I was first introduced to Stoicism by Tim Ferriss, author of The Four Hour Work Week. Ferriss regularly sprinkles teachings from Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Cato, and other famous Stoics throughout his blog and podcast. Curious about the philosophy, I decided to pick up a few books—it’s been over three years since.
Before I dive into why Stoicism is a great philosophy to live by, I first want to talk about what initially drew me to it. Ferriss made a passing comment on one of his podcasts that stuck with me. I don’t remember which episode it was, but he was talking about Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and arguably one of the most famous Stoics of all time. He was talking about Meditations, a series of private notes Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself. The book has all these thought-provoking maxims, maxims that make you aspire to be like the writer who wrote them.
Ferriss provided a sobering summary: the book isn’t about a perfect man who was following all these maxims; Meditations is a journal from a flawed man who was reminding himself to practice them. I instantly knew what he meant.
As someone who journals regularly, I constantly remind myself how to act. I give myself quotes and maxims to live by. I tell myself the best approaches to tough situations. If someone were to read an entry in my journal, perhaps they’d be under the impression that I practice perfect principles when the reality is I’m reminding myself to follow them.
I connected with the emperor. Ferriss’s statement made him seem more human. What made me like him even more was that his way of living was self-imposed. Marcus Aurelius was a man with more power and influence than anyone at the time, and here he was reminding himself profound things:
As ruler of the Roman Empire, Marcus Aurelius never had to follow any of these reminders. He could have easily said and done whatever he wanted because of his position; he could have decided to live a life of pure decadence like some of his predecessors. But he chose to live a disciplined, thoughtful life.
Obviously, we don’t know Marcus Aurelius, and we can only speculate about his daily behavior given historical accounts and writings. From what we do know, he was a powerful man that wanted to be a better person. Even if he wasn’t, he still had the desire.
After Ferriss’s statement, I decided to buy Meditations, and I related with its author. I’ve never considered myself perfect and have a lot of flaws. But I’ve always had the same desire to be a better man. I’ve always written things to myself in moments of anger, joy, doubt, peace, and clarity much like Marcus Aurelius.
That level of connection with someone so widely attributed with Stoicism’s popularity made me realize that this may be a good philosophy to follow. And that’s an important distinction: Stoicism is a philosophy, not a religion. You can be Hindu, Christian, Muslim, or Jewish and still practice Stoicism. That appealed to me as I found myself needing a sound school of thought to deal with challenges, but I wasn’t open to converting to a religion.
So let’s talk about why Stoicism is a good philosophy to live by.
The first reason why Stoicism is a good philosophy to live by is it teaches us how to deal with adversity. While many advocate living a peaceful life, the Stoics are pragmatic when it comes to the troubles you’ll face throughout the day.
Read this quote from Marcus Aurelius:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil.”
The reason I love this quote so much is that it eliminates any surprises people may throw at you. Marcus Aurelius is telling himself this as soon as he wakes up, attributing any negative actions—in the final sentence—to a person’s ignorance as opposed to their character.
While most people would prefer to think positively about their day, Marcus Aurelius is practicing negative visualization, the exercise of visualizing your worst-case scenarios. I’ve found this to be effective. You think about all the bad things that can (and probably will) happen and picture yourself in those moments. Can you deal with the disrespectful client, patient, or friend, the bad traffic you’ll face on your way to work, the cancellation of your vacation because someone got sick, the unexpected, expensive repair bill, the cancellation of services from a high-paying customer, or the possibility that you could lose your job?
The answer is yes. Of course you can. These scenarios are forms of adversity that you can handle, and by having thought of them ahead of time, you won’t feel the full weight of their punch. In fact, you’ll most likely have thought of solutions if they happen—this becomes your counterattack.
Another benefit of Stoicism is that it advocates being tough through voluntary discomfort. To piggyback off the last section, the Stoics advocate practicing hard things to not only be ready for when adversity comes, but to also not become soft; being soft makes life harder.
Read this quote from Seneca:
“When pleasures have corrupted both mind and body, nothing seems to be tolerable, not because the suffering is hard, but because the sufferer is soft.”
What Seneca is saying is that as soon as you’ve been corrupted by pleasures, things become less tolerable. As soon as you find yourself with a drinking, eating, sex, or drug addiction, it becomes harder to deal with the inevitable challenges life will give you.
So how do we toughen up? By training. Working out, studying, dieting, practicing self-restraint—these are the things that will ensure we stay tough, especially during times when doing these things aren’t needed (e.g., learning a new skill well after we’ve graduated school).
Seneca offers us an additional reminder on why training during “off-season” is important:
“In days of peace the soldier performs maneuvers, throws up earthworks with no enemy in sight, and wearies himself by gratuitous toil, in order that he may be equal to unavoidable toil. If you would not have a man flinch when the crisis comes, train him before it comes.”
In other words, to be ready to face an inevitable challenge when it comes, give yourself a challenge first.
Most people have a hard time accepting that they’re not in control. As much as we’d like to think that we have total influence on a situation, the truth is we don’t. Stoicism teaches us that we only have control over two things: our thoughts and actions. Everything else is something we slightly affect.
Once you learn this Stoic principle, you’ll find yourself calmer. Rather than fretting about others’ opinions about you, the outcome of a project, or why something didn’t go as planned, you can take a step back and realize that the only thing you can control in those moments is your reaction to the outcome as opposed to the outcome itself.
Read this quote from William B. Irvine:
“Stoics would recommend, for example, that I concern myself with whether my wife loves me, even though this is something over which I have some but not complete control. But when I do concern myself with this, my goal should not be the external goal of making her love me; no matter how hard I try, I could fail to achieve this goal and would as a result be quite upset. Instead, my goal should be an internal goal: to behave, to the best of my ability, in a lovable manner. Similarly, my goal with respect to my boss should be to do my job to the best of my ability. These are goals I can achieve no matter how my wife and my boss subsequently react to my efforts. By internalizing his goals in daily life, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control.”
What Irvine is saying is that your goal should be to focus on acting in such a way that it increases the chances that your preferred outcome happens; however, your goal shouldn’t be for a certain outcome to happen. For example, you can’t control whether you win or lose a game, but you can control your ability to play your best. You can’t control whether an article you write—such as the one you’re reading now—is well received, but you can control the time and effort you put into the article. You can’t control how many real followers on Instagram or Twitter you receive, but you can control the quality of the content you post.
By embracing the things inside and outside of your control and having the ability to distinguish one from the other, you’ll direct your energy toward the completion of realistic, healthy goals. You’ll also be more comfortable with the positive and negative outcomes of those goals.
Stoicism reminds us to look at our lives objectively. We get so lost in the day-to-day grind that we forget how insignificant the things that stress us out are in the long run. How many things are upsetting us today that won’t matter in ten, twenty, thirty, or forty years? The friend who talks behind our back, the money we lost to a scammer, the time we said the wrong thing at the wrong time, the job we lost due to unforeseen circumstances, the project we started that failed—I doubt we’ll care about these things in our old age.
We may also find that the things we are chasing won’t matter in the long run such as fame, fortune, and material possessions. Sure, a good reputation, money, and toys are great additions to a well-lived life. But these shouldn’t be our reason for living.
Marcus Aurelius offers us this piece of wisdom:
“Look down from above on the countless gatherings and countless ceremonies, and every sort of voyage in storm and calm, and the disputes between those being born, living together, and dying. Think also of the life that was lived by others long ago, and that will be lived after you, and that is being lived now in other countries; think of how many don’t know your name at all, how many will quickly forget it, how many who – perhaps praising you now – will soon be finding fault. Realize that being remembered has no value, nor does your reputation, nor anything else at all.”
This quote initially seems bleak. But if we look below its surface, what Marcus Aurelius is really saying is that if we zoom out, we will see that each of us is an extremely small piece of the world. We like to think of ourselves as the center of the universe, but we aren’t, even if we have money and a great reputation.
No matter who you are, your fortune and fame will go to the grave with you. Some may know your name, but in the grand scheme of things, your fame and fortune will become a short piece of history that lives with the countless biographies and autobiographies of the other rich, renowned people that lived before you. This is a good reminder for keeping our egos in check: no one is that important, and chasing such importance is a waste of time.
By now, we will have learned how to deal with adversity, how to be tough through practicing voluntary discomfort, how to accept the things outside of our control, and how to keep our egos in check by looking at the bigger picture. Although these are profound lessons, many people—including myself—initially want to know what the goal is. If we practice Stoicism, what do we get in return for all this work?
The goal is that by living a virtuous life we may be able to achieve a state of being called eudaimonia, a Greek term that translates to human flourishing, happiness, or living well. By practicing Stoicism, we can come close to living a tranquil life that allows us to objectively look at situations, control our thoughts and actions, and be ready for the unexpected events that will inevitably come our way.
Marcus Aurelius offers us a reminder of what virtues will help us achieve a good life:
“If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, prudence, self-control, courage—than a mind satisfied that it has succeeded in enabling you to act rationally, and satisfied to accept what’s beyond its control—if you find anything better than that, embrace it without reservations—it must be an extraordinary thing indeed—and enjoy it to the full.
“But if nothing presents itself that’s superior to the spirit that lives within—the one that has subordinated individual desires to itself, that discriminates among impressions, that has broken free of physical temptations, and subordinated itself to the gods, and looks out for human beings’ welfare—if you find that there’s nothing more important or valuable than that, then don’t make room for anything but it.”
What Marcus Aurelius is saying is if you find something more important than the four Stoic virtues (Justice, Wisdom, Temperance, and Courage), more important than a mind that helps you act rationally and accept the things beyond its control, then you’ve found something extraordinary that deserves to be embraced. But if you haven’t found anything like that, anything that’s better than an inner spirit that’s disciplined, free from temptations, and focused on others’ welfare rather than its own, then you should only make room for this inner spirit, this way of living and nothing else.
In my career and life, I’ve found this to be a great way to live. I haven’t found one instance in my career as a salesperson, consultant, marketer, manager; in my life as a son, brother, friend, boyfriend; and in my life as a human being who interacts with other human beings, where I couldn’t have applied Justice, Wisdom, Courage, or Temperance to a situation.
This is the point of Stoicism and why it's a good philosophy to live by. And although I can’t say I’ve achieved eudaimonia, I’ve never been happier in my life than when I’m being objective, disciplined, and virtuous. I couldn’t picture living my life in any other way.
Motivation is a myth.