A few years ago I went to see a Derren Brown stage show, in which he quoted Seneca, “You stop caring what people think about you when you realise how seldom they do”. This really struck a nerve with me, as it seemed so simple. A couple of weeks later I went to see Derren again, in conversation with the philosopher Alain de Botton, at the School of Life. When asked to describe himself in 3 words, he said “Athiest, Skeptic and Stoic”. I thought to myself that ‘I am an atheist and a skeptic, maybe I should look into this Stoic thing’. That thought genuinely changed my life. I started by reaing the incredible ‘Guide to the good life; The ancient art of stoic joy’ by William B Irvine.
These are the key points of stoicism for me. I am sure there are different ones for different people and I am far from an expert of stoicism, but these have helped me a lot.
Memento Mori or Remeber you will die
Thinking about death may not seem like the happiest way to live your life, but it can be incredibly freeing…. when you think you have incredibly important work to do, which is driving up your stress levels and taking you apart from the people you love, it helps to take a minute to think about your death bed. When you’re on your death bed will you be thinking about the amazing times you’ve had with the people you love, or will you be thinking about that PowerPoint presentation you did for the unappreciative client. I am guessing it’s the former, not the later. If that is the case, use that feeling in your life today, so you don’t regret it down the line. The Stoics would encourage you not only to think about your death, but also about those closest to you. For example, it’s really easy to spend time at home mindlessly scrolling through social media and not engaging with your family, but if you imagine that the worst happening to a family member; would you rather have spent the time engaging with them, or ignoring them to look at the filtered lives of others.
“If you don’t know to which port you are sailing, no wind is favourable“
This is a relatively simple concept, but hard to put in practice. Before discovering stoicism I wanted my business to be “a success”, however, I had never clarified what I meant by “a success”. Now I have very specific measures of where I want the business to be in 1 year, 2 years and 3 years, since doing this I have been more and more successful, both in life and in business. It seems crazy that most people would say that they want “success” without defining what they mean by success. You may think that you instinctively know what you mean by success and that others think exactly the same way, but try asking 10 different people…. you will probably get 10 different responses.
The key to happiness is wanting what you already have
We can all get trapped in what is called the ‘hedonic treadmill’. You want something for a long time, even work hard to get it, but then when you get it you don’t want it any more and you want the next something. You want a fast car, then you get it and you want a faster one. You want a big house, when you get it you just want a bigger one. The Stoics have a different approach. You want a new bed, sleep on the floor for a week, you’ll soon start to value your current bed. You want to eat nicer food, just eat rice for a week, you’ll soon value the food you have. You don’t have to be that extreme, but know that however much you want something, you’ll always want the next something, so better to focus on what you already have and how it makes you happy.
No one can make you feel anything. They only act. You chose your reaction
How many times have you said “xxxxxxxx made me angry”, “xxxxxxxx upset me”, or anything similar? Stoicism makes you realise that this is not true. The truth is that xxxxxxxxx acted in a certain way (whether consciously, or unconsciously) and YOU chose how to react to their action (whether consciously, or unconsciously). As Marcus Aurelius said, “You have power over your mind, not outside events, realise this and you will find strength“.
Know what it is in your control and what it not
Alcoholyics Anonymous meetings start with what is called the Serenity Prayer, “grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference”. This is by far the most eloquent way of putting this very simple concept. Once again, it’s incredibly liberating and de-stressing. Every difficult situation that you encounter will have multiple elements to it, some will be in your control, some will be beyond your control. The key is to focus on the elements in your control and do all you can about them, then accept what is beyond your control and stop worrying about it.