You’d think we’d see an explosion in articles about stoicism, mental toughness, and self-improvement during these trying times. After all, the stoics created these teachings to help you deal with life when things aren’t going well.
But since March, I’ve seen a growing trend of people abandon these ideologies altogether. I’ve seen writers who used to write self-improvement articles pivot hard into outrage clickbait and nihilism.
Stoicism is cool in theory, difficult in practice. Everyone loved throwing up quotes from the daily stoic onto their Instagram story when times were good.
For most people self-improvement is just a source for entertainment. Or it’s something to help you go from mediocre to good and good to great instead of bad to great.
Lot’s of people are suffering right now, I get it, but suffering is a feature of the human condition that manifests itself in a variety of ways, for both rich and poor alike.
No one gets to escape the tragedies of life. No one. At best, you can focus on your reactions to situations, which is the entire foundation of stoic philosophy.
In my case, I actively try to practice these philosophies, try to. The point isn’t to be some perfect self-improvement robot who is immune to negative feelings.
You’re going to have emotional swings that are initially out of control. Events in your life will throw you for a massive loop through no fault of your own. Tragedy is around the corner in your life, including the inevitable, and maybe abrupt, end of your of life.
Don’t beat yourself up for not having the perfect reaction to trauma because that’s impossible. It’s okay to get knocked down. The goal is to eventually get up. And these philosophies can help.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone back to read the stoic teachings during trying times — when the IRS garnished the bulk of my net worth at a time when my girlfriend was pregnant and we were saving to move out of her parent’s house, or when my girlfriend became my wife and then left me 18 months later, or when I lost half my vision due to a blood vessel in my eye exploding (I wrote parts of the first draft of my most recent book without being able to see out of one eye at all. This is why I had a voice actor do the audio instead of myself — the teleprompter would’ve been too painful to read).
Whenever I do a quotes article I make one rule for myself. I have to use quotes I can recite from memory. I have a close relationship with quotes. Some see them as cliches. I see cliches as deep wisdom you can use to change your life.
Here are some of my favorites.
You are scared of dying and tell me, is the kind of life you lead really any different from being dead? – Seneca
I’m not going to judge you how you choose to live your life. My rules for success are simple. You define your success based on the way you actually live your life versus the way you really want to live your life.
Sometimes, your wants and needs fall in line with societal standards and sometimes they don’t. I don’t know that mixture for you. Only you do.
For me? I knew that I’d feel like I was wasting my life if I got stuck in some corporate career I didn’t like. I’ve always had a disdain for authority and never wanted to work for anyone else. So, you could’ve paid me six-figures at this type of job and I still would’ve felt like a dead person.
In your case, be blunt and ask yourself how much of your life is any different than being dead based on the things you value. Maybe you value quality time over career achievements, but if you’re in a career you don’t like that sucks away valuable time, building an alternative might be better.
How much of your time do you spend watching mindless entertainment, distracting yourself with drugs and alcohol, running errands, commuting to work, whatever it may be that’s the antithesis of your version of a life well lived?
It’s intellectually lazy to make sweeping generalizations about the masses of men and women. Instead, I’ll leave it up to you to judge that quote for yourself and use your interpretation of it to guide your next moves.
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” – Marcus Aurelius
You have a unique problem when you’re trying to build something.
On the one hand, results can help indicate whether or not you’re doing a good job e.g., you need an outside audience to judge your work as a writer. On the other hand, sometimes audiences and the outside world aren’t a great judge of quality.
You want to be valued in the market place, but not at the cost of your artistic integrity. You don’t want to pander to people, but you often have to find an intersection between what you want and what the market wants to be successful.
To some degree, you want some form of validation or compensation from the outside world else you’d keep all your projects to yourself. Ambition is a trap, but so is living below your potential under the veil of martyrdom.
The best you can do is try your best and judge yourself based on your effort. Luck plays a large role in success, which means you can take the right actions and still fail. You also partially benefit from luck when you succeed, too.
So, the ultimate goal is to stay even — never too up and never too down. If you know that the work you’re doing is valuable, then you can always take pride in it, regardless of the results.
You want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, the approval of people who despise themselves. (Is it a sign of self-respect to regret nearly everything you do?) – Marcus Aurelius
I care what people think about me.
Still to this day, negative comments will give me that ‘heart in stomach’ feeling. I want everyone to like me. Who doesn’t? But I only want everyone to like me when I’m using my emotions.
Logically, I prefer that some people dislike me. I don’t want to be a people pleaser and pander just to avoid polarization. Sometimes I like to polarize because it gets the point across better and some points require polarization to stick.
So I try to go about my life being as authentic as I can.
And I use this quote to remember how to feel when I’m seeking the approval of others. We all carry some level of insecurity. You carry some level of insecurity.
When you remember that everyone else does as well, you’ll care less. Mind you, I didn’t say you’ll stop caring, but you’ll care less because you know the truth about other people.
We’re all just trying to figure this thing called life out and we’re all consciously anxious about it.
Too bad that doesn’t cause us to all love each other. How about you be the loving one?
At least, you be the one that doesn’t feed into that type of energy. Let people feel however they feel about you. As long as you’re not hurting anyone, you’re good.
“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire” – Seneca
I talk about mortality as a lens you can use to guide your decisions all the time. How you define what you do with your time on this earth is up to you, but always focus on using your time wisely.
Again, this is tricky. Some people take the YOLO approach and indulge all their desires because ‘life is short.’ Others spend too much time focused on work and accomplishment, only to look up and realize they’ve wasted valuable time they could have spent with family and friends.
Some people won’t go the extra mile to build a flexible life because they ‘don’t care about money’ and squander a third of their life away at a job they don’t like.
You want to spend some time studying, reading, and learning, but study is useless without implementation. There is a time for leisure, but such a thing as too much leisure.
There is no perfect answer for how to manage your time, but there are a few good answers for how to not spend your time. Don’t spend the vast majority of your time on activities you don’t enjoy. Don’t give equal weight to all obligations and don’t feel guilty for saying no. Definitely remove doing things you truly hate from your life altogether.
I look at life as a game of tradeoff. I traded five years of my life for my freedom, breaking many eggs in the process. Now? I push forward, but not at the expense of my social life.
Only you can know the tradeoffs but understand the ultimate tradeoff. Any time you spend is gone forever and can’t be traded back for anything.
“When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance, revert at once to yourself, and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better group of harmony if you keep on going back to it.” – Marcus Aurelius
Remember what I said earlier. You can’t avoid snap reactions to tragic situations. Circumstances can throw you out of whack not just for moments, but for days, weeks, months, years, maybe your entire life.
That left hook is always around the corner. Always. So step one is to know it’s coming and try to prepare yourself for it, even though preparation is mostly futile. An aside about self-improvement in general — most of these techniques are mostly futile, you aim for the slightest of edges.
Step two, when the situation occurs, you have to absorb it first then collect yourself to make the next step. The more efficient you are at that process, the better you can handle adversity.
See, most people will just make adversity worse because they don’t want to feel the additional pain of accepting what’s happening to them. We all do this. Something happens to you and you replay all the mental scenarios where you could’ve done something differently to escape your current fate. But you can’t escape.
I like to use this phrase:
“This is where I’m at, and I’m strong enough to deal with it.”
Then, I try to use reason and logic to make the next move. There’s another fitting quote about this sentiment:
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present. – Marcus Aurelius
You study philosophy to arm yourself with reason.
When the time comes, you’ll sort of know what to do because you’ve mentally rehearsed these strategies. Again, no rehearsal can substitute for the real thing, but you’re better off than people who never expect bad things to happen to them.
The pandemic threw me for a loop just like everyone else. It took me a while to adjust. But once I did, I focused on what I could control and ended up not just salvaging the year but thriving during it.
“It is our attitude toward events, not events themselves, which we can control. Nothing is by its own nature calamitous-even death is terrible only if we fear it.” – Epictetus
Two young men grew up with an abusive father who’s constantly in and out of jail. One son grows up to become a criminal just like his father. The other becomes a detective to put the bad guys in jail.
When both are asked about why they chose their paths in life, both had the same response:
With a father like mine, what choice did I have?
The biggest blind spot people have? We have a hard time imagining the other people would perceive our situations differently. Subconsciously, we believe everyone sees the world the same way we do.
This is why people will speak about the events and results in their lives with a very objective tone when the events and results of their lives are entirely subject to interpretation. It’s irrefutable.
The fact that someone can go through the exact same situation as you and have a different takeaway means that you don’t have an objective understanding of reality. No one does.
People get caught into deep traps built by their perception. Other people succeed and even exceed what they’re supposed to accomplish because they have irrationally high levels of confidence. To flip the coin once again, too much confidence can kill you, too.
The moral of the story is that you get to choose the story. I know you don’t always feel like you’re choosing to view reality a certain way, but you are. I know you feel like your life is a uniquely special situation, but it isn’t.
Instead of focusing on right or wrong, I focus on whether or not a thought or belief is useful. If your back is against the wall, is it more useful to believe you can still come out on top against all odds, or is it more useful to give up?
Even if the world is falling apart, is it useful to dwell on the aspects you can’t change or focus on the ones you can?
Success has many different variables involved, again including luck, but most successful people tend to have an internal locus of control. They see themselves as masters of their own fate. Whether or not that’s true is up to debate, but the attitude is useful nonetheless.