Stoicism is a school of Greek philosophy that’s been copied by religions, other philosophies and “fix-yourself” experts for over 4,000 years.
The Stoics were philosophers, mostly Greek, who sought a practical path to happiness. Readers of early Stoics, such as Epictetus, will find commonalities with Christianity and Buddhism, religions that were formed centuries later.
The philosophy has several central tenets, but this one matters most for me: Things could always be worse.
I’m going to tell you why this attitude is critical in business, how it’s helped me overcome fear and why Stoic principles are influencing the fastest-growing trend among business founders.
“Do This Thing Now”
Most philosophers—especially the modern ones—fail to give actionable advice. They discuss reasons and norms. They talk around a subject.
For example, if you asked most modern philosophers, “What should I be when I grow up?” they might answer:
“Well, it depends on your definition of ‘I.'”
Or, “It depends on your definition of ‘be.'”
Or, “It depends on your definition of ‘grow up.'”
Stoic philosophers gave directives: “You should do this.”
Ask a Stoic philosopher “what should I be when I grow up?” and he or she would have told you the answer.
Stoic philosophy has risen in popularity recently, mostly in the form of daily admonitions to expect the worst and celebrate the best. That’s useful. But that’s not the real value of Stoic philosophy. The real value is its advice is directive. “Do this one thing now.”
I built our mentorship practice—and wrote each of my four books—with that principle in mind.
Early in my writing career, a reader pointed out that I often said “don’t do this” or “this is wrong” without providing the right answer. I immediately realized that I’d been taking the easy path: Any idiot can take shots at a strategy, and that’s what I’d been doing. But a great mentor can take that complex topic, teach it in an understandable way and then have the courage to say, “Do exactly this.”
That’s not easy because giving directives means accepting responsibility for the outcome. But direction is the only thing that has value.
Critics get attention on Instagram. Authors fill entire books with arguments about one topic or another. Low politicians attack others’ platforms. Speakers deliver long summaries of research. Some of those things are even true. But none it has value unless someone can say, “Do exactly this.”
In a world overflowing with ideas, arguments and noise, the principles of Stoic philosophy are clear. They’re not opinion; they’re directives. The value of “do exactly this” is so big that it’s usually the difference between success and failure.
Ryan Holiday wrote “The Daily Stoic” to provide clear daily directives for life.
I wrote “Founder, Farmer, Tinker, Thief” to provide clear directives for business.
Then I built the Two-Brain Roadmap to make business directives easy to understand.
How to Use Stoicism in Your Life—And Your Business
Think of Stoicism as an operating system for your behaviors. Beneath the business tactics and strategies, Stoicism can be a platform on which you form long-term visions, deal with failure and “stay level” during the good times.
“The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.” —Seneca
First, when making a key decision or facing a problem, consider the worst-case scenario.
For example, when an important staff member leaves, it can cause a ton of stress. To overcome the stress, you have to pick it apart. What’s so scary about the staff person’s leaving? Maybe you’re really worried he or she will take all your clients or criticize you in public. So ask yourself, “What’s the worst-case scenario?”
Will the person really take all your clients or just half of them? What if he or she did take half? Would those clients leave all at once or over the next few months? Which clients would leave first? How would they tell you? Put yourself in the frame and really imagine that conversation.
Then, take action: What can you do today to keep those clients?
If the person criticized you in public, what would happen? How would he or she do it—a post on Facebook? Comments to your colleagues in person? What would be said? What’s the worst-case effect it would have?
Then, decide: In the long run, are you better to acknowledge that this might happen and take no action? Are you better to respond? Can you write blog posts now explaining why you do things the way you do? In other words, can you eliminate criticism by reporting your flaws first?
“When you first rise in the morning, tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous and cranks. They are all stricken with these afflictions because they don’t know the difference between good and evil.” —Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations,” 2.1
People act in their own self-interest. You do it, and so do I. That means everyone is the central character in his or her own play; it also means that no one really pays much attention to you.
But we project knowledge: We think everyone knows what we know. We assume intent: We read negativity into a text when there really isn’t any. And we self-center: We think everyone considers the effect of his or her actions on us. They don’t. But it’s natural to think this way.
When you rise in the morning, you don’t need to assume that everyone you encounter will be a jerk. But you need to realize that you will encounter jealousy, crankiness and ingratitude. Accept it, and you’ll handle it when it comes.
You might also consider the difference between a person and his or her actions. You’re probably familiar with the commercial slogan, “You’re not you when you’re hungry.” Low blood sugar is a modifier of mood and attitude. So is fatigue, stress, exercise and distraction. You can like a person and still dislike his or her actions at times.
“Set aside a certain number of days during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” … If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.” —Seneca
Prepare yourself for the worst, even while you hope for the best. Train yourself to deal with emotional stress by practicing physical stress in the gym. Visualize your worst-case scenario at every opportunity.
Take one day out of every month and fast. Wear the same clothes three days in a row. Place yourself in controlled situations of loss as practice for when the real situation arrives.
What would you do if you were fired today? What would you do if a new technology replaced yours next month? Immerse yourself in those scenarios. Our minds have an enormous potential to pretend. But the key isn’t to stay in a state of pessimism: It’s to solve problems before they happen. The real value of the Stoic mindset is the training opportunity: You can practice defeat and failure before they actually happen. Then, when they do, you’ll be ready.
Considering the worst-case scenario gives you the opportunity to do two things:
- Break the problem down into its component parts without the lens of emotion. This makes the situation solvable.
- Realize that even the worst case really isn’t that bad. In our society, entrepreneurs don’t starve.
Reading about the Stoics was life changing for me. I went from a high-stress micromanager to a focused mentor who can zoom out from the day-to-day stuff and see the big picture. My favorite is Epictetus, and here’s a shortcut: Read Tom Wolfe’s book “A Man in Full” to understand Stoic philosophy as it’s wrapped in a great story.
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The Four Fears of Entrepreneurship
The Beauty of the Bottom
My friend, I know the bottom all too well.
I remember staring down the barrel of a new year and wondering, “Is this it?”
December is always a low month in the fitness industry. But I used to wonder, “Will January be better enough?”
I remember Christmases where I mentally calculated the cost of every gift and thought about how many weeks it would take to pay off my Visa bill. I stressed so much that Christmas wasn’t a happy time for me. I thought hard about getting a “real job,” making the same money, leaving it all on my desk when I left for the night and getting a week off every year. I fantasized about a day where I wouldn’t have to open the gym in the dark and miss my kids while they were on holidays.
If you’re there, look around: You’ll see my initials carved in the bedrock. But you won’t see me. I’m long gone.
When You Don’t Have a Choice
I hit bottom in late 2008. I had missed two consecutive paychecks. The rent was due, and I didn’t have the money to cover it. My kids were growing up and I was never home to see them. And that’s when the Fourth Fear of Entrepreneurship hit me: that things were never going to change. That I wasn’t going to just “figure it out” one day. That being smart and being hardworking weren’t enough.
That realization saved my business—and probably my life.
Here’s what most people don’t realize about hitting rock bottom: It’s pretty liberating.
Many gym owners face tough choices in our Incubator program. If they don’t absolutely have to raise their rates, they won’t want to. They’ll have so much mental wiggle room that they’ll bruise themselves up, bouncing between “should I or shouldn’t I?” But when you need the money to pay rent, there’s no choice necessary. You just do it.
The most fatiguing thing about being in charge isn’t the long hours: It’s the burden of choice. Microgym owners start with a blank slate: Everything we do requires choice. Rates, equipment purchases, staff pay—these are huge decisions. But even the little ones are draining, and they can all add up to cause exhaustion. That’s exactly why Steve Jobs wore the same turtleneck every day and why most of the leaders in our space stick to the same breakfast routine: They eliminate the burden of choice.
Dan Ariely wrote about decision fatigue in “Understanding Ego Depletion,” but here’s the summary: Too much choice is a bad thing. When you reach your business’s low point, a lot of those decisions are made for you.
Raise rates or close down.
Fire the coach or starve.
Downsize or stop saving lives.
Admit some mistakes or let them become fatal.
Nowhere to Go but Up
When I found my first mentor, I thought I was looking for more choice: new marketing ideas or some other magic bullets. What I really needed was for him to say, “Do this one thing today. Then I’ll give you Step 2 tomorrow.”
Action was easy because I didn’t have a choice. Some of the greatest Two-Brain love stories of all time come from gym owners who have really hit bottom and are staring at a “last chance.” I remember Jennifer, a gym owner out west, saying, “I got through the hard parts because there really wasn’t an option. If this didn’t work, I would have to close. So I just did exactly what you told me to do.”
Other stories have started with the decision to close. I remember an owner named Jess telling me, “We’re too tired. We’ve been trying for too long. We just want to maximize the sale value of this thing.” So she went through the Incubator with her husband, made the business turnkey, and, hey—it wasn’t so bad anymore.
“You saved our business, and probably our marriage” she wrote me last month.
In both cases, success didn’t come from a new idea: Success came from the removal of choice.
The opportunity to “make it up as I go” carries the shadow of guilt: “If this doesn’t work, there’s no one else to blame.” That’s why, in the Incubator, we keep it black and white: Do this, then this. Make sure the foundation is solid, and then tweak things later—if you want to. Most people don’t. They don’t look back anymore. They just keep moving forward.
The beauty of the bottom is that there’s only one direction left.
I hope you aren’t there, but if you are, look up.
I built the Two-Brain Roadmap to keep you moving forward.
Other Media in This Series
The Four Fears of Entrepreneurship
Stoic Philosophy for Entrepreneurs
Why do entrepreneurs do crazy things?
Why do they cut their own throats with discounts? Why do they stop themselves from hiring help? Why do they badmouth the other gyms in town?
On the surface, there are many reasons. Underneath, there’s one: fear.
I know because I’ve been afraid.
While living in fear, I did all that stuff. I slammed the competition. I cut my membership rates for anyone and everyone. I even undermined my own staff. And all because of fear.
After working 1:1 with thousands of entrepreneurs around the world, our team of certified mentors has identified four key fears that kill entrepreneurs. On the surface, Founders are among the bravest people in our culture. These are the courageous entrepreneurs who start businesses and wear every hat while trying to make them successful. Under the surface, many are terrified. And that fear makes them act against their own values—and often their own long-term self-interest.
This week, I’m going to tell you:
- About the “four fears” of entrepreneurship and how to defeat them forever.
- Why it’s sometimes necessary to hit rock bottom before you can turn your business around.
- How to use Stoic philosophy to its maximum power to help your business.
In Part 4 of this series, Rebecca Boskovic of The Fittest Me will join us on Two-Brain Radio to talk about how she’s overcome fear to make incredibly big moves in her business and her life.
The Four Fears of Entrepreneurship (and Their Antidotes)
1. The Fear of Making a Fatal Choice
When you’re just starting out, or when you’re struggling, you know this: You’re only one bad decision away from losing it all.
Many people think that “the risk” of business ownership begins and ends with opening a business. But that’s not correct: Entrepreneurship means that every minute, every decision, every action is a risk forever. And any one bad decision could end us.
So we get stuck. We do nothing.
We suffer paralysis by analysis.
We avoid firing the bad staff member. We put off raising our rates until things are perfect. We don’t run an ad until we have the perfect copy. We don’t sign the lease until we’ve seen every possible location. And we never, ever quit the day job.
One of my mentors, Marcy Swenson, once told me this: “Chris, sometimes you’re being tactful. But sometimes you’re just hiding.” She was right. Here’s how you avoid the fear of making the wrong decision.
A. Mitigate the downside. Listen to “What to Do When It All Goes Wrong.”
B. Decide what you’ll learn before you guess what you’ll earn. For me, knowing that I’m going to learn a valuable lesson, win or lose, really helps me accept that I could make the wrong choice. So I decide on the lesson before I take action.
C. Create systems that will run the business without you. Because the biggest risk of all is that you’ll be hit by a bus.
D. Hire a mentor. They have been where you are. They are now living the life you want. They can save you over a lot of time, expense and heartache. They can guide you through the hard parts and help you avoid others. They can cut years off your quest to become wealthy.
2. The Fear That It Will all Be Your Fault
I remember one rough patch when I thought, “I’m going to make this gym a co-operative! Every member will get a share, there will be a board of directors, and they’ll hire me to be CEO. I’ll have my pay locked in and won’t be the only one with an ass on the line!”
Some gyms even take the step of calling themselves a “collective.” The gym owner tells herself that she wants to build a social community with decentralized leadership or some other lie. Really, she just doesn’t want to be responsible for screwing it up.
Humans are interesting. In most cases, we’re more worried about being blamed than about actually being at fault. Here’s how to overcome the fear that it will all be your fault:
A. Accept that you’re going to make mistakes.
B. Know that you’re going to correct them.
C. Have a long-term plan that will actually benefit from mistakes.
Just like you can’t really enjoy a car until it has its first scratch, your business can’t get stronger until you find out where the cracks are. Commit to growing as a leader and you’ll build a durable, “anti-fragile” business.
3. The Fear of Losing Control
All entrepreneurs sometimes have this thought. “I wish someone else would just fix this for me!”
So they take partners. Or they hire ad agencies. Or they give every staff person a small percentage and say, “You’re in charge of marketing now!”
(Yes, that’s two marketing examples. Because building an audience is usually the hardest part of a successful gym, it’s the part we’re most likely to try and outsource.)
But eventually, all gym owners realize their mistakes. Suddenly, they realize they’ve lost control and want to get it back by any means possible.
Or maybe, in some cases (like mine!) they’re so afraid of losing control that they never share any clients or any decision-making roles or any leadership opportunities.
I totally did that with my gym. I wouldn’t tell the other trainers how I was finding clients or any of the other “business” stuff. I was terrified that the other trainers would go start their own gyms, start training clients on the side or start, you know, taking control.
But I overcame the fear of losing control. You can, too. Here’s how to do it:
A. Document your operations. Get them out of your head.
B. Let your staff run your operations. Test them. Then evaluate the results.
C. Upgrade your operations. Test them again.
D. Repeat until you’re totally comfortable allowing other people to deliver your service. Then turn to sales and marketing. Document those procedures and start over.
4. The Fear That It’s Never Going to Change
This is the fear that actually saved my gym.
This was the fear that trumped all the others.
In 2008, I was actually still suffering from the other three fears. I was paralyzed into inactivity. I was hoarding control. I was terrified that my gym would fail and everyone would know it was my fault.
In 2008, I hit rock bottom. I’ll share the full story in the next part of this series. But in short:
I missed two paychecks in a row. The rent was due. My kids were growing up, and I was never at home. And it was never going to change.
In the next post, I’ll tell you how I overcame this fear, what I did about it and how I saved my gym.
The Shortcut out of Fear
Look, I know I said getting a mentor is part of the solution for each of these four fears.
That’s because winning at business means more than “finding the answer.” It means finding the right answer fast, recovering from bad decisions even faster and doing the hard stuff when it has to be done. In short, it means that knowing what to do is half of the solution. The other half is the hard part. And that’s the part a mentor helps with.
Other Media in This Series
The Beauty of the Bottom
Stoic Philosophy for Entrepreneurs
Humans do things for a reason.
You can’t improve a person’s health until you change his or her behavior. This includes your clients, your coaches and yourself.
The process I’m about to teach you is the result of all the current research on behavioral change. It’s the sum of two decades’ worth of study in changing behavior and making people healthy. It’s so important that I co-founded Two-Brain Coaching to help coaches learn the things that really change lives.
Everyone teaches cues and corrections; no one teaches how to change behavior—until now. It’s a fundamental part of our courses at Two-Brain Coaching.
8 Steps to Behavior Change
As I’ve said earlier in this series, behavioral change has to come before motivation, before adoption of a new fitness program and before adherence. Retention—keeping a client long term—is the result of mastering behavioral change. It’s a lagging metric, not a leading metric.
Here’s how to do it, step by step:
1. Start with a clear picture of success. No one joins a gym for the sake of joining. Ask every client—in a sit-down, 1:1 conversation—what his or her goals are.
2. After you get a clear goal, ask “Why?” until you get to the root motivation. You need to know what the elephant likes to eat, so to speak. In this analogy, the elephant is the client’s emotional mind, and the rider atop the elephant is the client’s rational mind.
3. Show the client your plan to get him or her to the goal. We call this the “prescriptive model.” If you read the previous post in this series, you can call it “informing the rider” atop the elephant.
4. Provide a 20 percent bonus. Show the client what he or she is already doing right. It’s easier to modify an existing behavior than to start a new one. I wrote about “head starts” in “Two-Brain Business” and “Help First.” It’s important to show people they’re already a little bit successful.
5. Find Bright Spots. Motivation requires success, not the other way around. Highlight wins early. Celebrate them. Make this a priority for your coaches.
6. Put clients on podiums. A podium is a victory over a previous best. It’s also a chance to step up and move to a higher degree of challenge. And it’s the best marketing you can do. Make your clients famous. Tell their stories.
7. Ask for the next goal. This is the step most coaches miss.
The fitness industry is changing. Selling the same thing to everyone means selling a commodity. But no one can compete with personalized delivery. Even if your gym sells only group programming, your program must be delivered in an individual way.
Gym owners in our Incubator program build out their Client Journey step by step. They plan every interaction with their clients in advance. They keep clients longer. They don’t sell memberships; they sell change. And they can make this righteous claim because they understand behavior.
In the next installment in this series, I’ll talk with Ty Krueger of Behavior Change Collective and Packerland CrossFit on Two-Brain Radio. He’ll give you some real-world examples of behavior change in action.
Other Media in This Series
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Changing Behavior: The Elephant and the Rider
Behavior Change: How to Turn New Year’s Resolutions Into Long-Term Success
What’s Holding You Back?
A mentor helps you build a plan and stick to it.
Entrepreneurship is cool now. Guys like Gary Vaynerchuk and Elon Musk make the dream accessible to the common person.
That means there’s more information, more help, more ideas than ever before. Every single day, an entrepreneur can choose between 1,000 new podcast episodes 2,000 blog posts or hundreds of new videos on YouTube. Access to information is no longer the problem. Everyone has enough good ideas.
The new problem is overwhelm. We fail to take action because we’re paralyzed by too many opportunities.
We don’t see how each idea or tactic or habit fits into a larger plan, so we take a shotgun approach to improving our business.
And we don’t have filters for the sources of our information, so we trust that everything on the internet is true even when we know it’s not. We want to believe.
A mentor’s role is to help you sort ideas—your own or the great ones you found elsewhere—and build them into your plan. Then a mentor’s role is to help you stick to your plan or shift it to match your strengths.
If you’re trying to build a plan without a mentor, this might help: a hierarchy of business knowledge and actions:
Examining the Hierarchy
Let’s start at the bottom: the lowest value use of your time and attention.
We all love motivational memes about business, but unless they clearly say “Do this one thing right now,” they’re useless. And even if they do say, “Take this specific action,” invest your time in something more valuable if there isn’t a clear path to increased revenue.
Don’t read rants. They’re just texturbation.
The next layer (ideas, tips, tactics and episodes) has value but also carries a huge potential for overwhelm. At Two-Brain, we publish every day. Every single blog post, podcast episode and video carries an actionable idea. Every idea has been tested and proven to work. But no one can implement them all. A mentor’s job is to help you identify where you’re strong and keep you focused on those tactics. A mentor who simply throws ideas at you isn’t helping (and is probably slowing you down).
The next layer of value for your time and attention is peer support. Online groups, masterminds, chambers of commerce and business mixers all have value. The best groups are curated for quality people and moderated for quality discussion. But it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between opinion and advice, and it’s definitely impossible to spot outright lies.
No one posts burned dinner on Facebook, and no one shares business failings, either. We actually tell our Incubator clients to take a short Facebook fast and only invite them to our private Facebook group in Growth phase, where peer support is more important. Any entrepreneurs group, online or in person, is only as good as its filters.
More valuable than peer support is actual education. Presumably, lectures and books and seminars are created by people who have actually been successful and are willing to share their tactics. This layer is more valuable because of the higher-level filters: editors, publishers and “stages,” like TED Talks. Presumably, someone who knows something is filtering out the bad ideas and noise.
But many good business books would make a great blog post (there’s not much past the first chapter), and the filters are lower than ever. My advice is to read (or watch) until the expert becomes repetitive and then move on. Even in a one-way educational monologue, you still have the choice to close the book or leave the auditorium.
The next layer is a two-way education: a dialogue. These are courses, seminars and workshops in which the hosts help the attendees apply the content to their specific challenges.
I no longer run two-day seminars where I get up and lecture because they don’t help. Instead, we run action-based Summits, where a speaker introduces a topic and then attendees apply it to their businesses on the spot. One of the best tactics I learned last year was to leave a seminar as soon as you learn one good thing and spend the rest of the weekend in your hotel room working on that thing. That’s far more valuable than amassing ideas and then taking action on none.
Filter and Focus
Now, all these things, put together, form a plan. To make an effective plan, you need some distance from your current situation. You need an objective eye. That’s where a mentor comes in. A mentor is there to identify what you really need and help you identify the best tactics, to provide the best support, and to supply the right amount of accountability.
For example, many new Two-Brain clients say, “I need more clients.” Then they’ll cite an Instagram tactic they saw in a Facebook group. But then they’ll say, “I don’t have time to do it.”
So the mentor guides them through the work that will get them more time first. That’s part of the Incubator.
Then the mentor says, “Let’s determine how we’re going to spend your time.” That’s part of building an annual plan, which comes at the start of Growth Phase. If the Instagram tactic will actually generate more clients, the mentor builds it into the plan.
From there, the mentor’s role is to help the entrepreneur fill time with the best courses, support and tactics for him or her at that moment.
Do you see?
You can try to do All The Things. Or you can invest your time and budget wisely—doing the right things at the right time to the exclusion of all the noise and overwhelm.
You can spend 2019 the same way you spent 2018: making guesses, trying to do everything and feeling overwhelmed. Or you can get a mentor. This is what I realized in 2008, when I found my first mentor. And it’s why I have a mentor today. As you become more successful, the choices just get bigger.
Click here to talk with one of our team members for free. We don’t invite everyone into our mentorship practice, but there’s only one way to find out if you’re a perfect fit.
Compromise is commonly taught as a virtue.
Sometimes, we get ahead by going along. We avoid confrontation. We cave in instead of standing up for ourselves. We fail to speak up. We “go along to get along.”
Sometimes compromise means that everyone loses.
Chris Voss is an ex-FBI hostage negotiator. His book “Never Split the Difference” was an exciting read. But more importantly, it was directive: We took away several specific scripts to use in hard conversations.
When you’re having a tough conversation (for example, you’re about to raise prices on your monthly membership), you have to remove emotion from the discussion first.
So sit down with the person affected by the rate increase.
Imagine his or her emotions are a big balloon between the two of you. Neither can see the other clearly through the balloon. You need to empty the balloon. So you pop it with a pointed question:
“So, you’re upset about the rate increase?”
Then you have to let the air out. Let the person vent. Let him or her talk for 10 minutes straight.
And then you have to do it again. You have to make sure the emotion is gone. So you ask another pointed question:
“You’re worried that your family won’t be able to afford the extra $20 per month?”
And you let the person vent again.
If necessary, poke the balloon a third time. Only when all of the emotion has been let out can you approach the problem logically.
The next step is to lay out the problem you’re trying to solve.
“Well, here’s where we are. I don’t think I have a choice. Do you?”
You’ll have to consider the next step in the conversation because many clients have opinions about business without any context or true knowledge. Like, “If you cut your rate in half, you’ll get twice as many people in here!” But they only have the consumer’s perspective. You don’t want to get into an argument. So you should tell them:
“Here’s the problem I’m facing. This is the only solution that will work. Can I count on your support?”
Voss wasn’t the only author to release a negotiation book in the last couple of years. He wasn’t even the only former hostage negotiator to release one! But Voss’ book is infinitely valuable because it’s directive. And that’s why I love it.
It’s also the reason Chris Voss will be our keynote speaker at the 2020 Two-Brain Summit in June.
Voss will arrive on Friday night and come with me to a meet-and-greet for entrepreneurs in our Tinker mastermind.
On Saturday, he’ll deliver the keynote to the 400+ attendees at the Summit. And after the keynote, Chris and I will do a live Q+A with the audience. Bring your questions!
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Best Lessons of 2019: The Power of Nice
Best Lessons of 2019: The Queen Bee Role