Book Review: The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Hello, 2022. For many of us, 2021 was difficult and in some instances, even more trying than 2020 as we realized that the pandemic wasn't going away at the stroke of midnight on Dec 31st. As we lurch into the third year of a global pandemic, we're finally getting used to some of the profound changes that have taken place, and perhaps coming to some level of acceptance with what has happened. For some of us, what helped get us to a place of acceptance was looking for answers to help cope with the stress, worry, and anxiety that comes with living with constant uncertainty. For my part, after a particularly tough year, I decided to make some improvements in my life by giving Stoicism a try. It seemed like a good potential resource to help with the stress I experienced in 2020. Since I don't have a philosophy background, I wanted to ease myself into it. I picked up a copy of Ryan Holiday's The Daily Stoic in December 2020 as I'd seen a lot of buzz around the book and his Daily Stoic website. I was pretty excited - I even bought the accompanying journal for it and decided to embark upon this daily stoic adventure with gusto (see my pre-review here).

Who is it for?

In the introduction, Holiday stresses that this book is meant to be accessible to those new to Stoicism, but he also cautions readers to read the original works to get a fuller understanding of Stoicism's tenets. So after a year of my Stoic journey, what did I think? Am I a diehard Stoic? No. far from it, but I can say definitively that parts of this book were helpful in many areas of my life. The book contains a short reading for every single day of the year - beginning with a quote by a famous Stoic, then the quote is distilled into a brief blurb with modern examples. Moving a bit farther out, every month has a theme, so for example, July is Duty, August is Pragmatism, and all the Stoic quotes surrounding that topic are grouped together there. On an even higher level, the book is split into three distinct sections: The Discipline of Perception (January–April), The Discipline of Action (May–August), and finally, The Discipline of Will (September–December). The back of the book contains a nice glossary with key terms, followed by a note on translations and a brief further reading section.

How to use this book

I read a passage every day for that assigned day and then journaled about it following the prompts provided. Real talk: I did not do this every day. You were supposed to journal once in the morning, and then ruminate, and write another entry in the evening. After 8 months of sporadic journaling, I ditched the journal aspect and found it more enjoyable and the information more retainable. Why? Because the accompanying journal prompts at times didn't match the quote/thought of the day at all. In some instances, I found the prompts so random that I thought that there had perhaps been a mistake in the pairing. It also felt forced. Some days, I really didn't have that much to say about a particular passage. On other days, I could have written 3 pages worth of commentary so the space provided was too small. If you are going to do this journey, my advice would be to ditch the accompanying journal and just buy a regular notebook and write out your perceptions and thoughts in there when the mood strikes, or when a passage resonates with you. This is what I would do that if I had to do this over again. I was drawn, in particular, to the sections about clarity (January) Acceptance (November), and mortality (December) due to the pandemic and my own personal struggles in those areas. I liked how the sections were grouped and I appreciated the links between ancient and modern thought, and in some cases, pointing out how things have not changed much since then (that was an eye-opener for me!).

"Worry is a human emotion, Captain. I accept what has happened." ~Spock

There have been some accusations leveled at Stoicism for being emotionless and uncaring. I worried that after reading about it, I'd turn into a Spock and only appeal to ration and logic. This, in my experience, was far from the case. I still have all my feels intact. Although I did find some precepts challenging, such as not being in control of your destiny, or the idea that a situation isn't good or bad but how you perceive it that affects you (for anyone who faced loss during this pandemic, this is a tough one to swallow), this book did help me through some more difficult moments and offered different ways of seeing things. I think the two most profound lessons I took away from The Daily Stoic are: 1. It helped me understand clearly what is and isn't in my control. 2. Live now. Do it now. Not tomorrow, because tomorrow may never come. Time is precious because you can never get it back, so in some capacity, live every day like it was your last. Holiday wrote The Daily Stoic in 2016, so he mentions situations such as cancer and other illnesses, job loss, relationship loss, etc as things that make one do a hard reset and re-evaluation of their mortality and how they have been living their lives. In my case, it was the pandemic that made me re-evaluate how I want to live the rest of my life.

The Verdict

In spite of its usefulness, The Daily Stoic was hit and miss for me. Some areas were incredibly helpful. I had fewer pity parties thanks to this book and a renewed sense of direction, but there were points where I found the book a bit lacking and the above-mentioned discrepancies with the matching journal jarring. While it's a great entry point to basic Stoicism, halfway through, I felt I needed more, and I had more questions than answers. So I did a lot of googling and went down quite a few rabbit holes to get those answers. I also turned to the original works, such as Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (as suggested by Holiday himself) to fill that void. There were also places where I just couldn't mesh with its precepts, and where it came off as bro-ish, simplistic, privileged, and grating. That's OK, I didn't expect to agree with everything written between these pages. I managed to take what I needed and leave behind what didn't serve me. If you're struggling for the same reasons I was – this may offer some solace and good advice, but take it with a grain of salt – this is not an academic text. It's meant to get you started and break things down for you in the simplest possible way to understand the basic premises of Stoicism. It's a springboard, so use it as one, then do a deep dive with the original sources. Happy reading!
"To bear trials with a calm mind robs misfortune of its strength and burdens" ~ Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus, 231-232
                    The Daily Stoic Author: Ryan Holiday Publisher: Profile Books (2016) ISBN: 978-1202221776

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