It’s pretty obvious that life doesn’t always go as planned.
This blog is all about personal development, and that means taking control over things like our habits, our attitude, and how we manage time.
But no matter how hard we work to become better at directing our own lives, the fact of the matter is much of life isn’t under our control. Every day, bad things happen to good people—good people like you.
- Your boss humiliates you. Publicly.
- Your car breaks down at the worst possible time.
- While chopping green peppers for a dinner party, you cut your finger badly (my suggestion: avoid green peppers).
- A close friend is hospitalized after a bad car accident. The other driver is stinking drunk, but he’s unhurt.
- A water pipe bursts while you’re on vacation, and half your belongings are ruined.
- A loved one is diagnosed with a serious illness.
We can’t focus only on controlling things because we just can’t control that much. To live successful lives, we need a game plan for dealing with all the stuff we can’t control.
What is Stoicism?
Founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BC, Stoicism is an ancient school of thought that emphasizes strengthening our self-control and accepting the events in our lives.
Stoicism is an entire worldview, but I’m not asking you to buy it wholesale. Instead, I’d like to share three useful Stoic ideas that will help you get better at dealing with life’s ups and downs.
1. Constantly remind yourself to expect the expected
Marcus Aurelius had a hard job.
He was the emperor of Rome, and a good one, too–Marcus is known today as the last of “the five good emperors.” This was a dude who shouldered more responsibility than you and I can even imagine (and the stress that comes with it).
Marcus was also a major Stoic thinker, and his personal journals make up a short but powerful book, Meditations. Chapter 2 opens with this timeless passage:
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. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.
There’s a lot to unpack here, but the first sentence alone contains a very useful idea: today is not going to go perfectly, and the reasons why not will probably not be a surprise.
Here’s how I interpret (and add to) Marcus’ words:
Look, some of the people you encounter today are going to be unpleasant, for various reasons that have nothing to do with you. You know this ahead of time: “I will encounter a certain number of jerks today.” So why get upset when you knew they were coming? Much better to expect a few jerks. And these poor folks can’t help it anyway (though if you repay their venom with kindness, you might actually help them come to their senses).
So often, we fail to expect the expected. We get all worked up about something we knew was coming, like encountering difficult people. And for the challenges that aren’t so certain, there’s a related Stoic technique called “premeditation of evils” that can help us prepare.
When it comes to predictable difficulties, don’t be caught unawares. It’s worth developing the habit of thinking about the unpleasant situations you’ll encounter in your daily life and making mental preparations to deal with them.
Then, when they arrive, you and everyone else involved will have a much better experience.
2. Remember who controls your reactions
Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Men are disturbed not by the things that happen, but by their opinion of the things that happen.
Epictetus, The Enchiridion
We’ve now got a tool for dealing with expected challenges, but what about the unexpected? Stoicism has some advice for us here, too: choose your reactions.
We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we interpret what happens to us and how we react to it. Positive psychology tells us that this is a big difference between happy and unhappy people: happy people have learned to attach a fairly optimistic meaning to negative outcomes (“that client threw a fit because she was having a bad day”), whereas unhappy people attach a pessimistic meaning (“that client threw a fit because I’m a bad developer/wedding planner/attorney”).
Most of our reactions are automatic and unthinking, but that doesn’t mean we can’t learn to control them. Over time, we can do just that: gradually change our reaction patterns. We can choose to be less sensitive to others, to take things less personally, or to see failures as learning opportunities.
Life chooses some of our experiences for us. But we are in total control of our response.
3. Occasionally deprive yourself
Another major Stoic figure was the Roman philosopher and statesmen Seneca. Seneca was a bit of a polymath, and after serving as an advisor to the tyrannical emperor Nero, he was forced to take his own life (which he did, very . . . stoically). Seneca was a great thinker and a compelling writer, and in the following passages from Letters from a Stoic, he gives us a lesson in gratitude and helps us step off the hedonic treadmill.
Set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: “Is this the condition that I feared?” It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while Fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence. 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.
Let the pallet be a real one, and the coarse cloak; let the bread be hard and grimy. Endure all this for three or four days at a time, sometimes for more, so that it may be a test of yourself instead of a mere hobby. Then, I assure you, my dear Lucilius, you will leap for joy when filled with a pennyworth of food, and you will understand that a man’s peace of mind does not depend upon Fortune; for, even when angry she grants enough for our needs.
Maybe you’re not willing to eat “grimy bread.” Honestly, I’m not sure I am either.
But we could take the stairs instead of the elevator.
We could go without our favorite substance for a few days: sugar, caffeine, alcohol, etc.
We could take a day off from our smartphones.
We could skip a single meal.
Occasional deprivation reminds us that our lives are incredibly good, that many people get by with much less, and that we’re tougher than we think.
Stoicism’s ideas and techniques are just as useful today as they were 2,000 years ago. When you find yourself overreacting to predictable difficulties, becoming frustrated with life in general, or struggling to appreciate what you have, my friend: you need to reach for a can of cold, crisp Stoicism.