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A Stoic Response to Bad News

A Stoic Response, Wisdom, and More

“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing, because an artful life requires being prepared to meet and withstand sudden and unexpected attacks.” Marcus Aurelius

Life can knock us on our ass, can’t it? Just out of nowhere, our legs are suddenly in the air and we’re on the ground. An email from your investors—they are pulling out. A phone call from your wife—your place has burned down. The specifics vary for each one of us but in a second, your whole life changes. How do you respond? How do you carry on?

Step 1) Get control of yourself.

We must steady our nerves and take hold of any extreme emotions (anger, fear, resentment).  Replace them with grace. The modern day Stoic and philosopher Nassim Taleb would write that in some moments we are only left with one solution: dignity in the face of the unthinkable. As he would advise, “Start stressing personal elegance at your next misfortune. Try not to blame others for your fate, even if they deserve blame. Never exhibit self-pity. Do not complain. The only article Lady Fortuna has no control over is your behavior.”

“The first qualification of a general is a cool head,” Napoleon once said. So too for the Stoic.

Step 2) Focus on what you’re going to do about the bad news.

What happened, happened. Now the question is, what are you going to do about it? The great astronaut Chris Hadfield would say, “I know that this is dangerous, but there are six things that I could do right now, all of which will help make things better. And it’s worth remembering, too, there’s no problem so bad that you can’t make it worse also.”

The Greeks had a word for this: apatheia. It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. Just say: No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic. I can’t afford to make it worse.

The student of Stoic philosophy learns many things but the first and the most important: Don’t make hard things harder by losing your cool.

Step 3) Look for some good in the situation.

Viktor Frankl, when he