A Stoic Approach to Problems from Nick Saban by Alec Bowling

I am not a fan of the Alabama Crimson Tide football team. I don’t have houndstooth pajamas. I don’t bow my head, fold my hands, and say “roll tide” before every meal. In fact, as a college football fan, it sort of annoys me that Alabama has been such a juggernaut these past several years, battering teams left and right and generally making the sport more predictable.

Not that they should be faulted for that. That’s a big part of the reason I’m intrigued by their coach, Nick Saban. I won’t be smiling as Saban leads Alabama to win three out of the next five national championships, but in the words of the fictional anchorman, Wes Mantooth: “goddamn it do I
respect you.”

In the fall of 2017, Alabama beat Texas A&M by only 8 points, a margin that was a misstep from the weekly lashings they had been doling out on their SEC foes. Saban’s team had a number of players native to Texas, who were returning to their home state for the first time since the destruction of Hurricane Harvey. When a reporter asked if this may have impacted their focus, Saban had the following to say:

It’s kind of like my dad used to tell me when I used to go to work at the station, my girlfriend broke up with me so I was treating the customers bad.

He said – ‘What’s wrong with you today?’

I said ‘My girlfriend broke up with me.’

He said ‘Well, you’ve got one problem, but if you keep treating the customers bad you’re going to have two more. I’m going to fire you and then I’m going to whip your ass for getting fired.”

In the wake of a hurricane, some might look at this sentiment as uncaring or mean. But often, as many of us have experienced, the difficult thing to say is the right thing to say. I don’t know the answer to whether this was the right thing to say at the right time, but I do know that there was, and is, great wisdom in this line of thinking.

The crux of what Saban is saying is that using unfortunate events that happen to us as an excuse to neglect other areas of our life is entirely counterproductive and a very effective form of self-sabotage. The practical application of this wisdom struck me this morning. I had had a terrible time getting to sleep the night before, so I was up and running on maybe 3 hours of sleep.

I was pissed off and the last thing I wanted to do was work hard. I don’t have the energy, I thought. How can I be expected to do good work on such little sleep, I thought. Then it hit me – I have one problem right now: a lack of sleep. But, if I let that be an excuse for not working hard at today’s work, I’m going to be facing many more problems.

A project falls behind on its deadline. That’s two problems now. A detail gets missed on a document to a client, and I look bad in front of my boss. Now I’ve got thee problems. You get the idea.

As I was thinking through this, all these gears lined up in my brain and I began to realize that this line of thinking echoes Stoicism in many ways.
One place I see this reflected is in Meditations: Book 6, Chapter 2. Marcus Aurelius says the following:

Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.
Cold or warm.
Tired or well-rested.
Despised or honored.
Dying… or busy with other assignments.

For so many of us (myself certainly included), our work ethic is conditional. Our moral duty is conditional. We have no problem doing the right thing as long as it doesn’t inconvenience us in any way. But that is not a sustainable way to live, as life rarely caters to our whims.

Nick Saban is a model of success in many avenues. How to coach. How to run an organization. The right things to value. The right way to live. His six national championship wins attest to that, in addition to him being nearly universally lauded as the greatest college football coach of all
time. Marcus Aurelius ruled over almost the entirety of Europe and North Africa and is widely considered one of the greatest Roman emperors.

Now, a core tenet of stoicism is the defeat of your emotions with reason. And from these two disparate sources, almost two millennia apart, we see the same common thread: put your emotions to death. What Saban provides here is the knife with which to kill them.

Let’s look at a scenario. Say you didn’t get the promotion you were hoping for. You are immediately struck many negative emotions, including resentment, frustration, and entitlement. Now, you don’t want to work as hard. Your internal monologue tells you things like, “Oh, it’s not like I’m going to get noticed anyway,” or, “I’m gonna take it easy today. I’m too angry, I can’t get work done like this.” For various reasons, you are tempted to neglect your duties.

But of course there is the other part of your mind telling you to press on. To do the right thing. To work hard in spite of the recognition. Problem is, we are often dealt such strong blows that it’s incredibly hard to conquer them through mere moral obligation. Sometimes, our selfishness is almost overwhelming. In these instances, this teaching from Saban is helpful.

Don’t do the right thing because you should. Don’t do the right thing because someone is telling you to. Don’t do the right thing to make someone else happy. Do the right thing, because if you don’t, you are just going to have more shit to deal with.

It’s certainly not something to put on a bumper sticker, but desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s a last line of defense against our selfishness. It in fact turns our selfishness to our advantage.

A bit more optimistically, Marcus also says the following:

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?

But it’s nicer in here …

So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?

With this logic, we can substitute basically any word for ‘nice.’ You might say: helping that person would be hard. So you were born to only experience “easy” things?

You might say: my current situation is comfortable. So you were born only to be comfortable? That’s your purpose in life? This wisdom is effective because it helps to strip our situation of unhelpful emotion. It turns our
self-interest to an advantage, rather than our notion of what we ‘should’ do, which can often times frustrate us further. Our situation becomes unemotional, amoral, and practical. The correct next steps become clear immediately.

In my own predicament, being exhausted from a lack of sleep, this wisdom didn’t magically inject me with four additional hours of sleep, but it gave me something perhaps just as valuable – clarity and focus.

The next time you are faced with a problem, ask yourself: how many problems do I want to have?

Your car transmission dies and you’re angry. Do you want to create more problems by letting your frustration out on the mechanic who had nothing to do with it?

Your husband took too long getting ready and now you’re late for dinner with friends. Do you want to create more problems by speeding and potentially getting a ticket?

The people behind you are talking loudly during the movie. Do you want to add problems by not enjoying the film or getting into a needless confrontation?

You forgot about a test tomorrow and now only have 5 hours to study. Do you want to only have 4 hours to study because you spent an hour beating yourself up over forgetting?

Frequently, we use bad things that happen to us, problems, to be a license to neglect other areas of our life. Doing so feeds our pride, our idea that our lives are Greek tragedies, which in its own twisted way is gratifying (perhaps because it makes our failure extraordinary in our minds, and thus, it makes us extraordinary in some warped way). But in doing so, we only serve to create more problems, more pain, and more distance between ourselves and the people we want to be. To overcome this we must remember that we are just people and that problems are an everyday occurrence for every person who’s ever existed – even the important ones.

And to all of this, Saban might ask: how many problems do you want to have? When faced with the seed of a problem, we are the gardeners. We control whether that problem grows into a Redwood tree of more problems, or withers in the soil. When faced with a problem, ask yourself: do I want more problems? If the answer is no, proceed accordingly.

 

Alec Bowling is a marketing executive in New York City, a career field in which a stoic mindset is a must have.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

5 thoughts on “A Stoic Approach to Problems from Nick Saban by Alec Bowling”

  1. “And from these two disparate sources, almost two millennia apart, we see the same common thread: put your emotions to death. What Saban provides here is the knife with which to kill them.” I am uncomfortable with the violence expressed in this sentence. I’m not of the mind that killing my emotions is the virtuous act of a stoic; guiding them perhaps, managing them, corralling them even on occasion, but not killing them or even defeating them. Making a contest of reason vs emotion can only serve to make for unnecessary tension. I’d rather reason act to direct, inspire, and cultivate emotions of compassion or loving kindness by way of reason. Violence in speech toward our internal processes does not seem consistent with my understanding of Stoicism let alone it’s practice.

  2. Great piece. Reading this gave me such great perspective today.

    Thanks for sharing it; was a great read and very inspiring

    Emma

  3. This is getting ridiculous. I guess the next modern exemplar we’ll here about is Vince Lombardi. You’ll be interested to know that many of Saban’s peers and successful players consider him an asshole. He’s a good football coach but apparently a terrible person. Maybe he should beat players for wrong thinking. Some of these modern examples who seem to embody only masculine toughness really stretch credulity and distort the complexity of stoic thought and practice as exemplified by Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca. Marcus, the leader of the known world, wouldn’t recognize Nick Saban as a stoic or really as anyone to emulate.

  4. Well-written piece Alec, I like the main premise of not multiplying our problems.

    This part also resonated with me:

    ‘Don’t do the right thing because you should. Don’t do the right thing because someone is telling you to. Don’t do the right thing to make someone else happy. Do the right thing, because if you don’t, you are just going to have more shit to deal with.’

    This attitude can be very refreshing for someone with weak personal boundaries and who lacks assertiveness (quite common). ‘What, you mean I can save myself trouble because I don’t want trouble? Wow!’.

    Just one further remark. I would be careful here:

    ‘Now, a core tenet of stoicism is the defeat of your emotions with reason. And from these two disparate sources, almost two millennia apart, we see the same common thread: put your emotions to death.’

    Likely you were focusing on a punchy writing style, but let’s be careful not to help others misunderstand Stoicism as a project of extinguishing all emotion! As we know, the Stoic approach to emotion is actually quite nuanced and complicated, being as much a philosophy which cultivates rational love and joy as a philosophy which defeats emotional disturbance with logical argument.

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