“The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman (Book Summary)
The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday is a book that offers 366 Stoic meditations, one for every day of the year.
Whatever your going through, there’s advice from the Stoics that can help. Despite the philosophy’s age, “the works of the Stoics have always been fresh and current,” as Stoicism is still highly relevant today. Holiday says it’s been “the doers of the world who found that it provides much needed strength and stamina for their challenging lives.”
The goal with this book is “to restore Stoicism to its rightful place as a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom.” If you’re looking to live the good life, this book offers daily doses of inspiration and wisdom.
Who Is The Daily Stoic For?
- Anyone interested in Stoic philosophy
- Anyone who’s looking for inspiration to take more action
- Anyone who’s seeking strategies to deal with life’s challenges
How The Daily Stoic Is Organized
As the subtitle implies, the book offers 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living. These daily meditations are Stoic quotes translated by Stephen Hanselman mixed with the thoughts of Ryan Holiday, one for each day of the year.
The structure is aligned with Stoic exercises in their three critical disciplines:
- The Discipline of Perception: How we see and perceive the world around us.
- The Discipline of Action: The decisions and actions we take, and to what end.
- The Discipline of Will: How we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world.
“By controlling our perceptions,” Ryan Holiday and the Stoics tell us, “we can find mental clarity. In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective. In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.”
Holiday dedicated four months to each discipline, all with a particular Stoic trait to develop in our own lives. In this summary, you’ll find the most important ideas of every month. Dig in.
The Discipline of Perception
The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not.
In all circumstances – adversity or advantage – we really have just one thing we need to do: focus on what is in our control as opposed to what is not… One thing will stay constant: our freedom of choice.
Ultimately, this is clarity. Whoever we are, wherever we are – what matters is our choices.
Serenity and stability are results of your choices and judgment, not your environment.
We must focus on where our power lies, and that is in our actions and judgments. We don’t control outside events, but we can control our response to those events. That’s where we must find clarity.
February: Passions and Emotions
Strength is the ability to maintain a hold of oneself. It’s being the person who never gets mad, who cannot be rattled, because they are in control of their passions – rather than controlled by their passions.
Reacting emotionally will only make the situation worse.
As the Stoics said many times, getting angry almost never solves anything. Usually, it makes things worse.
Imagine all the power you’d have in your life and relationships if all the things that trouble everyone else… didn’t matter so much. What if, where others were upset, envious, excited, possessive, or greedy, you were objective, calm, and clearheaded?
We can’t control our emotions, that would be an illusion. But we can observe them and discuss for ourselves whether we want to go with them or not. We can think before we (re)act.
“The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” As Marcus Aurelius said. One thing we can do to get to such a powerful calm mind, is not to desire anything that is outside our control.
Philosophy is intimidating. Where does one start? With books? With lectures? With the sale of your worldly possessions? None of these things. Epictetus is saying that one becomes a philosopher when they begin to exercise their guiding reason and start to question the emotions and beliefs and even language that others take for granted.
Perhaps we could say we begin our journey into philosophy when we become aware of the ability to analyze our own minds.
Just as you can walk plenty well without shoes, you don’t need to step into a classroom to understand the basic, fundamental reality of nature and of our proper role in it. Start with awareness and reflection.
Self-awareness is the ability to objectively evaluate the self. It’s the ability to question our own instincts, patterns, and assumptions.
At the beginning of any change lies awareness. If we can’t observe ourselves in our thoughts and actions, then how are we going to change?
This is a crucial realization. Awareness will help us practice the Stoic principles, but it will also improve while practicing. Start with daily reflection.
April: Unbiased Thought
If you bend your body into a sitting position every day for a long enough period of time, the curvature of your spine changes… The same is true for your mind. If you hold a perpetually negative outlook, soon enough everything you encounter will seem negative.
If there is one core teaching at the heart of this philosophy, it’s that we’re not as smart and as wise as we’d like to think we are. If we ever want to become wise, it comes from the questioning and from humility.
Our senses are wrong all the time! As animals subjected to the slow force of evolution, we have developed all sorts of heuristics, biases, and emotional responses that might have worked well on the savannah but are totally counterproductive in today’s world.
Part of Stoicism is cultivating the awareness that allows you to step back and analyze your own senses, question their accuracy, and proceed only with the positive and constructive ones.
We shouldn’t blindly trust our senses but test them. Test your impressions before you go along. That’s what Stoic philosophy is about, living with intention and living by core values. Not giving in to our first impressions that want us to do what’s easy and fun.
Stoicism is about looking at things from every angle. We want to see things clearly and objectively. And choose our best possible response in every situation.
The Discipline of Action
May: Right Action
The monk dresses in his robes. A priest puts on his collar… A Stoic has no uniform and resembles no stereotype. They are not identifiable by look or by sight or by sound. The only way to recognize them? By their character.
Our perceptions and principles guide us in the selection of what we want – but ultimately our actions determine whether we get there or not.
Our ambition should not be to win, then, but to play with our full effort. Our intention is not to be thanked or recognized, but to help and do what we think is right. Our focus is not on what happens to us but on how we respond. In this, we will always find contentment and resilience.
Little things add up. Someone is a good person not because they say they are, but because they take good actions. One does not magically get one’s act together – it is a matter of many individual choices.
Holiday shares a guarantee to have a good day: doing good things. Like in the compound effect, little things will add up. One good deed at a time, that’s all we can do.
It’s rather simple as Marcus Aurelius observed, “What is your vocation? To be a good person.”
June: Problem Solving
Obstacles are a part of life – things happen, stuff gets in our way, situations go awry. But nothing can stop the Stoic mind when it’s operating properly, because in every course of action, it has retained “a reverse clause.”
No one said life was easy. No one said it would be fair.
We have a choice: Do we focus on the ways we have been wronged, or do we use what we’ve been given and get to work? Will we wait for someone to save us, or will we listen to Marcus Aurelius’s empowering call to “get active in your own rescue – if you care for yourself at all – and do it while you can.”
This story embodies the flexibility and determination of Stoicism. If we can’t do this, then perhaps we can try that. And if we can’t do that, then perhaps we can try some other thing. And if that thing is impossible, there is always another. Even if that final thing is just being a good person – we always have some opportunity to practice our philosophy, to make some contribution.
Whatever happens to us, we have a choice. We can remain flexible and adapt to the situation, look at it objectively and see the different options we have.
Life is supposed to be hard. It’s a chance to get better. It’s always a chance to practice our philosophy. Every challenge we’re facing presents an opportunity for practicing patience, courage, forgiveness, and perseverance.
As we mature… we understand that stepping up and helping is a service that leaders provide to the world. It’s our duty to do this – in big situations and small ones. If we expect to be leaders, we must see that thankless service comes with the job. We must do what leaders do, because it’s what leaders do – not for the credit, not for the thanks, not for the recognition. It’s our duty.
It’s not enough to just not do evil. You must also be a force for good in the world, as best you can.
We’re not trying to ace tests or impress teachers. We are reading and studying to live, to be good human beings – always and forever.
Our job in this world is simple: To be a good person. Our duty is to learn to get good human beings. That’s what we’re here for. As leaders, we have to step up and do what’s right.
As Holiday asks, “Why on earth do you need thanks or recognition for having done the right thing? It’s your job.”
We tell ourselves that we need the right setup before we finally buckle down to get serious. Or we tell ourselves that some vacation or time alone will be good for a relationship or ailment. This is self-deceit at its finest. It’s far better that we become pragmatic and adaptable – able to do what we need to do anywhere, anytime. The place to do your work, to live the good life, is here.
Real philosophers… believed that what was said mattered less than what was done… The way to prove that you truly understand what you speak and write, that you truly are original, is to put them into practice. Speak them with your actions more than anything else.
Think about someone you know who has character of granite. Why are they so dependable, trustworthy, excellent? You might see a pattern: consistency. They are honest not only when it’s convenient. They are not only there for you when it counts. The qualities that make them admirable come through in every action… You become the sum of your actions.
Don’t wait for the perfect moment. It will never come. Instead, start right here and now.
Choose who you want to be, choose what values you want to live by. And then act accordingly with consistence like that person with character of granite.
The Discipline of Will
September: Fortitude and Resilience
As Seneca reminds us: “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress… If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”
It’s foolish to hope for good fortune. If you were to hope for one thing, you could hope for the strength of character that’s able to thrive in good fortune. Or better, work for that kind of character and confidence. Consider every action and every thought – think of them as building blocks of your indestructible character.
That’s the thing – someone can throw you in chains, but they don’t have the power to change who you are. Even under the worst torture and cruelties that humans can inflict on one another, our power over our mind and our power to make our own decision can’t be broken.
While we don’t control external events, we’re still able to decide how to respond to those events.
The Stoics had this concept of the Inner Citadel. It’s the fortress of your mind that protects your soul. We might be physically vulnerable, but our inner domain remains untouchable. Your mind can remain philosophical at all times.
October: Virtue and Kindness
We go through our days responding and reacting, but it’s rare to really pause and ask: Is this think I’m about to do consistent with what I believe? Or, better: Is this the kind of thing the person I would like to be should do?
Today, let’s seek to be better than the things that disappoint or hurt us. Let’s try to be the example we’d like others to follow. It’s awful to be a cheat, to be selfish, to feel the need to inflict pain on our fellow human beings. Meanwhile, living morally and well is quite nice.
When you seek to advance your own position in life, character is the best lever – perhaps not in the short term, but certainly over the long term.
What’s the point of winning at sports but losing in the effort to be a good husband, wife, father, mother, son, or daughter? Let’s not confuse getting better at stuff with being a better person.
You reap what you sow. Be kind and just toward others, and courageous and consistent in your actions. Stoicism isn’t about judging other people’s behavior, but judging our own.
“Does the light of a lamp shine and keep its glow until its fuel is spent?” Marcus asks himself, “Why shouldn’t your truth, justice, and self-control shine until you are extinguished?”
November: Acceptance/Amor Fati
Something happened that we wish had not. Which of these is easiest to change: our opinion or the event that is past? The answer is obvious. Accept what happened and change your wish that it had not happened. Stoicism calls this the “art of acquiescence” – to accept rather than fight every little thing.
No amount of prosperity, no amount of difficulty, is certain forever. A triumph becomes a trial, a trial becomes a triumph. Life can change in an instant.
No matter how much preparation, no matter how skilled or smart we are, the ultimate outcome is in the lap of the gods.
Let’s practice this perspective today. Pretend that each event – whether desired or unexpected – was willed to happen, willed specifically for you. You wouldn’t fight that, would you?
Look, you don’t have to believe that there is a god directing the universe, Holiday says, “you just need to stop believing that you’re the director.”
The next time before you judge something as good or bad, think about this for a moment: We can impossibly know whether it’s good or bad. We don’t know what the future holds. The universe is too complex to know the consequences of good or bad fortune. (Ever heard of the Maybe Story?)
And hey, acceptance isn’t passive resignation. It’s the first step in an active process toward self-improvement.
December: Meditation on Mortality
Philosophy is not some idle pursuit appropriate only for academics or the rich. Instead, it is one of the most essentials activities that a human being can engage in. Its purpose, as Henry David Thoreau said… is to help us “solve the problems of life, not only theoretically but practically.” This aligns nicely with Cicero’s famous line: “To philosophize is to learn how to die.”
Marcus Aurelius used to say that we don’t own anything and that even our lives are held in trust. We may claw and fight and work to own things, but those things can be taken away in a second. The same goes for other things we like to think are “ours” but are equally precarious: our status, our physical health or strength, our relationships. How can these really be ours if something other than us – fate, bad luck, death, and so on – can dispossess us of them without notice?
The purpose of all our reading and studying is to aid us in the pursuit of the good life (and death). At some point, we must put our books aside and take action. So that, as Seneca put it, the “words become works.”
Memento mori – remember you are mortal. We must keep in mind that our lives on this planet is limited. This is why the Stoics advised to live our lives fully, always aware that this life we were given will also be taken away, without prior notice.
Holiday says we waste too much time on unimportant things like watching hours of TV, gossiping, gorging, or wasting potential. Seneca said it best: “We’re tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers.”
It’s about time to do the things we want to do and become the person we want to be.
If you're intrigued by Stoicism, you might want to check out The Little Book of Stoicism – this practical book gives you a clear overview of this wonderful philosophy.
Alternatively, check out these book summaries:
- A Guide to the Good Life by William Irvine
- Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson
- How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci
Further Books by Ryan Holiday