Demystifying Stoicism: 12 Observations From the Stoics

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  • February 27, 2017


If you’re a regular reader, you might already have guessed that Stoicism intrigues me. Our modern definition has boiled the philosophy down to “endure pain without emotion,” but Stoicism dates back to Zeno of Citium, of ancient Greece. I’ve had a number of influences that have stoked my interest in Stoicism, from the 2000 movie Gladiator to Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning to Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius himself. That last one felt a bit to me like reading Shakespeare, in that I needed an interpreter.

More recently, authors like Ryan Holiday and podcasters like Tim Ferriss have kept Stoicism’s teachings on my mind. It’s an intriguing philosophy that I think can be applied in a number of ways to modern life. In fact, Ryan Holiday’s daily email list, The Daily Stoic, seeks to do just that; it’s Holiday’s emails that I draw a lot of my inspiration for this post from. I don’t consider myself a Stoic, but I do find some of Stoicism’s teachings incredibly helpful in life and in business.

What Is Stoicism?

Stoicism was founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium, in the early third century B.C. According to Wikipedia, Stoicism is a system of personal ethics that focuses on accepting what we have in life. Stoicism teaches us not to be controlled by pleasure-seeking or avoiding pain. It teaches us to understand “nature’s plan” and the world and people around us, and to treat others fairly.

12 Lessons From the Stoics

Don’t Avoid Adversity

Winston Churchill is widely admired by modern politicians, but he had a saying: “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.” Churchill himself spent a long time as the most hated politician in England, and he was even an outcast from politics for 10 years.

But that time shaped him in many ways. The adversity made him who he became — who we all remember him as. That teaches us a very simple lesson: Don’t avoid adversity, challenges or opposition. They make you stronger.

Take Your Own Advice

Advice is only good when you give it away, or so they say. We’re quick to give others advice that we rarely follow ourselves, and there’s a good reason for that: We have a measure of distance when we’re giving others advice that we don’t have when something’s happening to us.

The Stoics have a concept called “outside perspective,” which basically boils down to “do yourself what you would recommend to others.” Not only does this force you to give better advice, it also allows you some space and distance when you’re dealing with your own crisis moment.

Focus on Now

We all succumb to the temptation to allow our imaginations to run wild on all the ways things can go wrong. This can be useful: It can help us prepare for the worst or create contingency plans. The Stoics understood that dwelling on what might happen could also be paralyzing.

According to Stoicism, the past and future have no power over us. We only have to worry about the present, and even then, we have the ability to influence and minimize its power over us.

Know What You Can (And Can’t) Control

The Serenity Prayer asks God to grant us “the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” This isn’t all that different from one of the most important and fundamental principles of Stoicism: the idea that you must be able to distinguish between the things you can control and the things you cannot. Knowing the difference can help you avoid getting angry about things you can’t do anything about and focus on the things you can influence, like your own behavior.

Persist and Resist

I’ve used this Will Smith quote before, but I love it so much I’m going to use it again:

“I’m not afraid to die on a treadmill. I will not be out-worked. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me. But if we get on the treadmill together … you’re getting off first, or I’m going to die. It’s really that simple.”

In Stoicism, there’s a concept of “persist and resist:” you persist in your efforts and you resist obstacles, naysayers and distractions that prevent you from achieving them. You stick with it, and shut out the noise.

Learn From Pain

One of Stoicism’s originators, Cato, used to subject himself to all sorts of pain and discomfort: ridicule, hunger, sickness, heat, cold. He did it to build endurance and self-control — to learn to ignore pain and discomfort as a distraction. In my own small way, I’m doing a similar thing by exposing myself to cold, for a similar reason.

Now, I’m not advocating exposing yourself to dangerous conditions for the sake of building a tolerance for them. What I am advocating is the Stoic philosophy that there’s something to be learned from pain when it happens, if you’re willing to pay attention. If nothing else, when you deal with an annoyance, stressor or source of discomfort often enough, you can learn to endure it.

Accept Eventualities

Suffering, failure and death: Those three things are inevitable for all of us. That’s not a reason to despair, though. Rather, according to Stoic philosophy, they’re simply truths you have to accept and move on from. Further, once you accept their eventuality, you can begin to draw meaning from them. When you suffer, you learn who you really are. When you fail, you learn to correct your mistakes. And when you know you’ll die, life becomes urgent.

Mind Your Own Business

Social media and our hyperconnected world make it a little too easy to mind other people’s business, and doing so often isn’t productive. Everyone has an opinion; simply having an opinion doesn’t give that opinion value and doesn’t mean you have to give it to someone else.

Don’t focus on what others are doing wrong: Focus on what you might be doing wrong and fix that. This goes back to knowing what you do and don’t have control over. While you can impose your opinion on others, you can’t control their behavior. But you can control your own.

Passion Is Ephemeral

There’s a good Marcus Aurelius quote from The Daily Stoic:

“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”

The Stoics saw passion — and anger, pleasure, despair and other intense emotions — as ephemeral. Things that seem to matter a lot now are forgotten in a year, 10 years, 100 years. Instead of spending time seeking those intense emotions, look for satisfaction in things that last.

Right Now Matters

If everything is ephemeral, then what matters? Right now. For the Stoics, being a good person and doing the right thing in the moment were the most important measure of meaning. Getting your name on a map or a statue or a monument was meaningless if you hurt those around you. Humility, honesty and awareness can go a long way toward focusing you on what matters.

Admit Your Faults

A former boss of mine used to tell me I should fire myself about once per week. I didn’t know what to make of that advice then, but I come back to it from time to time and, each time, it makes more sense. The idea isn’t to dwell on all the things I’m doing wrong, but to acknowledge that I am capable of making mistakes and doing things incorrectly. We all have opportunities to improve, and self-awareness is the first step to improvement.

One of the things I ask in my Five Minute Journal is “How could I have made today even better?” It’s a great way to end the day because it acknowledges that I didn’t do everything perfectly, but it gets me excited for how I can improve tomorrow.

Anger Is Harmful

Nobody’s immune to anger; we all feel it. It’s the “fight” part of that fight/flight/freeze response I’ve spoken about before. We perceive a threat, and sometimes our reaction is to attack back; that’s where anger comes from.

But just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s helpful. I can’t recall a time when I’ve engaged in actions while angry and that’s worked out well for me. Can you? Anger clouds your judgment, makes you lean into your existing biases and causes you to throw blame around. Anger is the enemy of objectivity and distance, and it can do real harm to those around you and your relationships with them.

When you feel yourself getting angry, try to channel that anger into something positive. Go exercise. Take a walk around the block. Dance to some music. Simple movement can do a lot to alleviate the symptoms of anger and, if that fails, try engaging in some deep breathing exercises. Then, when your anger has passed, look at those decisions that seemed so dire again.

I think that, no matter who you are, the teachings of Stoicism can have some value in your life. Which lessons resonate with you? Which are you already practicing?

About Todd Zipper

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