Old School: 7 Ideas From Ancient Thinkers To Improve Your Modern Life



The modern world has brought us a lot of great stuff. (I, for one, am a huge fan of antibiotics.)

That said, we know there are things that were better in the past, ideas we can learn from or reclaim.

What’s interesting is recently science and experts have validated many of the lessons ancient thinkers knew but could not prove.

Here are 7 new ideas from the old world that can make your life better:


1) Community Is Vital

For 99% of human existence we lived in small tribes. We were constantly surrounded by family and friends.

Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, says it’s obvious why hunter-gatherers join modern society and not the other way around…

…but what are the advantages of the traditional world that they leave behind?

Always being surrounded by the people they love.

Via The World Until Yesterday:

Loneliness is not a problem in traditional societies. People spend their lives in or near the place where they were born, and they remain surrounded by relatives and childhood companions… As one American friend who spends much time in Africa summed it up, “Life in Africa is materially poor and socially/ emotionally rich, while U.S. life is materially rich and socially/ emotionally poor.”

And, no, Facebook is not a replacement for time with friends:

In one experiment, Cacioppo looked for a connection between the loneliness of subjects and the relative frequency of their interactions via Facebook, chat rooms, online games, dating sites, and face-to-face contact. The results were unequivocal. “The greater the proportion of face-to-face interactions, the less lonely you are,” he says. “The greater the proportion of online interactions, the lonelier you are.”

Not feeling socially connected can make you stupider and lead to an early death:

When people’s sense of social connectedness is threatened, their ability to self-regulate suffers; for instance their IQ performance drops (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002). Feeling lonely predicts early death as much as major health risk behaviors like smoking (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).

The solution? Use technology to facilitate face to face meetings with friends, not to replace them.

(For more on how to improve your social life, go here.)

We definitely need others, but what did our ancestors know about feeling better as an individual?


2) “Mens sana in corpore sano”

Look at me getting all fancy with the Latin — actually it’s a phrase we’ve all heard: “A sound mind in a healthy body.”

Originally written by the Roman poet Juvenal, it was meant to make sure we kept our priorities straight.

But in the modern world we often neglect our bodies, eating bad food and not exercising.

Science backs Juvenal up. In fact, research shows having a healthy body is an essential part of having a sound mind.

Want to get smarter? Exercise.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

“One of the prominent features of exercise, which is sometimes not appreciated in studies, is an improvement in the rate of learning, and I think that’s a really cool take-home message,” Cotman says. “Because it suggests that if you’re in good shape, you may be able to learn and function more efficiently.”

How about happiness? Research from Duke University shows exercise is as effective as antidepressants in treating depression.

Via Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:

In a landmark study affectionately called SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise), James Blumenthal and his colleagues pitted exercise against the SSRI sertraline (Zoloft) in a sixteen-week trial… Blumenthal concluded that exercise was as effective as medication.

What’s truly amazing is that exercise can help you totally overhaul your life.

Working out is what Charles Duhigg calls a “keystone habit.”

It’s a habit that research shows leads people to create other, often unrelated, good habits:

When people start habitually exercising, even as infrequently as once a week, they start changing other, unrelated patterns in their lives, often unknowingly. Typically, people who exercise start eating better and becoming more productive at work. They smoke less and show more patience with colleagues and family. They use their credit cards less frequently and say they feel less stressed. It’s not completely clear why. But for many people, exercise is a keystone habit that triggers widespread change. “Exercise spills over,” said James Prochaska, a University of Rhode Island researcher. “There’s something about it that makes other good habits easier.”

(For more on how to build better habits and overhaul your life go here.)

So community can surround us with friends and exercise can build a better body and mind. But what can the ancients teach us about wisdom?


3) “Gnothi seauton”

Not Latin this time, it’s Greek. This is the most famous maxim from the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece: “Know Thyself.”

Often espoused but rarely systematically explored, there are few things that can truly guide powerful decisions more than knowledge of who you really are.

Pete Drucker, modern business guru, knew the ancient Greeks were on to something.

Drucker said it’s only by having a clear vision of your strengths that you can make good decisions.

Via Management Challenges for the 21st Century:

(This) enables people to say to an opportunity, to an offer, to an assignment: “Yes, I’ll do that. But this is the way I should be doing it. This is the way it should be structured. This is the way my relationships should be. These are the kind of results you should expect from me, and in this time frame, because this is who I am.”

When I asked Gautam Mukunda, leadership expert at Harvard Business School, the key to becoming a better leader, he didn’t hesitate:

More than anything else, “Know thyself.” Know what your type is. That if you are, both in the sense that you can use these coding rules to figure out okay, how would I score with the organization? But even more profoundly, think about your own personality… There are types, and I’m not saying be in the wings, I’m saying be who you are, and understand what the downfalls of that are so you can counteract that.

(For more on the process of how to get to know yourself better, go here.)

But what about after the big decisions? How do we prepare better for the tough situations that inevitably follow?


4) “Premeditatio Malorum”

You can call it the “premortem.” More simply, it’s merely asking yourself the question “What’s the worst that could happen?”

The Stoic philosophers would imagine the worst before any major undertaking. Why? To prepare themselves.

Ryan Holiday, author of the excellent book The Obstacle Is the Way explains:

…we look to envision what could go wrong, what will go wrong, in advance, before we start. Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they refuse to consider something might not go exactly as they wish.

Today this technique not only helps CEO’s close deals, it saves lives.

Dan Coyle, the expert on expertise, says it’s an essential part of how US Special Forces prepare for every dangerous mission:

…they spend the entire morning going over every possible mistake or disaster that could happen during the mission. Every possible screwup is mercilessly examined, and linked to an appropriate response: if the helicopter crash-lands, we’ll do X. If we are dropped off at the wrong spot, we’ll do Y. If we are outnumbered, we’ll do Z.

(For more on how premortems can make sure you’re prepared for anything, go here.)

So the premortem can get you ready. But what makes sure we actually knuckle down and get the work done?


5) Focus

If this were Renaissance Italy, you might be an apprentice studying under a master of his craft. Robert Greene, author of Mastery, explains:

An apprenticeship in the old days was about seven to ten years, and that’s pretty much how it is now, because that’s how long it takes to become extremely skilled at what you do.

If you’re busting your hump every day to be amazing, 10 years is around 10,000 hours — the expertise number Malcolm Gladwell popularized in Outliers.

Why does it seem so hard to become a “master of your craft” today vs in 1400’s Florence? It’s all the distractions.

And our natural reaction is to think we need yet another thing to save us from the distractions. Wrong.

What we need is more like the old days — fewer things, not more.

Lifehacker extraordinaire Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Workweek, has some insight on this. I gave him a call for his thoughts:

Focus is a function, first and foremost, of limiting the number of options you give yourself for procrastinating… Focus is thought of as this magical ability. It’s not a magical ability. Put yourself in a padded room, with the problem that you need to work on, and shut the door. That’s it. The degree to which you can replicate that, and systematize it, is the extent to which you will have focus.

(For more on the secrets to focus and improvement go here.)

The classics can teach us a lot about getting better at work. What about at home? What do they say about family?


6) A Family Legacy

We get a kick out of Game of Thrones, where the different families are known to be one way or another: “A Lannister always pays his debts.

With our more individualist culture, we’ve moved away from this — and certainly no one should be branded forever by their family name.

That said, research has shown that having a family story that you share with your children can be extraordinarily powerful.

Children who know the stories of those who came before them have higher self-esteem and a sense of control over their lives.

Via The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More:

Marshall and Robyn asked those questions of four dozen families in the summer of 2001, and also taped several of their dinner table conversations. They then compared the children’s results to a battery of psychological tests and reached some overwhelming conclusions. The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem, and the more successfully they believed their families functioned… Marshall says that children who have the most balance and self-confidence in their lives do so because of what he and Robyn call a strong “intergenerational self.” They know they belong to something bigger than themselves.

We’ve been led to believe that kids merely need good rules. But that doesn’t jive with how the human mind works.

We don’t remember rules very well — only 14% of people can remember all Ten Commandments.

Via Think Like a Freak: The Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain:

A recent survey found that only 14 percent of U.S. adults could recall all Ten Commandments; only 71 percent could name even one commandment. (The three best-remembered commandments were numbers 6, 8, and 10— murder, stealing, and coveting— while number forbidding false gods, was in last place.)

We don’t remember rules or statistics. But we do remember stories. And what effects do stories have on us? Research shows that the list is long:

  1. They motivate us.
  2. They give life meaning.
  3. They relieve depression (and are more effective than medication.)
  4. They offer guidance for decision making.
  5. They increase learning in children.

(For more on how to improve your family, go here.)

So if there’s one takeaway here, what idea has stood the test of time all around the world?


7) The Golden Rule

There have been a lot of great ideas in the past few thousand years. But what does everyone around the globe, throughout time all seem to agree on?

The Golden Rule. We find it at the root of most every major religion.

Via 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans:

The version of the Golden Rule that most of the experts learned in Sunday school comes from the King James Version of the Bible and goes like this: “All things whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them.” But one reason why the Golden Rule comes up so frequently is that every religious tradition has a version of it.

Hinduism: “Knowing how painful it is to himself, a person should never do to others what he dislikes when done to him by others.”

Judaism: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor.”

And Islam: “None of you truly believes until he wishes for his brother what he wishes for himself.”

And research has validated how fundamental the idea of reciprocity is to human nature.

Adam Grant has shown that nice guys do finish last… but they also finish first.

“Givers” are disproportionately represented at the bottom and at the top when you look at who succeeds in life:

Then I looked at the other end of the spectrum and said if Givers are at the bottom, who’s at the top? Actually, I was really surprised to discover, it’s the Givers again. The people who consistently are looking for ways to help others are over-represented not only at the bottom, but also at the top of most success metrics.

(For more on how to leverage the science of karma and the Golden Rule go here.)


Sum Up

There are plenty of old sayings that are true and plenty that are false.

The “good old days” weren’t always good but we’ve got a lot to learn from the thousands of years of living that happened before us.

Here are a few:

  1. Community Is Vital
  2. A Sound Mind In A Healthy Body
  3. Know Thyself
  4. The Premortem
  5. Focus
  6. A Family Legacy
  7. The Golden Rule

Many things are gone but not forgotten — but here we have some powerful lessons that are forgotten but not gone.

Join 45K+ readers. Get a free weekly update via email here.

Related posts:

4 Lifehacks From Ancient Philosophers That Will Make You Happier

What 10 things should you do every day to improve your life?

How To Make Your Life Better By Sending Five Simple Emails


Subscribe to the newsletter