stoicism

“If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favourable.”

– Lucius Seneca

I’m a sucker for a good quote.

I know they can be naff, and I get that the they often only seem poignant because they present broad strokes of wisdom which lack specificity or useful context.

“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

 – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

… However, I genuinely do believe that there’s something special about a little perspective altering nugget of wisdom.

My vague quote poison of choice is stoic philosophers – namely Marcus Aurelius and Lucius Seneca.

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

 – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

I’ve written about them before, and I’ll likely do it again. So rather than dive too deeply into why I think these are valuable, I’ll leave you to decide whether they belong on a weeties box, on your facebook wall or etched gently on the inside of your skull for future pondering.

“We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

– Lucius Seneca

In his worthwhile book, The Hapiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt argues that the advantage optomists have over pessimists naturally compounds.

It’s true that the world is structured such that the rich tend to get richer as the poor get poorer, but it’s also true that the happy are likely to grow further happier than the sad.

When it comes to dealing with circumstances which are making them unhappy, “optimists expect their efforts to pay off, [so] they go right to work fixing the problem.”

Even when things fail, they have an inherent understanding that things tend to work out for the best.

When things go wrong, optimists naturally seek out the potential benefits buried within misfortune.

The narrative optimists write for themselves then, is one of constantly overcoming adversity.

Pessimists, on the other hand, live in a world with more apparent risk and less confidence to deal with it.

From the pessimist perspective it’s natural to feel trapped within a narrative wrought with hopelessness; one where bearing the consequences of injust circumstances seems more natural than attempting to change them.

Optimists and pessimists can be dealt the exact same adversity and each write opposing translations.

What’s frightening is that the way each retells the events in their own internal narrative has ripple effects on the remainder of their narrative.

Optimists are more likely to grow from adversity because they can antipate rewards for their efforts.

Pessimists are more likely to be enslaved by adversity because they spend more time managing their pain than resolving their adversity.

This doesn’t mean pessimists can’t grow from adversity. It just means they find it more difficult to do so on average.

“The key to growth is not optimism per se, it is the sense making which optimists find easy.”

Optimist, pessimist or anything inbetween, find a way to make sense of adversity. Come to terms with it. Relish it. Grow.

The other day I genuinely heard an adult human complain after someone mentioned that blueberries were only $2 a punnet. This person felt hard done by because they had paid $5 only a month or two ago. They seemed honestly upset by this $3 differential. For the purposes of this post, I’ll call them Bob.

There’s a couple of interesting things to unpack here.

Firstly, Bob’s frustration didn’t spring from the initial $5 price tag on the blueberries he purchased. In fact, at the time, he was quite happy to pay the money.

Bob only became upset once he realised someone else had been offered a better deal, and felt like he’d been treated unfairly; the Blueberry gods had shafted him, and he wasn’t having a bar of it.

The reason this all seems silly is that of course, Bob hadn’t been treated unfairly at all. The availability of blueberries, like most fruits and vegetables, changes throughout the year. At times when they are less abundant, prices go up. It’s sad that mass supermarket availability has shrouded this commonly understood natural fact, but here we are.

What I find interesting about this whole thing is that while it’s not grounded in any truth, Bob still experienced the same frustration he would have if he had been mistreated. The emotions he went through were based purely on the perception that he had somehow been maligned.

This frustration was only possible because Bob had preconceived assumptions about blueberries, supermarkets, supply and demand. These assumptions informed expectations which did not align with his experience.

By nature, all expectations involve the risk of emotional pain.

It’s easy to laugh at Bob for not understanding that fruit costs different amounts at different times. But before you do, ask yourself; when was the last time you became upset or frustrated because someone didn’t go as I expected it to? When was the last time you experienced road rage despite not being put into any immediate danger? How often are you frustrated when a USB doesn’t go in on the first attempt?

These reactions are as useless as Bob’s being upset by cheap blueberries.

When we experience resistant cognitive dissonance over things which do not threaten the safety or security of our lives, the unpleasant experience of those feelings is by our own design.

Dilute your expectations of the world. It’ll never make as much sense as we’d like it to. And even when it does, you might find yourself sulking over $2 blueberries you have no reason to. Worst of all, you might not even realise that you’re being a fool.

When was the last time something ticked you off? How easy was it for you to think up something to complain about?

If just thinking about it agitates you, how bad really was the thing? Bad enough to still be bothering you? Or is your agitation a reaction to the fact that you were agitated in the first place?

We all experience this experience mental chafing. It pops up any time our expectations aren’t met, and often continues to affect us well into the future.

Being anxious about the possibility of becoming anxious is an unfortunate cycle to get caught up in.

Consistently becoming annoyed about the fact that something annoyed you is just as dangerous.

“How much more harmful are the consequences of anger…than the circumstances that aroused them in us.”

Marcus Aurelius

When we think back on the times where felt annoyed, what we really mean is that our expectations of a situation were met resistance. But when we reflect on these times, we have another option; instead of thinking back with regret and frustration, we can look back with gratitude.

Resistance is feedback. From feedback, we can learn. Greet all opportunities to learn with grace, and our problems become gifts; puzzles which we can relish the opportunity to piece together.

Your boss dumping too much work on your plate towards the end of the week is only becoming frustrating because you’re been avoiding a conversation with them about it.

Stubbing your toe on the corner of your table only happened because you were in a rush.

The first step is to diagnose the problem, and the only other step is to act. If you can’t (or won’t) act, it’s time to change your expectations – because the problem doesn’t care how you feel about it.

Neither of these things are about fault, they just are.

Have that conversation with your boss, take more care walking around the table, and all annoyance is torn out from the root.

Or, if these aren’t actions you’re willing or able to take, then you simply have to accept that being overworked and occasionally having sore toes are parts of what it means to lead your life. If you’re not willing to have the conversation or build the habit, these are the natural consequences. Once you’ve accepted them, how could you possible expect them not to happen again?

If you’re annoyed, it’s usually because there’s something you’re avoiding, or something you can change.

Sometimes resistance is a cost for the things we do. If you’re consistently annoyed by the price, stop doing the things.

Going through the process forces us to realise that indignation is a choice.

We have a lot more control over our lives than it ever feels like we do, so we ought to take it.

People naturally gravitate towards happy and motivated people. This includes employers, friends, partners and teammates.

When people gravitate towards you, the opportunities available to you increase.

People aren’t happy and motivated because they’re successful, it’s the other way around.

The act of being you is something you’ll never quite perfect. But you’ll continue needing to do it until you die.

It’s the invisible item at the top of all of our to-do lists.

Doing the work of being yourself is a unique task in that there is no risk of failure. The only risk is that the quality of your work, and the life it produces, can vary greatly.

“No man is free who is not the master of himself.”

Epictetus

Master yourself and you’ll become a master of curating your own experience.

You’ve got all the time in the world to practice.

When we ruminate too intently on the pains our future might hold, we experience a portion of that pain in advance.

People with empathy internalise the pain of others when they witness suffering. It helps us to connect, to understand one another, and to care for eachother.

When making a decision, we usually consider the effect it might have on others. In doing so, we are essentially imagining future versions of the people our decisions may effect, allowing us to empathetically consider the potential outcomes of our actions.

We are so good at this that we usually do it intuitively.

I don’t take an online yodeling class at 1:30am because I can imagine that my neighbours (and their baby) might find it difficult to sleep in the presence of such glorious sound.

Unfortunately, there is a little glitch in this otherwise wonderfully human system; we can’t help but also imagine ourselves as a future person. We possess an inescapable and often rather concerning future self.

Anxiety is the pain we absorb while empathising with our future selves.

Harbouring a bit of this pain is sensible, but too much acts like poison.

We consider people ‘anxious’ when the pain they are experiencing in advance is disproportionate to the actual risks their furute presents.

“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

Your anxiety is as useful as it is actionable.

If you can’t do anything to address a concern, there is zero gain in accepting preliminary pain on your future self’s behalf.

You’ll have to deal with it when your future self arrives at the worrying destination, so what sense is there in experiencing the pain twice?

Getting stuck empathising with future you is dangerous because this process feeds upons itself.

Once painful worrying becomes a habit, you might find yourself worrying about the worrying.

All of a sudden, your introspective empathy has turned toxic, and you’re so caught up inside yourself that you can barely muster the energy to look out.

Illustration by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

There is no simple fix to this cycle.

It’s a grueling, often shameful, thing to break.

But it can be done.

I suggest starting with one of these:

Any meaningful progress requires the processing of (and response to) feedback.

An archer practicing her shots on a target nocks an arrow, aims, draws, then releases.

(Tan Ya-Ting, world class archer representing Chinese Taipei)

One of three things will happen;

  • She hits the bullseye;
  • She hits the target imperfectly;
  • Or she misses all together

The beauty of pursuits like archery is that the feedback involved in its practice is unambiguous, immediate, and self-enacting; it’s clear whether-or-not you’ve succeeded, and every possible outcome inspires the same response; nock another arrow, and try again.

If the archer misses, she picks up her bow and tries again until she hits.

When she hits the target imperfectly, she tries yet again, aiming for dead centre.

When she strikes dead centre, she tries again, and again, until she can strike dead centre one hundred times in a row.

Even when she has accomplished this, her mastery is not complete.

She takes a step back, increasing her range. Then once again, she tries again.

The process of improving at archery is ingrained in its practice. You hit, or you miss until you only hit.

You can’t pretend to be good at archery. Not to others, but more importantly, not to yourself. You are, or you aren’t. You hit, or you miss.

Similar loops can be found in pursuits like Jiu Jitsu, pottery, or lifting weights; You can defend yourself, or you can’t. You can throw a set of identical bowls, or you can’t. You can deadlift 80kg, or you can’t.

Want to get better at any of these things? Then do them.

Show up. Try. Process feedback. Repeat.

It sounds simple, because it is.

What most people fail to realise is that this type of progress is not exclusive to pursuits with self enacting feedback loops inbuilt.

Feedback loops can be designed and implemented into any pursuit.

It’s not always easy. But if progressing in your pursuit means something to you, designing and implementing feedback loops is essential.

Some artists do a particularly poor job of this. An artist’s failure to develop usually has to do with the ambiguity of their feedback, and their failure to reframe it into something actionable.

When the feedback generated by an activity is ambiguous, responding productively is a challenge.

Unlike arrows in targets, the effective success of artistic practice is often hard to measure.

What’s worse is when that ambiguous feedback gets further distorted and filtered by the artist’s ego.

What happens when ambiguous feedback gets passed through an ego filter?

Not a lot of growth.

When pursuits don’t have clear feedback cycles, we have to build our own. We owe it to ourselves.

If you want to get better at whatever it is you’re pursuing, you must be able to point at the bullseye, and describe what sending an arrow crashing into it looks like. Not the field it’s in, not the target itself, but the actual image of an arrow lodging itself cleanly in the centre ring.

For the artist, their bullseye might be the approval of a trusted mentor, or to their second timing on a monologue or poem.

A bullseye could look like one interesting blog post published every day, without typos, at 6am.

A detailed understanding of what perfect execution looks like is essential if you intend to trend towards it.

Fail to do so, and you’ll dabble in mediocrity for however long it takes you to quit.

Incredible things are difficult to do.

You shouldn’t feel horrible every time your arrow flies wayward. You shouldn’t expecting perfect results every time you loose an arrow – It’s about giving yourself the best opportunity to grow towards perfect results.

When designing your own loops, consider three things;

What does perfect execution look like?

What opportunities do I have to practice my own execution?

When I fail, how will I know what needs to change?

The more you try, the more you grow, the closer you get, the more you try.

Get trying.

Being ‘in control’ is a mindset.

“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.”

– Epictetus

Being in control of things outside yourself is relative to your influence over them, but being in control of yourself requires nothing more than feeling in control. This is a skill, and we can practice it.

Feeling in control requires you to acutely focus solely on the things which you can change.

We can change much more than we usually give ourselves credit. Even in times of hopelessness;

While we may have no control over a a thief who wishes to break into our home, we do have control over how we prepared we are for that possibility; installing security screens, cameras and investing in insurance are all measures we can take to minimise the possibility of disruption.

We also have power over how we react to being stolen from; we can grow fearful, bitter and angry, or we can deal with the problem as best we can, prepare ourselves better in case the circumstance arises again, and move on.

The problem with reacting angrily is that there’s nothing to be gained by allowing those emotions flourish. The thief has been and gone. There is no perpetrator to receive the justice of your anger, so what are you to do with it?

It feels good to embrace negative emotions in times like these. To imagine what you might do if you found the thief. How good you’ll feel if the police find them. You may find yourself playing these scenarios over and over in your mind, your emotion building as the visions become clearer.

But with no way to act on or utilise these feelings, thinking this way is nothing more than self-pollution.

This thinking does nothing to change what happened, nor does it aid in actually realising your imagined capture of the thief.

It’s useless.

We can’t control the actions of others, their reactions to our actions, nor the hand we’ve been dealt in the game of life.

Unless a feeling informs action, you don’t need it. That doesn’t mean that like a stray cat it won’t try to stick around, it just means you should probably avoid feeding it incase it decides to live with you permanently.

Take care not to obsess over things which fall outside the bounds of your control. When we do, especially if the thing scares us, we often wind up ruminating; thinking in abstract circles about how concerned or bereaved we are about a problem, without committing any energy to actually resolving it.

Ruminating about problems is useless, because problems require solving.

Solving is active where rumination is passive. It implies that action is being taken in the direction of a solution.

Nobody cares how worried you are about climate change, but plenty of people care about how you’re planning to vote at the next election.

People value action because it drives progress.

We can take control of our lives by choosing to focus our attention not on rumination, but on actively seeking out problems we have the capability to solve through our own individual action.

Accept everything which you cannot change, focus solely on those things you can, and pursue them with rigour.

There is no more powerful endeavour.

Life is short, right?

But how many times have you looked at your phone today?

My answer is: too many.

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it.”

Lucius Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

The letters of Ancient roman philosopher and dramatist Lucius Seneca are core to the bedrock of stoic philosophy.

His stunning essay, On the Shortness of Life, is one of his most valuable works, and is perhaps more relevant now than it was when he wrote it.

Time is our most valuable resource. We all have much more time than anyone did two thousand, or even a hundred years ago, but we haven’t developed the skills to use that time optimally.

Midway through his essay, Seneca distills the three types of time we dance with;

“Life is divided into three periods, past, present, and future. Of these, the present is short, the future is doubtful, the past is certain.”

He argues that those who squander the present rarely reflect of the past, because to do so is to understand their failure to seize moments and opportunities which have passed them by.

The past is painful if you’re in the habit of wasting your time in the present.

Although, those who focus too narrowly on the present without considering the future, the ‘busy’ people, those slaving away doing something they hate crossing their fingers that it’ll all pay off in the long run, are at risk of squandering their drops of time too; for the future is inconsistent and lady fortune is largely unpredictable.

The past is precious, he claims;

“It cannot be disturbed or snatched from us: it is an untroubled, everlasting possession.”

So if you wasting time guarantees future despair, and being too ‘busy’ with things which do not guarantee a future worth slaving for is a recipe for tragedy – what’s left?

Ask yourself;

What can you do – this very second – which will guarantee that you will be able to look back on today with satisfaction tomorrow, a month, and ten years from now?

Put your phone down, and do that.

Can’t think of anything? Start by reading The Tao of Seneca; a stunning free e-book, and relish in the beauty of Seneca’s stoic mindset.

You can’t go wrong.

To read the full version of On the Shortness of Life, skip straight to page 215.