How To Be A Stoic is a practical guide to ancient philosophy in modern life, covering the principles Socrates, Epictetus, and Cato followed in the three disciplines of desire, action, and assent.
Did you know that Stoicism was invented by accident? Quite
literally. Zeno of Catium suffered shipwreck and ended up in Athens in 300 BC.
Strolling around the city while taking some time to recover, he found a book
about Socrates in a book store. He was so inspired that he ultimately stayed in
Athens, began studying philosophy himself, and eventually started his own
school of Stoicism.
Today, most of us briefly brush this philosophy in school
and history books, but we never get beyond scratching the surface of what is
actually a very practical approach to modern life. In How To Be A Stoic,
philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci aims to change that. Taking a page out
of the writings of Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and others, he breaks
down their suggestions into three different disciplines: desire, action, and
assent, which stands for how we react to situations.
Here are 3 lessons from the book, one from each area:
The concept of preferred indifferents can help you act inline with your morals without becoming extremist.
In Stoicism, virtue is the highest good, and it’s made up offour values.
You can have useful, pleasurable, and good friendships. Thegood are the most important.
Despite all that’s different today compared to 2,000 years
ago, the fundamentals of life haven’t changed all that much. So let’s see what
we can take from these timeless teachers to improve our day-to-day!
If you want to save this summary for later, download the free PDF and read it whenever you want.
Lesson 1: Use preferred indifferents to live morally without
becoming a fanatic.
Despite being influential and sometimes wealthy figures,
many famous Stoics died premature deaths. Or sometimes, because of it. Seneca,
Socrates, and Cato were all sentenced, imprisoned, ordered to, or somehow
otherwise condemned to commit suicide. Cato refused to be captured by Caesar,
Seneca was conspired against by Nero, and Socrates was unjustly executed. Unlike
the others, however, he had a chance to escape. But he didn’t, in order to
stand by his morals.
This kind of inflexibility is a rather uncommon example
among Stoics. Usually, the philosophy likes to see its teachings adjusted in
practical, livable ways. One such way is to look at everything that’s desirable
as so-called preferred indifferents. That could be wealth, health, family,
friends, or whatever else makes you particularly happy.
A preferred indifferent is an option you would prefer, given
the choice, but are indifferent to, should you be unable to attain it. For
example, if the Stoics had a chance to work with their emperor and become rich
in the process, they would take it. But they would never take desperate
measures to become rich on their own.
Everything in life has a moral component. There’s always a
right choice. Often, it will also lead to happiness. But if it doesn’t, choose
it just the same.
Lesson 2: Virtue is the highest good, and it consists of
temperance, courage, justice, and wisdom.
One thing that can make it a lot easier to make the morally
correct choice time and time again in your life is the Stoic concept of virtue.
If you align all your decisions with it, you will do just fine by not just
Stoic, but pretty much all religious or spiritual standards across the world.
Pigliucci analyzed how the Stoics defined virtue and found
it to break down in four parts:
Temperance. This is the ability to control your gut
instincts and impulses and reign them in if you need to.
Courage. The mental strength you need to see your decisions
through when the going gets tough.
Justice. Do you treat others the way you’d want to be
Wisdom. This is the knowledge and foresight you need to deal
with all of life’s situations.
Out of all these, the Stoics considered wisdom the most
important, because it is good and helpful, regardless of the event. Wisdom will
help you make the best choice, even when the odds aren’t stacking up in your
favor, which they occasionally don’t for all of us.
A simple question you can ask any time, to figure out what’s
the most virtuous option, is this: “What would the person do who deserves
everything I want?” It’s become my go-to problem solver this year.
Lesson 3: There are three kinds of friendships, and while
all are important, one you should particularly focus on.
A sad part of growing up is that the older you get, the more
superficial new friendships become. Wouldn’t you agree? I sure find this to be
the case. And while we don’t need many true friends, it’d sure be nice to make
some real connections, even after we launch into our careers. Luckily, the
Stoics have a solution for this too.
When Aristotle studied under Plato, he developed a
classification of friendships:
Friendships of utility. When you go to the dentist, you
return with healthy teeth and he gets paid. While mutually beneficial, this
isn’t exactly the kind of relationship you’d want your life to depend on, is
Friendships of pleasure. These are your poker buddies, your
sorority sisters, your drinking friends, and most of your work colleagues. If
the shared activity or organization disappears, so does the relationship.
Friendships of the good. What we call true friendships.
They’re not based on business or hobbies, but on who we are as people, which is
what makes them so strong.
While we all need friendships of the first and second kind,
you should treat them like preferred indifferents. It is only the last type
that is truly worth striving for, and we don’t need many of them to live a good
My personal take-aways
The distinction between the three disciplines is almost equivalent to the one Ryan Holiday makes in The Obstacle Is The Way. It is commonly used when dissecting Stoicism, and as such, a useful tool indeed. I enjoyed the level of detail and research that went into How To Be A Stoic. Even if you’re already familiar with many of this philosophy’s ideas, you can still learn something new.
Ego Is The Enemy reveals how a tendencythat’s hardwired into our brains – the belief the world revolves around us andus alone – holds us back from living the life it makes us desire so much, whatwe can do to overcome it at every turn and how to achieve true greatness.
Don’t let Ryan Holiday’s goat-y, remote farm life fool you,
the man is a marketing mastermind. Having apprenticed under Robert Greene, who
wrote The 48 Laws of Power, he went on to become director of marketing for
American Apparel. He’s pulled crazy PR stunts for big brands and authors, but
3-4 years ago, his focus shifted a lot.
Since then, he’s published three books about Stoicism, lives
a humble life in Texas and spends a lot of his time writing. Looks like he’s
learned how to keep his ego in check. Ego Is The Enemy will help you do the
Putting reigns on your ego helps you in both good and bad
times, because you’ll neither stress about failures, nor let success turn you
into a diva. Here are my 3 favorite ways to make it happen:
Be a perpetual student. It’ll keep you modest.
Don’t hog tasks at work. Be a team player.
Reflect honestly on your performance when you get surprising
Ready to confront your biggest enemy within? Let’s take your
ego to church!
Lesson 1: Think of yourself as an eternal student to stay humble.
How could we not start the summary of a book about stoicism
with a quote from one of the all-time greats?
“It is impossible for a man to learn that, which he thinks
he already knows.” – Epictetus
I’m proud of my attitudes and habits towards life. I’m
disciplined, spend very little of the money I’m earning, live a frugal life – I
just know I’m going to win in life thanks to these. However, that sometimes
leaves me thinking: “There’s not much left I can learn here, I won’t change any
of these for a long time.” Every time that thought crosses my mind, I call
It might be true that these basic principles won’t change
much, but there’s a huge load of things for me left to learn when it comes to
making money, writing, selling, relationships, other people. It’s a never-ending
Ryan suggests you think of yourself like many of the ancient
Stoics did: an eternal student of life, dedicated to learning as long as you
live. This keeps you humble and encourages you to learn from the best in your
However, it pays to look both up and down the chain: take
some time to mentor and teach others. Going back to beginners and helping them
exposes you to the full spectrum of skill levels and is another way to restrain
Lesson 2: Delegate tasks to learn to trust in others.
Have you ever held on to an incredibly dull task, just
because you thought no one else can do it better than you? I do this all the
time, especially for repetitive to-dos. This not just inflates your own ego,
it’s also a huge missed opportunity to build trust with the people you work
Trust increases the speed of everything in a business, the
more employees trust one another, the faster things get done. Delegating some
of your work to others forces you to do two things:
Respect other people’s work.
Trust that they can get a job done.
These aren’t just ways to win against your ego, but can also
be the difference between a thriving company and one that goes bust.
For example, legendary American car manufacturer DeLorean
may always be remembered for creating the car from Back To The Future, but due
to its CEO’s stubborn attitude of having to check every single detail it went
bankrupt after just seven years – with less than 10,000 cars sold.
Your turn: Can you come up with another example of a company
that went bankrupt due to a lack of trust? For example:
Lesson 3: Use unexpected results as inflection points to keep improving.
Our ego has the tendency to blow everything out of
proportion, both good and bad. Sometimes we get results, which are a lot better
than we expected. Other times they’re much worse. The ego ruins both of them.
When you do a bad job, your ego will tell you it’s not your
fault and blame anything and anyone but you. Do a great job, and it’ll say you deserve
every single ounce of credit, giving you a lot more than you probably deserve.
Instead of letting these get to your head one way or the other, you can use
them as inflection points to keep improving.
Have a high? Congratulate yourself, turn right back around
and get back to work. Have a low? Take responsibility, learn something and
start moving up again.
For example, this Quora answer recently took off for me. I
could have commended myself for being “such a great writer” and rested on my
laurels all week. Instead, I took one look at the rest of my answers, saw how
many got zero traction at all, ordered a bunch of Ryan Holiday books, so I
could learn to write better, and then wrote some more.
Take results only as what they truly are: a great opportunity
to honestly reflect on your work. Nothing more, nothing less.
My personal take-aways
Stoicism is one of the few things you can hardly be confronted with often enough in your life. Besides Ego Is The Enemy, The Obstacle Is The Way is another great read on the subject, also by Ryan Holiday. I can also recommend The Daily Stoic, a book that works like a daily inspirational calendar, with a Stoic quote and a short explanation for each.
The Book in Three Sentences
is an unhealthy belief in our own importance.
is there undermining us on the very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing.
can be managed and directed.
The Five Big Ideas
any given time in life, we’re aspiring to something, we have achieved success,
or we have failed.
must cultivate humility, diligence, and self-awareness if we are to remove ego.
your own scorecard.
fake it ’til you make it—make it.
stay a student.
Is the Enemy Book Summary
orator Demosthenes once said that virtue begins with understanding and is
fulfilled by courage.”
you are, whatever you’re doing, your worst enemy already lives inside you: your
ego we see most commonly goes by a more casual definition: an unhealthy belief
in our own importance. Arrogance. Self-centered ambition.”
every ambition and goal we have—big or small—ego is there undermining us on the
very journey we’ve put everything into pursuing.”
one thing keeps ego around—comfort.”
any given time in life, people find themselves at one of three stages. We’re
aspiring to something—trying to make a dent in the universe. We have achieved
success—perhaps a little, perhaps a lot. Or we have failed—recently or
is the enemy every step along this way.”
ego is not some power you’re forced to satiate at every turn. It can be
managed. It can be directed.”
we remove ego, we’re left with what is real.”
must practice seeing yourself with a little distance, cultivating the ability
to get out of your own head.”
is rare is not raw talent, skill, or even confidence, but humility, diligence,
your work to have truth in it, it must come from truth. If you want to be more
than a flash in the pan, you must be prepared to focus on the long term.”
will learn that though we think big, we must act and live small in order to
accomplish what we seek. Because we will be action and education focused, and
forgo validation and status, our ambition will not be grandiose but
iterative—one foot in front of the other, learning and growing and putting in
what is scarce and rare? Silence. The ability to deliberately keep yourself out
of the conversation and subsist without its validation. Silence is the respite
of the confident and the strong.”
depletes us. Talking and doing fight for the same resources. Research shows
that while goal visualization is important, after a certain point our mind
begins to confuse it with actual progress. The same goes for verbalization.”
only relationship between work and chatter is that one kills the other.”
your purpose is something larger than you—to accomplish something, to prove
something to yourself—then suddenly everything becomes both easier and more
difficult. Easier in the sense that you know now what it is you need to do and
what is important to you. The other “choices” wash away, as they aren’t really
choices at all. They’re distractions. It’s about the doing, not the
recognition. Easier in the sense that you don’t need to compromise. Harder
because each opportunity—no matter how gratifying or rewarding—must be
evaluated along strict guidelines: Does this help me do what I have set out to
do? Does this allow me to do what I need to do? Am I being selfish or
this course, it is not “Who do I want to be in life?” but “What is it that I
want to accomplish in life?” Setting aside selfish interest, it asks: What
calling does it serve? What principles govern my choices? Do I want to be like
everyone else or do I want to do something different?”
it’s never too late, the earlier you ask yourself these questions the better.”
mixed martial arts pioneer and multi-title champion Frank Shamrock has a system
he trains fighters in that he calls plus, minus, and equal. Each fighter, to
become great, he said, needs to have someone better that they can learn from,
someone lesser who they can teach, and someone equal that they can challenge
purpose of Shamrock’s formula is simple: to get real and continuous feedback
about what they know and what they don’t know from every angle. It purges out
the ego that puffs us up, the fear that makes us doubt ourselves, and any
laziness that might make us want to coast.”
Shamrock observed, ‘False ideas about yourself destroy you. For me, I always
stay a student. That’s what martial arts are about, and you have to use that
humility as a tool. You put yourself beneath someone you trust.’”
begins by accepting that others know more than you and that you can benefit
from their knowledge, and then seeking them out and knocking down the illusions
you have about yourself.”
true student is like a sponge. Absorbing what goes on around him, filtering it,
latching on to what he can hold. A student is self-critical and self-motivated,
always trying to improve his understanding so that he can move on to the next
topic, the next challenge. A real student is also his own teacher and his own
critic. There is no room for ego there.”
passion may be the very thing holding you back from power or influence or
accomplishment. Because just as often, we fail with—no, because of—passion.”
talking about passion of a different sort—unbridled enthusiasm, our willingness
to pounce on what’s in front of us with the full measure of our zeal, the
‘bundle of energy’ that our teachers and gurus have assured us is our most
is that burning, unquenchable desire to start or to achieve some vague,
ambitious, and distant goal. This seemingly innocuous motivation is so far from
the right track it hurts.”
typically masks a weakness. Its breathlessness and impetuousness and
franticness are poor substitutes for discipline, for mastery, for strength and
purpose and perseverance. You need to be able to spot this in others and in
yourself, because while the origins of passion may be earnest and good, its
effects are comical and then monstrous.”
humans require in our ascent is purpose and realism. Purpose, you could say, is
like passion with boundaries. Realism is detachment and perspective.”
is form over function. Purpose is function, function, function.”
critical work that you want to do will require your deliberation and
consideration. Not passion. Not naïveté.”
be far better if you were intimidated by what lies ahead—humbled by its
magnitude and determined to see it through regardless. Leave passion for the
amateurs. Make it about what you feel you must do and say, not what you care
about and wish to be.”
you want to do something—something big and important and meaningful—you will be
subjected to treatment ranging from indifference to outright sabotage. Count on
blunts the very instrument we need to own in order to succeed: our mind.”
question to ask, when you feel pride, then, is this: What am I missing right
now that a more humble person might see? What am I avoiding, or running from,
with my bluster, franticness, and embellishments? It is far better to ask and
answer these questions now, with the stakes still low, than it will be later.”
worth saying: just because you are quiet doesn’t mean that you are without
pride. Privately thinking you’re better than others is still pride. It’s still
it so you don’t have to fake it—that’s they key.”
time you sit down to work, remind yourself: I am delaying gratification by
doing this. I am passing the marshmallow test. I am earning what my ambition
burns for. I am making an investment in myself instead of in my ego. Give
yourself a little credit for this choice, but not so much, because you’ve got
to get back to the task at hand: practicing, working, improving.”
is not enough only to be a student at the beginning. It is a position that one
has to assume for life. Learn from everyone and everything. From the people you
beat, and the people who beat you, from the people you dislike, even from your
supposed enemies. At every step and every juncture in life, there is the
opportunity to learn—and even if the lesson is purely remedial, we must not let
ego block us from hearing it again.”
up a book on a topic you know next to nothing about. Put yourself in rooms
where you’re the least knowledgeable person. That uncomfortable feeling, that
defensiveness that you feel when your most deeply held assumptions are
challenged—what about subjecting yourself to it deliberately? Change your mind.
Change your surroundings.”
want so desperately to believe that those who have great empires set out to
build one. Why? So we can indulge in the pleasurable planning of ours. So we
can take full credit for the good that happens and the riches and respect that
come our way. Narrative is when you look back at an improbable or unlikely path
to your success and say: I knew it all along. Instead of: I hoped. I worked. I
got some good breaks. Or even: I thought this could happen. Of course you
didn’t really know all along—or if you did, it was more faith than knowledge.
But who wants to remember all the times you doubted yourself?”
our own narrative leads to arrogance. It turns our life into a story—and turns
us into caricatures—while we still have to live it.”
narratives don’t change the past, but they do have the power to negatively
impact our future.”
we are aspiring we must resist the impulse to reverse engineer success from
other people’s stories. When we achieve our own, we must resist the desire to
pretend that everything unfolded exactly as we’d planned. There was no grand
narrative. You should remember—you were there when it happened.”
of pretending that we are living some great story, we must remain focused on
the execution—and on executing with excellence. We must shun the false crown
and continue working on what got us here.”
not about beating the other guy. It’s not about having more than the others.
It’s about being what you are, and being as good as possible at it, without
succumbing to all the things that draw you away from it. It’s about going where
you set out to go. About accomplishing the most that you’re capable of in what
you choose. That’s it. No more and no less.”
you become successful in your own field, your responsibilities may begin to
change. Days become less and less about doing and more and more about making
decisions. Such is the nature of leadership. This transition requires
reevaluating and updating your identity. It requires a certain humility to put
aside some of the more enjoyable or satisfying parts of your previous job. It
means accepting that others might be more qualified or specialized in areas in
which you considered yourself competent—or at least their time is better spent
on them than yours.”
needs honors in order to be validated. Confidence, on the other hand, is able
to wait and focus on the task at hand regardless of external recognition.”
have to fight to stay sober, despite the many different forces swirling around
to [Robert] Greene, there are two types of time in our lives: dead time, when
people are passive and waiting, and alive time, when people are learning and
acting and utilizing every second. Every moment of failure, every moment or
situation that we did not deliberately choose or control, presents this choice:
Alive time. Dead time.”
success begins to slip from your fingers—for whatever reason—the response isn’t
to grip and claw so hard that you shatter it to pieces. It’s to understand that
you must work yourself back to the aspirational phase. You must get back to
first principles and best practices.”
only real failure is abandoning your principles. Killing what you love because
you can’t bear to part from it is selfish and stupid. If your reputation can’t
absorb a few blows, it wasn’t worth anything in the first place.”
Books by Ryan Holiday
Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living
Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph
you like Ego Is the Enemy, you may also enjoy the following books:
Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World Book by Cal Newport
A Guide To The Good Life is a roadmap for Stoicism, showing you how you can cultivate this ancient philosophy in your own life, why it’s useful and what Stoics are really about.
This is how I’ve been trying to live my life for the past
two years, and I’ve never been happier. To the contrary, I just seem to get
happier over time, because the more I learn, implement and embrace Stoic
qualities in my life, the less adversity affects me.
Since adopting a more Stoic mindset, I feel much less
distracted, I can always make room for the truly important things in life, I
almost never get angry, especially not at things outside of my control, and I’m
incredibly grateful for every single day I get to spend here on this beautiful
Ironically, though it’s not aimed towards getting rich at
all, I do think a Stoic mindset is a cause of worldly success in many cases,
such as Ryan Holiday, Gary Vaynerchuk or Tim Ferriss, all of whom have
admittedly adopted this mentality.
Here are 3 lessons from William B. Irvine’s A Guide To The
Good Life to help you embrace a Stoic mindset yourself and become more content
with your life:
The two primary values of Stoicism are virtue and
Learn to want what you already have.
Immediately accept things that are outside of your controland focus on what you can do.
Ready to step up and start practicing Stoicism? Let’s go,
I’m super excited to share this with you!
Lesson 1: Virtue and tranquility are the highest values of a Stoic.
There are two central themes in Stoicism, values which all
Stoics strive to integrate into their lives as much as possible. Those two
Chances are you don’t really know what these mean, or if you
do, you think of the wrong thing.
For example, virtue might be defined as “having high moral
standards” and therefore make you think only monks, priests and Mother Theresa
are good examples of virtuous people. But virtue in a Stoic sense is more about
living a life that’s aligned with your own set of values.
Synonyms of the word are goodness, honesty, righteousness,
dignity, integrity, trustworthiness, decency and merit, for example, which all
rely on you doing what you say and saying what you do.
In the same vein tranquility is not about napping a lot or
being lazy. Tranquility is the art of ridding yourself of negative emotions. A
tranquil person shows great self-control and won’t let her emotions dominate
her intellect, for example by staying calm in a traffic jam, because she knows
getting angry at traffic is useless.
Lesson 2: Learn to want what you already have to be more grateful by using negative visualization.
One of the worst, yet most common vicious cycle we get stuck
in, especially in the Western world, is the hedonic treadmill. Scientifically
known as hedonic adaptation, this is a system in which we chase material
possessions, only to attain them, quickly get used to and bored by them, to
reset and chase the next item.
A tranquil and virtuous person knows she must break out of
this cycle and Stoics have one major way of doing so: learning to want the
things we already have and appreciating the things in our life. The more you
want what you have, as compared to having what you want, the happier you’ll be.
A very simple exercise you can use to achieve this is
negative visualization: Imagine the things and people you take for granted and
interact with the most would suddenly vanish and be gone forever. This’ll make
you feel bad for a second, because the thought of loss is painful, but at the
same time it’ll give you an instant surge of appreciation and show you how
lucky you are to still have them in your life.
I found a quote a few years ago that perfectly sums this up:
Imagine you only woke up this morning with only the things
you said ‘thank you’ for yesterday – would you have everything you need?
Lesson 3: Be okay with the things that are outside of your
control and internalize your goals for the things that aren’t.
The biggest step towards becoming more tranquil you can take
is changing your attitude towards the things you can’t control. This takes two
Realizing when something is outside of your control right
when it happens.
Not distracting yourself with worrying about it for even a
This takes a lot of practice, but once you have it down, it
changes everything. It not only makes you happier, it also stops you from
wasting time with waiting. For example, when I send an email pitch to someone,
I forget it the second I send it, because from that moment on, it’s out of my
control. Likewise I never worry about the weather or politics.
And for those things that are somewhat in your control, but
not entirely, you can internalize the goal. For example, of course you want to
get good grades or win when you enter a competition, but other people have a
say in this too. So instead of focusing on getting an A or winning, focus on
delivering your best performance.
This will not only actually make you perform better, but you
also won’t feel crushed if you don’t achieve your goal – because it wasn’t
entirely up to you to reach it.
My personal take-aways
I can’t say enough good things about Stoicism. It’s definitely part of the 20% of the changes I’ve made in my life that account for 80% of my increase in happiness. A Guide To The Good Life is a great introductory book to the topic and covers everything you need to know in layman’s terms. 100% recommended! Good follow-up reads are Meditations and Breakfast With Socrates.
Book in Three Sentences
insight and advice of the Stoic philosophy is still, remarkably applicable
Stoics had psychological techniques for attaining tranquility, minimizing worry
comes from appreciating what we already have.
The Five Big Ideas
you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy in life.
Without one, there is a danger you will mislive and you will end up living a
enjoying the companionship of loved ones, then, we should periodically stop to
reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. By
consciously thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our
appreciation of it, and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our
capacity for joy.
most important choices in life, according to Epictetus, is whether to concern
ourselves with things external to us or things internal.
you find out that someone has been saying bad things about you. Epictetus
advises you to respond not by behaving defensively but by questioning his
competence as an insulter.
help us advance our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically
meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and
how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.
Guide to The Good Life Summary
you lack a grand goal in living, you lack a coherent philosophy of life.
is a state marked by the absence of negative emotions such as anger, grief,
anxiety, and fear, and the presence of positive emotions—in particular, joy.
attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your
Stoics enjoyed whatever “good things” happened to be available, but even as
they did so, they prepared themselves to give up the things in question.
the Stoics, a person’s virtue does not depend, for example, on her sexual
history. Instead, it depends on her excellence as a human being—on how well she
performs the function for which humans were designed.
be virtuous is to live as we were designed to live; it is to live, as Zeno put
it, in accordance with nature.
tranquility was a psychological state marked by the absence of negative
emotions, such as grief, anger, and anxiety, and the presence of positive
emotions, such as joy.
each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference,
ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness—all of them due
to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.”— Marcus Aurelius
robs present ills of their power who has perceived their coming
on hedonic adaptation: “We humans are unhappy in large part because we are
insatiable; after working hard to get what we want, we routinely lose interest
in the object of our desire. Rather than feeling satisfied, we feel a bit
bored, and in response to this boredom, we go on to form new, even grander
key to happiness is to forestall the [hedonic] adaptation process: We need to
take steps to prevent ourselves from taking for granted, once we get them, the
things we worked so hard to get.”
easiest way for us to gain happiness is to learn how to want the things we
Stoics recommended that we spend time imagining that we have lost the things we
value—that our wife has left us, our car was stolen, or we lost our job.”
should love all of our dear ones …, but always with the thought that we have no
promise that we may keep them forever—nay, no promise even that we may keep
them for long.”—Seneca
enjoying the companionship of loved ones, we should periodically stop to
reflect on the possibility that this enjoyment will come to an end. If nothing
else, our own death will end it.
should live as if this very moment were our last.”
we go about our day, we should periodically pause to reflect on the fact that
we will not live forever and therefore that this day could be our last.
the Stoics counsel us to live each day as if it were our last, their goal is
not to change our activities but to change our state of mind as we carry out
contemplating the loss of our life, we should contemplate the loss of our
expressing his appreciation that his glass is half full rather than being
completely empty, [a Stoic] will go on to express his delight in even having a
glass: It could, after all, have been broken or stolen.”
adaptation has the power to extinguish our enjoyment of the world. Because of
adaptation, we take our life and what we have for granted rather than
delighting in them.”
visualization is a powerful antidote to hedonic adaptation. By consciously
thinking about the loss of what we have, we can regain our appreciation of it,
and with this regained appreciation we can revitalize our capacity for joy.
negative visualization technique can also be used in reverse: Besides imagining
that the bad things that happened to others happen to us, we can imagine that
the bad things that happen to us happened instead to others.
we were at someone’s house and his servant broke a cup, we would be unlikely to
get angry; indeed, we might try to calm our host by saying ‘It’s just a cup;
these things happen.’”
few times each day or a few times each week a Stoic will pause in his enjoyment
of life to think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken
visualization teaches us to embrace whatever life we happen to be living and to
extract every bit of delight we can from it. But it simultaneously teaches us
to prepare ourselves for changes that will deprive us of the things that
delight us. It teaches us, in other words, to enjoy what we have without
clinging to it.”
contemplating the impermanence of everything in the world, we are forced to
recognize that every time we do something could be the last time we do it, and
this recognition can invest the things we do with a significance and intensity
that would otherwise be absent.”
most important choice in life, according to Epictetus, is whether to concern
ourselves with things external to us or things internal.”
good strategy for getting what you want is to make your goal to want only those
things that are easy to obtain—and ideally to want only those things that you
can be certain of obtaining.
most people seek to gain contentment by changing the world around them,
Epictetus advises us to gain contentment by changing ourselves—more precisely,
by changing our desires.”
primary desire, says Epictetus, should be your desire not to be frustrated by
forming desires you won’t be able to fulfill.”
are things over which we have complete control, things over which we have no
control at all, and things over which we have some but not complete control.”
way to preserve our tranquility, the Stoics thought, is to take a fatalistic
attitude toward the things that happen to us.”
to Epictetus, we should keep firmly in mind that we are merely actors in a play
written by someone else—more precisely, the Fates.”
must learn to welcome whatever falls to our lot and persuade ourselves that
whatever happens to us is for the best.”
sometimes should think about the past to learn lessons that can help us in our
efforts to shape the future.”
of thinking about how our situation could be worse, we refuse to think about
how it could be better.”
contemplating bad things happening, we should sometimes live as if they had
on voluntary discomfort: “By exposing ourselves to a small amount of a weakened
virus now, we create in ourselves an immunity that will protect us from a
debilitating illness in the future.”
periodically engaging in acts of voluntary discomfort, we should, say the
Stoics, periodically forgo opportunities to experience pleasure.”
Stoics discovered that willpower is like muscle power: The more they exercised
their muscles, the stronger they got, and the more they exercised their will,
the stronger it got. Indeed, by practicing Stoic self-denial techniques over a
long period, Stoics can transform themselves into individuals remarkable for
their courage and self-control.
Stoics discovered that exercising self-control has certain benefits that might
not be obvious. In particular, as strange as it may seem, consciously
abstaining from pleasure can itself be pleasant.
help us advance our practice of Stoicism, Seneca advises that we periodically
meditate on the events of daily living, how we responded to these events, and
how, in accordance with Stoic principles, we should have responded to them.”
contemplating whether to criticize someone, he should consider not only whether
the criticism is valid but also whether the person can stand to be criticized.”
you are going to publish, you must be willing to tolerate criticism.”
suggests that as we go about our daily business, we should simultaneously play
the roles of participant and spectator.
the millennia and across cultures, those who have thought carefully about
desire have drawn the conclusion that spending our days working to get whatever
it is we find ourselves wanting is unlikely to bring us either happiness or
Stoics recommend that we prepare for our dealings with other people before we
have to deal with them.”
time with an unclean person, and we will become unclean as well.”
recommends that when we interact with an annoying person, we keep in mind that
there are doubtless people who find us to be annoying.”
we find ourselves irritated by someone’s shortcomings, we should pause to
reflect on our own shortcomings. Doing this will help us become more empathetic
to this individual’s faults and therefore become more tolerant of him.”
dealing with an annoying person, it also helps to keep in mind that our
annoyance at what he does will almost invariably be more detrimental to us than
whatever it is he is doing.”
good Stoic, Marcus says, will not think about what other people are thinking
except when he must do so in order to serve the public interest.”
on social fatalism: “In our dealings with others, we should operate on the
assumption that they are fated to behave in a certain way.”
of their sting-elimination strategies is to pause, when insulted, to consider
whether what the insulter said is true.”
sting-elimination strategy, suggested by Epictetus, is to pause to consider how
well-informed the insulter is.”
particularly powerful sting-elimination strategy is to consider the source of
such circumstances, rather than feeling hurt by his insults, I should feel
relieved: If he disapproves of what I am doing, then what I am doing is
doubtless the right thing to do.”
a dog barks, we might make a mental note that the dog in question appears to
dislike us, but we would be utter fools to allow ourselves to become upset by
this fact, to go through the rest of the day thinking, ‘Oh, dear! That dog
doesn’t like me!’”
other important sting-elimination strategy, say the Stoics, is to keep in mind,
when insulted, that we ourselves are the source of any sting that accompanies
says Epictetus, “that what is insulting is not the person who abuses you or
hits you, but the judgment about them that they are insulting.”
insults with humor.
advises you to respond not by behaving defensively but by questioning his
competence as an insulter; for example, you can comment that if the insulter
knew you well enough to criticize you competently, he wouldn’t have pointed to
the particular failings that he did but would instead have mentioned other,
much worse failings.”
Stoics advocated a second way to respond to insults: with no response at all.
to respond to an insult is, paradoxically, one of the most effective responses
too, that by not responding to an insulter, we are showing him and anyone who
is watching that we simply don’t have time for the childish behavior of this
in the course of trying to train a horse, we punish him, it should be because
we want him to obey us in the future, not because we are angry about his
failure to obey us in the past.”
best way to deal with insults directed at the disadvantaged, Epictetus would argue,
is not to punish those who insult them but to teach members of disadvantaged
groups techniques of insult self-defense.”
Stoics primary grief-prevention strategy was to engage in negative
normal, prospective negative visualization, we imagine losing something we
currently possess; in retrospective negative visualization, we imagine never
having had something that we have lost.”
also offers advice on grief management. He advises us, in particular, to take
care not to “catch” the grief of others.”
angry, says Seneca, we should take steps to ‘turn all [anger’s] indications
into their opposites.’ We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our
voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will
soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have
value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will
give others power over them.
we wish to retain our freedom, says Epictetus, we must be careful, while
dealing with other people, to be indifferent to what they think of us.”
agrees with Epictetus that it is foolish for us to worry about what other
people think of us and particularly foolish for us to seek the approval of
people whose values we reject.”
you like A Guide to The Good Life, you may also enjoy the following books:
Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by
by Marcus Aurelius
Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan
Breakfast With Socrates takes you through an ordinary day in the company of extraordinary minds, by linking each part of it to the core message of one of several great philosophers throughout history, such as Descartes, Nietzsche, Marx and even Buddha.
What a cool idea! No wonder this book has been translated
into 20 languages. Imagine you wake up in the morning and Sigmund Freud is
sitting beside your bed to explain to you why you’re struggling so much to get
ready to leave for work on time. On the subway, Karl Marx tells you what’s
wrong with commuting and after work, Buddha gets you to be at peace with the
world by telling you a story while you take a bath.
Breakfast With Socrates makes that fantasy come true. You’ll
be taken through an ordinary day, but be kept company by the world’s most
renowned philosophers throughout history.
Even if you’re not big into philosophy, these 3 lessons will
sure show you the practicality of this discipline:
Philosophy isn’t about spinning your head all day, it’s about making wise decisions.
Your morning routine is a battle of the egos.
A good way of assessing your happiness is to ask yourself if you’d live the same life again.
Ready for the most interesting breakfast you’ve ever had?
Let’s sit down with Socrates and his friends!
Lesson 1: Philosophy gives you the tools to make wise
decisions every day.
Like most people I used to think philosophy is just for
dreamers and primarily concerned with giving yourself a headache from thinking
too much. Man, was I wrong.
In the past two months I’ve learned a lot about it from
books and I’ve realized that it’s probably the most practical discipline of
all. Philosophy isn’t just asking “What’s the meaning of life?” or “Is God
real?” – it’s just as much about answering “Should I buy these Cheerios because
they’re on sale?” and “Would it be better to walk to work?”
Philosophia in its original, Greek meaning translates to
“love of wisdom” and that’s all philosophy is. Wise people can look at the
world and see it as it truly is – objective, rational, undistorted – and can
therefore accurately reflect on what’s going on. This allows them to make
better decisions by asking the right questions.
Yes, asking big questions is also part of the deal, but just
some of the time, not all of the time. Philosophy is the practice of thinking
critically in your everyday life so you can navigate the world in the best way
Lesson 2: Every morning you fight a battle of the egos in
I’d ask you if you have a morning routine or not, but in
fact, we all do. Lack of a morning routine is a routine in its own way – you
either have a process, or you don’t, but chances are if you don’t it’s still
the same cycle every morning (like waking up too late, brushing your teeth in a
rush, throwing on the first outfit you find and running out the door).
Note: One of the best-feeling and most useful morning
routines I found last year is The Miracle Morning. I explain it step-by-step
Which end of the spectrum you fall on depends on the outcome
of a battle that takes place in your mind every morning. The battle of the
egos. Sigmund Freud defined two opposing forces in our minds in the early 20th
century and labeled them the ego and the superego.
The ego is your lizard brain, it just wants to live
comfortably, without stress or surprises. The superego then comes in and tells
you to do what society expects of you. Naturally, these two tendencies clash,
and whoever wins defines the progression of your morning.
When you stop hitting snooze and climb out of bed, that’s a
superego win. When you’re at the breakfast table with plenty of time to spare,
that’s a superego win. And when you arrive at work 10 minutes early because of
it, exceeding your boss’s expectations, that’s also a superego win.
Most of the time when you get your ego to surrender to the
superego and thus delay gratification, good stuff happens.
Lesson 3: You can find out how happy you are by asking
yourself: Would you re-live every moment of your life in exactly the same way?
But maybe the thought of pleasing your boss is depressing to
you, because you think working a 9 to 5 makes you miserable altogether. In that
case, you would’ve gotten along great with Friedrich Nietzsche. For a number of
years, he concerned himself with answering the question: “If I had to live this
life over again, would I be able to stand it?”
He coined the doctrine of two worlds, which says that next
to the real world, we all conjure a fantasy world in our minds, in order to
escape from the boredom and depression of our real lives. These mass
hallucinations of better partners, better work, more money and fancier lives,
however, are signs of weakness, he claims.
To abandon the herd and live on our own terms, we must ditch
the fantasies. It’s the only way to see the world as it is, master our
destinies and start making them a reality. Nietzsche called people who do this
“supermen” – those who embrace their non-conformity, aren’t afraid to be
different and start living in a way that’d make them happy to live every moment
again in exactly the same way.
Would you re-live every moment of your life in exactly the
same way? The answer will tell you if you’re a superman (or woman).
My personal take-aways
Breakfast With Socrates is easily the most practical and
approachable introduction to philosophy I’ve ever seen. If your gut reaction to
all things philosophy is “Yuck!” then this book is for you. And if you’re a fan
already, you can discover new philosophic angles. What a hidden gem!
As A Man Thinketh is an essay and self-help classic, which argues that the key to mastering your life is harnessing the power of your thoughts and helps you cultivate the philosophyand attitude of a positive, successful person.
I recently came across this book on several lists with inspirational books, so I had to give it a go. James Allen, the author, was a pioneer of the self-help movement, and published this great philosophical piece in 1903. It’s less than 50 pages long and was meant to fit in anyone’s pocket.
Allen kept the book simple, both in length and language, so
that everyone could understand the points he was trying to make about how power
over one’s thoughts gives power over one’s life.
Here are 3 great lessons about how your thoughts shape your
Your actions are outgrowths of your thoughts.
You shape the world just as much as it shapes you.
Thoughts can keep you young or make you age faster.
Want to become the master of your own mind? Time to think!
Lesson 1: What you do is the result of what you think.
The very first argument Allen lays out is that man is the
sum of his thoughts. Just like tiny seeds turn into big plants, a single
thought often turns into a major decision, which makes your thoughts the roots
of your actions.
Over time, these actions shape into patterns, which will eventually
make up our character. This is why most pessimistic people tend to give up more
easily on the things they care about, because your attitude and your actions
are directly linked to one another. If you don’t start out with confidence and
expect very little of yourself, that’s exactly what you’ll deliver.
But if your thoughts shape your actions, then by changing
your thoughts, you can change your actions and subsequently, your character
The time to start weeding out bad thoughts is right now. Today
is the day to stop accepting negative thoughts as normal and fight back. Take
control of your mind, and you’ll take control of your life.
Lesson 2: You shape the world just as much as it shapes you.
The reason your thoughts and actions are so deeply connected
is because they live in a constant cause-and-effect relationship with the
What does that mean? You might see your life as mostly
determined by external factors. The weather, the economy, politics, your
co-workers, your boss, whether you have good luck or bad luck, your life
depends on so many things you can’t influence. But it’s not as black and white
as that. Playing the victim is easy. You can just push off responsibility and
blame the world for everything.
In reality, your thoughts, your actions, your character,
they all take at least as much influence on the world, as the world does on
you. The thoughts and attitudes you have are what lead you into the situations
of your life, some of which you then end up assigning to good or bad luck, when
it’s really yourself that got you there.
Therefore, you can’t describe a person’s character just by
looking at the environment she lives in, or predict the circumstances she’ll
end up in, because of the way she is. There are many admirable and probably
genuinely good people in jail, while some greedy bastards live happily off
other peoples’ misery.
Lesson 3: Be careful what you think, it might make you age faster.
A crucial aspect almost no one looks at when examining
thoughts is your health. When we talk about the power of positive thinking, we
usually speak of affirmations, goals, priorities, etc. But not about health.
Yet, what you think massively impacts your heart rate,
sleep, chronic pains like migraines and your skin. Yes, you can think yourself
to wrinkly skin.
Do you know that saying “be careful what you wish for?” This
book extends it to “be careful what you think about.” On the other hand,
thinking very positively and dwelling on energizing thoughts can keep you
young. So take every chance you get to weed out negative thoughts.
Pretend your mind is a garden, and everything that doesn’t
help it grow has to go. You’ll thank yourself for years to come.
My personal take-aways
This is a very short book, with a very short summary. At
first I thought it’s best to just get the book and read it in one go, but come
to think of it, I’d use this summary as a guideline and look into it to get a
better grip on things, as the language in the book can be quite complicated,
simply because it’s so old.
Definitely a book you should read at least once in your life (boy or girl).
The Book in Three Sentences: We all fear death, but life is
long if you know how to use it. Putting things off is the biggest waste of
life: it snatches away each day as it comes, and denies us the present by
promising the future: live immediately. In any situation in life you will find
delights and relaxations and pleasures if you are prepared to make light of
your troubles and not let them distress you.
Some things are in your power and some are not—do not confuse the two and do not desire the things that are not in your power. It is our opinion of things that determines how we feel about a particular event, not the event itself. Think carefully about how you spend your life because people often spend their lives chasing things that are neither as desirable nor as important as they seem.