Non-Obvious Practical Philosophy For Founders
I’ve read well over 100 self-help books in my life—to little to no avail.
My disappointment with self-help boiled down to the fact that when life got serious, when I was facing existential issues like a business on the verge of bankruptcy, self-help credos didn’t really help. I went down into the depths of negative human emotions. Self-help, whose messages largely revolve around turning negativity into positivity, was no use to me in the depths.
I needed something more. So, I turned to the philosophy that I’d read as an undergrad—but that never felt practical here in the “real” world.
But after tons of philosophical reading, I’m now confident in my ability to deal with the ebbs and flows of life.
The cliche of philosophy is that it makes sense in theory but has little practical value. The truth of the matter is that tons of modern thinkers—entrepreneurs in particular—base their worldviews in philosophical concepts. Ryan Holiday has created a platform out of stoicism (which dates to the third century BCE); Naval Ravikant’s Twitter feed reads like a philosophical scroll. Ancient wisdom has held up for a reason: Its truth is timeless, and applies the same, regardless of era.
Here are the philosophical concepts that I’ve found most practical from a founder standpoint
- Tabula rasa. Tabula rasa is the concept that human beings are born as blank slates: no mental content, totally subject to the demands of our worlds. It dates to Aristotle, who wrote about it in his treatise, De Anima.It’s useful to me because it reminds me that nothing—no concepts, events, expectations—have any intrinsic value. They only have value inasmuch as we decide they do. Of course, humans living in a common society are subject to common value frameworks, but it’s liberating on some level to know that they’re less-than-absolute.
- Cogito ergo sum. This is a well-known quote from French Philosopher René Descartes, translating to, “I think, therefore I am.” To me, this means truth comes from awareness. Being aware that our thoughts build our reality is very powerful. Realizing the same is true for every person we surround ourselves with is even more powerful. For founders, this means everything can—and should—be challenged.
- Memento mori. Put simply, memento mori translates to, “Wake up and smell the coffin.” Death feels distant, making time feel abundant, and making us waste it by the truckload. But remembering that death is just around the corner helps push you to pursue your obsession— despite fear of failure or embarrassment. Memento mori reminds you that those fears mean nothing. There really is nothing to lose, so go all in.
- The unreality of emotion. Because they’re visceral, emotions feel like the realest form of experience. But emotions are really just signals—signals that are often mis-calibrated. At very least, we should understand emotions to be about half-real; and really, we should view them as outright enemies when facing big decisions.
- Hidden truths. If someone calls you an idiot, you might automatically feel angry because something within you at least partially entertains or accepts the idea that you are an idiot. But if someone calls you a giraffe, would you be offended? Probably not, because no part of you entertains that idea, so there’s no emotional reaction. What other areas of your life have you held onto triggering unquestioned beliefs? How have they influenced your life? It’s important to shine a light on these areas and become aware in order to reduce suffering, not only in the moment but into the future.
- Freedom from thoughts. Our culture presents the mind as the solution to nearly every problem. We use our intellect to earn power (make money), establish order (daily routines), shape the next generation (teaching, parenting), and just about every other challenge we face.Over time, this creates a cycle in which we never leave our minds—rarely engage with our bodies, rarely engage with our senses, become prisoners to our thoughts. Human experience goes beyond the intellect; happiness depends on engaging the full range of experiences.
These concepts are touchstones in my life as a founder. They help me turn negative emotions into fuel: not insist that they turn positive, but find ways to channel them into progress. In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing more about the fruits of my philosophical inquiries—stay tuned for more maxims and more recommendations.