7 Powerful Life-Lessons From Stoicism

Some of the greatest leaders in history were Stoics: Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius. It’s no surprise considering Stoicism’s emphasis on self-mastery; success and leadership begin with the person in the mirror.

The key is found in responding—not reacting—to external circumstances. Stoics taught that while we can’t control what happens to us in life, we can control our perception, interpretation, and ultimately how we choose to respond.

In any situation, we can choose to perceive our experience in a productive way, or a destructive way.

These 7 lessons from Stoicism will surely bring positive changes to your life:

1. Think About Thinking

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.” – Marcus Aurelius.

Only an attentive mind can filter and revoke unhealthy thoughts, and subsequently, unhealthy behaviors. Stoicism taught a clear distinction between your thoughts and behavior. It’s that old adage, think before you act. The mindless person acts viscerally and regretfully.

The next time you’re confronted with a frustrating conversation or your schedule is suddenly derailed, pause for a moment—create a break to process what happened. Then ask yourself, “What’s the best way I can respond?”

This creates the space necessary to disrupt impulsive, and negative responses.

2. New Day, New Beginnings

“Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.” – Seneca.

An awful day doesn’t have to become an awful week. One bad experience can spiral out of control if the momentum isn’t stopped. The Stoics built walls of mental compartmentalization when necessary.

A new day, a clean slate. Stop the domino effect. Allow yourself to hit the reset button when you experience a failure.

3. Purposed Action

“If a person doesn’t know to which port they sail, no wind is favorable.” – Seneca.

The Stoic wakes up and knows exactly what they want out of their day. They have a clear destination and clear goals. Starting your day with writing daily goals creates a psychological pre-commitment and increases the likelihood of these goals being achieved.

Dr. Gail Matthews is a psychologist from Dominican University. Her research with 267 participants found that those who wrote down their goals with specific weekly strategies had a 76% success rate compared with 43% who only stated their goals.

Every action must connect with a destination. Otherwise, you can sail all day, and end up right where you started.

4. There is a Season

“No great 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.” – Epictetus.

Patience isn’t the greatest virtue for ambitious people. Patience is not the enemy of productivity. Stoicism stresses living in accordance to the natural flow of life: your inner flow, and also to the external flow of life.

Constantly trying to rush and find shortcuts can send you round in circles. Excitement can be blinding and cause ignorance. Moving with the season means finding that path of least resistance.

5. You’re Already There

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient.” – Seneca.

Don’t make happiness dependent on achievement and success; rather, happiness brings success and achievement.

Harvard Psychologist, Shawn Achor, found that professionals who did a gratitude practice at the start of their day improved their productivity and performance. A positive mindset at the starting block releases dopamine, which increases overall activity. There’s no need to wait until you reach the finish line.

6. Alignment 

“Were I a nightingale, I would act the part of a nightingale; were I a swan, the part of a swan.” – Epictetus.

It’s important to have mentors and role-models. But when emulation turns into imitation, you become a second-rate product. Stoicism emphasized a harmony between acceptance and change; the perfect balance between fate and free will. It’s the wisdom to know when the leopard can’t change it’s spots, and when you can always teach an old dog new tricks.

It means embracing your unchangeable quirks and leveraging your uniqueness. There will never be another Elvis; the iconic VW Beetle can’t be replaced. Figure out what your gifts and talents are, and bank on them.

7. Make Peace With Death

“Rehearse death. To say this is to tell a person to rehearse his freedom. A person who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.” – Seneca.

Confronting death is liberating. Our fight/flight mechanism works to preserve life, to flee from death. But it  is triggered before any risk of death even enters into the picture—crippling us from stepping outside our comfort zone.

Stoics stare death in the face, and accept it as a natural part of life. Becoming friends with the ‘monster’ defeats it.

Steve Jobs said it well, “Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”