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I'm a Stoic and I Didn't even know it

Jeremy Ginsburg

(This post was originally published on Medium)

I never thought much about philosophy when I was a child. In fact, Socrates was just a word I used to rhyme with the word philosophy in a freestyle rap battle with my tenth grade English teacher — Mr Hogan.

The line sounded something like: “When it comes to philosophy I am hip-hop Socrates. Now I know why all the hot producers flocked to me.

I beat him in the rap battle, but I didn’t get an A in his class because of it.

Anyways, it wasn’t till this past couple months or so, when I was introduced to this idea of stoic philosophy. I heard about it first from Tim Ferriss’ podcast but I still knew very little about it. Then a friend of mine recommended me to read a book. Then, I read it and loved it, and he recommended me to read another book. And then another friend recommended me to read the same book. And then another and another.

I saw that as a sign. Once or twice is okay, I would say it’s just a coincidence. However, when it comes to me three or four times, I know it has to mean something.

When I was going to pick up the book — The Obstacles of the way” by Ryan Holiday, I had a conversation with my friend Vincent in Saigon and he recommended me another book — ……….

At that moment, I knew I would fall in love with it.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I just know when I’m going to love something before I try it.

That is exactly what happened. I finished this book in about three days. It was mind blowing. Not because it was all new to me, but because it made sense of thoughts and beliefs that I already had.

Everything I read, I had already agreed with. Like when you can’t find the words to describe something, then someone else does it for your perfectly. That’s how it was.

This book put it out there in words that explained exactly what I felt and exactly how I had experienced life. For example, there is a concept that is negative visualization. It basically tells you that when you think of things in scenarios that are a lot worse off than you are now, that when you revert back to reality in your present stage, you are more appreciative of what you have because you put yourself in the situation that was worse than that.

An example of this is a downward comparison: “Oh, my phone is broken. Well, at least I have a phone, at least my laptop is not broken, at least I live in a city where I can go and buy a new one”. Or a stronger negative visualization would be picturing a world without cellphones. It’s crazy how powerful this can be.

Another concept is a voluntary discomfort. Ever since I can remember, I haven’t been afraid to put myself in uncomfortable situations and I didn’t even have a reason why. One day, I found this quote and I fell in love with it:

“Life is a marathon, so I’m always training”.

I remember my family went to the beach in May and the water was freezing. I was the only one who jumped into the water.

When I was in high school, I used to take cold showers. Everybody would stare at me as I was jumping up and down in the locker rooms. I didn’t care. I told them: “Taking cold showers builds character”. The key point is, 5 minutes later after I got out of my shower, I put on my warm clothes, I felt amazing and appreciated that feeling of being dry and warm again.

In 2012, I studied abroad in Ghana. It totally changed my perspective on everything. Ever since then, when I find myself complaining about some stupid trivial first world problem, I picture my friends in Ghana and stuff that they had to go through. There was one time when I got angry at my friend because he wasn’t responding to my text.

But the fact was: his phone ran out of battery and he lost power so he had no way to get in touch with me. For three days he didn’t have power. Now imagine if your phone turned off and wouldn’t turn on for ten minutes, wouldn’t you be freaking out?

I won’t go into all of these details. What I want to point out is: having a philosophy on life is particularly important. Growing up I was Jewish. I had my rabbi I had my parents and my teachers, but I had no one to look to for advice on practical problems in life.

Another reason why negative visualization is great is because not only does it make you more appreciative about what you have, but it prepares you for negative situations that happen. So when they do happen you don’t freak out.

When I was fifteen, my best friend’s older sister died. It was not easy. I used to go over to his house almost every weekend and then one day, she was gone. I was crushed. But this taught me that life is precious and you never know what is going to happen. You’re never promised tomorrow.

Then, when I was seventeen, my best friend passed away — stabbed, actually. He was murdered to death. That was not easy. Shit, it was hard. It still is. It took me months, even years to fully accept the fact that he had been murdered and he’s gone forever.

The night before he passed away, he happened to send me a text message that I saved on my phone for the next two years, telling me that he was thinking about me and we would catch up soon. And ever since then, I think twice for every message I send because I don’t know if that is the last message I’ll ever send to that person.

As much sadness that it brought into my life I thought about the happy times we spent together, about the fact that you never know who is gonna go early. I even recorded a tribute song for him.

Sorry, I didn’t mean to get gloomy, just trying to be honest and transparent.

Another practice in stoicism that I did naturally is practicing poverty. Stoics used to live like a pauper to remind themselves of their values and also in order to stay humble. Now, I can’t admit this is something I did on purpose; it’s mostly because I’m lazy. But I don’t buy nice things, I don’t dress nice, I don’t buy new clothes, I don’t want to impress people by my fancy things. I want people to judge me or respect me by the content of my character, not by my appearance.

While I know it’s not an all-or-nothing deal, I know that if I walked into a business meeting with flip flops and no shirt, it wouldn’t be a good thing. Though I do appreciate the fact of letting go and living like a poor person for a while.

In fact, I have “practiced poverty” plenty of times. Though, to me, I just see it as a challenge. When I studied abroad in Ghana, it was exactly what I was going through: sleeping in 90 degree weather with the mosquito net, surrounded by malaria, sweating through the night, waking up itching my body because I couldn’t sleep. And in the fall of 2014, I spent a month living up in a mountain with the Vietnamese village minorities, showering in the rivers, sleeping on the floors of houses, no TV, no wifi, no cell phone.

I don’t know what you think about those experiences. To me, honestly, they have been the most memorable ones in my entire life. Not only have they been fun and eye opening but they also made me realize that I don’t need a computer to be happy, I don’t need sushi buffets or entertainment in order to live a fulfilled life.

In fact, if you can be satisfied and happy with nothing then there is nothing stopping you from being happy.

So, now what? What’s the point of all this?

To be honest, I’m still not sure. All I know is that Stoicism rocks my socks and since it is stoic week, I feel like it’s a good time to share this. While I don’t want to push you to read about stoicism yourself, I do think you should ask yourself one question.

What’s your philosophy on life and what’s stopping you from figuring it out?”