Use Setbacks as Signposts

Entrepreneur and Olympic champion speed skater Mark Tuitert presents a ten-step guide to reaching your peak potential through the wisdom of Stoic philosophy in The Stoic Mindset: Living the Ten Principles of Stoicism. Applying the teachings of Stoic masters including Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and Epictetus to the twenty-first century, Tuitert empowers readers to discover how Stoicism can change their lives and help them reach their full potential. Read an excerpt below.

Twelve years. I’ve trained twelve years for less than two minutes of speed skating. It’s February 2010, and in two weeks the Olympic Games are starting in Vancouver. My Olympic Games. I’ve missed them not once, but twice—in 2002 and 2006. I’m twenty-nine years old, and this might just be my only shot at Olympic glory. In Vancouver, in the 1500 meters, it’s got to happen. Everything I’ve done until this point must come together. 

In the two weeks leading up to this all-important race, all kinds of questions run through my head. What if I fail miserably? What if I’ve been training all these years for nothing? What if for the rest of my life I’ll be forced to look back on this day with regret?

You might recognize these kinds of questions if you put a lot of time, energy, and love into your work, your relationship, or something else in your life you find meaningful. These are questions that inevitably arise when taking on a challenge, though when you need to perform, they don’t exactly help. 

In those tense weeks before the 2010 Olympic Games, I read about Stoic philosophy for the first time. Whether I have it to thank for my gold medal, I cannot say. But since then I haven’t stopped reading about and applying Stoic ideas. Developing a Stoic mindset has made me both more relaxed and more driven.

We are accustomed—and this definitely goes for professional athletes—to the idea that we can control our world and force certain results. At the same time, we also understand that we don’t truly have that power: opponents can be better, the market can be up or down, a pandemic can suddenly throw a wrench in the works, or you can just have plain bad luck. The real world is chaotic, hard, and unpredictable. How can we train ourselves to better handle this? To stay true to ourselves, to find peace and fulfillment while chasing our dreams?

I found the answer to these questions in Stoicism, a school of thought that emerged in ancient Greece around 300 BC and is characterized by practical wisdom. Stoicism resonated with the Romans for centuries as well. It’s especially from this Roman period that a number of important texts have fortunately survived, and I devoured these works in particular. From Seneca: a learned, ambitious orator, writer, and statesman. From Marcus Aurelius: a wise, dutiful emperor. And from Epictetus: a man, born into slavery, who was given freedom and revealed himself to be a stern yet celebrated teacher. 

The Stoic mindset helped me channel my drive and continues to make me calmer, more effective, and more successful. Not just during my speed skating career, but also after I stopped: when I needed to enter the job market despite knowing little more than how to skate laps, when I took my first steps as an entrepreneur, and when I became a father and all of a sudden that became more important to me than the rest. 

What appeals to me most is that the main Stoics were anything but idle, daydreaming philosophers. They were engaged with the world around them, took a stand, and looked for ways, in spite of everything, to lead the best life possible. In chapter 8, I’ll address what “the best life possible” means but for now it’s enough to understand that Stoic philosophy focuses on a power hidden within every person. The external factors are not what’s important—it’s that you get the best out of yourself and do good by others. 

That’s why Stoicism remains so popular today. Compared to a thousand years ago, the world has changed drastically, but Stoicism touches on natural values—on a way of thinking that’s still deeply rooted in us as human beings.

Lesson 1: Use Setbacks as Signposts

Conquering the world, proving I’m the best—that’s what my life is about as a twenty-one-year-old speed skater. It’s 2001, and I’m working toward next year’s Olympic Games. I’m going to win everything over the coming year, and I write my future triumphs on the calendar. Failure doesn’t exist for me. I am the youngest and most promising speed skater in the Netherlands. 

In order to cash in on my career plans, I lay it on thick while negotiating my contract with my sponsor. They love the ambition I radiate and are taken with my story. I land a big deal, obviously with the caveat that certain achievements are expected of me. Welcome to the hard and results-oriented world of professional sports.

To make good on that promise, I scrap all rest days from my training schedule. At practice I do more than is asked of me. If we have to skate ten laps, I do eleven. If we go to a training camp for three weeks, I stay an extra three days, and if I have to bike for two hours, I always make it three. Working harder means skating harder, right?

That’s what I tell myself in any case, but I’m overdoing things in my eagerness to perform. I’m personally not all that aware of it—I’ve got blinders on—until my body grinds to a halt. I get sick and tired at the weirdest moments. As soon as I recover, I jack up my training schedule to make up for lost time, which only leads me to get sick again.

I’m walking to a training camp in Inzell, Germany, when things take a turn for the worse. It’s freezing cold, dark, and I’m tired before even setting foot on the ice. I fight with the voice in my head that says, “This is pointless. Why don’t you just turn around? Why don’t you go home?” I ignore that voice, put on my skates, and after a couple of laps conclude that I’m exhausted and things can’t go on like this.

Just three months before the Olympic Games kick off in Salt Lake City, Utah, there’s something seriously wrong with me. I’m sick and seriously overtrained, a lot like burnout in normal life. In 2002, the Netherlands wins eight Olympic medals, but I’m not there. On the couch at home, I can barely muster the courage to turn on the TV. Although it pains me, I watch how the medals are divided. 

So, there I am, lying like a patient in bed. Of course I can hear the commentators in the speed skating world: it’s the end of the road for Tuitert. It drives me crazy for not being too far from the truth. As a young talent, you’ve only got a few years to make your breakthrough. If by your early twenties, you still haven’t shown what you’re capable of, you can forget about a great career. My dream is falling apart because I worked too hard for it. A nightmare.

A philosophy born out of adversity

If only I’d known then about Stoicism, a school of philosophy that never would have existed without adversity. It would take years before I came into contact with the Stoics, though I could have really benefitted from them back in 2002. From works, for example, by Zeno of Citium (335–262 BC), a wealthy Phoenician merchant and the founder of Stoicism. Shipwrecked near Athens around the year 300 BC, he was forced to give up his precious cargo: he lost nearly all his possessions at one fell swoop.

He wound up on the Agora, the marketplace in ancient Athens—at the time not only the spot where business was conducted but also the beating heart of education, philosophy, and debate. His shipwreck became reason to give his life a new direction and to dedicate himself to philosophy. 

Step one for Zeno was to get to know the works of famous philosophers. He studied under the philosopher Crates. Zeno would draw many ideas from Crates, who belonged to the school of Cynic philosophers—ideas such as gender equality, which back then was a radical view. But above all, Zeno was inspired by the practical philosophy of Socrates (469–399 BC). In the end, he set up his own philosophical school in the painted porch beside the Agora, the Stoa Poikile. He’d lost everything and went searching for what was possible. He strove toward, in his own words, “practicing philosophy with less baggage.” “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck,” he said, “I’m on a good journey.” In other words: adversity is the source of Stoic philosophy.

Unlike his great inspiration Socrates, who was condemned to drinking hemlock, Zeno was honored as a highly respected citizen of Athens. He was seen as a man valuable in every way, in particular for teaching young people and so bringing out the best in others. After his death, Zeno’s students would build on his philosophy and spread Stoic ideas beyond Greece.

Half a millenium after Zeno, in the second century AD, we meet a second important Stoic philosopher, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121– 180 AD). To cope with the challenges facing an emperor at that time—fighting corruption, leading his army against Germanic tribes—he trained himself in Stoicism with the help of philosophy teachers.

This philosophy aided him in state affairs, but it also taught him how to cope with setbacks: his wife and nine of his fourteen children would die during his lifetime, and if that wasn’t enough, he was betrayed by his most valued general. With that much adversity, you could use some Stoic philosophy.

Marcus Aurelius gave his own spin to Zeno’s philosophy: he told himself that everything in life, even adversity, was useful. He drew a comparison with a fire to illustrate this point. A small fire dies out at the first setback; throw something onto it, and it goes out. However, if the fire is big enough, it will devour everything you might throw onto it. In fact, it blazes even higher. What was once adversity becomes fuel. 

Marcus Aurelius used the setbacks he was faced with as fuel for his own fire. In one of his texts, notes originally intended as reminders for himself rather than for others, he wrote: “This is not bad luck, but rather it is my good luck that, although this has happened to me, I can bear it without pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearful of the future.” A fine example of a Stoic mindset.

Author picture

Mark Tuitert won the gold medal in speed skating in the 1500-meter event at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics. After retiring from competitive speed skating, Mark has continued to make a positive impact as a bestselling author, successful entrepreneur with a global health and food business, host of the podcast Drive, motivational speaker, and representative for some of the largest organizations in the world. He has been featured on TED TALK, and also serves as an on-air speed skating pundit for Dutch Broadcaster NOS. Mark is a husband and a father of two.

Photo Credit: Vincent Riemersma

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