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CREATING A LIFE THAT MATTERS

Josh Schmitz

How does one live a meaningful life? This is the question that author Emily Esfahani Smith has obsessed over for years and has thoughtfully written about in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, The Atlantic and TIME. “I used to think the whole purpose of life was the pursuit of happiness,” she opens her massively popular TED Talk, before going on to explain why she’s come to believe that there is something much more important. This is also a theme in her wonderful book, The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters. Certainly, a purposeful life was of the highest priority to the Stoics—and they spoke clearly about the emptiness of pursuing mere happiness and pleasure. We reached out to Emily after her fantastic article in the New York Times this month, which was a warning to young people today on the perils of chasing fame, to ask her a number of questions that she was kind enough to answer. Below you’ll find daily exercises to help cultivate meaning in one’s life, book recommendations, and much more. And if you want to learn more about her work, her website is emilyesfahanismith.com and you can also follow her on Twitter. Enjoy!

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We first connected after your wonderful New York Times piece warning millennials against chasing fame—saying essentially that there is all sorts of important, meaningful work to be done and not all of it is going to be exciting and glamorous. Obviously Marcus Aurelius talked a lot about fame—call it worthless clacking of tongues and pointing out how few people remembered even the emperors who preceded him. Talk to us a little bit about the allure of bigness and world-changingness with people these days and why you believe that might be the wrong thing to chase.

I think people have always yearned for greatness and recognition. We all want to know our lives matter and are significant in the grand scheme of things, after all. But today, this idea that a meaningful life must be an epic life is being inflamed, I think, by social media. On the internet, extraordinary lives look like the norm, and so we aspire for such lives ourselves. And yet, most of us will lead ordinary lives. Many of us won’t live out our dreams or accomplish all of our major life goals. But that doesn’t mean we can’t lead profoundly meaningful lives.

The 20th-century psychologist Erik Erikson said that in order to lead a flourishing life, we must master a particular developmental task at each stage of life. When we’re young, we’re supposed to figure out who we are and what our purpose is. As we get older, we’re supposed to shift the focus from ourselves to others and be “generative.” That is, we’re supposed to give back, especially to younger generations, by doing things like raising children, mentoring colleagues, creating things of value for our community or society at large, volunteering, etc. We each have the power to be generative. Fame and glamour are about the self—aggrandizing yourself. But generativity is about connecting and contributing to something bigger, which is the very definition of leading a meaningful life.

Your widely popular TED talk, articles and book The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters argue for the pursuit of meaning over happiness. What’s the difference? Why should we pursue the former over the latter?

Happiness is a positive mental and emotional state—the presence of positive emotions and the absence of negative ones. Meaning is bigger—it lies in connecting and contributing to something beyond the self. When people say their lives are meaningful, according to psychologists, it’s because they believe three things about their lives: They believe their lives have worth and value; they believe their lives are driven by a sense of purpose; and they believe their lives are coherent.

I don’t have any problems with happiness, of course. I like being happy and I want the people I love and care about to be happy, too. But I think the unending pursuit of happiness has led us astray. The real goal shouldn’t be maximizing our own happiness, but leading a meaningful life. Viktor Frankl, the Holocaust survivor and author of Man’s Search for Meaning, said that happiness cannot be pursued—that it ensues from leading a meaningful life. I think that’s right—and certainly modern psychology research bears him out. When people devote themselves to doing meaningful things, like caring for a sick relative or studying hard for a test, they may not be as happy in the moment, but they experience a deeper kind of well-being down the road.

You’ve recommended looking up at the night sky to feel awe and transcendence. It reminds us of a line from Marcus Aurelius, “Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” What are other exercises and ideas would you recommend our readers implement in their day-to-day to help them find meaning?

I’d recommend creating habits of meaning in your daily life. In my book, I talk about 4 pillars of meaning—belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. So find ways to build these pillars in your life. For example, after writing my book, I realized that storytelling—crafting a narrative about my life and life in general—was an important source of meaning for me, so I started keeping a journal where I process different experiences I’m having. For transcendence, I make sure to regularly spend time in places that inspire awe in me, like in nature or at the art museum. I’ve found that technology can be a real barrier to both transcendence and belonging, so I’m trying to get some control over my addiction to it. Instead of checking social media or the headlines before I go to bed, I try to read a poem or listen to some music as I meditate. I don’t always succeed, but no one said trying to live a meaningful life is easy!

You’ve mentioned the worrying trend of increasing suicide rates in the U.S.; more and more people feel like their lives simply don’t matter. What would be the one or two things you’d tell someone who is apathetic and feels that their life is devoid of any meaning?

I went to a conference a few years ago where high school students presented meaningful projects they were working on. One group of girls was putting together a book called “Dear Billy.” Their friend Billy had recently committed suicide and so, to honor him, they had different people in his life write him letters as if he were still alive. The girls wanted this book to be a resource for despairing individuals to see that there are people who love and admire them—that they matter to their community. So I’d encourage an apathetic and hopeless person to remember their community—their friends, family, teachers, and neighbors. Think about the letters those people would write to you if they had the chance. Think about the letter you’d write to others if you had the chance. Well, come to think of it, why not write that letter this week and give it to them? In positive psychology, there’s an exercise known as the “gratitude letter.” You write a heartfelt letter of gratitude to someone and then present it to that person. It’s a really powerful activity that lifts both people up and brings them closer together. Suicide and depression are often problems of alienation and isolation. So anything that strengthens those critical bonds of belonging will, I hope, remind people that their lives matter.

I’d also say this: I had a professor in graduate school who said the best cure for depression is volunteering. So much of meaning comes from knowing you have a role to play, that you’re needed and valued by others. So engage with the world. Try on different roles. Adopt the one that fits you best. And remember what Erikson said about generativity. Doing good in the world, even if on a small scale, can ripple out and make a difference.

At one point Epictetus makes an appearance in your book—you mention how Albert Camus was reading him bedridden and trying to find solace. Have you read the Stoics? Can you tell us the story of your introducing to them if so? Any favorites?

Yes I’ve read the Stoics. The first one I heard of was Marcus Aurelius. In high school, a thoughtful friend told me he was reading Meditations. This is embarrassing, but I’d never heard of Aurelius or his book so I looked it up, found out that Aurelius was a Roman emperor, and thought “Huh, I wonder what my friend likes about that book.” I filed the book away in my head, but didn’t come back to it until years later researching my own book, The Power of Meaning. The next stop was college, where I majored in philosophy. I also studied positive psychology in graduate school, so I encountered Stoic ideas in my studies. In classes, though, they were usually presented as an afterthought to Socrates, Aristotle, and Plato. But I remember being more intrigued by their ideas than those of the other philosophers we were learning about. I liked that they emphasized living a life of virtue over hedonism, and I also admired the idea that your mindset creates your reality. It was so prescient—so much modern research has borne out their wisdom. Plus, Stoicism seemed to acknowledge that life can be hard and messy, but still worthwhile, and that also appealed to me. I think part of my attraction to the Stoics was temperamental, too. Some people burn hot—they have passionate, fiery personalities. I’m not like that. I’m more, well, stoic!

We’ve strongly recommended Viktor Frankl’s very Stoic Man’s Search for Meaning, which of course you’ve studied and written about in The Atlantic. Most of our readers have read and loved Frankl’s book, so what are some other books they should follow up with? You’re clearly extremely well-read and we always love to ask for book recommendations.

There are so many to choose from! Where to begin. George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch is long and at times dense, but so worth the time and effort. It’s about (among other things) a group of young people who are searching for meaning. They think they need to do something grand, but the lesson of the book is something we discussed earlier: Ordinary lives are full of meaning in the goodness they put into the world. Tolstoy is another author to read. The question of meaning is at the center of many of his works. I’d recommend his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which is about a shallow man who, on his deathbed, realizes his life was meaningless. That sounds depressing, but there’s a ray of hope at the end of the story. Before Ilyich dies, he learns what truly makes life meaningful. The Life of Pi by Yann Martel is also a beautiful commentary on meaning. In the novel, something horrible happens—and the question is: How does Pi make sense of it? What narrative does he craft? Our lives aren’t just the way they are, as Pi points out. We make meaning out of them from the stories we tell. I also recently read a biography of Leonard Cohen, I’m Your Man by Sylvie Simmons, which was wonderful. Cohen was a real spiritual seeker, a man who cared about meaning. That comes across in the biography and, of course, in his music.

*this post originally appeared on THE DAILY STOIC

NEW RUCKUS PODCAST #FIGHTSTORIES

Josh Schmitz

Hey Guys!

We are super stoked to present to you our new podcast. Hosted by myself and my great friend Tommy Green from Sleeping Giant. We are calling the podcast #FIGHTSTORIES, and the simple purpose of the podcast is to give you guys a more organic insight into the outlook and beliefs of this company and present our DeathCrew with some amazing advice, tips, tricks, and perspective, not only from Tommy and Myself, but a lot of our friends as well.

I used to write new articles weekly, but as the company grew I simply don't have the time to do long format articles anymore like I used to. But I still have a longing to connect and encourage you guys in a unique way so we think #FIGHTSTORIES is a great medium to be able to do that.

Our first episode is out now - we hope you enjoy, and please leave us some feedback on your thoughts and who we should interview next!

HUMILITY KILLS PRIDE. A LESSON ON EGO FROM THE BIBLE

Josh Schmitz

We generally admit that humility is a virtue and ego is a vice. Yet this black and white definition is made complicated by the fact that any sensible person would also admit that confidence is important.

We’d say it’s more than important—we know that confidence is essential. After all, if you don’t think you can do something—if you’re crippled by fear for instance—you’re probably not going to be able to do it.

Which is why it is such a tough and eternally vexing question: What’s the difference between self-doubt and humility? Where does confidence end and ego begin? Is it about degrees? How much should you have of each? Or are the traits opposed to each other? And if ego is so bad, why do so many successful people seem to have big ones?

The truth is that like all important things the answer is complicated. There is no magic number of units you’re supposed to have of each, no modern solution to this timeless problem. Which is why, as worn as the story has become, there is no better lesson about the dangers and benefits of confidence and ego and humility than the story of David and Goliath.

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If we go back in time then, to 1000 BCE, we’d find Israel and Philistine locked in terrible war in the Valley of Elah. It would be the great Goliath who issued his bold challenge to the Israelites, offering to put an end to the stalemate between his army, the Philistines, and theirs. “This day I defy the armies of Israel! Give me a man and let us fight each other,” he shouted as he paced up and down the lines of soldiers. His offer was simple: if a man could beat him, the war would be over and his people would submit. If he beat them, the Israelites would be forced submit to him.

For forty days, twice a day, Goliath repeated this challenge. Not a single soldier stepped forward, not even the King of Israel, King Saul. In fact, the Israelites trembled in fear. They huddled inside their lines, believing it to be impossible to defeat this giant (who according to the texts was either 6’9’’ or 9’9’’ tall and incredibly strong). These were supposed to be the bravest men in all of Israel, but they were paralyzed, frozen in fear.

This, if you’re wondering, is the definition of cowardice. It’s not like a different soldier tried every day for a month and all were defeated. No one tried. Of course they should have been afraid—but courage is what you do when you are afraid. It is the triumph of training and spirit over fear. It’s not as if the army came up with all sorts of different attacks and were repulsed. They did nothing. They just waited. They just hoped he would go away.

Then comes young David. David is a shepherd and three of his brothers are serving in the army. He comes to visit and while he’s there with them, he hears Goliath’s daily challenge. He asks his brothers about it and they make fun of him—as if their little brother could even comprehend what was happening. David brushes aside their teasing and approaches King Saul about undertaking the challenge. Once again, he is dismissed. This is the power of cowardice, cowardice and ego. The other soldiers, including David’s own brothers, are so certain of their own beliefs that they find it impossible than any other reality than one dominated by the fears they feel.

But David is not convinced by their cowardice, he sees the situation with fresh eyes. He responds to the king’s dismissal by pointing out that for years he has bravely kept watch over his father’s flock.

“When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.”

This then is the definition of confidence. David has evidence (not simply belief) that he can successfully face this challenge because he has faced similar challenges in the past with bravery and strength. He has killed lions and bears with his own hands. He knows what he is capable of. He knows courage. Religious people would also say that he has the comfort and security of his belief in God and whether you agree with that or not, it’s undeniable that this was a source of strength and purpose for him. It’s part of his confidence.

So how does Goliath respond to seeing this tiny challenger emerge in front of him? He responded like most egotistical bullies. He laughed. He said to him, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” Goliath could see only a small boy, not a threat. “Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!”

This then is ego. Goliath had gone unchallenged for so long, he had begun to see himself as invincible. David might have had strong faith in his god. Goliath, because of his size, his strength, his position, had come in part to believe he was a god. There is an argument that David was crazy. That Goliath was right to dismiss him, that it wasn’t ego but deserved confidence. Except subsequent events would prove that demonstrably false. And indeed it was this ego, this inability to see the threat that a smaller, nimbler, courageous opponent might represent that would be the opening that would make it possible for Goliath to be defeated. We often miss that in discussions about ego—that it sows the seeds of its own destruction—but here it is obvious and undeniable.

I know you think you know the end of the story and I know I’ve just hinted it at it, but there is another variable to look at, and it has to do with how David challenged Goliath. When King Saul allowed David to fight Goliath, he first insisted that he wore the standard armor and helmet of a soldier. David tried them on, but found it impossible to move, being so small. “I cannot go in these,” he replied, “because I am not used to them.” Instead, David went in his shepherd’s clothing and fished a few stones out of the river.

Believing that he couldn’t beat Goliath in an even matchup, David knew he needed to move quickly. He ran at the great man, reached into his bag, and with his sling, threw one perfectly aimed stone from a great distant. Within seconds, the fight was over. Goliath pitched forward, stunned by the blow, and while he was on the ground, David cut off his head—with the man’s own sword.

If confidence is knowing your strength, humility is an awareness of one’s own weaknesses. David possessed as much humility as he did confidence. It must be said first that he never sought out this fight—he’d have preferred that the army took care of it. He’d probably have preferred the war never need to take place at all. Once the challenge came his way, however, and he saw that no one else was doing anything, he asked himself what he might do if he had to. David knew that he was too small and weak to fight in traditional armor. He could see how it slowed him down. He knew that his courage was hardly sufficient to compensate for the massive size differential and that his lack of fighting skills made a direct challenge next to impossible. He knew that if Goliath got his hands on him, it was over, that his flesh would soon be fed to the birds and animals. Yet also aware of his skill with the sling, he knew he had an advantage. If he could get one shot off, time it right, there was an opportunity. He was confident enough to take it.

It is here that David’s faith also plays a role. Just as his belief gave him confidence, it also makes him humble. He sees himself as a servant of the lord, and also a servant of his king. He believes he’s been called to answer this challenge—his will is strong because it’s not his will—but conversely, if he were to lose, he would see that as being God’s plan as well. In a sense, he’s willing to proceed knowing full well that it could go horribly wrong for him. There is real humility, real courage in that.

In Caravaggio’s great painting of David with the Head of Goliath, there is a detail that most people miss. The painting shows David holding Goliath’s head in one hand and his sword in the other. On the hilt of that sword, in small lettering, is the acronym, H-AS OS, humilitas occidit superbiam. Humility Kills Pride. Pride is a sin for a reason—because it makes us think that we are better than God, or than other people. Humility kills ego as well. Or rather, humility and confidence, in concert with each other, are an unstoppable force.

Another great fighter and champion, Frank Shamrock, would say many centuries later, that ego is a sort of false idea, a kind of mental garbage. “If you’re running on ego,” he said, “you aren’t running on good clean emotions or cause and effect.” Is that not the story of all great boxers? The scrappy underdog beats the overconfident champ, only to become the overconfident champ who is defeated by the next scrappy underdog? “Champ-itis” is what they call it. That was the problem for Goliath, and the moral of his story. He had gone far beyond confidence, he had gone well into pride and hubris. For forty days, twice a day, he was right. No one could beat him. He was invincible. An entire army cowered in front of him. But like the famous story of the turkey, it only took one day to change everything.

David’s life changed too. His quiet confidence, his creative humility not only made him victorious over Goliath but soon enough it would make him king. The moral of David’s story is there to counteract that timeless worry, expressed so well by the Reverend Dr. Sam Wells, that if we are humble, we will end up “subjugated, trodden on, embarrassed, and irrelevant.” In fact, humility makes us powerful and it can be the source of great strength. As for David it transformed from servant to leader, challenger to incumbent. One can imagine he soon felt the pull and corruption of ego once he held power, putting him firmly in the shoes of Goliath and Saul…as it always seems to go. And so in this way, ego is always the enemy—of who you are, where you are going, and what you want to do.

The reason the story of David and Goliath survives is not simply because it is the tale of the underdog, which we all love. It survives because it is the rich interplay between the traits and virtues every person must wrestle with in their own way in their own life: Where does my confidence come from? What does it mean to be humble? How can I avoid the dangers of ego and hubris?

The answer is in the text if you look for it: It’s that we need confidence or we are weak and afraid. We need to be wary of ego because it makes us vulnerable and self-destructive. Most of all, we need humility to guide and direct us. And these three variables are in constant flux and flow with each other, bringing us success and honor and heroism when they are in balance but pain, suffering and disaster when they are not.

*This story originally appeared on Thought Catalog, written by Ryan Holiday