Mark Tuitert: Train Your Stoic Mindset

Mark Tuitert is a former Dutch speed skating champion. He won gold at the 1500m at the 2010 Winter Olympics. He is now a public speaker, podcaster, and author. Mark is the author of the book DRIVE: Train je stoïcijnse mindset, from Maven Publishing, due to be translated into English as DRIVE: Train your stoic mindset in 2023.

[This interview was transcribed by Kasey Robertson from audio provided by Mark Tuitert]

How did you become interested in philosophy?

As a teenage boy, I was really interested in history. I loved it, in fact. I was always curious as to how history played out and why things happened the way they did, why historical figures made the choices they did etc. Wars of the last century intrigued me but also the classical age. The Romans and the Greeks particularly fascinated me.

When I was 20 years old, I became really ambitious and focused on professional sports. I was one of the big talents in speed skating. So, I pursued my dream of wanting to become an Olympic champion. I signed a big contract and I had a lot of media requests, so I was the new rising star leading up to the Olympics of Salt Lake City in 2002.

On the other hand, I was also struggling at home. My parents were having a rough divorce, constantly fighting. As the eldest of three boys, and because I loved my family, I tried to take charge and intervene thinking I could stop it. However, the harder I tried the worse it seemed to get.

I wanted to release all of this pent-up negative emotion, so I trained harder. I trained relentlessly, thinking that I could cope better by proving myself, but I wound up overtraining. So, in 2002, during the Olympic Games at Salt Lake City, I laid in my bed sick. I laid there for probably 6 months. I simply could not train, and so I was forced to rest. I began to hear whispers in my world of sports like, “It’s the end of his career” and “We won’t be seeing him back again…” To me, that couldn’t be further from the truth. I knew I had to do something about this. So I thought, “I’ll just train even harder! Yeah, that’s it…”

When I’m in the tunnel of training hard, I put blinders on that block everything else out. I knew I was fooling myself, though. I was seeing things from an unhealthy perspective, and my life and health were reflections of that. That’s when I found philosophy. I wanted to learn how to achieve balance in my life, to make the right choices, be a good person, live a good life, but still keep my ambition and pursue my dream of being a successful speed skater.

I found that Stoic philosophy helped me in all areas of my life, both personal and career.

I found that Stoic philosophy helped me in all areas of my life, both personal and career. I now view all facets of my life through a Stoic lens. Yes, I had looked into other schools of philosophy but the Stoics really inspired me most. They helped me find a stronghold in the storm of life and I love it.

What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?

I teach a couple of concepts, but I think the most important concept is about anger. Many people have expressed that they related to my feeling anger towards my father, and how it was unknowingly keeping me back.

I had missed a few Olympics by 2006, my goal was to win a medal…but I didn’t get there. I wasn’t reaching my full potential somehow. I didn’t skate the way I should and it became quite unsettling. Determined to find what this roadblock was, I dug deep within myself. That’s when I realized that it was my deep-seated anger that was holding me back; my anger towards my father for the agonizing divorce from my mother. However, viewing the situation again through a Stoic lens, I could see that I needed to separate how I felt about him from the divorce. I held onto the initial reaction, though, and I had a hard time moving forward because of that.

One of the greatest Stoic philosophers puts it beautifully: “When we are frustrated, angry or unhappy, never hold anyone except ourselves – that is, our judgments – accountable” and “It is not events that disturb us but our judgements about them.” If you have an event, something that happens to you and it provokes an emotion, we accept the initial emotion as how we truly feel and adopt it as truth. But that’s the wrong way of thinking. There’s something in between judgment and the event, and that’s your own opinion. What a powerful concept. For me, the event was the divorce of my parents fighting each other while my emotion was anger towards my father. But in between is my opinion, or my judgment about my father.

Once I found the source of my personal and professional hindrance, I asked myself what are the judgements I currently have about my father? Well, he was a bad father. The next question was, are you a better father today than he was then? Also, do you know what it’s like not to have contact for 6 years with your sons? I strive to be a better father, but also no, I don’t know what it’s like to not have contact with my children for 6 years. However, I’m the one who chose not to have that contact. So, instead of judging, I think it’s wiser to try to understand, to ask good questions and suspend judgment like Socrates would.

I promote this example in my talks and in my book, Train Your Stoic Mindset. My goal is to teach people to separate their judgements from the event, much like Epictetus. For separating our own judgements from the events that occur in our lives helps us achieve clarity, allowing us to see the fallacy in our perspective. I worked on separating those judgements over the course of 4 years, leading up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. It was there that I won the gold medal.

This process of questioning my initial judgments, and letting go of them, freed me. I felt so much room to excel and I didn’t feel angry anymore. I chose to lose those negative emotions and for me, that’s what Stoicism is especially about – learning to detach yourself from a situation to gain a healthier perspective. You have the power to rid yourself of these negative emotions. It’s your choice. One you do, life becomes better overall, more fun. I now have more energy, positive energy, that I use to follow my own path as an athlete, as a man, and as a person.

Do you have a favorite quote that you use?

Yes, I do, A couple actually. I often quote Marcus Aurelius, as I think he writes down his quotes beautifully. I love “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.” I refer to that a lot to cope with setbacks. My perspective has become that it’s not an obstacle that blocks our paths, we can actually move further. It’s up to us to find a new direction.

I love also what Epictetus tells us about how if we’re in the classroom, we think we know how everything works. But when you drag us out into the field, out into the real world, we don’t know anything.

We indeed are able to write and to read these things, and to praise them when they are read, but we do not even come near to being convinced of them. Therefore what is said of the Lacedaemonians, “Lions at home, but in Ephesus foxes,” will fit in our case also, “Lions in the school, but out of it foxes.” – Discourses, 4.5

There’s a sort of humbleness in this philosophy. You never think of yourself as superior to anything or anyone. You reflect on life. To live is to wrestle, like Marcus Aurelius would say, right? The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing. We have to be ready for the unforeseen.

You touch on being careful not to use that you are “too busy” as an excuse in a blog on your site. Can you elaborate?

Yes, well, I sometimes use that as an excuse. When you say to friends “No, I’m too busy to do this; I’m too busy to do that”, you’re actually fooling because it’s not that you’re too busy. You have priorities in life, and you act according to those priorities. I have my kids, my family, my work, my book, my presentations. I do some television work too. So, of course, I’m busy, but I do the things I want to do. I have a sort of hierarchy in the things I find important in life, and I start with that hierarchy. I always put the things I find most important on top. So that means I cannot do other things, but I cannot use the excuse of being “too busy”.

If I’m honest with myself, I have to say, yeah, this is not important enough to me for me to spend my time on right now. Of course, that’s not always the way in real life. Sometimes you can say you are too busy and that’s okay but only if you’re not kidding yourself. So, if you say to somebody else that you’re too busy, and you really think you are too busy, you are self-deceived.

If you can say you’re too busy and know consciously that it’s because what’s being asked of you seems less important to you than other things, that’s okay. I don’t find anything wrong with that. But if you use the excuse often, and you actually think you are too busy, then you have it wrong. The thing you are struggling with saying yes to is probably something that is not important enough to you.

A friend of mine once replied, “Mark, you’re not too busy.” When I used to say I was too busy he would say: “You have a lot of things going on in your life that you find more important. But ‘too busy’ is not the proper excuse. You would just rather do something else.” I thought, yeah, that is true. So from that moment on, I’m really keen on avoiding using that term too often.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?

If you’d like to, you can read my book, DRIVE: Training Your Stoic Mindset. It’s slated to release in English next year. I have given quite a few talks as well, using my Olympic story and its Stoic foundation. Many people ask me about Stoic philosophy right after my talks. They hit me up on Instagram as well or send emails. I think that’s beautiful. That’s really become my mission in these last few years is getting in touch with people in order to get them in touch with Stoicism. I believe the philosophy can help them deal with life’s challenges, with parents, with work, with negative emotions and so on. It has really become my mission to help people who are struggling in their everyday lives, to light a fire under them and inspire them to read more about Stoicism and apply it.

DRIVE: Training Your Stoic Mindset, reads like a training manual because I’m used to training manuals. I believe we should not just train our bodies to become fit, but train our minds to be flexible and resilient.

You can also check out my website. It’s in English too. There you’ll find some info and also look at my YouTube channel for some short presentations. You can also follow me on Instagram, although most of my captions are in Dutch. I hope to transition more to English because I would love to be part of the international Stoic community.

Suppose you will be able to give a workshop at Plato’s Academy in Athens about resilience. How would you feel about that?

Well, that would be great. I think I have my own take on Stoic philosophy, performance and life, and I would love to share that take. So hopefully people are inspired or I can light up the spark that lights the fire within someone’s mind to think about things in a different way, to open up, to free themselves of negative emotions.

I think that’s one of the main reasons why we are all philosophers in some way. We try to work our way through life by thinking and asking ourselves questions, such as “Are we living a good life? Is this worthwhile? Does it resonate for me and for other people? And who am I in a community? What do I bring to the community? What what are the most important things in life? And do I live my life by these standards?” So many questions to ask yourself, and that’s, I think, a beautiful part of philosophy. It’s the life questions you ask yourself. It’s the the inspiration you get from the big philosophers coming after Socrates, of course, and the philosophers before that too, like Heraclitus. They inspired me a lot.

So I would love to come to the Plato’s Academy Centre. I would love to come to Athens again. I was there two weeks ago with all of you and it really inspired me. It’s really cool to feel the connection with the original place where philosophy flourished – and also democracy, trade, life flourished there. I think we are drawn to that place, and to that philosophy, again, especially now with the world seeming to be in chaos because of war, inflation, economy, environmental crises. It’s an interesting time and an interesting place. So I think, maybe more than ever, we can benefit from classical philosophy.

Mark Tuitert speaking at the original site of Plato’s Academy in Athens

If I can play a part in that whole, I would love to do so. That would be a really great thing! I would cherish doing that worldwide, like a real cosmopolitan, meeting people all over the world who are inspired by philosophy or inspired by Stoicism. If I can help to share that inspiration, that passion, and do it from my own points of view, such as being an athlete, and being a father, yeah, I would just love to do that. Thank you for giving me the opportunity with his interview. I’m sure we’ll meet again. I would love to be part of future events in Athens.

Mark Tuitert, Drive

What do you think?