The Stoic: 3 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos

This is a guest post by Paul Jun. He is the Content Manager for CreativeMornings and the former Community Manager for Seth Godin’s altMBA program. He is also a contributor to Adobe’s 99u. Follow him on Twitter and visit his website here.

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Observing individuals who lead a creative life, we can identify elements of expertise, grit, an understanding, and passion. What’s easy to overlook is the inner system within an individual—the set of principles that govern their mind and behavior. When failure ensues or the need to adapt is necessary, how does one respond? What do they tell themselves? In other words, what’s their philosophy?

Not only does philosophy teach us how to live well and become better humans, but it can also aid in overcoming life’s trials and tribulations. Some schools of thought are for more abstract thinking and debate, whereas others are tools that are immediately practical to our current endeavors.

The principles within Stoicism are, perhaps, the most relevant and practical sets of rules for entrepreneurs, writers, and artists of all kinds. The Stoics focus on two things:

  1. How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?
  2. How can we become better human beings?

The goal of Stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, practicing self-control, being conscious of our impulses, realizing our ephemeral nature and the short time allotted—these were all meditative practices that helped them live with their nature and not against it. It’s important that we understand the obstacles that we face and not run from them; it’s vital that we learn to transmute them into fuel to feed our fire.

Our guides to Stoicism today will be its three renowned leaders: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca.

Epictetus was born a slave at about A.D. 55 in Hierapolis, Phrygia, located in the eastern borders of the Roman Empire. Early in his life he had a passion for philosophy, and with permission from his owner, he studied Stoic philosophy under the master Gaius Musonius Rufus. After Nero’s death—the fifth Roman emperor who ruled with tyranny and cruelty—Epictetus began to teach philosophy in Rome and then later in Greece where he founded a philosophical school teaching Stoicism—among his students was the future emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius.

Marcus Aurelius was born in A.D. 121, considered one of the greatest Roman emperors to have ever lived, and wrote in his journal during the dull moments of a war campaign. In his journal, which inadvertently became the book Meditations, served as reminders for Stoic principles that focused on humility, self-awareness, service, death, nature, and more.

Seneca was also a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, a tutor and advisor to Nero. His work involves dozens of essays and 124 letters that involve topics like education, friendship, civil duty, moral obligation, humility, self-awareness, self-denial, and more. He had many admirers like Montaigne, Tom Wolfe, Emerson, and John Stuart Mill.

I’m going to share some of my favorite principles from the Stoic school of philosophy, most of them pertaining to these three thinkers. If embraced and exercised regularly, Stoic tenets will champion your creativity, facilitate your workflow, and improve your overall state of mind and life. Creative work requires us to be vulnerable, committed, adaptive, and courageous, and that requires a mindset that can readily negate distractions or negative impulses while focusing our hearts and minds on what’s important. It’s a tough balancing act.

Without a philosophy to guide our work and life, we will relentlessly succumb to our excuses and distractions. We will make the comfortable mistake of acting on our moods (“I’m just not feeling it today”) and not on our principles.

1. Acknowledge that all emotions come from within

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions  not outside.”  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

It is not outside forces that make us feel something, it is what we tell ourselves that create our feelings. A blank document, canvas, or unmarked to-do list is not inherently stressful—it’s your thoughts that are stressing you out.

Many of us want to place blame and responsibility on external objects because it’s easy to do, but the truth remains that all conflicts start internally, in our minds. When we flee from reality—a deadline, an urgent email—we are doing nothing but harming ourselves and undermining our self-discipline.

The next time you run into an obstacle and feel resistance, don’t look at what’s around you. Instead, look within.

2. Find someone you respect, and use them to stay honest

“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. This is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves. Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.”  Seneca, Letters From a Stoic

When I first started my blog and called myself a writer, who could I look up to? The courses at my university were irrelevant to my aspirations and desires. Luckily, the Internet provided access to great writers, their stories, work, and admonishments. I can point to someone I respect and say, “Ah, look at the value they provide, their work ethic, their platform—that is worth learning from.”

Whatever you do—create apps, draw portraits, write books, or make animation films—there are individuals that you can learn from. You can study their story, works, techniques, successes and failures. You can listen to interviews or even reach out to them by sending an email. You can discover patterns of success and apply it to your life.

What’s important to realize is that this isn’t an exercise of comparison. If you don’t get a book deal in eight months or if your product doesn’t hit #1 in the first week, like your role model, that doesn’t make you a failure. Instead, how can you learn from your heroes? How are their teachings and principles helping you grow, learn, and create? Everyone, no matter how successful they are, has heroes/mentors to look towards.

3. Recognize there is life after failure 

“Does what’s happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself? So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.”  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

You can spend months or even years on a project, only to watch it be criticized, or worse, ignored. I once worked on a project thinking that it would do fairly well. I spent an entire year on it, and it was my most vulnerable work to date.

The outcome was similar to having a baby and all the doctors laughing out loud, saying, “My goodness that is an ugly baby.”

That’s what failure feels like when you share a part of you. But recovering from that failure is a practice, a mindset—in fact, the lessons that I internalized from that experience is helping me do better work. The thinking goes: No failure, no growth.

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This post was originally published on 99u and syndicated permission. Read the full post, with six more lessons, here: The Stoic: 9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos.