Examining Epictetus #14: Creating Greatness

One of the great joys of my job is the conversations I get to have with co-workers. This week, I had the good fortune to speak with an enterprising associate who spends his time away from work as a personal trainer. As we were talking about some of the things we have learned since our last conversation, he mentioned he was still only on year four of his personal transformation. Now, this personal transformation goes beyond fitness. This is a complete change of mind, body, and soul. After hearing him speak, I fully understand the meaning of “like attracting like.” I couldn’t help but be amazed as I am also several years into my own personal transformation.

No great thing is suddenly created. -Epictetus

This journey has been full of ups and downs. It has not been the easiest road to travel. You can’t plan on overnight success. I set out with a five-year plan. But honestly, I don’t think I will ever come to the end of my quest.

What my friend is looking for, and what I am looking for, is greatness. And the beauty about being great is that our definitions are not the same. We define it on our own terms, pursue it on different paths, and measure it the best we can. We are not competing against each other. We are competing against ourselves. And when the smoke clears, if we continued to run the race, we will be victorious. We will have become great.

No great thing is suddenly created. When I get impatient, let those words be a reminder. When I am feeling down or frustrated, let me not forget. Greatness would not be great if it was given and not earned.


Feature photo by Mick Haupt on Unsplash

Emperor’s Log #46: The Art of Living

The music begins. Dancers line up with their partners and begin going through the rehearsed movements. They have heard this song countless times. They have practiced their steps until it became second nature. When the music concludes, everything went according to the script. Everything was perfect.

The wrestler steps onto the mat. Hours of preparation leads up to this moment. Everything that could have been done has been done. The only thing left to do is take on the challenger. The challenger has also prepared for this moment. Here, there is no script. The wrestler has an idea of his opponent’s capabilities, but who really knows what is going to happen when the match begins. All he can do is hope that he can meet the demands of the task at hand. It won’t be perfect. It could be messy. Hopefully, the preparation was sufficient.

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing. -Marcus Aurelius

We want life to be the dance. We want it to go smooth and unfold exactly as we imagined it. But this is not the case. And if you think about it, this will make for a boring life.

Instead, life is more like wrestling. You train, you prepare, and you hope your efforts were enough to meet the demands thrown at you. You know things rarely go according to the script. In fact, you count on them going off the rails at any moment. A dancer slipping on a wet spot would consider it unlucky. The wrestler expects the wet spot to be there. He expects the obstacle.

The only way to really win in this life is to overcome the obstacles. Train, prepare, and put yourself in the best position possible. The obstacles are coming. This is life. How effectively and quickly you overcome them will determine your success.

The art of living. The true artists in life are like the wrestlers.

Rarely will you ever see their preparations. What looks like grace and style on the stage was developed in the darkness when nobody was looking. They don’t know what obstacles will be thrown at them, but it does not matter. They will meet them head on and do what it takes to get to the next challenge.


Feature photo by Chris Chow on Unsplash

Contemplating Seneca #42: Someone as a Standard

Cato? Cato, can you hear me? I need to do better in this life. I need to become a better man. Too often, I have given in to my own selfish desires. I have become too attached to my possessions.

Stop! Why bother me with this request. Your heart is in the right place, but you do not have the will to follow me. My discipline is too strict for you. You would not last an hour walking my path.

When you are ready to be my disciple, I will be here waiting for you. Until then, find someone else to assist you. Go seek out the one they call “The Wise.” Go find Gaius Laelius. -Cato

Laelius? Are you there? You came from nothing and built yourself into a great general. Cicero called you “The Wise” and Cato sent me to you. Like you, I came from humble beginnings. But unlike you, I have yet to fulfill my destiny.

Cato sent you? To me? Does he not know my road is also a difficult one to travel? Destiny does not find you. You must find it for yourself. It is the mission of a soldier. You must define it and create a strategy for achieving it. Those you can do yourself. That is the easy part. But you must also execute your plans. That is not so easy, and you are not ready for it. For that takes work. It takes more work than you are currently willing to do. When you are ready to give it your all, to make your objective the driving force in your life, then come back and find me. But until then, go find yourself another who can assist you. -Laelius

Cato’s discipline is too severe. And the discipline of Laelius is only a little less severe. Yet, it is still more than I can handle. Who else is out there?

Fortunately, this list is extensive. It doesn’t even matter if I pull one from history or from one that is still among the living. I can pick one or I can pick several. But the key is to pick somebody I can use as a role model and mentor. If there is not a complete person, that is fine also. I can take the good parts and emulate them to the best of my abilities. The rest, I can discard.

So choose yourself a Cato–or, if Cato seems too severe for you, a Laelius, a man whose character is not quite so strict. Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.

Seneca, Moral Letters 11:9

Daily Gifts

Emperor’s Log #40: Daily Gifts

I wake up and begin my morning routine which starts in the study. I sit in my chair and look at the journal sitting open next to me. It is early, but now I must think. Item number one should be the easiest, but it is not.

Gratitude. What is one thing that I am grateful for? Just one thing, and it cannot be the same thing every day. I must dig a little deeper. I can’t always put “to be awake” or “still married to the woman I love.” And though I am always thankful for food, shelter, and the opportunity to be a part of Alec’s life, that is not digging deep enough. What is one thing that I am grateful for?

I have a friend that does a little dance every morning when he wakes up for the sole reason that he is still alive. He is veteran with first-hand knowledge of what it is like to get blown up, which has happened to him at least fourteen times. His dance in the morning when everything on him hurts is a dance of gratitude. When I think of him, I put him in my journal. I am grateful to call him a friend, grateful for his service, and grateful for the example he demonstrates every morning.

I usually write my one gratitude entry in the morning and call it quits. But I think this is a mistake. Maybe I should write this down throughout the day or at least at night. There is so much to be grateful for every day. How many quality conversations do I have each day? What did I learn? What did I notice? So many experiences, always coming in. And so often I move on to the next not even taking a moment to offer a silent prayer of gratitude. It is one thing to be grateful for being alive, it is quite another to be grateful for the little moments that make up this life.

Did you know that gratitude improves your health and increase your productivity? Check out these two passages from Steven Kotler’s book, The Art of Impossible:

A daily gratitude practice alters the brain’s negativity bias. It changes the amygdala’s filter, essentially training it to take in more positive information. This works so well because the positive stuff you’re grateful for is stuff that has already happened.

Finally, there also appears to be a strong link between gratitude and flow…It appears that the optimism and confidence produced by gratitude lower anxiety, which makes us less fearful of stretching to the edge of our abilities and more able to target the challenge-skills sweet spot, flow’s most important trigger.

Each day provides its own gifts. -Marcus Aurelius

These daily gifts are there whether we realize them or not. To maximize these daily gifts, we must identify them, understand what it means (where is the value), and then show a little gratitude. Gifts are freely given with no expectation of payment in exchange. We should not waste these gifts as this is a slight against the Benefactor who gives them.


Feature photo by Gabrielle Henderson on Unsplash

A Formula for the Impossible

Examining Epictetus #30: A Formula for the Impossible

In The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performer’s Primer, Steven Kotler suggests there is a formula for achieving the impossible. And as preposterous as achieving the impossible sounds, consider how many impossibilities were overcome just in the last few years. Apparently, impossible is really “not possible yet.”

Start with the end in mind.

To achieve the impossible, we must start with the end in mind. The end is what you want to accomplish in your lifetime. This is your massively, transformative purpose (MTP). MTPs include curing cancer, solving world hunger, and other types of world-changing goals. In other words, the things that seem impossible now but can be conquered in the future.

To find your MTP, start by creating a list of 20-25 items you are interested in. These are items that you might be interested in learning about over a free weekend. Review your list and find out how they intersect with another. Spend time in those intersections and see how they relate. Learn the history and jargon on the subjects you are interested. As you work through your list, a purpose might come to you. Maybe this purpose is massive and transformative.

Segment your MTP

Next, you must create milestones. These are the high, hard goals (HHG). An example would be writing a book in your newly found niche. Your HHGs may take years to complete. That is okay. The HHGs are the milestones along the road to your purpose in life.

Work daily on your HHG

You have your MTP. You have your first HHG. What’s next? Now is the time to break down your HHG into clear goals. These are the small daily tasks that need to be completed each day. If you are writing a book, this would be to complete a certain number of words daily.

Clear goals need to be in line with your HHG. If you honestly believe in your MPT, then the clear goals are the most important tasks you can do in a day. Therefore, it is best to go after them first and get them done.

What about tasks that are not a part of your clear goals? They must be eliminated or pushed back as much as possible. If they are not a part of your MTP, how important are they? And if it can’t be avoided, then you will need to schedule your clear goals around it. The objective is to complete the clear goals.

Epictetus said, “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things; and then proceed to greater.” I doubt Epictetus was speaking about your goals and massively transformative purpose, but the principle still holds true. Every day practice the little things (your clear goals) and create a series of daily wins. Stack up enough clear goals, and you will find yourself moving closer to your major milestones (HHGs). Keep stacking and in time, you might find yourself achieving the impossible.

Contemplating Seneca #52: Wandering Outdoor Walks

Last week, Alec and I took our first hike in quite some time. As we walked along, I marveled at his enthusiasm and curiosity. Every rock, flower, and tree was the object of his admiration. We crossed streams, traversed logs, and hopped from boulder to boulder. We were out in nature breathing in the fresh air and connecting deeply with the earth. There was no cell phone signal and no technological distractions.

We spend so much time indoors. In the morning, we leave our house, get in our cars, go to school or work, back in our cars, and finish it all up secure in our homes. It is all the trappings of a modern life, yet far removed from the way our ancestors lived.

In Alec’s case, he does the above and then goes to the gym three days a week. How much sunshine and fresh air does he get? Not enough!

We should take wandering outdoor walks, so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed by the open air and deep breathing. -Seneca

I need more time outdoors. Alec does too. This year, I have made a commitment to myself to make a change. I wish it could be every day. But for now, I am going to start on the weekends I don’t have to work. We are going to hike more. We are going to get out in nature, breathe in the fresh air, and nourish our bodies.

Pulliam Creek Trail. Flatrock, NC
Green River Narrows, Flat Rock, NC
Brief summary.

Examining Epictetus #20: More than an Athlete

Over the last few weeks, Alec has been going to bed early so that he can spend about thirty minutes reading before going to sleep. As this is what I do every night, it is a super-proud moment for me.

What he can do physically, I can only dream about. I’m almost jealous. I mean honestly, that kid has more muscle definition and a legit six-pack crammed into his little body. But for all his physical prowess, he has taken the initiative to build his brain. I can almost feel the tears of joy running down my cheek.

My goal in life has always been to achieve balance. I want to be in peak condition in all three facets of my life (body, soul, and mind). Too often we see the meathead with no brains or the genius with no heart. But nobody wants to emulate a character from the Wizard of Oz. What good is a one or two-legged stool? Too much in one direction, and you will find yourself toppling over.

Have I achieved it? Of course not, but I am getting a little closer every day. Sometimes I lean more in one direction. Maybe this is a natural state. But after some time and a bit of introspection, I realize I am getting little wobbly. It is in these times that I must recalibrate and make the adjustments towards the right direction. It truly is all about the balance.

It takes more than a good-looking body. You've got to have the heart and soul to go with it. -Epictetus

Alec is starting to mature and make grown-up decisions. He is becoming more than just an athlete. He is realizing the value of having a strong mind and heart. He is starting to find his own balance in life.

Examining Epictetus #5: Can I Master Myself?

The song kept playing over and over in my head. It was one of the song’s my eight-year-old son likes to listen to. It is not a bad song, just not one I want to have my brain playing on repeat mode.

There was a little rough spot on my finger. It bothered me. I picked at it, scraped at it, and kept messing with it until I ended up with a worse problem than when I began.

How many times have I gone on autopilot, completely unconscious of my actions? How many times did I pop the top on a can that I really didn’t want but opened anyway because it was there? The same could be said for the snack in the pantry, the overwhelming desire to go to sleep (I love my naps), or even the automatic slapping of the snooze button without even thinking about it. The more I think about it, the more I realize that I don’t have complete control of my own person.

Epictetus said, “No man is free who is not master of himself.” Consider this when your automatic actions are no longer serving you. Are you the master of your own mind and able to reprogram yourself? It is a question that I must ask myself. Am I a slave to my passions? Am I in control? And if I am not, and I know I am not, then how can I gain my freedom?

I don’t have the answers yet. I know it starts with mindfulness. It starts with observing my actions and behaviors. Once I realize what I am doing, then I can concentrate on taking the necessary steps.


Feature photo by Zulmaury Saavedra on Unsplash

Examining Epictetus #13: Becoming Beautiful

Question #1: What makes a human being beautiful?

Is it the filter on your Instagram picture? Is it the cosmetics, the surgeries, the nips, tucks, or lifts? Those things may change perception aligning you closer to society’s beliefs of what is beautiful. But does this really make you a beautiful human being? And in the end, will time not eventually prevail? Our outer shell is going to deteriorate. It is going to succumb to the ravages of nature. Our bodies are destined to return to the earth.

We might find attraction in pretty things, but pretty things do not last. And they do not make a human being beautiful.

Question #2: Shouldn’t it be the excellence of a human being?

If you cultivate the spirit and the soul, it will not deteriorate. Unlike the body, it will last forever. How do you make this excellent? Not through riches, fame, or the number of social media followers. No. If we would be excellent, then we must be good. We must find virtue. Only through wisdom, discipline, justice, and courage can we attain unto excellence. Only through virtue can we truly have faith, hope, and love. This is what we must strive for. This will make us excellent human beings.

What then makes a man beautiful? Is it not the possession of the excellence of a man? And do you, then, if you wish to be beautiful, young man, labour at this, the acquisition of human excellence.

Epictetus, Discourses 3.1

Emperor’s Log #11: All the Small Things

There was a time when I managed a very profitable furniture store in Florida. Of all the stores in the region, this store had the highest dollars per transaction. The sales staff was optimized to drive this key metric. They were engaged, energetic, and proud of their sales abilities.

And then there came a day when it all changed. The top brass of the organization decided to change direction. No longer were they interested in the higher ticket sales. They gave us a new mission: get more customers to buy regardless of the amount they were spending. They told us it would be better to convert a higher percentage of our traffic into sales.

Old model: 20% of 100 customers spending $150 = $3,000

New model: 40% of 100 customers spending $20 = $800

We had no choice to comply. Our merchandise assortment began to change. The big-ticket items were replaced with smaller ones. Our sales began to plummet. At the same time, the economy was going through a difficult recession. I could no longer support the highly curated sales force in my store. Without the high average sales, hours were cut. Motivation was lost. All this happened around eleven years ago. Today, that company that had over 1,000 stores finally shut the doors on its last 500. Bankrupt.

In a highly competitive market, to change your identity is a dangerous choice. The goal is profitability, and there are several different ways to achieve it. Did this company make the right choice? I don’t believe so. There could have been several factors that finally brought this company down. Maybe:

  • The world lost its interest and moved on,
  • They got ate up by the bigger dogs in the market, or
  • The economy dictated that basic needs were more necessary than specialized wants.

Whatever it was, they were no longer competitive. The end goal should have been profitability and somewhere along the way, they got bogged down until they had no choice to shut down.

Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash

I would love to say that on an individual level on I am immune from such catastrophes, but am I? How many times have I lost the big picture and got mired in the bog? How many times has my attention been diverted onto something of little or no significance? No doubt, it has been way too many times. When I think I see the path so clearly ahead, I still get squirreled. When it happens again, and it will happen again, I must not give it more time than it deserves. I need to address it quickly and move on.

A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve. -Marcus Aurelius