long I ran to get here. Why are we in this pointless competition with each other to prove nothing to nobody?” Ideally, we should do whatever we’re doing and not be concerned with what others are doing. Ryan says that as a runner, “just because someone else is there, just because someone comes up behind you, just because someone is twenty paces in front of you, to be able to tune that out and just focus on what you’re trying to do, to me is the key part of the discipline of running.”
“The Stoics would say that anything you do out of compulsion is not good. I kind of see it as of all the things to be compulsive about, this is probably one of the least bad.”
Another discipline of running is consistency, which can slip over into compulsion. Ryan acknowledges that he’s streak-focused, but also sees it as a strength. For example, he says, “as a writer, the way you write books is by showing up every day and writing a little bit, and that adds up cumulatively to books and that’s certainly how I, on a consistent basis, have published what I’ve been able to publish.” He likes to do some form of strenuous exercise every day, but tries to balance out his compulsion to run by biking or swimming.
“What I love about running is that it’s self contained and totally in your control.”
Ryan believes that one of the things that contributes to burnout is working and “not feeling like you’re making progress, not feeling like it’s having an impact, not feeling like there’s an end in sight, not feeling like you’re progressing, not getting any sort of validation or win out of it.” Running is the opposite of that because it’s rewarding every time that you do it: “It’s like you decided to run for four miles, you go run for four miles and then you come home and that’s a win. And so what I love about running is that it’s an easy win every day. Even the hard days are still easy compared to the rest of the world, which is so much more uncontrollable.”
“The courage to be oneself, to be difficult, to be unusual, to transgress norms or expectations, is just as scary and just as important in the long run as any form of physical courage might be.”
People tend to think of courage in terms of physical feats, but it’s also “when you put yourself out there, when you do what needs to be done despite the fact that it’s scary or hard or risky.” Ryan tells a story about Margaret Thatcher, who went for her first job interview after university and saw a note that the interviewer had written, saying that she had far too much personality to work there. That’s true, Ryan says, she did have too much personality for the job, “but she was courageous enough not to become what she needed to be to work there.”
“There are two kinds of plagues. There’s the one that destroys your life and then there’s the one that destroys your character.”
That’s one of Ryan’s favorite quotes from Marcus Aurelius, who lived during a time of plague. It was only during the current pandemic that Ryan realized that quotes like that one, which he had thought were purely figurative, were literal, as well. Now, he says, it’s “like, oh I see what you’re saying. Yes, you can get Covid. Or you can get infected with something worse than Covid, which is whatever is making these people scream at grocery store employees or take horse dewormer, you know, whatever. You can get infected with a different kind of disease, a different virus. It’s actually worse because it makes you worse as a person. It might not have the same health concerns. But it’s almost worse.”
“One of the things that I love about Stoicism is that it’s a philosophy that articulates really clearly what our obligations are to other people. For me, the idea that stoicism is this sort of insular personal philosophy really misses what was actually a philosophy designed to make one active in the world.”
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“Thank you” to Ryan. We look forward to hearing your thoughts on the show.