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Stoicism, Hockey, & Virtuous Selfishness

By: Michael Blankenship |

“You say, good fortune used to meet you at every corner. But the fortunate person is the one who gives themselves a good fortune. And good fortunes are a well-tuned soul, good impulses and good actions.”
~Marcus Aurelius

Greetings from LA and Hawaii.

This week we interviewed a 21st century stoic, found some great fiction books, learned why the best hockey players are born in January, discovered free resources for finding clients, and explored the virtue of selfishness. Our challenge is for you to face your fears.

21st Century Stoic

Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, writer, and trainer. He’s also the author of How To Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (a book we highly recommend).

This week we had the opportunity to ask him a question. We chose the following…

Imagine you’ve taken someone under your tutelage, a “disciple” if you will, whose goal is to learn and grow as a person. What is one of the first, most important lessons you’d try to teach them?

Here’s his response, edited for brevity:

“I think it’s a similar question to ‘What would you teach your child?’ One of the main things that I’ve tried to teach my daughter is how anxiety abates naturally, under the right conditions. We call [this] ‘emotional habituation’ and it’s one of the most robustly established findings in the entire field of research on psychotherapy. It’s been the basis for what we call ‘exposure therapy’ for well over half a century now. Here’s a good example: If you take someone with a cat phobia and put them in a room with a cat, what happens to their heart rate? It goes up. In fact, it will probably nearly double within less than ten seconds, as if they were running pretty hard. Heart rate is easy to measure and is, in fact, a very good, if not perfect, a measure of acute anxiety.

Here’s the real question, though: What happens next? Well, they’ll probably feel a strong urge to escape from the situation, for example, by running out of the room. Avoidance is perhaps the most common coping strategy. That’s because it reduces anxiety very quickly and very reliably. However, it often leaves us just as prone to anxiety, if not more so, in the long term. What if they don’t run away, though, but remain in the room and face their fears? Well, their heart rate will normally go back down eventually, right? After how long? That varies, but maybe five, ten, or fifteen minutes — perhaps a bit longer…

What happens next time they go in a room with a cat? Their anxiety will go up again, for sure, but probably not as high as before, and it will probably abate somewhat more quickly. If their exposure to the cat is repeated and prolonged enough, maybe only a few hours in total, they will usually extinguish it more or less completely, and permanently. That’s emotional habituation… Anxiety wears off naturally, through repeated, prolonged exposure, as long as there aren’t complicating factors maintaining it… Many people simply don’t realize that this is how anxiety works, though, and so they rely on avoidance as a way of coping, which is ultimately counterproductive because running away from your fears is likely to cause you more anxiety in the long term than approaching them in the right way, and allowing your anxiety to wear off naturally.”

To learn more about exposure therapy and how you can use it in your own life, check out this resource from Anxiety Canada — it provides some practical methods for overcoming your fears.

And if you want to read more from Donald Robertson, here are a few of his blog articles that we enjoyed:

Fantastic Fiction

Although most of what we read is nonfiction, there’s certainly some merit to sitting down to read a good fiction book. It reduces stress, improves vocabulary, and it might even make you more empathetic. If nothing else, it’s a great way to relax.

And here are the 20 best novels of the decade, according to Literary Hub.


Could something as seemingly insignificant as birth month have an impact on how successful you become at a given pursuit in your adulthood?

“In any elite group of hockey players,” Malcolm Gladwell writes in Outliers: The Story of Success, “40 percent of the players will have been born between January and March, 30 percent between April and June, 20 percent between July and September, and 10 percent between October and December.”

So why are people born in later months less likely to become professional hockey players?

“The explanation for this is quite simple… in Canada the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1st. A boy who turns ten on January 2nd, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year — and at that age, in preadolescence, a twelve-month gap in age represents an enormous difference in physical maturity.”

The January-born player, then, has a higher chance of being chosen for the all-star teams (or “rep” squad)…

“And what happens when a player gets chosen for a rep squad? He gets better coaching, and his teammates are better, and he plays fifty or seventy-five games a season instead of twenty games a season like those left behind in the ‘house’ league, and he practices twice as much as, or even three times more than, he would have otherwise.

“In the beginning, his advantage isn’t so much that he is inherently better but only that he is a little older. But by the age of thirteen or fourteen, with the benefit of better coaching and all that extra practice under his belt, he really is better, so he’s the one more likely to make it to the Major Junior A League, and from there into the big leagues.”

This same effect happens in more consequential areas, like education, Gladwell argues, because of the school year cut-off.

“But most parents, one suspects, think that whatever disadvantage a younger child faces in kindergarten eventually goes away. But it doesn’t. It’s just like hockey. The small initial advantage that the child born in the early part of the year has over the child born at the end of the year persists. It locks children into patterns of achievement and underachievement, encouragement and discouragement, that stretch on and on for years.”

He concludes, “It is those who are successful, in other words, who are most likely to be given the kinds of opportunities that lead to further success.” Which is why little opportunities that are seized become big advantages over time. “We are too much in awe of those who succeed and far too dismissive of those who fail.”

The point isn’t that we should give up because of inherent disadvantages. It’s also not that we should take our luck for granted and expect easy success. Personally, each of us simply needs to do the best with the hand we’ve been dealt. But as a society, perhaps we should consider how to create more equal opportunities for people born in unlucky circumstances.

Finding Clients

Need clients for your business? Fortunately, there are a lot of great free resources out there that teach methods for finding clients.

We thought we’d compile some of them here for you to check out.


In an article titled, Stoicism and Virtuous Selfishness, Kasey Pierce makes an argument for the merit of what she calls “virtuous selfishness”:

“Virtuous selfishness is allowing yourself, the master-and-commander, to sail into uncharted waters. Whether you succeed or fail, oh the adventure you will have lived instead of a life of regret. The winds may shift on you, but you may find it leads you to a greater destination. It’s well worth the journey to act, virtuously, in your own self-interest; to be proud of yourself.”

And for those of us inclined to believe that selfishness is a bad thing, she adds,

“Buying into the idea that we’re being immoral by being selfish is also to claim emotional responsibility for everyone else. That’s quite a cross to bear and, really, you don’t need to take it up.”

Extra Stuff

Here’s some more stuff that caught our eye this week…

The Weekly Challenge

What is one thing you’re afraid of? There is a lot of power in overcoming our fears, even when doing so feels silly and irrelevant. But it’s never silly and irrelevant to face our fears — it makes us more resilient and provides evidence that our fears were unmerited. The challenge for this week, then, is to choose something that you’re afraid of and to intentionally expose yourself to that for the purpose of becoming unafraid of it. Choose a fear that you want to overcome and follow this guide from Anxiety Canada.

Until next week!

Mike & Alec

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