XVI. A Nine Point Guide For A Better Life

Traditional Stoicism, a smarter brain, and life lessons from a philosophical economist

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

So I would like to give you Tyler Cowen's Simple Nine Point Guide On How To Improve Yourself, which oddly no one here has really talked much about. It’s all about how to improve the world.

Tyler Cowen

That’s how philosopher and economist, Tyler Cowen, opened his speech at an academic conference on free speech. He gave an excellent talk that has much in common with Stoic philosophy. Cowen diagnosed vices that occur in all areas of our lives, not just academia.

In this piece, I’m going to list out my interpretation of Tyler’s Nine Point Guide For Improving Yourself ™️ . Watch the full talk if you want to understand it in context. I am focusing on abstracting the guide into general lessons, not the specific issue of free speech in universities. The cost of this is that it renders the points less specific than they should be – keep this in mind.

First, always be nice. It’s good for others, the world, and yourself.

Second, meet and listen to the people around you. This means meeting with many who are invisible or “not as important.” In the academic context, Tyler advises meeting administrators – not the most interesting people from the standpoint of many professors.

Third, know the tradeoffs you’re making. If you have a high-paying job that doesn’t give you as much leisure as you’d like don’t complain about “work-life balance.” You made the decision to favor money over leisure. There’s nothing wrong with that. Now, if you think that was the wrong decision, you can always update, but understand that there are tradeoffs.

Fourth, don’t be a parasite. Perhaps that’s especially easy to do when you’re a professor. But wherever you are – you’re on a team. Help people out. This requires listening to others, see #2.

Fifth, go directly to your goal. Today, if you’re concerned about free speech, you can have it on the internet at a scale unimaginable to our ancestors. Do not get distracted by political or personal squabbles. So many people persecuted in past ages would die to get the chance at sharing their message with millions. If that's what you care about, do it. What's holding you back?

Sixth, join the right tribe. Tyler advises academics to join the intellectual right wing. Arguably, many professors don’t do that for the wrong reasons. The right wing is unpopular in universities, but intellectual tribe membership should not be determined by a popularity contest. Regardless, pursue the truth wherever you are. If those around you don’t appreciate it, look at points #1 and #2.

Seventh, be optimistic and, eight, don’t whine. If you have a positive vision, people will be more likely to join you. Remember, there’s always so much to be happy about. Note how both of these are corollaries of #5.

Ninth, do not destroy the Republic in order to save it. In the context of the free speech issue, Tyler says:

Don't let the free speech crusade turn you into an opponent of free speech.

If you have principles, apply them consistently. Fight monsters, without becoming them.

What I love about this talk is that it took an abstract issue – free speech in the university – and brought the focus to the personal, specific, and concrete. Instead of discoursing on cultural and political matters, it’s often better to improve oneself.

You can watch the full talk here.

🎯 Action

Choose one of Tyler’s points – or add your own – and simply focus on that today.

🔗 Links

📰 I’ve been reading The Smarter Brain. A newsletter full of bite-sized ideas for better habits. They’re especially focused on what you have direct control over: your attention and decisions. Check it out here.

🎧 Michael and I spoke with Chris Fisher about Traditional Stoicism for Stoa Conversations. Learn what Traditional Stoics believe moderns are underrating and missing from the ancient philosophy.

🏛️ If you haven’t had the chance to read them yet, check out our earlier letters from this week on responding to others:

🐦️ Michael and I reached an exciting milestone with Stoa Conversations this week:

Thanks for reading and listening!

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