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RHR: Can We Be Improved by the COVID-19 Crisis? with Ryan Holiday


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Can the principles of stoicism help us learn to adjust to the new normal presented by COVID-19? In this episode of Revolution Health Radio, I’m joined by Ryan Holiday, writer, media strategist, and one of the world’s foremost thinkers on ancient philosophy. We talk about how to take a stoic approach to this crisis and even find opportunities to thrive.

Revolution Health Radio podcast, Chris Kresser

In this episode, we discuss:

  • How stoicism can help you adapt to COVID-19
  • Meditating on mortality
  • Strategies for dealing with fear: zooming in and zooming out
  • How we can be improved by the COVID-19 crisis

Show notes:

Hey, everybody, Chris Kresser here with another episode of Revolution Health Radio. This week, I’m really excited to welcome as my guest, Ryan Holiday. Ryan is a writer, media strategist, and one of the world’s foremost thinkers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life.

At 19 years old, Ryan dropped out of college to apprentice under Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power. He had a successful marketing career at American Apparel, and went on to found a creative agency called Brass Check, which has advised clients like Google, Taser, and Complex, as well as many prominent best-selling authors, including Neil Strauss, Tony Robbins, and Tim Ferris. And I would also add my name to that list. I worked with Ryan on my first book, Your Personal Paleo Code, which later became The Paleo Cure. He was instrumental in helping me with that book.

Ryan is the author of 10 books including The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, The Daily Stoic, Conspiracy, and Stillness Is the Key, which have sold more than 2 million copies in 30 languages and [have] a following among NFL coaches, world-class athletes, TV personalities, political leaders, and others around the world. Ryan spends much of his time on a ranch outside Austin, Texas, where he does his writing and work in between raising cattle, donkeys, and goats.

So I’m looking forward to talking with Ryan about stoicism, which is one of the ancient philosophies that he is most familiar with and writes extensively about, and how the principles of stoicism can help us to weather this COVID storm and come out of it stronger than [ever] before. So, without further ado, let’s dive in.

Chris Kresser:  Ryan, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show. I can’t believe we haven’t done this already. I’ve really been looking forward to it.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, thanks, man. We’ve known each other forever. But you’re right, this is the first time we’re doing a pod.

Can ancient philosophy provide us with insight on how to deal with the COVID-19 crisis? Check out this episode of RHR to hear from author Ryan Holiday on the wisdom of a stoic approach. #chriskresser #coronavirus #covid19

How Stoicism Can Help You Adapt to COVID-19

Chris Kresser:  And this is, I’ve been talking a lot lately about the challenges and the opportunities that come with COVID. And one of the opportunities or the blessings is I’ve been reconnecting with a lot of people that I haven’t been connected with for quite a while. So I appreciate that about it.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, well, as they’re saying, it really should be called physical distancing, not social distancing. And I think one of the things I’m learning from it is clearly how much stuff I was doing that I really didn’t need to be doing that was taking up large chunks of my day. Because I’ve got two kids at home and because we’re, it’s like, I’m probably just as productive if not more productive than I was before, but I’m maybe working half the day.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Ryan Holiday:  And so, it’s like, oh, wait, was half my day wasted? I was willingly just giving up half my time. It’s crazy.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, it totally is crazy. And I know you understand this as a writer who’s had deadlines, like, deadlines also have that impact on me.

Ryan Holiday:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  They have a way of shining the light on what’s really important and what’s not so important. And that’s another blessing, frankly, of COVID in really helping us to focus on what is most essential in our life.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah. Well, and one of the things I’m trying to actually be very deliberate about, I’m really glad we’re talking, but I don’t know about you, but I’ve probably gotten, like, 1,000 different podcast requests or Instagram Live requests and webinars and summits, and they make sense and I love that people are trying to find ways to be creative and help people and all that.

But the irony is, you can end up filling all that time really quickly with things that don’t actually move the ball forward for you. And so I’m trying to, you could, let’s say it’s this for another month or two months or a year. Like, you could end up spending that time just getting, you can fritter [it] all [away] on social media very easily. Or you can watch everything; you could finish Netflix if you wanted.

Chris Kresser:  Watch Netflix, no, literally watch Netflix.

Ryan Holiday:  Yes. Yeah. And I just don’t think you’re going to be proud of that. When people ask you how you spent the three months of quarantine, like, as they’re saying, like, Shakespeare wrote Macbeth and Isaac Newton formulated (crosstalk 2:47).

Chris Kresser:  Right, figured out calculus.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Small thing.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, yeah, I’m not saying you have to do that. But you should be able to account for the time.

Chris Kresser:  Right. And also be prepared.

Ryan Holiday:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  I think it’s pretty safe to say now that you sometimes see this question still on social media and elsewhere, when are we going back to life before COVID?

Ryan Holiday:  Right.

Chris Kresser:  And the answer, of course, is never; we’re never going back to that life before. And so there’s a certain adaptation that needs to happen for all of us, some more than others, depending on who we are and what our work is. Some people may literally not have a job, or their profession may essentially not be viable after this. So how do we adapt to that?

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, I think one of the things this is revealing is just the human capacity, biological, I’m sure, for fooling ourselves and for engaging in wishful thinking. So obviously, and tell me if this is too political, you look at Trump’s comments and that there’s basically a month and a half that he wasted of, like, “Oh, this is small; this isn’t going anywhere.” That’s a failure of leadership.

But you can’t be too hard on him for it, because we’re not that different. I was talking to my sister yesterday, and she’s like, “They’re projecting the peak.” She lives in New York. “The peak is going to be by here,” or whatever. And it’s like, first off, just because it peaks doesn’t mean that you’re out of; it doesn’t go from 800 deaths a day to zero deaths. A peak goes the other side. It’s like an interval workout. Both sides are a pyramid workout.

Chris Kresser:  That’s good.

Ryan Holiday:  The other side coming down sucks; it’s really bad.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ryan Holiday:  But also, just because you flatten the curve one time doesn’t mean that the whole cycle can’t get kicked off again. And so I think one of the things that Stoics talk about is like, it’s not just about enduring the adversity when it happens, but being prepared for a lifetime of that. Because, yeah, even if we do get out of the woods on this relatively unscathed, that doesn’t mean that you as an individual won’t find out that you have cancer three months from now.

Chris Kresser:  Absolutely.

Ryan Holiday:  Or you [could] lose your job for totally different reasons.

Chris Kresser:  That’s right. And I think this is one of the, I was talking about this in an Instagram video the other day. It’s like COVID has made certain things that were always true just much more apparent and obvious.

Ryan Holiday:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  And you were speaking to one of those just now, that we actually don’t have full control over our lives. And a lot of times, we live under this delusion that we are under control. And certainly, we have varying degrees of control in different areas of our life. But what COVID has [shown] us is that shit can happen quickly, and it can be dramatic, and it can have a huge impact on our life, and we actually don’t have full control.

So this is probably a really good segue into the main thing that I wanted to talk to you about, is how do we navigate that? How do we deal with a situation where we’re not in full control of what happens to us in our lives?

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  And bad things do happen. In fact, the fundamental insight of the Buddha, for example, was Dukkha. Life is suffering. So this is not new. This is something that is part of the human condition. And you have been talking and writing for many years now about stoicism and how this philosophy and this way of looking at the world can be helpful in the face of this reality, which many of us are now more fully waking up to.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, yeah. So, Epictetus, one of the early Stoic philosophers, he’s born a slave, [and] he spends 30 odd years as a slave. And it was bad to be a slave in America in the 16 and 17 and 1800s, but it was [really] bad to be a slave in Rome. There’s a scene where his master just breaks Epictetus’ leg for the fun of it, right? And so he walks with a limp [for] the rest of his life. So Epictetus, he’s a guy who knows about adversity, and he says, like, “Look, our first task in life is to distinguish between what’s in our control and outside of our control.”

And that is just something humans are really bad at. We’re just really bad at focusing on thinking about what’s in our control and what isn’t. And we spend an inordinate amount of our time focusing on what’s outside of our control. That’s yelling at people on Twitter, that’s wanting to be taller or richer or focusing on things that are not up to us. And then the irony is that we end up neglecting what actually is up to us, right? So that’s sort of the core insight from Epictetus. He goes, “Events don’t upset us. It’s our opinions about events. And when you realize this, you have strength,” he says.

And so, what he means by that is that the coronavirus pandemic, okay, it’s bad in the sense that lots of people are dying and it was largely preventable. It’s bad in the sense that it is causing lots and lots of suffering for people. And it would be better if that were not so. But as far as you’re concerned, Epictetus would say the event is objective. It is what it is. It doesn’t give a shit about you. It doesn’t hate you; it’s not out to get you. And it’s not also, as sort of a nod to some people who think that faith or religion will save you, it’s indifferent to anything that you believe or claim or whatever. It just is what it is.

Now you decide whether this is going to be a positive event or a negative event in your life. That’s what’s up to us. So I think that’s one thing the Stoics can teach us. The other from Seneca is this idea of premeditatio malorum. Seneca said, “The one inexcusable statement for a military commander to make is, ‘I didn’t think it could happen.’” Right? And when I look back at myself over the last couple [of] years, I’m proud of, that I made certain, that I saved money, I was smart; we decided to live outside the city. We put in place a lot of systems that have largely insulated us from what’s happening. I didn’t live outside my means and now things are evaporating.

I wasn’t super dependent on my publisher. [I] made lots of good decisions. But I think if we talk about, if you always want to look at where you messed up, I was ready for a recession. I was ready for a decrease in book sales. I was ready for if I got hit by a bus. I was ready for a lot of things. What I wasn’t ready for, for all those things to happen at the same time. Do you know what I mean?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ryan Holiday:  For instance, I made financial decisions that insulated me from my writing income disappearing. So I have rental properties. The thinking was like, “Hey, if I ever stopped writing, I can just live off this.”

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Ryan Holiday:  But I never expected an event where all my speaking would disappear, bookstores would be closed, and, by the way, no one can pay their rent or stay in a vacation rental. Right?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah.

Ryan Holiday:  So the Stoics would say that what we have to do is really peel our eyes and think about all the things that can potentially happen, and be prepared and humbled by the fact that, hey, this really is out of our control, and we really can get just utterly decimated.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Meditating on Mortality

Ryan Holiday:  And this isn’t, I don’t think depressing. You’re supposed to then prepare for these things, even if it’s just like toughening yourself up. So I think that’s a big one. And then the other interesting stoic exercise that I think ties into what you’re talking about, is it’s like, I think people are coming to [grips with] their mortality for the first time.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Ryan Holiday:  They’re like, I saw a study that was saying that, basically, COVID compresses one year of risk down into, like, a month period. So that’s transformatively different, but it’s also not that different. So you thought, like, it feels now that death is literally in the air and it’s out to get you, but it’s really only slightly more so. It’s just that you were able to deny it before and you were out of touch with it before.

So, the Stoics were sort of trying to actively meditate on their mortality for a reason. Because they knew that, Seneca said, “It’s not in our power to live long, but it is our power to live well.” And so they focused on the fact that, like, “Hey, don’t put off till tomorrow, or next year or 20 years from now, because there were plagues and pestilence and war and disease in the ancient world, too.”

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s such a great point. And I mean, I can and have been speaking personally to this with my experience, which you know a little bit about, Ryan, with devastating chronic illness that nearly killed me. And having survived that and come through that, I had a totally different outlook on my life after that, because I was acutely aware of my own mortality and how fragile life can be and how little control. I mean, sure, I could have not taken that trip and not gotten sick.

Ryan Holiday:  Sure.

Chris Kresser:  But I was there having a great time and life happened. And so now, as I go through this, I’m grateful for that experience that I had, because it taught me that we can survive a lot more than we think we can. And that I find myself even having moments of just excitement, hope, clarity, and a feeling of kind of, I tell people, it’s a similar feeling I have just when I’m taking the stage and about to start speaking. When all of my attention is in the present moment, I can’t be thinking about anything else.

And I read this really interesting article, I forget where it was, that a lot of people who have suffered from chronic depression and anxiety right now are symptom-free for the first time in many, many years. And on the surface, that might seem strange, but when you understand the things that we’re talking about here, it actually makes a lot of sense. That people are feeling a sense of aliveness in a way that they haven’t in many, many years.

Ryan Holiday:  It’s like that anxiety and that worry and that obsession was a luxury.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Ryan Holiday:  They didn’t understand it as a luxury good, but it was only afforded by the fact that they weren’t worried about a tiger coming and eating them. And I think your story is really interesting just in how timeless it is, right? So Seneca is sort of a brilliant young man. He goes to the best schools. Just as he enters the legal profession, you could practice as a lawyer at age 20 in Rome, he sort of makes his debut on the scene, and he gets tuberculosis, which at that time was often a death sentence. He ends up, there’s no medical treatment besides they would go, like, you need to go to a different climate.

Chris Kresser:  Right.

Ryan Holiday:  And so he goes, I think, to Turkey or Egypt, and it takes him eight years to convalesce from tuberculosis. So imagine just losing eight years of your life. And then he eventually does come back. But there were moments where it was so bad, he thought he was going to die or that killing himself was the only way out of this sort of terrible agony. But eventually, he makes his way through and he comes back to Rome, he debuts as a politician, he’s [one of] the most powerful, respected senators, and then he runs afoul of the emperor and he’s exiled for, like, eight years again.

And so, that would have been horrible, right? But he had some experience in it and he knew that like, “Hey, this stuff happens in life.” And I think what he was very acutely aware of was just because your circumstances have changed doesn’t mean you can afford to be idle or waste time. I have a, so I think, did I send you one of these? I will if I haven’t.

Chris Kresser:  No.

Ryan Holiday:  But I carry this coin in my pocket that says “memento mori.” There’s a line on the back from Marcus Aurelius. He says, “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” So, Seneca didn’t go spend eight years in exile. Obviously, he didn’t know what the term was. But he didn’t go, “Well, I’m just going to wait this out.” He was like, this is when he started writing. And this is when he started thinking. You have to use this time.

So one of the things I took from Seneca and I think he would have learned it in difficult situations like that, he says like, “It’s wrong to think that death is something that lays in wait in the future that you’re moving towards.” He said, “You should think about death as something that’s happening right now,” that, like, we’re dying every day. So he’s like, “The time that passes already belongs to death.” So, for me, that fundamentally has changed how I live. So I don’t think about having 40 years left to live or 50 years left to live; I think that I’ve already died, 32, 33 years, and I want to evaluate whether I lived for those 32 years that I was alive.

The Parallels between Buddhism and Stoicism

Chris Kresser:  This is one of the things that’s really interesting to me, as I was learning more about stoicism, which I didn’t know much about before being exposed to it through you, Ryan. I come from more of a Buddhist background.

Ryan Holiday:  Sure.

Chris Kresser:  But there are so many parallels.

Ryan Holiday:  Totally.

Chris Kresser:  The Tibetan Book of the Dead was one of the most popular or earliest exposures to Buddhism, I think, in the West and the meditation on death, the maranasati, is one of the oldest practices in all Buddhist traditions where you meditate on the nature of death, and that’s one way that you increase your awareness and your ability to live more fully in the present. So what is your take on the parallels and maybe the differences between Buddhist and stoic thought? Or have you thought much about that?

Ryan Holiday:  No, no, they’re very similar. And I sort of liken it to divergent evolution, where it’s like two species, one in Australia and one in Europe, evolved very similar adaptations, even though they don’t really share sort of a direct common ancestor. So I think both the Buddhists and the Stoics are responding to a lot of the same fundamental realities of life, right?

  • That we don’t control what happens to us
  • That suffering is inevitable
  • That we die
  • That our thoughts are often sort of our worst enemy
  • That people chase and crave the wrong things
  • That those things are ironically the source of much of our suffering

So I think there are lots of similarities. To me, what draws me toward stoicism, and I’m painting somewhat with a broad brush, and there’s a lot I admire in Buddhism. But the big distinction in Greece and Rome was between the Stoics and the Epicureans. And the Epicureans and the Stoics, also very similar. The Epicureans were not hedonists, as people thought. But the Epicurean was sort of content to stay in the proverbial garden, right? It was like, drink and be merry, enjoy your friends, sort of have fun, keep it in moderation, but sort of do this thing in the present moment. What I really like about the Stoics is although they agree with a lot of what the Epicureans say, the Stoics believe we were obligated to participate in the [Ancient Greek] polis, like, in society, in life. That we had sort of duties and obligations that each individual has, sort of like a telos or a purpose. They talk about sort of a daemon, like we have a destiny or a sort of guiding spirit that is setting us up for something.

And so, when you look at the Stoics, you have Marcus Aurelius, who’s an emperor, you have Seneca, who’s maybe the greatest writer of the age. You had generals and merchants and soldiers and artists. You have, like, people who are doing things. And I know there’s, obviously there’s some samurai warriors and archers, and there were some kings. But for the most part, my objection to Buddhism is that it tends to be kind of a withdrawal from the world. And I relate to and I support the sort of stoic, sort of emergence and duty, emergence into and duty to the world, if that makes sense.

Chris Kresser:  It does. And I think some of the more, what I consider to be enlightened Buddhist, modern contemporary thinkers approach it in that way, too. But it does have definitely a tradition of a monastic.

Ryan Holiday:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  A monastic heritage for sure. I want to talk a little bit, just rewind a little bit.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah.

Strategies for Dealing with Fear: Zooming in and Zooming out

Chris Kresser:  So we, we’re in a situation where, I would say, it’s fair to say it’s characterized by uncertainty, by fear, confusion, loss of control. And we’re not sure when that’s going to end. And so a lot of people are living with all those feelings. And particularly fear, I think, is a difficult one for human beings to experience, and uncertainty.

You wrote an email today, on the day of this recording, about the difference between a scare and being scared and being afraid, which I really enjoyed. So let’s talk a little bit about that and what the Stoics, I think they even had a term for the sensory or emotional experience that happens when we’re scared, and distinguishing that from fear, which is more of a state of being over time.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah. So one of the most important virtues to the Stoics was courage. That sort of courage, they say, is like the virtue from which all the other virtues descend. Or you can’t do the right thing without courage and it takes courage to do the right thing, right? And so this idea of courage is something that comes up over and over again in the Stoics. Not just sort of intellectual courage, but also physical courage. These were generals and soldiers. And even Socrates was a soldier, right? Like, we tend to think of philosophers as these sort of bookish introverts, but in fact, they were doing things in the real world.

So it’s inconceivable that Socrates was not scared, or that Marcus Aurelius was not scared, that he wasn’t getting that sort of flutter that you were talking about, that nervousness before you go on stage, as they were waiting for the sort of bugle to send them into action. That would have been terrifying. The odds of surviving would have been low. I mean, Marcus Aurelius himself, if you want to talk about relating to where we are right now, Marcus Aurelius, his reign is marked almost entirely by what is now known as the Antonine Plague, which was a plague that originated in China, and killed something like 10 or 15 million people over the majority of Marcus’s reign.

Chris Kresser:  Wow.

Ryan Holiday:  So, of course, he was scared. I mean, how could you not be scared for your children, for yourself, as you’re watching people drop like flies? But the Stoics, being scared, having that initial reaction was not an excuse for stopping or for cowardice. So there’s a [William] Faulkner quote I love, which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, I put it in the article. He says, “Be scared. You can’t help that. But don’t be afraid.” And I like this distinction because it’s like, yeah, “Look, if you jump out from around the corner, that’s going to startle me. But if I run away, and I refuse to leave my house after that, well, that’s being afraid.”

Like, you should be scared looking at your retirement accounts having dropped 30 or 40 percent, right? Or you should be scared if traveling and doing in-person stuff is a big part of your life or your job and suddenly you can’t do it anymore. But just because you’re scared doesn’t mean you’re exempt from the responsibilities of life going forward, right? And I think the question is, is being scared, is being afraid, is it helping you solve that difficult problem? And the Stoics would say, if it’s not helpful, then you’ve got to cut it out and you’ve got to focus on how you can move forward.

Chris Kresser:  Right. And this, I mean, was largely the subject of your book, The Obstacle Is The Way.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah.

Chris Kresser:  Talking about strategies, because it’s one thing for us to sit here and talk about this, but how do people actually do that? Because a lot of people are understandably stuck in that kind of visceral response right now of fear, the sensations and the emotion of it and the physical experience of it. How do we move from if someone is feeling like they’re stuck in that experience, what is the stoic approach to, what are some tools or strategies for moving from that to a broader understanding and framing of what’s happening that can allow them to move forward?

Ryan Holiday:  So, sort of like the Buddhists, I think the Stoics sort of realized that you can’t, you have a lot of power over your own thoughts, over your mind, right? And that sort of how you dial things this way or that way can have a huge impact on how you’re able to respond to something. So, and I think the Stoics were a bit paradoxical, too. So sometimes [they’d] tell you to do this thing, and sometimes they’d tell you the opposite thing. It just [depends] on the situation. So one of the things I’m kind of modulating between is zooming way in and zooming way out.

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Ryan Holiday:  So it’s like when I get stressed, when I get anxious, when I get upset, I go play with my kids, or I read a book, or I go work out, or I just say, “What is the one task that I have to do today?” And so, by focusing on some immediate thing, then I’m not refreshing the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] website that’s showing how many cases are in my area. I’m not refreshing my stock portfolio or whatever. I’m not just sort of, I’m not just paralyzed with fear because what I’m doing is focusing on something really small.

But on the other hand, when I, sometimes when I’m overwhelmed with all the stuff that’s in front of me or all I have to do, one of the things I [do is] zoom out and I go, “Okay, well, what did my stock market portfolio do in 2000 and 2008? Oh, it went way down, and then it went up.” What has happened historically over major recessions, over pandemics. The United States went through this exact thing roughly 100 years ago, and it was really bad. The response was bungled in a lot of ways. But eventually, we did get through it and the vast majority of people were fine. And I think what you can also get by zooming out, like, one of the things we did for Daily Stoic, kind of going through this challenge of stuff that we said, go read the newspaper for this day 100 years ago.

Or go read the newspaper for the year you were born. And what you find out is, like, oh, the president was being impeached. Oh, people were worried about the AIDS epidemic. People have always been convinced that things were falling apart and that, first off, they were wrong, right? Because we’re still here. But whatever situation we’re in today is way better than that situation. Like, if you had to choose between sort of living through the Spanish influenza and COVID-19, I mean, you’d be an idiot not to pick COVID-19, right? Because the medical attention is so much better. And so, by zooming out, you can get some gratitude and perspective, and kind of alternating between these two things is really effective I find.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, I’m actually reading Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin, which is, of course, about the Civil War, which is another period.

Ryan Holiday:  Way worse.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, extremely. Not only an incredible number of lives lost and violence and many people feeling literally unsafe in their life, but a lot of people talk about how fractious the political and social climate is today, and that’s true. But if you want to really see fractious, I mean, that was literally fractious, right? Where part of the country fractioned off and seceded from the Union and it’s really, I actually take heart in the same way that you do, in reading books like this at a time like this. Because it reminds me that this is not unique. I mean, there are aspects of this that are unique, of course, but this is life. This is how things go.

Ryan Holiday:  And look, not only was the Civil War happening, but the odds of dying of typhus or cholera or any number of the ongoing diseases then was probably higher than just COVID-19.

Chris Kresser:  Oh, far higher, and there was far less medical attention available. Lincoln’s son, Will, died of typhoid fever and there was little that anybody could do. So yeah, I mean, it’s really, it’s apparent that this is just part of the nature of life. But like we said before, it’s much more obvious now. There is a way that we could kind of convince ourselves that life is not as uncertain as it really is, and that we have more control than we do. But this has been laid bare now by COVID.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, and look, the reality is we’re living through history right now. Right? This is history and it’s not fun to live through history, unfortunately; it’s scary. But the advantage, that Stoics would say, “Look for the good, look for the opportunity. How can you be made better for this?” The upside of living through history is it’s a chance to be heroic to make a difference. Like, I was just talking to Tim Ferriss last weekend, and what’s incredible about Tim is, like, Tim, I wouldn’t say single handedly, but Tim was a large voice in the argument to shut down South by Southwest in early March of this year. And so there’s an individual, just an author. Obviously, [he] has a big platform, but he holds no elected office. He pulls no strings.

And here, from a single person with a Twitter account, [he] manages to help contribute to shutting down an event that if you compare say Austin’s infection rate and New Orleans’ [rate], which proceeded with Mardi Gras slightly earlier, this one individual and the people that contributed to that may have saved thousands of lives or certainly probably reduced potential infections by many 10s of thousands, right? Four hundred thousand people come to Austin for South by Southwest. And by helping pressure to shut that down as an individual, I think he contributed to history in an incredibly small footnote of a way. But, as an individual, he stepped up and he made a difference.

And I think that’s something to take some solace or inspiration in or a cue from, is that, like, “Okay, this is bad; this does suck. But what are you going to do for your neighbor? What are you going to do for your family?” As a much smaller example, as this was happening, my parents were not taking it particularly seriously. They’ve always been a bit hardheaded and sort of Fox News-y and that they think they know better than stuff. And my mom was in Sacramento where we live or where we grew up, and she was going to stop by and visit my grandmother who’s like 82 or 83. And I called her and I was like, “Dad, you can’t have mom visit grandma.” And he’s like, “Oh, she’s not sure if she’s going to.” And I was like, “She cannot visit grandmother.” And I called and I yelled at her; I had my sister call. It took multiple phone calls and multiple text messages to get, like, a promise that they were not going to do that. And it was a negotiation. It was like, “Well, maybe I’ll just stop in the lobby and drop off something.”

And I was like, “You cannot go anywhere near this old folks home.” And so she didn’t. And it turns out lo and behold, several weeks later, not several weeks, but a few weeks later, that actually through a friend of my parents who did test positive, who they had been in contact with, my mother may, obviously testing is still so abysmal, we have no idea whether she was experiencing symptoms at the time, whether she was asymptomatic, whether she was carrying it, whether the thing she had in her car that she was going to drop off to my grandmother had it. But the point is on a very individual level, by listening, and by focusing on what I control, which is not geopolitics, it’s what my parents do, maybe I made a difference. And I think that’s where we have to focus as individuals.

How We Can Be Improved by the COVID-19 Crisis

Chris Kresser:  Right. So we’ve talked about understanding what we have control over and what we don’t, and focusing our attention on what we have control over. That’s a specific strategy. You’ve mentioned zooming in and zooming out. And I’ve talked about that quite a bit in slightly different terms. Cultivating what we could call realistic optimism, which is attending to, paying attention to, and preparing for worst-case scenarios. Because that’s just skillful means in a situation like this.

We want to be prepared for bad things that could happen to us. But not getting stuck there and making sure we spend an equal amount of time paying attention to the opportunities, the upsides, and the bright spots that could come from this, which is kind of rewriting the story. You talk about this in The Obstacle Is The Way, Buddhists talk about this, but there’s the crisis and, like, maybe the facts that could be observed if there was a video camera filming with no commentary.

Ryan Holiday:  Sure.

Chris Kresser:  And then there’s the commentary, right? So how do we shift the commentary on those events in a way that is productive, that actually allows us to respond? You shared a quote in your book, from Rahm Emanuel. “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. Things that we had postponed for too long, that were long-term are now immediate and must be dealt with. A crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things [that] you could not do before.”

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, I think we’re seeing this on a bipartisan level right now. We’re like, oh, these people who we put in power, whether it’s a mayor, a Democratic mayor or a Republican president or a Republican governor or a Democratic senator, or whatever party you are internationally. Britain’s going through the same thing. We’re realizing, like, “Oh wait, these people that we elected, that we elected even though we didn’t like them, even though they were a bit nuts, even though they had a checkered past, we voted for them because they were on the same team as us. Or they told us what we wanted to hear.”

And now we’re getting this pandemic as a very rude reminder that, like, oh, not only does character matter as far as leaders go, but competence matters even more. And that competence far transcends in significance, what someone’s policies are. And so I think one of the upsides I hope to see come out of this is a real understanding of, like, “Oh, [we’ve] got to stop fucking around as far as what people we put in charge, what people we give the keys to the kingdom to.”

Chris Kresser:  Yes.

Ryan Holiday:  Because there [are] real consequences. I mean, they were saying, like, people should wrap their heads around, like, okay, the projections between 100,000 deaths from COVID in the [United States] and 250,000. That’s like three Korea’s. I think 50,000 people died in the Korean War. So three times one of the worst things.

Chris Kresser:  That’s half of, World War II was just over [400,000], I think, [415,000].

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, right. That’s madness, right? And it’s like, oh, this is where, I think, we’ve been way too politicized as a society and wasted a lot of time and caused a lot of preventable damage, because we didn’t focus on what the actual job of being a leader is, which is first and foremost to keep people safe and to keep things operational.

So I think that’s sort of one thing that’s got to come out of this. The other thing, I was talking to a friend of mine [who was] like, “I sold all my stocks.” And I was like, “Okay, look.” And I told him this, that Chris Hadfield quote that I have in the courage article we were talking about. He says, “Look,” he’s one of the great Canadian astronauts, and he said, “Look it’s worth remembering, there’s no problem so bad, you can’t make it worse also.” And panicking, making knee-jerk emotional responses, laying down and falling asleep or throwing a temper tantrum, any sort of somewhat understandable responses you could have to this, can definitely make it worse. I mean, in between the time where this friend sold their stocks and now, the market has recovered like 25 percent. Right?

And I think it’s still got a, I think we’re being naive right now, and I think people are thinking we’re out of the woods. I think the Dow is going to drop back below 20 and I think there’s going to be some serious knock on effects from this. I don’t understand how there could not be with this many people out of work and it going on this long. But the point is, what you shouldn’t be doing is panicking and running; you should be going, “Okay, I’ve absorbed these losses. Now what are the opportunities? What are the discounts? Where are the things that other people are missing and I’m going to take advantage of?” And hopefully, that will help make me whole or, look, plenty of people made fortunes in bear markets throughout world history. And so just what are you going to do? Where are the opportunities you’re going to look for?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah. Isn’t that what [Warren] Buffett says? Buy when there’s blood in the streets, right? But even if we take this outside of the discussion of the stock market, or stocks, like what’s the equivalent of that for us on a personal level? Our career and our plans and the way that we thought our lives might look like [have] been severely disrupted, and at first that can seem like a great blow. Especially, and the more attached we were to that idea of how things are going to go, the greater of a blow it will seem, right? But again, relating just on my own experience, prep, and not at all to compare myself with Seneca in any way here, but I was in my early 20s when I got sick, and spending the next 10 years, like, curled up in pain in a ball on the floor was not what I had planned.

Ryan Holiday:  Sure.

Chris Kresser:  For my 20s, I can tell you that. And so, and yet, we wouldn’t be having this conversation if I hadn’t gone through that. I wouldn’t have found work that ended up being far more rewarding and meaningful and impactful, I think, than the path that I was on prior to that happening. I wouldn’t have met the woman that I married because I was not traveling in those same circles. I mean, the list can just go on and on, right?

And so, it’s easy for me to say that now, looking back on it. A lot of people right now are in the equivalent position of being in the fetal position on the floor. It’s harder to recognize it at that point. But what are some of the things that people can do to project forward? To look at this, again, like Rahm Emanuel said, and the other one is the Andy Grove quote, which was specific to companies, but we can make it for individuals, too. “Bad companies are destroyed by crises. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” So how can we be improved by this crisis?

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, and I think that’s the only way to find. Look, the tragedy of this we’re only going to begin to wrap our heads around in the months and years to come. And very little sort of gains will make, will be able to, nothing that can happen will make this worth it, right? But the only sort of solace, the only way to make that sort of sacrifice or loss not be in vain or meaningless is to be improved by it. To learn from it.

So I think a couple things. So one is, and, to be perfectly honest, this is from the amount of stuff that’s been cancelled for me over the next six to eight months; we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars that I was counting on, that I was anticipating, opportunities that were great for my career that will probably never come back. So that’s the downside. The upside is that this was forced exposure. Sort of a forced reminder for me into a different way of living, right? I’ve had every single meal at home for 30 days. I’ve tucked my kids into bed every night for 30 days. I’ve jumped in the pool with my kid, pretty much every day for the last month. I’ve been in a different writing routine, because there [were] no days of travel. I haven’t had any meetings. I haven’t had any of my employees come to the office, so there’s been less crap to deal with.

And so one of the things my wife and I were talking about is like, “Hey, whatever comes out of this as far as returning to normal, we actually have now, we’re going to have to think about how, what steps we need to take to make sure life actually stays closer to this, as it has been lately, than what it was before.” And so, again, that was an expensive way to find these things out, but I don’t think I ever would have said no to those opportunities as they were presented to me. But in the midst of this, I was sort of forced to see what that was like.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, that’s the interesting thing about it for me. In a similar way, I’m obviously not treating patients in person. I was flying to California to do that. And even before all of this happened, I had been kind of thinking a lot about how my focus was starting to shift toward building more resilience and cultivating more joy and presence in the face of difficult circumstances. And that, Functional Medicine has always been a big part of my work, and getting to the root cause of disease is still as important.

But just as I sort of observe what was happening around the world, realizing that for some people, completely getting rid of their health problem is never going to be possible and that finding a way to live in the midst of difficult circumstances, which are just as we’ve discussed the whole show, the nature of life, not just today, but pretty much always as far as we can tell, is one of the keys to living a happy and fulfilled life. And so COVID has sort of rapidly accelerated that shift for me in ways that were unpredictable. And I would never have been able to do or come up with on my own. So that’s been interesting for me to observe.

And I just, I’ve talked to a number of people who have been in a similar situation where all their best laid plans have been demolished. And yet, what’s emerging out of that is actually, it may not be fully what they want or expect, but it’s, it has, like you said, there are so many upsides that they are now trying to figure out how to integrate into whatever comes next after this.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah. And that’s what I think this idea of The Obstacle Is The Way means. It’s not that hey, bad stuff is good, right? It’s not that you would choose to lose your mother at age 22. It’s not that you would choose to lose your leg in a car accident. And it’s not that you would choose to lose 50 percent of your business in a global pandemic in a recession. But it’s that from those things can come some good things, right?

And again, we talked about perspective; it’s important, like, you have a track record or a history of this in your life. This isn’t just some made-up argument that sounds good on paper. It’s like, this is demonstrably proven in your own experience. Anyone can go, “Okay, think back to the 10 worst things that happened to you in your life. The things that you didn’t want to happen as they were happening.” You didn’t get into your dream college. You got fired; you got dumped. You found out someone was stealing from you. Somebody you love died. All those things happened. But somewhere in those experiences, in some cases more than others, not only did you survive, not only did life go on, but you learned something from that. It changed you in some way.

And it may well be that you now look back fondly on that. Like, the worst breakup I went through in my life, I got dumped by the girl I dated all through high school and [the] first couple years of college. That was horrendous. It was horrible. I wouldn’t have wished that on anyone. I wouldn’t have wished it on myself. Except my life utterly changed trajectory from that. And I met the woman I’m actually with and I wouldn’t have my kids without it. I wouldn’t, like, nothing would be the same if that hadn’t happened. And so this is not ideal. This is an unpleasant hard fork. But we have a pretty good body of evidence that tells us,like, “Hey, not only does life go on, but it may well turn out that this was largely a positive.”

Chris Kresser:  And I think some of the stories you told earlier about Seneca and people who’ve experienced these kinds of challenges are helpful because they give us that sense that it doesn’t always have to be linear forward progress. And you mentioned this in The Obstacle Is the Way, that we have this cultural assumption that moving forward is always the way to make progress.

Ryan Holiday:  Yes.

Chris Kresser:  But you point out that sometimes, moving sideways or even backwards is the best way to make progress. Talk a little bit about that.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, totally. I mean, that’s sort of the example that, if we’re talking about with me and my speaking. It’s like I was on an upward trajectory with my speaking; I was doing more and more events, [and] I was making more and more money. And this is probably, like, I’m not saying that when things go back to normal, I’m going to do none. But I’m certainly going to do less of it. Because [losing speaking engagements was] all I was able to see, even though obviously people told me this.

Well, that’s the other thing. Sometimes, even events or experiences, we just already know or we’re already told, but we had to learn the hard way. But I was only able to see what I was getting out of it. Right? I was getting paid, I was going [to] cool places, I was doing things, [and] I was seeing the impact, the positive impact it was having. What was less clear was the opportunity cost. And I’m able to see now 30 days in a row, and clearly no plans for this to change, or no news that makes me think it’s going to change anytime soon, oh, actually, sort of, there are compounding gains, for real consistency and routine and structure and having the discipline to say no or not do other things, right?

And so it’s like, going forward now, let’s say someone emailed me and said, “Hey, do you want to come to this thing in Spring of 2022?” Ordinarily, I would have gone, “Oh, that’s found money, of course.” But now I have a much better sense of what that costs me. Because I have a much deeper appreciation for what the sort of normal day-to-day of it is and what I’m able to do inside that.

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, yeah, makes sense. And I’ve experienced largely the same. Well, Ryan, this has been fantastic. I’ve really enjoyed the conversation.

Ryan Holiday:  Thanks.

Chris Kresser:  And [I] have enjoyed and continue to enjoy all your writings over the years. Where can people learn more about stoicism? I know you have the Daily Stoic and a bunch of other cool resources.

Ryan Holiday:  Yeah, so there’s DailyStoic.com, which is a daily email. There’s DailyDad.com, which is another daily email, and both those things are at Daily Dad and Daily Stoic on most platforms. I’m @RyanHoliday, RyanHoliday.net. Yeah, no look, I really appreciate you having me on, and I was actually just thinking as we were talking, like, it’s been so awesome to watch you do what you’ve done over the years.

But I was thinking about that big confrontation that you got on, on the Joe Rogan podcast about your work, right? Like, that probably wasn’t fun, and it probably wasn’t anything you chose. But it ended up, I think it was sort of transformative for you. I certainly watched it expose your work to all these different people. And it was a challenge, but you rose to that challenge, and I think that’s the real thing that Stoics would say to us. They’d go, “No one is saying this is fun. No one is saying that you chose this. But it has been laid in front of you. Are you going to rise to the occasion or not?” And I think that’s what, to me, what was so impressive about watching you do that. It’s like when I saw theirs, I was like, “Oh shit, is Chris going to be okay?” And to watch you sort of step up and just nail the response, I was like, “Oh, yeah, this is what we’re talking about.”

Chris Kresser:  Oh, I appreciate that. It definitely did call on my, all of my stoic reserves to face that in the moment and afterwards. But at the same time, as you guessed, it actually really crystallized several things for me. Like what’s important for me, where I think I can make the biggest contribution, and how I should be spending my time and how I should not be spending my time.

Ryan Holiday:  Sure.

Chris Kresser:  And for all of that, I’m deeply grateful for that experience and don’t regret it at all. So it’s all grist for the mill. Right?

Ryan Holiday:  Totally. And as a writer, that’s the same. One of the perks of being a writer is that, yeah, it’s all grist for the mill. It’s all material. It’s all something you can use. And I think that if you’re an investor, if you’re an entrepreneur, if you’re a leader, if you’re a parent, all of this is opportunities to do what you do and to learn a little bit more about what you do. But you’ve got to decide to seize that.

Chris Kresser:  Yes, yes, exactly. And I want to put in another plug for The Obstacle Is The Way, which is a phenomenal book. It’s so timely right now. I mean, it’s all, again, it’s always timely. But, and I read it a few years ago, but it’s more appropriate now [more] than ever, I think. And so, and Ryan has several other amazing books that I also highly recommend. As an entry point right now for many people, I think that one is a great starting place.

Ryan Holiday:  Thank you.

Chris Kresser:  So Ryan, thank you again for everything you do. Stay healthy and well. My best to you and your family. And I look forward to doing this again sometime in the future, perhaps when we can maybe be celebrating.

Ryan Holiday:  Less than six feet away?

Chris Kresser:  Yeah, exactly. All right.

Ryan Holiday:  Nice, all right, man. See you.

Chris Kresser:  Take care. Hey, everybody, thanks for listening. Send in your questions to ChrisKresser.com/podcastquestion, and we’ll see you next time.

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