Self-Sufficiency: the Ultimate Stoic Virtue

Above all else, the Stoics were masters at assigning things their proper value. The great Stoic philosophers knew the importance of identifying what was within their control, what was beyond, and what fell in-between. And they maintained an unwavering sense of focus on the things within their realm of control.

Nowhere is this more evident than the core Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. But at the foundation of this Stoic range of virtue and your sphere of influence sits one underlying principle that ties it altogether – self-sufficiency. From self-sufficiency stems all other virtues.

It’s a dangerous game to tie your sense of meaning and wellbeing to someone or something else. When you fixate on things beyond your control, you become restricted, dependent, and weak. And you introduce dependencies that can drop you into a state of anxiety, envy, or despair without warning.

But when you guard your self-sufficiency above all else and focus more attention on what’s within your sphere of control, you gain flexibility, independence, and strength.

“If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled – have you no shame in that?” —Epictetus

Self-sufficiency is about focusing more of your time and energy on the things you can actually have an impact on. And it demands that you assume responsibility for those things.

There are those who argue against self-sufficiency as if it’s the enemy of progress. And there’s an element of truth to this. Since we don’t all have to worry about harvesting our own food, sewing our own clothes, or building our own tools, we can get further up on the hierarchy needs. We can trade chores and focus on what we find meaning in. This is progress.

But I mean self-sufficiency less in terms of technology, and more in terms of the reliance on others for the internal quality of your life and your wellbeing. Assuming you’re healthy, the less reliant you are on others to provide the things that only you’re able to give yourself – meaning, virtue, character, integrity – the greater your capacity to give something back to the world.

And while it might fly in the face of progress, voluntary hardship is an important tool for self-sufficiency. Sometimes you have to do the work, suffer a little, and take the long way home. This is a training ground for your mind. It builds willpower and resilience.

“As wood is to the carpenter, bronze to the sculptor, so our own lives are the proper material in the art of living.” —Epictetus

Philosophy is about the art of living. By focusing on developing yourself first, you’re able to improve yourself as a human being. And in doing so, you increase your capacity to give and amplify the impact you’re able to have. But so many people want to give advice without first figuring out their own lives and accepting responsibility for themselves.

It’s easier to focus on other people’s problems – the latest gossip, family drama, or outrage featured in today’s news – rather than facing your own uncomfortable truths. Distractions are the crutch we use to avoid facing ourselves.

Self-sufficiency is about recognizing that life is a single player game. The only person you can change is you. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you start here you’re able to increase your capacity to make a difference in other people’s lives.

By becoming less dependent on others for your every need, you’re able to create more than you take. And you provide yourself with more opportunities to demonstrate virtues like wisdom, compassion, and courage.

There are obvious exceptions when it comes to the sick or elderly. But if you’re a provider for someone else and you fail to establish a degree of self-sufficiency, you’ll always have a self-imposed limit on what you’re able to provide. To make up for the discrepancy, you’re likely taking from other people in your life to help fuel that. And if you’re lucky, the world breaks even in the exchange.

Your capacity to give without expecting something in return is directly tied to your degree of self-sufficiency.

By requiring reciprocity for an act of kindness, you negate its impact. With a stronger sense of self-sufficiency, you eliminate the ego-driven need for anything in return. And this is how you flip the script and create a net positive in the world.

In the pursuit of self-sufficiency you increase your capacity to contribute in every other facet of your life. It’s foundational to giving more than you take. And that’s what the world needs. More people giving back to the world. More people taking risks to live at their best. More people with a deeper well of kindness for the people around them.

But it all starts with self-sufficiency. With this foundation in place, the rest of your virtues can grow without limit.

The question, then, is how to begin honing your own self-sufficiency. Here are five first steps to help push you in the right direction.

  1. Assign things their proper value

Self-sufficiency begins with identifying what’s within your control, what’s beyond, and what falls in-between. By going through this exercise, you can map out and assign things their proper value. What’s within your control should take precedence, in terms of both time and energy. After all, this is where you can have the largest measurable impact.

  1. Create room for reflection

This also requires creating room for reflection each day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a meditation practice in the morning, taking a walk after lunch, or journaling in the evening. What matters is that you create space to process and think for yourself. This helps guard you from being pulled into races that you’re not willing to run. 

As humans we’re highly impressionable. Opportunities for reflection will help you discover what’s meaningful to you and avoid absorbing someone else’s guiding principle as your own. And this is perhaps the most difficult skill of all – sorting through the noise and determining what’s your own.

  1. Practice voluntary hardship

In a world of mental hacks and shortcuts, there’s no substitute for discipline and resilience. To develop this, look for occasional opportunities to remove automation and assistance. These can act as barriers to your own abilities and your natural filter for priorities.

This might mean cooking tonight instead of ordering out or going for a run instead of watching another sporting event. The ability to embrace a little bit of discomfort goes a long way when it comes to self-sufficiency. If you want to create something meaningful and transform yourself, it rarely comes through the path of least resistance. 

  1. Master a multidisciplinary approach

As you push yourself, you create more opportunities to pursue a wealth of experience across disciplines and dial in a multidisciplinary strategy. This begins with fueling your natural curiosity, drawing connections between your wide-ranging interests, and exploring new ways to stack the skills that set you apart. 

From here you can assess things from new angles, identify your gaps, and survey the range of available options. It also guards you from false patterns and foolish attempts to apply a single model to every problem you face. If you only have a narrow range of mental models available when you negotiate the challenges inherent to life, self-sufficiency is impossible. You need multiple weapons if you want to outthink and outmaneuver obstacles.

  1. Embrace the silence

But self-sufficiency doesn’t mean you need to have an opinion about everything. It’s more about the ability to subsist without validation. If you’re focused on the right things, for the right reasons, you won’t need external recognition each step of the way. Everyday conversations are a good place to begin practicing this. 

Another way to practice this is when you experience something memorable – a landscape that humbles you or a concert that inspires you. Allow that to be enough. Avoid the temptation to reach for Instagram. Not everyone needs to know every minute detail of your life. The meaning you find in that moment is worth far more than the short-term high that comes from someone mindlessly scrolling through their feed and tapping your post.

“These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest…It succeeds in its own purpose…” —Marcus Aurelius

Self-sufficiency doesn’t mean you need to live off the grid. You can and should enjoy the conveniences of modern life. But you should also assume responsibility for your personal wellbeing.

Living well is about eliminating internal dependencies. No one can tell you what’s meaningful to you, what your guiding principles should be, or what the right decision is each step of the way. You have to determine this yourself.

If you want to make a measurable difference in the world, it starts with assuming responsibility for yourself. This is perhaps the most important lesson the Stoics had to offer. You can’t create anything meaningful without first taking responsibility and transforming yourself.

If you’re a well-rounded human being, you can give more back to the world and the people around you. It starts and ends with you.

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This is a guest post by Alex J. Hughes, who is a writer and product manager based in Nashville, TN. Join his newsletter to unlock a free copy of his latest ebook on strategy and thoughtful action.

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