“Most people don’t understand what Stoic is. They think that a Stoic wants to sort of be robust, no positive nor negative emotions, get rid of [their] attachment from the world…My definition is a Stoic Sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking. Someone who wanted the upside without the downside”
Ancient philosophy and creative work are rarely thought analogous. Maybe they should.
JK Rowling, the superstar author of Harry Potter is a fan of Marcus Aurelius. T-Pain, The 6X Platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning American R&B artist has recorded the “Stoic” mixtape as well as the “Stoicville” album. Anna Kendrick, the actress and singer, has found Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations as comforting and soothing.
Creative work of any kind—a book, a screenplay, a painting, an album, a business—really comes down to having something to say and a way to say it so people listen. As Ryan Holiday writes in Perennial Seller, “Anyone doing any kind of creative work is attempting to have impact and to survive.” It’s about making something new and hoping people will like it so you can keep doing it. The process can be lonely, intimidating, and filled with self-doubt. Stoicism is a tool ready to help.
As internationally bestselling author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss has put it, Stoic philosophy is “a simple and immensely practical set of rules for better results with less effort.”
Below are 9 Stoic exercises and strategies, pulled from The Daily Stoic, that will help you find the clarity, effectiveness, and tranquility to do your best work.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
- Find The Right Scene
- Rise And Shine
- Clarify Your Intentions
- Accurate Self-Assessment
- Fueling The Habit Bonfire
- A Work In Progress
- Seeking Out Shipwrecks
- Dealing With Haters
- Love The Humble Art
If you want to take a deeper dive into Stoicism and learn how to apply the philosophy to your life, check out our most popular course, Stoicism 101: Ancient Philosophy For Your Actual Life. It’s a 14-day course that will equip you with the tools to live as vibrant and expansive a life as the Stoics. Along with 14 daily emails, there will be 3 live video sessions with bestselling author Ryan Holiday, one of the world’s foremost thinkers and writers on ancient philosophy and its place in everyday life. Learn more here and make sure to register before the live cohort begins on March 22nd!
FIND THE RIGHT SCENE
“Above all, keep a close watch on this — that you are never so tied to your former acquaintances and friends that you are pulled down to their level. If you don’t, you’ll be ruined. … You must choose whether to be loved by these friends and remain the same person, or to become a better person at the cost of those friends…if you try to have it both ways you will neither make progress nor keep what you once had.”
— Epictetus, Discourses, 4.2.1; 4-5
“From good people you’ll learn good, but if you mingle with the bad you’ll destroy such soul as you had.”
—Musonius Rufus, Lectures, 11.53.21-22
The late motivational speaker and author Jim Rohn‘s widely quoted line is: “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” James Altucher advises young writers and entrepreneurs to find their “scene” — a group of peers who push them to be better. Your father might have given you a warning when you were caught spending time with some bad kids: “Remember, you become like your friends.” The philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s maxims captures it better: “Tell me with whom you consort and I will tell you who you are.”
And if these examples are not enough, here is a quote from Show Your Work by the poet and artist Austin Kleon, “If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of “a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.” Genius is an egosystem, scenius is an ecosystem, Kleon adds.
Consciously consider whom you allow into your life—not like some snobby elitist but like someone who is trying to cultivate the best life possible. Ask yourself about the people you meet and spend time with: Are they making me better? Do they encourage me to push forward and do they hold me accountable? Or do they drag me down to their level?
Now, with this in mind, ask the most important question: Should I spend more or less time with these folks? Remind yourself of one of author Nassim Taleb’s rules in life: “Avoid losers. If you hear someone use the words ‘impossible’, ‘never’, ‘too difficult’ too often, drop him or her from your social network.”
RISE AND SHINE
“On those mornings you struggle with getting up, keep this thought in mind—I am awakening to the work of a human being. Why then am I annoyed that I am going to do what I’m made for, the very things for which I was put into this world? Or was I made for this, to snuggle under the covers and keep warm? It’s so pleasurable. Were you then made for pleasure? In short, to be coddled or to exert yourself?”
Nobody likes Mondays so it’s comforting to think that even two thousand years ago the emperor of Rome (who was reportedly a bit of an insomniac) was giving himself a pep talk in order to summon up the willpower to throw the blankets off each morning and get out of bed. From the time we’re first sent off to school until we retire, we’re faced with that same struggle. It’d be nicer to shut our eyes and hit the snooze button a few more times. But we can’t.
Because we have a job to do. Not only do we have the calling we’ve dedicated ourselves to, but we have the larger cause that the Stoics speak about: the greater good. We cannot be of service to ourselves, to other people, or to the world unless we get up and get working—the earlier the better. So c’mon. Get in the shower, have your coffee, and get going.
CLARIFY YOUR INTENTIONS
“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, On Tranquility of Mind, 12.5
Law 29 ofThe 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 pretend otherwise—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. You have to know why you do what you do—what you prize and what’s important to you. Or you will be endlessly comparing yourself against other people, which will not only be a major distraction, it will make you miserable.
“Above all, it is necessary for a person to have a true self-estimate, for we commonly think we can do more than we really can.”
—Seneca, On Tranquility Of Mind, 5.2
Most people resist the idea of a true self-estimate, probably because they fear it might mean downgrading some of their beliefs about who they are and what they’re capable of. As Goethe‘s maxim goes, it is a great failing “to see yourself as more than you are.” How could you really be considered self-aware if you refuse to consider your weaknesses?
Don’t fear self-assessment because you’re worried you might have to admit some things about yourself. The second half of Goethe’s maxim is important too. He states that it is equally damaging to “value yourself at less than your true worth.” Is it not equally common to be surprised at how well we’re able to handle a previously feared scenario? The way that we’re able to put aside the grief for a loved one and care for others—though we always thought we’d be wrecked if something were to happen to our parents or a sibling. The way we’re able to rise to the occasion in a stressful situation or a life-changing opportunity.
We underestimate our capabilities just as much and just as dangerously as we overestimate other abilities. Cultivate the ability to judge yourself accurately and honestly. Look inward to discern what you’re capable of and what it will take to unlock that potential.
FUELING THE HABIT BONFIRE
“Every habit and capability is confirmed and grows in its corresponding actions, walking by walking, and running by running … therefore, if you want to do something make a habit of it, if you don’t want to do that, don’t, but make a habit of something else instead. The same principle is at work in our state of mind. When you get angry, you’ve not only experienced that evil, but you’ve also reinforced a bad habit, adding fuel to the fire.”
—Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.1-5
“We are what we repeatedly do,” Aristotle said, “therefore, excellence is not an act but a habit.” The Stoics add to that that we are a product of our thoughts (“Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind,” Marcus Aurelius put it).
Think about your activities of the last week as well as what you have planned for today and the week that follows. The person you’d like to be, or the person you see yourself as—how closely do your actions actually correspond to him or her? Which fire are you fueling? Which person are you becoming?
THE STOIC (LIKE THE CREATIVE) IS A WORK IN PROGRESS
Show me someone sick and happy, in danger and happy, dying and happy, exiled and happy, disgraced and happy. Show me! By God, how much I’d like to see a Stoic. But since you can’t show me someone that perfectly formed, at least show me someone actively forming themselves so, inclined in this way…Show me!
—Epictetus, Discourses, 2.19.24-25a, 28
Instead of seeing philosophy as an end to which one aspires, see it as something one applies. Not occasionally, but over the course of a life—making incremental progress along the way. Sustained execution, not shapeless epiphanies.
Epictetus loved to shake his students out of their smug satisfaction with their own progress. He wanted to remind them—and now you—of the constant work and serious training needed every day if we are ever to approach that perfect form.
It’s important for us to remember in our own journey to self-improvement: one never arrives. The sage—the perfect Stoic who behaves perfectly in every situation—is an ideal, not an end.
SEEKING OUT SHIPWRECKS
“I was shipwrecked before I even boarded … the journey showed me this—how much of what we have is unnecessary, and how easily we can decide to rid ourselves of these things whenever it’s necessary, never suffering the loss.”
—Seneca, Moral Letters, 87.1
“Whoever chafes at the conditions dealt by fate is unskilled in the art of life; whoever bears with nobly and makes wise use of the results is a man who deserves to be considered good.”
Creatives know that they’re always looking for inspiration and sources for their work. Robert Greene says that “it’s all material”—everything bad that happens, everything frustrating or delayed or disappointing — all of it can be fuel for the work. It can teach you something that helps you improve, it can become a story you pass along to a friend.everything that happens to us in life can be used in our work. Jerry Seinfeld: “I’m never not working on material. Every second of my existence, I am thinking, “What can I do with that?”
Zeno, widely considered to be the founder of the school of Stoicism, was a merchant before he was a philosopher. On a voyage between Phoenicia and Peiraeus, his ship sank along with its cargo. Zeno ended up in Athens, and while visiting a bookstore he was introduced to the philosophy of Socrates and, later, an Athenian philosopher named Crates. These influences drastically changed the course of his life, leading him to develop the thinking and principles that we now know as Stoicism. According to the ancient biographer Diogenes Laertius, Zeno joked, “Now that I’ve suffered shipwreck, I’m on a good journey,” or according to another account, “You’ve done well, Fortune, driving me thus to philosophy,” he reportedly said.
The Stoics weren’t being hypothetical when they said we ought to act with a reverse clause and that even the most unfortunate events can turn out to be for the best. The entire philosophy is founded on that idea!
DEALING WITH HATERS
“What if someone despises me? Let them see to it. But I will see to it that I won’t be found doing or saying anything contemptible. What if someone hates me? Let them see to that. But I will see to it that I’m kind and good-natured to all, and prepared to show even the hater where they went wrong. Not in a critical way, or to show off my patience, but genuinely and usefully.”
“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
— Epictetus, Discourses
When someone has a strong opinion about something, it usually says more about them than whatever or whomever the opinion happens to be about. This is especially true when it comes to resentment and hatred of other people. (It is a sad irony that the prejudiced often harbor secret attractions to those they so publicly hate.)
For this reason, the Stoic does two things when encountering hatred or ill opinion in others. They ask: Is this opinion inside my control? If there is a chance for influence or change, they take it. But if there isn’t they accept this person as they are (and never hate a hater). Our job is tough enough already. We don’t have time to think about what other people are thinking, even if it’s about us.
It was Tim Ferriss, elaborating on the Epictetus quote above, who said, “To do anything remotely interesting you need to train yourself to be effective at dealing with, responding to, even enjoying criticism… In fact, I would take the quote a step further and encourage people to actively pursue being thought foolish and stupid.”
LOVE THE HUMBLE ART
“Love the humble art you have learned, and take rest in it. Pass through the remainder of your days as one who whole-heartedly entrusts all possessions to the gods, making yourself neither a tyrant nor a slave to any person.”
Stop by a comedy club any weekend night in New York or Los Angeles and you’re likely to find some of the world’s biggest and most commercially successful comedians in there, workshopping their craft for just a handful of people. Though they make a fortune in movies or on the road, there they are, practicing the most basic form of their art.
If you ask any of them: “Why are you doing this? Why do you still perform?” The answer is usually: “Because I’m good at it. Because I love it. Because I want to get better. Because I thrive on connecting with an audience. Because I just can’t not do it.”
It’s not work for them to get up on stage at Carolines or the Comedy Cellar at 1 a.m. It’s invigorating. They don’t have to do it. They’re free, and they choose this.
Whatever humble art you practice: Are you sure you’re making time for it? Are you loving what you do enough to make the time? Can you trust that if you put in the effort, the rest will take care of itself? Because it will. Love the craft, be a craftsman.
PUTTING IT INTO ACTION
 Find The Right Scene — The Stoa Poikile which was located at the Ancient Agora of Athens is the famous porch that Stoicism was named after, where the founder of Stoicism, Zeno, and like-minded cohorts gathered each day to discuss philosophy and collaborate ideas for living good lives. Kleon again, “good work isn’t created in a vacuum.” What minds are you connecting with? Who’s in your scene?
 Rise And Shine — The creative doesn’t always have a boss over their shoulder, dictating when to be where. The work gets done because you make sure of it. When the alarm sounds, the snooze button shouldn’t even be a consideration. Get up, get to work.
 Clarify Your Intentions — What is getting you out of bed every morning? If you can’t answer that immediately, stop and take the time to figure it out. Viktor Frankl said that those who have a why can bear almost any how.
 Accurate Self-Assessment — Being delusional and shunning weaknesses might help stumble into fluke successes. Underestimating yourself isn’t sustainable either. Do the analysis. Ask others for their feedback. Know your strengths and be confident in them. Uncover your weaknesses so those can become an asset.
 Fuel The Habit Bonfire — Today shapes tomorrow. Regardless of how far along you are in your creative career, you’re either progressing, stagnant, or regressing. Identify the habits that are pushing you forward and keep adding fuel to those fires. Excellence is a habit.
 A Work In Progress — Hemingway said that we’re all apprentices in a field where no one is the master. Maintain that attitude even at your height of success. There’s always a new height, something new to learn. The corporate top of the ladder doesn’t exist. That’s why we chose this field.
 Seeking Out Shipwrecks — Jorge Luis Borges said whatever happens to the creator must be seen as a resource. Ryan Holiday said The Obstacle Is The Way. Everything is material. If a project flops, learn from it. Shipwrecked, evicted, or house burnt down–use it, turn it into good art.
 Dealing With Haters — Seneca said praise is just the clacking of tongues. That’s all the haters are. Know who’s tongues matter so you can call it feedback, and know who’s don’t so you can call it nonsense.
 Love The Humble Art — Remember why it started. Before compensation and recognition were in your lexicon, you just loved doing it. You loved the craft. You couldn’t not do it. In success and hardship, let that continue to be true.
These are some of the Stoic principles to help you to thrive in your craft. Now it’s on you to embrace and practice them. Begin by committing yourself to your discipline, set the high standards for yourself, work hard, focus only on what is in your control, always be a student.
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