All too often in the world of personal development we get lost in the shiny, new solutions to the oldest problems. We always want the quick fix or the simple hack that will piece our lives together. We want the instant gratification that we are moving forward. While some of these new solutions certainly have a place in our lives, it is often best to retreat into the resolute strength and undeniable hard work of those old, reliable answers to life’s most difficult situations.
People don’t often realize it, but personal development has existed for thousands of years. Before it was a multi-billion dollar industry full of mental hacks and modern-day motivational gurus, personal development was just called philosophy. Yup. Philosophy. Ok. Not all of philosophy is personal development. There is a lot of stuffy, academic shit, rightfully collecting dust on the shelves, just waiting for pedantic assholes to reference when they want to appear smarter than someone else. That philosophy isn’t that important to me. Maybe because I am not smart enough to understand it or maybe because it was never meant to be understood. Whatever the case, even without the purely academic philosophy, there is an over abundance and personal, actionable and important philosophy that we can crack open and apply to our lives in order to live happier, healthier and fuller existence. That is the stuff that can make for some powerful personal development fodder and that is the stuff I want to explore.
With that in mind, I am going to take the opportunity to introduce a few philosophers, in a two-part post series. This first part will cover some of the ancient philosophers who had a lot to say about personal development. In part two I will introduce some modern philosophers who put a whole new spin on personal development. My hope is that you find a spark of interest in these teachings and ideas and that you take the initiative to explore and apply these philosophies in your own life. As I have always said, all this personal growth stuff only works through diligent introspection and application- through finding what works for you and applying it with a steadfast resolve. There are no short cuts for that, but the more you know, the easier it will be to find what will work for you.
So, let’s explore a few figures in the early philosophical world and translate what they have to offer into something useful on our personal development path.
Diogenes the Cynic (c. 404-323 B.C.E)
Of what use is a philosopher who doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings? – Diogenes
The Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, was the performance artist and scandal maker of the ancient Greek philosophical world. He would sleep nude in a barrel in the middle of Athens, act like an untrained dog- pissing on peoples legs and eating garbage, masturbate in public. The man had a sharp and wild sense of humor that he sprinkled liberally within his philosophy. He was like the stand-up comic of the ancient Greek world. His stage was the sprawling Athenian market places, where he would mock market goers, rich or poor, with his piercing wit and wisdom, in an attempt to expose the folly of how they lived. He lived a life that was constantly questioning the status quo and walked boldly in his own direction, no matter what others thought of him. His entire life was a walking reflection of his philosophies.
The main lesson to be learned about personal development from Diogenes is that; our path of personal development requires questioning everything of the status quo and living a life free from the constraints of what others might have imposed upon us and try to force us to adhere to.
This questioning requires courage, strength and conviction and you need these things when honestly and seriously pursuing a path of personal development.
People are going to ask you why the hell you are doing some of the things you are doing on your personal development journey. They are going to try to get you to stop doing some things that serve you and continuing doing things that don’t serve you. Stop eating healthy and continuing to eat like shit. Stop working out and continuing to sit on the couch and watch Netflix. Stop pursuing sobriety and continuing to go out and get drunk. You get the point. The status quo is always going to get in your way when you try changing something as epic as the entire trajectory of your life. That shit makes everyone uncomfortable, because nobody wants to be faced with the mediocrity of their own life when they are not willing to change. They don’t want to see you change, because if you do, then they have to question why they can’t. So be ready to endure that onslaught of public disdain and mockery. Accept it. Embrace it. Laugh about it. I don’t recommend you masterbate in public, but if you can endure the ridicule of living an exceptional and meaningful life half as well as Diogenes, you will be just fine.
Epicurus (341-271 B.C.E)
Not what we have but what we enjoy, constitutes our abundance. – Epicurus
The philosophy of Epicureanism, named after the philosopher Epicurus, is perhaps one of the most maligned and miscategorized philosophies of the ancient Greeks. Epicureanism today is seen as a sort of celebration of the good life. Fancy food. Expensive style. Pampered opulence. Basically, rich people’s shit. Nothing can be further from the truth of what Epicurus taught.
Epicurus taught a message of deliberate joy derived from the experience of life’s most simple and accessible pleasures.
A small, wholesome meal with a few close friends. A quiet conversation with a trusted confidant. The subtle warmth of a fire on a cold, rainy day. These things seem minuscule and meaningless to our materialistic and socially maladjusted world, but when we step back and evaluate what we really value in life, why we are truly on this path of personal development, I think that we will find that we are looking hard for things that may be right under our noses. We do not have to strive so hard for the material things that seem just out of reach of our ever growing grasp. A raise. A promotion. A new possession. A new friend on Facebook. Our pursuit of these things usually takes us away from the things we really want, the things that we always had but never stopped to appreciate. It is these simple things that draw us back to lasting satisfaction in a world that is full of fleeting promises of what pleasures will be derived from the next big thing. This is the lesson of Epicurus. To truly enjoy whatever small comforts we have and immerse ourselves fully in them and be grateful that they exist.
Epictetus (55-135 B.C.E)
There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will. – Epictetus
Epictetus is one of my favorite philosophers. His story from brutally abused slave to respected philosophical mind is a compelling one. He was a major figure in the school of Stoicism. Most people think of Stoicism as a philosophical school about repressing emotion and carrying a general pessimism and resignation about life. That is far from the truth. Stocisim is perhaps one of the best philosophies geared towards personal growth and one that is making a comeback in modern times. It emphasizes emotional responsibility and personal self-control and offers so many actionable ways to deal with difficult emotional situations; ways that grant a large amount of emotional freedom in nearly any circumstance, when applied and exercised properly.
One of the main points that Epictetus, and Stoicism in general, brings to the table is the idea of internalizing your goals and letting go of all things that are beyond our control, which is basically everything that exists externally to us.
What does this mean? All too often we set goals that are out of our control or we get lost in things that are out of our control and we let them do emotional damage to us. Let’s say I am playing in a tennis match. My goal may be to win that match. The problem is, that no matter how much I practice, or how good I am, there is the potential to lose because things outside of my control can influence the result. My opponent may simply be better than me. Or I may get injured. Or any number of things may happen. As a result, my goal of wanting to win is thwarted, not by my own efforts, but by something external to myself so I am disappointed in the result and I am upset at my lack of achievement. All of this could have been avoided if I had focused solely on those things I could control and tied my emotions to those results instead.
We should set goals that cannot be affected externally by things outside of our control. I am playing in a tennis match? My goal should be to play my very best. Nothing can impact that goal except for my internal motivation and my personal effort, which are totally and completely under my control. This should be how we approach every goal in life. Evaluate how to internalize our goals and how to recognize the things that are under our control and disregard all the other things as things that just happen. They cannot affect us if we do not let them, nor can they change the emotional state of our being because that is entirely up to us.
Obviously, the philosophers I have featured here have offered so much more in the way of actionable personal development philosophies. Too much for me to ever cover in a blog post. There are also many, many other philosophers who have presented so many brilliant ideas on how to live a good life. I did not want to overwhelm, so I stuck to a few that have really affected me.
I hope that this brief introduction gives you a starting point for exploring these philosophers, and many others, yourself and not just reading, but applying the philosophies and lessons they offer. I also hope that you begin to see that, all the things we are trying to work out today – the right ways to live, the ways to happiness, the ways to live a good life – these are all questions that have floated around for a long time and the reason that so many different philosophies about personal development exist is because there is not one answer for everyone. You find your answer by exploring as much as you can of what is already out there and then getting off your ass and putting it into practice and shaping your own personal development philosophy. That is how this all works. So go find what works for you.
P.S. For a really amazing podcast that explores the lives and philosophies of these philosophers, and so many more, I highly suggest you check out the podcast Philosophize This! by Stephen West. His presentation of these great philosophers is absolutely brilliant! I also want to suggest an incredible book that explores philosophy in the way I am suggesting here. It is called, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations by Jules Evans.