Startup Lessons from History: Marcus Aurelius

I’m a startup guy that likes to read about history, and spend a lot of time thinking about… well, stuff. This ongoing series is an exploration and tribute to what history can teach us about startups, and life itself.

Here we turn to one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher Emperor of Rome. This one is going to be several parts, because the man has a lot to say, and we have a lot to learn.

Future sources, ranging from fact to historical fiction, may include famous generals, philosophers, statesmen, and a whole bunch of Romans.

These posts are long and rich. So enjoy it like a nice bottle of wine. Pour yourself a glass. Don’t just drink to consume. Take a few sips, consider the flavor. Take your time. Maybe don’t finish the whole bottle at once. Bookmark this and come back to it later. It ages well.

Statue of Marcus Aurelius in Piazza del Campidoglio, Rome. It was erected in his lifetime, and miraculously still exists today almost 2000 years later. The real one is being restored in a museum, but the replica is equally impressive at 4m (13ft) tall.

Marcus Aurelius

You’ve watched the movie Gladiator, right? Remember that kind, wise, and super old Emperor with the douchebag son? Yeah, that dad was Marcus Aurelius. If anything, the actual son Commodus was even worse in real life. His idea of a petting zoo was shipping in every exotic beast from the four corners of the world, and then cutting their heads off posing as a gladiator. He actually called himself the “Roman Hercules”. Talk about daddy issues. Anyhoo, he has no wisdom to impart except as a cautionary tale, so back to his pops.

Sadly though, old guys giving sage advice on screen for two hours straight makes for less ticket sales than awesome gladiator battles. That’s where I come in! Marcus Aurelius is considered by many to be the embodiment of Plato’s “philosopher king”, and the quintessential stoic philosopher.

His key writings, basically in the form of a ponderous personal diary named Meditations, were created throughout his entire adult life. What’s uncanny is the lack of any real change in his transition from ordinary Roman nobleman to the dictator of the known world. Became Emperor, weather was average. That must be some kind of world record for stoic detachment.

So, kick back in your chair, get a nice cup of tea, and let’s get some of that sage advice.

“Thou must also take heed of another kind of wandering, for they are idle in their actions, who toil and labour in this life, and have no certain scope to which to direct all their motions, and desires.”

How certain are you that you are #grinding in the right direction? When is the last time you re-evaluated your direction? Actual question. What’s better than hard work? Being smart about what you work on.

“His soul is restless, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; to be brief, as a stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as a smoke, so are all that belong unto the soul.”

This should be the dictionary entry for founder. If you’re in it for fame & fortune, maybe try Youtubing instead. Or an ICO. Leave the dreams and hard work for those whose souls are restless.

“Spend Not the Remnant of Thy Days in Thoughts and Fancies concerning other men, when it is not in relation to some common good, when by it thou art hindered from some other better work.”

Like your investor keeps telling you, just focus on your business. This is surprisingly easy to forget when you engage in the whole startup ecosystem. Everyone’s talking about some tech/tool/metric you’re missing out. Embrace your stoic and release the #FOMO. All you need to do, really, is focus on growing your business. The rest will follow in due course. Proceed.

“Let Nothing Be Done Rashly, and at Random, but All Things According to the most exact and perfect rules of art.”

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that Minimum Viable Product and Fail Fast are permission to be rash and random. Perfect your craft, not your product.

Make your business your temple. Craft it like Michelangelo at the Sistine Chapel. Mind it well. Sweep the urns daily. Light fresh candles at dusk. Be thankful and count your blessings when they come.

Put in the effort, everywhere. Obsess in the details. Demonstrate your passion. Pour the restlessness of your soul into your work. It shows. It matters. It makes all the difference.

“All these things, which now thou seest, shall within a very little while be changed, and be no more: and ever call to mind, how many changes and alterations in the world thou thyself hast already been an eyewitness of in thy time. This world is mere change, and this life, opinion.”

How ridiculous is it to gripe about change, when all aspects of your current state of existence were brought about through change?

The great stopwatch of father time doesn’t stop when you finish version 1.0 of your business plan. Revisit your assumptions. Revisit your research. Revisit your market. Revisit your product.

Emperors always issued coins with their faces on it, to remind the people of the empire who was in charge. Hard to forget when he’s in your pocket every day. This is Marcus Aurelius’ edition.

“In sum, remember this, that within a very little while, both thou and he shall both be dead, and after a little while more, not so much as your names and memories shall be remaining.”

Think about it. How many generations before you can you even trace? Most people don’t know anything about their grandparents parents. That will happen to you and me, too.

As depressing as this sounds, it can also be incredibly freeing. How much of all that baggage and worry you carry around will stay around after you go? No trace. Nothing.

So do something crazy amazing right now. If you fail spectacularly it will also be forgotten. You have nothing to lose. All will be forgotten.

“Let Opinion Be Taken Away, and No Man Will Think Himself Wronged.”

What if we operated on truth supported by facts? It sounds laughably rational. But we don’t.

Every founder stretches the truth. You have to. Investors demand it. Some go back to actually deliver on promises. Others stretch further and never look back. There’s a difference, and you know it. The story becomes culture and lives a life beyond you as the founder. Build your story on fact. Operate on truth.

“Hast Thou Reason? I Have. Why Then Makest Thou Not Use of It? for if thy reason do her part, what more canst thou require?”

The Emperor pulls no punches. Gloves are off.

“Not as though Thou Hadst Thousands of Years to Live. Death Hangs over thee: whilst yet thou livest, whilst thou mayest, be good.”

Let me make an assumption. You’re doing well enough to read this on a smartphone. You’re educated. If you lost your job, you could find a new one. Maybe you even started your own company.

You can afford to be good. You don’t have to create crap. You don’t have to sell crap to other people. Do something worthwhile, because you CAN. It’s a tremendous luxury, so don’t waste it. Make it count.

“Doth the emerald become worse in itself, or more vile if it be not commended?”

We’re humans, not emeralds. Humans think less of themselves based on rejection. So we have to fight it. You have to lie to yourself, sometimes.

They’re wrong, you’re right. They don’t know what they’re talking about. Your experience and the research you’ve done proves it. So become the emerald.

Daniel Arsham’s modern 2009 sculpture of Marcus Aurelius in volcanic ash and crystal.

“For since it is so, that most of those things, which we either speak or do, are unnecessary; if a man shall cut them off, it must needs follow that he shall thereby gain much leisure, and save much trouble, and therefore at every action a man must privately by way of admonition suggest unto himself, What? may not this that now I go about, be of the number of unnecessary actions? Neither must he use himself to cut off actions only, but thoughts and imaginations also, that are unnecessary for so will unnecessary consequent actions the better be prevented and cut off.”

I dare you to tell yourself all your actions today were necessary. I double dare you. Your thoughts? Your imaginations? Yeah, I’m not even going to go there.

So how does one cut off unnecessary thoughts? I would propose mindfulness and/or breathing in the morning. Why? Because a lot of what we think about and often do, are simply to escape the stress and drudgery of our life as office rats. Yes, even founders get bored with spreadsheets.

Start the day by clearing your mind, and you’ll find it easier to keep focused on the straight & narrow through the day.

Try Oak or Wim Hof.

“To comprehend all in a few words, our life is short; we must endeavour to gain the present time with best discretion and justice. Use recreation with sobriety.”

Recreation can be used to escape your reality. This is highly necessary for corporate stooges. How else can you deal with your boss? But you’re a founder. You don’t get paid to check in 9 to 5. You get paid to create something out of nothing. Make your daily routine engaging instead, so you don’t feel the need to escape it. Also, see above on breathing and mindfulness. Use recreation with sobriety.

“I am half naked, neither have I bread to eat, and yet I depart not from reason”

If you’ve already started a business, you’ve won the game. Now, it’s just a matter of time and some luck to collect your bounty. All new ventures need a bit of timing and luck. A mentor to open doors. An accelerator to introduce investors. Your first paying customer. A viral piece of content. Something.

If your current business doesn’t make it, perhaps the next will. You can fail, because the will to win is already inside of you. Just give it enough time to benefit from a small stroke of luck.

“Behold and Observe, What Is the State of Their Rational Part; and those that the world doth account wise, see what things they fly and are afraid of; and what things they hunt after.”

Which person famous or otherwise do you look up to? Someone who you hold up as providing a path that you aspire to follow.

What aren’t they doing? What do they avoid? What do they dislike? Don’t do those things. What are they trying to achieve? What are they motivated by? Do those instead. Get on their path.

“What Art Thou, that Better and Divine part Excepted, but as Epictetus said well, a wretched soul, appointed to carry a carcass up and down?”

Are you here merely to participate in the mortal process of life as a slowly decaying carcass, making no imprint of yourself upon the wider world? Is there any part of you that is willing and able to rise above the wretched soul? Embrace that part of you. Embrace it, and don’t let the other wretched souls pull you back down into their petty existence.

1789 painting by Hubert Robert showing the ruins of ancient Rome with the statue of Marcus Aurelius on the left. Were the following generations heading his words, do you think? Or were they busy with the medieval equivalent of Snapchat? Considering the dark ages, probably the latter.

“Thus must thou according to truth and nature, throughly consider how man’s life is but for a very moment of time, and so depart meek and contented: even as if a ripe olive falling should praise the ground that bare her, and give thanks to the tree that begat her.”

If your life ended today, what would you be thankful for in the experience thus far? What about tomorrow? Count them. Recite them out loud each day before your sleep, either to yourself or your loved one.

“Thou Must Be like a Promontory of the Sea, against Which though the waves beat continually, yet it both itself stands, and about it are those swelling waves stilled and quieted.”

Easier said than done, but something to strive for gradually. What would shake you? What would cause you to crumble in defeat?

Losing a game-changing deal? Losing a vital employee? Losing face? Losing your equity? Losing your company? You’re still standing. Let the waves become still and quiet.

“In the Morning when Thou Findest Thyself Unwilling to Rise, Consider with thyself presently, it is to go about a man’s work that I am stirred up. Am I then yet unwilling to go about that, for which I myself was born and brought forth into this world? Or was I made for this, to lay me down, and make much of myself in a warm bed”

You were born to work. Born to create. Explore. Discover. Born to be better than the generation before. Progress. Born to evolve and grow.

The self-pity and hate is only born out of the comfort of society. You can afford to be lazy. It’s a luxury most of the world cannot afford. Do not rest on the work of your forefathers. Do not let yourself be the end of progress. Build upon their efforts. Do the hard things. Build something great.

“For this whatsoever it be, should not have been produced, had it not conduced to the good of the universe”

Does the world need another cryptocurrency? Betting app? Marketing platform? Mobile game?

You better have a good answer for your own sake. You’re blessed to be in the position you are, to have the luxury of starting something new. You only have so many chances during your life and career, so why not make them count?

If you can create something of lasting value, people will slowly flock to you. Customers. Employees. Investors. Everyone wants to do something good, if only given the opportunity to do so. Give them that opportunity. If you won’t, who will?

“What Is the Use that now at This Present I Make of My Soul?”

Really, can you answer that? It’s taken me 36 years and I’m working my way up to it. Are you doing to coast through life “surviving” towards death? Life is the most special thing in the universe, because it’s the only thing you own as an individual. How are you using it? How?

Mosaic from a villa which may have belonged to Marcus Aurelius. What do you suppose the Emperor would have thought walking past this image of a mythical Greek creature known as a lusty drunk? Probably a daily reminder to abstain from the pleasures and get stuff done.

“But we see contrariwise, that the more a man doth withdraw himself from these wherein external pomp and greatness doth consist, or any other like these; or the better he doth bear with the loss of these, the better he is accounted.”

Everyone who has never had pomp strives for pomp. Most billionaires were born into low or middle-income families. They never had the pomp. They wanted the pomp for their own family more than anything in the world. So they got the pomp. Lots of it. Pomp on fleek. Then what? They realize pomp was not the solution. There is no answer there. No happiness. No contentment. Someone always has more pomp. It’s another hamster wheel.

So what are you about, besides pomp? Why are you doing any of this, if not pomp? What will you do when you have it? Pause to think about that one for a while.

“The Best Kind of Revenge Is, Not to Become like Unto Them.”

This becomes natural when you accept that there is no race with others. If you focus on beating others you’ll become a beater. Ruthlessly efficient in indulging their own ego. Is that your goal?

The only way to win is to grow within yourself. Learn from their mistakes, and let their grievances slide away. Do not partake in their petty feuds. See through the futility of their thinking, and apply the learning to yourself. Hold yourself to a higher standard when it stings the most. The bitter sting of ego will pass, and you will come out the better man, if you choose to.

“This phalernum, this excellent highly commended wine, is but the bare juice of an ordinary grape. This purple robe, but sheep’s hairs, dyed with the blood of a shellfish. So for coitus, it is but the attrition of an ordinary base entrail, and the excretion of a little vile snivel, with a certain kind of convulsion: according to Hippocrates his opinion.”

Wow, way to take out the romance out of life. The delivery is so brutal, but so right. Don’t spend your life marveling at mere things. Most things in this world are very disappointing on a fundamental level, if you detach from the stories created by society. That burning lust you hold for a insert luxury good is an illusion created by social media influencers and brand storytellers. It's likely made from the skin peeled off living animals, then treated chemically in some sweatshop factory in rural China. Where’s the beauty in that? How is this object going to uplift your spirit? Don't follow the story just because everyone else does. Choose not to be a consumer. Be a creator.

“Do Not Ever Conceive Anything Impossible to Man, Which by Thee cannot, or not without much difficulty be effected; but whatsoever in general thou canst Conceive possible and proper unto any man, think that very possible unto thee also.”

Steve Jobs used to say that the world you see out there can be reshaped by anyone. There is no special qualification of grace that must be bestowed upon you before you can do it too. Humans have always done the impossible. Not some other humans. Humans exactly like you. From year to decade to century, the limits just get pushed further.

You can be one of those humans. You can grab the limit too, and through your difficult effort push it just an inch further.

“Alexander of Macedon, and He that Dressed His Mules, when once dead both came to one. For either they were both resumed into those original rational essences from whence all things in the world are propagated; or both after one fashion were scattered into atoms.”

Whether essence or atoms, you only have the one opportunity here to make your stake in history. So, what’s it going to be? Conqueror of worlds or mule dresser?

The elderly Emperor portrayed by Richard Harris in the movie Gladiator. NOTE: His son didn’t actually kill him. The whole storyline with Maximus was fictitious. Commodus was a huge douchebag and play-gladiator, but was actually strangled to death by his servants in his sleep.

“Meditate often upon the connection of all things in the world; and upon the mutual relation that they have one unto another”

Substitute meditate for analyze. Here is the difference you can make. What new technologies have come out that could be applied to solve a difficult problem that is already around? Make the connections. That’s all you need to do something genuinely innovative.

Also meditate.

“The Ambitious Supposeth Another Man’s Act, Praise and Applause, to be his own happiness; the voluptuous his own sense and feeling; but he that is wise, his own action.”

What do you require to be happy with your work? Your boss to say that quarterly spreadsheet was really something else? A feeling that your coworkers think you’re super smart?

Just think of your own actions. Are you happy with what you are doing? Why not? Fix that, then. Repeat until happy.

“That Which Is Not Good for the Bee-Hive, Cannot Be Good for the bee.”

That which is not good for the world, cannot be good for you. For god’s sake, do something that helps. Don’t make your life about yourself, and reap reward off others. You can contribute positively and embrace the community, rather than shy away in shame of your dubious and meaningless activities. Hold yourself to some standard.

“Straight of Itself, Not Made Straight.”

This man just pierces the soul with so few words it hurts. Right through the armor.

Do not say you’re doing something. Do it. Do not claim your company is doing something. Do it. Show it. Demo it. Do not inflate perceptions. Tell the story like it is, and stick to it. Maintain integrity at all times. Operate on truth.

Straight is straight, and keeps straight. Don’t squirm around and promise to get back on the straight later. You won’t, and you know it already. Make the other choice.

Straight now, straight later, straight always.

“Is Any Man so Foolish as to Fear Change, to Which All Things that once were not owe their being?”

The fact that your company exists was a change. So don’t expect the world to pause when you start. Don’t expect your competition to idly sit and let you win. You’re not a fool, are you?

Plaque describing the honorable lineage of Marcus Aurelius at the base of his statue in Piazza Campidoglio, Rome.

“Thou Hast No Time nor Opportunity to Read. What Then? Hast Thou not time and opportunity to exercise thyself, not to wrong thyself; to strive against all carnal pleasures and pains, and to get the upper hand of them; to condemn honour and vainglory; and not only, not to be angry with them, whom towards thee thou doest find unsensible and unthankful; but also to have a care of them still, and of their welfare?”

Life advice: stop spending so much time wronging yourself. Think of you tomorrow. What will tomorrow-you think of today-you? Spend time reading. Spend time exercising. Get the upper hand of yourself.

“Forbear Henceforth to Complain of the Trouble of a Courtly Life, either in public before others, or in private by thyself.”

Did the Starbucks get your order wrong again? Did your Über cancel on you last minute? Was the video conference quality choppy? Is your conference hotel below your standards?

Suck it up, princess! Don’t ever complain about the vanities of your privileged experience. Not to anyone, but most importantly not to yourself. Stop stroking your own ego. Don’t let your self-talk tell you you deserve it, and more. You don’t. You’re lucky. Be extremely thankful you get to have such frivolous troubles, instead of real troubles.

“But never did any honest virtuous man repent of the neglect or omission of any carnal pleasure: no carnal pleasure then is either good or profitable.”

Have that mental conversation with yourself at your deathbed. Hopefully this is happening in the far future, but maybe not though…? You never know.

Are you going to say I wish I spent more time: on Instagram, at nightclubs, playing Fortnite, online shopping, sliding into DM’s, eating out more, driving more cars? If not, then WHY are you focusing on those things now? What is the real list? Get on it, now.

“If It Were Thine Act and in Thine Own Power, Wouldest Thou Do it? If it were not, whom dost thy accuse? The atoms, or the Gods?”

Take your pick for a lame excuse. Atoms or the Gods? No? Then get after it!!

“The same are the world’s elements, and the elements of which thou dost consist. And they when they are changed, they murmur not; why shouldest thou?”

This is Atom. He murmurs not upon change. Be like Atom.

The son was not improved upon his father.

“Receive Temporal Blessings without Ostentation, when They Are Sent and thou shalt be able to part with them with all readiness and facility when they are taken from thee again.”

I have some rare practical advice for you. When you go to bed, as part of your daily routine, say, out loud, three things you are thankful for today. If you have family, do it together. Call it a gratitude list.

Think of something, anything. Big or small, doesn’t matter. A great cup of coffee, something nice someone said, your health, or the weather. Whatever goes. Simple as that. Make it a habit by committing to do it 10 days in a row. Then you’re on autopilot from there.

I’m not a religious person, at all, so this has no spiritual purpose. The purpose is to go to sleep thinking positively about the day and reflecting on what is meaningful in your life. There is research to show that this simple routine can change the structure of your brain. So it probably works the other way too. If you want to go ahead and worry your brain into sludge, be my guest. I choose not to. I also choose that for my family.

“For in those things that properly belong unto the mind, she cannot be hindered by any man.”

If you really stop to consider it, there are virtually no limitations to what you can think. Try for a moment to visualize a new type of space rocket in your mind. Easy. Not to say it will be easy at all to build. Yet why limit your mind to what is easy? That’s how you stop progress by limiting yourself to what’s already out there. That’s inhuman! Think beyond the limits every day, like humans were born to do.

“He that Knoweth Not What the World Is, Knoweth Not where He Himself is. And he that knoweth not what the world was made for, cannot possibly know either what are the qualities, or what is the nature of the world.”

Become an explorer of the world and its qualities. Don’t spend your waking hours within the confines of your immediate surroundings. Broaden your horizons. Travel. Get off the beaten path. Go on Wikipedia, and read about something cool or new you recently heard about.

“To Wipe Away Fancy, to Use Deliberation, to Quench Concupiscence, to keep the mind free to herself.”

Yeah, I had to look it up. It means horny. If you want to keep your mental capacity to work on your business and/or product, you need to make it so. Every person has a limited mental capacity. Few, if any, humans have the mental capacity of Elon Musk to work on 10 highly complex and innovative products at the same time. For most, one is more than enough.

How do you increase your mental capacity? Try to get bored. Not joking. If you aren’t bored, your mind is busy and closed to new original thinking. Hire people to take tasks off your plate until you have almost nothing left to do. Then you have the luxury and opportunity to think about the big picture again, and what big moves could take your business to the next level. Get out of the trenches.

Also, again. Mindfulness. Breathing. See links above.

1844 painting by the French artist Eugène Delacroix titled “Last Words of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius”, the old emperor is shown on the bed next to his son Commodus. His actual last words, spoken to his son, below.

“Look to the rising sun; for I am already setting”

Marcus Aurelius
121AD — 180AD

Is there a favorite quote here? Any other stoic philosophies you live by? Please share so we can benefit, too.

Thinks about the future a lot. Founder of two startups. Lives in Singapore.