Living through a global pandemic with a newborn daughter has been an enormous challenge for my wife and I. While we are fortunate in that we have not contracted coronavirus, social isolation has made it hard not to lay in bed all day, productivity be damned.
To combat this, I’ve been spending time reading about Stoicism. If you aren’t familiar with Stoicism, it is a practical, ancient Greek philosophy (later adopted by many famous Romans) to help you in your daily life that is especially useful during hard times. Stoicism has helped me stay positive and accomplish my goals, and I hope it will help you as well.
What do the Stoics believe?
Shakespeare expressed one of the core tenets of Stoicism in Hamlet when he wrote:
“Why then ’tis none to you; for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
What Shakespeare meant was that whether an event in our life is good or bad depends on how we judge it in our minds. For example, if you get fired from your job, your first thought might be that it is a disaster, and your life is ruined. Conversely, you might be excited. You didn’t like your job anyway, and this is the perfect opportunity to commit to your side project or learn to code and change careers. In both cases, the event is the same. The only thing that changed is your perception.
Once you know this, with practice, you can decide how you react to events. For example, I’ve been practicing on changing my reaction to COVID-19. My initial response to the pandemic was thinking about all the ways it is negatively affecting me: about how I miss seeing people, how I can’t travel or play basketball, etc. Studying Stoicism has been helping me reprocess how I think about it, though. For instance, it gave me the push I needed to studying Stoicism, which has improved my life. It has also given me more time to work on my new book and allowed me to spend more time with my newborn daughter.
How to Use Stoicism to Accomplish Your Goals
So how can you use Stoicism to accomplish your goals? Well, the key to success is not giving up. As Elon Musk said,
“Persistence is very important. You should not give up unless you are forced to give up.”
Any journey worth taking will have setbacks. On my journey going from a beginner to a software engineer, I had lots of them. When I set out to become an author, I dealt with tons of obstacles as well. Book cover designers wouldn’t even email me back because I wasn’t working with a publisher! However, I pushed through, and for my second book, publishers started reaching out to me.
The key to persistence (and thus success) is having a framework like Stoicism to deal with them. When you learn to see every obstacle as a blessing, you are incapable of getting discouraged. The Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius said it best:
“The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
In other words, no obstacle can prevent you from reacting to it with wisdom and courage. If you encounter an obstacle, you can always find the good in it. For example, when you encounter a setback, instead of getting upset, you can be happy fate gave you a chance to practice overcoming adversity. You can also look for other benefits of your obstacle. If you lost your job, it is an opportunity to learn a new skill and get a better one. If your laboratory burned down, like Thomas Edison’s famously did, it is an opportunity to rebuild and avoid any mistakes you made the first time. Edison’s response to the fire that burned down his lab shows his understanding of Stoicism: he calmly told his son, “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
Once you develop this Stoic mindset, nothing can hold you back from achieving your goals, because you will see every obstacle as an opportunity, and you will persist long after most people would have given up.
Resources to Learn More
While Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism in Greece, today, Marcus Aurelius, Lucius Seneca, and Epictetus are the three most famous Stoics. Marcus Aurelius was a beloved Roman emperor, Seneca was an advisor to the Roman emperor Nero, and Epictetus was a former slave that became a famous philosopher in Rome.
All three of them also left behind bodies of written work. Marcus Aurelius wrote Meditations, which despite being written nearly a thousand years ago, is still one of the most popular best self-help books of all-time. Seneca was a prolific writer and wrote many plays in addition to works on philosophy. His most famous, Letters from a Stoic, is disguised as personal letters between himself and a friend but was meant for widespread consumption. Epictetus was not a writer, but his students recorded his teachings for posterity. His two surviving books are Discourses and The Enchiridion. My favorite Stoic resource is The Enchiridion, but all of these works are excellent places to learn more about Stoicism.
There are many present-day resources to learn more about Stoicism as well. The Obstacle is The Way, and The Daily Stoic are both great starting places. The author, Ryan Holiday, also has an email list called the Daily Stoic that sends you daily reminders to help you practice Stoicism. I also recommending Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero by James S. Romm. It is about Seneca’s life and one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Finally, I recommend checking out How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, which takes a look at Marcus Aurelius’s life and philosophy.
I hope you enjoy these resources and they help you as much as they’ve helped me.
Do you currently practice Stoicism, or are you just getting started? What are your favorite resources?
Let me know in the comments below.
Best of luck with your studies!