Stoicism is about finding your power within—your self-control and discipline to live a good life. Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor who championed Stoic philosophy, advanced the idea that the quality of your life would depend on your ability to use reason as the ruling element in the way you conduct yourself, deal with others, and handle situations. He advocated mental toughness amidst adversity and fortitude of character amidst miseries. Stoicism recognizes the hardships inherent in life as well as the reality and inevitability of death. Acknowledging that such are inescapable in the human condition, adherents of Stoic philosophy strive to veer away from complaining about such things and instead shift their focus to those that are within human power to change and control—the perspective and attitude taken in the face of challenge and adversity.
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The fortitude and resilience with which the Stoics face life’s challenges and tribulations draw in a large part from their ability to see beyond the tiny irritations and inconveniences of daily life.
They are able to recognize that in the larger scheme of things, minor troubles are not worth bemoaning about or dwelling on.
In your own life, this is how you could also apply Stoic thought to fortify your self- discipline—by developing the capacity to look beyond the immediate inconveniences you encounter and to broaden your vision to see your ultimate goals.
Self-discipline is a natural consequence of being properly and consistently aligned with your own inner vision and purpose.
When you have a particular end in mind, a genuine and clear sense of purpose you are working toward, then self-discipline becomes a tool you willingly wield instead of a burden you have to carry.
So look further than your transient feelings and complaints about how much there still needs to be done.
Develop and retain a wider view—what is your purpose as a human being gifted with a life on this earth? What matters to you? What are you here for? What would you like to be remembered for long after you pass away? What do you truly stand for, and do the actions you take every day actively build toward this goal? Keeping these challenging questions at the forefront of your mind will inspire you to elevate the way you conduct yourself and approach every task in your life.
While many things have been accomplished in life out of greed, fear, a desire for praise, or even sheer momentum, Stoics teach us that a truly honorable life is powered from within by a strong moral code and an unfailing will to live according to worthy virtues.
Thinking this way can bring enormous clarity and focus.
Not only will you feel more compelled to work toward something that is deeply meaningful to you, you’ll also find that trivial distractions no longer hold as much appeal.
The Stoics also warn us about the dangers of the “passions,” i.e.
all those irrational, emotional forces that pull us from our path, and remind us that we can rise above our irrational whims as we sharpen our ability to wield reason as the primary ruler of our actions.
As Aurelius put it, “This Being of mine, whatever it really is, consists of a little flesh, a little breath, and the part which governs.
A little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all—that is myself.” So learn to be more aware of and use that part of yourself which governs, that reason that can rule the rest of you.
Teach yourself to take the correct action even if you don’t feel like it.
Tell yourself that you have to be courageous even if you’re scared.
That you have to work despite feeling lazy.
The sooner you can look at your emotions, distractions, and excuses this way, the sooner you can loosen their hold on you.
Make a plan, set a goal, take action, adjust, repeat.
None of this requires any particular emotional state.
Make your primary goal one of emotional self-regulation—you are not aiming to be an emotionless robot, but you are seeing this part of yourself as a passenger in your life, not the driver.
Nobody can stop you from doing this work—and nobody else can do it for you.
Self-discipline is about consistent, realistic effort—that is, action—toward a goal that we have independently identified for ourselves.
You can only build mental endurance over time by actually doing the work.
You could have all the greatest intentions and plans for yourself, but none of it means anything until you can bring it into reality.
One step at a time, one day at a time.
We have already seen this in previous chapters—that consistent action may not be fun or easy, but it is the only reliable way to move toward what matters.
It cannot be done all in one go.
You cannot skip a stage or find a cheat code to get you there faster.
The learning is in the process, not the outcome.
So savor the slow and steady route, and value the hard work that goes into the process of striving toward your goals.
Self-discipline is that inner fortitude that allows you to push forward and do this every day.
No matter how tired or angry or scared or sad you feel.
1 No matter what external events interrupt you.
No matter what tempting distractions are ready to derail you.
No matter how hard it is.
No matter whether you fail or find it difficult.
We build character not in the easy life, but in those moments when we can summon self-discipline despite the courage and effort it takes.
To return to the serenity prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, The courage to change what I cannot accept, And the wisdom to know the difference.
Self-control is needed for every part of this.
We need self-discipline to maintain a calm and balanced emotional state even in the face of things we are powerless to change.
We need self-discipline to keep strong and brave and work hard for the things we can change.
And we need self-discipline to regularly reflect on our attitude so that we are developing discernment, good character, and a life we can be proud of.
It doesn’t matter if you stumble or how many times you fail.
All that matters is that every new day, you wake up and face your life in the here and now, fully in control of your powers to self-determine.
A bad life is not a life with challenges, but a life where we shirk away from rising to those challenges.
Using Deliberate Hardship to Enhance Your Self-Discipline You can practice at the tasks of life, or you can do a kind of meta-practice where you strengthen the skills you will need to accomplish all the tasks of life—i.e.
Marcus Aurelius believed that discipline was something that could be strengthened with practice—so why not give yourself small opportunities to develop this skill? “Voluntary hardship” isn’t as masochistic as it sounds.
Rather, disciplining yourself in small ways means you are making it easier for yourself to be disciplined in bigger ways.
Most of us do whatever we can to make our lives as comfortable and easy as possible.
But if we instead choose small and deliberate discomforts, two things happen.
The first is that we realize that suffering is actually not as bad as we thought it was, and second, we realize that even if it is uncomfortable, we are perfectly capable of dealing with it.
Is scarcity and hardship really the end of the world? Do we die if we have to temporarily do without something that might be nice to have? To practice this for yourself, it’s important to abandon any ideas of martyrdom or punishment.
Simply imagine you’re taking your willpower to the gym for a workout.
See what you’re really made of! Take a cold shower when a warm one would be more pleasant.
Delay gratification for as long as you can.
Then, watch your emotions and your responses.
Can you tolerate discomfort? Can you get on with life despite a minor discomfort, without whining? You might find that not only do you give yourself the gift of learning to tolerate life’s (inevitable!) unpleasantness, you also recalibrate yourself so you are better able to appreciate the things you do have.
You realize something wonderful: you don’t have to wait to be inspired or comfortable to do the right thing! You can do it right now, no matter what.
Look at your world and ask where you can be more modest, minimal, and restrained.
Remember that as you do this, you are not punishing yourself, but improving your character.
Your strength comes from within—so understand that the work you do on your inner fortitude will only serve you in the future.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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