How Stoicism can help us to make the most of every day
My wife and I usually check in during the working day with a text message. The exchange would typically go something like this:
Me: “How’s your day? xxx”
Her: “Terrible — So much to do, too little time. Wish I didn’t have to be here xxx”
Me: “Same xxx”
And so we move on with our days, each feeling a little more miserable for having affirmed our individual dissatisfaction with our working lives.
I wonder how many others operate under similar conditions, daily?
Over the 20 or so years in work I’ve carved out a career that by many measures might be labelled successful. Of late I’ve found it wanting. Certainly, I’ve achieved status and responsibility. I’ve progressively earned more money and been entrusted with bigger and more challenging projects. I believe I’m respected and valued by the clients that take me on.
What’s lacking is a sense of meaning and significance.
There’s little scope for creativity and for making a difference in the lives of others; my work is usually measured by its financial impacts to the clients’ bottom line rather than the impact it has on other people’s lives.
For these reasons and recognising that we only get one shot at life, I set out to achieve more in my life.
There was an unfortunate side-effect of doing this; it made me dislike my day-job all the more. I came to resent it, to find it annoying and felt begrudging about any effort and time I had to apply to it. Instead of being grateful that my day-job was supporting me and my family, I felt like it prevented me from doing something more meaningful and significant.
No matter how much I recognised the stupidity of the mind-set that I’d adopted, I couldn’t break free from it. That was until I discovered and began to embrace the principles and practices associated with the philosophy of Stoicism.
“It is not what happens to you that matters, but how you react to it” - Epictetus
The basics of being a Stoic
Stoicism can help those who are struggling with the adversity, chaos and uncertainty that afflicts us all from time-to-time. It’s helped me to adopt a different viewpoint towards this chaos that exists in daily life.
At some point in the last few months I must have read, absorbed and understood enough Stoic wisdom to have truly appreciated that I was the main blockage in feeling satisfaction in my current life. I realised that I was voluntarily forsaking pleasure, satisfaction and enjoyment from my daily working life until some point in the future, while simultaneously poisoning my own mind through my attitude to the present.
I was the person choosing to hate my work and feeling miserable about it.
“You could be good today, but instead you choose tomorrow” - Marcus Aurelius
I realised that the above quote from Stoic-heavyweight and former Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, was a perfect strap-line for my life. I was mortgaging my current peace-of-mind, personal contentedness and satisfaction taken from my work by focusing on some unknown point in the future when work would suddenly be rewarding, free of annoyances and frustrations. Life would be happy and fulfilling as a result.
This was something that I had no choice but to overturn if things were to improve. In attempting to bring about this change of mind and seeing its effects in my life, I’ve once again found great wisdom and guidance in the words of Stoics past.
You will not love everything about every day — accept it
“Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness — all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.” - Marcus Aurelius
It’s unrealistic to expect every day to be rich with satisfaction and calm, or free from annoyance and interference. Whether you’re pursuing your passion through your work, or stuck in job that you really, genuinely dislike, everyone has bad days.
Our boss will drop a last-minute, urgent task upon us, a co-worker will let us down and an irrational customer will complain endlessly. These things happen and they are part of daily life. They’re not guided at us with malice or intent to disrupt our day. Indeed, as Marcus Aurelius points out, the “offender” is likely to be ignorant of the effects of their actions upon us.
Bad things and bad days happen. You can choose to let this shape your world view and your daily experience or you can embrace it as reality, accept the good times and ride-out the bad.
If a job's worth doing, it’s worth doing well
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” - Marcus Aurelius
An unfortunate side-effect of being focussed on side projects at the expense of the day job was feeling that I had a right to give a half-hearted effort to the work that actually paid the bills. I was deluded to thinking that because my interest in it had diminished, I had only to do the bare-minimum to keep it ticking over. My interest and efforts were reserved for the creative work.
How wrong could I be?
I’ve no right or cause to think that I should be giving anything other than my full effort and attention to each action I take and every task that I do. To consider what a “good man” (or woman) would do, is to bring ourselves back to the obvious conclusion; the right thing in every instance is to give it your full efforts and attention and to do your best.
The debate over what a “good man” is, should also be broadened to considering what a “good life” looks like. We all know deep down what a good life is, and instead of trying to twist and shape our environment around us to bring it about, we’d all do better to think about what we can actually do to manifest it.
I’ve often laboured to my kids the need to do each and every job with all their heart and to the best of their abilities. A miserable and disgruntled checkout assistant in a supermarket who flings the groceries down after scanning them, has often provided a useful case study to discuss.
That person may be having a bad day, but they could choose to do their job with a cheery demeanour and to the best of their ability rather than begrudgingly and with resentment nonetheless. In turn they might feel better about themselves and in turn feel better about how they earn their living. It’d also enrich the customer’s life too.
Instead, through doing a miserable job badly, they’re simply keeping themselves down and reinforcing in their own minds their perceived unhappiness in the job.
Put simply - Do your best and you'll likely feel better about yourself, your job and life.
Time is limited
“Your days are numbered. Use them to throw open the windows of your soul to the sun. If you do not, the sun will soon set, and you with it.” -Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is underpinned with a stark but accurate fact - all our days are numbered and our lives will ultimately end. Yet, the way in which many of us live would suggest that few keep this in mind.
Tim Ferriss has referred to a “deferred life plan” that is typical of how many people live their lives. They work at a job they hate for 40 or so years, saving money to fund a retirement when they hope they’ll still be in possession of sufficient health and vitality to enjoy a few years of leisure before they meet their maker.
Nobody in this world has any real certainty that today won’t be their last. This shouldn’t signal in us a desire to live hedonistically, carelessly or as though we don’t care about the consequences of our actions or decisions. There is a balance to be struck though. In deferring enjoyment and satisfaction from my daily work to the notional and unknown point in the future when I might be able to do something different, was foolish to say the least.
There will still be bad days where someone else’s priorities end up directing our efforts and prioritising our work. Certainly, there’ll be the annoyances, offence, disagreements and the dissatisfaction that come from trying to do our job in the uncontrolled and random world. We still have the choice over how we react - with disappointment and anger, or an acceptance that we cannot change it!
Taken as a whole, that seems a much more functional and positive way to live.
“If you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you’re needing is not to be in a different place but to be a different person.” - Seneca