A Framework For Life
I have often been called ‘stoic’ in my approach, and I would agree with this observation but perhaps not in the way it was intended. Stoic is defined as either enduring pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining, or as a member of the ancient philosophical school of Stoicism.
Coming from a military background, hiding discomfort or pain is something that must become second nature if you want to excel in an environment that rewards the ‘cold face’.
The ‘cold face’ is a term used by Conn Iggulden in his retelling of the rise of Ghengis Khan through historical fiction. It sums up a warrior culture in which weakness is despised and men are expected to suppress outward displays of emotion, especially in the face of hardship.
Having read the books as a teenager, this phrase stuck with me and I was reminded of it throughout my military career. It began during recruit training for the Royal Marines with the banning of resting hands on hips or knees after gruelling physical training sessions: When you’ve been thrashed for an hour and gasping for breath, and all your body wants to do is double over, you must master yourself and appear ready for more.
The same tactic was necessary to avoid the scorn of the directing staff during selection for Special Forces. To show fatigue during or after gruelling a task was to receive a mental black mark against your name. To display weakness was to mark yourself as someone unsuitable for that line of duty.
This was for good reason since that theme continues once you reach your unit and begin active service. It is a testing world in which your reputation depends on your ability to endure pain or hardship without showing feelings or complaining. In essence to be stoic.
But this modern interpretation does a huge injustice to what it actually means to be stoic. As Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman lament in The Daily Stoic;
“To the average person, this vibrant, action-orientated, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for emotionlessness.”
But, as they go on to explain in this book which has become a staple of my morning routine, Stoicism is “a tool in the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom.”
It is true that Stoicism does seem to have been well designed for the battlefield, epitomised in the story of US Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale; wing commander in the Vietnam war Stockdale was shot down, immediately becoming a prisoner of the North Vietnamese for seven and a half years.
During his stay at the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ Stockdale and his command of four hundred men were subjected to extended periods of solitary confinement as well as physical and psychological torture.
Speaking about his experiences after returning home Stockdale credits his survival as being largely a product of the philosophical concept of stoicism; particularly that misfortune and suffering are an uncontrollable part of our lives. Consequently we should not expect that the trials and tribulations of life are removed but that, by relying on ourselves as well as our responses, we are able to face them.
But life is not too dissimilar from the battlefield, the trials and tribulations just manifest themselves in different ways. We are all on a daily basis trying to avoid the things which we see as a counter to our happiness. How often have you complained about your day being ruined by some unforeseen circumstances?
The beauty of stoicism is that you can let go of the effort to avoid the storms of life, which let’s face it is an impossible task anyway. And instead you learn to cultivate the internal resources which allows you to weather the storm and remain smiling at the end of each day.
In fact Stoicism is seeing a renaissance with the publication of bestsellers like The Obstacle Is The Way, and a number of high profile fans in the form of artists, professional athletes, executives, and CEOs.
In a world where many of us are stressed, overworked and struggling with many of the responsibilities of life stoicism, as Tim Ferriss puts it, can act as the ideal “personal operating system”. Far from being an antiquated methodology it has been used by the doers of the world throughout history, who have drawn strength and stamina from its philosophy.
“Born in the tumultuous ancient world, Stoicism took aim at the unpredictable nature of everyday life and offered a set of practical tools meant for daily use.”The Daily Stoic
The Development Society
Another brand giving the stoic image a facelift with its quirky artwork and ‘wavy vibes’ is The Development Society a.k.a DEVSOC.
“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.”DEVSOC
After following their daily doses of stoic inspiration on Instagram I looked for the team behind the wacky graphics and found, as they put it;
“A group of people who want the same thing in life, which in itself is almighty difficult to find. We want to be better, to grow as individuals, to create a “better” world to live in, whatever that “better” is for you. The DEVSOC Team isn’t some all-star cast of superhuman-capable humans. We’re just ordinary dudes that want to do the work. We’ll choose the hard way, as long as it provides the greater result.”
Which was good enough to ask these ‘dudes’ to produce a mini-course on Stoicism for The Natural Edge Academy. So I will let them explain what exactly stoicism is:
Stoicism is a thousand-year old operating system, it’s a way to live your life. Often practiced by emperors, poor men, kings and peasants, Stoicism does not discriminate by class or colour, it simply offers an alternative to how you live day-to-day.
First practiced by Zeno of Citium in the 3rd Century BC, the founder of the classic stoic teachings and head of the Stoic School. Distilled to its finest form, it is summed up most neatly (we think) by ‘The Daily Stoic’:
“The philosophy asserts that virtue (such as wisdom) is happiness and judgement should be based on behaviour, rather than words. That we don’t control and cannot rely on external events, only ourselves and our responses.”
Of all of the ancient Stoics, there are three that are quoted more than any others: Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. The interesting thing is, apart from living within a few hundred years of each other, each of these Stoics has nothing in common. One an emperor, the other a former slave, and another an emperor’s right hand man but, it doesn’t matter; there is no other thread than the stoic lessons that run through them, and us.
Often confused with the notion that to be a stoic is to have no emotion, this is not the case. To be a stoic is to be greater than your emotions, to understand when it is time to listen to them, and when it is time to step back and analyse them. Our emotions are not ourselves, they do not define nor do they condemn us, yet they can if we let them run away and lose control. Mastering our emotions is not being a ‘control freak’ as much as it is being aware, and choosing our reactions to the natural responses that our brains and bodies generate.
Stoicism promises the practitioner an alternative life, one that is filled with purpose, clarity, and virtue. To live one’s life as a good person, one that is carefully-natured, who works on themselves, and thinks before acting. None of this is promised in haste however, and this could be achieved in a day or a hundred years.
There is no timeline for completing stoicism, it is a continual learning process that ever evolves throughout our lives. We are all on a journey. We are not the person we were five minutes ago, and stoicism is not the same as it was 2000 years ago.
It is an ever evolving conversation about what being “good” really means, about where we can have the most impact on those around us, and about understanding that it begins in our own heads.
I write this not from a high pedestal above, talking down as if to read the commandments of the “all-promising” lessons that will fix your life, but from the same position you are in now; one that is filled with eagerness to learn and hopefulness to create a better person because of it.
Stoicism is a philosophy of life, one that we can all take part in. Life is one big play, a multitude of acts and encores that follow, figure out your role and play it as best as you can. You define it. You decide which role you take. You decide how good you are at it. Stoicism is your life.
Day To Day Stoicism
The Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca focused on questions that we continue to ask ourselves today:
What is the best way to live?
How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?
As Holiday and Hanselman point out, “these weren’t abstract questions. In their writings the stoics struggled to come up with real, actionable answers.” The framework they used revolves around three critical disciplines that we can use to navigate our own lives.
The Discipline Of Perception
This is how we see and perceive the world around us.
“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. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”Epictetus, Discourses, 2.5.4 – 5
This is something I wrote about in Why You Need To Control The Controllables, and is a vital ingredient for feeling happier and more content on a daily basis. You can spend your life being frustrated, stressed, upset and angry at things that you have no control over, or you can change the future through the power you have in the present moment.
Directing your energy into the things that you can actually influence will also make you far more effective, and give you a huge advantage over those who simply react to events that are beyond their reach.
The Discipline Of Action
These are decisions and actions we take, and to what end we take them.
“To what service is my soul committed? Constantly ask yourself this and thoroughly examine yourself by seeing how you relate to that part called the ruling principle. Whose soul do I have now? Do I have that of a child, a youth … a tyrant, a pet, or a wild animal? ”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.11
As Holiday and Hanselman explain this, “ To what are you committed? What cause, what mission, what purpose? What are you doing? And more important, why are you doing it? How does what you do every day reflect, in some way, the values you claim to care about? Are you acting in a way that’s consistent with something you value, or are you wandering, unmoored to anything other than your own ambition?”
To answer these questions may lead to uncomfortable answers but they are the first step, and one necessary, to discover and fulfil what you are called to do in life. However, this is only the beginning.
“First tell yourself what kind of person you want to be, then do what you have to do. For in nearly every pursuit we see this to be the case. Those in athletic pursuit first choose the sport they want, and then do that work.”Epictetus, Discourses, 3.23.1 – 2a
Your principles and perceptions will guide you in the selection of what you want, but ultimately your actions will determine whether you get there or not. You have to do the work.
The Discipline Of Will
This dictates how we deal with the things that we cannot change.
“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent—no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”Seneca, On Providence, 4.3
I have found in my personal experience that it is the trials of life that become the experiences we later come to treasure the most. How often have you heard people look back on tough situations and declare they wouldn’t change a thing about it. Or that it was in fact the best thing that ever happened to them.
Our luck may change at the drop of a hat, but remember that when things aren’t going so well it may just turn out to be the path to something better. Certainly by surviving it you will walk away far more empowered with a greater sense of your own capacity and inner strength.
To be truly stoic is not to be devoid of emotion. As the Urban Dictionary, a crowdsourced online reference to slang, puts it:
Someone who does not give a shit about the stupid things in this world that most people care so much about. Stoics do have emotions, but only for the things in this world that really matter.
Being stoic is not about gritting your teeth and tolerating pain and suffering, rather it is about realising a confidence and serenity in the curve balls that life throws our way at each and every turn.
Epictetus said that “People are disturbed not by things but by their view of things.” Like the joke that offends one person and draws laughter from another, our reaction is influenced by our perceptions. This is something we have control over, but only by making the effort to look within ourselves and discover the narratives we tell ourselves.
Meditation and journaling are helpful tools in this but an even simpler first step is to purchase a copy of The Daily Stoic. Taking 5 minutes each day to read and reflect on the short teaching is an easy and inspiring way to aim for a more meaningful and enjoyable life.
“By controlling our perceptions we can find mental clarity. In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective. In utilising and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.”The Daily Stoic
The Silent Assassin
Stress has become the silent assassin wearing us down day by day without us even realising it: Weakening our immune system, affecting digestive health, destroying sex drive, causing aches and pains and making us tired, unhealthy and unhappy.
When you feel under pressure, overwhelmed, unfocused and low on energy it's really easy to convince yourself that this is just how life is, how everybody is.
But that simply is not true.
Watch this replay of a live chat I ran on stress to discover:
- The battle I had with stress after leaving the military.
- The strategies I used to overcome it.
- What the Limitless 30/30 Challenge is.