We’ve all been there before. We’ve had long days, where things are breaking down left and right: family members becoming ill, conflicts come up between friends, overdue projects pilling on your desk, bank account balances at an all-time low and shit starts to hit the fan. Sometimes everything comes crashing down all at once, and it becomes too much to bear. While those are probably the most difficult moments in our life, and they’re also inevitable. Life isn’t always going to be sunshine and rainbows, and the acceptance of the idea that things will go wrong is key. But what do you do after that? How do you cope, and how do you clear everything away, fix problems and start off on a blank slate?
This is where stoicism can come in and try to save the day.
Why Stoicism, Why Now?
You may be thinking that it sounds too good to be true, but it isn’t. Stoicism IS NOT some complex idea that you would need to spend 4 years at university studying. Instead, it’s meant to be extremely practical and applicable. This is coming from someone that loves actionable concepts and can take some time before actually adopting new complex frameworks in life.
In a world and time full of stress, anxiety, unrest, and a global pandemic, it’s important to be mindful of our own mental health and wellbeing. While there are numerous ways to cope and deal with the (bad) events that happen in our life, stoicism is one of the best tools that you can start using as part of your toolbox for life.
Stoicism is endorsed and has been practiced by many all around the world. So much so, that many of the world’s most brilliant authors, artists, athletes, entrepreneurs and politicians have adopted stoicism to help them be better at what they do, and help them move forward.
Some famous people that you might know practicing this philosophy include Ryan Holiday, Tim Ferriss, Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, Pete Carroll, President Theodore Roosevelt and many others.
So, what is it? What is Stoicism?
At the core, stoicism is a philosophy focused on the principles of helping people live their best lives. It provides the frameworks toward helping you maximize positive emotions, minimize negative ones, and helps you to make better decisions in life, based on your core values.
A quote from the famous Marcus Aurelius sums up what stoicism meant to him:
“Objective judgment, now, at this very moment. Unselfish action, now, at this very moment. Willing acceptance — now, at this very moment — of all external events. That’s all you need.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations IX.6
Stoicism can be broken down into four cardinal virtues: wisdom, temperance, justice and courage. These four virtues can be seen pretty much everywhere you look when we discuss stoics, their beliefs, strategies and frameworks towards living a better life.
Key Principles To Start Practicing Stoicism Today
Here are some practical principles, strategies and ideas that you can start adding to your everyday life to make it a more enjoyable one:
The Dichotomy of Control
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…” — Epictetus
Epictetus and many of the stoic friends believed in the acceptance of what is and isn’t in our control and the fact that not all things will go the way we want. With this realization, stoics taught people to not focus on what we can control, and try to expand what Stephen Covey would call our Circle of Influence. By not spending energy on what we can’t control, i.e. politics, the weather, surprising events, etc, we can be more at peace, allowing us to take action on what we can do to mend or improve the situation.
Be a Good Person and Have a Bias Towards Action
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man [and woman] should be. Be One.” — Marcus Aurelius
Stoics strongly believed in the idea of using the facts and information you’re given to make quick decisions and take action. They also wanted people to just do, and not only think about principles or the theory behind things. Lastly, surrounding this quote, stoics cared a lot about morals, values and living a just life.
Stop Chasing Materialistic Possessions Just Because
“No person has the power to have everything they want, but it is in their power not to want what they don’t have, and to cheerfully put to good use what they do have.” — Seneca
Being stoic doesn’t mean that you have to give up everything and practice minimalism to the extreme. What it does mean is that we should be making the most out of what we have, and avoid chasing many materialistic things. Seneca would often intentionally spend a few days every once in a while in poverty, living on nothing more than ragged clothes and a lack of food. He realized that he was still as happy as he was before, as long as he was in good health. The principle of gratitude is so important since we often take what we have for granted!
When Life Gives You Lemons, Make Lemonade.
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent — no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.” — Seneca
Stoics accepted that life is not going to be a smooth, and easy journey. They know that troubles and roadblocks are going to be there, and many times they even try to prepare for it. While it doesn’t mean they are happy about things going wrong, it does mean that they try to make the most out of all situations.
Suppose that you got laid off from your job. A stoic would most likely be upset for a bit, but simply pick themselves back up and try to see the good in that situation. Perhaps it’s an opportunity to start their own venture, create their own startup, go travel for a bit (assuming they can get creative, or have the financial means), or be productive in some form. Stoics understand that life is short, and try to avoid as much time being upset or untranquil as possible.
Our Perspectives and Thoughts Influence Us
“External things are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” — Marcus Aurelius
Oftentimes, bad events happen in our life, and people react negatively to them, either annoyance, anger or sadness. Instead, stoicism gets us to change the lens and perspective that we see the world from, and try to broaden our horizons. This is even proved in psychology with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) which focuses on the idea that our thoughts, emotions and behaviours are intertwined. Changing our thoughts, the way we see things, and how we react, we’ll be able to experience “reality” differently. Some people might be happy about failing at something because they think it’s an opportunity to learn and improve, while others will be upset and wallow in their own self misery. Usually, events don’t make us upset, but the thoughts do. Change the way you see things, to change your life.
Acceptance of Death and Existence
“Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” — Seneca
“Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible — by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.” — Epictetus
A concept called “memento mori” has been extremely important since it means “remember that you will die.” While this can be cruel and saddening to think about, accepting death will make us more conscious of our actions and how we spend our time here on earth. This would often lead to more gratitude or even greater productivity. It’s the idea that tomorrow isn’t promised, and that we should instead seize the moment, making the most of our days.
History and Key Leaders of Stoicism
Stoicism first originated in Rome and Athens around 300 B.C.E. and was first started by Zeno of Citium, who was shipwrecked in Athens.
Instead of being upset as any other person would be, he decided to make the most of the philosophical talent in Athens. Over time he built up his knowledge base and even started teaching others stoic philosophy.
Another famous stoic was Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor for 2 decades, among which who fought 2 wars and lost many children. Over the course of his life, Aurelius wrote a whole journal titled Meditations, which Nelson Mandela used during his imprisonment to help him prepare for the fight for freedom in South Africa.
Two other key stoics were Seneca and Epictetus. Seneca was a statesman and writer at the time who helped spread the principles of the philosophy to the masses. His message hit home to a lot of people since he touched upon the topics of friendship, mortality, altruism and intention with our use of time. Lastly, Epictetus, a former slave used the teaching of this philosophy to help move him towards a better life, soon creating a handbook called Enchiridion, referencing practical applications in everyday life.
In the past, all of the most brilliant minds came together to create a beautiful way of living to optimize for happiness, wellbeing, and productivity.
From the pure acceptance of what life throws at us, all the way towards focusing on what we can control, stoicism is extremely practical and can be a tool in our toolbox that helps us walk through everything that life might throw at us.
It can be hard but the rewards are incredible: greater happiness, more tranquillity, better productivity, and a better life for you and all of those that surround you.
Many people I’ve spoken to have mentioned that they were taught many of these principles and live by them, but only truly understood the connections once they come across stoicism.
With something that’s changed so many people’s lives, you might as well just get started with it today!
If you’re still not on board, I have only one question left:
What’s stopping you from being a stoic the second you leave this article?