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Goal Setting: A Philosophical Guide to Setting and Achieving Goals


“How long are you going to wait before you demand the best for yourself?” — Epictetus

What do the goals we set, whether personal or professional, require? If we hope to accomplish our goals, we need the discipline to hold ourselves accountable. We need the self-control to stay focused only on the things within our control. And we need the endurance to persist through difficulty.

As it happens, Stoicism is a philosophy based on self-discipline, self-control, and endurance.

The Stoic Chrysippus, for instance, trained as a long-distance runner. Every day, as Diogenes Laertes recounts in Lives of Eminent Philosophers, he would set a goal, try to beat it, then when he did, he would set a new, faster goal. Because that’s what runners do, what athletes do, and what Stoics do: they try to get better everyday, they set a goal and they don’t stop until they accomplish that goal.

We created this guide to help you do exactly that. It is here to help you set and achieve your goals. It is rooted in the time-tested wisdom of the Stoics. This is a long post. It should be saved and revisited. It can be read straight through or if you prefer, feel free to click the links below to navigate to a specific section:

I. What is Goal Setting?

II. The Importance of Goal Setting

[1] Goals Give You Clarity and Focus

[2] Goals Help You Assess The Good and Bad

[3] Goals Help You Beat Procrastination

III. How to Set Goals Like A Stoic

[1] Set Goals You Control

[2] Don’t Set Too Many Goals

[3] Make Sure They Are Your Goals

IV. How To Actually Achieve Your Goals

[1] Be Realistic

[2] Be Specific

[3] Take It Small Step By Small Step

[4] Trust The Process

[5] Use Physical Reminders

[6] Be Adaptable

[7] Associate With People Who Call Forth Your Best

[8] Make It Happen. Whatever It Takes

V. The Best Stoic Quotes On Goal-Setting

VI. The Best Books to Help You Achieve Your Goals

VII. Additional Reading

I. What is Goal Setting?

“If you don’t have a consistent goal in life, you can’t live it in a consistent way.” — Marcus Aurelius

Epictetus said that goal setting was simple:

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”

Let’s look at Marcus Aurelius as an example.

At an early age, Marcus, who studied the teachings of Epictetus, was adopted by the emperor Hadrian and was groomed to be the emperor of Rome. An utterly anomalous event in human history would follow: Marcus Aurelius did not go the way of all kings and instead was made a better person by having enormous power thrust upon him. From his personal journal, known today as Meditations, we know it was a decision. As Epictetus instructed, he first said to himself what he would be.

Marcus saw the “malice, cunning and hypocrisy that power produces,” as well as the “peculiar ruthlessness often shown by people from ‘good families,’” and then he set his goal: he would be an exception to that rule. “Take care not be Caesarified, or dyed in purple,” he wrote, “it happens. So keep yourself simple, good, pure, serious, unpretentious, a friend of justice, god-fearing, kind, full of affection, strong for your proper work. Strive hard to remain the same man that philosophy wished to make you.”

Seneca said, “If one does not know to which port one is sailing, no wind is favorable.” Marcus Aurelius set his destination, his goal for the person he wished to be. And then he worked consciously and deliberately, as we see in Meditations, to accomplish that goal, to do what he had to do to be what he said he would be.

So to the Stoics, goals are a kind of polestar. They are the port of call. They are not so much what push us, but what pulls us. They are that first part in Epictetus’ simple formula for a good life. Setting a goal is saying, this is what I will be. Which leads us right into the second part. Once you set your goal, once you say what you will be, goal setting becomes about figuring out what you have to do.

Think of Goal Setting Like A Painter

“No man can set in order the details unless he has already set before himself the chief purpose.” — Seneca

From Seneca, we get the advice to think of goal setting like a painter. Goals are like the likeness the painter wishes to paint. They are what we are aiming for. They are what Seneca refers to in the quote above as “the chief purpose.”

Then, there is something equally important to the goal: the painter’s plan. How exactly will the painter achieve that chief purpose? After we have our goal, we, as Seneca puts it in the quote above, “can set in order the details.” If the goal is about deciding what target we are aiming for, the plan is about deciding what we need in order to hit that target. What color paints? What brushes? What level of skill?

Seneca’s analogy is a useful way to think about a core distinction the Stoics made between outcomes and actions. They believed in detaching from results and focusing on process. For the painter, she should focus not on the likeness she hopes to produce, but on the very next brush stroke. Instead of focusing on something in the far off future, you focus on what you can do right here right now. For example…

  • Instead of focusing on the goal of becoming an author, you focus on doing 1 hour of deep work today.
  • Instead of focusing on the goal of winning a championship, you focus on having the best practice of the year today.
  • Instead of focusing on the goal of running a marathon, you focus on going for a run and eating right today.

Goals are great in that they make it so everything we do can be in service of something purposeful. When we know what we’re really setting out to do, when we know the target we’re aiming for, we have clarity. We know what we have to do today. Goals, then, inform the specific actions we should be focusing on. They help us determine the plan, the details we need to set in order to achieve the outcome.

To bring back Epictetus’s formula from above, goals help us determine what we have to do in order to be who or do what we’ve determined we will be or do. And to bring back Seneca’s analogy, you can have a great idea and a great plan for a painting, but at some point, you have to start painting.

Now, with this understanding of how the Stoics thought about goal setting, let’s look at some of their best strategies for actually setting goals. Before we do—if you’re enjoying this article and these ideas and insights from the Stoics on goal setting, you will love our daily email newsletter. Every morning, we send a short (~500 word) email inspired by Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus, and more. To join over 450,000 people who start their day off with the philosophy that has guided some of history’s greatest men and women, just enter your email address below and click “Get it”!

II. The Importance of Goal Setting

“Let all your efforts be directed to something, let it keep that end in view. It’s not activity that disturbs people, but false conceptions of things that drive them mad.” — Seneca

It’s easy to get busy and get pulled off course by life. The emails come in and you get distracted. The mood and the actions of the crowd can seduce and tempt us—we are all influenced by the tempo of our times.

So it’s key then, if you want to be good and do good, that you have a kind of North Star in your life that keeps you centered. Goals that draw you back on course when the events of life or the drift of inertia subtly misdirect you. 

Still, you might be thinking, “What is the importance of goal setting?” Or maybe you’ve asked,  “Is setting goals actually effective?” 

These are fair questions. So now, here are 3 arguments from the Stoics for why goal setting is important… 

[1] Goals Give You Clarity and Focus

Law 29 of The 48 Laws of Power is: Plan All The Way To The End. Robert Greene writes, “By planning to the end you will not be overwhelmed by circumstances and you will know when to stop. Gently guide fortune and help determine the future by thinking far ahead.” The second habit in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is: begin with an end in mind.

Having an end in mind is no guarantee that you’ll reach it—no Stoic would tolerate that assumption—but not having an end in mind is a guarantee you won’t. To the Stoics, oiêsis (false conceptions) are responsible not just for disturbances in the soul but for chaotic and dysfunctional lives and operations. When your efforts are not directed at a cause or a purpose, how will you know what to do day in and day out? How will you know what to say no to and what to say yes to? How will you know when you’ve had enough, when you’ve reached your goal, when you’ve gotten off track, if you’ve never defined what those things are?

The answer is that you cannot. And so you are driven into failure—or worse, into madness by the oblivion of directionlessness.

[2] Goals Help You Assess The Good and Bad

People have strong opinions about what is good and bad, positive or negative in life. Yet if you ask most of them what they’re working towards, what their grand strategy for life actually is, most can’t answer.

This is a contradiction. If you don’t know what you’re trying to accomplish or what’s important to you—today or in life as a whole—you have no idea whether an event is truly good or bad.Without a ruler, Seneca said, you can’t make crooked straight.

Without clear goals, without a point or purpose to aim for, all your thoughts on good news and bad news, advantages and disadvantages are just pointless speculation.

You have to know what you’re trying to do today—and every day. You have to know what port you’re aiming for. Otherwise, you’re just being blown around. You’re just reacting. And you’ll never end up where you want to be.

[3] Goals Help You Beat Procrastination

Procrastination feeds on our uncertainty and chaos. The chaos that ensues from not having a plan. Not because plans are perfect, but because people without plans—like a line of infantrymen without a strong leader—are much more likely to get overwhelmed into inaction.

The Super Bowl–winning coach Bill Walsh used to avoid this risk by scripting the beginning of his games. “If you want to sleep at night before the game,” he said in a lecture on game planning, “have your first 25 plays established in your own mind the night before that. You can walk into the stadium and you can start the game without that stress factor.” You’ll also be able to ignore a couple of early points or a surprise from your opponent. It’s irrelevant to you—you already have your marching orders.

Some of the world’s greatest minds—philosophers, artists, writers, painters, scientists, composers, businessmen—have similarly boxed out the chaos of life by setting goals.

Procrastination loves confusion and complexity. It loves questions like, What was I going to do? What do I wear? What time should I wake up? What should I eat? What should I do first? What should I do after that? What sort of work should I do? Should I scramble to address this problem or should I rush to put out that fire?

That’s what Seneca would call a life without design. And that’s what the Stoics would call torture. When you haven’t set any goals, when you’re just winging it, when you are deciding on the fly what you’re going to do or not—that decision fatigue evaporates motivation. On the flip side, goals eliminate all that confusion and complexity and decision fatigue. We know what we need to do. Procrastination is boxed out—by the order and clarity you built, the goals you set.

II. How To Set Goals Like A Stoic

From the Stoics, we get three key strategies we can apply when goal setting. Let’s dive right into them.

[1] Set Goals You Control

“There is never a need to get worked up about things you can’t control.” — Marcus Aurelius

The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. The slave turned philosophy teacher Epictetus described it as our “chief task in life.” It was, he said, simply “to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” Or, in his language, what is up to us and what is not up to us (ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin).

So, the Stoics would say, the number one rule in goal setting is to set goals that are up to you, that are in your control.

Let’s look at an example. Mark Manson’s debut book The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fck* was an international sensation that sold more than 8 million copies*.* Just before the release of his second book, Everything Is Fcked: A Book About Hope*, we asked Mark how he approached following up the massive success of Subtle Art:

When I sat down to write this book, it was really rough…This is going to sound cliche, but ultimately what “saved” me and kept me sane was remembering why I write: I write to sort out the ideas and issues that trouble me and try to do it in a way that can teach and help others…So, that was the starting point. Learning to regain some hope for myself—and for me, that was zeroing in on one goal: just write a better book. And I believe I did. Since making that commitment, it’s been liberating. I don’t feel anxious about this book release. It might bomb. It might sell really well. Fans might love it. They might hate it. But I truly believe it is a better book: it’s smarter, deeper, more mature, better-written than Subtle Art was. So, regardless of the worldly result, I will always be proud of it. And ultimately, that’s what matters.

It’s a strange paradox. The people who are most successful in life, who accomplish the most, who dominate their professions don’t care that much about winning. Certainly they talk about it less.

How could that be?

It’s that they are after something higher than that. They are after what Posidonius once told the great Roman general Pompey (as told in Lives of the Stoics). Their goal is to “be best.” Not the best, but best. They’re after mastery—self-mastery. They’re after maximizing their potential.

Marcus Aurelius wasn’t measuring his accomplishments as emperor against the great conquerors of the past—although certainly, he intended to win the wars he was forced to fight. Instead, his aim was higher. He wanted to be good. To be decent. To be in command of himself. To live up to being “the man that philosophy tried to make him.”

Winning is like being rich. It’s nice, but it’s not something in your control, day to day. What is in your control is showing up, giving maximum effort, following your training, sticking to your principles, pursuing your calling. If that translates to on the field success, great—in fact, it almost always does. If that translates into career recognition, awesome—and again, it usually does.

[2] Don’t Set Too Many Goals

“Ask yourself at every moment, Is this necessary?” — Marcus Aurelius

Just like ours, the ancient world was filled with people who had ambitious goals and trouble prioritizing them. Seneca said it’s one of the hardest balances to strike in life.

We don’t want to be the person who can never sit still. “For love of bustle is not industry, it is only the restlessness of a hunted mind.” But we also don’t want to be the person always sitting still. “True repose does not consist in condemning all motion as merely vexation,” he wrote, “that kind of repose is slackness and inertia.”

The work of the philosopher, Seneca said, is finding the perfect balance of those two tendencies. It’s about working and relaxing, not working and work avoidance.

When we had the great Matthew McConaughey on the Daily Stoic podcast a little while back, he told us the story of how he found that balance for himself. At one point a few years ago, McConaughey realized he was doing too much—he had a production company, a music label, a foundation, his acting career, his family. The problem wasn’t that he couldn’t juggle it all. He could. The problem was, he said, “I was making B’s in five things. I wanna make A’s in three things.” So he called his lawyer and shut down the production company and the music label. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and he had to carefully unwind the businesses to be fair to the people who’d been working hard on them, but it was the right call for his family. The incredible work he’s done as an actor since—and now his million-copy bestselling book Greenlights—is a testament to that.

As Marcus Aurelius said, when you eliminate the inessential, you get the double benefit of doing the essential stuff better. Which is why we all need to do the following exercise regularly:

Make a list of all the things you’re trying to juggle.

Pare it down to just a few.

Commit to making A’s in those few things, instead of B’s and C’s in a lot of things.

Decommit from what you never should have committed to in the first place.

Dedicate yourself to what’s actually essential.

Those five steps are a pathway to true balance and success.

[3] Make Sure They Are Your Goals

“Stop letting yourself be pulled in all directions. But make sure you guard against the other kind of confusion. People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.” — Marcus Aurelius

It can be deceiving to hear the Stoics talk about an indifference to external recognition or rewards. 

Marcus says that fame is meaningless. Seneca talks about how success or wealth is out of our control and therefore not to be prized. Don’t want what other people want, they say, don’t get sucked into meaningless competition.

So does this mean that the Stoic doesn’t try? That the Stoic is resigned to whatever happens to them in life, caring about nothing, uninterested in improving or growing? 

No, of course not. The Stoic is still incredibly ambitious—only they focus on an internal scorecard versus an external one.

A similar sentiment was well-expressed by the entrepreneur Sam Altman, who has helped thousands of startups over the years with his work at Y Combinator, when he was interviewed by Tyler Cowen:

“I think one thing that is a really important thing to strive for is being internally driven, being driven to compete with yourself, not with other people. If you compete with other people, you end up in this mimetic trap, and you sort of play this tournament, and if you win, you lose. But if you’re competing with yourself, and all you’re trying to do is — for the own self-satisfaction and for also the impact you have on the world and the duty you feel to do that — be the best possible version you can, there is no limit to how far that can drive someone to perform. And I think that is something you see — even though it looks like athletes are competing with each other — when you talk to a really great, absolute top-of-the-field athlete, it’s their own time they’re going against.”

Competition, Altman’s friend and mentor Peter Thiel has said, is for losers

When you try to beat other people, you set yourself up to fail. But going against yourself—trying to improve yourself—that’s a competition you have control over. It’s one you can win.

III. How To Actually Achieve Your Goals

[1] Be Realistic

“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” — Epictetus

Everyone wants to accomplish their goals, but very few are willing to undertake the preparation and effort required. Therefore, you need to begin by asking yourself if this is what you really want, and if your motivation is strong enough to get you where you want to go.

Suppose you wanted to be victorious at the Olympic Games, Epictetus says,

“That’s fine, but fully consider what you’re getting yourself into. What does such a desire entail? What needs to happen first? Then what? What will be required of you? And what else follows from that? Is this whole course of action really beneficial to you? If so, carry on. If you wish to win at the Olympic Games, to prepare yourself properly you would have to follow a strict regimen that stretches you to the limits of your endurance. You would have to submit to demanding rules, follow a suitable diet, vigorously exercise at a regular time in both heat and cold, and give up drinking. You would have to follow the directions of your trainer as if he or she were your doctor.”

Before you do anything else, you must think this through. Recall the line from Coach Taylor: “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.”

It starts with clear eyes. You need to clearly see the road.

Confragosa in fastigium dignitatis via est. “It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness,” Seneca would write.

Are you ready to take that path?

[2] Be Specific

“The human soul degrades itself…when it allows its action and impulse to be without a purpose, to be random and disconnected: even the smallest things ought to be directed toward a goal.” — Marcus Aurelius

Seneca wrote about how excellence—regardless of the endeavor—is often curbed simply due to our aimlessness. “Our plans miscarry because they have no aim,” he said. “When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind.”

It is not sufficient to just say that you want to get in shape this year, or that you want to be healthier. It is not sufficient to just say that you want to run more or swim more or ride your bike more this year. It is not sufficient to just say you want to get stronger in the weightroom.

No, we need something concrete…

In Atomic Habits, James Clear references a 2001 study published in the British Journal of Health Psychology. The researchers randomly divided subjects (all of which had the nebulous goal of exercising more) into one of three groups. The control group was simply asked to record when they exercised. The “motivation” group was asked the same but then also given a presentation about the benefits of exercise. The third group got the same presentation, but they were also asked to specify the goal they wanted to achieve and solidify when and where they would exercise. To start, members of the third group completed this sentence: “During the next week, I will partake in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise on [DAY] at [TIME] in [PLACE].”

Interestingly, results among members of the first and second groups were about the same—35-38% of people consistently exercised at least once per week. As for the third group, 91% of people exercised at least once per week. More important than motivation, the researchers found, is what they refer to as implementation intention.

Determine the exact mile time you are working towards. Write down the exact weight you want to be able to bench press. Decide the exact number of MMA training sessions you are aiming to go to. The exact number of pounds or inches you want to lose. And then, do an implementation intention—write down when and where you will exercise next.

Decide the harbor you are aiming for. Then map out how you intend to get there…

[3] Take It Small Step By Small Step

“Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.” — Zeno

You have the harbor you are aiming for, something difficult you’re trying to accomplish. Whether it’s starting a business or losing weight, finishing a creative project or building a barn, the mammoth task sits before you. The very thought of its enormity is overwhelming. The thought of completing it, you can’t fathom. The light at the end of the tunnel is nowhere in sight.

What ought you do?

Do what the great (and prolific) author Rich Cohen does. On the Daily Stoic podcast, Rich explained how he’s able to be so consistently productive at such a high level (9 books published so far, many of them bestsellers). He said he approaches a big project like he approaches a cross-country road trip. “The way you deal with long road trips is you set yourself a minimum number of hours a day, no matter how you feel.”

The point is that “not much” adds up if you do it a lot. That’s what Marcus meant when he said, “Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole.” All you have to do, he said, is “stick with the situation at hand.” He also talks about assembling your life action by action—no one, he says, can stop you from that.

But this metaphor of the road is a good one. Because excellence is a road. There is a road to being a successful writer or entrepreneur. To that promotion or that award. The road to finishing this task or that project. And how do you travel any road? You travel a road in steps. A certain number of miles or hours per day.

Excelling at anything is a matter of taking one small step then another then another. One in front of the other. Even when you don’t feel like it. Even when it doesn’t feel like it’s making much of a dent. Because it is. You’re getting closer. Eventually, you will arrive and it will be wonderful.

[4] Trust The Process

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole… Stick with the situation at hand.” — Marcus Aurelius

In the sports word, the “trust the process” philosophy can be traced to Nick Saban, the famous coach of Alabama—perhaps the most dominant dynasty in the history of college football. But he got it from a psychiatry professor named Lionel Rosen during his time at Michigan State.

Rosen’s big insight was this: sports are complex. Nobody has enough brainpower or motivation to consistently manage all the variables going on in the course of a season, let alone a game. They think they do—but realistically, they don’t. There are too many plays, too many players, too many statistics, countermoves, unpredictables, distractions. Over the course of a long playoff season, this adds up into a cognitively impossible load.

But, as Monte Burke writes in his book Saban, Rosen discovered that the average play in football lasts just seven seconds. Seven seconds—that’s very manageable.

As a result, Saban teaches his players to ignore the big picture—important games, winning championships, the opponent’s enormous lead. Instead, Saban tells his players to focus on doing the absolutely smallest things well—practicing with full effort, finishing a specific play, converting on a single possession. Saban tells his players:

“Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”

In the chaos of sport, as in life, process provides a way. A way to turn chaos and confusion and complexity into something clear and manageable and simple. The task at hand. The process. Whatever you want to call it, just remember that everything in life is built one small action at a time.

[5] Use Physical Reminders

“Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly [displayed].” — Marcus Aurelius

It seems crazy now, but amongst the Stoics in the ancient world there was once intense disagreement over whether philosophers should have “precepts” or sayings to remind them of who they are trying to be and what they are trying to accomplish.

Stoics like Aristo, who lived around the time of Zeno, believed that this was cheating. A wise man, properly trained, should just know what to do in any and every situation. Later Stoics, like Seneca, thought this was ridiculous, which is why his letters to Lucilius are filled with all sorts of quotes and aphorisms and rules. Marcus Aurelius, who admittedly was a fan of Aristo, seemed to follow a path similar to Seneca’s, laying down “epithets for the self” and all sorts of other precepts for living.

In a way, this debate continues today. Some people sneer at self-help and motivational sayings and even the medallions we sell here at Daily Stoic. Why do I need a coin to remind me of that. Isn’t all this stuff obvious? But if you walk into the locker room of any professional sports franchise or elite D-1 level program, you’ll see the walls are tattooed with precepts and reminders (The Pittsburgh Pirates even have “It’s not things that upset us, it’s our judgement about things” in their clubhouse in Florida. Iowa Football has “Ego is the Enemy” in their weightroom.”)

On the Daily Stoic podcast, we asked 2x NBA champion and 6x All-Star (and fan of Stoicism) Pau Gasol about the role these precepts play in sports:

Athletes appreciate pointers and directions. Quotes kind of hit home, as far as there’s a message, like “Pound the rock.” As far as resilience, you just keep pounding the rock. That was a big one for the Spurs. Just keep pounding the rock. If you hit it a thousand times or two thousand times, you might not see a crack, but it’s that next hit, that next pound where the rock will crack. You just got to keep at it, keep at it, keep at it. So pound the rock. It’s something that a lot of other coaches have acquired and then shared in their locker rooms.

Reminders matter. They aren’t cheating. They make you better. Mantras keep you centered. A physical totem can make the habit or standard you’re trying to hold yourself to into something more than an idea, and that helps—a lot. They give you something to rest on—a kind of backstop to prevent backsliding. One of the reasons we made coins for Daily Stoic was that when you have something physical you can touch, it grounds you. The coins are made at the same mint where the first Alcoholics Anonymous chips were invented, and they represent the same idea. If you have 10 years of sobriety sitting in your pocket or clasped in your hand, you’re less likely to throw it away for a drink.

[6] Be adaptable

“Our actions may be impeded…but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.” — Marcus Aurelius

In his book Mastery, Robert Greene tells the story of Freddie Roach. Before he became the great boxing trainer, Roach trained under the legendary coach Eddie Futch and was groomed to be a boxing champion. But before long, Roach was forced to retire from boxing.

As Greene writes in The Daily Laws, Roach “instinctively found his way back to the ring because he understood that what he loved was not boxing per se, but competitive sports and strategizing. Thinking in this way, he could adapt his inclinations to a new direction within boxing.”

Marcus Aurelius’ story is similar. Marcus didn’t want to be emperor. That was “the essential tragedy of Marcus Aurelius,” biographer Frank McLynn wrote. Marcus wanted to be a philosopher. He was reclusive and bookish by nature. When he learned he had been adopted by the emperor Hadrian and would be made emperor, he was saddened. But as Greene writes of Roach, Marcus soon realized he could adapt his inclinations within the role forced upon him. And like the way Roach became one of history’s greatest boxing trainers, Marcus Aurelius became the Stoic philosopher king.

Robert Greene crystallized it into a Law: Adapt your inclinations. Avoid having rigid goals and dreams. Change is the law.

[7] Associate With People Who Call Forth Your Best

“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.” — Epictetus

For thousands of years, we’ve known that humans are influenced by the people we spend the most time with. “Nature gave us friendship,” Cicero wrote, “as an aid to virtue, not as a companion to vice.” Seneca’s line was, “Associate with those who will make a better man of you.” Goethe famously said “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.”

It’s a pretty observable truth. We become like the people we spend the most time with. That’s why we have to be so careful about the influences we allow into our life. If ever you are feeling stuck, consistently not accomplishing your goals, experiencing low motivation, struggling to make the kind of progress you know you are capable of—take a good hard look at the people surrounding you.

Do they inspire you, validate you, push you to be better? Or do they irritate you, offend you, drag you down? Are they positive, rational, motivated, reliable, loyal? Or are they hypocritical, fake, lame, pretentious, flaky, dishonest?

The proverb in the ancient world was: “If you dwell with a lame man, you will learn how to limp.”But that idea of dwelling with a lame man cuts both ways. Epictetus was famously “lame,” having had his leg crippled while in slavery. Marcus Aurelius spent enormous amounts of time with Epictetus’s writings. It didn’t make him limp—it made him wiser, a harder worker, more resilient, calmer, more compassionate. Epictetus passed those things onto him. A slave shaped a king and made him better.

If you want to connect with a community that will push you to be better, we’d like to invite you to check out our Daily Stoic Life program. It’s the largest gathering of Stoics in the world. It’ people just like you, struggling, growing, and making that satisfying progress towards the kind of person they know they can be. Some folks pursue philosophy and self-improvement as a side project. But some treat it seriously, they want to go deep, and they know that the best way to learn is to surround themselves with like-minded individuals and people who will push them. Improvement comes fastest through involvement, results through accountability and wisdom through exposure to new people and new ideas. That’s why we created Daily Stoic Life. You can learn more about it here.

[8] Make It Happen. Whatever It Takes

“The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around them. That’s all you need to know. Nothing more.” — Marcus Aurelius

In 1932, Amelia Earhart became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic.

Her solo exploits are well known. Less so is that Earhart had already made the same flight less than five years prior. Unable to make a living as a female pilot, Earhart was working a job as a social worker. Then one day the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a pretty offensive offer: She could be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she wouldn’t actually fly the plane and she wouldn’t get paid anything.

Guess what she said to the offer? She said yes. Because that’s what people who defy the odds do. That’s how people who become great at things—whether it’s flying or blowing through gender stereotypes—do. They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. They swallow their pride. They do whatever it takes. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work. And they can prove the people who doubted them wrong, as Earhart certainly did.

“A podium and a prison is each a place, one high and the other low,” Epictetus said. “But in either place your freedom of choice can be maintained if you so wish.”

On the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.

Seize the opportunity. All of them. Any of them.

Prove the doubters wrong.

IV. The Best Stoic Quotes On Goal-Setting

“But neither a bull nor a noble-spirited man comes to be what he is all at once…We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.” — Epictetus

“…The archer must know what he is seeking to hit; then he must aim and control the weapon by his skill. — Seneca

“Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind.” — Seneca

“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.” —Epictetus

“Lay hold of today’s task, and you will not need to depend so much upon tomorrow’s. While we are postponing, life speeds by.” — Seneca

“Well-being is realized by small steps, but is truly no small thing.” — Zeno

“The first step: Don’t be anxious…The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it.” — Marcus Aurelius

“Concentrate every minute like a Roman—like a man—on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice. And on freeing yourself from all other distractions. Yes, you can—if you do everything as if it were the last thing you were doing in your life, and stop being aimless, stop letting your emotions override what your mind tells you.” — Marcus Aurelius

V. The Best Books to Help You Achieve Your Goals

Mastery and The Daily Laws by Robert Greene

Atomic Habits by James Clear

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth

Discipline Equals Freedom: Field Manual by Jocko Willink

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos and Beyond Order: 12 More Rules for Life by Jordan Peterson

VI. Additional Reading

Here are some of our best articles to help you live a good life:

How To Be Happy: 11 Strategies Proven Over The Past 2,000 Years

How To Overcome Procrastination Based On Ancient Philosophy

The Power of Habits: What The Ancients Knew About Making Good Ones & Breaking Bad Ones

Anger Management: 8 Strategies Backed By Two Thousand Years of Practice

How To Be A Great Leader: Timeless Leadership Traits From Roman Emperors, Philosophers, and More

The Art of Journaling: How To Start Journaling, Benefits of Journaling, and More

Motivation: An Ancient Guide on How To Get and Stay Motivated

Coping With Grief: 10 Timeless Strategies From Ancient Philosophy

VII. Want More?

Want more guidance in setting and accomplishing goals? Achieve your most important goals with our Goal Setting Worksheet. Get The Free Guide Below