Photo illustration by Tracy Ma/The New York Times; Getty Images (vest)
The wealthy of Silicon Valley ought to be living their very best lives right now. John Doerr, an early Amazon and Google investor, calls their moment “the greatest legal accumulation of wealth in history.”
And yet, the people of Silicon Valley seem determined to make themselves miserable. They sit in painful, silent meditations for weeks on end. They starve for days — on purpose. Cold morning showers are a bragging right. Notoriety is a badge of honor.
So the most helpful clues to understanding Silicon Valley today may come from its favorite ancient philosophy: Stoicism.
An ancient Greek school of thought, Stoicism argued that the only real treasures in life were inner virtues, like self-mastery and courage. The Stoics offered tactics to endure pain and pleasure without complaint.
These virtues are paraded on the website of a new entrepreneurship-focused lobbying firm, the Cicero Institute. The organization started quietly last year, and is intended to advocate for start-up interests.
Its landing page is adorned with a quote from Cicero, a Roman philosopher-statesman who embraced much of Stoicism’s ethical systems while remaining skeptical of its metaphysics: “I have always been of the opinion that unpopularity earned by doing what is right is not unpopularity at all but glory.”
As stocks rise despite crises, as a new wave of wealth rises in the American West, and promotions and payouts come despite scandals, the old mantra that every start-up is going to save the world now rings hollow. But tenets of stoicism — which can be interpreted to argue that the world and its current power structure are correctly set as they are — fit right in.
Is this really a thing?
Stoicism has been the preferred viral philosophy “for a moment” for years now — or two decades, by one count. The topic of Stoicism usually comes up in the Valley in terms of the maintenance of the personal life. Start-ups big and small believe their mission is to make the transactions of life frictionless and pleasing. But the executives building those things are convinced that a pleasing, on-demand life will make them soft. So they attempt to bring the pain.
“We’re kept in constant comfort,” said Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg, in an interview on Daily Stoic, a popular blog for the tech-Stoic community. Mr. Rose said he tries to incorporate practices in his life that “mimic” our ancestors’ environments and their daily challenges: “This can be simple things like walking in the rain without a jacket or wearing my sandals in the December snow when I take the…
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