Stoicism: a philosophy of dour, unfeeling people?
No, Stoicism has much practical advice about how to live a happy life with minimal stress. It’s as relevant now as it was 2000 years ago at the height of the Roman Empire.
It also has excellent advice for freelancers and other self-employed folks.
Important: although I’ve read some of the original works of the founders of Stoicism, including the philosophers Epictetus and Seneca the Younger, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, and I’ve begun reading several excellent resources online, I base most of what follows on the excellent and highly readable book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by Professor William B. Irvine.
Stoicism’s Main Goal: Be Happy. (Really!)
I know, not what you think based on our current use of the word of the adjective “stoic,” but it was the aim of the ancient Greek and Roman thinkers and teachers who developed the philosophy. They wanted people to be as free as possible of grief and anger and envy and fear, and instead be full of positive emotions like joy and contentment and appreciation for nature and one’s fellow human beings.
I can’t address all aspects of Stoicism in this post, so I’ll look at five important concepts that can make your life flow more smoothly and help you be a happier and more successful freelancer. I’ll also share a list of resources to help you explore further.
1. Know What Is Under Your Control and What Is Not
For all the things that could potentially affect you in your life, and thus potentially your happiness, ask yourself this question: “How much control do I have over this situation?”
I like how William B. Irvine frames this in A Guide to the Good Life with his concept of the “trichotomy of control”:
- In some situations we have complete control, like in the actions we take, the goals we set, and the thoughts we think.
- In some situations we have some control, but it’s not complete; for example, if we are playing a chess match, we can control how well we play so that we do the best we possibly can, but we can still be beaten by a superior player.
- Finally, there some things over which we have essentially no control, like the weather.
Let’s apply the trichotomy of control to my situation as a freelance writer:
- I have complete control over how good of a job I do on my assignments.
- I have incomplete control over whether or not an editor will give me an assignment. I can use my best marketing skills to sell myself, but an editor could still hire someone else.
- I have no control over broad economic factors that affect the demand for my writing services.
What’s the overall point? Focus on things that are either entirely under your control or partially under your control. Don’t worry about things you can’t control, and don’t worry either about things only partially under your control — just do your best.
2. Don’t Care What People Think of You
Concern with status was important in ancient times and it’s unfortunately still prevalent in most modern societies. The more you look for external validation of your existence, the less happy you will be. Instead, be sure that you live a life based on strong ethical principles of right and wrong, but otherwise don’t worry about how others may judge your house, your car, your clothes — or your career.
3. Practice Negative Visualization
This is actually an exercise in increasing gratitude. Here’s what you do. For 10-15 seconds imagine something you have in your life is no longer there. It can be something big, like a person you love or the ability to see. Or it can be smaller, like the food you have in your refrigerator or your favorite sweater. After the 15 seconds, let yourself realize you do have that person still in your life, or you still can see. Do this 2-3 times a day and you’ll find yourself with a greater appreciation for your life. And yes, you’ll feel happier.
You can also use this with your freelance career. Most of us wish that we had more clients overall, or that our clients paid us more money. Spend 15 seconds imagining that you had no clients at all, or if you are just starting your freelance career, that you had no ability whatsoever in your fild. Once you’re done you’ll be grateful for what clients and skills you do have, and likely energized to make the best of your abilities in your business.
4. Focus on the Present
It’s important to not dwell on the past. We should learn its lessons, but not wallow in its pains. (And this includes not being overwhelmed by grief for long periods after the passing of a loved one.)
We must accept the present and fully embrace it, whatever it is. We can still take part in life and pursue goals. These can include making the world a better place, making ourselves better people, and providing well for our loved ones through our business.
5. Live a Simple Life
Don’t get sucked up into the quest for more and more material goods. The simpler your life, the less you need just to exist, which means you need to make less money, which means you have more time to enjoy the good life.
Think about your freelance career. If you had a simpler life, you wouldn’t need as much money and you’d have more time. You can work less, if you want. Or you can finally start writing that novel. Or you can have extra money and time to travel.
In addition to the links above in this post, also be sure to check out these excellent sites:
Stanford University’s Stoic philosophy page
Stoicism Today blog
History of Philosophy has several top-notch podcasts on Stoicism
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness blog
List of online Stoicism resources
Even Forbes is on the bandwagon with an entertaining article about Stoic aspects of President Obama, and I can highly recommend the new book Rome’s Last Citizen about the famous practitioner Cato the Younger, especially one of its key lessons that an unwillingness to compromise with political opponents can bring ruin and downfall. (You listening, United States Congress?)
Stoic Week November 25 – December 2
Some very smart people in Britain are organizing Stoic Week 2013, a major event that’s mostly taking place online. There’s a cool (free) handbook with key principles and useful exercises, and there’s lots of online support to help you learn more about Stoicism and how to apply it to your life.
What do you think of Stoicism? Have you been exposed to it before? Any similarities with other philosophies or religions? Do you think it can help your freelance career?