Embracing desire, letting go of expectation: A Stoic philosophy via Tim Ferriss, tennis and inner demons

I took up tennis this year. Joined the local club, showed up to a few social nights. Eventually, became sufficiently comfortable on court to put my name forward for a couple of entry-level leagues.

Me and tennis go way back, but it was a distant relationship.

For years I had wanted to play.

I’ve got vivid memories of childhood summers spent in front of the television, listening to John McEnroe’s verbal explosions, smiling at Henri Laconte’s brand of on-court crowd entertainment, watching — no, studying — Stefan Edberg’s serve-volley technique.

And falling a little bit in love with Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf. 

My games were football: Gaelic and soccer. Team sports. I played no individual sport competitively, but to it I brought an individual’s mindset, an outsider’s sentiment.

So even in the team sports I found a way to the individual position: goalkeeper. The place where I would mark nobody, where nobody would mark me, where for long stretches of every game I would be alone with my thoughts. And the thoughts could become fears, and the fears could become demons.

Every match the gauntlet was thrown down: me vs my demons. I projected bravado, as much as I could. I hollered and roared and swore, so much that parents of young children half-jokingly admonished me for the sounds and the fury to which I’d just exposed their kids. Half-joking, but at least half-serious too. But through it all, the demons were there. Perched on my shoulder, their words pecking incessantly at my ear-drum.

When victory came, I celebrated it with relief. Relief that I had not screwed up, or that the screw-ups had not been costly.

When defeat came, I marked it with self-recrimination. Was there something I could have done differently? A step quicker in this direction or that? A different warm-up routine that might have allowed my body to get down to that low ball to my right? Finding the courage to say the right word at the right moment in the dressing room? I routinely blamed myself for everything that went badly, gave credit elsewhere when it went well.

Either relief or blame. No real joy, never any real joy.

After 20 years of the team environment of football, I was ready for something just for me. To test myself and my mind in something new, where I could let nobody down — at least, nobody but me.

The options: tennis, or golf, or mixed martial arts. 

Golf: a bit too much time and a bit too much expense. 

Mixed martial arts: Soon, perhaps. I can’t imagine going through life without exposing myself to martial arts. (An introductory Brazilian jiu jitsu class takes place far from me. I’ve marked it down for the near future. But I see BJJ and MMA as more for my mind than for competition, at least for now.)

So tennis it was.

I left aside the sense of class politics at play: within the past two weeks, one person has said to me, “I know a few people, put them in tennis gear and they wouldn’t say hello to you.”

The idle talk brings stoicism to mind. Stoicism has been speaking to me lately, and maybe it’s the ethos and philosophy I’ve been preparing for my whole life. With idle talk, I can listen to it, or I can ignore it.

Stoicism tells me ignore it.

Stoicism tells me that the thoughts and the words and the actions of other people are not important to me.

Stoicism says that the only important things are what I think and what I do.

Control the controllables.

There’s an air of Stoicism about Andre Agassi, the great former champion. His autobiography, Open, was quickly acclaimed as the best sporting autobiography ever written after it was published almost a decade ago, but I’ve only got to it this month. Wimbledon on the television, rackets out for club night, Agassi on the bedside locker: it’s been wall-to-wall tennis these past two weeks.

One of the heroes of Agassi’s book is his long-time coach and mentor, Gil Reyes, who educated him about what it means to be human, the afflictions of expectations and turmoil and possibilities and despair of being alive in the world.

We need, said Reyes, to see ourselves as part engineer, part mathematician, part artist, part mystic. We need to grind the cogs, we need to crunch the numbers, we need to channel our innate creativity and we need to embrace some higher power, whether it comes from God or Gaia or the universe or some place else.

And with all that, we need to find a way to be comfortable with all the contradictions that being part engineer, part mathematician, part artist and part mystic brings. Because life without contradictions and struggle and tension is impossible. 

The Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and fellas like that, would approve, I think.

There’s an equation for happiness that has been doing the rounds on various Internet memes and discussion forums in recent years. I’m not sure of its provenance — it could well derive from ancient wisdom, Stoicism or otherwise — but it goes like this:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

The equation appeals to the part mathematician in me. The attempt to try to find balance on either side of the equals sign is a noble one, even if it’s rarely possible.

Looking closely at the equation, it suggests the biggest challenge to happiness is expectation. That it is our expectations of reality, not reality itself, that make us unhappy.

One obvious option, then, is to lower our expectations. Critics of Stoicism might suggest that low expectations is a hallmark.

Tim Ferriss, a modern day Stoic, has a riff about the perception of the philosophy. “Stoicism? Well that sounds boring,” he says. “It might conjure an image of a cow standing in the rain. It’s not sad, it’s not particularly happy, it’s just an impassive creature taking whatever life sends its way.”

But that perception is not reality. Stoicism has been used as a tool and a guiding principle by some of the greatest minds in the history of humanity, from Roman emperors to American founding fathers to sporting greats, both in performance and in coaching.

In the Happiness = Reality – Expectations equation, becoming an impassive creature taking whatever life sends our way is a surefire way to lower our expectations to zero.

And if we find a way to do that, since reality is unlikely to be zero, then we can take pleasure and enjoyment in the smallest good things that come our way — “I didn’t get a speeding fine! Oh how wonderful!”, or “I am taking great pleasure in this raisin, bite by little bite”.

But the greatest minds in history would not approve of lowering expectations to zero.

Lowering our expectations to zero, while it might be theoretically laudable, is practically implausible.

By all means, we should not have expectations for outlandishness. Go into every competition expecting to come out number 1 against all-comers, and we’re almost certain to be so frequently disappointed that discontentment will become our norm.

So if (1) being happy with our lot is a legitimate aspiration (and I do believe that happiness — the true happiness of eudaimonia, not the transient material pleasure of hedonism — is the meaning and the point and the purpose of life) and if (2) lowering expectations to zero is implausible, or even impossible, what can we do?

It is, I think, to practise embracing desire while letting go of expectations. To have big ambitions and a clear, actionable plan to realise those ambitions, but to find a way to divest those ambitions of the expectation that they will become a reality. 

[An aside on ambition. Ambition can be two things: zero-sum or win-win. Zero-sum ambition, where your success depends on someone else’s failure, is not sustaining or sustainable. Win-win ambition is ambition with integrity, where your success is built upon someone else’s success before you, and where your success lays the foundations for the success of others to follow.]

The obligation to take action, the necessity to expect no particular outcome

We have one short and precious life. It’s obligatory for us on the one hand to aim big, taking action relentlessly so we do everything in our power to make those big ambitions a reality, and on the other to rid ourselves of expectations or entitlement to the outcome. 

We must lose ourselves in the daily minute process and the overall motivating purpose, and at the same time strip ourselves of the ego wrapped up in the twin impostors of triumph and disaster.

Desire is natural, and human, and resists the scalpel. Cut out the desire, and we cut out the life.

When we expect something, we are invariably left cold. We’re left cold when the thing we expect becomes a reality, because, after all, we expected it all along, so how can we take pleasure in something that was expected to happen? And we are colder if it doesn’t, because there is nothing to deadening as for things to turn out less than they were supposed to be.

When we desire something worthwhile, and when we can take action to bring ourselves to the place where it is achieved, but at every step of the way we take care to strip ourselves of ego-driven expectation, then we can truly, I think, become lost in the moment, driven by something meaningful, and fully completely at one with ourselves.

I desire a fast first serve, and I’ll work hard at getting it, but I’m not sure I have any expectation that it will ever become a reality.

And I suppose that’s a good thing.