It’s what we want most but have the least.
We direct all our energy in trying to control opinions, outcomes, and circumstances. In doing so, we don’t just deprive ourselves of the opportunities to become better. We also deprive the world of something unique and beautiful that we can offer.
The result is a life filled with negative emotions and complexity.
But life doesn’t have to be complex if we understand a simple truth — the only aspects in our control are our perceptions, our actions, and willpower. When we focus on our thoughts and actions, the rest takes care of itself.
This is the core philosophy of Stoicism, which offers a thousand pearls of wisdom to help us improve our quality of life. I’ve condensed the most important ones in eleven lessons.
1. Change Your Future
“Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to choices that are my own.” — Epictetus
An alcoholic had two sons. One of them turned into an alcoholic and the other became a sober and successful businessman. When asked why they turned out the way they did, both had the same answer, “Because my father was an alcoholic.”
You cannot undo the pain you’ve suffered or horrors you’ve endured. But those traumatizing circumstances don’t have to dictate your life. You can change your future by using the power you have in the present moment.
You can restart whenever you want. All that matters is whether you want to.
2. Find Your Meaning
“What is the cause of this back and forth? It’s because nothing is clear and they rely on the most uncertain guide — common opinion.” — Seneca
Who are you? Which values guide you? What do you stand for?
Clarity on these questions enables you to identify your path and stick to it. Instead of comparing yourself with others, seek clarity on what you truly want. Life is a single person game after all.
You came into the world alone, you’ll leave it alone. So why live someone’s else version of life?
3. Direct Your Efforts
“Let all your efforts be directed towards something… It’s not activity that disturbs people but false conceptions that drive them mad.” — Seneca
Direct your efforts towards a meaningful goal. Let that goal be an extension of who you are. Let it revolve around a subject that you feel a profound connection with. This doesn’t guarantee that you’ll reach your goal. But it will turn your life into a meaningful and enjoyable journey.
Directing your efforts in the right path will make you look inward, connect with that intrinsic force, and make you a better person.
4. Just Begin
“…. approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share. You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant and devout life.” — Marcus Aurelius
One feeling which resurfaces in people’s lives often is regret. They keep thinking, “If only I had tried, I would’ve been better off today.”
The only hack to get rid of regret is to do something. Just begin. If you’re not dead, you can begin today. Give everything you do your 100 percent. If what you do isn’t making you better, if it isn’t in line with your goal, replace it with an action that is.
5. The Importance of a Morning Ritual
“For this is what makes us evil — that none of us look back upon our own lives. We reflect only on what we’re about to do. And yet, our plans for the future descend from the past.” — Seneca
Mornings offer us the space to contemplate on tough yet important questions that we ignore in the daily grind.
Successful people follow morning rituals that include meditation, journaling, visualization, exercise, reading and reflecting. It helps them stay connected with themselves and set the tone for the day.
Spend time each morning visualizing the day ahead and answering one difficult question. At night, review your day: what you did, what you thought, and what you would like to improve.
Like most good things, this ritual won’t show immediate results. But it will steady your mind and prepare you for the success you deserve.
6. Understand Deeply
“… not to be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to be satisfied quickly with those who have a lot to say about something.” — Marcus Aurelius
Today, most people run from deep learning like a cat runs from water. They would rather be jacks of many trades than masters of a few. But mastery lays the foundation for expertise, success, and happiness.
Choose what you want to learn. Don’t stop at the surface when you begin. Learn why it works the way it does. Discover smarter ways to perform the same action. Keep doing it consciously until it turns into a habit.
Be humble. Let go of preconceived notions. Apply what you study in everyday life.
7. Watch the Wise
“Without a ruler to do it against, you can’t make the crooked straight.” — Seneca
A proven way to learn deeply is to observe wise people. They serve as models and inspirations. They let you bounce your ideas off them and expand your horizons. Observe what they do and what they don’t. Ask yourself why they did (or didn’t do) it.
They could be your parents, someone at work, or a friend. For me, it’s Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Each time I find myself in a tricky situation, I ask myself, “What would Dhoni do?” Then I try to do the same.
You will struggle in life. Let the wise guide you. Watch them closely and you’ll see that they have the answers to questions that trouble you.
8. Control Your Emotions
“Frame your thoughts like this….. you won’t let yourself be enslaved by this any longer, no longer pulled like a puppet by every impulse, and you’ll stop complaining about the present fortune and dreading the future.” — Marcus Aurelius
Getting angry is not a sign of toughness. It’s weakness. It’s the biggest hurdle in your way. The ability to control yourself, to not get rattled — that’s true strength.
Conduct periodic checks on yourself. At regular intervals ask yourself, “Am I in control here? Or are my emotions getting the better of me?”
You have the ability to control your emotions. Use that ability well.
9. Have No Opinion
“We have the power to hold no opinion about a thing and not let it upset our state of mind — for things have no natural power to shape our judgments.” — Marcus Aurelius.
We form opinions on events that we have little or no control over. We worry about what people will think if we utter the dreaded words, “I don’t know.” So we keep building Oiêsis (false beliefs) and have no time for learning, understanding, or contemplation.
But the more you say, “I don’t know,” the easier it becomes to stop worrying about how people judge you. You can train your mind to have no thought about matters that have no bearing on your life.
Invest your energy in emotional, physical and intellectual self improvement instead of shallow opinions. This won’t just affect your state of mind but also your physical health.
10. Be Present
“Perform each task at hand with precise analysis, unaffected dignity, human sympathy, and dispassionate justice. Vacate your mind from other thoughts. Perform each action as if it were the last of your life.” — Marcus Aurelius
The past no longer exists, the future is yet to come. All that matters is the present moment. When you don’t give it your best, it leads to a chaotic future that turns into a bad memory when it becomes the past.
Detach yourself from the desire for results and attach yourself to action. Learn from the past, apply those lessons in the present, and you’ll have a good future.
11. Don’t Fear Self Assessment
“Above all, it’s important for a person to have a true self estimate, for we commonly think we can do more than we really can.” — Seneca
Emotionally balanced people take time out at regular intervals to analyze their thoughts and actions. They work on their shortcomings and strengths alike. It makes them understand their capabilities, unlock their potential, and handle tough situations with surprising grit.
Don’t fear self-assessment just because what emerges will make you uncomfortable. You need that discomfort to forge a better today and tomorrow for yourself.
True education lies in understanding the fundamentals and what’s in your power.
Stoicism sounds terrifying to some people. And in the beginning, it is. Imagine the walls of what you built all life long come crashing down! You wonder whether anything makes sense at all. But with Stoicism as a guide, you slowly start building those walls. This time, you make them sturdier!
Stoicism is teaching me to observe my emotions from a distance, to take responsibility for my actions and behavior. It’s helping me build self-awareness, something I lacked until recently.
You don’t have to surrender to the whims of the world. You don’t need to make decisions you regret over and over again. Your pursuit for inner peace depends on you. You owe happiness to yourself.
The question is: will you take the first step? I hope your answer is “yes”.