“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” ― Maya Angelou
The late great poet and writer Maya Angelou had a knack for both getting to the heart of our struggles in life, and for helping us to shift our perspective and move toward joy. Her three-part prescription of stopping our complaints, changing the situation if it’s up to us, or changing how we think about it if it’s not, was one of many examples. The Stoics shared her approach to this subject, too—in fact, they repeatedly tell us that if we want to see ourselves making progress the place to begin is by eliminating complaints about situations and blame for others.
Seneca, the powerful Stoic politician and playwright, had one of the toughest jobs in history as being a teacher and advisor to Nero—that royal court was filled with plenty of reasons to wallow in dread, complaint, and blame. But Seneca took a different view on it when he wrote, “Now, all the things which cause complaint or dread are like the taxes of life—things from which, my dear Lucilius, you should never hope for exemption or seek escape.” (Moral Letters, 96.2) Seneca is saying to dispense with the drama of complaint and simply do what we are here to do!
But complaining is so comforting precisely because it excuses us from taking responsibility for our own thoughts and actions.
A half century after Seneca, Epictetus’ pupil Arrian recorded his teacher’s strong advice to stop looking for that comfortable scapegoat in our troubles and instead focus on the choices that are ours to make in every situation:
“For nothing outside my reasoned choice can hinder or harm it—My reasoned choice alone can do this to itself. If we would lean this way whenever we fail, and would blame only ourselves and remember that nothing but opinion is the cause of a troubled mind and uneasiness, then by God, I swear we would be making progress.” — Epictetus, Discourses, 3.19.2–3
A few decades after Epictetus’ death, Marcus Aurelius rose to power as the last of Rome’s five good emperors. His teacher Rusticus had loaned his copies of Arrian’s works on Epictetus to Marcus, who was profoundly influenced by them. In a beautiful reminder, Marcus crystallizes the Stoic aims of focusing our thinking, choices and actions upon the present moment:
“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom, and justice—giving yourself a break from all other considerations. You can do this if you approach each task as if it is your last, giving up every distraction, emotional subversion of reason, and all drama, vanity, and complaint over your fair share. You can see how mastery over a few things makes it possible to live an abundant and devout life—for, if you keep watch over these things, the gods won’t ask for more.”— Meditations, 2.5
In our world, as much as in Marcus’ time, complaining and blaming—finding fault in everyone but ourselves—is the norm. How often do we let our emotions subvert our clear thinking and allow ourselves to indulge in the distractions and drama of complaining? It’s such a toxic drain on our relationships, communities, and endeavors that we need to find a way to set new habits around this kind of negative and fruitless talk.
Will Bowen started a movement a decade ago in his community to do just that—starting with a few hundred people who took a challenge to go 21 days without uttering a single complaint, the pledge was very much like what Marcus said 2,000 years earlier:
“Don’t allow yourself to be heard any longer griping about public life not even with your own ears!” (Meditations, 8.9)
Today, more than 11 million people in 106 countries have taken that challenge and seen dramatic improvements in their lives. It’s a habit that Maya Angelou believed in as she joined Oprah and others in supporting Bowen’s movement:
Bowen tells us that we get addicted to the drama of complaint as a way of calling attention to ourselves and avoiding personal responsibility.
Tim Ferriss added his own twist to Bowen’s 21-Day Complaint Free Challenge that many have found increases our leverage in the attempt to set new habits around complaining. Tim says that something is not a complaint if you simply take the time to frame your words to include the steps you think can be taken by the other person to fix the situation. Marcus, too, liked this tactic:
“If someone is slipping up, kindly correct them and point out what they missed. But if you can’t, blame yourself—or no one.” (Meditations, 10.4)
The idea of blaming ourselves or no one is unsettling at first. But in it lies a Stoic prescription for experiencing more freedom and joy in our lives—as Marcus said, mastery over these few things will make it possible to live abundantly. And it clears out a huge space in which we can focus on the development of our own character as we seek to live the virtues. When we commit to stop complaining and blaming, we stop putting off our responsibilities until tomorrow and begin to make real change—the kind Maya Angelou spoke out for so eloquently—today. Marcus put it in a way she would love:
“You get what you deserve. Instead of being a good person today, you choose instead to become one tomorrow.” (Meditations, 8.22)
Let’s start new habits today. How the world changes may surprise you.
Stephen Hanselman is the co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.