For the most part, we can’t change the world. We can’t change the fundamental facts of existence–like the fact that we’re going to die. We can’t change other people.
Does that mean that everything is hopeless and permanently broken?
No, because although we have that extreme powerlessness in one sense, we have an incredible superpower in another: We can change how we think about things. We can change how we view them, how we orient ourselves to them.
That’s the essence of Stoicism, by the way. The idea that we don’t control what happens, but we do control ourselves. When we respond to what happens, the main thing we control is our mind and the story we tell ourselves.
So one way to think about Stoicism itself then is as a collection of mindset shifts for the many situations that life seems to thrust us in. Indeed, Seneca’s Letters, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, and Epictetus’ Discourses are filled with passages, anecdotes, and quotes which force a shift in perspective.
Here are 14 that I have taken from the Stoics over the years that have changed my life. I think they’ll do the same for you.
Everything is an opportunity for excellence. The now famous passage from Marcus Aurelius is that the impediment to action advances action, that what stands in the way becomes the way. But do you know what he was talking about specifically? He was talking about difficult people! He was saying that difficult people are an opportunity to practice excellence and virtue–be it forgiveness or patience or cheerfulness. And so it goes for all the things that are not in our control in life. So when I find myself in situations big and small, positive or negative, I try to see each of them as an opportunity for me to be the best I’m capable of being in that moment. It doesn’t matter who we are, where we are, we can always do this.
Every event has two handles, Epictetus said: “one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other—that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.” Another way to say that is that there are multiple ways to look at every situation, multiple ways to determine how you’re going to react. Some of them are sturdy and some of them are not. Some are kind and resilient, some are not. Which will you choose? Which handle will you grab?
The world is dyed by the color of your thoughts. Marcus said, “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes the color of your thoughts.” He also said, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” If you see the world as a negative, horrible place, you’re right. If you look for shittiness, you will see shittiness. If you believe that you were screwed, you’re right. But if you look for beauty in the mundane, you’ll see it. If you look for evidence of goodness in people, you’ll find it. If you decide to see the agency and power you do have over your life (which as we’ve said is largely in how we think), well, you’ll find you have quite a bit.
There is a tax on everything. Taxes aren’t just from the government. Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius, “All the things which cause complaint or dread are like the taxes of life—things from which, my dear Lucilius, you should never hope for exemption or seek escape.” Annoying people are a tax on being outside your house. Delays are a tax on travel. Haters are a tax on having a YouTube channel. There’s a tax on money too–and the more successful you are, the more you pay. Seneca said he tried to pay the taxes gladly. I love that. After all, it’s usually a sign of a good problem. It means you had a killer year financially. It means you’re alive and breathing. You can whine about the cost. Or you can pay and move on.
Poverty isn’t only having too little. Of course, not having what you need to survive is insufficient. But what about people who have a lot…but are insatiable? Who are plagued by envy and comparison? Both Marcus Aurelius and Seneca talk about rich people who are not content with what they have and are thus quite poor. But feeling like you have ‘enough’–that’s rich no matter what your income is.
Alive time or Dead time? This isn’t from the Stoics exactly, but close enough. Robert Greene once told me there were two types of time in life: Alive time and Dead time. One is when you sit around, when you wait until things happen to you. The other is when you are using that time productively, actively. You’re stuck at the airport–you don’t control that. You decide whether it’s alive time or dead time (you read a book, you take a walk, you call your grandmother). I had a year left on a job when Robert gave me that advice. I could have just sat on my hands. Instead, it was an incredibly productive period of reading and researching and filling boxes of notecards that helped me write The Obstacle is the Way and Ego is the Enemy.
Anxiety isn’t escaped. It’s discarded. This was a breakthrough I had during the pandemic. Suddenly, I had a lot less to worry about. I wasn’t doing the things that, in the past, I told myself were the causes of my anxiety. I wasn’t having to get to a plane. I wasn’t battling traffic to get somewhere on time. I wasn’t having to prepare for this talk or that one. So you’d think that my anxiety would have gone way down. But it didn’t. And what I realized is that anxiety has nothing to do with any of these things. The airport isn’t the one to blame. I am! Marcus Aurelius actually talks about this in Meditations. “Today I escaped from anxiety,” he says. “Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions—not outside.” It’s not your parents that are frustrating you. They’re just doing what they do. You are the source of the frustration. That’s a little frustrating, but it’s also freeing. Because it means you can stop it! You can choose to discard it.
It’s the surprise that kills you. Stuff is going to happen, but what makes it harder is when it catches us off guard. The unexpected blow lands heaviest, Seneca said. That’s why we should practice the art of premeditatio malorum–essentially, a pre-mortem of the things that could happen in a day or a life. This takes the sting out of them in advance…it also lets us prepare and prevent. And for no one is this more important than parents and leaders. Seneca said that the one thing a leader is not allowed to say is, “Wow, I didn’t think that was going to happen.”
You can’t learn what you think you already know. Conceit, Zeno said, was the enemy of wisdom and learning. This was the essential worldview of Socrates, the hero of the Stoics. Think of Socrates’ method. He didn’t go around telling people anything. He went around asking questions. That’s how he learned so much and ended up becoming so smart. If you want to get smarter, stop thinking you’re so smart. If you want to learn, focus on all the things you don’t know. Humility, admission of ignorance–these are the starting points. This is the attitude that gets you further in life.
What good is posthumous fame? Marcus Aurelius knew he was famous. He knew they were building statues of him. He knew he would have a legacy. He also knew this was basically worthless. What good is posthumous fame, he asks in Meditations, when you’re not around to enjoy it?! He reminded himself too that you know, it’s not like the people in the future were going to be way better than the people alive right now–there will be idiots in the future too. What do I care about how many people read my books in 100 years? What matters is if I am doing my best right now, if I am taking pleasure and pride from doing my best right now. So stop trying to live forever by achieving all this greatness, stop trying to get more than you need, stop trying to perform for history. Do the good you can do now. Stop chasing something you will never touch. Legacy is not for you. You’ll be dead. Leave it to others.
People are just doing their job. I don’t just mean at work. After bumping into a particularly frustrating person, Marcus Aurelius asks himself, “Is a world without shamelessness possible?” No, he answers. “There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them.” This is just someone fulfilling their role. Seeing things this way not only prevents me from being surprised, but it makes me sympathetic. This person has a crappy job.It’s not fun to be them–they have to be one of the jerks that exist in the world. And then I remind myself that I am lucky that my job is to try to be a good person.
They don’t want you to be miserable. It’s strange that Stoics have the reputation for being unfeeling when Seneca wrote three very beautiful essays on loss and grief called Consolations. I read these essays whenever I lose someone or miss someone who I loved. Anyway, one of the lessons that hit me the most is when he is writing to the daughter of a now-deceased friend. He brings up a great point, basically saying, look, your dad loved you so much. Of course, he would be honored that you miss him, but do you think he would want his death to make you miserable? Would he want the mere mention of his name to bring you pain? No, that would be his worst nightmare. He would want you to be happy. He would want you to go on with your life. He wouldn’t want his memory to haunt you like a ghost–he would want the thought of him to bring you joy and happiness. Of course, we’re always going to feel sad when we lose someone, but then we can remind ourselves of this and try to smile too.
Opinions are optional. “Remember, you always have the power to have no opinion,” Marcus says. Do you need to have an opinion about the weather today–is it changing anything? Do you need to have an opinion about the way your kid does their hair? So what if this person likes music that sounds weird to you? So what if that person is a vegetarian? “These things are not asking to be judged by you,” Marcus writes. “Leave them alone.” Especially because these opinions often make us miserable! “It’s not things that upset us,” Epictetus says, “it’s our opinions about things.” The less opinions you have, especially about other people and things outside your control, the happier you will be. The nicer you’ll be to be around too.
The last one is the most powerful one, I think. And it’s about the thing we have the least amount of power and control over: the fact that we’re all going to die.
But the Stoics want us to think about it differently…
Death isn’t in the future. It’s happening now. It’s easy to see death as this thing that lies off in the distant future. It’s a fixed event that happens to us once…at the end. This is literally true but it’s also incorrect. “This is our big mistake,” as Seneca points out, “to think we look forward toward death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.”
It’s better to think of death as a process—something that is always happening. We are dying every day, he said. Even as you read this email, time is passing that you will never get back. That time, he said, belongs to death. Powerful, right? Death doesn’t lie off in the distance. It’s with us right now. It’s the second hand on the clock. It’s the setting sun. As the arrow of time moves, death follows, claiming every moment that has passed. What ought we do about it? The answer is live. Live while you can. Put nothing off. Leave nothing unfinished. Seize it while it still belongs to us.