The Stoic Approach to
Successful Online Publishing

Marcus Aurelius

When most people hear the word “stoic” the first things that come to mind are “boring” and “dull” – both negative characteristics. That’s too bad. Because there’s a lot we can learn from the Stoics of ancient Greece.

Most don’t realize that Stoicism was a tried and true ancient way of life, a way of engaging the world. While there were many Stoics and many variations on the central tenets, here are 3 basic principles that I have taken to heart:

  1. You should not worry about or place value in anything you cannot control.
  2. You should spend most of your time doing, not thinking or theorizing or planning.
  3. You should strive to locate happiness in things you can control.

I was chatting with a friend about these principles and it occurred to me that these are quite possibly the best 3 pieces of advice an online publisher could receive. And from there I set about writing this article.

Let’s tackle each principle individually, looking at how we can apply it to the world of online publishing.

1. You should not worry about or place value in anything you cannot control.

Worrying takes time. But it does no good unless it quickly motivates action. Unfortunately, there are many things we worry about that we cannot do anything about (e.g. whether or not the person you emailed will link to your article -> it does no good to worry once you’ve done what you can do).

Remember the feeling of taking final exams and then spending the next 5 hours worrying whether you had made stupid mistakes? This serves no good purpose. And it’s a waste of your time and energy. Worrying gets in the way of productivity.

However, worrying is just one example of the common mistake of placing too much value in things we can’t control. Think about how you spend your time. That’s a good indicator of what you value. I know that I spend a lot of my time watching things happen. Just observing. Statistics. Social media campaigns. Search engine placement. What’s the latest news on Drudge or HuffPo?

In moderation, this stuff is not bad and we can be edified by it. The problem is apparent though when these things A) occupy the majority of our time, cutting into productivity and B) stop enabling, and start inhibiting.

At the end of the day, we should only worry about the things we can control, and even then we should quickly move to stop worrying and start doing. Further, our time is best spent focused on things we have control over (things we can make happen), not things we are just passively observing.

2. You should spend most of your time doing, not thinking or theorizing or planning.

I think far too many of us spend far too much time reading about publishing tips or marketing theory, and far too little time actually doing stuff. Once you know the fundamentals of publishing and marketing, it’s time to “just do it.”

Sure, you should stay up to date with the lastest and greatest strategies from sites like Copyblogger, but don’t think for a second that just because you read about how to write great titles, the articles will somehow start magically writing themselves. Definitely learn from blogs like Copyblogger, but spend 10x as much time writing and developing content as you spend reading about how to develop content.

The number one problem I see with online publishers is that many want magic to happen. There’s a mythos that if you just create enough articles, you’ll be fine. When the magic doesn’t come, the publisher comes running back for advice from advice blogs. And a vicious circle starts where more time is spent reading tips then doing work. Very few publishers are willing to follow the 10x rule that I recommend.

I’ve consulted with many clients, and the rule that most often gets ignored is: build less content, but build it great. Building great content takes hard work and lots of effort. It can take weeks instead of hours. But for goodness sake: if you really want to be successful as an online publisher, start by setting yourself apart with great content. Spend the time you’d normally spend chatting or strategizing or reading or scheming and instead just … work.

Do. Act. Make.

3. You should strive to locate happiness in things you can control.

This is for all the social media and stat junkies. You know who I’m talking about. Me and you, that’s who. We can’t avoid checking our site statistics every 30 minutes or reloading Digg and Reddit to see how the latest social media campaign is going. We get peaks of joy from surprise links that send thousands of new visitors. We get ultra-depressed when someone comes by and ridicules us with a comment on our blog or when the people at Digg decide they don’t like our content.

We are the people who are inclined to measure our personal value in terms of external factors like traffic growth or recognition by a major blog. And when we get depressed, we tend to be less productive. We become observers rather than doers.

It’s time to stop being such fools. Time to grow up and get over it. Time to locate happiness in the things we can control: like our work ethic, our committment to quality, and our push to do our very best. Instead of mulling over failure, let’s get back to work.

Conclusion

So that’s what I think the Stoics have to say about web publishing. Moral of the story: the successful web publisher will value her hard work, the completed, polished product, and the ability to adapt and make things a little better next time. In doing so, she will spend much less time looking at statistics, reading other people’s work, and worrying about things that are out of her control.

About the Author: Ryan Caldwell microblogs at Thrive and is the founder of Brainz, a top secret online information project that’s currently in a public Alpha state.

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Comments

  1. Great article, and hitting this freelancer at just the right time.

    Thanks Ryan!

  2. This is an excellent article Ryan, so true with online publishing as well as other aspects. I think #2 is especially important in life.

    Just like John Lennon said, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans”. Thank you for this inspiring post,

    Anthony

  3. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

    I have been reading Seneca and Epictetus for years now. Over and over and over again. I believe everyone should read the Stoics and learn from these ancient, yet truthful insights about life.

    Great article Ryan. Thanks again.

  4. No doubt. I gave up looking at my stats a while ago. Obsessing over stats keeps you running laps instead of sprinting off the track.

  5. Ryan: Well, will you look at that! I’m a Stoic and I never knew it – well most of the time, anyway. I am definitely a person who finds some pleasure in all that I do, even if it is just knocking out an unpleasant task. I probably spend a little too much time thinking rather than doing, but I do find great value in planning – within reason. Thank you for the great post and helping me to define who I am:o))

  6. Great great piece. I know my partners and I have way too many peaks and valleys that lead to dips in productivity. Being more stoic and focusing on what we can control is spot-on advice. Thanks

  7. great content takes hard work and lots of effort. It can take weeks instead of hours. But for goodness sake: if you really want to be successful as an online publisher, start by setting yourself apart with great content.
    ———————————————————

    Thanks so much for confirming this. Time constraints allow me perhaps 3 posts a month but I try my hardest to make them worth my readers time.

  8. I really needed this! I definitely spend a lot of time planning and worrying and then I suffer from overthink and no matter what I produce seems not good enough.

    Great way to clarify the need forward motion.

    Amber.

  9. By “top secret online information project” I take it you mean SEO site for drug and alcohol addiction? Could have picked a better domain.

  10. “You should spend most of your time doing” is a lesson that has taken me quite a while to take to heart. I am a great one for spending hours and hours brainstorming but very little time actually doing things.

  11. I really enjoyed this article. I espcially agree on your thoughts regarding “Doing” and not “Thinking.” There’s only so much planning you can do before you should just get to work!

  12. Hey Joe. Very good guess, given the evidence available. But wrong.

    Here’s a hint: you note that the domain wouldn’t be a good fit for a site on addictions, so think about what the domain name might be a good fit for and you’ll be on the right track.

  13. Ah!

    I remember learning the basics of stoicism in high school and thinking “Man why would anyone want to live like that?”

    It makes a lot more sense with ten more years of life experience behind me.

    Great article Ryan.

  14. These 3 stoic sayings make perfect sense to me, especially the doing instead of checking statistics and stuff all the time, in fact if we all concentrated on doing rather than thinking, we would be better off financially in half the time.

    Once all the content on a blog has been written it could be repurposed into a book of our own and sold online and offline…just do it everyone!!!!!

  15. I have never spent weeks working on something that I was going to publish. That seems so different than everything I have heard. I guess with extensive keyword research I could extend my article writing time a little more.

  16. Huh, turns out the Stoics wrote the original serenity prayer. Who knew?

    This is a good reminder–I have a bad tendency to spend unbelievable amounts of time thinking about stuff rather than, you know, doing stuff. If I put my worrying energy into things I actually could control, I’d probably be queen of the universe at the moment.

  17. “spend 10x as much time writing and developing content as you spend reading about how to develop content”

    It’s the whole idea that writers write. Yes, they read plenty, too–but, you’ve got to write a lot to be able to produce lasting quality writing.

  18. I wholeheartedly agree. Too much junk out there masquerading as valued information. Lots of dreamers, pretenders, and …well, masqueraders. Happiness and success is what everyone wants, however they define that. Good info expands to accomplish that end.

    Jeff Korhan

  19. Awesome Post. Great tips for not just publishing but for life and getting unstuck. Wonderful as usual!

  20. Thanks for the slap in the face. Especially #2. Easy to think and read and watch. Hard to just do and work. But that’s what pays off.

  21. For a lot of the “newbies” out there, this is especially important. It might even be better stated as “spend more time doing than dreaming.”

    Dreams are useful only when used to invigorate to action. Otherwise, they are never achieved.

  22. First of all, I like how you used the term “online publisher” instead of blogger. There’s a level of distinction there — just because you publish online doesn’t automatically mean you’re a blogger.

    I find stoicism helpful, and especially your rule #2. Thinking is necessary but doing is absolutely essential.

    I just wish there was more recognition for emotion, compassion, intuition and spontaneity. Sometimes the best works of expression arise from those virtues.

  23. How easy it is to get caught up thinking “research” (AKA reading other people’s stuff) is working. Sure, I need to keep on top of my industry but I also need to get my writing done.

    Great post. Thanks.

  24. I totally agree with all the words in this post.

    The only guarantee in life is that if you do nothing, you will get nothing.

  25. Thanks Ryan for this inspiring post. Wise words for any endeavour.

  26. Good article… I need to take this to heart. I’ve been tethered to my stats since I launched and it becoming a growing obsession… I need to step away and enjoy life then return with new and compelling stories to tell. Thanks for the advice!

  27. Another great article. The ‘stat-check-tic’ is very, very hard to shake. Having one day per week when you don’t touch your PC on is even harder. But it has helped. Thank you, Ryan. Thank you wife! P. :)

  28. Check out this website on Stoicism:

    http://www.newstoa.com