Contemplating Seneca #2: Perfected through Trials

The Cleaning Process

I watched as the blacksmith brought the blade to the grinder. He turned on the motor and touched the metal to the belt. A shower of sparks flew to the ground. As the smith worked, the metal in his hand began to shine. The imperfections on the surface slowly disappeared. What was once a raw chunk of steel transformed into a beautiful blade void of flaws.

Of course, this is not called the cleaning process, but that is what it reminded of. With heat and friction, the impurities were removed.

A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials. -Seneca

Gems mined from the earth do not look like the ones seen in the jewelry stores. They must be cut and then polished. If the impurities are not removed, then they won’t attain their higher value.

When we come into this earth, we are but uncut gems. To attain our highest value, we too must be refined. This can only happen through heat and friction. It can only happen through trials and testing. The beautiful phoenix only rises from the ashes. Like the phoenix, we too must rise from the challenges presented to us in this life.

For many of us, we live in a world full of abundance. We have more food, comfort, and security than the generations that went before us. Yet somehow, we have become weaker and more susceptible to disease. Our abundance has created more imperfections. And when the real trials come, the same trials man has faced since the beginning of time, how will we be able to overcome them? Will we be able to rise from the ashes?

We do not know what obstacles we will face in the future, but we can start preparing now. We can begin the cleaning process in our lives. We can search out our impurities and remove them. Today, I challenge you to consider your weaknesses. What are the things you don’t like to do because they make you feel uncomfortable? Is there something you can do today to help you overcome these issues? If you can create your own trials, you will be bettered prepared to face the real thing when the time comes. Friction and fire to create the shine and remove the impurities. Trials to bring you closer to perfection.


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Emperor’s Log #28: The Strength of a Calm Mind

The fictional character Rand al’Thor was a hero in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. In the books, he wielded tremendous power, but he also had a problem. He couldn’t always control it. To tap into the source of power, he had to enter a mental void. To practice control and to refine his ability to utilize this power, he practiced staring into a flame. This practice would allow him to empty his mind of all distractions. Simply put, he meditated.

When I am angry, I lose control. My defenses are weakened, and I open myself to attack. All the ground I have covered is lost. Confucius said, “When anger rises, think of the consequences.” In the moment, it is difficult to think of the consequences. Wise words indeed, yet not so easy to apply.

Little effort is required to get angry. And once angry, control is lost. Power becomes unwieldy. In truth, anger is weakness.

"The nearer a man comes to a calm mind the closer he is to strength. -Marcus Aurelius

The key is meditation. Even if it is a moment to gather yourself and your emotions before acting. When the conflict arises, take a step back. Don’t allow your ego to gain control. Instead, calm yourself and determine what you should do and the possible outcomes. Nobody wants to be weak. So, if you want to be strong, find a way to calm your mind.

If you are patient in one moment of anger, you will avoid one hundred days of sorrow.

Chinese Proverb

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Examining Epictetus #29: Working on Yourself Daily

The only way to achieve real growth and progress is to work on yourself daily. It is often boring. It is slow and steady work. There will be no monumental gains from day to day. Rather, the growth is incremental.

Look for opportunities in each day. What can you subtract from your life? What can you add in its place that will take you to the next level? Analyze. Adjust. Reflect. Refine. Make your habits serve you. Become the master of your own destiny through constant and relentless work. Do this daily, and you will be surprised at what you become.

Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily. -Epictetus

Feature photo by Gaelle Marcel on Unsplash

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.


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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.