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A Daily Stoic interview with Daniele Bolelli, Italian-born American author, professor, professional, martial artist and podcast host.


Q: You have written, “Victory or defeat are largely out of my control, but putting up a good fight … putting up the kind of fight that makes the earth shake and the gods blush … this I can do.” Was this always a deep rooted belief – focusing uniquely on your actions and not the outcome – that you had? Or was this a lesson that you had to relearn over and over?

I don’t think too many human beings are naturally above caring about victory and defeat. It’s imprinted in us to care about the outcome of our actions. While this may be natural and normal, the problem is that we can never fully control the outcome. Usually in life there are too many variables at play. So, no matter how mightily we strive or how intense our effort, odds are that at least some of the time we will come up short of our goals. And what makes things even more complicated is that the more attached you are to the outcome, the more tension and fear you will experience at the thought of possibly facing a crushing defeat – which reduces our effectiveness, since part of our energy is trapped in the jaws of fear. Paradoxically enough, the more you focus on giving your all rather than outcome, the less fear will hold you prisoner. And the less fear holds you prisoner, the higher the odds that you will perform at your peak potential and actually get the outcome you desire. I am fascinated with this idea because it offers a concrete tool to better ourselves. I struggle with this all the time because – like most people – I care deeply about outcomes. So, for me this is an ongoing practice.


A theme that comes up throughout is that, at the core of it, martial arts training provides us with tools to forge our character. I think people often forget that character-building aspect – whether it is in martial arts or any other type of training. Can you elaborate on that idea for our readers?

Character-building is the most important task any of us can tackle. People often get overly enamored with the specific detail of their field rather than remembering that ultimately any field is only as good as it helps us become more effective and better as human beings. If martial arts are just about martial arts, then screw them – they are not that important. But if martial arts (or any other field for that matter) offer us the instruments to reforge our character, then it would be foolish to miss this chance. Zen warns us not to get lost looking at the finger pointing at the moon, and focus on the moon itself. The way I see it, the details of any field are the finger, while character-building is the moon.


In Ego is the Enemy, I used an analogy you gave me – sweeping the floor. I think philosophy is a lot like that. You don’t learn it once, or think about it once. You have to do it every day. Is there one exercise or one thought you return to most? Anything specifically from the Stoics?

Marcus Aurelius wrote his Meditations in order to remind himself of how he wanted to behave in everyday life. I think this is key – to find some type of daily ritual that puts us in contact with our highest ideals, with what Nietzsche calls ‘the hero hidden in your soul’. Visualizing the person you want to be, focusing on specific characteristics, and imagining how this person would react in particular circumstances is a useful way to try to embody these ideals into reality. Regardless of what the fans of ‘positive thinking’ say, no amount of visualizing a positive outcome ensures it will happen. But visualizing how we want to face what life dishes our way is a much more realistic, and useful approach.