Imagine living this way:
Nothing—and I mean nothing—truly matters except your intention to do the right thing.
Not your wealth
Your level of education
Your profession or job title
Your relatives or loved ones
Not even your health status.
None of those things are truly important in comparison with following the spark inside you, the ruling center, that guides you to act in the name of justice, wisdom, self-control, and courage.
That’s the core of Stoicism. And it forms the basis of the tension between ancient philosophy inspired by Socrates and Zeno, and the values, goals, and beliefs of most of today’s Western world.
Let me say this another way. Many Americans believe that 1) we control—or should control—our own level of wealth, status, job, our relationships, health, and even our manner/time of death… and 2) that these are the things necessary for a good life.
Certainly, these things go enormously far in living a comfortable, serene, and pleasant life. But they are not what is truly critical. They are “preferred indifferents” for Stoics. That is because the only real necessity to be good for followers of Stoicism is to have the right moral intentions and to commit to persevering, as much as possible, in order to fulfill those intentions.
All the other things are, as they say, gravy.
Ideally, if you follow this principle, your life “flows” easily because you are in accord with the best elements of humanity (and the universe). In other words, you are living “in accord with nature,” as the Stoics called it since the day of Zeno.
Followers of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophy have been reminding themselves of this for centuries. Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor, wrote about it in his Meditations, a private journal. Pierre Hadot, the French philosopher who delved deeply into Marcus Aurelius' work in his book The Inner Citadel, explains it this way:
“We encounter the same fundamental principle again and again: the only absolute value is moral intention, and it alone depends entirely on us. It is not the result that counts—for this does not depend on us, but on Destiny—but rather the intention one has when seeking the result… If our activity is animated by the perfectly pure intention of wishing only for the good, it attains its goal at every instant, and has no need to wait for its achievement and result to come from the future.” (The Inner Citadel, Michael Chase transl., p. 195).
It’s difficult to keep this at the forefront of our minds as we proceed through a world bent on judging us and molding us to pursue its outward goals. Yet it is ultimately reassuring in the extreme. It proves that we all have the capacity for great goodness and intrinsic value, if we choose to act for good, and if we can prevent ourselves from being caught up in the many rat races that surround us in the modern world.
When my daughters are upset about a small reversal at school—a test grade below their expectation, a friend ignoring them, a teacher responding negatively—this lesson about our intentions is a good reminder of what matters most. And of the true wellspring of our worth as humans.
A modern interpretation of this way of thinking might say: "Yes, you can be good, if you stay focused on making good choices. In fact, you are already good! Your intentions and wishes show it. Keep going!"
I hope this thinking could give any of us a sense of perspective on our numerous small annoyances, as well as our genuine grievances and serious troubles.
Given all that we are juggling these days, it is easy to spiral into a cascade of worries, which I’ve heard my older daughter voice this way: “If I don’t do well on this test, I won’t do well in this class, then I won’t get into the advanced math class next year, and if I don’t get into that class, then I won’t be able to take an even more advanced course in high school, and then I won’t be a top student in math and science, and then I won’t get into a good college, and then I won’t have a good degree, and then I won’t get a good job, and then I won’t have a good life.”
Notice the use of “good” in this spiral of negativity. It's not exactly the moral sense, is it? Of course, there’s a kernel of something valuable in this fatalistic line of thinking. We do owe it to ourselves to try to do well and to learn and to achieve what we can in our time on earth. Certainly sitting on our hands because we are afraid of / uninterested in trying would be a bad idea. But thinking that a grade or a college or a job offer or house size or vacation defines our value is far from the truth. I did do well in school, got what I considered a good degree, work at a job I like (after a meandering career path), and have lots of outward things to be thankful for—most of all my two children. Yet I don’t believe these outward things make me a “good person” or ensure that I live a “good life.”
And that’s why I’ll keep chipping away at this Stoicism thing, tapping into mindfulness and compassion studies too, to build my own sense of how to choose that all-important moral intention carefully, and how to not be weighed down by negative emotion or psychological baggage in making that decision. I'll keep following this guiding star as a wellspring of human value and meaning in our chaotic, often superficial world.
Have you spent the holidays scrolling through Facebook, looking at pictures of relatives' celebrations? Or checking out friends’ vacations on Instagram? Or trolling LinkedIn for professional postings?
If you did any of these, I’m sure you’ve noticed that in today’s world of social media, everything looks a lot better online than it is in real life. Most people work hard to build themselves up, to market and brand their work, their leisure activities, even their own family.
To potential employers, we want to be seen as abundantly competent and brilliantly talented; to potential romantic partners, we want to project an attractive, polished, and confident persona; and when it comes to our friends, we try to showcase a vision of our fun and full lives.
In fact, this is a key reason why social media is so destructive psychologically, causing anxiety and depression: When we go online, we compare ourselves with others. We feel we need to be just as perfect as the millions of other possible candidates, dates, and friends, or we just won’t measure up.
All that to say that the amount of pressure that modern people feel about looking successful and appealing is immense. Nobody wants to be a failure, right?
Recently, Nina Jacobson—the powerful Hollywood executive behind Pirates of the Caribbean, The Sixth Sense, The Hunger Games, Crazy Rich Asians, and other massive hits—spoke about her “failure resume.”
What’s a failure resume? In an interview for a Gimlet Media podcast, Jacobson explains: “There is a professor at Stanford who has written a paper about how it is valuable for people to do their failure resume, because your failures sort of define who you are and what you've learned and how you've really sort of been impacted in many respects more than your successes do. And that owning those failures and embracing them is sort of a critical component to successful people.”
Jacobson had a string of professional setbacks that could have destroyed her career, and her psyche, completely. She lost jobs and made movies that flopped. Yet she forged ahead and became one of the most successful film execs in Hollywood.
That Stanford professor who recommends creating a failure resume is Tina Seelig. She describes it this way:
"I require my students to write a failure resumé. That is, to craft a résumé that summarizes all their biggest screw ups — personal, professional, and academic. For every failure, each student must describe what he or she learned from that experience. Just imagine the looks of surprise this assignment inspires in students who are so used to showcasing their successes.
However, after they finish their resumé, they realize that viewing their experiences through the lens of failure forced them to come to terms with the mistakes they have made along the way and to extract important lessons from them…
Failures increase the chance that you won’t make the same mistake again. Failures are also a sign that you have taken on challenges that expand your skills. In fact, many successful people believe that if you aren’t failing sometimes then you aren’t taking enough risks. Additionally, it is pretty clear that the ratio of our successes and failure is pretty constant. So, if you want more successes, you are going to have to tolerate more failure along the way."
I think that Jacobson and Seelig's approach is closely aligned with ancient Greek and Stoic principles.
The failure resume can help us learn about and probe our own judgments and decisions. Once we have built that awareness, we can acknowledge our own value and consider how to improve ourselves and our decisions. Rather than looking at our failures and then basing our (low) opinion of ourselves on those, we can tap into our reason and wisdom. And instead of guilt or shame, we realize we were imperfect humans, and learn to do better next time.
The Stoics, borrowing from the Pythagoreans, advocated keeping a philosophical journal, one that would help us review what we did wrong and right in the course of the day, and what we could work on. The failure resume is that journal writ large.
My daughters have been taught this approach in school. Their teachers inculcate a “growth mindset.” The crux of it: You learn through making mistakes. Mistakes are “expected, respected, inspected, and corrected,” says a classroom poster. The teacher reminds them: Your work won’t be perfect. If you’ve developed a new skill, you’ve won. (This is NOT how I was taught in school, where perfection was expected and the rest was disrespected.)
This way of thinking is the essence of resilience. Donald Robertson has written about the mental resilience that a Stoic approach can provide, and the modern cognitive-behavioral therapy that is based on it. He teaches a course called Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training, which attracted over 3,000 participants in 2018.
As Robertson points out in a video, “the essence of wisdom is a kind of self-sufficiency, self-reliance, it isn’t dependent on other people…”
It is the practice of supporting and listening to one’s “ruling center,” as the Stoics put it, through adversity, knowing that in our core we all have something to offer, and that the world can be a tough place. But when we get knocked down, we get back up and go at it again.
I’ve been working on my failure resume. It contains a series of fails, and also sins of omissions (for instance, why did I narrow my academic focus too soon? Why didn’t I study more biology, psychology, and philosophy in college?). It also lists what I learned from experiences very much outside my control, like when I worked for a business that went bankrupt, or when I was unable to turn a temporary job into a permanent one. Or when the “great recession” hit and all the freelance gigs dried up. I witnessed and was part of the end of an era in print publishing and journalism, and many such failures were structural. But it's still good to review. My experiences taught me what to avoid and also planted the seeds for finding more courage in my professional life.
This resume doesn't need to be confined to professional failures. As Seelig says, personal mis-steps are also important learning experiences. Certainly we all have negative or sad things to regret and I don't propose dwelling on those. I am thinking more about opportunities, moments in time when we have options. For example, I'm probing into decisions that I have made about how I raise my daughters. It's not that I want to go back in time to change specific things; after all, often we'll never know what the "best" decision will be. It's more about acknowledging that I (and my family) can learn from our choices about what to do differently next time.
So this New Year, instead of resolutions, consider writing a failure resume to guide your next endeavors. What worked? What didn’t? What could you do differently? What did you learn along the way?
In this way, we can all work on setting a path forward infused with courage and wisdom, in big ways and small.
About The Stoic Mom
I'm a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.