I have to thank Tim Ferriss for getting me into this. He’s had me thinking about stoicism for months. It started when he recommended Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle Is The Way, some time ago. During the book, Ryan mentioned Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. After that, Tim began sharing Seneca’s letters via his podcast. I consumed all of it, but I didn’t feel a change.
Some books hit you at just the right angle + time + mood and change your life. None of these resources altered my way of thinking but they did reinforce a mindset I adopted from playing competitive sports. Football coaches preach, “Nothing is as good as it seems. Nothing is as bad as it seems.”
They usually say this when players get too excited or too upset as an attempt to level a player’s head. It can be used for both sides of the argument, but I find myself using it more when things go wrong. Good coaches know the best players are the ones who remain focused in all situations – good or bad. I was raised to think like this, but it’s easier to write about than to apply.
How I Was Unintentionally Practicing Stoicism
I was driving South on Highway 17 through the sticks of South Carolina when my my entrepreneur-mobile (2002 Ford Taurus Station Wagon) began to make unusual noises. I stopped, popped the hood, and scanned the engine for obvious signs of a problem. I’m not a car guy, but everything seemed in working order and the sound had ceased. Not minutes farther down the road, it happened. The car slowed, an awful smell came through the air vents, and my temperature gauge pointed at red.
I didn’t panic. I didn’t drop an F-bomb. I can honestly say I didn’t worry. I looked for a place to glide into – which I made by about four inches – and park the wagon. The hood smoked worse than my buddy who recently started vaping. No big deal, I thought, I have insurance for this kind of stuff.
I opened the car door to a swarm of “no-see-ums,” the state bird in South Carolina, and again studied the engine. A sweet lady in a minivan, who saw my wagon and thought I was elderly, spotted my troubles from the highway and offered her two cents:
“Radiator or somethin’s leakin’ honey,” she said. “You gon’ need a tow-truck.”
“Awesome,” I replied. I pulled out my phone to call my insurance company and thanked her for her help.
45 minutes later the tow-truck showed. He was nice and a bit taken back that I wasn’t more upset. “Nothin’ I can do,” I said. “The car is 14 years old. Something was bound to happen.”
He nodded and loaded my vehicle onto his flat-bed. We had a pleasant conversation about customer service, what it’s like to be on call 24 hours a day as a tow-truck man, and The Masters golf tournament since he was from Augusta, Georgia.
He dropped me off at the only mechanic within 40 miles: Merritt’s Garage. Bob, the mechanic with a ponytail bound with 12 successive ties, quickly analyzed my problem.
“At a glance, it looks like water heater’s done,” he said with more assurance (and less optimism) than the lady on the Highway. “You probably wanna get a motel or somethin’ cause we have to get in there to see.”
No problem, I think. I’ll call a rental car company to pick me up, continue my trip South, and pick up the wagon when I return in 48 hours.
Rental company one: They have cars. Solid! But they call back five minutes later explaining that they made a mistake: “Sorry, no cars available.”
Rental company two: “No cars.”
Rental company three: “It’s Master’s week, no cars till Monday. Good luck finding one right now, everyone’s out.”
Rental company four: “Nothing.”
My demeanor hadn’t changed, I was still even-keeled after finding out that my plans were shot for that day. I don’t say this to brag, I was as astonished that none of these setbacks boiled my blood, yet.
The lady working the office offered to drop me off at the gas station by the Highway so I hopped in with her. On the two minute ride, I found myself saying that it could have been worse. That the car could have blown up, that it could have been nighttime, and that I was not physically harmed. This wasn’t how I wanted to spend my Wednesday, but things could be much worse in the grand scheme of life.
By the time I settled into a picnic table outside the Tiger Express, my phone was almost as dead as my car. I couldn’t even get work done because the gas station in Coosawatchie, where the garage was located, surprisingly didn’t have wifi. Still, it didn’t get to me.
The Obstacle Is The Way
The solution: my selfless girlfriend would drive an hour and a half to pick me up and take me back to Charleston for the night so I could regroup. The only problem was that she couldn’t pick me up for another two hours. Still, no fury. On the phone, she was so surprised by my lack of anger that she thought I was hiding something. Usually I’m a control freak and I want things my way, at all times. I knew this was out of my hands and all I could do was grin and bear it. Nothing to do after that but wait.
Then the cab showed up. Not a moment after I sat down. I called for him when the original rent a car place thought they had cars. I forgot to cancel. Since I had no need for him and he wasn’t a jerk, I offered to pay him 60% of the estimated fare. He was pleased and I was glad to have everything taken care of.
I journaled two days prior that I wanted to be more patient: Opportunity granted.
So there I sat at a wooden picnic table with my mostly useless laptop, a now-wrinkled suit in a bag, some dirty laundry, and a bunch of notebooks scribbling my story while the guy with the hand held blower unsystematically whirled dirt around the parking lot. For two hours. In peace.
Why hadn’t I exploded?
Conditioning. For more than a year I’ve been exposing myself to words that strengthen the belief that the only thing I can truly control is me. I can’t help it that the tow-truck took 45 minutes. I can’t scream a new water pump or radiator into existence to get me back on the road. And I dang-sure can’t influence Master’s Week in the Lowcountry of South Carolina.
“Nothing is as good as it seems. Nothing is as bad as it seems.”
Throughout the day I controlled only what I could – how I treated others and my own resolve. So thanks, Tim. For helping me apply stoicism to my everyday life.
I made my trip the following day using Katie’s (my lovely girlfriend) car. The repairs needed were beyond what I was willing to pay compared to the value of the car. Instead of paying the bill, I signed over the title Merritt’s Garage and I walked away from a car full of memories.
The station wagon helped me through a special time in life and allowed me to accomplish a dream. To read the backstory behind the car, check out this post. I was headed South to go to Jacksonville, Florida for a job interview. When I finally made it there, I was offered an awesome job. A job I accepted. The station wagon had served it’s purpose by holding on till the last minute.