The philosophy of Stoicism is not about the absence of emotion, but about emotional preparation. I have practiced this philosophy for several years. Here’s an example:
I had heard nothing yet about my entry’s performance in the science video competition for a large scholarship.
The video I had compiled haphazardly last year had become a finalist. This year I planned a new video. I had spent 400 hours making an entry, and despite my devotion to the art of Stoicism, I was nervous; there was uncertainty at the time about whether my father would keep his job, and how my college might be paid for if he didn’t. However, this video did not become a semifinalist. With the results I found myself burdened with emotions of frustration, confusion, and disappointment—at least, before I returned my Stoic practice.
Stoicism was a tool that allowed me not to be invested in the outcome of the project, despite the large effort that went into creating my entry. This philosophy allows me to focus on the intrinsic nature of my effort, and not the extrinsic nature of the outcome. It gave me the confidence to spend 400 hours on something that might not work out.
When I was fifteen I encountered Stoicism through the book A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine. As measured by real-life impact, this seems to be the best book I’ve ever read. The philosophy has done me a lot of good, so I’d like to share it.
This page consists of notes from the book, and related thoughts that come to my mind.
Stoicism as a philosophy is not at all described by the word “Stoic” as used in modern English; Stoicism has no disposition against joy. Instead, Stoicism is about avoiding negative emotion in the cases where negative emotion is unhelpful.
Unlike other philosophies, Stoicism fully embraces the negative in a way that’s real, and freeing.
I’ll provide a quick summary of Stoicism before going into more detail.
Read this slowly.
Focus on what you can control in your life. Do not ruminate on what you can’t.
The only aspect of the future you can completely control is your actions.
Real-world outcomes can never be completely controlled, but we can exert some influence by our attempts.
We cannot exert influence over anything else in life. Accept this and your life will be better.
If you want the world to be a certain way, first note that this is not in your complete control. Thus, make your goal to try your hardest instead of to get what you want. Now you’re back in total control.
This may sound limiting, but many people have found this extremely freeing. Try it.
Before you act in any situation, first imagine the worst possible outcome. Second, voluntarily accept the possibility. Third, expect it to happen. Fourth, move on.
One’s happiness is closely tied to the level of one’s expectations, regardless of where the level is. In which case, what level would you choose?
By doing the above, you will be pleasantly surprised most of the time! Rarely will you encounter an outcome close to your expectation— and when you do, you will not be surprised.
Thus, if you get hurt physically or emotionally, you should’ve planned for it by either taking steps to limit the risk, or accepting that getting hurt was a possibility. In this way, it can actually be freeing to act as if every outcome is your fault.
Thus we’re solely responsible for our own happiness, or lack thereof.
Ponder endings and death often.
They’re out of your control. Accept them.
Categories: “Negative visualization”, Appreciation, Focus, Seeking Discomfort, On Living, Interacting with others, Criticism, Anger, Impulses, Randomness, Miscellaneous, and Reflect on your Stoicism.
You may wish to take notes.
Before you do anything, imagine the worst possible outcome. Then voluntarily accept its possibility, expect it to happen, and move on.
Essential to practicing Stoicism is cultivating the habit of imagining the death or cessation of the people, places, experiences, etc. that you love.
This way, we can get in front of the surprise of “you can’t appreciate it until you’ve lost it”. While you still have such pleasures, frequently pretend that you’ve lost them so you can appreciate them.
Loss of any or all of these could happen at any time, and potentially soon.
Pondering death and pondering loss aren’t ‘negative’ thoughts; they’re real thoughts.
To contemplate loss daily may sound negative or depressing, but try it for a week.
There will be a last time for all experiences. The objective is to appreciate what we have while we have it.
If you have ever been surprised by a negative outcome, consider it your own fault for not expecting it in advance.
Take this further: Expect to lose everything between now and tomorrow, and be overjoyed when that doesn’t happen.
In this way it can be freeing to act like all outcomes are your fault.
A note on grief: We should expect, accept the possibility of, and plan for, the death of everyone we love. They may be more youthful than us, but death doesn’t care. Grief and it’s negative emotion will still occur, and that’s okay. What’s worth avoiding is extended grief.
Perhaps children are so joyful because they don’t take the future for granted.
A true Stoic wouldn’t just appreciate water in the glass, but the presence of the glass. He would then further appreciate that the material of glass—a solid yet somehow transparent material—is a miracle itself! Moreover, he would appreciate that he can see at all! . . .
“Happy that it happened, not sad that it’s over”: Use negative visualization, coupled with focusing on the joy that something happened at all, to overrule sadness that something has ended.
Focus on what you can control in your life. Do not ruminate on what you can’t. This will save a lot of mental trouble.
The only change in the world you can completely control is your actions.
Real-world outcomes can never be completely controlled, but we can exert some influence by our action.
We cannot exert influence over anything else in life. Accept that and grappling with life will be easier.
Thus, if you want the world to be a certain way, first note that this is not in your complete control. Thus, make your goal to try your hardest instead of to get what you want. Now you’re back in total control.
It is only useful to think about what we can exert control over. That which we cannot control is not worth thinking about. Once you have a plan, there’s zero utility in worrying.
For example, the past is already set and unchangeable. Learn from the past, and move on. Memory is for learning and predicting, nothing else.
This second of life that you are experiencing now? It is also set and unchangeable.
We do not have control over the appearance of impulses in our minds. Impulses aren’t you. Impulses are merely waves crashing on your beach.
With every decision, seek to minimize the regret you may experience in the future. It is impossible to avoid regret together, but it can be proactively minimized if planned for.
“What would I most regret doing?” “What would I most regret not doing?”
Expect to fail at Y, and what would likely cause this failure, and think backwards to minimize that probability.
Every event has only a possibility of occurring. False statements: “This will happen”; “This won’t happen.” No, there are only probabilities.
Every future event is probability, and nothing is determined. By trying to influence the future, we are only influencing its probabilities. This is the universe, accept it.
Occasionally and deliberately forgo frequent pleasures and endure infrequent pains to make sure you don’t become too comfortable.
Being too comfortable can itself be uncomfortable.
(Personally, I experience a deep discomfort when I feel like my comfort zone is an eggshell.)
Luxury can harm, weaken, and distract. Don’t let luxury enfeeble you.
Read this slowly: You can’t get enough of what you don’t need.
Avoid pleasures that can hook and hobble you after one try.
“I don’t eat to please my palette; I eat to strengthen my body.”
“Hunger is the best appetizer.”
Besides, who are you if you depend on external characteristics of the world to feel internally content? You’re not “someone with stuff”, you’re you. Prove to yourself that, to be content, you don’t need anything outside of yourself.
In general, joys that come from within ourselves are superior to joys that come from without ourselves.
Most pleasure is never remembered. Ex:
“Hey friend, what are you thinking about?”
“Ahhhhh, that forty-four seconds I scrolled through Instagram on January 14, 2020 at 7:36am.”
True delight comes from doing work that fulfills you, and true delight creates a good life.
All other pleasures pass quickly.
You do not need to be attached to the result of your work to be motivated. Success and tranquility are not a tradeoff—they go together.
It’s easier to change what we want than change what we have.
Expect no more thanks for your work than a race horse receives after a race.
Even when the future seems hopeless, keep practicing your Stoicism.
In marriage, compete to make each other happy.
When we’re young, we waste days because death is so far.
Events don’t “mean” anything intrinsically, they just are. All meaning to events in life is self-assigned, and any occurrence can have any meaning from a different perspective. A tree is just a tree. Death is just death. Birth is just birth. We can enjoy the meaning we place on these events of course, but know that the meaning could be arbitrary.
Beware friends whose desires may taint ours, and beware friends whose whining may infect our tranquility.
Often, becoming annoyed at someone only makes the situation worse.
In these situations it helps to remember: 1) you’ll die someday; 2) there are people that find you annoying; 3) some people are simply bound to be annoying.
Pretending that someone acting rude is pitifully infected with a terrible disease is… surprisingly effective.
If you’re annoyed by someone else’s shortcomings, it helps to first reflect on your own.
Assume first that someone acting rude is merely having a bad day. Assume that their circumstances are influencing their behavior to be negative, rather than their character. Ex:
The car that cut you off in traffic? What if the driver was a mother whose child was choking in the back seat, and her driving maneuver was the only way to prevent her kid from choking any longer?
It may not be true, but it’s still better to believe the above than the alternative (“they’re asshole, the world is full them”), if for the sake of your own tranquility.
The best revenge against someone is to refuse to be like them.
When we seek the approval of others, we voluntarily give away our freedom.
When someone is perfectly cooperative, look for a hidden dagger.
“I don’t remember you wronging me” puts people at greater ease than “I forgive you” or “It’s okay”.
If someone you don’t like disapproves of your actions— well, that’s good! Would you want them approving of your actions? That would be worrying!
We cause the insult to sting. We give it meaning, and we allow their words credibility. Thus, if you get hurt by someone else’s words, you should reflect on your values and how they can be improved to be more helpful to your goals.
Responding to criticism: use humor, especially self-deprecating humor. Take yourself lightly.
Alternatively, respond with laughter, or respond with no reaction at all.
“Pay attention to your enemies, for they will be the first to realize your mistakes.”
Before criticizing someone else, consider whether you think they would be able to handle it well.
(And, often, one’s ability to handle criticism correlates closely with the quality of the person.)
Anger is often a waste of time: It disrupts one’s tranquility too much, and is too difficult to control. Thus, do not use anger for motivation.
Before you get angry, hesitate. Hesitate before jumping to conclusions.
1. everything changes, and everything passes.
2. you will die, potentially soon.
If you’re still angry, force your body to behave in the opposite way that anger would behave: Find a way to laugh, breathe slowly, and walk slowly.
But if you do act on anger, admit fault and apologize. Most people are unable to do this.
And while it usually doesn’t help to get angry per say, there are totally circumstances where it makes sense to punish someone in order to caution their future behavior. Thus it can be useful to feign anger to motivate others without sacrificing your tranquility.
To discover the true value of something, examine its components. Ex:
“Sugar is just this white crystal that stimulates nerves on your tongue.”
Having a philosophy simplifies life and all decision making. It doesn’t matter which philosophy, and it doesn’t have to be Stoicism.
Often, zero is easier than some: It’s much easier to “never eat cookies” than “eat cookies only sometimes”:
Accept the randomness of the reality.
Sometimes events happen for absolutely no reason at all!
Pick up Stoicism now to prevent regrets when you’re older.
“We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” ~Seneca the Younger
If you pick up Stoicism, others may mock you for prioritizing different values than they do (because you are therefore insulting their values). You can still be a stealth Stoic, if desired.
The goal with any habit, like Stoicism, is to practice it everyday. This matters far, far more than trying to always be perfect. Try to practice a little more Stoicism every day, that’s all.
Periodically ask yourself:
Make this an intentional habit. Get a notebook; set a reminder on your calendar. Document the results and you will be amazed in only a year.
I’ve tried my best to distill Stoicism here in order to make it more accessible for others.
Still, this page is highly dense and unless you take notes and revisit these ideas, you likely will not be changed. But this is in your control.
> Stoic practice isn't trying hardest to get what you want
ahh I think I understand. As hard as you practically can given what's available to you, but certainly a finite amount. Thank you for making this explicit
> Stoicism is about training one's mind so that they will deal with whatever life throws at them in proper manner
thank you for catching this!
> [essay] first imagine the worst possible outcome
> [comment] rather than trying to think of "the worst possible thing", it's a reminder for being prudent and remembering the reality of world. If someone has mental issues and prone to anxiety for example, doing so by itself would cause further distress in the mind rather than helping someone.
ahh, yes I should qualify this more. Also, yes, I've observed that with people who have anxiety but hadn't integrated that observation.
> Since someone who had a troubled past cannot just move on.
thank you haha this was naive on my part
> This part goes against "never act in anger".
I'm not sure how to reconcile this with making sure to defend yourself from the encroachment of others though. Thoughts?
> If someone comes to Stoic philosophy with a fear of having regrets, then that fear can cause a person to be more radical in their perception of the philosophy.
this is a good point!
> This part at the end sounds a bit condescending. Something about "trying to make it a little better every day" would be more fitting.
okay will reconsider, thank you
> Overall, these are good reminders, but I noticed that the main values of the philosophy are missing despite the mention of many relevant practices. Stoic philosophy is fundamentally about making progress towards becoming a better person. Progress means progress in having a virtuous character here. Many people who talk about Stoicism seem to overlook this point, rather take it as something for personal development and success in life.
I had previously assumed that Stoicism was an instrumental pursuit. Or at least that was the easiest way to share it. Huh, maybe it is a terminal pursuit...
> but Stoicism is also about constant improvement in your knowledge
I should be more explicit about this being a counterreaction to the thought I've seen commonly of "I just need to read everything and then I'll be perfect". good point
Thank you! I will read more of Seneca's letters or meditations of Marcus Aurelius for virtue ethics. Or do you think another source is better? note to self also read Enchiridion
If you would like to read the book that changed me click the cover. It is complete with stories, superior explanations, and history. This book has given me no reason to read any other books on Stoicism.
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Posted 2020 July, last updated 2021 March 23.
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