Returning to Ancient Wisdom

During college, all I wanted to do was become a Navy SEAL. I won an NROTC scholarship, got accepted into training, and was ready to start my career as an operator.

Unfortunately, once I got to training, I realized I didn’t want to become a SEAL, and I quit.

Not knowing what to do with my life, I looked to bloggers for help. I discovered Tim Ferriss, and decided that what I needed to do was build a passive-income web business and travel the world.

So I did. I started a (unsuccessful) web business, took off to Egypt to teach and travel, and tried to create the life I thought would make me happy.

The thing is, I wasn’t happy. None of the standard blogger advice worked for me. I felt like I would never have a meaningful career or professional life, that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.

So a few months ago, I changed strategies. I started to look outside the blogosphere for help. I began studying and practicing ancient religion and philosophy to figure out how to live a meaningful life. Over time, I added some structure to this project and began to blog about it: calling the whole endeavor the Ancient Wisdom Project.

Ultimately, I settled on the following rules to structure my efforts:

  1. Every month I identify one positive trait or quality I’d like to cultivate in myself (tranquility, compassion, etc.).
  2. I then choose an ancient religion or philosophy that I believe will help me develop that particular trait. These philosophies or religions must be sufficiently ancient (at least 500 years or so) and must still exist in some form today.
  3. After I match the religion with the trait, I select one practice from the religion to adopt for a 30-day period that I feel will be particularly useful. Ideally it’s a practice that I can perform on a near daily basis.
  4. Then I do the practice for a one-month period and study the ancient philosophy or religion in order to maximize the effectiveness of the practice.
  5. Finally, I write about the experience on my website.

For example, the first trait I wanted to cultivate was tranquility. After a bit of research, I decided that Stoicism would be perfect for helping me develop this trait.

I then decided to adopt one physical practice and one mental practice.

For the physical practice, I decided to take daily ice baths, (to expose myself to physical hardship), and for the mental practice, I chose negative visualization, the act of imagining all the ways your life could be worse.

Dale in an ice bath.
Dale attempting to look upbeat in a Stoic ice bath.

Over that 30-day period of ice baths and negative visualization, I learned the importance of managing my perceptions of external events and observed noticeable improvement in my daily anxiety level.

Over the past few months, I’ve explored many sources of ancient wisdom (e.g., in addition to Stocism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam). In this blog post, I want to identify several unexpected pieces of advice from these experience. I will focus, in particular, on advice relevant to your career.

These ideas are not what lifestyle designers will tell you to do, and they aren’t always as easy to follow as what you might find in the standard click-bait story.

But they’re based on insights that formed over thousands of years of cultural evolution, and therefore represent some of humankind’s best thinking on these issues.

I hope you find this advice as useful as I have…

Contrarian Career Advice from Ancient Sources

Tip #1: Don’t pursue promotions

Promotions are wonderful tool for companies to motivate its employees. They’ll say that if you work hard, you can get a raise and a fancy new title.

For many employees, this is a worthwhile pursuit. There is nothing like external validation and more money to make you feel good about yourself.

But there are two problems with approaching your career this way:

First, promotions are not within your control.

There are a few reasons for this. There are a limited number of positions and titles in any given company. You are restricted by the inherent supply of positions that are available to you.

In addition, someone else will ultimately decide whether you receive a promotion. It might be your boss, it might be a committee, but it’s not you. You can’t waive a magic wand and give yourself a promotion.

Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, teaches that you should only desire things within your control. Otherwise, you are doomed to be unhappy.

And what is within your control? Here’s what Epictetus, a slave turned Stoic sage has to say [Note: All cited passages in this section are from Epictetus]:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

Promotions don’t fall into the list of things you can control, therefore, you shouldn’t desire promotions. If you receive one, you’ll soon get used to the new title and larger salary and begin desiring the next promotion. If you are passed over for one, you will be unhappy.

The second major reason you shouldn’t seek promotions is that it is likely you will have to compromise something you value in order to attain one.

Are you a creative type in a conservative company? Well, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a promotion without hiding your creativity to some extent.

Do you like to work on your own but your company emphasizes teamwork? If you stop showing up to meeting, people will question your dedication to the mission.

The pursuit of a promotion will come at a price, and it will sometimes be a price you shouldn’t pay.

Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing.

Cal says that you should become so good they can’t ignore you. I agree that you should become “so good,” as that is in your sphere of control, but I say you should be indifferent to whether or not others ignore you. The Stoics would say instead:

“Become so good and stop worrying if others ignore you.”

If you happen to win praise and recognition for your good work, great! Just don’t let it get to your head. If you do good work and no one cares, be indifferent.

But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.

Tip #2: Cultivate humility

If you’ve ever taken part in a workplace gripe session with your friends, you know that the conversation usually includes complaints about “idiot coworkers” or “clueless management.”

The universality of these comments would make you believe that all employees and bosses everywhere are clueless or evil idiots whose only purpose is to make your work life miserable.

We know this to be false, so what explains this phenomenon?

When you say your co-worker or boss is an idiot, the hidden assumption is that you are better than them as human beings. You are not conducting a dispassionate analysis of their behavior and coolly explaining how they can do things better, you’re just being arrogant.

This arrogance is making you miserable.

The word Islam, means “submission [to God’s will].” Implied in this definition is that you are not the center of the universe, that you shouldn’t follow your own desires, you should follow God’s desires.

Dale learning islamic prayer techniques.
Dale learning Islamic prayer techniques.

Focusing less on yourself is a key component to humility. Islam reinforces humility by requiring Muslims to pray five times a day (the practice of Salat), which includes a physical act of prostration.

Islam didn’t just teach people to practice humility towards God; they also taught that it was important to be humble in the way you relate to others.

Rumi, a famous Sufi poet, once said, “The fault is in the one who blames. Spirit sees nothing to criticize.”

Criticism of your co-workers is not really about them, it’s about you and your own issues.

In my own experience, I found that by practicing humility, I became happier at work, or at least, less frustrated. If a co-worker did something I thought was dumb, I would ask myself “Am I capable of making similarly stupid mistakes? [Yes I am]” When I thought senior management was making a stupid strategic decision, I asked myself, “Do I know how to run a company better than they do? [No I don’t]”

Cultivating a humble attitude towards others at your work will yield better emotional and psychological results than venting at happy hour with your friends.

Tip #3: Ditch work-life balance in favor of sacred rest

Work-life balance is a hot topic at the moment. We live in an age of distraction and fluid boundaries between work and the rest of our life. We answer work e-mails at home, personal e-mails at work. “Leisure” doesn’t even seem that relaxing. I’m guilty of binging on Netflix for hours and hours on the weekend. When I’m done, I feel sluggish and unhappy. I’m not working, but I’m not quite resting either.

Modern advice that advocates work-life balance doesn’t go far enough. Even the term “work-life balance” doesn’t convey the importance of what we need to truly flourish as human beings.

What we need is something like Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

Shabbat begins on Friday night and ends on Saturday night. If strictly observed, you are not allowed to cook, write, or really do anything that would be considered work. You are also prohibited from using electronic devices, as that would be considered “igniting a fire,” (due to electrical sparks in the circuitry of the device).

Does this seem outdated? Overly strict?

I don’t think so. To truly rest, you need to commit yourself to activities that are meaningful and rejuvenating, and ruthlessly cut out those that aren’t.

When you can’t use your iPhone, buy anything, or even drive, you will naturally do activities that are inherently meaningful. You will spend time with your family, go out for long walks, have fun conversations over long meals (with food you prepared before Shabbat), etc.

It reminds you that you have a life outside of work, that humans aren’t “beasts of burden,” that our purpose here on Earth goes beyond your career or job.

Consider these words from Abraham Joshua Heschel, a famous Jewish theologian,

“The Sabbath is a day for the sake of life. Man is not a beast of burden, and the Sabbath is not for the purpose of enhancing the efficiency of his work. ‘Last in creation, first in intention,’ the Sabbath is ‘the end of the creation of heaven and earth.’

The Sabbath is not for the sake of the weekdays; the weekdays are for the sake of the Sabbath. It is not an interlude but the climax of living.”

Instead of complaining that your work is taking over your life, make some portion outside of your life sacred, so you can truly feel rejuvenated.

Cal says that to achieve a remarkable career, we need to learn the art of deep focus at work.

Judaism would say to achieve a remarkable life, we need to learn the art of deep focus at rest as well.

Tip #4: Pay close attention to your feelings

I’ve been a slave to my emotions about my work. During particularly boring work assignments, I’ve fantasized about quitting my job to start a passive income business and traveling the world. In moments of anger, I’ve wanted to yell at my boss, make a dramatic speech to my co-workers, and storm out of the office.

I found that most lifestyle design bloggers play upon these (normal) feelings and use it to promote bad advice that will lead you to make bad decisions. If your job is boring, they will tell you to quit for an exciting life as an entrepreneur. They will tell you to find your passion or travel the world regardless of what your individual circumstances are.

Your feelings are important, but you need to learn how to correctly assess your feelings in order to make good decisions.

For this, you should follow the Jesuit (a Catholic order) process called the “Discernment of Spirits.”

Father Kevin O’Brien, a Jesuit priest, writes:

In discernment of spirits, we notice the interior movements of our hearts, which include our thoughts, feelings, desires, attractions, and resistances. We determine where they are coming from and where they are leading us; and then we propose to act in a way that leads to greater faith, hope, and love.

We pay attention to feelings of consolation, “…an experience of being so on fire with God’s love that we feel impelled to praise, love, and serve God and help others as best as we can,” and desolation, “an experience of the soul in heavy darkness or turmoil.”

There are a number of rules to follow when practicing discernment that are unexpectedly sophisticated for a practice that is 500 years old.

For example, take the Third Rule:

“With cause, as well the good Angel as the bad can console the soul, for contrary ends: the good Angel for the profit of the soul, that it may grow and rise from good to better, and the evil Angel, for the contrary, and later on to draw it to his damnable intention and wickedness.”

What this says is that just because something your doing feels bad or painful, it doesn’t mean the activity itself is bad.

Say you’re on a particularly stressful project at work. You feel exhausted and frustrated, and you think you should quit your job.

A lifestyle design blogger would say, “of course you should quit! A job you love would never feel stressful or difficult.”

A Jesuit, on the other hand, would ask you if maybe these feelings are temporary, and that if the project is a good one, maybe it’s worth completing. It asks you to consider that maybe the “bad angel” is trying to trick you into abandoning a worthwhile effort.

You may protest that you don’t believe in angels or God or spirits, but that’s not the point. The point is that the Jesuits had an advanced process for paying attention to your feelings that will help you make good decisions and avoid bad ones. The process is careful, methodical, and more importantly, tested over centuries of human experience.

I’ve used discernment when assessing whether or not I should stay at my job. My job generally leaves me with feelings of desolation. It may seem obvious that I need to quit, right?

Wrong. Using discernment, I discovered what I needed was to do something meaningful and that it didn’t have to come from my job.

So what did I do? I started volunteering at a homeless-services organization. I spend a few hours every month serving meals to the homeless. This has provided an immense boost to my happiness.

Do I still have negative feelings about my job? Of course, but I found a way to make it tolerable, which gives me time to assess what I really want to do for my career.

If a 500-year old Jesuit practice can help me, an agnostic, it can certainly help you too.

Conclusion: The ancients were wise; you should listen to them

None of this advice is as easy or as sexy as the standard, “quit your job, follow your passion” advice that Cal has quite smartly pointed out is nonsense.

It’s not that lifestyle design bloggers are purposely trying to lead you astray; I believe they are really trying to help people have meaningful lives and careers.

However, their greatest weakness is that their advice is not time-tested. Careers are fairly new inventions, and we’re all trying to figure out how they fit with our lives, so the fact that there is lots of bad advice out there is not surprising.

The ancients did not attempt to provide career advice per se (though some did), but they did teach people how to live good and meaningful lives in a world that is often cruel and indifferent to our desires. This same advice which has helped billions of people over thousands of years is still relevant to our modern lives and, can help us navigate even modern artifacts, like our careers.

To live a good and meaningful life, you’re better off following the example of philosophers like Epictetus, Catholic heroes like Saint Ignatius, or Islamic prophets like Mohammed than you are of following advice from the latest lifestyle design blogger.

But what do I know? I’m just a 26-year old blogger.

Visit The Ancient Wisdom Project website if you want to learn how Dale applied ancient wisdom practices and concepts to identify the elements of true pleasure, start a business with minimal effort, and learn what the “true self” really is.