‘To live under constraint is a misfortune, but there is no constraint to live under constraint.’
Listen, bad stuff happens. All. The. Time.
It can really hit home when it happens to us, or our friends, or our family.
Losing your job
Finding out your partner has been cheating on you
Finding out your car has broken down
Losing money in an investment
Your start up failing
Your established business failing
Having an accident
Getting an illness
It can sting right?
Conventional wisdom might be to "think positive", or something of the sort. But I say that can hinder as much as help.
If you "think positive", all your dreams come true. Or "think positive" and your business will succeed. Or "think positive" and you'll be healthy...well, if you don't achieve these things, you end up feeling even worse.
Why is it that I was positive and yet my start up failed?
Why is it that I was positive and yet I got ill?
Why is it that I was positive and yet I didn't achieve my goal?
With this approach, you don't see the graveyard of people that did the same as you and failed. You only see the winners.
And it's a vicious cycle. Is it me? Am I an idiot? I must be! And so on.
So you've got to reconcile yourself with the fact that not all things go your way. That's not the same thing as not trying. On the contrary, it's trying and robustifying yourself to any negative outcome, allowing yourself to try again much quicker.
Well at its core, Stoicism teaches us two central tenets:
1. It is not events themselves that affect you. It is your interpretation of those events that upset you.
2. The only things you have control over in your life are your thoughts and your actions. That is all.
These statements are not trivial. In fact, with a little analysis, they are hugely powerful.
It is not events themselves that affect you. It is your interpretation of those events that upset you.
If someone calls you an asshole, it is not him calling you an asshole that upsets you, it's your interpretation of it.
"Why would he call me that?" "That's really horrible!" "I'm a good person, why would he say that?!"
Or if a business venture fails, it is not the failing that upsets you, but your interpretation of it.
"I'm a failure." "My family are going to think I'm an idiot." "No one is going to hire me." "I can't believe I couldn't do this when X could."
Put another way: An Event Happens, Then You Interpret it.
Consider this: If someone writes something terrible about you - you're a terrible boss, an inconsiderate lover, or you've never heard of Hugh Lawrie. Well, if you never read those words, do you think you'd be angry? Or upset? Or unsure? Of course not! You've not had a chance to interpret them yet!
So it's how we interpret things that piss us off! Our stories.
So to create a paradigm shift, we need to change the stories we tell ourselves.
The only things you have control over in your life are your thoughts and your actions. That is all.
Daniel Kahneman, the nobel prize winning psychologist, noted that we have two selves. We have the experiencing self - that's you right now, doing things in the present. And we have the remembering self - that's you reflecting on and interpreting what happened to you.
Can you guess which self Kahneman found to be far more significant in determining our happiness? You got it, the remembering self.
That is, how we remember those things that have happened to us.
Which is great news, because the only things you have control over are your thoughts and your actions. Not other people's judgements, not the weather, not unfortunate circumstances that have arrived as a result of a huge complex web of events and decision making.
And so the truth is, where you are right now is where you are right now.
If someone is hating on you, practice kindness.
If you got demoted, practice humility.
If your start up didn't work, practice creativity and resourcefulness - how can you make the most of what you have now to take a step forward.
And so you see the tidbit of information that Seneca gives us at the start of this post is hugely empowering.
Events happen. They do. They are largely out of our control. But we don't have to let them affect us negatively. Instead, we can use them to practice some virtue, to continue to better our selves. There is no constraint to live under constraint. Don't carry that with you. Instead, as Ryan Holiday says, let the Obstacle become the way.