seneca bust from rijks museum in an article about modern Stoicism

Isn’t it funny how we can go our entire lives getting something wrong?

For many years until I was ~14, the pronunciation of the word maintenance was one of those things… until I said the word out loud in front of my brother, fresh out of his first college year in the States, who very gladly made fun of me. 

I thought this word was one of these words that sound the way they look. Maintenance

I was wrong. 

Since then, I’ve been regularly getting things wrong, from spelling to the meanings of certain words, from small faux pas to judgments I’ve made about people’s characters.

For a while, I kept referring to Airbnb as part of FAANG (the five best-performing companies in the US). The A stands for Amazon (obvious as a dead plant). 

I mistake koalas, pandas, and penguins more times than I’d like to admit. 

Like anyone’s who’s ever tried a god damn thing, I’ve been getting things wrong more times than I can count.

One of those things was Stoicism.

A timeline of my relationship with the internet

I’ve been online since approx. 2006. At first, I used the internet as a toy rather than as a discovery tool with endless capabilities. 

So, let’s say I’ve been using the internet mindfully and with a goal-oriented outlook since 2008. Then, let’s say my interest in habit building, mindfulness, and finding ways to improve my life and wellbeing started surfacing around 2011. 

It’s 2021. 

I’ve been reading about these nothing-short-of-magical concepts and stories for the past ten years. It’s been nine years since I got one of them completely wrong. 

You guessed it– Stoicism. 

I thought Stoicism was an archaic way of living, rooted in a community of people who pretended they felt nothing while holding poker faces until they died.

As a person who’s obsessed with pigeonholing, making sense out of things that don’t make sense, and bringing together seemingly unrelated concepts that at a deeper look are closely related, naming things is a strange pet peeve to have.

Specifically, I have an issue with naming things that don’t really need specific names and “inventing” a new name when a name that does the job just as well already exists.

It’s like that quote from Peter Drucker that I’ve already mentioned a bunch of times:

“There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently something that should not have been done at all.”

I find the fact that we’ve allowed ourselves to turn the B2B or B2C contrast into a distinction we take so seriously that people self-describe as “B2B consultants” or participate in conferences specific to B2C people pretty humorous. Like, what?

So I thought Stoicism was just another name we didn’t need for grumpy people who thought their seriousness was devoid of criticism… This is a never-ending struggle for optimists. If you’re right, heh, you’ll see, you’ll be wrong soon, you naive fool. If you’re wrong, well… you’re wrong. We have incredibly lower standards for pessimists.

Stoicism was for people who were into philosophy and used it with the sole purpose of showing off their superior intellect rather than offer any kind of interesting, exciting insight into these topics. Stoics don’t want to help make the world a better place. 

How did I go from rolling my eyes at Stoicism and its partisans to loving these theories so much that I would identify as a Stoic if someone would ask or if my identity wasn’t so full already that it doesn’t thrive with extra labels?

Mostly because no one’s asked, though, let’s be honest. Here’s how.

Many mornings ago, I came across an article about Stoicism by David Cain of Raptitude, one of my favorite writers.

I don’t read everything David writes for the sole reason that I would never write again if I did. We share the same worldview and interests, so I often see that he’s written about topics I’ve written or wanted to write about.

I start thinking of writing about X topic, just to have his new article pop up in my inbox, and I’m like, “Oh… David already did it.”

No, we won’t be talking about my fear of suffering from samesies today. 

I digress. I’m just back from a wedding and it’s 3:17 AM. It’s allowed, I asked.

Here’s are two pictures from the wedding since you’re curious.

But something in me told me I had to read this specific article from David. Probably because I was in a David-spree and going in an infinite loop as I clicked through articles he’d written that he recommended in his other articles. Fun fact: I found the concept of internal linking pretty simple and not groundbreaking, but some time ago, my boyfriend told me he loved it when I wrote something and said, “Oh, by the way, I’ve also talked about this in X article.”

“What’s obvious to you is amazing to others.”

Derek Sivers

I digress again. It’s allowed, I told you.

I read the article and almost immediately understood. David had referenced an older article from the New Yorker. I read that, then I understood understood.

Some things only need to be understood spiritually in the beginning. That’s often how we get the practical aspect of things to work, by understanding.

David Cain’s article, The Only Thing You Need to Get Good At, was about Stoicism and had been shared 12,000+ times, for good reason. 

David is an amazing writer and he’s a true connoisseur of self-improvement, not just in theory. The title of one of his articles should suffice to let you know that’s true: 7 Years and 21 Self-Improvement Experiments: Where They All Are TodayDavid even did full-time Stoicism as an experiment.

Why we should all consider Stoicism 

Stoicism dates back as early as the 3rd century BC and is a school of Hellenistic philosophy. 

The main premise of Stoicism is that the only thing we need to get good at is differentiating between things within our control and things out of control and actually learn to put all our energy into one of those things. Hint: the things we can control. 

According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stoics believed that negative emotions like envy, fear, shame were fake. Well, not verbatim. But they held that these emotions came to light because of our false judgments. Sage (people with high levels of intellect and virtue) wouldn’t experience these emotions. They came from false judgments, so they were false as well. 

Seneca (featured in the cover image) and other later Stoics also emphasized teachings that said that “the sage is utterly immune to misfortune and that virtue is sufficient for happiness.”

Who wouldn’t want to be immune to misfortune, right?

But maybe being immune to misfortune is more about the way we react to misfortune rather than about never encountering misfortune.

Think about it. 

Can you imagine how much energy we’d save if we only focused on what’s under our control? 

Energy preservation may not sound that appealing to you as to consider Stoicism, and I get it. People’s quest to find ways that help them “perform” to 100% of their ability all the time is unhealthy. We’re not machines. I do not want to do my best 100% of the time. 

But it’s not just about energy or productivity, but about our feelings and inner turmoil as well.

Can you imagine how much calmer and happier we’d be if we focused on what we can change?

Let’s say I’m afraid that I will suffer from a stroke because two of my family members did. 

I can make myself sick by letting this fear intrude into my daily life. I can live in fear and stress out about everything. Any moment can present a chance for a stroke. 

But I can’t control strokes. I can’t control my genetic makeup. 

However, there are other risk factors that I can control. I know that smoking, drinking, lack of exercise, and other lifestyle factors directly affect my chances of a stroke. So I worry about what I can do something about. 

If this sounds remotely familiar, it may be because you’ve heard me or other people talk about therapy techniques like CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) which relies on patients learning to differentiate between what they feel and what is true. 

“CBT is based on several core principles, including:

Psychological problems are based, in part, on faulty or unhelpful ways of thinking.

Psychological problems are based, in part, on learned patterns of unhelpful behavior.

People suffering from psychological problems can learn better ways of coping with them, thereby relieving their symptoms and becoming more effective in their lives.”

(APA Div. 12 (Society of Clinical Psychology)

Sounds familiar? 

CBT isn’t the only way to do therapy, but it’s shown to be as effective as–sometimes more–other types of therapy or psychiatric drugs.

There’s considerable overlap between CBT and Stoicism, but while CBT is often advised to be done under the supervision of a mental health care professional, Stoicism can be safely applied in small and big ways to our everyday life.

There’s no point in stressing out about traffic, the weather, disease or the world ending.

You’ll be immune to misfortune by choosing to look at misfortune right in the eye and not give a fuck about it, but instead focus on what you can do about it, whether it’s a traffic jam or a stroke. 

Here’s David again from The Only Thing You Need to Get Good At

“According to the Stoics, all day long you should be returning your attention to the relatively small realm you can control. Ultimately, your only concern is your own diligence in tending to your own bin, and that’s always up to you alone.

To the Stoic, life isn’t a juggling act between a thousand competing concerns. You have one concern, and that’s to tend your own garden, small or large as it is. It works the same for a slave (which is what Epictetus was when he was born) as it does for an Emperor (which is what Marcus Aurelius was when he died).”

You have one concern.

Stoicism may sound “selfish” (a loaded word if I ever saw one) or even barbaric.

I know what I’m asking isn’t a small feat. I won’t sit here and pretend I don’t complain about the weather or the traffic, especially when I’m trying to make small talk with a taxi driver. 

But I’ve realized that Stoic teachings are something I will come back to often. At the moment, I’m all in and doing so well in tending to my own garden and doing what I can do rather than worrying about all that I can’t do. 

“Let our advanced worrying become advanced thinking and planning.”

Marie Forleo

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