Ice Cube and Yi Sun-Sin: What a Gangsta Rapper and a Korean Admiral Can Teach You about Simplicity

Ice Cube and Admiral Yi Sun-Sin

Ice Cube and Admiral Yi Sun-Sin

"Today was a good day."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

During the era of emotional grunge and decadent hip hop, came a song from Ice Cube about simplicity. The rock scene was full of sensitive male screamers lamenting over lives never living up to expectations. On the other end was hip hop and lives of excess — where anything other than excess was failure. These disparate perspectives on living is to be expected, when we have the haves and the have-nots. The haves regret never having enough, the have-nots aspire to have more.

Cubism: Expectations

The simplicity of swagger | Ice Cube |  Barbershop 2: Back in Business

The simplicity of swagger | Ice Cube | Barbershop 2: Back in Business

On why he wrote "It Was a Good Day," Ice Cube said in a 1992 interview, "I rap all this gangsta stuff — what about all the good days I had?" Where other songs were pretentious, Ice Cube reminded us how to notice all the goodness in ordinary days. We discount the ordinary because they don't stand out. We pretend we never have good days because they don't stick out in our memories. Most likely there have been too many to count. Bad days, however, are infrequent enough to remember. There is an art to living a good life that contemporary Western living does not acknowledge, for a good life is subtle and takes practice to master.

From the moment he wakes up, Ice Cube says:

Just waking up in the morning gotta thank God
I don’t know, but today seems kinda odd
No barking from the dogs, no smog
And momma cooked a breakfast with no hog...

And then in the park:

Called up the homies and I’m askin’ y’all
Which park, are y’all playin’ basketball?
Get me on the court and I’m trouble
Last week fucked around and got a triple-double
Freaking brothers every way like M.J.
I can’t believe, today was a good day...

And then after some contemplation:

Then we played bones, and I’m yelling domino
Plus nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A.
Today was a good day.

For a rich and famous rapper, this is a pretty mundane day. "Nobody I know got killed in South Central L.A. Today was a good day," this iconic line is the song's central tenet, Stoic expectations and Buddhist minimalism. And whether you have studied these schools or not, its concepts are familiar to anyone who's survived hardship with their mental health intact. (You learn these lessons the hard way.) And to Ice Cube, what is most important is life (this is a virtue); as long as he's alive and everyone else he knows is alive, it's a pretty good day. The expectations are simple. The song is within reason. The elements mentioned are attainable. We enjoy living in fantasy but that escape from reality only worsens the thoughtlessness we feel for daily reality. In street-philosophy, a Stoic might be called a gangsta, but the core principles are the same: manage expectations while maintaining grit when things don't go your way.

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin: Simplicity

A statue of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin

A statue of Admiral Yi Sun-Sin

In the living aspect of martial arts, you are taught to maintain daily attainable rituals that make each day successful. Make it simple and consistent. Admiral Yi Sun-Sin is what Ice Cube might call an O.G. (Original gangsta.) A legendary commander, Admiral Yi Sun-Sin is famous for defeating 333 ships with only a fleet of 13. Admiral Yi did not lose a single ship of his own.

He writes:

My life is simple, my food is plain, and my quarters are uncluttered. In all things, I have sought clarity. I face the troubles and problems of life and death willingly. Virtue, integrity, and courage are my priorities. I can be approached, but never pushed; befriended but never coerced; killed but never shamed.
Battle of Myeongnyang

Battle of Myeongnyang

Admiral Yi Sun-Sin went to his grave as one of the only commanders in world history to go undefeated in at least 23 naval battles. Always outnumbered and outsupplied, the Admiral always found paths to victory despite never having received naval training or participating in naval combat prior to the Imjin War.

The Admiral had no room for clutter. Clutter, excess wants, and complexities make us obsessive, neurotic, and busy. In the case of the Admiral, it would get his men killed. Simplicity affords us clarity. Clarity leads to victory.

In the last major battle of the war, the Admiral was mortally wounded by a stray bullet. With victory in sight, he told his men:

We are about to win the war — keep beating the war drums. Do not announce my death.

The Admiral's forces won the battle and subsequently the war. The Admiral saved his people and his country. We believe distraction and needless complications are benign, but that's only because we're too distracted to see the consequences.

Do Not

Do not value too many things. Do not worry about things that are not actionable. Do not attempt to control things are are unattainable. And never allow expectations to exceed your level of resilience.


Be alive and find joy in living. Keep it real. Do not live to be perfect.

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