All of us are flawed. We all have our own little imperfections, limiting beliefs, biases, incorrect assumptions, rough edges and quirks that make us individuals and make us who we are. We’re far from perfect and we’re far from a finished product, and that’s OK.

As most people develop over time, these rough edges get smoothed as we go through the world, our perceptions get well rounded by experience and our ideas and beliefs are shaped by coming into contact with the realities of life. We all want these changes to be constructive, for us to become better people as we move forward through time, but this is not always the case and today we’ll find out why and 5 principles we can use to make sure our change is for the better.

For the most part this development is all done unconsciously. We’re shaped by what happens to go on around us, we become products of our environment and as a result become products of random chance. While this can result in a good outcome, it can just as easily result in something negative or destructive.

A far better method of change is to make it conscious and deliberate. Reminding ourselves of the goals we’ve set, the person we want to be, and the steps needed to get there.

Stoicism is a school of ancient Greek philosophy that asks the question “How can we live a good life?” – more specifically, how can an individual like you and me achieve a state of being in which we flourish, which the Stoics called Eudaimonia.

Stoic philosophy is one of the few ancient schools of philosophy that people still apply to their day-to-day lives, standing the test of time that has eroded most other schools of thought from the same period. It’s practicality and simplicity provides a perfect framework on which to build a resilient and constructive personal philosophy and today we’re going to use it as a guide to build that conscious path forward we spoke about earlier.

Stoic Rule 1 – Accept what you can and can’t control

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will. ”

― Epictetus

One of the most fundamental principles of Stoic philosophy is the ability to distinguish between what you can control and what you cannot. The Stoic philosopher Epictetus once said:

“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. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own”

 — Epictetus

If we get this right, we remove the ability for the areas of life outside our control to impact our peace of mind, and we’re free to focus our efforts on the areas of life we can control – this essentially makes us far more resilient and effective as individuals.

If we get this wrong, we allow anything in the world around us to influence our well being – our peace of mind becomes a plaything of chance through our inability to decide what we can do something about and accept what we can’t. Instead we’re pulled in all directions by anything around us that captures our attention or emotional energy.

During his lectures, Epictetus said the following:

“There are things that are within our power, and things that fall outside our power. Within our power are our own opinions, aims, desires, dislikes—in sum, our own thoughts and actions. Outside our power are our physical characteristics, the class into which we were born, our reputation in the eyes of others, and honours and offices that may be bestowed on us. 

Working within our sphere of control, we are naturally free, independent, and strong. Beyond that sphere, we are weak, limited, and dependent. If you pin your hopes on things outside your control, taking upon yourself things which rightfully belong to others, you are liable to stumble, fall, suffer, and blame both gods and men. But if you focus your attention only on what is truly your own concern, and leave to others what concerns them, then you will be in charge of your interior life. No one will be able to harm or hinder you. You will blame no one, and have no enemies.  If you wish to have peace and contentment, release your attachment to all things outside your control. This is the path of freedom and happiness. If you want not just peace and contentment, but power and wealth too, you may forfeit the former in seeking the latter, and will lose your freedom and happiness along the way.”

Stoic Rule 2 – Accept Fate

One area of life that causes a lot of people a lot of suffering is the inability to accept the unravelling of events around them, despite these events being completely outside the individual’s control.

This could be anything from traffic, the economy, the weather or the actions and behaviour of other people.

Regardless of what fate has been put in front of us, if it’s happened, no amount of worry, anger, jealousy, or frustration will rewind time and undo what’s been done, nor will it change anything that is yet to come, if those events are outside the reach of your control.

To illustrate this and help them learn to accept fate, the Stoics used the concept of Amor Fati, or love of fate.

Nietzsche once wrote:

“My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not in the future, not in the past, not for all eternity. Not only to endure what is necessary, still less to conceal it, all idealism is falseness in the face of necessity, but to love it…”

This was the idea that instead of resisting fate, fighting it tooth and nail, and thereby causing ourselves suffering, we should learn to accept it and even love it. After all, everything that has come before you was needed for you to be here right now. Without the unfolding of all of the things before you, gas clouds wouldn’t have come together to form planets and stars, stars wouldn’t have bound lighter elements into heavier elements, and life itself wouldn’t have begun from the most basic building blocks of life. We wouldn’t have wildlife, mountains, oceans, history, or culture. You wouldn’t have the ability to laugh, to feel love, to fear, to feel joy, peace, awe, wonder and create.

While there may be suffering in the world, it is exactly this suffering that’s needed to make the good feel good. We need hard work to make rest feel restful, we need loss to appreciate what we have, and we need dark to appreciate light.

While it’s easy to focus on the areas of life that cast shadow over our wellbeing, the shadows are part of life, and if we want a world in which people are conscious and aware, we need to accept the shadows as part of the whole, and even learn to love them for the growth, the contrast and the opportunities they bring.

The Stoic philosopher Epictetus said:

“Do not seek for things to happen the way you want them to; rather, wish that what happens happen the way it happens: then you will be happy.”

Stoic Rule 3 – Accept Death

Death and the fear of death can be a debilitating block on our ability to develop a durable and consistent mindset. It can even go so far as preventing people from trying new things, leaving the house, and to live in constant fear of the end. Under the fear of death we can be robbed of life.

Marcus Aurelius once said:

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.”

This fear and uneasiness can come in many forms, we can fear for our own lives and the thought that one day our existence will end and we may just be snuffed out. Or our fear may come in the form of fear for others we love and we may limit their experience as we try and shelter them from harm.

Either way death can be a burden depending on how we look at it, but it can also be a catalyst for good.

The Stoics employed a principle called Memento Mori, or the practice of reminding yourself that you will die. However this was not a morbid, fear mongering exercise, it was designed to add beauty, gratitude and fulfilment to life.

Through the reminder of death we can learn to appreciate life. Knowing that there will only be a finite number of times we can see our friends, be with family, enjoy a meal, see a sunset, walk through fields, enjoy the ocean, read our favourite book, eat popcorn in front of a movie, or embrace our partner, can create an intense feeling of gratitude in the moment. We stop taking things for granted, we stop focusing on the little arguments, and the minor annoyances and instead become more deliberate with our attention because it’s a limited resource.

The awareness of death can add a vibrance to life and something which is normally pushed out of mind because of the discomfort it causes, can be one of the most useful tools to help us find gratitude and help us focus on what’s important to us.

“You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” – Marcus Aurelius

Stoic Rule 4 – Accept that your happiness is your responsibility

“In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

There’s one thing people do that blocks all routes to growth, and that’s blame. If we blame other people for our conditions, if we blame other people for our actions, if we blame other people for our mood, we’re rejecting any responsibility. Rejecting any ownership over the things we’ve said, thought and done that have put us in the position we’re in.

The Stoic Epictetus said:

“If you want something good, get it from yourself.”

While blame is a nice quick way to make ourselves feel better in the moment, and put all the fault on someone or something else, it not only stunts us long term, it’s often a lie.

If we reflect on our life there are always things we could have done, decisions we could have made, beliefs we could have changed, relationships we could have managed better and actions we could have taken to get us from A to B, and from B to C. This is our responsibility, no one else’s.

If we look back on control and the things in life Epictetus drew out that are within our control; everything in there is our responsibility. He said:

Within our power are our own opinions, aims, desires, dislikes—in sum, our own thoughts and actions.

Can we blame other people for what’s in there, sure. But it’s not constructive, or true, it’s just a little fix to give you one more moment of feeling like it’s not your fault. In the long run an inability to accept responsibility generally means an inability to accept that you need to do something different, so as the years go by, instead of growing as a person you stagnate and the same problems hit you year after year.

Our wellbeing is our responsibility.

Stoic Rule 5 – Accept That Life is Change

Emperor of Rome and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote a few words on change which, to me, are some of the best words on the subject. He wrote:

“Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you take a hot bath and leave the firewood as it was? Eat food without transforming it? Can any vital process take place without something being changed? Can’t you see? It’s just the same with you, and just as vital to nature.”

A lot of us resist change, and understandably so, we like comfort, we like predictability and we like to know the order of things and have the world around us fit nicely into the mental framework we’ve made for it. Change is often the unknown, it’s the unfamiliar and it risks destabilising all of these things that make us feel safe and comfortable. But it’s inevitable, it’s the nature of the world around us, and if we don’t learn to be flexible in the face of change, we risk breaking under the force of it.

The more we resist, the more we suffer as it happens around us.

The nature of the universe is change, we wouldn’t be here without it, and we wouldn’t be able to exist any of the wonders of the world around us without it. Marcus Aurelius wrote the following:

“Accept death in a cheerful spirit, as nothing but the dissolution of the elements from which each living thing is composed. If it doesn’t hurt the individual elements to change continually into one another, why are people afraid of all of them changing and separating? It’s a natural thing. And nothing natural is evil.”

Change is not evil, it is not bad, it is neutral. The goodness and badness is projected onto it by the individual based on how they perceive it and how it affects them.

A portion of that change will be uncomfortable, it will be challenging and it will be hard; but because it is precisely this hardship that makes it a catalyst for growth. Epictetus once said:

“What would have become of Hercules, do you think, if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges? Obviously, he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.”

So whenever you find yourself in the middle of life’s challenges, accept them as they are, accept that you can only control what you do and think and say, and look to see what can be gained from the adversity, what lessons it can hold for you and what growth it can spark.

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