Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash
On January 1, 2018 I started reading The Daily Stoic, a page-per-day book filled with insight from some of the great Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and Zeno. I’ve always been interested in Stoicism as it is one of the more practical philosophies that aligns well with today’s work in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) and the growth mindset.
Below are handful of excerpts from the book that I highlighted along the way and which I will continue to refer back to for inspiration and knowledge.
By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity. In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective. In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.
Control your perceptions. Direct your actions properly. Willingly accept what’s outside your control.
The more things we desire and the more we have to do to earn or attain those achievements, the less we actually enjoy our lives — and the less free we are.
Today, let’s focus on the three areas of training that Epictetus laid out for us. First, we must consider what we should desire and what we should be averse to. Why? So that we want what is good and avoid what is bad. It’s not enough to just listen to your body — because our attractions often lead us astray. Next, we must examine our impulses to act — that is, our motivations. Are we doing things for the right reasons? Or do we act because we haven’t stopped to think? Or do we believe that we have to do something? Finally, there is our judgment. Our ability to see things clearly and properly comes when we use our great gift from nature: reason. These are three distinct areas of training, but in practice they are inextricably intertwined. Our judgment affects what we desire, our desires affect how we act, just as our judgment determines how we act. But we can’t just expect this to happen. We must put real thought and energy into each area of our lives. If we do, we’ll find real clarity and success.
Today, when you find yourself getting anxious, ask yourself: Why are my insides twisted into knots? Am I in control here or is my anxiety? And most important: Is my anxiety doing me any good?
We should enjoy this brief time we have on earth — not be enslaved to emotions that make us miserable and dissatisfied.
The world can control our bodies — we can be thrown in jail or be tossed about by the weather. But the mind? That’s ours. We must protect it. Maintain control over your mind and perceptions, they’d say. It’s your most prized possession.
On tough days we might say, “My work is overwhelming,” or “My boss is really frustrating.” If only we could understand that this is impossible. Someone can’t frustrate you, work can’t overwhelm you — these are external objects, and they have no access to your mind. Those emotions you feel, as real as they are, come from the inside, not the outside.
There are two ways to be wealthy — to get everything you want or to want everything you have. Which is easier right here and right now? The same goes for freedom. If you chafe and fight and struggle for more, you will never be free. If you could find and focus on the pockets of freedom you already have? Well, then you’d be free right here, right now.
If your happiness is dependent on accomplishing certain goals, what happens if fate intervenes? What if you’re snubbed? If outside events interrupt? What if you do achieve everything but find that nobody is impressed? That’s the problem with letting your happiness be determined by things you can’t control. It’s an insane risk.
“We don’t tell ourselves, ‘I’m never going to write my symphony.’ Instead we say, ‘I’m going to write my symphony; I’m just going to start tomorrow.’” Today, not tomorrow, is the day that we can start to be good.
by pouring ourselves fully and intentionally into the present, it “gentle[s] the passing of time’s precipitous flight.”
Turning his eyes earthward, he sees how comically small even the richest people, the biggest estates, and entire empires look from above. All their battles and concerns were made petty in perspective.
Succumbing to the self-pity and “woe is me” narrative accomplishes nothing — nothing except sapping you of the energy and motivation you need to do something about your problem.
There are two kinds of people in this world. The first looks at others who have accomplished things and thinks: Why them? Why not me? The other looks at those same people and thinks: If they can do it, why can’t I? One is zero-sum and jealous (if you win, I lose). The other is non-zero-sum (there’s plenty to go around) and sees the success of others as an inspiration.
The next time you face a political dispute or a personal disagreement, ask yourself: Is there any reason to fight about this? Is arguing going to help solve anything? Would an educated or wise person really be as quarrelsome as you might initially be inclined to be? Or would they take a breath, relax, and resist the temptation for conflict? Just think of what you could accomplish — and how much better you would feel — if you could conquer the need to fight and win every tiny little thing.
But consider one technique he’s used as he’s gotten older: he takes a candidate to breakfast and asks the restaurant’s manager to purposely mess up the candidate’s breakfast order. He’s testing to see how they react. Do they get upset? Do they act rudely? Do they let this little event spoil the meeting? Do they handle the inconvenience with grace and kindness? How you handle even minor adversity might seem like nothing, but, in fact, it reveals everything.
No need to be too hard on yourself. Hold yourself to a higher standard but not an impossible one. And forgive yourself if and when you slip up.
“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind — I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?”
For getting angry is also a weakness, just as much as abandoning the task or surrendering under panic.
It’s not enough to just not do evil. You must also be a force for good in the world, as best you can.
We tell ourselves that we need the right setup before we finally buckle down and get serious. Or we tell ourselves that some vacation or time alone will be good for a relationship or an ailment. This is self-deceit at its finest. It’s far better that we become pragmatic and adaptable — able to do what we need to do anywhere, anytime. The place to do your work, to live the good life, is here
the person who perseveres through difficulties, who keeps going when others quit, who makes it to their destination through hard work and honesty? That’s admirable, because their survival was the result of fortitude and resilience, not birthright or circumstance.
You have two essential tasks in life: to be a good person and to pursue the occupation that you love. Everything else is a waste of energy and a squandering of your potential.
If real self-improvement is what we’re after, why do we leave our reading until those few minutes before we shut off the lights and go to bed? Why do we block off eight to ten hours in the middle of the day to be at the office or to go to meetings but block out no time for thinking about the big questions? The average person somehow manages to squeeze in twenty-eight hours of television per week — but ask them if they had time to study philosophy, and they will probably tell you they’re too busy.
You don’t have to believe there is a god directing the universe, you just need to stop believing that you’re that director. As soon as you can attune your spirit to that idea, the easier and happier your life will be, because you will have given up the most potent addiction of all: control.
“When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgment of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.”
You’ll always be a medalist, and you’ll always know what it feels like. No one can take that away — and it would be impossible to feel more of that feeling.
When there is something we prize — or someone that we love — we can whisper to ourselves that it is fragile, mortal, and not truly ours. No matter how strong or invincible something feels, it never is. We must remind ourselves that it can break, can die, can leave us.
We’re all here and we’re all going to leave this earth eventually, so let’s not concern ourselves with petty differences in the meantime. We have too much to do.
The number of years we manage to eke out doesn’t matter, only what those years are composed of. Seneca put it best when he said, “Life is long if you know how to use it.” Sadly, most people don’t — they waste the life they’ve been given. Only when it is too late do they try to compensate for that waste by vainly hoping to put more time on the clock.
“Think of the whole universe of matter and how small your share. Think about the expanse of time and how brief — almost momentary — the part marked for you. Think of the workings of fate and how infinitesimal your role.”
Consider this the next time you feel self-important, or like everything rises and falls on what you do next. It doesn’t. You’re just one person among many, doing your best among many. That’s all you need to do.
As fun and exciting and pleasurable as these pleasures are, it’s worth putting them in their place. You don’t get a prize at the end of your life for having consumed more, worked more, spent more, collected more, or learned more about the various vintages than everyone else. You are just a conduit, a vessel that temporarily held or interacted with these fancy items.