True philosophy is a matter of little theory and a lot of practice, like wrestling in the ancient and surfing in the modern world. Remember, in surfing, we get to practice in the water after a quick theory part on the beach. Heavy waves are better teachers than heavy school books.
“Unharmed prosperity cannot endure a single blow,” says Seneca, but a man who has gone through countless misfortunes “acquires a skin calloused by suffering.”
The Stoics identified strong emotions as our ultimate weakness; especially when we let them dictate our behavior. They’re toxic to eudaimonia and they’re at the root of all human suffering.
If we want to be able to act like our ideal self, say the Stoics, we need to keep our emotions in check, we need to tame them so they won’t get in the way of the good life. No, thank you, I can’t afford to panic right now.
Stoicism has nothing to do with suppressing or hiding one’s emotions or being emotionless. Rather, it’s about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and learning to redirect them for our own good. In other words, it’s more about unslaving ourselves from negative emotions, more like taming rather than getting rid of them.
Donald Robertson: “A brave man isn’t someone who doesn’t experience any trace of fear whatsoever but someone who acts courageously despite feeling anxiety.”
When you read the Stoics, you find cheerful and optimistic people fully enjoying what life has to offer. They weren’t unemotional, they just recognized that strong emotions were their weakness and stood in their way to live as they’re capable of.
And if you’re enslaved to your emotional wolf, then you panic and follow your action tendencies that are way beneath of what you’re capable of.
Eudaimonia: At the core of the triangle is eudaimonia—the ultimate goal of life all ancient philosophies agreed on.
It means being on good terms (eu) with your inner daimon, your highest self.
Live with Areté: Express your highest self in every moment. If we want to be on good terms with our highest self, we need to close the gap between what we’re capable of and what we’re actually doing.
Focus on What You Control: This is the most prominent principle in Stoicism. At all times, we need to focus on the things we control, and take the rest as it happens.
What’s beyond our power is ultimately not important for our flourishing. What’s important for our flourishing is what we choose to do with the given external circumstances.
Take Responsibility: Good and bad come solely from yourself. This follows the first two corners that say external things don’t matter for the good life, so living with areté, which is within your control, is enough to flourish in life. Also, you’re responsible for your life because every external event you don’t control offers an area you can control, namely how you choose to respond to this event.
“A good character is the only guarantee of everlasting, carefree happiness.” – Seneca
The ultimate goal of Stoicism is positioned in the center of the triangle: eu-daimon-ia, to live a happy and smoothly flowing life. To achieve this goal, we need to be on good terms (eu) with our inner daimon, the highest version of ourselves, our natural inborn potential. In whatever you do, imagine there are two lines: the higher line indicating what you’re capable of and the lower line what you’re actually doing.
Virtue is what helps you close the gap between what you’re actually doing and what you’re capable of. The bigger that gap, the further away you are from eudaimonia, and the worse off you are.
As Musonius Rufus said, we’re all “born with an inclination toward virtue.” In other words, it’s our nature to complete what’s been started with that divine seed and bring our human potential to life.
It’s clear—if we don’t live up to our innate potential, we’ll never be fulfilled.
Nothing external is required to get to the good life—no villa by the beach, no diamond rings, no porcelain plates, and generally nothing that hasn’t been planted within as natural potential.
Three main areas of life:
- Our own mind: As human beings with the ability of reasonable thinking, we should consider our actions rationally and wisely, and at all times try to be the best we can be.
- With other people: As social beings who naturally care for each other, we should try to live harmoniously with others and contribute to the wellbeing of mankind.
- In the universe: As citizens of the vast cosmos, we should try to live harmoniously with nature, calmly accept events that happen to us, and try to respond wisely.
Now, we can evaluate this progress in four broad character traits the Stoics adopted from the Socratic philosophy. They divided virtue into the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-discipline.
Wisdom is about understanding how to act and feel appropriately. Wisdom includes excellent deliberation, healthy judgment, perspective, and good sense. It opposes the vice of folly or thoughtlessness.
Justice is about knowing how to act and feel well in our relationships with others. Justice includes good-heartedness, integrity, public service, and fairness. It opposes the vice of wrongdoing or injustice.
Courage is about knowing how to act and feel correctly when facing fearful situations. Courage includes bravery, perseverance, honesty, and confidence. It opposes the vice of cowardice.
Self-Discipline (or temperance) is about knowing how to act and feel right, despite emotions such as strong desire, inner resistance, or lust. Self-discipline discipline includes orderliness, self-control, forgiveness, and humility. It opposes the vice of excess.
And that’s what I find is the easiest way to understand living with areté—at all times, try to be the best you can be, try to choose the appropriate action/response, and simply try to be a good person with concern for others and nature as a whole.
Attention (literally): If we want to be the best we can be in every situation, if we want to live with areté, then we need to be aware of our every step. Today, we call this “mindfulness,” the Stoics used the term “attention” (prosochê). In the words of Marcus Aurelius, we should pay “vigorous attention . . . to the performance of the task in hand with precise analysis, with unaffected dignity, with human sympathy, with dispassionate justice.” We can achieve such a mind free of other thoughts by performing “each action as if it were the last of your life.”
A person cannot attain anything good for himself, says Epictetus, “unless he contributes some service to the community.”
Focus on What You Control: Accept Whatever Happens and Make the Best of It
“make the best use of what is in our power, and take the rest as it happens.”
“So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.”
It’s within our power to choose our behavior, even if everything else is not or only partially within our control.
They cannot undo the choices they have made in the past; they cannot unsnort the coke, undrink the booze, or unswallow the pills. They cannot undo the pain they have caused for themselves and others. But they can accept the past and try to change the now and the future by focusing on the choices they’re making right now.
In modern times, we call this process focus—to focus on the process (under our control), instead of the desired outcome (not under our control).
Success, then, is defined by our effort to do everything that’s within our power. Whether we hit the target or not, whether we win or lose, whether we drop some weight or not, ultimately does not matter. We succeed or fail already in the process.
You know if you do your very best, you will succeed no matter what.
That’s the dark gap between what you’re actually doing and what you’re capable of doing, as discussed earlier.
As seen before, the root cause of emotional suffering comes from worrying about things outside our control. This is why we should focus on the process; the process is fully under our control. And if we define success as giving our best in the process, then we cannot fail, feel calmly confident, and can accept any outcome with equanimity.
Stoic Acceptance: Enjoy the Ride or Get Dragged Along
“Suffering is our psychological resistance to what happens,” explains Dan Millman in The Way of the Peaceful Warrior. Events can give us physical pain, but suffering and inner disturbance only come from resisting what is, from fighting with reality. We get angry at that driver that cut us off, we’re unhappy with our exam grades, and we’re desperate because the train is running late. If we look at those situations objectively, we recognize it’s futile to fight with them, because we can’t change or undo what already is. Yet, we fight with reality all the time and want it to be different. That driver shouldn’t drive like that, my grades should be better, the train should be on time. We must have it our way, the way we want it, the way we expected it to be.
“Seek not for events to happen as you wish but rather wish for events to happen as they do and your life will go smoothly.”
Events do not happen as they do regardless of your actions, but rather depending on your actions.
Because a warrior takes everything as a challenge to become their best, while an ordinary person just takes everything either as a blessing or curse.
Just because we should try to accept whatever happens does not mean we approve of it. It just means that we understand that we cannot change it.
The Good, the Bad, and the Indifferent Things
Good things: All that is virtue; wisdom, justice, courage, self-discipline.
Bad things: All that is vice; folly, injustice, cowardice, intemperance.
Indifferent things: Everything else; life & death, health & sickness, wealth & poverty, pleasure & pain, reputation & bad repute.
The indifferent things often get summarized as health, wealth, and reputation; but basically, everything external, everything that is not up to us, gets classified as indifferent. By indifferent, the Stoics mean that these events are neutral and can neither help nor harm our flourishing as human beings, they’re unimportant for the happy and smoothly flowing life.
The term indifference, however, is slightly misleading since it indicates that these things have no value at all. That’s not the case.
Unlike in Hollywood movies, however, the Stoics would never value love higher than moral integrity. Whenever virtue is involved, all else needs to give way. “Love conquers all” might be romantic and make good films, but it’s precisely the opposite of the Stoic priorities—not even love should be traded if the price is the compromising of your character. So go ahead and seek friendship, as long as it doesn’t need you to break with virtue. It’s better to endure loneliness, sickness, and poverty in an honorable manner than to seek friendship, health, and wealth in a shameful one. The good person will always pursue virtue and avoid vice at all costs.
The best hand—great health, wealth, and fame—by itself cannot help a foolish and unjust person to attain the good life. And neither can the worst hand—sickness, poverty, and bad reputation—harm the virtuous person’s wellbeing.
“Life is neither good nor bad; it is the space for both good and bad.” Life and all its various situations can be used wisely or foolishly, it’s our actions that make it good or bad. That’s important. Although external things are indifferent, how we handle them is not. It’s exactly the way of use of indifferent things that makes a happy or crappy life.
“If you want anything good, you must get it from yourself.” – Epictetus
The first principle makes living with areté, or expressing your highest self, the highest good, whereas the second tells us that external circumstances are not important for the good life because they’re not under our control. That means areté alone is enough for the good life, and because it’s within our control, it makes us responsible for our own flourishing.
We’re the only ones stopping us from cultivating virtuous behavior, we’re the only ones stopping us from living the good life.
Living with areté is within our control
- things outside our control are not relevant for the happy life
= living with areté is within our control + enough for the happy life.
This results in us being responsible for our own happy lives.
The ultimate goal is eudaimonia—a happy and smoothly flowing life.
So the goal to live with areté is to apply reason to our actions and always try to express our highest version of ourselves.
The Stoics did not focus on the future outcome (a happy life) but on the process in the present moment (living with areté) that should ultimately lead to the wished outcome.
While the outcome can be prevented by external events, the process and our intentions are completed in the present moment and cannot be prevented by anything outside our control.
As Seneca puts it, “The wise man looks to the purpose of all actions, not their consequences; beginnings are in our power but Fortune judges the outcome, and I do not grant her a verdict upon me.”
Stoicism teaches that we’re very much responsible for our own happiness as well as unhappiness. It also teaches that taking this responsibility will improve our chances of attaining eudaimonia. The victim mentality—blaming external circumstances for our unhappiness—on the other hand, will make the happy life an impossible goal to reach.
We must refuse to let the hands we’re dealt decide over our wellbeing. The Stoics say that outside events and other people may have the power to affect how and even whether you live, but they don’t have the power to ruin our lives. Only you yourself can ruin your life by getting jerked around by things you don’t control and by failing to act as well as you’re capable of.
We must make sure that our happiness depends as little as possible on outside circumstances. There should be only a loose connection between what happens to us and how happy we are. That’s possible by focusing on what we control and trying to make the best with the given circumstances. And also by wanting only what is within our power, because as learned earlier, desiring what’s not within our power is the root cause of emotional suffering.
What Epictetus describes here is exactly what we today call conditional happiness—binding happiness to some future event. I’ll be happy after my exams. I’ll be happy when I get that new Porsche 911. I’ll be happy when I finally earn six figures. It’s like the horizon—you can walk for miles and miles but won’t get any closer.
He often uses the basic message, “If you want anything good, get it from yourself.” We must seek happiness within ourselves, not in external things; they’re not within our power, they’re neither good nor bad but indifferent.
We cannot change the things that happen in the world around us, we can only change the way we look at those things and what we choose to make out of them.
The Freedom of Choice
“There are three things in your composition: body, breath, and mind,” Marcus Aurelius reminds himself. “The first two are yours to the extent that you must take care for them, but only the third is in the full sense your own.” Only the mind is truly yours.
We must realize that external events are neutral, and only how we choose to react to them makes them good or bad.
Being a helpless victim is never helpful. Taking responsibility, on the other hand, gives us the power to make the best with the given circumstances.
Viktor Frankl, who says in his book A Man’s Search for Meaning, “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing; the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances.”
Something happens (stimulus) and then we react to it (response). Oftentimes, this response happens automatically, unconsciously, and without us thinking about it.
The point is, when something happens to you—you break a glass, step into dog poop, or get shown the middle finger by a stranger—you could enter the gap before you react automatically. Once you’re in the gap, you can think about your options, and then choose your best reaction.
If you want to get in the gap and choose your response, you need the awareness to spot the first impression that arises in the form of thoughts and/or emotions. Once you see this first impression, you can step back, and question whether this impression is good to go with or not.
Basically, you withhold the approval of that impression and avoid rash, impulsive, and automatic behavior. This is immensely powerful and enables you to think before you (re-)act. It gives you the power to choose the best possible reaction, and what happens in the world around you doesn’t matter so much anymore. It hands you the key to your ideal behavior as you can choose to act in a wise, serene, and forgiving way—smile, clean the shoe, and move on with your life.
We must keep in mind that happiness depends more on what we make of what happens rather than what happens in the first place. No matter what happens to you, your mind is always available to turn it into good fortune by responding with virtue.
Stoicism challenges you to change yourself whenever you can’t change the situation. Even if you can’t change the situation, you have the power to change your attitude about it and respond with virtue.
External events are not what matters, but what you choose to do with them.
“Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things.”
The first lesson, then, is to never blame other people or outside events for whatever negative emotions we’re feeling. Take responsibility.
The events themselves carry no meaning. It’s our judgments that make them either good or bad.
That’s why Epictetus advises to always have two rules ready at mind: (1) there is nothing good or bad unless we choose to make it so, and (2) we shouldn’t try to lead events but follow them. Resistance is futile, take things as they come, and make the best of what’s in your power.
The negative emotion orders us to do what makes us feel better and relieve the pain in the present moment, regardless of our values and long-term goals. We end up pushing aside our deep values, and instead walk away like a coward, order pizza and tiramisu, binge-watch Marvel movies, smash doors and glasses, shout at our friends and kids, and buy those black high heels we don’t need.
That’s why our brains developed a negativity bias—if they got caught by surprise by a wolf, they were dead.
“Passion is produced no otherwise than by a disappointment of one’s desires.” Epictetus makes the point that negative emotions arise when we don’t get what we want. This disappointment “is the spring of sorrow, lamentation, and envy; this renders us envious and emulous, and incapable of hearing reason.”
Basically, negative emotions come from wanting and fearing what’s not under our control.
We mistakenly judge some indifferent external event such as rain, annoying people, or poverty as bad or even terrible, and this wrong judgment about the event causes anger or fear. So it’s the wrong judgment about an event that causes the negative emotions, and these emotions, again, get in the way of a happy life because they let us act impulsively rather than rationally.
Donald Robertson says it well in his book Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, “The majority of ordinary people lack fulfillment and peace of mind because their values are confused and internally conflicted. We waste our lives chasing after an illusion of Happiness, based on a mixture of hedonism, materialism and egotism—crazy, self-defeating values absorbed from the foolish world around us.”
“You are silly,” Epictetus says, “[if] you would have the things which are not in your power to be in your power, and the things which belong to others to be yours.”
I’d have said to myself that doing the right thing is enough, it’s a reward in itself, and doesn’t need recognition from someone else.
Life isn’t supposed to be easy, life is supposed to be challenging to make sure you actually grow. “And those things which we all shudder and tremble at are for the good of the persons themselves to whom they come,” says Seneca.
Stoicism requires us to be able to not react impulsively to what happens to us. It requires us to spot our initial impressions, so that we recognize our ability to choose our response. Once we’re able to spot our automatic impressions, we can test them and actively choose to go with the impression or not.
Look, awareness is the first step toward any serious change. If you’re not aware of what’s going wrong in your life, then how do you want to fix it? If you don’t realize when you get angry, how do you want to prevent it in the future? “A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation,” Seneca says. “You have to catch yourself doing it before you can correct it.”
Our voluntary thoughts and actions are by definition the only things within our control. And they only exist in the here and now. We can’t choose an action if we’re lost in thought, ruminating in the past, or dreaming about the future.
Don’t worry if you think you’re not a very mindful person. You’re still able to practice most of the following practices. Plus, many will actually improve your mindfulness. This cultivation of awareness is a part of Stoicism. You’ll get better at stepping back from your impulses, so you can analyze them and question their accuracy, and then decide upon your smartest response.
Recharge Your Self-Discipline Practicing Stoicism isn’t like watching TV. It takes effort. You must actually do something.
Plus, you must keep in mind that there’s a cost of not having and practicing a philosophy of life. Author William Irvine explains the cost bluntly: “The danger that you will spend your days pursuing valueless things and will therefore waste your life.”
The art of acquiescence is about the willing acceptance of external events. Accept even what the majority of people would judge as “bad.”
What happens to us is nature’s treatment to become better people. Those things happen for us, not against us, even if it doesn’t seem so.
Undertake Actions with a Reserve Clause
The reserve clause is a classic Stoic trick to maintain equanimity and tranquility. It will help you accept the outcomes of your actions. When you plan to do something, you add the caveat “if nothing prevents me.”
The reserve clause implies two points:
- Do your very best to succeed . . .
- . . . and simultaneously know and accept that the outcome is beyond your direct control.
This is a bulletproof way to maintain your confidence: (1) you try your best to succeed, (2) you know that the results are out of your control, (3) you’re prepared to accept success and failure equally, and (4) you continue to live with areté, moment to moment.
What Stands in the Way Becomes the Way
“The impediment to action advances actions. What stands in the way becomes the way.” – Marcus Aurelius
The main idea is that difficulties and challenges in life are only obstacles if we make them so. It depends on how we look at those challenges—we can either see obstacles and get blocked, or we can see opportunities and make progress.
What stands in the way becomes the way.
Imagine a fire. Every obstacle gets consumed and used as fuel. If there’s nothing standing in the way, the fire dies.
Marcus Aurelius says that your judgment makes an event into an obstacle or an opportunity. It’s up to you.
Remind Yourself of the Impermanence of Things
“When giving your child or wife a kiss, repeat to yourself, ‘I am kissing a mortal.’” – Epictetus
Therefore, we should remind ourselves how precious our loved ones are—they may soon flow past, too. Let’s appreciate appreciate what we have now because it might be gone tomorrow. Life is impermanent.
Epictetus reminds us that when we’re attached to a thing like a crystal cup, we should keep in mind what it really is, so that we won’t be disturbed when it breaks. He continues: “So should it be with persons; if you kiss your child, or brother, or friend . . . you must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not forever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.”
Contemplate Your Own Death
“I am not eternal, but a human being; a part of the whole, as an hour is of the day. Like an hour I must come and, like an hour, pass away.” – Epictetus
We don’t know how much longer our heart will keep beating. And it’s not up to us to decide. It’s only up to us to decide how we want to live right now. To get the most out of life, the Stoics advise us to live as if today were our last day.
“Think of yourself as dead,” says Marcus Aurelius, “you have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live properly.” Living as if it’s our last day is not about living a frivolous lifestyle with drugs, blackjack, and hookers. It’s about periodically reflecting on the fact that you will not live forever, you’re mortal, and you might not wake up the next morning. Like an hour, you will pass away.
The goal is not to change your activities necessarily, but your state of mind while doing those activities. Contemplating your own death won’t depress you, no, it will enhance your enjoyment of life. It will turn to your advantage. You won’t take things for granted anymore, and appreciate every little thing much more. You will savor each and every moment. Because you’re well aware that all these things had not been granted to you indefinitely.
The old Romans had a name for this: Memento mori (remember you are mortal). Keep that in front of your eyes and you’ll not only appreciate your life and loved ones more, but you’ll also get much more out of your days. Marcus Aurelius advises to remind you of this every morning: “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
Consider Everything as Borrowed from Nature
Your car, laptop, cat? Your body, status, relationships? No, because all those things can be taken away in a second. You may work overtime and pay the price to own those things, and yet they can be gone anytime. Fate, bad luck, or death can dispossess you of them without prior notice.
This is why Seneca advises to think of everything as borrowed from nature. You don’t own anything. Everything you think you own has been loaned to you temporarily. Not as a gift, but as something you’ll need to return whenever the lender wants it back. And as Seneca says, “it is a sorry debtor who abuses his creditor.”
In the end, we come with nothing, and go with nothing.
Negative Visualization: Foreseeing Bad Stuff
Negative visualization is an imagination exercise in which you foresee bad stuff. It prepares you to stay calm and deal effectively with whatever life will throw at you.
Basically, you visualize possible bad future scenarios in your head. Ask what could go wrong in advance, before you start a trip, launch a product, or go on a date. You imagine those negative things as if happening right now. As you see that bad stuff happening right now in your head, you try to stay calm and respond in the best way possible.
Attention: The term “negative visualization” can be misleading. As learned in the second corner of the Stoic Happiness Triangle, external things are neither good nor bad, but indifferent. That’s actually the basis of this Stoic practice—no external misfortune can truly be bad because it’s outside our control. Only our reaction to it can be good or bad, and that’s what we train for, to be able to react well, with virtue.
Now, let Seneca remind you that, “Fortune falls heavily on those for whom she’s unexpected. The one always on the lookout easily endures.”
- Temporary Poverty: Seneca recommends spending a few days a month to live as if impoverished, “Be content with the scantiest and cheapest food, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: Is this the condition that I feared?” Be creative with this idea: Drink only water for a day. Eat for less than $3 a day for a week. Try fasting for a day or two. Wear old and dirty clothes. Spend a month on a tight budget. If you’re hardcore, spend a night under a bridge.
- Get Yourself in Uncomfortable Situations: Take Cato the Younger as an example. He was a senator in the late Roman Republic and an avid student of Stoic philosophy. And he practiced voluntary discomfort like no other. He strolled around Rome in uncommon clothing so people laughed at him. He walked barefoot and bareheaded in heat and rain. And he put himself on a rationed diet.
- Purposefully Forgo Pleasure: Instead of getting in uncomfortable situations, just forgo pleasures. Pass up an opportunity to eat a cookie—not because it’s unhealthy, but because you want to improve your self-control and experience some discomfort. Choose not to watch your favorite sports team’s game. Or choose not to go partying with your friends.
Prepare Yourself for the Day: The Stoic Morning Routine
Epictetus advises to rehearse the day in the morning, and then review your progress in the evening. At daybreak, we should ask ourselves a few questions:
- What do I still lack in order to achieve freedom from negative emotions?
- What do I need to achieve tranquility?
- What am I? A rational being.
The idea is to get better each and every day. Get a step closer toward our goals. Also, we should remind ourselves of our rational nature so we don’t (over-)identify with body, property, or reputation. We better aspire to greater reason and virtue, and meditate on our actions.
Modify the Stoics’ morning routines to your liking; maybe you want to form a plan for the day or maybe you want to give yourself a pep talk, maybe you want to exercise, meditate, or journal, and maybe you want to sing under the shower. Feel free, just make sure to keep a regular morning routine.
The Stoic Evening Routine
Rehearse your day in the morning, review your progress in the evening. At the end of each day, sit down with your journal and review: What did you do? What did you well? What not so well? How could you improve?
Personally, I do the good, better, best exercise. I ask myself three simple questions:
Good: What did I do well today?
Better: How could I improve? What could I do better?
Best: What do I need to do if I want to be the best version of myself?
Contemplate the Stoic Sage
The Stoics either used Zeus, Socrates, or the ideal Sage as a role model. They would ask: “What would the Sage do?”
So, in the words of Seneca, “Choose someone whose way of life as well as words . . . have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. There is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make crooked straight.”
Play Your Given Roles Well
Epictetus says that if you fulfill your duties toward others, then you’re living in agreement with nature, which is the direct path to a happy and smoothly flowing life.
But if you try to hurt your father in return, then you don’t fulfill your duties as a daughter and as a consequence injure yourself. You lose part of your character—the gentle, patient, and dignified.
This is a classic Stoic idea: Play your role well by being the best you can be, focusing on what you control, and ultimately being a good person.
Eliminate the Nonessential
“Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’ But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow.” – Marcus Aurelius
“If you seek tranquility, do less . . . do what’s essential.” This will bring a double satisfaction, says Marcus Aurelius, “to do less, better.”
Ask yourself, “What are the most important things in my life?”
Once you know what those things are, you need to prioritize them. And eliminate what didn’t make the list.
“People who are excited by posthumous fame forget that the people who remember them will soon die too. And those after them in turn. Until their memory, passed from one to another like a candle flame, gutters and goes out.” – Marcus Aurelius
What do others think of us? Not up to us. We must not mistake outward success with what’s truly valuable—patience, confidence, self-control, forgiveness, perseverance, courage, and reason.
Let’s rather focus on what we control—our voluntary behavior. Being the best we can be is what matters. Expressing our highest self in every moment. We shouldn’t seek thanks or recognition for doing the right thing. Doing the right thing is its own reward.
Doing the right thing is its own reward.
Like a Minimalist: Live Simple
“Is it not madness and the wildest lunacy to desire so much when you can hold so little?” – Seneca
needs. And we should always keep in mind that material things are indifferent. What matters is how we handle them. For one thing, we should not get attached to what can be taken away. As Marcus reminds us, “Receive without pride, let go without attachment.”
More is not always better. Free is not always free.
However, as Epictetus observes, “Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it.”
“The wise man does not consider himself unworthy of any gifts from Fortune’s hands: he does not love wealth but he would rather have it; he does not admit it into his heart but into his home, and what wealth is his he does not reject but keeps, wishing it to supply greater scope for him to practice his virtue.”
“The influence of wealth on the wise person . . . is like a favorable wind that sweeps the sailor on his course.”
The idea is to be able to enjoy something and at the same time be indifferent to it. So accept that favorable wind when you get it, but be indifferent or even happy if you don’t get it. Ultimately, reality is good as it is—favorable winds and storms alike.
Cut Out News and Other Timewasters
“It is essential for you to remember that the attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things beyond what should be allowed.” – Marcus Aurelius
By spending time on something, you give it importance. We must be aware of where our time goes. The simplest way to find out? Measure your time!
Hear out Seneca: “Until we have begun to go without them, we fail to realize how unnecessary many things are. We’ve been using them not because we needed them but because we had them . . . One of the causes of the troubles that beset us is the way our lives are guided by the example of others; instead of being set to rights by reason we’re seduced by convention.”
The first thing to cut out is the news. “There is only one way to happiness,” says Epictetus, “and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” News is all about worrying about stuff outside our control.
Win at What Matters
Who you truly are inwardly is way more important than who people believe you to be.
Become an Eternal Student
“Leisure without study is death—a tomb for the living person.” – Seneca
“Make sure you enjoy your relaxation like a poet—not idly but actively, observing the world around you, taking it all in, better understanding your place in the universe,” as Ryan Holiday puts it. “Take a day off from work every now and then, but not a day off from learning.”
- Be humble: As Epictetus teaches us, “It is impossible to learn that which one thinks one already knows.” And Marcus adds, “If anyone can prove and show to me that I think and act in error, I will gladly change it—for I seek the truth.”
- Put it into practice: Don’t be satisfied with mere learning, Epictetus warns us, “For as time passes we forget and end up doing the opposite.” As warriors of the mind, we must go out and actually live out what we’ve learned.
What Do You Have to Show for Your Years?
We forget we’re mortal.
You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire.”
Are we going to be the person not ready to die when it’s time? Thinking there are so many more things we wanted to do in our time alive? Full of regrets of what we’ve missed?
The Stoics say it’s not about the years you live, but about how you live those years. As Cato the Younger put it beautifully: “The value of good health is judged by its duration, the value of virtue is judged by its ripeness.”
Do What Needs to Get Done
We’re not born for pleasure, he says. Just look at the plants, birds, ants, spiders, and bees—they go about their individual tasks. Do you hear them moan and complain? Nope, they do what they do, as best as they can. Day in, day out.
“Putting things off is the biggest waste of life,” Seneca says, “it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by promising the future. The greatest obstacle to living is expectancy, which hangs upon tomorrow and loses today. You are arranging what lies in Fortune’s control, and abandoning what lies in yours . . . The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
Stop monkeying around, live immediately!
As Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
Remember, it’s not what happens to us, but our reactions to it that matter. We get disturbed not by the event itself, but by our interpretation of the event.
Your Judgment Harms You
“If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.” – Marcus Aurelius
You are disturbed not by what happens, but by your opinion about it. That’s a classic Stoic principle.
Your reaction decides whether harm has occurred or not. Marcus Aurelius says it needs to be this way, because otherwise other people would have power over you. And that’s not in the universe’s intention. Only you have access to your mind, only you can ruin your life.
As Marcus Aurelius puts it: “Choose not to be harmed—and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed—and you haven’t been.”
How to Deal With Grief
Proper grief according to Seneca is when our reason “will maintain a mean which will copy neither indifference nor madness, and will keep us in the state that is the mark of an affectionate, and not an unbalanced, mind.”
For example, the person you grieve over, would she have wanted you to be tortured with tears? If yes, then she’s not worthy of your tears and you should stop crying. If no, and if you love and respect her, then you should stop crying.
What to do when others grieve?
Epictetus says we should be careful not to “catch” the grief of others. We should sympathize with the person and if appropriate even accompany her moaning with our own. In doing so, be careful not to moan inwardly.
“We should display signs of grief without allowing ourselves to experience grief,” as William Irvine puts it. He goes on, “If a friend is grieving, our goal should be to help her overcome her grief. If we can accomplish this by moaning insincerely, then let us do so. For us to ‘catch’ her grief, after all, won’t help her but will hurt us.”
Choose Courage and Calm over Anger
Anger is prone to rashness. Reason is more trustworthy because it’s considered and deliberate. “Reason wishes to give a just decision; anger wishes its decision to be thought just.”
Generally, we shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger. The circumstances
Getting angry at a situation doesn’t have an impact on the situation. It doesn’t change it, it doesn’t improve it. Oftentimes, what angers us doesn’t really harm us, and our anger will outlast the damage done to us.
Beat Fear with Preparation and Reason
“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” – Seneca
What we fear will often not happen in reality. But our imaginary fear has real consequences. We’re held back by our fears, we’re paralyzed by what isn’t real.
The primary cause of fear, says Seneca, is that “instead of adapting ourselves to present circumstances we send out thoughts too far ahead.” It’s a projection to the future about something we don’t control that causes a dangerous amount of worry.
We must stop attaching ourselves to external things and desires which are not under our control. Because a lack of control leads to fear.
The Stoics think the best path to freedom is by imagining what we fear as it’s going to happen and examining it in our mind—until we can view it with detachment.
The proper way to deal with what we fear is thinking about it rationally, calmly, and often—until it becomes familiar.
Blame Your Expectations
When you find yourself frustrated, don’t blame other people or outside events, but yourself and your unrealistic expectations. Turn your focus inward, remember, we must take responsibility.
We only have in mind what we think the world owes us, and forget being grateful for what we’re lucky to have.
As seen before, if we only desire what’s within our control, then we can never be frustrated regardless of the circumstances.
As aspiring Stoics, we should try to see the world as it really is, rather than demanding that it fits our expectations.
Pain and Provocation: Great Opportunities for Virtue
“So display those virtues which are wholly in your own power—integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, contentment, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.”
Let’s remind ourselves that every minor accident that happens to us presents an opportunity to practice virtuous behavior.
The Anti-Puppet Mindset
Marcus sets a great frame here. Let’s use this one: We’re a mature human being and won’t be enslaved by outside events and other people any longer. We won’t be pulled like a puppet by every impulse. We won’t complain about the present moment or dread the future.
Life Is Supposed to Be Challenging
Count Your Blessings
“Don’t set your mind on things you don’t possess as if they were yours, but count the blessings you actually possess and think how much you would desire them if they weren’t already yours. But watch yourself, that you don’t value these things to the point of being troubled if you should lose them.” – Marcus Aurelius
Don’t forget to be thankful for what you have—even in the face of adversity.
Marcus reminds us here of three things:
- Material things are not important, don’t gather and hoard that stuff.
- Be grateful for all you have.
- Be careful not to get attached to those things.
The more you have, the more you can lose. Be grateful for what you have. Appreciate those things. And find ways to take advantage of what you already have.
Here’s a divine law Epictetus generously shares with us: “And what is the divine law? To keep a man’s own, not to claim that which belongs to others, but to use what is given, and when it is not given, not to desire it; and when a thing is taken away, to give it up readily and immediately, and to be thankful for the time that a man has had the use of it.”
Add that to your morning routine when you say Marcus’ words: “When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive—to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”
How differently we look at the same event when it happens to us rather than to other people.
This doesn’t make sense. The universe doesn’t treat us any differently than others, it’s not after us. Things just happen, sometimes to us, sometimes to others. Things happen to us in the normal order of things. Get comfort in that.
Next time something inconveniently happens to you, imagine it happened to someone else. Ask yourself how you’d react when the same happened to your colleague Sharon. If it’s not terrible when it happens to Sharon, then it’s not terrible when it happens to you.
This will make you aware of the relative insignificance of the “bad” things that happen to all of us and will therefore prevent you from disrupting your tranquility. Epictetus takes it a step further: “Moving on to graver things: when somebody’s wife or child dies, to a man we all routinely say, ‘Well, that’s part of life.’ But if one of our own family is involved, then right away it’s ‘Poor, poor me!’”
Take the Bird’s-Eye View
What a great exercise. Imagine you leave your body and float up in the sky. Higher and higher. You see yourself, your house, your neighborhood, other people, your town with its lake and river, until your body seems like a tiny seed, and further you go to see your country, the ocean, and even the whole planet.
“You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you,” Marcus observes, “for they lie entirely in your imagination.” Many problems can be solved with this perspective from far above. Human affairs and your own misfortunes seem trivial from this perspective.
Next time you’re troubled, try taking a bird’s-eye perspective.
That’s when you want to take this view from far above. Your massive problem suddenly gets utterly insignificant compared to the vastness of the universe. This helps you put things in perspective, recognize the bigger picture, and stay indifferent to external things others mistakenly value—like wealth, looks, or social status.
It’s the Same Old Things
“Everything that happens is as simple and familiar as the rose in spring, the fruit in summer: disease, death, blasphemy, conspiracy . . . everything that makes stupid people happy or angry.” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus reminds us that everything keeps recurring. “Evil: the same old thing. No matter what happens, keep this in mind: It’s the same old thing, from one end of the world to the other.
This might help you put things in perspective. And not take everything so seriously. And not take yourself too seriously. It’s the same old things.
Meat Is Dead Animal: Observe Objectively
That’s classic Stoic thinking: An event itself is objective. Only we give it meaning by our judgments about it.
We should see an event for what it is, analyze it, “turn it inside out and see what it is like, what it becomes in age, sickness, death.”
So, when you’re challenged in life, when you’re stuck, try to look at your situation objectively. Turn it inside out, strip it naked, and explain it in simple terms. As real as possible. What does it look like? What parts does it consist of? How long will it last?
Avoid Rashness: Test Your Impressions (!)
The problem with that? Our senses are wrong all the time. Our emotional impressions are counterproductive in today’s world. If we only approach what feels good, we end up wasting our lives binge-watching Netflix, binge-eating M&Ms, and binge-drinking Goon!
The point is, what feels right is often not the right thing to do.
Remember, as aspiring Stoics, we want to stay at the steering wheel at all times so we can deliberately choose our best actions. This is why it’s crucial we don’t react impulsively to impressions, but take a moment before we react, and it’ll be much easier to maintain control.
Let’s put our impressions to the test. Is this really so bad? What happened exactly? Do I really want to go down that path? Why do I feel such a strong urge within me? What do I know about this person?
Refuse to accept your impulsive impression. Test it first.
So it’s really two steps: First, spot our impressions and make sure we don’t get carried away immediately. Second, examine the impressions and calmly decide what to do next.
“Wait for me a little, impression”
You see, testing your impressions is really a core quality of every aspiring Stoic. As you keep doing that, you will also realize that it’s not the event itself but your reaction to it that upsets or delights you.
Only our reaction is within our control.
Do Good, Be Good
It’s who you are and what you do that matters. It’s human excellence that makes a human being beautiful, says Epictetus. If you develop qualities such as justice, tranquility, courage, self-discipline, kindness, or patience you will become beautiful.
Nobody can cheat themselves to true beauty.
Do good because it’s the right thing to do. Don’t look for anything in return. Do it for yourself. So you can be the person you want to be.
As we ripen, we understand that doing the right thing and helping others is simply what we have to do. It’s our duty as smart, responsible, and mature human beings. Nothing else.
“What is your profession? Being a good man.”
HOW TO HANDLE YOURSELF WHEN OTHER PEOPLE CHALLENGE YOU?
Remember, we should treat other people as relatives as we’re all citizens of the same world. We must contribute some service to the community. We’re social because we cannot exist without one another. And doing good to others benefits ourselves first and foremost.
As Marcus says, fulfilling our social duties will give you the best chance at living a good life.
But other people can be so nerve-wracking:
- People lie to our face.
- People insult us.
- People hurt our feelings.
- People cheat us.
- People steal from us.
- People annoy us.
We Are All Limbs of the Same Body
You and me, we’re relatives. I am your brother. You are my brother or sister. We’re made for cooperation.
Let your actions contribute to the wellbeing of mankind. You are a limb of the whole. We must work together.
We must support each other or the whole will fall apart. We’re all interconnected and depending on one another.
Remember Marcus’ words: “What brings no benefit to the hive brings none to the bee.”
Nobody Errs on Purpose
People do what seems right to them. If they do wrong, it’s because that’s what seems true to them.
Find Your Own Faults
We all make mistakes. But we forget. And get angry when others make the same mistakes we made not long ago.
Forgive and Love Those Who Stumble
Stoicism calls for forgiveness.
He reminds himself of four things: (1) that the stumbling people are relatives, (2) they do wrong involuntarily, (3) we will all be dead soon anyway, and (4) we can only be harmed if we choose so.
Be forgiving, even if others aren’t. You lead by example, knowing that they don’t see what you see.
Don’t wish for people not to do wrong, rather wish for the strength to be tolerant and forgiving.
Attention: At all times, keep in mind that maybe you’re wrong this time. Maybe you’re the one erring.
Pity Rather than Blame the Wrongdoer
The people who do wrong? Pity rather than blame them.
Kindness Is Strength
If you want to be your best, kindness is a great value to develop.
“Kindness is invincible,” says Marcus, as long as it’s sincere. “For what can even the most malicious person do if you keep showing kindness?”
“Most rudeness, meanness, and cruelty are a mask for deep-seated weakness,” says Ryan Holiday. “Kindness in these situations is only possible for people of great strength.”
How to Deal with Insults
Would anyone think it normal to return a kick to a mule or a bite to a dog?”
One strategy is to pause and ask whether what’s been said is true. “Why is it an insult,” Seneca asks, “to be told what is self-evident?”
Plus, let’s ask who insulted us? If it’s someone we respect, then we value her opinion and accept it as something we can actually improve on. If we don’t respect the source, then why bother?
Let’s remember that rational and wise people don’t insult others, at least not on purpose.
“The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” The best revenge is to let it go and be a better example.
The Stoics say with humor rather than a counter insult. Make a joke, laugh it off.
It can be hard to find the right words, right? So the better strategy might be not to respond at all. Instead of reacting to an insult, says Musonius Rufus, “calmly and quietly bear what happened.”
Don’t go into reaction mode with an attack, defense, or withdrawal, but let it pass right through you. As if you were not there. Offer no resistance.
We can only be insulted if we let it happen. If we don’t care what others say, then we won’t feel insulted.
Scratches Happen In Training
See each day and every situation as a training exercise. You will accept things quicker even if they’re annoying—it’s just training.
Scratches happen. Don’t blame your sparring partner. Don’t blame the event. We’re all just training. Things go wrong. People act like jerks.
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing,” as encountered in Chapter 1, “because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.”
Don’t Abandon Others nor Yourself
Marcus says, “people will stand in your way.” When you’re installing new habits and try to make progress, others might not be as quick or even willing to follow along.
For Such a Small Price, Buy Tranquility
The Stoics want to stay calm even in the midst of a storm, and yet we go crazy when our roomie forgets to do the dishes, leaves skid marks behind in the toilet, or doesn’t do his chores.
It obviously doesn’t need to be this way. Before you react to whatever arouses anger within, say to yourself: “I buy tranquility instead.” Then smile, do what needs to get done, and move on with your life.
We need to be aware of the arising feelings in the first place. So we need to be able to step in between stimulus and automatic response.
Put Yourself in Other People’s Shoes
“When you face someone’s insults, hatred, whatever . . . look at his soul. Get inside him. Look at what sort of person he is. You’ll find you don’t need to strain to impress him.” – Marcus Aurelius
The Stoics advise us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, to take their perspective before passing a judgment.
For the Stoics, it’s more important to love than to be loved. They train themselves to deal with challenging people, particularly to avoid responding impulsively and with anger.
Choose Your Company Well
“Avoid fraternizing with non-philosophers. If you must, though, be careful not to sink to their level; because, you know, if a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” – Epictetus
We can choose who we want to spend most of our leisure time with. We can choose which events we attend, and who to go with.
“You are the average of the five people you spend most time with.”
“Associate with people who are likely to improve you.”
“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”
Seneca also advises to spend less time with people who always complain: The companion “who is always upset and bemoans everything is a foe to tranquility.”
Don’t Judge But Yourself
Our minds are very quick to judge.
We label people on the basis of very little information. We’re prejudiced. Oh, he’s a teacher. Oh, she’s a woman. Oh, look at those shoes he’s wearing.
We find mistakes in others a dime a dozen.
You have the power to pause and look at the situation objectively. What do you know about this man? What’s the situation exactly?
Remember, you are only free if you can look at external events with indifference. And immediately adding value to an event is all but indifferent.
“Wait for me a little, impression . . . let me put you to the test.”
then your goal is to improve yourself, to get better, to express your highest version of yourself.
We must not forget why we engage in philosophy in the first place: to improve ourselves.
Do Good, Not Only No Evil
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
Say Only What’s Not Better Left Unsaid
Next time you’re speaking with others, observe the conversation. You’ll see that everybody talks about themselves. Whatever the topic, everybody will find something from their own life to add to the conversation.
And if we speak about others, then it’s most certainly about something they don’t do well.
The Stoics are clear on this: Don’t gossip. Don’t blame. Don’t complain. Don’t talk too much. Especially not about what’s not meaningful.
Speak only when you’re certain that what you’ll say isn’t better left unsaid.
Speak with your actions more than with your words.
Connect with people. Don’t perform for them. Let them do most of the talking. Enjoy listening.
Listen with the Intent to Understand
The Stoics advise to listen rather than speak.
The goal when you enter a conversation is to understand what the other person wants to tell you. You listen with the intent to understand. That’s called empathic listening. And it’ll massively improve your relationships.
Lead by Example
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” – Marcus Aurelius
Lead with your actions. Be the example. An active role model easily beats a lecture. Don’t instruct, but silently demonstrate.
If you live by your beliefs and standards you’ll be in a harmony called cognitive consonance. You think a way and act that way too. That feels great.
Put into practice what you believe is right.
Lead by example and others will follow. People follow action more than instruction. So actively demonstrate what you think is the best thing to do. As they say: Be the change you want to see in the world.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”