By all accounts Susan Fowler is a remarkable woman. She also happens to be a Stoic, and modern Stoicism certainly needs both contemporary role models and more women. Which is why I decided to profile Fowler on How to Be a Stoic.
Her basic story is well known (and it may soon be the subject of a Hollywood movie, not necessarily an unqualified blessing). Fowler grew up in the rural town of Yarnell, Arizona, the second of seven children by her fundamentalist parents. Her father was an evangelical preacher at the Assemblies of God, and her mother homeschooled her. Feeling deficient in her education, Fowler began to pay frequent visits at the local public library, and eventually picked up Plutarch and the Stoics, which she explicitly credits with directing her focus on what she could actually control in her life.
Eventually, she prepared herself for an exam of admission to university, and was accepted at Arizona State with a full scholarship. But she did not have the necessary prerequisites in math and physics to study astronomy, as she desired. So she transferred to the University of Pennsylvania, a top notch private school, where she encountered the same resistance until she successfully appealed to the President of the University. She ended up graduating in physics.
After working as platform engineer and as engineer for data infrastructure, Fowler landed a job at the transportation company Uber. In February 2017 she wrote a blog post about the pervasive culture of sexual harassment at the company. The post went viral, and led to external probes that confirmed Fowler’s accusations and resulted in the ousting of Uber’s CEO, Travis Kalanick, and the removal of tech investors Dave McClure and Justin Caldbeck.
In August of the same year Fowler petitioned the Supreme Court to take her experience into consideration while deliberating on the constitutionality of a (unconscionable, in my modest opinion) corporate practice that requires people to forfeit their right to collective bargain in order to receive a contract of employment.
As a result of her public social actions, Fowler has received a number of recognitions, including being named one of top business and cultural leaders in 2017 by Vanity Fair, and being featured on the cover of Time magazine’s Person of the Year issue for 2017.
But what I found most fascinating is a recent post published by Fowler on her blog, entitled “Twenty books that shaped my unconventional life.” She starts at the bottom, steadily proceeding toward n. 1. The list includes Swann’s Way, by Marcel Proust (n. 19), The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie (n. 18), The Aenied of Virgil (n. 15), Plato’s Republic (n. 13), The Trial by Kafka (n. 12), War and Peace by Tolstoy (n. 11), Feynman’s Lectures on Physics (n. 8), Plutarch’s Lives (n. 7), and The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky (n. 3), among others she shares with my own list of favorites.
But what struck me the most were n. 4, 2, and 1 on Fowler’s top 20. Respectively: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, The Enchiridion by Epictetus, and On the Shortness of Life by Seneca. It’s worth reading in full what she has to say about these three entries:
“The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, the great philosopher-king, have been my constant companion over the years as I sought to find my place in the world around me. Who better to learn how to structure your life from than one of the wisest, most humble, most self-aware leaders who has ever lived? My journey toward self-awareness, toward applying philosophy to my everyday life, was entirely inspired by Marcus Aurelius.”
“Marcus Aurelius was my first introduction to Stoicism, but it was Epictetus’ The Enchiridion that had served as my guide to living a good, intellectually rich life. Epictetus’ teachings are life-changing if you apply them to your life, and it is Epictetus’ own life story that gives them such significance to me: he was a crippled slave, and he found a way to live that would allow him to be free in all the ways that mattered. We live in circumstances that are so far beyond our own control, and so often we fight them relentlessly, only to lose and become bitter and miserable because they are beyond our control. Epictetus offers freedom to every one of us: determine for yourself, he says, what is yours and what is beyond your control, and then work and care only for the things that are yours, and you will always be free. What is ours? Our minds, our thoughts, our actions, our intellectual pursuits. If we cultivate those things, nobody can ever take away our freedom.”
“No book has shaped my life more than Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life. I believe with all of my heart that it is the greatest thing that has ever been written, and there is no way that I can do it justice except to encourage everyone I know to read it. It is the answer to the question of how we should live our lives, a powerful call to spend our days on things that truly matter. I have been meditating on this book and learning from it for so long that Seneca has become my closest friend and wisest mentor. He has done for me what Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and Aristotle did for him: he has not forced me to die but has taught me how to die, he has not exhausted my years but has contributed his years to mine, and he has never once sent me away empty-handed.”
That’s why Susan Fowler has become one of my Stoic role models.