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 for the Conversations with Tyler podcast:
“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.
A Stoic triumphs over themselves, over their own limitations, and in this—even if the margin is small—is the most important victory of all.
P.S. This was originally sent on April 19, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.