276 – The Zen of Zeno: Exploring the Art of Stoic Patience

Are you a patient person? Do you pay attention in your life or are you just rushing through your day? Today I want to talk about how patience is one of the most important attributes you need to live a full life, and reach your goals.

"A man who is a master of patience is master of everything else."

— Epictetus


We live in a world of instant gratification. We’re used to getting almost anything we want easily and quickly. When you buy something on amazon, you get it just a day or two. You want to see a movie, listen to that certain song all you have to do is open your phone or your computer. Want a date or to order dinner? There’s an app for that.

But when it comes to personal growth or achieving our goals, often things don’t move that quickly. We may learn something and want to improve ourselves, but we are creatures of habit and changing behaviors and well worn thought patterns is not something we can just decide and change instantly. While I wish it were just as easy opening the menu of an app and choosing a few options, it takes consistency, and to be consistent takes patience.


“Man conquers the world by conquering himself.”

— Zeno of Citium

Patience is something that needs to be practiced and cultivated. Our world is all about instant gratification and trying to get your attention all day long. They even have a term for it – the attention economy. Your attention is so important that they are willing to do whatever they can to get your attention. The more that apps and advertisements have your attention, the more likely you are to buy whatever it is that they are selling.


"Patience is power. Patience is not an absence of action; rather it is 'timing' – it waits on the right time to act, for the right principles and in the right way."

— Fulton J. Sheen

Impatience is a non-acceptance of reality. When we are impatient, we are expressing our frustration with reality for what it is and wishing that it was something else. We are registering out discontent with the now and want it to be something different than what it is.

When we are patient, we have a strong sense of awareness. We are present where we are. We give the now – where we are, what we are doing, and what we want to accomplish our full attention. If you wonder why the quality of your work is not where you want it to be, notice how much attention you pay to what you are doing.

Years ago I decided that I wanted to learn to play the cello. I got myself a nice cello, hired a teacher, practiced a minimal amount of time each day, and dutifully showed up for my lessons each week. While I made some progress, I felt frustrated because I wasn’t progressing as fast as I thought I should. I assumed that because I already knew a lot about music that my previous skills would help me to be proficient in a short amount of time. But after a year, I quit.

Looking back on it years later, I realized that I was too impatient. I had expectations of where I thought I should be after a certain amount of time. When I didn’t hit those expectations, I found excuses about why I wasn’t making the progress I wanted. Excuses like, “I was just too busy to practice like I needed to”, or “Maybe the cello is just not my thing”. In reality, it was simply that I needed the patience to put the time and attention to my practice to get to the level that I wanted to be at.


Patience is not procrastination. Procrastination is about doing anything other than what you are actually trying to accomplish. It’s about distracting yourself from the task at hand, because there is some feeling of discomfort attached to what you are trying to get done. Patience is the opposite of procrastination. Patience is about taking your time with what you are doing so you give it your full and undivided attention. Patience is about sitting with the uncomfortable so that you can accomplish what you set out to do.

Falling Behind

"Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time."

— Jon Kabat-Zinn

One of the reason why many of us struggle with patience is that we feel like we are falling behind. In each culture there are often markers of what means to be successful. We may see others around us making some kinds of achievements and feel like there is something wrong with us when we aren’t as successful as our peers. We may have also created expectations around ourselves and where we should be, and if we’re not there we start to feel like we are failing. We begin to feel stress, which ultimately leads to us not getting things done on time, or at the level that we know we can.

Do it Well

When we choose patience over rushing, then we do whatever it is we are working on better. Whether we are washing dishes, weeding the garden, or coding an application, when we choose to be mindful and give it our attention, the quality will almost always be better. When we take our time to do something well, then we also almost always save time because we aren’t rushing. When we rush we’re prone to do things poorly and make mistakes that slow us down and will often create issues that we will have to fix later.

Focused attention can save us time in the long run.

Patience is Optimism

When we are patient, we are also optimistic. When we choose to put the time and energy into doing whatever we are doing so that it is done right, we have faith that putting focus into our task is worth it. It means that we have decided that our task, whether that’s teaching a child how to play soccer, writing a book, or sweeping the kitchen floor, is worth our time and attention.

Listening is Understanding

“Formulating an opinion is not listening.”

― Rick Rubin, The Creative Act: A Way of Being

Often we don’t have patience when we are reading a book or listening to someone talk. We hurry through the book we are reading. We put the podcast on double speed. When listening to someone we may try to rush ahead and generalize their message, rather than taking the time to really understand the subtleties and nuances. We try to get the information out as fast as we possibly can. But collecting information is not the same as understanding something.

When we rush ahead we miss the subtext, what is hinted at, implied, or said between the lines. We also miss the joy of discovery and play with the material or person we’re listening to. When we seek to understand, we take the time we need. We allow for discovery. We let what we’ve learned sink in. We may even pause to consider what we’ve heard, or go back and reread a paragraph that has something deeper that we may have missed on the first pass.

The internet is full of information, but what is more important than all the information that is out there is we understand what we are consuming in a deeper way. Finding the right book or the key information is good, but unless we internalize it, reflect on it, and understand how to apply it, then it just stays in the realm of knowledge, and never makes its way to wisdom. Wisdom takes patiences.

This is why Socrates asked so many questions. He didn’t just want information, but he wanted to understand the information that he had. Being able to recite all the facts about something does you little good if you do not truly understand what it means and are able to use that information in a wise way.


“I live my life, I live it slowly. I take my time, I’m in no hurry.”

— Seal

In order for us to pay attention, we need patience. Attention takes times, energy, and effort. But to do anything well, it needs our attention. Good relationships take attention. Raising children takes attention. Creating art, building a business, or developing a new skill, all of these things take attention. Attention is your greatest resource in anything you do.

So often we simply sleepwalk through our lives because we aren’t paying attention. We have a list of things that we need to get done, and we push through those, often on autopilot. We do this all throughout the day with whatever it is we are doing. Going for a run, shopping for groceries, driving the kids to school. We pay so little attention to what we are doing that the day just slips by and the next thing we know we’re brushing our teeth and heading for bed.

Consider how different your life might feel it you gave your life the attention you would give to performing open heart surgery. Rather than mindlessly crossing things off our daily checklist, think of how much more engaged with your life would you be if you gave it focused attention. You would still get all the things done on your checklist, but you would be much more present with each moment. You would have been more immersed in each step of each task. Taking the time to slow down and be present enriches each moment. It gives each moment more weight and focus.

Attention is Love

Growing up, one of the most important people in my life was my grandmother. What I remember most about her is the attention that she gave me when we talked. Whether that was me excitedly telling her all the details of my latest wrestling match or theater performance, or talking about the girls at school, I always felt like what I said mattered to her. I felt like I mattered. She asked questions and never rushed me. I felt loved around her because she didn’t just give me her time, she gave me her attention.

Do you give attention to the people in your life? Are you patient with them? Are you present and attentive with your family and friends or are you too busy scrolling on your phone? Even with the challenging relationship that I had with my father, the things I remember most are not the material things he gave me, but the interesting conversations that we had about things like the cosmos and chaos theory. It was his attention that I wanted.

Thinking Takes Time

"Patience is the companion of wisdom."

— Saint Augustine

Good thinking takes time. When we are rushed or stressed, our ability to think drops dramatically. Our ability to consider and come up with more options is reduced. This is why people in chaotic situations often make terrible decisions. This why soldiers practice in situations that are high stress so that they can slow things down and make good decisions under fire.

Now, most of us don’t need to make decisions under that kind of stress. We usually have time to sit down and think things over. But how often do you take that kind of time? How often do you sit at your desk and just think? Or sit down and write out your thoughts so that you can examine them a bit more rationally? Or maybe go for a walk to consider something? Taking your time to consider something is always a good choice because it allows your mind to consider more options and survey the landscape. You’re often better able to see the whole picture and have a broader view than when you’re rushing into a decision

Practicing Patience

“Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.”

— Aristotle

So how do we get better about practicing patience?

Patience is really about mindfulness. It’s about slowing down and taking your time. When you are doing something, be as mindful as you can be. At first, this will not be easy. If your tendency is to rush, you’ll want to get through something rather than experiencing it. Can you slow down? Can you start to notice details? Can you see how thoroughly you can do something? Can you find ways to do each task well and improve how you do it? I think you’ll be surprised at much pleasure you can get just by trying to do each step just a little better.

Limiting Distractions

The more you can limit distractions, the easier it is to be patient. If you’re in a conversation with someone, try putting your phone on airplane mode so that you can give them your full attention. If you’re working on a project make sure that your workspace is clean and organized and that other projects or distractions are out of the way.

For example, when I write a podcast episode, I will often take my laptop out of my office and sit on my front deck to write. Because I can only use the screen on my laptop rather than the large monitors in my office, it is harder to get distracted with other web pages or apps.


"Patience is the ability to idle your motor when you feel like stripping your gears."

— Barbara Johnson

I often talk on this podcast about getting comfortable with the uncomfortable. This is one of the most important skills that you can develop. When you choose to face discomfort head on, you are able to learn to relax when things are challenging. You are able to do what needs to be done even if it is not what you might consider fun or enjoyable. It is about taking control of yourself, and your emotions and pressing forward even when you don’t feel like it.

Being patient can feel uncomfortable. Whether that’s working on a project, creating a piece of art, or trying to make changes in our lives, we want to get things done fast. We fixate on the end goal, and miss out on enjoying the process. When we are patient, we are able to bring mindfulness to the process, and be present rather than just running on autopilot.

When you are working on a project or reading a book, set aside an amount of time where you are only allowed to work on the particular task or nothing at all. By forcing yourself to confront the uncomfortable feelings, you’ll start to develop the capacity to just sit with them. You’ll be able to be okay with with how you feel and not reach for distractions to alleviate the discomfort.

Observations on Boredom

One of the most interesting things that I’ve noticed when I really pay attention to a task that I consider boring like washing dishes or doing yard work is that I will often have random ideas or inspirations that pop up that have nothing to do with what I’m doing. By giving my focus to the task, it seems to take my full conscious attention, which allows my unconscious to work through something else, and give me answers in other areas where I felt stuck.


Time is the most precious resource we have. By learning to slow down and be patient with the time you have, you use it wisely. As I get older, I feel the weight of having less time ahead of me than I have behind me. I want my time to last as long as possible, and I want to use the remaining time I have on this planet to accomplish what I want. I’ve found that the more patient and mindful that I am in my everyday tasks, the days seem to slow down and last longer. And while patience is not about productivity, by practicing patience and attention we actually end up being more productive. Patience helps us to do everything we do at a higher level, and helps us be more present and really experience everything in our lives more fully.

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