Unfortunately, many people have forgotten how to find personal fulfilment in their careers and lives. This is because we need to remember the importance of serving others. Although the connection between finding personal fulfilment and serving others may seem strange, a lesson from an ancient school of philosophy can help clarify this.
Stoicism and the Success of the Roman Empire
The Roman Empire was a monumental achievement of civilisation. Throughout its history, it spanned around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, North Africa and West Asia. It survived for over five centuries and provided the context for innumerable innovations in all areas of human life. The difference between the Roman Empire and the barbaric tribes that populated the rest of Europe at the time was stark. The Romans were civilised; the rest of Europe were savages, point of fact.
When contemplating the success of the Roman Empire, it is essential to consider its intellectual landscape and the intellectual landscape in the times preceding its rise. The Roman Empire arose out of a context of philosophical and intellectual flourishing. So, in and around what is today Greece, Italy and Turkey, with the City of Athens as a focal point, thinkers of historic calibre succeeded in dramatically impacting the societies of the time.
Philosophy in Ancient Greece and Rome
The most famous of these figures are Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Plato, a student of Socrates, is most famous for starting what many think is the first university: an institution called the Academy. For his part, Aristotle famously was a student of Plato and served as the tutor of Alexander the Great.
These great thinkers, particularly Socrates, inspired many thinkers through numerous generations. One of those was a guy called Zeno, who, trying to capture his understanding of the Socratic way of life in doctrine, developed Stoicism as a school of thought. Stoicism as a School of thought and other dominant philosophical schools profoundly impacted Hellenistic society. Stoicism became dominant as a philosophical school and profoundly shaped the social fabric of the Roman Empire. More importantly, Stoicism shaped the nobility of the Roman Empire, improving the moral and ethical fibre of the Roman nobility.
The Stoics and Your Fulfilment
The Stoic views on ethics are particularly interesting to us. Like all the Hellenistic schools, the Stoics were eudaemonists. This means that happiness personal fulfilment, was, for the Stoics, the most crucial part of ethics. The Stoics set up ethical deliberation as investigating what makes a human life suitable and what makes a person happy.
The Stoics are notorious for what they had to say about happiness. Much to the confusion of the modern audience, the Stoics believed that virtue and happiness were identical. According to the Stoics, virtue is the only truly good thing (prudentially) for a human being. Virtue is the only thing that will make your life better. Everything else we associate with happiness, the so-called external goods, like wealth, reputation, and health, were considered indifferent. Indifferent in the sense that they are neither good nor bad; they have no real value. The only bad thing is vice.
In this way, the Stoics argued that being happy and excellent are the same.
What does “Being Excellent” Mean for the Stoics?
But, if I tell you that being happy and being excellent is the same thing, it is essential to understand what being excellent is. At a foundational level, the Stoics understand virtue as “being reasoned in all you do”.
This has been described in different ways by different Stoics. Zeno, the school’s founder, said that happiness is “living in agreement with nature”. Another notable Stoic, Diogenes, declares that happiness is ” acting with good reason in selecting what is natural”. Archedemus, another Stoic, said it is “to live in the performance of all befitting actions”.
The Stoics saw all these descriptions of happiness as synonymous with each other. They were all trying to talk about the same thing, each in their way.
Understanding the Stoics in the 21st Century
Unfortunately, people struggle to understand what the Stoics meant and why their ideas were so powerful. That is not surprising, though, because these statements challenge our routine thought patterns. But what exactly did Zeno mean when he said that virtue is “living in agreement with nature”? And why should we believe this is the only good thing for us?
As to the first question, you must remember that “living in agreement with nature”, for the Stoics, meant doing what is appropriate in the moment that you are in. They argued that human beings can determine, with their reason, the appropriate course of action, given the way things are. The virtuous person recognises and acts according to that understanding in every situation that they are in.
But what sets the virtuous person apart is that he does what is appropriate because he believes it to be appropriate. He does the right thing because it is the right thing to do. And this is what the Stoics took to be happiness; living a life where you always do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
The Stoics on How to Find Personal Fulfilment
We can reasonably ask, however, why we should believe that doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do is the same thing as happiness.
There are very good reasons for thinking that this is true. We can most easily make sense of this idea when we distinguish outcome and process. Ordinarily, we associate our personal fulfilment with things that are the outcomes of our actions. Our fulfilment is in the health we get after exercising. Likewise, it is in the financial stability we get after succeeding in our careers. It is in the respect people show us after working hard to earn their respect.
Unfortunately, your fulfilment does not happen when you get these things; it happens on the way to getting them, in the day-by-day living of your life. You will never be fulfilled when you have these things if you are not fulfilled whilst working on getting them.
This is firstly because we can never actually possess any of these things. If you think that health will fulfil you, you will never be healthy enough to stop worrying about your health. The threat of disease is always there. If you think riches will fulfil you, you will never be rich enough to stop worrying about your wealth. Your fortune, big or small, will always be under threat. Often, the richest are the most worried about their wealth. Naturally, they have more of it to worry about.
How to Find Personal Fulfilment? Focus on Process
Naturally, human beings are inclined towards the pursuit of specific outcomes. Naturally, we prefer to have wealth because it facilitates our endeavours. We naturally want a connection with others because we are social beings. Similarly, we are naturally inclined to preserve our health because our first impulse is towards self-preservation.
But fulfilment doesn’t come from getting them. It happens on the way to getting them. You will achieve personal fulfilment but cannot possess the outcome. When the Stoics tell us to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do, they are essentially telling us to live our lives to live well.
This is the true origin of fulfilment: doing something to do it well. This is why we take up hobbies. We all have those things we do for the sake of doing them well. Some grow vegetables, and others play football. Whatever you do, the same fundamental principles apply – doing a thing well fulfils us.
Timeless Wisdom for the Modern World: The Continuing Relevance of Stoicism
Stoic philosophy remains highly relevant in today’s fast-paced and technology-driven world, offering valuable insights and principles for modern workplaces and lifestyles.
Here are some key ways in which Stoicism applies to the challenges of contemporary life:
Managing Stress and Anxiety
- Stoic Principle: Stoicism teaches individuals to focus on what is within their control and accept what is not. This attitude can help reduce stress and anxiety by letting people let go of concerns over things beyond their control, such as global events or the actions of others.
- Application: In a world filled with constant news updates and information overload, Stoicism can help individuals maintain a sense of inner calm by recognising that they cannot control every external factor. This mindset can be especially beneficial in high-stress workplaces.
Resilience in the Face of Change
- Stoic Principle: Stoicism emphasises the importance of adapting to change and adversity with resilience. The Stoics believed that challenges are growth opportunities.
- Application: In today’s rapidly evolving work environments, where technological advancements and industry disruptions are expected, Stoic principles can help individuals embrace change and see it as a chance for personal and professional development.
- Stoic Principle: Stoicism strongly emphasises ethical behaviour and virtuous living. It encourages individuals to decide based on reason and morality rather than external pressures or desires.
- Application: In a world where ethical dilemmas and complex moral choices are commonplace, Stoic ethics can guide individuals in making moral decisions, even when faced with conflicting interests or societal pressures.
Mindfulness and Presence
- Stoic Principle: Stoicism encourages individuals to be mindful of the present moment and to focus on their actions and values. It promotes self-awareness and the importance of living by one’s principles.
- Application: In a technology-driven world filled with distractions and constant connectivity, Stoic practices such as mindfulness and self-reflection can help individuals maintain a sense of purpose and direction in their lives, personally and professionally.
- Stoic Principle: Stoicism encourages individuals to prioritise what truly matters and to avoid excessive attachment to material possessions or external success. This can lead to a healthier work-life balance.
- Application: In a culture that glorifies overwork and constant productivity, Stoic philosophy can remind individuals to value their well-being and relationships as much as their careers. It can help prevent burnout and promote a more fulfilling life.
- Stoic Principle: Stoicism teaches individuals to approach relationships with empathy, patience, and understanding. It encourages them to focus on their actions and reactions rather than trying to control others.
- Application: In a world where digital communication often leads to misunderstandings and conflicts, Stoic principles of empathy and self-awareness can improve relationships in both personal and professional contexts.
Purpose and Meaning
- Stoic Principle: Stoicism emphasises the pursuit of eudaimonia or living a life of virtue and personal fulfilment. It encourages individuals to find purpose and meaning in their actions.
- Application: In a world that sometimes feels disconnected and superficial, Stoic philosophy can guide individuals toward a more profound sense of purpose and fulfilment in their careers and personal lives.
The Stoic philosophy offers ageless guidelines that can assist people in coping with the challenges of the modern era, which include the rapid advancements of technology and the high expectations of contemporary workplaces. By adopting Stoic values such as resilience, ethical decision-making, mindfulness, and the pursuit of virtue, individuals can lead more satisfying and meaningful lives in today’s dynamic and ever-evolving environment.
Practical Exercises for Applying Stoic Principles:
Here are some practical steps and exercises inspired by Stoicism that you can take to live a more fulfilling life:
1. Morning Meditation and Reflection
Begin your day with a few moments of quiet meditation or reflection. Consider the Stoic virtues of wisdom, courage, justice, and self-discipline you want to embody throughout the day. Set your intentions to live following these virtues.
Keep a Stoic journal to record your thoughts and reflections. Write down situations where you faced challenges or made decisions, and assess how well you applied Stoic principles. Reflect on your progress and areas for improvement.
3. Negative Visualisation
Practice negative visualisation by taking a few moments to contemplate the impermanence of things and the possibility of loss. Imagine temporarily losing something valuable, such as your health or a loved one, and then fully appreciate these aspects of your life.
4. The Dichotomy of Control
Before reacting to a situation:
- Ask yourself whether it’s within your control.
- If it’s beyond your control (e.g., traffic jams, the weather), practice acceptance and focus on adapting or responding with equanimity.
- If it’s within your power, take deliberate and virtuous action.
5. Pre-emptive Problem-Solving
Anticipate potential challenges or obstacles you may encounter during the day. Plan how you will respond virtuously and maintain your composure in these situations. This proactive approach can reduce stress and help you make better decisions.
6. Evening Reflection
- Review your day.
- Reflect on your actions, decisions, and reactions.
- Consider how well you upheld Stoic principles and where you may have fallen short.
- Use this reflection to improve your conduct in the future.
7. Practising Gratitude
Develop a daily gratitude practice by acknowledging and appreciating the things in your life, big and small. Stoicism encourages gratitude as a way to recognise the value of what you have.
8. Stoic Reading
Regularly read Stoic texts or contemporary books on Stoicism to deepen your understanding of philosophy and gain inspiration from the wisdom of Stoic thinkers.
9. The View from Above
Imagine viewing your life and the world from a cosmic or bird’s-eye perspective. This exercise can help you gain perspective on the relative insignificance of daily troubles and the interconnectedness of all things.
10. Virtue Ethics Challenge
Challenge yourself to align with one Stoic virtue daily (e.g., courage or wisdom). Set specific goals for that virtue and actively practise it in various situations.
11. Stoic Role Models
Identify historical or contemporary figures who embody Stoic virtues and study their lives and actions as sources of inspiration and guidance.
12. Mindful Breathing
Incorporate mindfulness meditation into your daily routine. Focus on your breath, returning your attention to it when distractions arise. Mindfulness can help you maintain emotional composure.
13. Acts of Kindness
Practice acts of kindness and generosity towards others without expecting anything in return. Stoicism teaches that virtue is its reward.
Remember that incorporating Stoic principles into your daily life is a gradual process. Start with one or two of these exercises and gradually expand your Stoic practice. The goal is to develop a resilient and virtuous mindset that fosters personal fulfilment and well-being in the face of life’s challenges.
Prioritising Excellence in the Process of Life
In a world often fixated on outcomes and achievements, Stoicism offers a profound reminder: true personal fulfilment resides not in attaining external goals but in the excellence of the process itself. The Stoics, drawing from a rich tradition of ethical philosophy, advocate for a life lived in agreement with nature, where each moment is an opportunity to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do.
The Stoic philosophy continues to provide valuable guidance as we navigate the challenges of contemporary life, from the demands of our careers to the complexities of our relationships. By embracing Stoic virtues such as wisdom, courage, justice, and self-discipline, we can transform our daily routines into meaningful acts of virtuous living.
Remember that personal fulfilment is not a destination but an ongoing journey. It’s about approaching each day, each task, and each interaction with a commitment to excellence in the process. By prioritising the cultivation of virtue and living in harmony with our values, we can find profound satisfaction and meaning in living.
So, whether you’re a former U.S. President, a legendary quarterback, a contemporary thought leader, or simply someone seeking a more fulfilling life, Stoicism’s timeless wisdom invites you to explore the profound potential of prioritising excellence in the process of your life.
- Start Small: Begin incorporating Stoic principles into your daily life with simple practices like morning meditation, gratitude exercises, and mindful breathing.
- Reflect and Adjust: Regularly assess your actions and decisions, reflecting on how well you align with Stoic virtues. Use these reflections to make adjustments and grow.
- Embrace Challenges: Instead of shying away from adversity, view challenges as opportunities for growth and resilience, as the Stoics did.
- Seek Inspiration: Study the lives and philosophies of Stoic role models and contemporary figures who embody Stoic virtues to inspire your journey.
- Cultivate Virtue: Focus on developing one Stoic virtue at a time, setting specific goals and practising it daily.
- Share the Wisdom: Spread the knowledge of Stoicism to those around you, as former President Bill Clinton did by recommending Stoic works to others.
Remember that the path to personal fulfilment is not solitary; it’s a journey that countless individuals have embarked on throughout history. By embracing Stoicism’s guidance, you can take meaningful steps toward a more fulfilling and virtuous life.
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