Don’t simply read this article, apply it
I thought we wouldn’t give each other gifts, but here I was holding a Christmas present… I guess she must have snuck it in my bag as I was leaving.
As I unwrapped the paper, my face began to light with excitement, and warmth rushed through my core as I realized what it was. I read: ‘Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius.’
In the late fall of 2017, two things were set in motion. I started to read, after years of literary absence. And I started to date this girl, after months of single living. Lucky for me, these two things converged.
Upon meeting, we would talk about books, ideas, and what we wished to read next. I mentioned I was fascinated by Meditations — a 2000-year-old journal of a Roman Emperor. But I didn’t go any further into that; I had recently bought another book I talked about.
Nearing Christmas, I was running some errands as I walked past a bookstore. I couldn’t resist but go in. I looked in the ‘classics’ section to see what they had, but none persuaded me to take them along. Besides, they didn’t have that one book I secretly longed for.
Although I had thought about ordering it, it was nearing Christmas, and I didn’t want to begin with that now. I had no problems with waiting; I already had another book in store.
When the holiday started, I went home to celebrate with my family. The girl and I had only dated for a couple of months, so giving each other gifts was never really a subject. We said our goodbyes and I went home.
But as I unpacked my bag I found something: a beautifully wrapped Christmas present. A present that would go on to enhance the way I lived.
Since reading Meditations, I’ve followed it up with other books by Stoic philosophers. To think their advice have survived for millennia is no small feat. But to realize it’s still highly relevant is nothing short of incredible. The advice that echoes for ages often contains the deepest truths.
Here are 7 of my favorite Stoic lessons:
1. Separate Between What You Can and Cannot Control
In stoicism, there’s a concept known as the ‘dichotomy of control.’ As Epictetus explained it:
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.”
If everything worked as it should, you wouldn’t have much trouble with this practice; it’s more or less an easy one then. But in daily life, this is seldom the case. If you’re feeling pressured, unhappy, uncertain, whatever — it’s a much harder concept to remember.
Research shows perception narrows under times of distress, making it harder to ‘identify and separate matters.’ And ironically, it’s in times like that you need it the most.
The good thing, however, is that it’s a learnable skill. The more you practice it, the better you get at utilizing it — no matter how hard it gets. You can choose what to focus on, so place it on what you can control. All the rest will play out the way it should.
2. Strive for the Common Good
The stoics believed in order to live a good life, one would need to live as nature intended it. And by nature, they believed we were social creatures. As Seneca said:
“Nature bore us related to one another … She instilled in us a mutual love and made us compatible … Let us hold everything in common; we stem from a common source. Our fellowship is very similar to an arch of stones, which would fall apart, if they did not reciprocally support each other.”
2000 years of science have since then shown the same thing. We’re wired for each other; and we can’t escape it. Following this line of thinking, the stoics also saw it natural to have duties toward the common good. As Aurelius said:
“A human being is formed by nature to benefit others, and, when he has performed some benevolent action or accomplished anything else that contributes to the common good, he has done what he was constituted for.”
“Since you yourself are one of the parts that serve to perfect a social system, let your every action contribute to the perfecting of social life… Any action of yours, then, which has no reference, whether direct or indirect, to these social ends, tears your life apart, prevents it from being at one and creates division.”
While the Stoics recognized that service could generate many benefits, such as fame, fortune, and admiration, they didn’t focus on these outcomes. The goal was to serve the common good because that’s how you lived a good life. Doing good to others is doing good to ourselves.
3. Watch Your Interpretations
The Stoics are known for their rational approach to life, in that most troubles are a product of the mind. As Aurelius exemplified:
“External thinks are not the problem. It’s your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.”
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”
Though it’s clearly at the extreme, it’s true that how you interpret something affects the way you feel. And it’s also true the other way: how you feel towards something affects the way you interpret it.
It’s important, however, not to feel bad every time you let something external influence you. A lot of things happen without your conscious awareness, and you’re influenced by both your physical and social environment.
Still, realize you do have some power. You can control certain aspects and mitigate the effects by interpreting things in a better way.
Because seeing something as a threat makes you feel anxious. Feeling sorry for yourself makes you feel down. Complaining about an issue makes your troubles worse. As Seneca expressed it:
“How does it help…to make troubles heavier by bemoaning them?”
4. Choose Your Own Purpose
Everyone feels lost sometimes. This was something the Stoics realized, and thus offered a simple remedy: to better move through life, you need something to move towards. You need a purpose. As Seneca illustrated:
“If a man knows not which port he sails, no wind is favorable.”
Even if you don’t know where to go at first, starting to move is how you find out. You can begin by going towards the least bad thing you know of. Or you can chase down something if there’s just a tiny flick of interest there.
When you do, your direction will develop, as you will realize what you like and don’t like. Act first, adjust later; correct your course as you go.
Having a purpose makes the trivial things dim in importance. A purpose is something bigger to live for — something that brings significance to your daily actions. It’s like the tightening of a string. It doesn’t curl anymore, it’s stable.
The beautiful thing about it, is you get to build your own. Your purpose is like a latent potential in you, and it activates as you interact with the world. As Aurelius said:
“It’s time you realized that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet.”
5. Think About Death to Live Better
When was the last time you thought about death? For the Stoics, doing this regularly helped them keep the right perspective and approach to life. They called it ‘memento mori’, remember death, and it helped them live better. As Aurelius said:
“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Though it might seem gloomy, this practice wasn’t intended to scare. It was intended to motivate.
To remember you can die at every moment should instill a sense of urgency. And even when you’ve acted poorly or fallen into bad habits, it’s a reminder to start living again — in a better way. As Aurelius put it:
“Think of the life you have lived until now as over and, as a dead man, see what’s left as a bonus and live it according to Nature.
Memento Mori is a reminder to get the most out of your life. It doesn’t mean you should engage in excessive pleasure or go around like a maniac. It means you should live at your best, balancing the pleasure of a single day and the meaning that arises from a long-term purpose.
6. Don’t Just Accept, but Love Everything That Happens
Another Stoic concept is ‘Amor Fati’, which translates to love of fate. What happens to us, happens.
And there’s nothing we can do to change it. Although we have the option of resisting or complaining, it won’t do us any good. It’s better to just accept it.
The Stoics, however, went a step further. Accepting fate wasn’t enough; that’s the natural thing to do. You should love it — regardless of its emotional valence. Love everything that has happened to you, what is unfolding right now, and what will come your way in the future. As Aurelius said:
“Love the hand that fate deals you and play it as your own, for what could be more fitting?”
This idea is one of the most beautiful ideas there is. But it’s also one of the hardest ones to practice. It’s easy to love fate when it’s good to you. It takes everything to love it when it hurts you. But as Epictetus said:
“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”
7. Don’t Simply Read This Article, Apply It
I’ll leave you with a few quotes on applying what you’ve just learned. For as Epictetus said:
“Philosophers warn us not to be satisfied with mere learning, but to add practice and then training. For as time passes we forget what we learned and end up doing the opposite, and hold opinions the opposite of what we should.”
“Don’t explain your philosophy. Embody it.”
Though the Stoics provide many interesting lessons, they won’t enhance your life unless you choose to apply them. As Aurelius reminds us:
“Stop drifting… if your well-being matters to you, be your own savior while you can.”
And as Seneca expressed it:
“The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.”
Want to live a more meaningful life? Get my free PDF here.