Hello my friends today, my guest is Donald Robertson. Donald was born in Irvine, Scotland, and he became a specialist in teaching evidence-based psychological skills. Known as an expert on the relationship between modern cognitive behavioral therapy and classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Who merges those two things? And if that wasn’t enough, he was also interested in eastern studies and found a common thread perhaps to all of those a common root in stoicism.
His most recent book is called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius published this year in 2019. Part of what I love so much is that he brings to life these figures from antiquity, from ancient history, and helps us understand who they were, how they lived, and what lessons they have for us that are still relevant. In fact, maybe more timely than ever.
I hope that you enjoy this storytelling, this learning, this biography of sorts. And by the way, when we get to the end of this interview and I ask him for his insights and experience about the creative process and writing, I love what he shares. I hope you learn something and I hope you become a better person because of it and then use that better self you’ve become in service to others.
00:02:42 – What’s life about?
00:06:12 – Reading for the audiobook.
00:13:20 – Discussion of Marcus.
00:17:21 – More comfortable does not equal better.
00:21:51 – Why Stoicism didn’t take shape as Buddhism did.
00:41:27 – Life after writing this book.
01:08:57 – Lightning round.
01:38:50 – Exploration of the creative process.
How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness
All Donald Robertson books.
Donald Robertson website.
Bryan: 00:00:53 Hello my friends today, my guest is Donald Robertson. Donald was born in Irvine, Scotland, and he became a specialist in teaching evidence-based psychological skills. Known as an expert on the relationship between modern cognitive behavioral therapy and classical Greek and Roman philosophy. Oh my goodness. Who merges those two things? And if that wasn’t enough, he was also interested in eastern studies and found a common thread perhaps to all of those a common root in stoicism. His most recent book is called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius published this year in 2019 I really enjoyed it, and you’ll hear this in the interview, but part of what I love so much is that he brings to life these figures from antiquity, from ancient history, and helps us understand who they were, how they lived, what lessons they have for us that are still relevant. In fact, maybe more timely than ever. I hope that you enjoy this storytelling, this learning, this biography of sorts. And by the way, when we get to the end of this interview and I ask him for his insights and experience about the creative process and writing, I love what he shares. He talked about preparing some food in advance for himself and during writing stretches of days at a time eating nothing but boiled eggs, apples and coffee. It’s like, oh man, I’d be motivated to get my writing done too if that was all I had to eat. So anyway, I hope you enjoy this. I hope you learn something and I hope you become a better person because of it and then use that better self you’ve become in service to others. Donald, welcome to The School For Good Living.
Donald: 00:02:41 Thanks it’s a pleasure to be here.
Bryan: 00:02:42 Yeah, I’m really grateful you would join me for this conversation and I want to start with the question I ask all my guests to lead off. What’s life about?
Donald: 00:02:52 What’s life about? Well for me, you know, I think creativity is an important part of it, right? I as one of the main things I find in practice that it gives life meaning and also, you know, just to borrow a famous quote from one of my favorite philosophers, Socrates. Socrates in Plato’s apology famously says, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” So I think life is about understanding life, reflecting on it, like and trying to gain more wisdom and more knowledge about why we’re here and what we’ll do in the process of learning. The process of understanding is part of the goal of life itself, I think.
Bryan: 00:03:32 That resonates with me for sure and I suspect with many people listening to this. When people ask who you are and what you do, how do you like to answer that question or how do you typically answer it?
Donald: 00:03:43 That’s another good question as well because I guess it’s changed quite a bit for me over the years. My background originally was I studied philosophy at university and then I got into practicing as a cognitive behavioral psychotherapist. And so that profession is something that very much still identify with. Although I don’t do as much with a practice anymore. I tend to do a bit more coaching and stuff, but increasingly I spend most of my time writing and teaching about philosophy in psychotherapy. So I’m a cognitive behavioral therapist who integrates what he does with classical philosophy. I guess that’s how I’d sum up who I am and what I do.
Bryan: 00:04:21 Now. I haven’t studied this exhaustively, but I think there’s probably not a lot of you out there. Like this is a pretty, this is, you know, they say get rich in your niche. Have you found your niche?
Donald: 00:04:32 I think, you know, the thing is, I was lucky enough to find it quite early on, right. Quite a long time ago. Um, I feel blessed for that, you know, I mean, people spend their whole life trying to find a, a way of bringing their interest together. And I find that we have bringing together several things I was interested in and they clipped uniquely together and I was able to make a career or living a of what it did. I turned my hobby into my vocation, my career. And uh, yeah, like a, it’s a combined several subjects. So there’s not really that many other people doing it. And when I started off doing it, there wasn’t as much interest in it. And then luckily for me it kind of becoming increasingly popular. So, you know, I feel like we’re kind of on a roll now with stoicism as a form of self help, it’s become a fairly popular subject.
Bryan: 00:05:21 That’s my experience just poking around online and reading some of the conversations of where personal growth and development and leadership are, where that conversation is today. And by the way, I just, I just want to share this because this is very rare for me. Um, your book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. What’s rare for me is that I actually bought a physical copy at a, at an actual bookstore, which I’m just going to acknowledge myself for that right now.
Donald: 00:05:48 That’s awesome. You know, I think most of the copies are being sold seemed to me to be the audio book at the moment. You know, there’s, the ebooks become popular, but a lot of people increasingly seem to be listening to the audiobooks. So, yeah, I’m, I’m kind of pleased to see when people go and say actual bookshops and support for them so they don’t all disappear from the world. And I’m pleased when I run a bookshop shop and I see one on the shelf there.
Bryan: 00:06:12 Yeah, that’s, that’s awesome. With the audio book, I feel like I might be teasing the listener because I haven’t said much about the book yet and I will in a moment. Did you read the audio for the audio book?
Donald: 00:06:22 Yeah. Yeah.
Bryan: 00:06:23 How was your experience with that? I haven’t asked a a guest about this yet.
Donald: 00:06:26 Yeah, cool. Well, in terms of, you know, the whole process and stuff, well, I mean I can tell you a little story, but you know, like, originally my publisher really wanted a voice actor, a professional voice actor to do that. So we had to kind of, debate that a little bit and put the case forward for me recording it and Toronto. And it was kind of short notice because I was due to travel to Austria to do some research for my next book actually. And so we were cutting out that fire and I had to go into the studio here and it was long sessions. Um, you know, they told me normally they’d be doing a few hours, but I was doing maybe eight or nine hours just at the microphone reading the book.
Bryan: 00:07:05 That’s like an iron man.
Donald: 00:07:06 Yeah, tiring. Yeah. Like even just sitting on a stool for that amount of time it was doing my back in and stuff, but like we did it and I’m really glad that we did. Um, because I kind of wanted to, to put something into the, the audiobook and meant a lot to me, you know. And actually, when I was writing the book, I guess maybe this jumps ahead a little bit, but for me, I guess we’ll just knows that the creative process itself involves reading the book, allowed like from the manuscript. Um, so I, you know, I think, I guess I approached it right from the outset as if it were an audiobook and something to be read aloud and listen to.
Bryan: 00:07:43 Yeah. So, okay. So now we’ve talked a little bit about your experience with it and now I’m thinking maybe I ought to get myself that audio book as well to go along with, with my hard copy here. Who did you write this book for? Like why did you write it? Who’d you write it for and what did you want it to do for them?
Donald: 00:07:59 Well, I wrote it, whenever I write stuff now is insofar as possible I try and do it with my little girl in mind. You know, I just find that helps me a lot. Uh, it makes things a little bit more real, so much and she’s a bit young for this book now but imagine maybe when she’s growing up, like one day she may like potentially read it. So I was trying to have that as a kind of reference point. What would I want my own child to read? You know, like, Eh, you know, and thinking of it. So you know, what sort of advice like people want to pass down to their children. I think is kind of a useful perspective to adult to look at this kid of self help philosophy stuff. And you know, I, I’ve worked in this area for a long time and I’m lucky enough to have a lot of contact with my audience through the various things that I do, speaking at conferences and running online forums and running online courses and all this kind of stuff. So I get a lot of feedback, have a lot of conversation. So I’m lucky enough to have quite a good sense of who the readers are and the sort of questions that they typically ask. And so I have all that stuff in mind like from years and years of chatting to people, um, and thinking what sort of problems do people run into when they’re reading about this philosophy. What kind of questions do they typically have. And so that all those kind of experiences over the last 20 years or so, it kind of meshed into one. Gave me some reference point when I was writing the book. You know what, what questions are people likely to ask? I tried to create those.
Bryan: 00:09:25 I think you’ve done a masterful job at that because you’ve blended a very, first of all you’ve created a very readable book. You know, I love this story where you know, some of these were names I’d heard before but didn’t know much about to be honest and you really brought them to life. In fact, I want to ask you if you’d be willing to share a bit of some of these stories that I want to bring up as well as this, you know, these concepts of, I suppose they are cognitive behavioral therapy concepts, many of them. And then going back to the original philosophy and showing how they’re maybe not so different and then making it practical where we can apply it. And I just, I think it’s really well done.
Donald: 00:10:04 Oh thanks very much for saying that. I mean that was my goal. You know, I’ll tell you a little about the story actually then maybe helps put in context. You know, I was asked to write another book, this kind of an introduction, just doing philosophy and this is my sixth book on philosophy and psychotherapy and I’d already written, I kind of self help. Introduction to stoicism it’s called Teach Yourself Stoicism, The Art of Happiness. I wrote it back in 2013 I think it was. So I thought I’ve done that already. And there are loads of other books coming out now you know. Some are written by my friends, [inaudible] bunch of people have got books about stoicism and how to apply self help stuff. This is kind of been done like, but how can I write a book like this but do it from a different perspective. And one of the things that came to mind was, well you know, like I was saying a moment ago, telling my little girl and stories and you’re teaching people through stories is important to me. So, um, I wanted to try and write an introduction to stoicism that weave in with these historical biographical stories about Marcus Aurelius, Socrates and so on. Because I thought it made it more engaging and it helps present stoicism more also in a more realistic and and rounded way.
Bryan: 00:11:18 I think you’ve done that in an on a selfish note, you know, or self interested note. One of the things I loved that I didn’t, I didn’t expect, I didn’t know this about Marcus Aurelius, is that he was privileged to be very wealthy. You know, it’s part of this family has a lot of, you know, a lot of opportunities and things like this, but he never let that unduly influence him. In fact, in some ways he kind of renounced it, which I thought was kind of a parallel even with the Buddha of how you know, here’s this prince that you know, goes out into the world and meets with real issues and doesn’t just indulge himself in the comforts and luxuries that he easily could have. And in so doing not only, I think lived an exemplary life but also provides a model for others that lasts through generations. It’s pretty cool.
Donald: 00:12:08 Yeah. There are a lot of traces, in the histories actually, I think, if I remember correctly, there’s one little anecdote about how, um, the question of his wealth came up and he said, look, by being a claimed emperor, I no longer have any wealth because it’s now all at the disposal of the state. So his personal wealth now, you know, at least in his eyes became, you know, uh, at the disposal of the, of the Roman state. And so he wasn’t in the sense wealthy anymore as he would have been as a private citizen. And he also gave away a lot of his inheritance to his sister. Um, and he refused or a lot of bequests and so on, um, during the, he had to face two major wars during his reign and, and the Treasury was exhausted at the beginning of one of them. And we are told that he had an option and sold off many of his personal possessions and many treasures and from the imperial palace, gems and clothing and so on, in order to raise funds for the war effort. So has lack of attachment to wealth, may even have benefited him in a practical way in terms of supporting the war effort.
Bryan: 00:13:20 Well, and that was one thing that I just found myself. The deeper I got into the book, the more I really loved and admired Marcus and that thing about giving the inheritance to his sister. But also later when, I don’t know why or how this came about, but he had the opportunity to receive other inheritances and he would pass them to the next of kin. And I was like, no, I’m good. We’ll give it to somebody else who can use it more. I thought that was really cool.
Donald: 00:13:42 Yeah. And he like other, um, other Roman emperors or Roman nobleman and general would live very extravagant life. And you know, Marcus, like his adopted father, Antoninus Pius was known for, um, simplicity. Like he wasn’t pretentious. Like he, you know, he liked simple clothing, simple food, you know, had very basic needs. You know, like there are two types of, you know, some people the more money they have, the more they find themselves spending and those other people that, you know, even if they have lots of money, they increase their expenditure. They’re happy with the basics in life and he was like that. He was happy with simple things.
Bryan: 00:14:21 Yeah, I, I really admire that. And by contrast, you know, with his brother or half brother Lucius. His adopted brother. Yeah. This, this story that you told about the parties, like the party, like at least one party that Lucius through where they gave the, you know, when they served every course of, and the meat would come to the table that he would gift that animal to every guest and then the fixtures or whatever the golden, you know, candle, candelabra or whatever. Will you talk a little bit about Lucius and about the kind of an, as a contrast to how Marcus was, how was he and just like bring him to life for us a little, if you will.
Donald: 00:15:01 Certainly the way he’s presented in the histories is a really contrasting character. And I should say also, he’s kind of what Roman families were complex. Roman noble farmers were kind of a little bit complicated and so Lucius and eh, Marcus really is both adopted by the Emperor Antoninus Pius. Um, and Lucius Verus, Marcus’s adoptive brother, was about nine years younger than him. So we’re also told the Marcus kind of viewed him as a son and he actually married Marcus’s daughter. So he was his brother and his son-in-law.
Bryan: 00:15:36 This is sounding a little bit like Game of Thrones right now. Like I need a chart for this.
Donald: 00:15:41 Yeah, it’s like you need a diagram for or something. But we’re kind of told before he’s technically like legally referred to as his brother. He treated him more like a son and actually he would have been in line in a sense to succeed Marcus, he was co-emperor. So for the first time, actually in the Roman and Roman history, there were two emperors reining at the same time. Although Marcus was kind of the senior and Lucius Verus was like his subordinate lieutenant. But also that would mean that if Marcus had died, Lucius Verus would have succeeded him and his emperor, but he died relatively young, possibly from the plague. And, uh, he was the opposite of Marcus in terms of his character and he was very extravagant. He was kind of like a playboy character. He threw these huge parties. He had many lovers. He was genuinely portrayed as being kind of negligent in terms of, of his role, he was sent to the east to oversee the Parthian war and he really just delegated it to his generals and went off partying instead. Um, whereas Marcus was a workaholic and incredibly conscientious about everything he did, Lucius Verus seems to not really have stepped up to the responsibilities of his role and really just used his power and wealth as an excuse to have fun and go around partying and stuff like that. Um, but they both studied stoic philosophy in their youth and Marcus embraced it and Lucius seems to have kind of went to the lessons, studied under the philosophers, but then just kind of abandoned it, you know. So even though they both had a similar education that took root and one of those youths and then the other one, it didn’t really just ignored it.
Bryan: 00:17:21 I’m trying to do the thing where I’m anticipating what is my listener experiencing right now? What do they taken away? What’s the value in this for them? And I’m not sure what you see, but what I saw when I read this was where were, these can just be names from antiquity. It’s like what do they have to do with me? Why should I care? But what I saw was first of all that I think Marcus was, it seems to me he truly was motivated by a desire to serve and his workaholism wasn’t just his way of, it wasn’t his unhealthy way, unhealthy way of coping with stress or whatever risks I think many of us do. But in fact it was this, this willingness to really engage in an effort, even if it was difficult or maybe especially when it was difficult. That is part of at least what led to him dying. At what, 58 years old. So he lived a somewhat long life where here’s his brother by contrast who in some ways has, you know, he’s younger but he’s in the same privileged position and he chooses to use his resources in a very different way. A very consumptive conspicuous, ostentatious kind of way indulging in luxury that by contrast he actually dies maybe 20 years in age earlier than Marcus. And it’s like, I just, so I’m struck by this idea that even though life in our modern age is more comfortable, in some ways it’s easier than ever before, that that ease doesn’t mean it’s any better. And how can we follow Marcus’s example of really giving ourselves completely to something and having to make a difference, having perhaps leading to a longer life even. I mean, what do you take away from these two is kind of contrasting figures?
Donald: 00:18:55 Well, I suppose there’s a couple of things that, you know, that sparks, I mean one is just an observation. Marcus was also renowned for being quite physically frail and unhealthy for whatever reason, he’s quite active as a youth. And then, but then in sort of early adulthood he seems to have developed various health conditions that plagued him throughout the rest of his life, we don’t know exactly what they were. Some people believe he has severe stomach ulcers for example, had problems with these appetite and so on. So people thought he was going to die at any moment, like throughout his reign and they thought, you know, like the empire is resting on the shoulders of the sky, it looks like you could kill over and die at any moment. Um, and the, they saw Lucius Verus as being a much hardier, tougher, healthier character by ironically, he didn’t last as long. You know, so don’t judge a book by its cover kind of thing.
Bryan: 00:19:41 And by the way, the details you included about Lucius being fairly handsome, having blonde hair, even sprinkling gold dust in his hair to accentuate. Like, man, this guy must’ve been a real character.
Donald: 00:19:53 Oh yeah. Yeah. He seems to be quite charismatic in some ways and they, they seem to have been kind of grooming him to be the head of the military basically. Right from the out, Marcus wasn’t as interested in that side of things and he thought Lucius would be able to take over that side for him. It didn’t actually do a very good job over. So Marcus had to kind of step in and take command of the military as well. But the, the other way you can look at us was very simply, as Lucius had embraced a head on a stick lifestyle, but I mean, I think we can stay stuck on the account and say, you know, it looks like it wasn’t really making him happy. Right. Yeah. So he was partying and stuff. I think it’s, I hesitate to say this, but I think it’s because we’re not told explicitly, but it’s very strongly implied in the histories that he was, or perhaps an alcoholic. Um, like he really indulged in binge drinking and got into bar brolls and all sorts of problems. Um, so it looks like he by modern standards, he might be considered an alcoholic. And he was kind of racked with anxiety about his role as the co-emperor and so on. Whereas Marcus, although he kind of took more responsible, far more responsibility on his shoulders, um, I think he may see that he ultimately lived a more satisfying and fulfilling life because he felt that he was actually achieving something as he felt he didn’t have much choice. You know, the future of European civilization was literally resting on his shoulders, the, the fate of the Roman Empire. But he rose to the challenge. And although he had put up with terrible adversity in his life, you know, the, the plague for start and great personal loss, um, I think he had a sense that he was living a fulfilling and important life and doing something that was valuable. Whereas I think Lucius Verus probably felt kinda guilty about the fact that he was fracturing his opportunity away in the alcohol and partying was a form of distraction. If you’re like, a kind of bandaide to cover up the emptiness that was inside them.
Bryan: 00:21:51 That was the sense I got, you know, reading, reading it for sure. One thing I love about the way that you characterize these ancient philosophers is, I love this description. They were warriors of the mind. Whereas today, by contrast, it could, you could be, you know, forgiven for thinking that philosophers or today philosophers are merely librarians of the mind. Yeah. But this idea that people were really engaged in these questions and these practices as a way of living a life of virtue, a good life, a meaningful life. I read, um, I think it’s Dan Gilbert’s book. Uh, I might be getting his name wrong, but, uh, 10% Happier. And do you know, this book about meditation? So he talks about, I’m sorry, I think it’s Dan Harris. Dan Harris, 10% Happier, but in the book, one of the things he said, and you know, maybe he’s wrong, but maybe he’s right about, uh, Buddhism was not considered a religion until maybe 200 years ago when scholars started collecting, you know, these precepts and principles and put them together. As I read, as I read your book and I haven’t read a lot about stoicism or Greek philosophy or Roman philosophy or anything like that, but I found myself going, how did Buddhism take this path where it has become a world religion and stoicism seems like it easily could have but never quite did. What’s your view on why this collection of principles that can help us truly live a meaningful life never quite took shape like, like Buddhism did?
Donald: 00:23:26 Well that is a big question and actually I feel that the scholars don’t really have a definitive answer to that, but those are a couple of observations that we can make. Um, I mean it’s still, first of all, Stoicism was around for a long time. So from the time it was founded by Zeno of Santiam and Athens 301 BC to the last and more last famous story of the ancient world, Marcus Aelius happens to be from our perspective anyway, the most famous Stoic that is nearly 500 years, nearly 500 centuries, nearly five centuries during which Stoicism kind of thriving as a philosophy of life. And Greece and Rome, and then throughout the Roman Empire in general and.
Bryan: 00:24:07 Well, and by the way, Donald, sorry to jump in here, but distinguishing for our listeners that what we’re talking about here is stoicism with a capital S. As opposed to Stoic, stoicism or stoic with a lowercase S as many people know the word today.
Donald: 00:24:20 Yeah. That’s in order to have our language, like we use a names occurring Greek philosophy with a lowercase letter to to mean something. It’s almost like a caricature. So epicurean today just mean someone that enjoys food or something like that, right? Yeah. Whereas in the ancient world, that was our whole philosophy of life that embraced simplicity and the peace of mind is the goal and cynicism today means kind of being negative about things and pessimistic, whereas in ancient world, it was again, a philosophy of life that kind precursor of Stoicism. So this is true of many terms that we find in Greek philosophy and Stoicism has gone through this kind of degradation of meaning, so that it just means being unemotional as a coping style. Whereas actually came from originally whole massive, a philosophical system that endured for five centuries in the ancient world. Um, something far more complex than what the word implies today basically. So, um, yeah, like a, the, the meaning has changed over, over time considerably. So where are we saying I’ve lost the thread.
Bryan: 00:25:27 Oh, so we were talking about why this didn’t persist.
Donald: 00:25:30 Oh, why? Okay. Yeah. So firstly, it was around for awhile. I know, again, another comparison. There’s a Marxism psychoanalysis, you know, in modern terms maybe, you know, survived as philosophies or, uh, systems of thought for a hundred years or so. You know, the, that’s a drop in the ocean compared to how long Stoicism was a thriving philosophy in the ancient world. But it was kind of superseded that it, it seems to have been assimilated into other philosophical systems into neoplatonism, the philosophy that followed Platonism and what’s called the academic school. And then not long after that, Christianity became the, the, the dominant religion in the Roman Empire. And Christianity seems to have kind of superseded Stoicism as simulated some parts of stoicism into it appealed much more widely than Stoicism. So one of the things that people sometimes say is that greek philosophy wasn’t really embraced as much by women or by slaves, but mainly by educated males in the ancient world. Whereas when Christianity come along it purvis, it was much more pervasive in society. Women engaged with it, slaves engaged with it, people of all strata of society. Um, and so it became a much bigger cultural for us. And so you could say Stoicism got assimilated into other philosophies and then it was kind of superseded by Christianity. The other thing that people sometimes say is that maybe during the reign of Marcus Aurelius perhaps because of the plague and all the catastrophes, it looks like the, the, the population became kind of more superstitious and desperate in some ways. They were surviving this plague that killed 5 million people throughout the empire and they turned to magic spells and amulets and you know, so as a way of coping with the world, that just seemed horrific and out of their control. And so rational philosophies like Stoicism struggled to compete with the quick facts, can have an appeal of sorcery and, and religion and magical thinking and so on.
Bryan: 00:27:34 When you say that some parts of Stoicism kind of got absorbed by or appropriated or whatever by Christianity, what do you point to?
Donald: 00:27:44 Well by the way, quick side, the Stoics are actually in the Bible. Um, in the New Testament in the acts of the apostles, Paul goes to Athens and we were told that he speaks to a bunch of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers at the foot of the Acropolis. I would say, um, no, I mean they really are a bunch of things from Stoicism that look like they may have influenced Christianity. Um, but generally, funnily enough, stoic ethics, the idea of the brotherhood of man is there in Stoicism and treating other people as our equals and caring about humanity in general is, was a kind of radical idea in Greek philosophy. And it’s very much associated with Stoicism. And then we see that kind of laying the foundations for Christian ethics I think,
Bryan: 00:28:30 Yeah, I can, I can see that. You know, someone whose name you mentioned just a few minutes ago, Zeno, I want to ask you about him. Um, his saying about in the, as a merchant, right, who was shipwrecked and he later told this story after being shipwrecked that his most profitable moment began at that time. Will you, will you share a little bit about who he was and what that, what that story was? Why is, why is he an important figure?
Donald: 00:28:58 Well, I guess in a way you have to kind of mention a little bit about Phoenician culture in general. So the Phoenicians became particularly associated with the trade in a royal of imperial purple. So that’s precious. It was an ancient world dies of certain colors were sometimes difficult to obtain, not, not like today. The um, and this very rich purple dye that was used to, to die the, the cause of kings and emperors was incredibly expensive and highly sought after. It was notoriously one of the worst jobs in the ancient world to create this stuff cause you had to harvest hundreds of thousands of these sea snails and then they were fermented. And by hand you had to pick out the and this kind of tedious, like it always stinks to high heaven. So one of the grossest, most, you know, unpleasant jobs in the world was used to make one of the most precious commodities that was, uh, associated with the most powerful people in the world.
Bryan: 00:29:57 That still sounds a bit, there’s a little bit of capitalism in there. Yeah. This is alive and well today in some form.
Donald: 00:30:02 Yeah, it does remind me of some things in modern society. So, you know, it was probably reasonably wealthy and he was shipping less stuff that came from the sea or took a lot of time and effort to extract. And then, you know, like a lot people mentioned, well they had a stroke of bad luck and was caught in a storm and a ship sank off the coast of, uh, of Greece of course, of in nearby Athens. And so he saw the stuff dissolving back into the sea where it’s come from originally came from the sea, went back to the sea, you know, they impairment and how quickly all this dye just dissolve into the water and then it’s completely gone, you know? And that really, that whole concept really drives home the idea of how, you know, even the things that we labor after and cherish and price so much can be incredibly transient and fragile under certain circumstances. So this incredibly precious thing is all career wise, fortune was based on it just poof, like dissolve back into the ocean. And he was lucky to escape with his life. And at least in one fashion of the story he went to Delphe, which is near Athens, consult with the Oracle. And so the Delphic Oracle famously gave these cryptic messages that were supposed to be messages directly from the God Apollo himself. And most famous one perhaps is that the Delpha Oracle said that no man is wiser than Socrates. And Socrates went around trying to question that he, he said that this was the kind of inspiration for his philosophical mission. But Zeno did something similar. He went to the Oracle Delphi and it said to him that he should dye himself with, he should take on the color of dead men is what it said, which is quiet erie, you know. Strange message, so partly he was treating us as if we’re trying to figure what the hell actually meant. And he plopped himself down at bookseller, store in the Agona in the middle of Athens and by chance, he stumbled across this book, which is the Memorabilia Psychiatrists by Xenophon, one of the followers of Socrates. And he read part of it and he jumped up and said to the book seller, where can I meet a man alive today like Socrates, who’d been executed a few generations earlier? And I think at that point, perhaps he realized that what the Oracle ment was, that rather than dying clothes with this purple dye, he was to begin to dye. Color his own mind, his own soul with the wisdom, precepts of philosophers from previous generations, particularly Socrates who seems become a hero for the Stoics. And so as you know, when often trained in the cynic philosophy and the olive branches of Greek philosophy that were influenced by Socrates. And then about 10 or 20 years later, he founded his own philosophical school, which was a kind of synthesis of all the different philosophies he’d studied at Athens. And that that’s where Stoicism came from. But just another anecdote, but that like, you know what, fine, we said five centuries later, Marcus Aurelius is still talking about dying things purple. And he, one of the most famous passages in the meditation’s Marcus says that his imprecious sacred imperial purple robes, are just uh, sheep’s wool died in putrid shellfish gore. So he’s reminding himself that, you know, there’s nothing special about this, you know, it’s treated as if it’s really important, but it’s really just junk. You know, if I think of it were originally came from, um, it’s rotten shellfish guts that I used to buy this stuff, they still using this as a kind of metaphor, and he, Marcus also talks about this idea of dying his mind, coloring his mind if it was the move of ancient philosophers. So this is metaphor of dying things to sort of run all the way through the history of Stoicism, this find of a dye merchant.
Bryan: 00:33:54 And to think about, you know, the lives of these individuals thousands of years ago that if they hadn’t lived, you know and done where they did you and I wouldn’t be sitting here talking today, most likely. It’s pretty remarkable.
Donald: 00:34:07 Yeah, absolutely shaped our society and, and ways that people don’t realize, you know, I think when I’m talking to people about Stoicism, I noticed that’s very early on. The often people would say some of the stuff sounds kinda familiar, so might be the names. They’ve kind of held the Socrates vaguely and stuff. We’ve kind of heard of the Marcus Aurelius and some of the ideas seemed kind of vaguely familiar to them. And they’ve maybe even heard some of the phrases like they probably heard Carpe Diem was that the dead poet’s society? Robin Williams quotes it doesn’t he? That’s a quote from Horace, the Roman poet studied Stoic philosophy. It’s seize the day, it’s got to do with this idea of living in a way that has grounded and the present moment sent up to the here and now. And so people have kind of assimilated some of these vague ideas and there’s kind of what I call a sense of Dejavu about it but they don’t realize all of these names and fragments where once woven together into a huge system of thought. I say it’s like we’re, we’re, we’re looking around us and we see these little pieces of rubble and we noticed they’ve got some kind of engravings on them and findings and we think that’s nice, it’s interesting. And gradually we realize that we’re standing in the grounds of what used to be a massive temple thousands of years ago. But now it’s just little pieces of rubble scattered around. But in our minds we can kind of reconstruct what it wants to look like. Now Stoicism where kind, everyone’s kind of familiar with some of the fragments a little bit, but perhaps don’t realize that it used to be a whole systematic way of life.
Bryan: 00:35:39 Yeah. On, yeah, that’s right. That’s exactly the words that came to mind as you were speaking them as a way of life, way of living and, and this recognition that, you know, everything seems comes to an end or all things have their time and the notion of death as being one that’s very important in Stoicism. And it sounds like from your introduction from your life as well, where your father passed when you were 13. Would you be willing to speak a little bit about how that shaped you and then also what you’ve learned from Stoicism in your study of philosophy about death that’s made a difference in your life.
Donald: 00:36:16 I mean, you know, many people are very used to and you know, in the in Marcus himself lost his father when he was about, when Marcus was about three or four years old, we believe. So my father passed away from lung cancer when I was, when I was about 13 or 14 years old. And you know, it had, for whatever reason, I had a huge effect on my whole outlook on life. Um, and it made me kind of preoccupied with the whole concept of mortality and it really, it doesn’t affect everyone this way, but it sent me on a quest for a philosophy of life and a kind of quest for meaning. And you know, as it happens, the town I come from here in Scotland is the birthplace of Robert Darren is our national [inaudible] who was a Freemason and many of my friends fathers and Scotts were Freemasons and they didn’t tell us a lot, but I knew that my father had this kind of philosophy of life that was tied in with the Old Testament and, and certain virtues or values and so on from the symbolism that happened to have been influenced by Greek philosophy as well after he passed away. Uh, you know, I, I inherited some of his belongings. Not a lot of stuff has paper and some books about freemasonry. It has started looking at them and I couldn’t really make heads or tails of them, but I saw, you know, mentions of, uh, the Old Testament and mentions of Pythagoras, the philosopher and so on. And that started me reading more about Christianity and about also Agnostic Christianity. And it got me looking at philosophy, new age thought and all this kind of stuff. And as I read more and more, I became more interested in Plato and in Greek philosophy in general. I saw that as a kind of influence in the background shaping early Christianity as we mentioned.
Bryan: 00:38:09 What, why do you think that that was the direction your interest took you instead of something else?
Donald: 00:38:14 I don’t really know. I mean, I guess like, um, it might have been right from the outset that I probably saw some references to Hellenistic culture and Greek philosophy and in those free masonic books perhaps. And then some of the new age stuff I was reading was perhaps influenced by Greek philosophy. I read Alester Crowly, you know, the cultist, and he talks a lot about Greek mythology and so on. So I think it was the kind of bread at different influences or hides and some poetry that I was reading guided me to look at Christianity, but also to look at Greek philosophy and mythology as well. And, uh, I, you know, I got into neoplatonic philosophy because that was a bigger influence on an early Christianity. Um, as we, I became very interested in the, uh, what’s called the the Nash Commodity Library of Agnostic Christian texts. Um, so these are texts that were studied by early Christians, uh, scriptures that they had. And a little bit of trivia, but in one of those volumes that contains these, um, apocryphal writings, these Agnostic Christian scriptures about the apostles and so on. One of them actually contains an excerpt from Plato’s Republic. So, you know, in a parallel universe as well, you know, Christianity could have involved, evolved to have had a bible that had bits of Plato in it. You know, they only Christians had bibles as it were, they had Plato in them. Like bits of Plato’s Republic, Socrates is talking about virtue of. Then at some point, you know, the council of Nicea decided what was in and what was out in terms of Christian orthodoxy. And you know, that Greek stuff was, was removed by from from the collection scriptures that Christians studied. But it was there for centuries and as an integral part of what it meant to be a Christian. And so when I was reading about early Christianity, I realized that and I saw the connections, you know, and that, and then it became more and more interested in the, uh, the philosophy side of things and kind of less interested in liberal arts as it where. But philosophy as a way of life, I gradually realized that ancient philosophy wasn’t just as kind of bookish subject that we were saying a moment ago, but it was actually about shaping your character and living according to certain values.
Bryan: 00:40:38 Marcus, this you mentioned already was, you know, no stranger to death. And I was really struck by the fact that he had, first of all, that he had 13 children and that eight of them died. That is a parent, like, you’d never want to experience the death of your children, but eight of them. I was like, oh my goodness. How, how do you think your life is different because of, because of this book? I know this is a broader question, but also because of what you’ve learned, you know, from Stoicism as a way of life and mean clearly this is not just like a subject that you, you know, researched and wrote a topic on, but it’s, it is the path you’re following. But what if you’re taking a different path? I mean, how is your life different because of it? And how is your life and more specifically perhaps, so how was your life different because you wrote this book, I mean, it’s your sixth book. You wrote this one. How’s it, how’s your life different now?
Donald: 00:41:27 Well, I mean, how to kind of refer back to something I mentioned in passing earlier. Like when I was a young guy I was, I kind have multiple interests, so it was kind of interested in philosophy. I was interested in Buddhism and meditation practices and I was kind of interested in Freud and psychoanalysis and psychotherapy and understanding the psyche. But I, I kind of felt frustrated because these seem like several balls I was juggling and then they didn’t, cannot come neatly together for me. And I tried to bring them together by studying existentialism, which kind of combined the existential rate or some of them combined an interest in psychoanalysis with philosophy. But it didn’t quite gel with me and I didn’t see a simple way of connecting it with meditation techniques and some of the other psychological self-help techniques that I’d been studying. And then I stumbled across Stoicism and it just kind of immediately collect, you know, these distinct interests. I had all suddenly became one thing, but they all fell under one heading. For me, they were, Stoicism has the philosophy as a way of life, as the psychological exercises you can practice that you might find in Buddhism for example. And it’s the basis of cognitive behavioral psychotherapy as well as the inspiration from program to behavioral psychotherapy. So it gave me, from my, I guess it would have been maybe 23 or 24 or something at the time, it suddenly brought everything together in a way that allowed me to make sense of my life and it gave me a sense of direction. I felt a kind of relaxation, a weight lifted from my shoulders almost. And that’s been with me ever since, like, uh, I’ve had this kind of more relaxed feeling, you know, I’m less confused about things than I was when I was a teenager because it all came together for me at that point. And it gave me a way of coping with stress I think. And also like we were saying, you know, the unexamined life is not worth living and famous slogan of Socrates, it gave me a kind of excuse to carry on applying philosophy in daily life and you know, to go on this quest for a deeper understanding that actually served a practical purpose in life. So, um, you know, allowed me to, to have a sense of direction and also a system within which I could dig deeper and deeper into understanding the world around me. And I’d say that fundamentally that’s what it did for me. But also some of the techniques definitely helped me to cope with pain and to cope with anger, to cope with anxiety and eh, and I use those techniques also to help other people in my work as a cognitive behavioral therapist.
Bryan: 00:44:09 That’s, that’s beautiful. And thank you for sharing that. It’s, I love hearing how stoicism has allowed you to weave these different threads of your life together in a way that not only benefits you, but you’re able to share with others and benefit them as well. And somewhere in the book you mentioned that, that in fact these are spiritual practices and what you’re talking about and, and I love that toward the, toward the end of the book, once you’ve told these stories and explained kind of the setup that you start going through, not just what the, what’s the theory here, but what’s the practice like the things that we can learn. And apply. And I do want to, I do want to ask you about a couple of those, like the view from above and that, but before, before I do the last person that I want to ask you about, and it’s the last kind of what I see as the big story in the book is this one about Cassius Gaius Ivideos Cassius. And how he was someone that is, I understand this and you could tell it better if you, if you want, but that he, he basically became a rival to Marcus in not usurping power but taking power, starting to gather people behind him and that ultimately, uh, the part of this that I’d love to hear you explain is that unfolded is, is, is the way that Marcus has handled that in the way that Marcus basically forgave, forgave him and had no consequences and what the impact of his leadership where he could have been very punitive. But he took a totally different approach. And to me that was like just next level leadership. I was like, that is awesome. Will you talk a little bit about this whole story that I just like very badly summarized.
Donald: 00:45:41 Actually I think you summarized it pretty well. You know like so, oh, let me say the thing that will confuse people a little bit is this idea. I think that you could have more than one emperor at the same time. So Marcus for the first time as we mentioned, they are, they are already had the co-emperor Lucius Verus and then he died and he was meant to be, it was kind of sent to the east to command the Roman legions and the Parthian war after the Parthians had invaded Armenia and tried to have this war in the east. The Romans had to then to liberate Armenia and defend the province of Syria, but that the death of Lucius Verus kind of left a power revival to things that first of all, as we mentioned earlier, Lucius was kind have stayed away from the action and delegate to everything to his generals. So I can have one of the problems that that created was it made his generals too powerful and it made them kind of rivals in a way. People you know, would not show, look and say, well, why is this guy in charge? He seems useless. He’s just partying all the time. You know, the real heroes of this war are people like Lavidius Cassius who rose through the ranks and you know, became this highly accomplished, general achieved these stunning factories in the east. And so people are looking at this guy that can, maybe he should be emperor and instead of this loser that we’ve got is always drunk and partying. You know, it’s critically, and this was a slow burning thing that went on for many years. And then a couple of other things happen. There was a huge uprising in Egypt and the region who were garrisoned in Alexandria were defeated in battle by tribal warriors who were attacking them. And, uh, then Lucius Verus had to take his legions and go liberate uh, Alexandria from a siege. And in order to do that, he had to be granted imperium, which means they had the authority for kind of, because it was legal court, he has been granted the authority of an emperor throughout the eastern provinces and in the absence of the actual emperor. So now he’s, you know, because of the way things have worked, how he’s now in this position of being virtually an emperor himself. So there’s only really one on the state to take, which is to be claimed emperor, although, you know, Marcus’s in power and doesn’t want him to be a claim as emperor. Um, so he in 175 AD, that’s exactly what happened. The, uh, Objection Regina claimed, uh, it’s don’t the army to claim the emperor. So they are called one of the legions of claimed Lavidius Cassius Emperor. Now technically you had two emperors, although Cassius was only emperor for about three months, you know, because the civil war was put down and he was assassinated by his own officers. So, um, and we don’t even have any statues or the guy why, you know, he’s, he’s kind of forgotten, but he was more of a military hawk. I, my reading of events is that Marcus was fighting the war slowly and the northern frontier or the room had been, the empire had been invaded by huge coalition of barberry and northern tribes, um, who seize the opportunity to invade because the plague and the Parthian war had left the empire in a very, weaken state. Left the, the legions depleted and greatly weakened. So all these northern tribes banded together and cross the Danube, cross the Alps who fought their way down to almost the doorstep of Rome itself because a huge panic and empire and uh, and Marcus had to fight them back and liberate the northern provinces and that these wars went on an altogether for nearly 10 years along the northern frontier. And I think the perception was that Marcus was putting too much emphasis on diplomacy and negotiation, but he was trying to stabilize the region for the longer term good. I would say as the people thought it was too much of a dove, he was putting too much of a long game. Whereas guys like Luvidius Cassius probably just wanted to march up there and sloter everybody and put them down by force. Um, so there’s this kind of tension between two military policies, I think. And a, there was an uprising and uh, Marcus we are told, gave this quite remarkable speech reported by Roman senator into story and called Cassius Deo. And he gives us a full text or speech supposedly given by Marcus to his troops where he basically says a number of quite shocking things. He, the news had already reached Rome of the surprising and the Senate and Rome had freaked out, uh, the extremities, that kind of knee jerk response, they declared Luvidius Cassius a public enemy. They seized his assets and that just escalated things. So the population of Rome thought, now he’s going to invade Roman, the city. So everybody was panicking and it would have taking a couple, a couple of weeks for the news to get all the way to Austria to northern frontier by Korea. Uh, and, uh, for Marcus, a friend that one else was going on, or they, I will say to the empire, and he did the opposite of what the Senate did, he gives a speech where he officially stated, not only first of all, he prefaced it by saying, if I’d known about this early that someone who was impeaching my authority as emperor, I would voluntarily stepped down and appeal in front of a Senate hearing. And also to hear a Cassius is objections against me and answer them. And I would have let the Senate decide, which is a remarkable thing to see. Again, you know, some people may want to, yeah. Cause of the parallels with, with contemporary politics. Phraseology, but he, um, he said, I’d be willing to step down and appear in front of Senate hearing, you know, let’s talk it through. Um, but he, uh, he said, look, it’s too late for that now because Cassius is threatening to invade Rome by the was escalating that he said, ah, you know, I’m going to pardon everybody that’s involved in the uprising against me and let me do the extension obediently apart from people who have committed serious crimes. They said, you know, I’m going to, I’m going to assume the Cassius believes that what he’s doing is the right thing. And in doing that he’s referring to something he mentions many times in the meditations as a controversial idea. That goes all the way back to Socrates, the grand daddy of stoicism. And Socrates famously on the tour, he actually said, no man does evil knowingly and therefore no man does evil willingly. Because everybody believes that what they’re doing is right. In some sense, you know. Socrates said people don’t do bad things just because they’re kind of willfully malicious way, but in some sense some level, either they believe that what they’re doing is acceptable or trivial or the is actually justified and right. And that’s why Marcus says, you know, if you challenge people and say what you’re doing is unethical, people will usually be really offended by, because they believe that what they’re doing is justified normally. And Cassius believed that what he was doing was justified. So Marcus said, I’m viewed as a stoic. I view this more, not so much as kind of deliberate malice, but more as a misunderstanding, like as a moral error of judgment as it were. And so then my obligation is to try and educate the guy. I’d thrashed things out rationally rather than just take revenge on him or something like that. So I’m going to pause in him. I’m going to offer to discuss it, you know, and that way the short the troops go with front of them, live with the thought. This is a bizarre thing to do. In the past, it freaked out the most was his son Commodus, um, who we’re told, thought that they should have had all of the traitors executed? And in fact, after Marcus died, and Marcus was as good as his word, he even protected the family of Luvidius Cassius. And he did pardon who was involved in the uprising. But as soon as Marcus died, his son Commodus who succeeded to them as emperor had a, everyone involved in the uprising hunted down and burned alive at the stake is as traitors doing the opposite of what is his father’s teaching was. So Stoic say that um, the essence of anger is the desire for revenge. And they said this is unphilosophical or rational, you know, if we disagree with what other people are doing, our fundamental goal in far as both, which should be try it should be to try and educate them and arrive at a mutual understanding, not just punish them for the sake of it.
Bryan: 00:54:13 There, there’s so much wisdom in that I think in the humility that is in Marcus’s statements and that willingness to forgive, you know, as the initial response and to talk it through. And one thing that I, I was impressed by in this story is where you mentioned that Cassius was assassinated. He was killed by his own men. And when I looked at that, and you might’ve pointed this out in the book, but about how men who knew that they would be forgiven were more likely to kill the guy who, you know, I’m not saying that very well, but I think they probably wouldn’t have killed him if they all had their backs against the wall knowing they were all going to be, you know, hanged or burned. But because Marcus had given this blanket, basically this blanket forgiveness, Cassius’ own men were like, no, why are we doing this? And then killed him.
Donald: 00:55:09 They had no reason to fight, to have a pitch battle with the, the, the imperial army was, was Cassius. So they, I think they looked around and thought, look, dude, you’re the only guy that wants to have this fight, you know, and apparently you don’t want back down. And so they ambushed him and cut his head off. Um, and then they delivered it in a bag to Marcus and said, the war is over. Why, you know, we’re, we’re hoping that you’re going to be as good as your words and forgive us. And he did. He said, you know, go back home to you know, your garrison, your, your cities and the, you know, let’s go back to normal. And, and he toured all the regions to try and smooth things over. Um, he did exactly what he said he was going to do. But yeah, they, they obviously see Cassius was renowned for instance, he had a reputation as a general for being extremely strict. And he installed, he was very good at instilling discipline and trips that lacked discipline, but he did it by terrorizing them and punishing them very severely, which kind of worked. But it meant that those men weren’t particularly loyal to him when it was put to the test. You know, they were scared of him. But that only goes so far, like, you know, and when they saw the opportunity to finish him, then they weren’t scared of them anymore. They, so they would take a chance. Whereas mark has commended loyalty from his troops, not through fear, but because of respect. They loved him rather than fearing him. And so they were more likely to risk their lives for him because they actually believed in what he represented.
Bryan: 00:56:44 I think there really are so many modern day leadership lessons in that you know about, like you’re saying, fear and intimidation will only get you so far and many people might want to kill you. So, so look out and Marcus, by the way, when you said that they brought, they brought him Cassius’ head, in the bag as you tell it, he didn’t even want to look at it. He was like, just go bury it.
Donald: 00:57:06 Yeah. He said that he didn’t want to kind of celebrate. He felt that he’d been, he said that he felt that he robbed of the opportunity to sort things out with Cassius and resolve things rationally. Um, so I think he was very saddened, that happened and you know, eh, but that was the way that worked. So he was a rather have the opportunity to, to absorb things and smooth things over. Um, Epictetus by the way, the philosopher Epictetus the most famous Stoic teacher and the, the main philosopher that Marcus seems to be following, Marcus would never have met him. But Marcus’ teachers probably met and studied under Epictetus and he quotes Epictetus more than any other philosopher then we’d know he’d studied his, his writings, the discourses.Epictetus many strange things, many, many striking things. But one of the odd things that he says, he talks to his students very often. We have these transcripts of discussions he had with his students and he’s always talking to them about Socrates. And one of the things he says to them is that the main thing that they can learn from Socrates isn’t, his false of come method or the ideas that has been the soft things that you might assume he would say is that the main thing you guys could learn from Socrates is his ability to resolve quarrels. Why Socrates was renowned for being able to smooth over arguments. And that’s probably because he was asking people very challenging questions about their most cherished beliefs, the sort of thing that could be really irritating and would upset people. But he was also very good at remaining friendly with them. He was good at really challenging people without upsetting them and smoothing things over with people that get the feathers ruffled. And Epictetus is one of the main things you could learn from this guy’s actually his ability to quell arguments and remain friends with people. And this is something that most people don’t associate with ancient philosophy but friendship and the ability to show the exhibit, these kind of social skills was integral to many forms of ancient philosophy. It’s something that is Stoic really prized. So that goes all the way from Socrates right into Marcus. I really, it’s this desire and a sense of an obligation to maintain and cultivate friendships.
Bryan: 00:59:28 Yeah, I think that’s so beautiful. And doing it in a way that’s not just acquiescing, it’s not just being a pleaser, but it’s actually, you know, being firm in who you are and clear about what your values are while not, you know, grappling with, not retaliating against but you know, in some ways playing with receiving challenging. But it’s also, I mean there’s a real gift in that. It’s a skill. It’s awesome.
Donald: 00:59:53 Yeah. Actually there is a point when Socrates implies that the, you know, the real way to, to cultivate love between friends isn’t just by complimenting people. He says this to two young boys that he’s that are very close friends. He’s talking to them about the nature of friendships, not a dialogue called the comedies. And he says, um, you know, like the real way to cultivate friendships is actually to challenge your friends, but to do it in an appropriate manner. So they feel as if you’re there being improved by your company and friendship, not just kind of dashing out compliments all the time, which anybody can do.
Bryan: 01:00:27 There’s some, there is some wisdom in that for sure. And, and what, what I’m impressed by to having these conversations now, I know I alluded to this earlier, but the fact that these are real people, real places, real events, you know, as far as we know all of this and now if you go to these places in Europe, I mean yeah, there’s some historical, some very significant historical locations and things, but man, there’s a lot of glass and asphalt and steel buildings. And I think sometimes as a society we live as though we’re the only society that has ever lived that we’ll ever live. And I just, I’m really grateful that you’re bringing these principles and these ideas to a broader audience because I think it’s pretty evident the way we’re living as a society isn’t working and we need something else. And even if we find it, you know, in, in the annals of history, it doesn’t matter where it comes from I suppose. But this, this has a lot of potential to help to help people. It is helping people already, myself included. I want to ask if you will share a bit about this. The view from above is, to me that was like, man, that is so simple but so powerful when you talk about what it is, how we could use it, why we might want to, that kind of thing.
Donald: 01:01:35 Well, the Stoics have lots of psychological techniques and one of the things that attracted me to them is that they, they placed more, most schools of ancient philosophy from before Socrates even. But certainly from Socrates onwards, I, all the, most of the schools were ancient philosophy employ a number of metaphors to describe philosophy and what they’re doing. And one of them is a medical metaphor. So philosophy as a therapy, they actually call it a therapy for the soul. Marcus Aurelius says that his main stoic mentor [inaudible] convinced him that he needed therapy. Therapea, is the Greek word. So some people say, well, we were reading these Stoics and making them kind of through the lens of modern therapy, but they had this concept very explicitly. They had the terminology and the concept of a, of philosophy as a psychological therapy, um, based on a medical model. And so in my first book on Stoicism are listed some of the psychological techniques that they show. Um, there are about 18 or so distinct psychological techniques, a whole bunch of them that the Stoics talk about depending on how you choose to divide them up. And many of them have parallels in modern psychotherapy. So I wrote about that. Particularly parallels in cognitive behavioral therapy, but one that doesn’t really have a common parallel and model psychotherapy is the view from above. So often we don’t know the names of the techniques. This is a name that a modern scholar Pier Hadule, French academic used to describe a technique is very common and Stoicism, particularly Marcus Aurelius and also to some extent and other branches of Hellenistic philosophy. So the view from above takes a couple of different forms, but one is eh, Marcus talks about viewing events as I’ve seen from a high watch tower overhead or as from a helicopter view we might say today. And I think that’s, there are two things that reminds me of, one is the way we think of the Greek Gods looking down from Mount Olympus. So it’s a God like perspective looking down on human events as if we’re looking at ants scuttling around beneath us. And, uh, the other thing that it only recently dawned on me as the, this is kind of glaringly obvious, um, that in Athens, the high up part of the city called the Acropolis. It was like many city and cities as [inaudible] grew up around that. And there is a temple to Athena, uh, on top of the, [inaudible] temples and sacred buildings. So the ancient Athenians would’ve been very familiar with the view from the Acropolis, which is very similar to the way that Marcus Aurelius describes this view from above looking down on law courts and a traitors, people buying and selling things, people getting married and uh, you know, people arguing in courts of law and so all human life that there milling around, they as policies, it’s exactly what you see, the view of the [inaudible] from the Acropolis in Athens. So I think, um, this prospective was familiar in nature more than people instinctively knew that when you view things like that, you put them in a broader context. So they seem less imminent and less distressing. And there’s a sense of serenity that you achieve from this kind of high up elevated perspective and events. And that’s perhaps why the Acropolis was considered a sacred area. Uh, an area inhabited by the Gods. But it also dovetails with ancient cosmology. So the story is not a philosopher interest the nature of the universe as a whole trying to understand what was called ancient physics like cosmology. We probably call it today and they thought if we can try and envisage the whole of space and time, like trying to have that concept and hold it and our mind would be as close as we could get to empathizing with or entering into the main of God himself the name Zeus. What was it like to be Zeus? He has a vision of the totality of space and time. So we can stretch our minds to try and grasp, but we can picture it in the way that they imagine that Zeus might, that we have a vague idea. We can kind of get a hint of infinity and eternity in our mind and they thought that when we stretch ourselves in that way we achieve, I cannot detached perspective in the sense of philosophical serenity towards the events in life. It forces us to engage with the impairments of things, the limitations of our material existence and our own mortality. So it brings together several major fossil core themes. So I can one brand contemplative vision.
Bryan: 01:06:25 So is the idea, I mean I know you just described it about like envisioning from above a helicopter or a higher place, but is this in in advance of something like if I’m going to have a difficult conversation with my boss or is it something that happened in the past that was really distressing that I go back and replay from above and try and get some distance from? Or like how, how would the Stoics have used it or how could we use it to make a difference for our ourselves?
Donald: 01:06:51 I think it could be either, actually. I mean, mainly they seem to be implying it’s used to deal with events that are already bothering us, but it could also be used on a regular basis. Marcus actually he says us about several things in the meditations. He frequently says, um, you know, uh, to, he will describe a psychological exercise or a prospective and he’ll tell himself to do this frequently or to do this on a daily basis. So that seems to be a regular practice, right? Not just like a coping skill, but maybe something that he does every day. Perhaps it’s a bit vague about it, but it sounds like, it may have been something that was done on a systematic, regular basis. So that would imply it’s done perhaps in anticipation of events. But also I think as a way of coping with things that have already happened. As an aside, like are most, um, it’s not well known today actually. Although I, I recently just kind of had to, to read a new translation of what was once one of the most famous passages from classical philosophy. And it’s a passage from a book called The Republic by [inaudible] and this passage from The Republic is called The Dream of Sapio it’s [inaudible] Roman general, and it’s a beautiful show, relatively short piece of writing. And it describes this Roman general, um, falling asleep and having a dream. And when she sends in to the heavens and talks to one of his ancestors who was also a very eh, important Roman general, and he’s looking down from the sky on Africa, uh, the north of Africa and the Roman legions fighting the Carthaginians, which is a war that he was at engaged with. And he describes this kind of mystical metaphysical version. So this way, a piece of writing, the dream of Scipio is one of the most, was one of the most iconic and famous examples of ways view from above is very beautifully described. But it’s in Marcus, there really isn’t a scattered throat. Many other pieces of classical literature as well.
Bryan: 01:08:57 That’s cool. Thanks for sharing that. Okay. I want to turn our conversation now to the enlightening lightning round. So in this section I will ask you probably eight or nine questions. You’re welcome to answer as long as you want. My intent is to ask the question briefly and then be quiet. Okay. For the most part. All right. So question number one, please complete the following sentence with something other than a box of chocolates. Life is like a?
Donald: 01:09:28 I think I would say that um, life is life is like, a game or a sport. When you’re competing against another team or the Stoics would say a wrestling match where events are sent to test as like Ah, opponent a match or aspiring partner. And this is how the Stoics like to describe things. Marcus who in his youth, uh, trained as a boxer and a wrestler, uh, and they fought bloody towards using weapons and was very familiar with this way at looking at things and then the meditations decades later he says, look, when someone does something to offend you role and taking it really personally view it in the same way that you would if you got your, you know, kind of like head in the face or scratch during a wrestling match where you don’t get upset about it. You know, you, you’re, you’re just treated at a sportsmanlike manner, you know, you continue to engage with the fight and you’re just careful not to let your opponent do it again, so you prepare for it, you deal with it, but you don’t get overly upset about it. You treat it kind of like a sport or a game and Marcus would say, well this is how you should view the catastrophes that you’re facing during your reign. Like there are challenges sent to test you. Where are there opportunities for you to show your strength of character and to improve as an individual by treating them as practice, as character building if you like.
Bryan: 01:10:55 I love that view. All right, question number two. What’s something at which you wish you were better?
Donald: 01:11:02 Something I wish I was better, well, maybe this is going to seem like a strange as, I wish I was a better writer. Um, you know, I kind of stumbled into writing when I was a kid. I really enjoyed writing and then I kind of forgot about it and I was kind of by accident. I got into writing books and stuff and I started off doing it. Really just a real, getting my own thoughts clear on paper. And then as I wrote, you know, several books, like I’m working on my seventh book now, which is a graphic novel. I’m having to kind of take it more seriously as I kind of progress. Like it started off as a hobby and those become my, apart of my careers in a way in our way. And so you start to have to think more seriously about writing and with, it engages the reader and what readers expect. And you know, I have to use various techniques to, to, to make the rating, uh, more, uh, more engaging and more informative. Uh, so I, it’s like a never ending process. It was never my plan really to become a writer. And so I feel like I’m still catching up with myself a little bit.
Bryan: 01:12:11 That’s a pattern I see in all the most successful, whatever’s the most successful entrepreneurs. I never meant to be an entrepreneur. Entertainers, I never thought I would do this. Yeah. So tell me about the graphic novel.
Donald: 01:12:21 Oh, so about Marcus Aurelius, I mean, it is kind of by accident really. You know, I read a lot of comics as a kids and I love them. And then since then, I’ve never really been, you know, read many graphic novels and stuff and uh, uh, I met an artist who wanted to do some comics for me. So we did three webcomics about Marcus Aurelius and they center around Aesop’s fables and uh, kind of relating those to stoic teachings. So there’s a lot of depiction of some stories, but animals embedded within a, uh, an inclosing story about Marcus Aurelius in his use of philosophy and then uh, you know, are basically caught long story short, the publish sharps or those and said, could you do a graphic novel by chance. Wound up being offered a contract to, to with a major publisher to do a graphic novel about Marcus Aurelius. Currently reading Stan Lee’s book on how his great scripts for drive for a comic books and graphic novels and trying to learn a little bit more of what they are doing that. But I’m, I’m super excited about doing it cause I want to do something that would reach a wider audience, maybe a slightly younger demographic. And for people to kind of engage with these ideas in a format that you know is very different from the way that they’re usually presented.
Bryan: 01:13:42 Yeah. That’s great. I look forward to that. That’s pretty cool. Okay. Question number three. If you were required every day for the rest of your life to wear a tee shirt with a slogan on it or a phrase or saying or quote or quip, what would the shirt say?
Donald: 01:13:58 If I had to wear, um, well maybe it would say “the unexamined life is not worth living.” I think that’s one of my favorite quotes from Socrates or one of my favorite quotes from the Stoics is it’s not the things that upset us or opinions about them. That’s the thing that kind of ties, stoicism to cognitive therapy. There are problems with therapist used to teach that from Epictetus to most of the clients. So I guess that those would be two easy options for me. We went from Socrates and one from Stoics, but there are many probably many words I could choose.
Bryan: 01:14:32 Oh yeah. Well that reminds me and I thought it was something I read in your book. It just kind of brought that up for me. What’s that? Isn’t it Marcus Aurelius saying life is opinion something something. Yeah.
Donald: 01:14:42 He says the universe has changed. Life is opinion.
Bryan: 01:14:44 The universe has changed. Life is opinion. Yeah.
Donald: 01:14:47 Those are two of his favorite ideas or themes that run through the message. It’s kind of hard to explain, but in the Greek is like, um, just really like four words or six words. Um, so it’s very, very condensed. But he, he’s clearly referring to Hereclitis and adoption [inaudible] Like a, the impairments of all things, everything flows. The universe has changed. You know, everything is permanent and nothing lasts forever and life is opinion by that, he means that the Stoic doctrine from Epictetus, the, it’s our opinions, particularly on value judgments that determine our quality of life because they shape our emotions. So these are his two favorite philosophical teachings. He combines this little slogan.
Bryan: 01:15:31 Yeah, that’s, that’s powerful. Well, and on that topic, this is the other thing I wanted to ask back in the last section, but now it came up here. I’ll, I’ll ask you here, which is about emotion and in this term that you phrase like, and I know these were in Greek and then translation probably isn’t do justice to the concept being articulated and things like this, but a, the Greek or the Roman, the Latin, whatever this term of [inaudible] passions that things arise. Like they’re going to when we’re startled, when you know, something, surprises, whatever and something arises. But then there’s a choice. There’s a moment of awareness. A moment of choice, will you just, will you just talk about what was the view of this kind of emotional mastery and this idea that at some level emotions just arise and we can’t control them. But there comes a point where we can.
Donald: 01:16:19 Well, you know the one that the Greeks uses pro fai, which is hard to translate, but it can, it means the initial, the beginning of an emotion or that we translate this portal passions often by. It’s pretty clunky to on, right. I mean is the, the initial automatic emotional reflex that we have before we had a chance to think about what’s going on. And I think of that as being probably the, the stoics were responding to criticisms. So it probably, people said, well hang on a minute, but the like, no, all of our emotions are under [inaudible] control. You can’t just even the wise man, surely if someone runs up behind them and goes, boo, you know, he’s gonna jump, his heart rate is going to go up and stuff like that. I can’t control all of these emotions. And I think the story is with have said, well, okay, yeah, obviously it’s common to say that some aspects of our emotional involuntary reflex, like automatic and not under voluntary control, even the enlightened sees someone with a strong character and who’s completely, you know, and people have their own opinions and value judgments is going to have certain automatic emotional reactions to sudden shocks and things like that. And you know, like, uh, there’s a famous anecdote and a, a woman writer called Alice Galleass, um, about how he was on a boat once that was caught in a storm. And there was a Stoic philosopher, an unnamed famous Stoic philosopher on the boat and everyone was freaking out and panicking and crying and you know, pleading to the gods for mercy. They all thought they were going to drone. And a, the stoic philosopher was silent, but he was shaking and he looked frightened. So when they got safely to shore, uh, Galleass said to this guy look, you know, I know who you are. You’re like a famous Stoic. So how come you look scared? I mean, if you’re a player, you aren’t freaking out with everyone else, but you know, he literally, we’re going to screw off up. You turned quit pale. You know, you’re obviously, you know, almost as framed as the rest of us. And the guy explains him, will the stoic say that we have invalid even a seasoned sailor would turn pale and shaking in the middle of that storm. Right? Um, and he goes, you know, certainly a passenger who’s not used to it with automatic like, but the differences, the, I don’t continue to complain about it afterwards. Like I don’t dwell on or amplify by the anxiety by continuing to catastrophize and like tell myself like it was awful and so on. You know, I allow myself to experience the fear. I accept the fact that I’m shaking. Why uh, you know, I take a step back from that and that’s the difference. That’s what Stoicism will do for you. But the really striking thing about that is the way the Stoics conceptualize us happens to be very similar to modern cognitive theories of emotion, which also recognize that there’s this kind of what we would call an automatic, um phase and our emotional reaction that’s followed by a voluntary or a strategic phase in which we start telling ourselves stuff about our emotions and imposing beliefs on them that either dump them down or amplify them and store, at them in some way. And that’s where we can do therapy. Like we can’t necessarily stop the international response, although there may be some things we can do to modify that. Like, you know, through repeated exposure or confronting a situation, many times we will make a desensitized used, but we can change what we see to ourselves. A bit of saturation, how much we worry about, you know, how much we exaggerate and I might not, something we can learn to do with more rationally.
Bryan: 01:19:59 Yeah. There’s something I want to learn to be able to do more fully, more easily. And to be honest, I want others to too. Yeah. So yeah, that was me breaking my own enlightening lightning round rule by going deeper into something. But thank you for exploring that. I think listeners will benefit from that and I enjoy it too. Okay. Next question. What book other than one of your own, have you gifted or recommended most often?
Donald: 01:20:27 Oh Gosh, really? Um, these are great questions actually. You know, it takes me a minute to think the answer but I suppose they would be books on Stoicism. Um, and as a therapist of, of recommended, part of my job is recommending books to clients. Actually they tend to be evidence based, self help books for therapy. Um, I a book that I recommended a lot as a therapist was The Worry Cure by Robert Lee. He is well bet dated now, but I, there’s a big demand actually for books that help people to deal with worrying, the process of worrying. And that’s one of the few books that deals with it quite well. What was a lot about you know. And, uh, I, I often recommend books of Stoicism, like particularly, uh, I like to recommend The Daily Stoic to people, which is probably, I think at the moment the best selling book on Stoicism. Its co authored by Ryan Haugenstein and Steven Hanselman. So when and so it kind of got, I was kind of about what we doing for each day of the year and a commentary on a line.
Bryan: 01:21:26 Yeah. And Hanselman he’s, is he your, he’s an agent to right? Author, agent?
Donald: 01:21:31 Yeah. And he’s also the coauthor, yeah.
Bryan: 01:21:34 That’s awesome.
Donald: 01:21:35 He did the translations, actually Steve’s a big scholar and he translated the, the Stoic texts for that book and then Ryan contributed the commentary on.
Bryan: 01:21:45 Cool. Okay. Question number five. So you travel a lot. What’s one travel hack meaning something you do or something that you take with you and your travel to make your travel less painful or more enjoyable?
Donald: 01:21:57 Well, this is a great question as well. Like, I mean I can, I’ve got good as those are things, all these questions. I can tell you straight off the bat. My favorite thing that I take with me when I’m traveling, I will, there are two things, right? Um, I take a skipping rope everywhere, right? Cause uh, the, you know, a friend when I was traveling, I get frustrated that I will always be able to go to the gym and stuff. And I, I realized that it takes about practice to get into jumping rope. I’ve had quite a few injuries from, I have pulled my calf muscle, cracked my achilles tendon a few times. But once you, it’s like playing a musical instrument once you get used to skyping or jumping rope, um, then I just love the fact that you just need a rope that you can wind up in stack in your backpack and take anywhere in the world with you. And as long as I can clear some space in a hotel room or an AirBnB or whatever, I can go to a park or something. I just take my rope with me and I, you know, I can just jump rope for 10 minutes a day and you know, do some other exercises and stuff in it. I don’t have to find a gym to go to. I love the fact that it’s really cheap and portable. I guess maybe that’s my scottish, I like things that separate, you know, incredibly cheap. It costs five bucks for a skipping rope.
Bryan: 01:23:09 Is there any kind of brand that you look for or any characteristics of a skipping rope that you seek out?
Donald: 01:23:15 I don’t really know him, but I’ve been through a few, you know, I was quite fussy, I had about four before I found one I really liked, but I can’t, I’m not sure what, what brand it is. Um, but yeah, you just have to adjust them so that the right length and like I say it takes a little bit of practice again to, but also what I find is I love to listen to soul music like New Orleans soul. Like octane solo music when I’m um, skipping and then it becomes almost like when she gets into the mode. But it’s almost that you’re kind of like dancing to the music, you know, you can jump up and to say he didn’t take the music and stuff, so it becomes quite, you know, it’s kind of fun and my little girl loves it. She likes to kind of like watching me skipping and have a go at it. I’ll say, oh fine.
Bryan: 01:23:59 That’s awesome. I wonder how the hotel guests on the floor below you feel. Yeah.
Donald: 01:24:03 But you know, even those things you can do to help a little bit, like how you said, sometimes I’ll take a yoga mat with me and then I’ll put that down so there’s not as much impact, but yeah, it’s better if it’s not a wood floor above somebody else’s. Not as much on release if you have them in a car or something.
Bryan: 01:24:22 You’re the first guest in more than 50 guests who said either of those two things. Yeah, that is so thank you. Thank you for that. Okay, next question. What’s one thing you’ve started or stopped doing in order to live or age well?
Donald: 01:24:37 Oh Gosh, no, that’s a legit, yeah, I’m kind of easy it sounds to as well. But it does it a bunch of things that Stoic. So I’m almost reluctant to say these because they kind of become cliches for more than Stoics. I just find myself talking about my back though because people ask about them. So I usually take cold showers, um, once or twice a day, which, and the summer here we were having a bout for heat wave at the moment. So that’s not too whenever it’s right now, but in Nova Scotia in the winter it was a lot more challenging. Like it’s pretty cold. But I found that once I got used to doing it, two things are like, you know, people, a lot of people nowadays like to have a cup of coffee to wake themselves up in the morning. I get much more of a wake up from having a cold shower. So I’m like, if I don’t have it, then I kind of feel out that lethargic or kind of groggy by comparison. So I start to kind of, you know, crave it in a way of really giving myself a joult and a joult in the morning, coming more fully aware and awake. So something I’ll do is have cooled shows and I feel that that’s benefited my health. And also I notice in Canada, in the winter, someone, my friends are wrapped up in their jackets and things and I’ll still be walking around in a tee shirt because I know I seem to be less bothered by the cold. And then they, uh, the other thing is that the other cliched stoic thing is I usually fast, I do intermittent fasting. So normally just for like one or two days at a time, I can maybe once or twice a week, but finds it really easy to do a thing with. For me, the thing about fasting as the first few times you do it, you’re kind of thinking about it too much and you know, you think, oh, how long has it been no since I haven’t eaten. Then the fact just thinking about food makes you kind of hungry, but once you’ve done it for a while, it’s just becomes second nature and you don’t think about food. So I guess everyone’s metabolism is different but I can go two or three days. I barely even register the fact that I’m fasting. It doesn’t seem like a problem to manage, it’s pretty easy to do. And um, like, the science is solid. There’s a number of RCTs, randomized controlled trials that shore and traumatic fast and can be really good for you. Um, but also personally, I’ve been doing it for decades now and I know that if I go through periods where I stopped doing it, I definitely feel much less healthy. I feel a lot healthier um, when I’m fasting, I lost a lot of weight from fasting and I kind of feel less bloated and stuff. It’s kind of improved my digestion benefit and health and also save a lot of money. Don’t spend as much on my shopping bill. So that’s great. Fasting and cold showers a systematic way.
Bryan: 01:27:19 What’s one thing you wish every American knew?
Donald: 01:27:23 Ah, like, you know, a, I’ve got this know if it’s really a stoic thing. It kind of ties in. It’s more related to CBT. I wish everybody knew more about how fear and anxiety function psychologically. Um, it’s this kind of cliche thing of we should teach this to school kids. You know, I think children should learn how more about how their emotions work and how to, to manage the feelings. And we, the thing that we know most about really is anxiety. Like in psychotherapy has varying results for different types of problem. You know, it’s not a level playing field. So depression for example, is kinda hard to treat. Um, you know, we have relatively modest success rates in treating clinical depression, but for things like, uh, it’s what we call specific phobias, like an animal phobia or whatever, we have really high success rates like 90% success rate in a very relatively short space of time, maybe just a few hours of treatment. Then we’ve known for half a century now pretty much how phobic anxiety works and other forms of anxiety. Okay. A little bit more complicated, but related to that. So I wish everybody knew more about how anxiety function as the, um, the difference forms anxiety takes and uh, you know, how we can actually overcome anxiety. Uh, I can tell you in one minute like, you know, it’s common sense and a in a way. Um, so like if you take someone who has a cat phobia putting them, put them in a room with a bunch of cats that are heart rate will approximately double within the first five second or so. As if they were running really hard. Um, and then I’ll, I’ll tell a client that and I’ll say, what happens next? And they’ll look at that confused for a minute and I’ll say, I don’t know. I mean, I’ll say the ones who leave the room, what will happen if they don’t, like, if for some reason they stay in the room with the cats. And then they might say, well, you know, what goes up must come down. I guess the heart rate is going to have to reduce, I’ll say, how long does that take? May take 10 ,15, 20 minutes. It’s going to vary a little bit, but roughly in that time frame. And then if they do the same thing again, the next day the heart rate will go up and not as high as it did before and will reduce more quickly and the same the next day and same the next day until it levels off pretty much. And they extinguish or habituate their anxiety. So those are natural wearing off of anxiety when we confront the thing that we’re frightened of for a long enough under controlled conditions basically. And the reason most people don’t realize that is that we’re in, we’re anxious. We have an overwhelming urge to avoid the thing that’s provoking the anxiety. And what would reverse that would be if a parent or a coach therapist was with us encouraging us to ride it out. Oh, so that means thing is the presence of another person encouraging us to stay in a situation. And when we do that, usually anxiety. Yeah, it wears off in layman’s terms and we know that more reliably than just about anything else in the whole field of reception. Psychotherapy. We’ve known that for over half a century now. So I think every American, in fact, everyone, particularly young children should, should learn that simple, robust fact about how anxiety works and how we can overcome that.
Bryan: 01:30:40 Yeah. We’d be a healthier society for sure. The next question is about relationships. It’s about what’s the most useful or the most important relationship advice you’ve ever received and successfully applied?
Donald: 01:30:53 The most important relationship advice? Um, the most important relationship advice, I can give, I’m not sure where I got it from. Um, I guess I’ve probably got it somewhere over the years from books or training or talking to other therapists and so on. And it really comes from, you know, I feel like a lot of what I’ve learned about relationships comes from, um. I had my relationship with my daughter. Like, I think it’s a privilege to have the opportunity in life, to have children. And then, you know, when we, if we’re, if we have the opportunity to have children, it’s like a, a great chance to learn so much more about ourselves and about people and relationships in general. Like it’s, um, it condenses so many things. It’s like a little, you know, a perfect opportunity to learn more about other relationships I think. And um, you know, the thing I learned really about kids and that applies to people in general is, you know, to make a point of asking people, um, how do they feel, you know, not to take things for granted. So I would say to my daughter, you know, why, what’s the most annoying thing that I do? Um, like you know, I may say yesterday, you know, there was something that upset you, you know, well why, what would you like me to do or say if that happens again? And you know, it’s a mixed space too. Talk about feelings and to discuss it and a matter of fact way. And to do that, you have to pick your time so you can do it. When somebody is in the middle of feeling really upset, you know it’s often easier to do it the following day, a like no yesterday when we can only have that little argument or whatever got annoyed with me. Well how’d you get from, how can I handle that? They are I and so it becomes a collaboration. Why, you know, how can we, can I get past that? And nothing that applies to you know, relationships in general. Like it’s just a point of picking a time when it feels appropriate and both of you can take a step back from a situation and discuss collaboratively how you can learn from it and do with it. And I think many people just play, maybe don’t really take the time to do that. But you know what, for example, my daughter won’t say to me, you know, when she was really kind of upset and just having a time from the [inaudible] often do probably be tying our shoe laces or some, you know, putting on jacket on to go in the snow. Like, um, and I said to her, you know, what do you want me to do? And she said, well, um, wait, when you talk and you’re asking me questions, it’s kind of overwhelming and that makes me more upset. So I’m kind of trying to help her and stuff. But the fact that I’m talking and saying to much stuff is kinda like frying her brain about, cause she’s already tearful. And I said, well, do you want me to go in another room and leave you? And she says, no, I want you to stay with me but not can I, can I have me as many questions and stuff because it feels like it’s too much. And I, and then I, I thought, well, I didn’t understand that. Like, so now I understand how you’re feeling, right? It’s easier to know how to deal with it.
Bryan: 01:34:06 It’s one of those things that sounds like it’s so simple, but until you ask, you don’t know. Right.
Donald: 01:34:12 And I, I believe in general feedback is king, you know, in terms of teaching and designing courses and writing books. We’ll talk about the creative process. But I am a great believer in, and it takes courage to take feedback from other people and you know, obtaining feedback and relationships is the same. You know you got to make an effort. Um, you know, have the courage to ask other people what they think of how you’re acting and being and then listen to what they say.
Bryan: 01:34:41 Thank you. Okay. So the last question in the enlightening lightning round deals with money, which is, aside from compound interest, what’s the most important or useful thing you’ve ever learned about money or what something you do or don’t do with it?
Donald: 01:34:54 I don’t spend it. One of my friends is back in Scotland, getting used to saying you will never have money if you keep spending it. But, you know, of course, that was kind of what it’s for. But I, I don’t really spend a lot of money, you know, the things I spend money on don’t really change that much. Um, you know, change my life when I’m earning more money, have more money, I don’t go and suddenly buy more expensive clothes and more expensive food, you know, like I have fairly simple pleasures in life.
Bryan: 01:35:28 You take cold showers. You’re saving money on heating water. Yeah.
Donald: 01:35:32 Yeah. I don’t, I didn’t spend all the computer I’m using now is like, um, I got from a pawnbroker and I like, I use Linux instead of Windows. Um, so it runs faster than a Windows laptop. It allows me to use all the technology for longer. Um, so I, you know, I, I kinda like economizing and figuring out a little work arounds and stuff. My skipping rope is a lot cheaper than renting a treadmill or a gym membership and stuff. And you know, I, you know, I suddenly have a lot of money. I’m not the sort of person that thinks I’m going to go and splash out and you know, like buy a lot of stuff like. You know, I, I take pleasure in fairly simple things in life. So, um, you know, I, I think I just think about how I can obtain more pleasure from sort of cheaper, easily obtainable things rather than thinking of all the expensive things I’m going to buy if I suddenly got more money. I guess that’s also the ancient Greek way as like how can you obtain more pleasure from like the simple things in life as it were rather than always craving like more rare or expensive things.
Bryan: 01:36:46 Yeah, definitely. Okay, cool. Well, we’ll talk in about money. One thing that I’ve done is I’ve made a hundred dollar micro loan on your behalf to an entrepreneur who is in a, this entrepreneur is actually based in, uh, I usually make them to into entrepreneurs in India. This woman is not in India. Uh, oh my gosh, I’m ashamed to say that. I actually don’t know what country she’s in. I can tell you she’s 44 years old. She’s married. She has five children and she’s gonna use this to purchase cattle to increase her income from cattle breeding. I think she’s in, I think she’s in Kenya, but at any rate I’ve done that and uh, incase you care, I’m going to send you a followup email to thank you and it’ll have a little link in there, but that’s one small way that I’ve endeavored to express my gratitude to you for this.
Donald: 01:37:35 That’s awesome. Yeah, definitely. I’d love to hear more about, that’s great.
Bryan: 01:37:39 Yeah. Um, and, and I’ll put this in here so we don’t wait to try to squeeze it into the end, but for anybody listening, for somebody who wants to learn more from you, maybe they want to connect with you, what would you, aside from going on to Amazon or maybe to their local bookstore and buying a physical copy. What would you have them do?
Donald: 01:37:58 So if they just go to my website, which is Donald Robertson, all one word, dot name, so not a dot com but a dot name. Then there are like schools of obstacles on there with a lot of practical self health self-help advice. And there are free online courses that people can access and audio downloads, pdf downloads and things that they can tap into. And also I’m a member of a nonprofit organization called Modern Stoicism. Their website is modernstoicism.com and they have over 500 articles from people all over the world using Stoicism in daily life that people might want to read about. And they have free online courses and organize various events around the world as well to help encourage people to be use Stoicism to actually kind of build emotional resilience and improve the quality of life.
Bryan: 01:38:50 Awesome. Thank you for that. That’s great. Okay, so we’re in the last, we’re coming down the stretch in our conversation here. And the last part of this is is an exploration of the creative process of your writing. And when I get here, to be honest, I’ve recently revamped my question set. I actually deleted the whole thing. So I have on purpose, I have no question, no preset questions. So I want to invite you to kind of co-create the question or just talk about whatever you want for people who, let me just give this a little bit of a frame to it. Again, I think people listening to this, many of them, they want to do what you are now doing, which is sharing your ideas in a clear and compelling way with others in a way that they understand, enjoy and benefit from. Knowing that that’s what this portion is about. What insight, experience or advice do you offer to people who are either wanting to do this or they’re actually in process but haven’t managed to get across the finish line?
Donald: 01:39:55 Well, that’s easy as well. I think, you know, this is something I think a lot about and I talk a lot about, so there’s probably some specific things I can say and then not some more general kind of attitudinal things I had described. I would say the main thing is a more fundamental aspects of your attitude, so you have to think something that you’re passionate about, right? That’s the main thing. You’ve got to think something that you can get really throw yourself 100% behind and get fuse your yardstick. Of course you’ve got to dig deep and find it was meaningful to you. Like you know what seems important to you and even if it doesn’t seem like something immediately that there’s a market for the, you know, loads of other people are interested in. If you start working on that, you can find ways often to make it relevant to other people and to reach out a way that audience with her. But I started off working on Stoicism. There weren’t that many other people that seem that interested in it, but it seemed like a big deal to me. And as I dug deeper into, I found ways to make it relevant to other people and I reached wider and wider audience, and then things really started to pick up for me. But it all stems from the fact that that initial kind of fire in the belly was there. Like there was something that I, I would think about all day long, a big, I go to bed at night and a big dreaming about it, you know, it as my passion as it were, you can substitute for, you know, it becomes a vocation rather than something that rather than a chore, you know, you knew you were onto something. When you find yourself thinking about it all the time, even when you’re eating your lunch or you know when you’re lying in bed at night, you’re doing twice as much work, 10 times as much work on it cause it seems effortless, it just flows naturally. So finding your passion is main thing and then you know, what follows on from that, which means a lot to me and it’s something I’ve done over the years. I talk to people, um, about my subject all the time. So partly nowadays I do podcasts and like I taught, I would give a talk filled at a local library. Any opportunity, even if it’s a small audience, there’s not a lot of money in it or whether I’ll jump on opportunity if someone emails me about a subject and if I go to the barber and he’s cutting my hair and he says, you know, so what you doing, uh, these days you working today? What you up to? I’ll say I’m writing a book about philosophy or maybe I’m working in a blog article or reading a bit about philosophy and then I’ll get talking to the barber maybe about, uh, you know, and I’ll tell him why I’m interested in it. I’ll make it seem relevant and interesting too. So I talk to people right across the board about the things I’m passionate about and I try and make, try to find ways to make it seem interesting and relevant to, yeah. Most of the people that I meet and my daughter is kind of really interested in the subjects I’m interested in because I tried to find ways to make them relevant to a young girl.
Bryan: 01:42:48 How old is she now?
Donald: 01:42:49 She’s eight now. Yeah.
Bryan: 01:42:51 If you can make philosophy interesting to an eight year old, you’re doing something right.
Donald: 01:42:54 Yeah, yeah. Like, but it should be, you know, there’s just little stories and anecdotes that can make it seem relevant. So, you know, if you’re talking to people all the time about it and telling people stories, you’re cannot over time refine your pattern. Or is it where, you know, you’re figuring out that, that that’s boring or people do really relate to, and you’ll get rid of those and you’ll figure out that that’s, that make people their eyes lay up and make them seem engaged. And then, you know, you’ve got to reach an audience. For me though, you know, blogging, you know, I’d be working on things and I just suddenly get inspired and I’m trying to write an article in the middle of the night. Something that was interesting, the intimate and sometimes you get reactions, sometimes you’re doing overtime, you, you know, keep working away at it very in dozens and dozens of articles and you know, you’re building our social media following that way overtime, you know? And then eventually you start to, kind of get more engaged in running courses or writing books or doing things. For many people, I think it’s finding a passion, talking to everybody you meet about to putting it out there, whether it’s on Youtube or on a blog or whatever. And then it takes some time to develop a social media following and then you’re kind of up and running these days. I think.
Bryan: 01:44:10 Yeah. Again, it sounds so simple when you say it that way. And in a way I think it is that simple. But for many people, I mean, what do you think gets in the way? I know I’m asking you to speculate, but.
Donald: 01:44:23 Well, I mean, I’ll speak, I’ve spoken to many, many people over the years who are trying to get into a try to start businesses as therapists or get into writing books or whatever. Um, I mean, I feel a lot of time it’s because they’re not, they haven’t really found a passion. You know, they, there’s not found, they’re looking to outwardly what other people are doing. They think I want to be too. I want to be like Tony Robbins or whatever. They, you know, there’s just a thing that people say. Um, and then we’ll, how much of a passion can that really be? Cause it’s not coming from within you. You need to dig deep within yourself and find out what it is that really kind of ignites a fire in you. Not just look around you where you think other people are succeeding. You know, it’s not what other people seem to be doing and succeeding at it should be concerned. What really seems meaningful and important life changing to you deep inside. I think that they fall over the first huddle cause they haven’t really found their passion. So I think people need to dig deeper and ask harder questions and they’re more radical questions and find something unusual. You know, this is a cliche, but you need the unique selling point. You know, you need bring unique value to things. So if all you’re doing is kind of vanilla, you know, I want to have a podcast about philosophy, you know, it’s just going to be kinda general vanilla flavor philosophy. That’s probably not going to go anywhere. You need something that makes it different from all of the other kinda generic philosophy podcasts or wherever, or blogs. You know, what’s distinctive about, for me, I was kind of lucky because it was this kind of a mogile of classical philosophy and cognitive therapy that, you know, is a bit different from what other people were doing. And that happened to be my passion. Um, so that gave me a kind of unique selling point. But what I think is that many of the people I speak to don’t really have that, they will tell me what the, they’re, they’re planners, um, or you know, what the blog or podcasters and often there’s nothing that really makes that certain distinct from stuff that other people are doing. So I think [inaudible] they need to find something that’s more unique, more personal and more attention grabbing to get things off the ground. And it may just be they’ve got a very unique voice. So we’re watching things. Maybe they’ve got a unique sense of humor. There’s something distinct about it or it could be they’ve got a niche, you know, slightly different subject area on a combination of subjects other people aren’t doing.
Bryan: 01:46:50 Yeah, that, that makes perfect sense. Well then with this book, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, uh, not counting the index. Uh, it’s 270 pages. And knowing that life takes place, 269 pages, that life occurs in space and time. The work that you did to make this book a reality. Will you share with me what, how did you organize your time and what were the spaces in which you produced 270 pages of writing?
Donald: 01:47:20 So, I mean I’ve been, I’m not, I wouldn’t necessarily recommend what we are doing thanks to everyone else, but I’ll tell you exactly why I do, um, like how I find out when I am writing. First of all in order to write a book like that uh, the research for it has been going on from maybe like 20 years. Cause I’ve thrown myself into this subject. I’ve been reading about it, talking about it in talking to my barber about it. So when I sit down to write it, I’m drawing on experiences going back decades, it doesn’t just cannot come out of nowhere. Um, but then when I actually get the contract signed, then it’s time to start rating the thing. Um, I’ll um, kind of write an overview like, so I’ll normally do that for publisher any way you write and outline in the book and the chapter summary. So I have the kind of skeleton of the whole thing and then I’ll try and think about what are the key ideas that need to be on there. Why, what are the ideas that are going to grab people? What are the questions that people are going to have that they’re going to need to have answered? And then also think about what are the most dramatic moments? What are the little stories or, or that are going to stick in people’s minds? What are the ones that stuck in my mind? You know, what seems kind of dramatic or colorful that’s going to jump, can jump out of the pages, can keep people’s attention. So I think about how we can weave that and then make it relevant to the rest of the book. And then, um, in terms of writing, you know, I do believe in personalizing and kind of secluding myself, like I’ll go away and stay. I used to go away and stay in retreat centers or, and the like or um, a place in the countryside and different places for maybe two or three weeks at a time. And I’d wake up in the morning and start writing and then I’d go and do yoga or jump rope or whatever and then they’d go back to writing. When I go away I’ll, I’ll eat very simple food. I’m not buying lots of food or cooking. So I think recently when the times I went away, I just boiled eggs, drank coffee and ate apples. And that was pretty much, you know, for a few weeks I was doing. I would’ve done because it took minimal preparation, you know, bought a bunch of eggs, boil them all in one go. And then at other a few eggs, protein, a few apples, like drink a lot coffee. You know, so then have to think of it food or any other distractions and was writing day until it’s time to go to sleep again and I’ll do that and work away a weird thing I find was it didn’t, I realize after a while I didn’t really matter where I was because as long as I was in a hotel room or an AirBnB and it was kind isolate myself. So I started to become to AirBnB’s that were maybe a couple of streets away from where I live. And so you the host would ask, so where are you traveling from? I’d say well just round the corner. They thought that I was pretty strange, right? Was like if I’m in my house, saw, well bathroom could do with cleaning, or you know, like maybe I should cook some of the food that we’ve gotten in the freezer and the fridge or you know. I should really tidy up the living room , there’s endless distractions. Whereas if I’m staying in a hotel or an AirBnB room, it’s kind of like, there’s nothing to distract me. I can just focus on my writing. So even if it’s just two streets away from where I live, so that still works for me. Well that makes you look as thing to do. And then I’ll, I think that when you’re writing a book, you know normally takes around about a year and uh, you know after awhile you get so bored with reading the same stuff over and over again. The, it’s hard you, you read the chapter on, particularly if you want to be the whole thing cover to cover, it’s very hard to do that without your attention wandering. To like grit my teeth and try and concentrate or get halfway down a page and I’ll suddenly realize I’m thinking of it something completely different. Cause I’ve read this page a hundred times now. That’s kind of where my mind is. Just shouldn’t though. So while normally do is read aloud and I may even record myself reading aloud and play it back later towards the end. Once I’ve got, get close to having a final draft of the manuscript, I’ll pay somebody to come and read the whole thing cover to cover straight through to me. And then I’ll have a printer over all and I’ll go through and just mark up and like double lined spaced over under little notes on the week sentences, the, you know, it was my local bar maid Maria last time who read it to me and she was kind of interested in philosophy. So like again, just talking to everybody, I meet about philosophy and stuff. Uh, so she’d have some comments as well. And the feedback we really.
Bryan: 01:52:02 This is like seven hours of reading, like seven, eight.
Donald: 01:52:05 Oh, we probably, I think probably like two days, like, um, you know, with breaks in between and stuff like that. Probably over like a couple of days like um, so with breaks and stuff it’s maybe like 12, 14, 16 hours, something like that. Wow. Um, cause it’s hard to do it straight. So we do a chapter and then have a little break for 10 minutes wherever I go, a chat and stuff and to the next chapter. So, yeah. Um, and yeah, like just kinda like, and that helped me prepare for the audio book, which is increasingly important now, right. Audiobook sales are becoming bigger and bigger so as something that I think writers should be thinking about. What does that sound like when you actually read it aloud? But it also helps me get a bit of perspective on the book. And a sense you will notice things you just hadn’t noticed before. Like when you’ve repeated yourself or if there’s something you’ve missed out, um, you know, that you may not have supported when you were reading through the manuscript on a computer screen suddenly jumps out. Or you in your last need someone reading it to you and the, and also were things sound clunky or just don’t make sense. You, you just get a different perspective on it. So I, those are some of the things I would do. And also, I mean, to be honest, I should say, um, like how would I use when I’m properly, um, working on a book and writing, I’ll listen to a, like a self hypnosis, a recording that lasts about 20 minutes, um, like maybe every day. Um, that has came up. Suggestions are not about being really passionate, but the writing and feeling more creative and stuff.
Bryan: 01:53:46 This is like before you began the writing, not during the writing. Right?
Donald: 01:53:51 Um, yeah but well, like during the process of writing, I mean normally in the mornings, but sometimes I may do it later in the day. Um, and it just becomes part of the part of the process. I use auto suggestions, self hypnosis and although ways as well to try and help me get to right the right mindset.
Bryan: 01:54:08 That sounds like a very, uh, it’s a unique from the ways of writing I’ve heard others use. But, um, the thing about the apples and the eggs and the coffee especially like that’s just so focused, you know, I can see why you could create a work like this. It’s, that’s pretty, pretty cool. What else comes up for you that might be useful for someone listening to this? Either about writing, the act of writing, writing theory, the creative process, advice they might have heard as a writer that they probably ought to ignore, you know, like anything. Is there anything else that comes up before we just, uh, I ask my final question. We wrap up.
Donald: 01:54:49 I think the other thing I’ve mentioned to people can, we hinted that earlier is that feedback is king and, but at the same time, you know, you need to look within yourself. So it’s like squaring the circle you to do two, you’ve got like a lot things in life. It’s a balancing act between two competing forces. So on the one hand, I think it’s really important to short drafts of your work, maybe a chapter or a few pastures to as many people as you can and see what do you think of it as even to encourage criticism. So sometimes I’ll show people a chapter and say to them, well, what’s the worst thing about this chapter is there a bit of it that you, you, you know, if you had to, if you had to delete a couple of paragraphs from this chapter, which ones we do choose. There’s an interesting question, like a forced choice. If you had to delete part of, which would you delete. Um, and kind of like really kind of listen to people’s criticism but also to, you know, have faith in yourself and kind of believe in your vision. Um, and you know, like it’s a contradiction. Like you’ve got to kind of balance on the one hand listening to other people with like being able to kind of stand firm in your, your, yourself belief in what you instinctively feel as right. So juggling these two things I think is important. Um, I think it’s a mistake that people make if they never get any feedback or if they ignore all feedback, then that’s an error. That’s also, it would be a mistake to go too far in the opposite direction and compromise too much. Like based on what other people are saying and lose your kind of inner calm person and sense of direction.
Bryan: 01:56:19 The last question I have is, you know, my experience is that my inner critic can be very loud and I think for many creative people, that’s the case as well. If there was one statement, one phrase, one piece of encouragement that people could take that you would lead people with. That they could maybe write on an index card or a sticky note and put in their writing area or on their computer or whatever. That they might use to replace whatever negative self talk or whatever inner critic tape is playing for them. What would that statement be if they could hear Donald Robertson in their head instead of whatever bullshit they might hear instead, what might, what might Donald Robertson be saying to them?
Donald: 01:57:04 Well, I guess it was a couple of things that come to mind. You know, one of them is that look, the worst thing that can happen is that somebody says that they don’t like what you’ve written, right? And as long as you get that feedback early enough, you invite criticism, then you can just adapt to it. So you shouldn’t be frightened of it. So if you send out an early draft, you have chapter and people say it’s garbage, it’s all back to front, it doesn’t make any sense, then you know, it’s not a big deal. It just means that you have to, I, you know, revise what you’ve written and try, you know, test again. So worst thing that can happen is that people say they didn’t get it or they didn’t know why. And all you have to do that is just change what you’ve written to adapt to what they’ve said. You know, quite simple as I should be a viewers, just a matter of fact, part of the process and the more you get feedback, the more you get used to doing that. It doesn’t seem like something that’s very personal and very emotional. It just seems, you know, part of the process of working on something, like you get feedback, you’re similarly to it and you respond to it. It’s just a mechanical processes that work. And the other thing I think is helpful, um, for me anyway, is the, you know, like how many people do you really need to reach anyway? Like, would it be more important to write something like a million people read and they think it’s all right or the one person reads and they say it saved their life or a completely transformed their life, you know, and you know, if you not, I think that helps you to kind of dig deeper and think about what’s personal. You can you see something which are a few younger sales, are you a parallel universe read. It would potentially be life changing. Like you know, ask yourself very deeply like what would you need to hear as a younger version of yourself or another version of self? What would they need to hear? Read in a book to really blow them and transform their life. And if you can do that for one other person, then is that not enough to justify the process of writing it? You know, and if everyone else’s is kind of like may or so, so about, or does that really matter as long as you’ve kind of really struck home and had a big impact with a single reader. And that starts with asking yourself what would potentially have that kind of impact with you if you read and then you know like potentially somebody out there that’s like you and will respond in a similar manner. But then reality is if you do that, you probably find that you reach loads of people and have a dramatic effect on them because there are probably loads of people out there just like you. Like you know, maybe you don’t realize how many people get the same questions are facing the same problems as you in life.
Bryan: 01:59:52 Yeah. Thank you for sharing that. And, and I’m wondering, I just want to check in on your experience with this because over the last seven years as I’ve really pursued coaching, one of the things that surprised me, I don’t know, I don’t know when I quit being surprised is how many people think that their experience is unique. How many people think they’re alone in having, you know, these feelings or these thoughts or you know, these events that have happened to them. And you know what you’re saying is, there is a lot of universal aspects to us. For sure. Yeah. And, and I know I said this earlier, but I really did. I loved reading your book, so thank you.
Donald: 02:00:27 It’s been a pleasure, you know, I love talking about my hobby, you know, and so this has been a great opportunity to do that. And I really enjoyed to you, you know, your passion, uh, for the, for these, uh, for the interview questions and the subject. And, you know, I’ve had a great time speaking to you.
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