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The Question To Ask When You Mess Up

Daily Stoic Emails

Look, we all mess up. We take certain people or clients for granted and a relationship deteriorates. We get distracted and make an unnecessary mistake. We are overwhelmed by a passion or a temper and do something bad.

We’re humans. It happens. 

What follows are consequences. The client leaves us. The mistake costs money to repair. An apology turns out to be insufficient. 

And what follows consequences is often regret, and sometimes shame. Or, if we are less self-aware, anger and blame. We mope. We whine. We wish things were otherwise, we wish we weren’t such pieces of shit. If only we had just…

This sort of self-flagellation is not what Stoicism is about. It’s backward looking–the worst, most purposeless kind of personal evaluation. Instead, when we mess up, and when we come face to face with the consequences of our actions, we must ask: What can I learn from this? 

Literally, we can ask that to the client who is leaving us (What can I do better next time? What warning signs did I miss?). We can look at our habits and study where we got distracted and made that boneheaded mistake. We can look at the payoff we got from that passionate indulgence and examine whether it was worth the costs. And in so doing, we can learn from the past, without reliving it on a loop.

One way to look at Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is that it is a book of calm, firm admonishments to himself after messing up. He was cruel to someone, and so the next morning he wrote about controlling his anger. He’d been wasting time recently, and so he wrote about the shortness of life. The examples are endless. He even hints at this in one of his best liners–where he says that we should look at every action and ask, “Why are they doing that?” 

And who does Marcus say we should start with? With ourselves.

It’s inevitable that you will do wrong. You may even mess something up five minutes after reading this email. What matters, at least to the Stoics, is not the mistakes—particularly simple errors that are a fact of life–but what we do about them. What matters is what lessons emerge from the missteps, and how we improve because of them. How we fix or make up for them.

Because that’s all we can do. 

P.S. This was originally sent on January 20,  2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.