By now you all know my adoration of philosophy as means of personal development. This is especially true of the philosophy of Stoicism, which is seeing a modern resurgence. Perhaps Stoicism’s wisdom and wit resonate with us again because the Stoics existed in a similar time of political and personal upheaval that we see today. Or perhaps it is because the wisdom of the Stoics is timeless in the way that it seeks to help us understand the tumult of our internal struggles. Regardless of the reason for it’s resurgence, I think there is a great deal we can learn from the lessons of Stoic philosophers that can be applied to the anxiety of our day.
Personal development sees a lot of quotes and maxims being thrown around and I would like to briefly explain why, if only to defend my use of them in this article. Quotes and maxims like these are a way to hold on to deeper thoughts and insights in an accessible way. When we recall these quotes we are bringing with them the collected meanings that we have applied to them over the years through our introspection and contemplation. That is what makes quotes and maxims so poignant and important. They are the flowering bushes of a much deeper root structure of understanding and truth. We can carry around the flower but we imply the expanse of roots.
That is the value of aphoristic maxims and quotes. The recitation or recollection of a quote is fortifying because it has so much depth in the meaning of it. So much to strengthen us and nurture us. The value of quotes and maxims is only granted if you think deeply about the words and how they apply to your life, though.
All of the quotes below derive from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus; one of the more popular and intriguing philosophers within the school of Stoicism. I have detailed some of his past in another article that you can find here. For this article, we will explore some of his maxims and detail why they offer you the wisdom that can change your life.
The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.
This has been said in a million ways by a million people, but it is so glaringly true and obvious that it is often dismissed as useless self-help drivel. Well, this is actually evergreen advice and that is why it is so often repeated. You are only as good as the company you keep! The people you keep around you influence you in a million ways. You absorb their positivity and negativity. You absorb their viewpoints and attitudes. Groupthink is a real thing and you can get caught up in some real shady shit if you are hanging out with the wrong people.
Find people who uplift you. Who challenge you intellectually, socially and professionally in positive ways. People who force you to be a better person. People who can cut through your bullshit and hold you accountable. People who would do anything for you; including calling you out when you are not living the life you should be. This might mean cutting some people out of your life and going to find other people who can fill these roles. They are out there. Go find them.
If evil be spoken of you and it be true, correct yourself, if it be a lie, laugh at it.
People are going to talk shit about you behind your back. They are going to talk shit about you to your face. It doesn’t matter which you are hearing, if you don’t like the things people are saying about you then you have two choices to make. You first have to get brutally honest with yourself and ask yourself if the things that people are saying are true or not. If they are, and you don’t like those things, then you better go out there and find a way to fix those things.
If the things that people say are not true, then stop giving a shit what they are saying. It doesn’t matter what you do, people are going to talk about you no matter what. Sometimes they will envy the things you do enough that they want to break you because they don’t want to face the monotony and misery of their own lives. Have sympathy for them and move on. Nothing good ever came from worrying about how others view you.
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
All real and dangerous conflict happens internally. External things are going to happen and we give them too much value, ignoring the fact that the real struggle is our relation to those external things that we do not control. Rain is going to fall during your picnic. Illness is going to lay you up. People are going to leave or die or betray you. Life is a swirling storm of bitter winds and tepid breezes and we have exactly zero control over nearly all the things that happen to us, yet we often rage against these storms and try to engage them and thereby try to change them. I am notorious for trying to hold the reigns of a tempest that is so obviously out of my control and dragging me along like a fool, but I have learned to just let go, take shelter in the cozy, calm confines of my mind and adjust my sails to take advantage of the situation. You need to let go of what you WANT to happen and let your reaction be reasonable to what HAS happened.
First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
I talked about this in my article about authenticity but it is worthwhile to reinforce it here. I don’t care what you USED to be, every moment in life gives you another opportunity to decide what you WANT to be and go be it. Stop wasting those opportunities. No excuses. No negative self-talk. No bullshit. You decide who you want to be and you go out there and do whatever you have to do to be it. It doesn’t matter about your past or your future. How terrible or grand, how miserable or amazing. Nothing back then or in the future has the sincere power to prevent you from being what you want right now.
I am not saying that there is not some hard work in being what you want to be. Some pain. Some grief. Some loneliness. Some serious effort. You are going to have to decide how bad you want something and then follow through with it. If you want it bad enough you will go get it. There are no shortcuts. There is only a constant movement towards the self that you want to create. Your authenticity is your creation.
There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.
If there is one single maxim that I have pinned upon my heart from reading the Stoics it is this one. There is no lasting happiness until you accept that the power to create and support happiness is solely within you. All the external things we have no true control over that touch our lives and that we allow to consume us with worry – money, jobs, health, reputation, other people – these things become the subject of all of our consuming worry and become the restless waves we rest our happiness on, and we are thrown around like ships in a storm, at the whim of their inconsistent fury.
Stop worrying about everything you can’t control and shift your focus to the things you can control. Your reactions to things, your relationship to things and your actions towards things. That’s it. That is all you truly have 100% control over. Once you start adjusting your sails to the movements of those internal things you are going to find much smoother sailing and what’s more, you will become a beacon to others to navigate the swirling waters of their own life.
No greater thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.
The hard work of personal development, creating a better you, is not in starting, it is in continuing. Through the seasons of your life, the ability to maintain the discipline, work ethic and fortitude it requires to become everything you want and to get everything you want, is the true skill of personal development. All great things take a time to develop, to cultivate, to grow and you must remain patient and steadfast to ensure that they grow right and sturdy. It is all too easy to try and look for the shortcuts in life but in doing so you build a dilapidated hovel of a dwelling. Take the time and put in the hard work to create a temple instead.
The greater the difficulty the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests.
We do not celebrate those people who gained their positions in life through a lack of struggle. It is the underdogs we root for. The ones that raged against the odds and adversities and came out on top. The ones who never gave up despite the overwhelming odds. These are the people who inspire and motivate us because it gives us hope that our own struggle is something that can be overcome. But there is more to surmounting great difficulties than the glory that comes from it. The internal strength and confidence it creates are the real value. Look at the great struggles you face in your life as opportunities to accumulate great triumph and honest wisdom, both external and internal. These difficulties are the crises of your story; the decisive moments and the turning points that expose your heroism. Do not run from them. Face them. Best them. Own them and never be scared of them again.
You are a little soul carrying around a corpse.
Despite how it may sound, this quote is not about death; it is about beauty. Bodies obviously have a certain, undeniable beauty – faces, eyes, shapely figures and muscled frames – they are instantly appealing things that draw us in, but true beauty, the kind that never fades and is always relevant, is beauty of that little soul you carry around in that aging husk of meat you call a body.
I don’t believe in a soul but I do believe in the things inside me that make me, me. The things that no one else can have or approach. They are the accumulations of my unique experiences and my interpretations of those experiences that have shaped my beliefs, perspectives, and values. That is my soul to me. That is the thing I carry around and the thing I want to be as beautiful as I can make it. Whatever your definition of a soul is, we create the beauty of that soul by cultivating compassion, wisdom, knowledge and love. I am talking about true, actionable, devotion to these things in such a way that the little soul we carry has the capacity to make other little souls in the world that much brighter and more beautiful. Because we all want our little souls to be beautiful.
This is all only a sliver of the wisdom offered by the Stoics. They have so much more to give and I urge everyone to dive deeper into the words of Stoics like Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Musonius Rufus and more. You are going to find words that seem to have been birthed by modern thinkers, in modern times, dealing with the modern issues of the world, and that is the true value of Stoic thought – its consistent ability to be relevant to all people, through all time, and give us the means of constantly maturing internally while the world outside seems to be falling apart.