The barrel of the handgun was about a foot away, pointed directly at my head.
Just a few seconds earlier, I had been sitting in my car about to drive home after an evening workout at a local park in Mountain View, CA. Out of nowhere, a truck came screeching up next to me. Before I could react, I was blinded by a flashlight and the pistol started slamming repeatedly against my driver’s side window.
“Don’t move, don’t move, where’s your wallet? WHERE’S YOUR WALLET?!?!”
Damn it. Not again.
I knew the answer, of course. It was sitting in plain sight, less than a foot away in the passenger seat along with my laptop and phone. In other words, they had caught me with my pants down.
Stuck with little other option, I said the only thing that you can in a situation like that.
“Why the hell would I bring my wallet to a park?” (along with a tinge of sarcasm, for good measure).
The pause lasted for what felt like eternity. So long, in fact, that I actually started to feel kind of awkward. For an moment, I even considered saying something else to fill the void, “So…uh…beautiful evening, huh?”
In reality, the pause was probably just a second — maybe two. Just enough for my logic bomb to lodge itself between frontal lobes of his underdeveloped brain.
Screeching tires. They were gone.
If there’s one certainty about life it’s that life is uncertain.
Unexpected things happen…all the time.
If they haven’t, you’re simply not paying enough attention or are outright delusional. From the annoyances of day-to-day inconveniences to life-changing altercations, it’s simply an unescapable part of the human experience.
In-fact, ever since I left home for college it seems as if almost every year brings with it at least one potentially life threatening event — despite whatever precautions I take to avoid such situations (such as choosing to workout in upscale neighborhoods — not what most would consider a risky place to exercise.)
For instance, just a year before this summer’s incident in California, I was stranded in the Sahara Desert surrounded by a bunch of Middle Eastern men with automatic weapons. A year prior to that, I was running for my life from a mob boss and his cohorts in Eastern Europe. Before that, I was hit in the back of the head with a brick and mugged by a Mexican gang in downtown Kansas City. Before that…well, you get the point.
Now while most people (hopefully) won’t have to deal with situations this severe, these events, large or small, essentially affect us in the same way.
Namely, leaving us to deal with uncontrollable feelings of anxiety, anger, and/or fear that naturally follow.
From problems or disappointments in our careers and relationships to losing loved ones and even the stress and chaos that arise in everyday life, most of us simply don’t know how to deal with the inevitable calamities that Lady Fortune throws our way.
Left vulnerable and distressed, we become quickly overwhelmed by our emotions. We let them consume us. We become fearful. We hide. We stop taking chances and shy away from opportunities. Our perceptions become cluttered. Small risks suddenly appear lethal. We close ourselves off. We overcompensate to protect ourselves. We refuse to give people a chance — pushing them away. We procrastinate and fail to make the moves we need to get where we want to be. We don’t embrace our failures and learn what we can from them, we cower in fear. We overanalyze and over-rationalize, trying our hardest to to protect ourselves, to never let “it” happen again. In doing so, we deny ourselves many of the best opportunities that come our way.
To a certain extent, our ability to deal with the failures, setbacks, and crisis that come our way dictate the quality and enjoyment we have in our lives (i.e. living in a fearful, emotional state is hell).
I wasn’t looking for trouble this summer, I was actually in a really nice area working out at a neighborhood park. Does this mean I won’t ever workout at a park again? Or even that particular place? Hell no. Already been back.
It’s not that I wasn’t scared or aware of the danger to my person and property, it’s that I refuse to let the emotional aftermath rule my life. I forced myself to view the situation logically, made some simple adjustments to protect myself in case that were ever to happen again (decoy wallet, no electronics, different parking), and got on with my life. That’s really all you can do — learn as best you can but otherwise keep living your life as if it had never happened.
While you will never be able to predict the future events of your life with any real precision, there are ways you can prepare for and/or reduce the amount of suffering, stress, and/or worry that commonly follow undesirable events — regardless of severity, I might add. Our power, therefore, doesn’t come from our ability to avoid these unpleasantries (impossible & often undesirable —to a certain point, volatility is beneficial for us), but from our ability to control how we respond.
In this way, our focus should not be on prevention, but on reducing the potential IMPACT that these inevitable events can have on our lives — minimizing our negative exposure while still enjoying the best of life.
When it comes to matters of downside protection, there are simply no greater examples than the classic practitioners of Stoicism (okay, perhaps Nassim Nicolas Taleb). From the journals of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius to the letters of Seneca and the example set by Cato, the Stoics were masters of living a life that maximized their potential upsides and enjoyment of life while reducing the impact of the undesired.
The Stoics understood better than most that much of what happens to us in this world is simply unpredictable (modern society loves the idea of forecasting and control), and that ultimately, the only power we have is in how we think and act. They knew that only by focusing inward and through continual self-improvement could one enjoy the best life has to offer while reducing the impact of the worst.
For all we know, any second an astroid could wipe out billions of people and send humanity back to the stone age. An earthquake could hit San Francisco and destroy everything you own. You could lose the cushy job you’ve had for decades. The guy you want to marry could leave unexpectedly. Your dog could take a dump in your shoe. Whatever.
Shit happens (sometimes literally). We can’t prevent it, but by adopting a Stoic mindset we can eliminate much of the pain and suffering associated with the unexpected and unfortunate events in our lives.
What you did yesterday does not dictate who you become today. Where you are now is not where you are destined to be.
Fate is an illusion. Whether good or bad, it’s the choices you’ve made on a daily bases, including the opportunities you decide to pursue or ignore, that have brought you to this day. This means that the moments that are passing by right now are the very same ones that you’ll be looking back on tomorrow — the very same ones that accumulate to create the future you.
The opportunity to create your future and become the person you dream is passing by with each second. Every instant, a chance where you could turn it all around, take that first step, begin fresh, start building a better everything.
The truth is that we all have the ability to change into the person we dream of any time we like, but that time has to be right now. Not later, not sometime — right now.
“There isn’t a single thing in this world that’s made better by starting tomorrow.” – Julien Smith
Every single second you’re alive is a chance to take that first step towards a new goal, a new job, a new life, a new partner, a new city, a new you. Once you stop trying to convince yourself that you’ll never recover, that you’ll surely fail, that “you should feel grateful for having a job, a girlfriend, a wife, a (fill in the blank) — in other words, settling — you’re free to live the life you want. Free to become the person you really are.
On a similar note, “success” is something you must define for yourself. No one, especially popular culture, should do it for you. All too often, people spend their entire life pursuing someone else’s dream only to finally “arrive” and feel completely empty and lost. There was nothing there they really valued after all.
“Missing a train is only painful if you run after it. Likewise, not matching the idea of success others expect from you is only painful if that’s what you are seeking. You stand above the rat race and the pecking order not outside of it, if you do so by choice.”
“Quitting a high-paying position, if it is your decision, will seem a better payoff than the utility of the money involved. You have far more control over your life if you decide on your criterion by yourself. It is more difficult to be a loser in a game you set up yourself.”
Reflect on what really makes you happy. Define your perfect reality. And take that first step.
Remember, your future is not set in stone. You can do or be whatever you like. All you have to do is chose yourself.
Understand two things:
-The universe is indifferent to your existence and operates entirely without your consent.
-99.999%+ of the people on this planet don’t even care that you’re alive.
The obvious takeaway being that there’s a lot going on that we can’t control —including what everyone else thinks about you — so stop caring so much.
“There are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control. Each of the ‘things’ we encounter in life will fall into one and only one of these three categories.” – William B. Irvine
There are things in life we have absolutely no control over: our genetic predisposition, the amount of wealth we are born into, our ethnic background, the opinions other people form about us, etc…
Take, for instance, height. No matter how hard you’d like it, wishing you were taller or shorter is a complete waste of time. There is literally nothing positive that can come from contemplating such externalities — they are simply beyond control (unless you pay a visit to ol’ Procrustes). Worrying about such things leaves us with nothing more than insecurities and the inner torment, frustration, and anxiety that come with it.
This includes, above all else, trying to meet or adapt to the expectations or desires others. It’s a hopeless battle, one that you are surely bound to lose.
This includes succumbing to outside praises and adoration.
“when others praise us, the proper response is to laugh at them. (But not out loud!)” - - William B. Irvine
Instead, keep your attention focused on your own concerns — let others worry about their own business. Focus on improving and living true to yourself, and eventually, you will become impervious to coercion.
“When we seek social status, we give other people power over us: We have to do things calculated to make them admire us, and we have to refrain from doing things that will trigger their disfavor. We will, says Epictetus, have enslaved ourselves.” – William B. Irvine
Ultimately, the only thing we can control is how we act. When faced with external circumstances that are beyond our control, we are faced with a simple choice — we can either resent it or accept it.
It is how we we think about and interpret events (the emotions we attach to them), not the events themselves (naturally neutral), that result in an aftermath of relative peace or one of fear, discomfort, and depression.
Finally, a brief word on blame.
“An uneducated person accuses others when he is doing badly; a partly educated person accuses himself; an educated person accuses neither someone else nor himself” -Epictetus
P.S. This Linkedin group is great for more Stoic articles and discussions: The Stoic Professional
Instead of publishing a 15,000+ word piece behemoth I decided to split it up into multiple postings over the next month or so. Subscribe to receive a single email when I post new articles or follow my social accounts for weekly updates (be sure to say hi!)
Graham Mumm is the CEO and Chief Product Architect at Bilder Languages, a virtual education institution named “the greatest learning breakthrough since the printing press”, and LeanMill, a company reshaping global commerce through “Personal A.I.” He’s been to more than 44 countries, will soon be a hyper-polyglot, and spends his free time reading, tinkering, and exploring new opportunities and strange lands.