Joe De Sena: How to Spartan Up Your Holidays

By: Joe De Sena


One of the things I like most about the Christmas and Holiday season is that, for some reason, everyone starts thinking. They think about their lives, their goals, their intentions, their families…. It might just be that we’re all overdue for a little reflection because we’ve been so busy for the past 11 and a half months, or it might be that a year is a good interval to check in on ourselves. Or, it might just be that we’re not working for a week, and we don’t have anything else to do besides think and shop. But whatever the case, it’s a thoughtful time.

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“What should I buy for my mom?”

“Whose house are we eating at?”

“What are my goals going to be for the New Year?”

“What am I thankful for?”

“What were the highlights of this year?”

“Can I transfer the vacation days I didn’t take from last December to this one?”

I hope that last one was a joke.

Here’s what I’m thinking about. Over the last two months I’ve been living in one of the most amazing cities on the planet — and, interestingly, one of the only remaining city-states in existence. (Which should make you all think of Ancient Sparta.) This city-state is Singapore, commonly known as the Garden City, the little island off the southwest coast of Malaysia.

But this post isn’t about Singapore. It’s about what I’m reminded of every time I walk out of front door and look down the street at this ridiculously green city. Every time, I think to myself:

What the hell am I doing?

I may have a different job from most people, but that doesn’t save me from having the same nagging thoughts. Here I am, relatively comfortable and living in Singapore, building this amazing company, and there are millions of people across the ocean in India and even the United States and all over the world who have nothing.

Literally nothing.

They don’t think about what they’re going to buy their moms for Christmas, or the “highlights” of their year, and good god they do not think about transferring their accumulated vacation days. They’re more concerned about getting food on the table and not dying.

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And I bet now you are wondering the same thing I wonder.

What do you do with a sad thought like that?

Here’s what I do.

First, I mentally burn all my possessions and money.

Let me stress that this is not a literal fire. It’s a mental fire.

This is an exercise inspired by a story I heard from an expert in martial arts during my first few weeks here in Singapore. It goes like this.

There’s this samurai, the master of all masters. He’s never lost a fight, never been touched with another sword. A young swordsman is trying to learn from this samurai, and he says, “I can’t understand it. How could it possibly be that you’ve been in so many fights, and yet you’ve never lost and never been touched?”

The samurai says, “An old, wise merchant taught me.”

“A merchant?” says the young swordsman. “A merchant is a businessman. How could he teach you to be a great samurai?”

“Well,” the samurai says, “years ago I was walking with the merchant, and we were walking by a salesman’s tent. In the tent there was a tea kettle for sale, and the merchant wanted it because he had broken his. He walked into the tent and said he’d like to buy it. He offered the salesman 500 stones — whatever they used as money.

“The salesman says, ‘No, I need 1000.’ They negotiated back and forth, and finally, we walked away. Within five seconds, the shopkeeper came running and said, ‘Hang on, hang on, I’ll sell it to you for the 500.’ So we went back into the tent and bought the tea kettle for 500.

“While we were in there, I saw this wonderful sword, the number one samurai sword in the world. I couldn’t believe it was there. I had to have it. So I did the same thing the merchant did. I said to the shopkeeper that I’d give him 500 stones for it. He said, “No, it’s 1,000.” We went back and forth, and finally I said, fine, we’re leaving. Now we got 20 feet away and I was waiting for the salesman to come and run over to us, but he didn’t. So I turned to the merchant and asked, “I did exactly what you did. Why didn’t he give it to me for half the price?” And the merchant said, “Because the salesman could smell that you couldn’t live without that sword.” I said, “How come he couldn’t smell that on you?”

He said, “Because every night, when I go to bed, I visualize burning all my material things. When I wake up in the morning, I start at nothing. Anything I get that day is a bonus.”

And the samurai said to the young swordsman, “I have never lost a fight because I am not attached to winning a fight. When I get into a match, my opponent can’t smell any fear.”

Now, I bet you’re thinking, What the f*** does that have to do with Spartaning Up my Holiday spirit?

Well, it has a lot to do with it.

What this samurai was doing every night was changing his frame of reference — resetting his “normal” to a different reality. And it made him both fearless and grateful.

This is something Spartans should be doing every day, especially during the Holidays. When we come to this season where it’s normal for people do the grateful dance (the lists of 10 things we’re thankful for, the cards, the gifting, etc.), most of the time we don’t even realize what we have. When you mentally burn everything, every little thing you have becomes a bonus.

So, that’s the first thing to do. Be grateful by starting at zero every day.

Do not let yourself get used to having stuff.

Do not take anything for granted.

Make a list of everything in your house. Literally everything. It will show you how much you actually have in assets. (Do you actually need it?)

The second thing to do is to give really good gifts… but not in the way you’re thinking.

When we wrote in the Spartan Code that Spartans give generously, we weren’t talking about dropping $300 on video games for your kid (or for you) or a new car with a big bow on it. We were talking about the most important resource you will ever have.


Spending our time wisely is one of the hardest skills to learn, and one of the best. It’s amazing to me that we talk about “spending” time, as if it’s currency, something you can earn. You can’t earn it. You have a set amount, and then that’s it. You don’t get bonuses. That’s why it’s so valuable.

For us Spartans during the Christmas and Holiday season, how we spend our money is not nearly as important as how we spend our time.

If you’re like me, and you like to accomplish two goals at the same time, you’re probably wondering if there is a way you can practice gratefulness and give really good gifts at the same time.

Well, there is.

The best way for Spartans to combine these two lessons during the Holidays is to volunteer with their families to help people who have nothing.

When you sign up (and you should f***ing sign up) to volunteer and show up at these places — homeless shelters, food banks, hospitals, churches, whatever — you will meet people who are struggling in ways that you never imagined were possible. You will meet people who literally have nothing, and whose lives are completely different from yours. (And you might meet some bizarre characters, too.)

Not only will you reset your frame of reference to zero, but you will reset your entire family’s frame of reference to zero. Think of the amazing change you could make from that starting point…
Besides that, you will walk away from the experience with so much: a clear picture of how much you really have, a feeling that you and your family accomplished something bigger than plain old “Holidays” this year, a kind of fearlessness (like the samurai in the story) that lets you push past old limits — and who knows, it will probably be a lot of fun.

Or maybe, what you take away is much bigger than that. Maybe it’s another thing that “You’ll Know at the Finish Line.” Then again, maybe it’s just a good thing to do.

Let’s sum up.

If you call yourself a Spartan, the Holiday season is an important time.

It’s a time for you to reset, and to give a gift that matters.

First, get used to the idea of having nothing. Then, you will be grateful for what you have.

Second, give your time to people who need it. Put these together by volunteering with your family to help people who need help. Doesn’t matter what it is: could be wrapping presents, delivering food, making sandwiches. Just do something.

There are a lot of people who need help.

These are the thoughts that have been going through my head this Holiday season. Most of the time I am not sure what to do with them, but today something clicked, and I wanted to share with you. I think about these things every day when I walk out my front door, at the end of my workout (some people just can’t spend that kind of time on fitness, or they don’t have a working body), when I’m planning my day, and when I’m traveling.

I think about these things deliberately because the poor here in Singapore are mostly hidden. Begging is illegal. A few years ago the government did a campaign to encourage people to try to live on $5 a day, just to raise awareness of how many poor people are here. I’m not sure if it worked, but it’s a good idea.

If you and your family do something amazing to Spartan Up your Holidays this year, send a picture and your story to Who knows…our crazy editorial team might put you in the spotlight.
One last thing. Let me take a moment to plug one of our latest creations, our educational program Spartan X. If you want to completely change someone’s life this year, it would make a great gift.

Happy Holidays, Spartans. Merry Christmas. Get uncomfortable.

Joe De Sena

Founder and CEO, Spartan Race