You are currently viewing 12 (Stoic) Rules For Life: An Ancient Guide to the Good Life

12 (Stoic) Rules For Life: An Ancient Guide to the Good Life

Rule 1: Own the morning

“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work – as a human being…I’m going to do what I was born for…Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’” — Marcus Aurelius

One of the most relatable moments in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations is the argument Marcus Aurelius has with himself in the opening of book 5. It’s clearly an argument he’s had with himself many times, on many mornings—as have many of us: He knows he has to get out of bed, but so desperately wants to remain under the warm covers.

It’s relatable…but it’s also impressive. Marcus didn’t actually have to get out of bed. He didn’t really have to do anything. One of his predecessors, Tiberius, basically abandoned the throne for an exotic island. Marcus’s adopted great-grandfather Hadrian hardly spent any time in Rome at all. The emperor had all sorts of prerogatives, and here Marcus was insisting that he rise early and get to work.

Why? It’s because Marcus knew that winning the morning was key to winning the day and winning at life. He wouldn’t have heard the expression that “the early bird gets the worm,” but he was well aware that a day well-begun is half done. But it begs the question: what does winning the morning actually look like? What should one do after they wake up early? From the Stoics, we glean 3 habits that make the morning a success: Journal. Take a walk. Do deep work. Let’s look at each of those individually:

The Stoics were big fans of journaling (if you’re a Daily Stoic subscriber, you’ve definitely heard us say that in an email or two). Epictetus the slave. Marcus Aurelius the emperor. Seneca the power broker and playwright. These three radically different men led radically different lives. But journaling—they all had that habit in common. Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations consists of a collection of personal self-help notes, which he never intended to see the light of day.  And Epictetus encouraged his students to write down their thoughts and reflect upon their actions everyday. The Stoic “keeps watch over himself as over an enemy lying in ambush,” he said.

More recently, Oscar Wilde, Susan Sontag, W.H. Auden, Queen Victoria, John Quincy Adams, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, John Steinbeck, Sylvia Plath, Mary Chestnut, Brian Koppelman, Anaïs Nin, Franz Kafka, Martina Navratilova, Ben Franklin, and we’ll stop there—all journalers. And for good reason—it works. There are few habits as time-tested and researched-backed as journaling. It clarifies the mind, provides room for quiet, private reflection, it gives one a record of their thoughts over time, it prepares you for the day ahead. There is no better way to start the day than with a journal.

The Stoics sought stillness. It is with a still mind that one does their best work. The paradox is that perhaps the single best way to still one’s mind is to put the body in motion. Runners and cyclists will tell you that this is true like an equation is true. That it is a fact. But you don’t even have to go that far, or that hard, with your physical exertion to get what the Stoics were after. “We should take wandering outdoor walks,” Seneca said, “so that the mind might be nourished and refreshed.” Take a walk in the parking lot before you head into the office. Take a walk around the neighborhood. Take a walk to the local coffee shop and back. By the time you’re done, you’ll be in the perfect headspace to…

“Concentrate on what’s in front of you like a Roman,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Do it like it’s the last and most important thing in your life.” From his stepfather, Antoninus, Marcus learned how to work long hours—how to stay in the saddle. He writes in Meditations that he admired how Antoninus even scheduled his bathroom breaks so he could work for long, uninterrupted periods. Ryan Holiday talks about how he does two to three hours of deep work first thing when he gets to his office. James Clear, author of the wonderful bestseller Atomic Habits, told us on the Daily Stoic podcast that he carves out “two sacred hours” in the morning to do his writing. That’s it. “I know it probably doesn’t seem like a lot,” Holiday explains, “but the Stoics knew that good work is realized by small steps. It’s not a small thing, but good work is created in small steps.”

The day so easily gets away from us. Well-intentioned plans fall apart. Our willpower evaporates. So it’s key that we prioritize the important things and it’s key that we habitualize doing them early.

Well-begun is half won. So get started.

Put it into practice: Commit to waking up tomorrow 30 minutes earlier than you usually do. Decide what you are going to do with that extra 30 minutes (i.e. read, journal, exercise, meditate, etc.)

Rule 2: Only focus on what’s in your control

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control…” — Epictetus

The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not.

What does this look like in practice?

Sports are a good example. An athlete can’t control if the other team cheats or that refs always get the calls right. They can’t control if people in the media know what they are talking about or if they stake out positions just to be controversial or contrarian. They can’t control the weather or the conditions on the field.

So what does that leave? One thing: their own performance. As Marcus Aurelius would say, it doesn’t matter what other people say or think, it only matters what you do.

You control how you play.

Not whether you win.

You control how you play.

Not if people respect you. 

You control how you play.

Not if the crowd cheers you on. 

You control how you play.

Focus on what’s in your control. Nothing else.

Put it into practice: Think for 5 minutes about your current problems and separate them into two categories: 1) what is in your control and 2) what is out of your control. Now only focus on what’s in your control. 

Rule 3: Don’t suffer imagined troubles

“We suffer more from imagination than from reality.” — Seneca

What are you worried about right now?

Your job?

Your family?

Your future?

Your health?

You’re not crazy to worry. Bad things could happen related to any of them. A car accident. An economic downturn. A surprise diagnosis.

But let’s go backwards in time: a month, a year, five years ago. What were you worried about then? Mostly the same things, right?

And how many of those worries came to pass? As Mark Twain quipped, quip: “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened.”

And even the ones that did come to pass…clearly the worrying didn’t help stop it, right?

It was Seneca who put the best one-liner to this feeling: “We are more often frightened than hurt; and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.”

So “what I advise you to do is,” Seneca continued, “do not be unhappy before the crisis comes…We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.” Don’t anticipate sorrow. Don’t let anxiety and worry get the best of you. Don’t let your worries grow out of proportion to what might actually happen. Don’t let imagination overtake reality.

Put it into practice: Next time you are feeling stressed or anxious, remind yourself: “Stay in the present. Focus on what you can control.”

Rule 4: Treat success and failure the same

“To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius had an interesting metaphor.

He believed that a man, an emperor, a soldier—everyone—was like a rock. Throw the rock up in the air, he said, and “it loses nothing by coming down and gained nothing by going up.” The rock stays the same.

We can imagine his own life mirror this analogy. He was an ordinary man plucked by Hadrian to become emperor. Yet he could have been equally dethroned at any moment as well (and late in his reign nearly was). Did this change who Marcus was? Did it mean he was better or worse than other people?

No. He was still the same rock. And so are you. Whether you have a day that begins with a promotion or ends with a firing, you’re the same. Whether you win the lottery or file for bankruptcy. Whether you address a crowd of thousands or have trouble getting your calls returned. The question is how we’re going to respond to these swings of fate, if we can follow the lines of Kipling’s classic poem, “If—”:

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

You’re the same. Success or failure, highs and lows, they don’t change you. They are outside you. These are indifferents. You stay the same.

Put it into practice: Greet anything and everything that life throws at you today—the highs and the lows—the same way. 

Rule 5: Just do one thing every day

“Well-being is attained by little and little, and nevertheless is no little thing itself.” — Zeno

Seneca wrote a lot of letters to his friend Lucilius. We don’t know a lot about Lucilius, only that he was from Pompeii, he was a Roman knight, he was the imperial procurator in Sicily then its Governor, he owned a country villa in Ardea. For all his success though, we get the sense that he struggled with many of the things we all struggle with: Anxiety. Distraction. Fear. Temptation. Self-discipline.

So it’s good that he had a friend like Seneca, someone who cared about him, told him the truth, and gave him advice. One of the best pieces of advice from Seneca was actually pretty simple. “Each day,” he told Lucilius, you should “acquire something that will fortify you against poverty, against death, indeed against other misfortunes, as well.”

One gain per day. That’s it.

This is the way to curbing our procrastinating tendencies: remembering that incremental, consistent, humble, persistent work is the way to improvement. Your business, your book, your career, your body—it doesn’t matter—you build them with little things, day after day.

Arnold Schwarzenegger is a filmmaker, entrepreneur, author, former Governor, professional bodybuilder, and father of five. He’s also a fan of the Stoics and said in a video to people trying to stay strong and sane during the pandemic: “Just as long as you do something every day, that is the important thing.”

Whether it’s from Seneca or Arnold, good advice is good advice and truth is truth. One thing a day adds up. One step at a time is all it takes. You just gotta get one small win. And the sooner you start, the better you’ll feel…and be.

Put it into practice: Pick a project you are either currently working on or wanting to get started. What is the smallest step you can take to move that project forward? Go complete that step!

Rule 6: Make beautiful choices

“If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” –Epictetus

Epictetus said that the root of beauty was beautiful choices.

He was talking less of physical beauty, one imagines, than of true beautiful human behavior, but actually, it applies to both.

A stunning woman whose looks are the result of her vanity and self-obsession will be rather unattractive when you get to know her. A man with strapping muscles acquired through steroids and a neglect of all other concerns is not really that impressive.

Beauty, then, is difficult to separate from the intention, the choices which create it.

So if you’d like to look better, that gives you a good place to start—in your choices but also in your motivations and intentions. It’s the decision to get out of bed early and go for a run… so you can be around to see your children grow up, not so you can look good in the mirror. Do your makeup because it gives you confidence, because the ritual of applying it is some quiet time to yourself… not to cover up your flaws. Hire a trainer because you want to learn the discipline of weightlifting or boxing… not because you just want someone to tell you what to do.

Remember: The Stoics tried to separate what was up to us and what wasn’t.

Things can get between you and your goal, of course, but nothing can stop you from getting started. Nothing can stop you from making a beautiful choice for yourself today.

Put it into practice: Every time you are faced with a choice today—between walking the 15 minutes or taking an Uber, between picking up the phone to have the difficult conversation or leaving it to an email, between taking responsibility or hoping it goes unnoticed—choose the more difficult option, the option that challenges you the most.

Rule 7: Constantly ask, “is this necessary?”

“Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” — Marcus Aurelius

Now, unlike any other moment in recent memory, we are being forced to reevaluate things. We’re looking at our jobs, at our finances, at the places we live. We’re looking at so many of the systems that have been set up, whether they’re governmental or cultural or familial. We’re having to ask questions about why they are what they are, how they’ve held up under the immense pressure and stress of this global pandemic.

You can imagine Marcus Aurelius doing a bit of this himself. He too experienced a plague, and was forced to spend years far from Rome with the army. There, in his tent, he sat with his journal—the pages that would become Meditations—and he had a conversation with himself.

One of the best passages survives to us and is worth applying to our own lives right now under similar stress and uncertainty:

“Most of what we say and do is not essential,” he writes. “If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”

There has never been a better time to go through your life and ask yourself about all the things you do and say and think, “Is this necessary?” “Is this essential?” “Why am I doing this?” “What would happen if I changed?”

These are the questions to ask yourself, every day, every moment.

How much or how little you work. Where you live. What your marriage or your relationships look like. The political policies you support. What you spend money on. What your goals are. The way your schedule is arranged. The things taking up room in your junk drawer…or the thoughts running through your head.

Most of what we do is not essential. Most of it is instinctual or it was foisted on us by someone else. Most of it isn’t actually working for us. We might be better and happier if we changed.

So remember Marcus’s advice: “If you seek tranquility, do less.”

Put it into practice: Take out a piece of paper and make two columns. On the left side, list out all of the things that are swirling in your mind and competing for your time and attention. On the right side, write “it is necessary” or “it isn’t necessary” next to each item on the list. Then, cross out all the unnecessary items on the page and in your life. 

Rule 8: Love your fate

“Do not seek to have events happen as you want them but instead want them to happen and your life will go well.” — Epictetus

The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would describe his formula for human greatness as amor fati—a love of fate. “That one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backwards, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it….but love it.”

The Stoics were not only familiar with this attitude but they embraced it. Two thousand years earlier, Marcus Aurelius would say: “A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.”

Stuff goes wrong. It’s a fact of life. As Seneca said, Fortune behaves just as she pleases. His own life was proof of that. A health flare up disrupted his career. An emperor exiled him. He clawed his way back…only to have it happen again.

Nearly all of this was out of Seneca’s control. The only part that was up to him was how he chose to see these events, and what he chose to do with them. He chose to see them as a good thing. He chose to use them. He chose to dye these events with his own color.

Jocko Willink, in his famous viral speech, explains how we do this, how we can see everything that happens to us as good.

Oh, the mission got canceled? Good… We can focus on another one.

Didn’t get the new high-speed gear we wanted? Good… We can keep it simple.

Didn’t get promoted? Good… More time to get better.

Didn’t get funded? Good… We own more of the company.

Didn’t get the job you wanted? Good… Go out, gain more experience, and build a better resume.

Got injured? Good… Needed a break from training.

Got tapped out? Good… It’s better to tap out in training than tap out on the street.

Got beat? Good… We learned.

Unexpected problems? Good… We have to figure out solutions.

This is a Stoic prescription. This is the Stoic prescription. It’s also the prescription for leadership, for entrepreneurship, for resiliency.

Life throws stuff at you. You are the one who decides to lay down and let it bury you or to make hay out of it. You are the one who decides whether to bury your head in the sand and hope it goes away, or to look it square in the eye—as bad as it is—and say Good.

These are your choices. And choosing rightly, choosing to see the bad things as ultimately good, is all you can do. It’s what you must do. Because people are depending on you. Because you believe in your ability to make it good. Because you have but one life to live.

Put it into practice: Today, whenever something ‘bad’ happens, respond to it with, “Good.” And then see how you can turn it into a positive. 

Rule 9: Speak with the dead

The founder of Stoicism Zeno was a young man when he was given a cryptic piece of advice. “To live the best life,” the Oracle told Zeno, “you should have conversations with the dead.”

What does that mean? Like with ghosts and goblins? Go spend time chatting in a cemetery?

No, of course not. The Oracle was talking about reading. Because it’s through books that we really talk to people who are no longer with us. Their bodies may be rotting in the ground, or long since turned to dust, but in the pages of a book, they are alive and well.

Harry Truman was one of the greatest readers to ever occupy the White House. As a friend observed, to Harry “history was the men who made it, and he spoke of Marcus Aurelius or Henry of Navarre or old Tom Jefferson or old Andy Jackson as if they were friends and neighbors with whom he had only recently discussed the affairs of the day, their day.”

When Truman said that “not all readers are leaders but all leaders are readers,” we felt like he was talking to us. We built our Daily Stoic Read to Lead Challenge around that piece of advice from him, as if he was still here, not dead for nearly fifty years. That’s the beauty and the power of books—they can bring the past to life, they can annex, as Seneca said, all ages into your own.

You can put yourself in the same room as Lincoln. You can chat with Shakespeare. You can be inspired by Porcia Cato. To do this isn’t scary, in fact it’s the opposite. It’s incredibly reassuring, because it means you have permanent access to the wisest men and women who ever lived.

It’s also an incredible opportunity to learn. To ask questions. To be taught. If there is anything at all scary about this, it’s that millions of people decline to do this every day, day after day, for the balance of their natural lives. They reject this superpower. They decide to be illiterate. They ignore the dead, choosing to listen to the chattering voices on their television and their Twitter feed.

Be smart, be brave, talk to the dead.

Put it into practice: Read for thirty minutes today and everyday.

Rule 10: Be tough on yourself and understanding to others

“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” — Marcus Aurelius

Cato hated excess. He hated finery. He hated luxury. He thought to indulge such things was weakness and stupidity. And so what did Cato think of his brother who was far less strict about these things? He loved him. In fact, he worshiped him.

It’s important to remember: The Stoic has strict standards. We have strong opinions on what’s right and what isn’t. But…and this is a big but…we have to be understanding and forgiving of those who have been, as Marcus Aurelius writes, cut off from truth. This observation from Marcus Aurelius’s most thoughtful biography, by Ernest Renan, explains the right way to do it:

“The consequence of austere philosophy might have produced stiffness and severity. But here it was that the rare goodness of the nature of Marcus Aurelius shone out in all its brilliancy. His severity was confined only to himself.”

That’s exactly the key. Your standards are for you.

Marcus’s rule was to be strict with yourself and tolerant with others. That’s the line that Cato walked with his brother. That’s what we have to figure out with the folks who, in today’s world, live in a very un-Stoic way.

There are consequences for their actions of course (especially when those actions or choices are unjust) but we don’t need to cast them out of our lives or write them off as worthless or awful. We can still engage with them. We can see them at Christmas. We can let them into our lives in a way that is safe or respectful to our boundaries. We can accept that people can see things in a different way and let them live as they wish (again, so long as those choices aren’t hurting other people).

We can, to borrow an old expression, hate the sin while still loving the sinner. Because what they do, how they aect is not up to us. The good we choose to still see in them? That’s in our control.

Put it into practice: Next time you find yourself feeling disappointed with someone or on the verge of judging someone, stop yourself and instead, look for the good in them.

Rule 11: Turn obstacles upside down

“Our inward power, when it obeys nature, reacts to events by accommodating itself to what it faces—to what is possible. It needs no specific material. It pursues its own aims as circumstances allow; it turns obstacles into fuel. As a fire overwhelms what would have quenched a lamp. What’s thrown on top of the conflagration is absorbed, consumed by it—and makes it burn still higher.” — Marcus Aurelius

One way to go through life is to turn away from the things that are hard. You can close your eyes and ears to what is unpleasant. You can take the easy way, forgoing difficulty whenever possible. The other way is the Stoic way—it entails not only not avoiding hardship, but actively seeking it out.

In the novel Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian write to young Marcus Aurelius about his philosophy for learning and benefiting from all of life’s adversity and unpleasantness. “Whenever an object repelled me,” he says, “I made it a subject of study, ingeniously compelling myself to extract from it a motive for enjoyment. If faced with something unforeseen or near cause for despair, like an ambush or a storm at sea, after all measures for the safety of others had been taken, I strove to welcome this hazard, to rejoice in whatever it brought me of the new and unexpected, and thus without shock the ambush or the tempest was incorporated into my plans, or my thoughts. Even in the throes of my worst disaster, I have seen a moment when sheer exhaustion reduced some part of the horror of the experience, and when I made the defeat a thing of my own in being willing to accept it.”

Of course, this is fiction so Hadrian never said such a thing. But clearly somebody taught Marcus a lesson along those lines, because Meditations is filled with similar passages. Marcus writes about how a fire turns everything that is thrown into it into flame. He says that obstacles are actually fuel. “The impediment to action advances action,” he writes, “what stands in the way becomes the way.”

It’s a beautiful way to approach the world—and ultimately, the only one suited for our unpredictable and stressful times. Take someone like Laura Ingalls Wilder, who had a hardscrabble existence. From the Kansas prairies to the backwoods of Florida, she and her family eked out a life from some of the most unforgiving environments on the planet. She endured—and eventually thrived—despite this, due primarily to her Stoic optimism. “There is good in everything,” she later wrote, “if only we look for it.”

To avoid difficulty would mean complete retreat from life. It would mean hiding in ignorance. Worse, this would make you dreadfully vulnerable to crisis if it did ever find you. Instead, we must strive—as Hadrian said—to welcome hazard. We can rejoice in the unexpected and even turn failure into something by deciding to own it. We can learn from unpleasantness and even soften our aversions.

This will not be easy. But that’s fitting, isn’t it? We are not naturally attracted to obstacles…which is precisely why we must work on finding out how to like them. This is the way.

Put it into practice: Face today in the spirit of Laura Ingalls Wilder—look for the good in everything.

Rule 12: Remember: you are dying every day

“This is our big mistake: to think we look forward toward death. Most of death is already gone. Whatever time has passed is owned by death.” — Seneca

It’s easy to see death as this thing that lies off in the distant future. Even those of us who choose not to live in denial of our mortality can be guilty of this. We think of dying as an event that happens to us. It’s stationary—whatever date it will happen at—and we’re moving towards it, slowly or quickly, depending on our age and health.

Seneca felt that this was the wrong way to think about it, that it was a mistaken view that enabled many bad habits and much bad living. Instead, he said, death was a process—it was happening to us right now. We are dying every day, he said. Even as you read this email, time is passing that you will never get back. That time, he said, belongs to death.

Powerful, right? Death doesn’t lie off in the distance. It’s with us right now. It’s the second hand on the clock. It’s the setting sun. As the arrow of time moves, death follows, claiming every moment that has passed. What ought we do about it? The answer is live. Live while you can. Put nothing off. Leave nothing unfinished. Seize it while it still belongs to us.

Put it into practice: Spend five minutes meditation on your mortality, on how brief your existence is. Then, as Marcus Aurelius would say, let the thought of your mortality determine everything you do and say and think.

 

Leave a Reply