Stoic parenting fail
Please note: I've moved my ongoing blog/newsletter to The Stoic Mom Substack. Check it out and subscribe for free!
I’ve been watching the History channel series Colosseum, which explores how the huge arena played a role in solidifying power and influence in ancient Rome. The show is filled with computer-generated imagery of ancient Rome, actors playing gladiators and gladiatrixes, beast masters, Roman leaders, and victims of the Colosseum’s violence, with historians to give it all context.
What I did not expect to find in this depiction of Roman “bread and circuses” was a glaring example of a Stoic parenting fail: The Emperor Commodus, son of Emperor Marcus Aurelius. His story is a cautionary tale to all Stoic parents.
Marcus Aurelius was the model Stoic. He had been educated by Stoic teachers. He personified the Stoic virtues, and his poetic and personal writing about his effort to implement Stoic ideals in the Meditations still resonates with people who read it today, just as it has done throughout the centuries.
But when it came to his son Commodus, Marcus’ philosophy could not save him.
Marcus was the last of the so-called “five good emperors” of Rome during the empire’s Golden Age. He took his obligations and responsibilities extremely seriously when it came to managing the government and was celebrated for his wise judgment. He fought invaders attacking Roman holdings as well as the plague attacking his citizens. But his efforts to raise Commodus, his only son to live to adulthood and the young man who took over the empire after his death, had disastrous results.
Commodus bankrupted Rome’s treasury on elaborate, bloody contests at the Colosseum (including his own performance as a gladiator, for which he paid himself the equivalent of millions of today’s dollars), made peace with warlike enemies who promptly re-invaded Italy, and tortured and killed members of the Senate. He escaped the city when the plague ran wild, and his corrupt delegates caused an economic meltdown and famine, causing many deaths. His paranoia about being assassinated led to countless murders upon his orders. Commodus even wielded a club like his hero the mythological Hercules and used it to clobber victims brought into the Colosseum during his violent “games.”
After so much destruction, Commodus was, in fact, assassinated—killed by his own wrestling trainer on the orders of other Roman leaders who witnessed his descent into madness. (If you saw the movie The Gladiator, Commodus was the evil emperor depicted there in a fictionalized retelling, in some ways less bad than the original.) Historians point to Commodus’ rule as the dividing line between an ascendant Rome in its golden age and its long decline.
How is it possible that Commodus could have turned out to be so awful—despite being the son of such a wise father?
Whether or not Marcus thought of himself as a “Stoic parent,” he definitely wanted his son to be well educated and he surely wished to leave the empire in good hands. But he had a tough time. Even while working nonstop to fight wars on Rome’s behalf, Marcus took pains to provide excellent tutors to educate Commodus. He brought Commodus along to the military base during the wars, exposing him to what it was like to defend the empire, and then asked the great physician Galen to help protect the boy from the raging plague. Marcus also took Commodus with him on a trip to the Eastern provinces and to Athens, where they were initiated together into the famous Eleusinian Mysteries, a secret religious tradition.
But Commodus still turned out to be an irresponsible, corrupt, and murderous emperor. His temperament played a role. Commodus was a deeply flawed young man whose character was completely different from his father’s—volatile and, according to some Romans, cowardly, as well as averse to hard work. He was easily swayed by people around him. Some contemporaries in Rome thought he must have been the product of a different father, pointing out that Marcus’ wife was allegedly having affairs with gladiators.
Could Marcus have played a different and better role in his son’s upbringing? That is one of those what-if situations we’ll never really know about. He did a great deal to educate and influence Commodus, all the while managing the most powerful Mediterranean empire the world has ever seen through war and plague (which likely killed him). And it’s easy to imagine how Commodus’ enormous power went to his head as a teenage boy, no matter his upbringing. He was only 18 when his father died, leaving the empire in his hands.
I think this story demonstrates three things: First, how little control we have over our children’s temperament. Second, how much external influences outside our power can shape our offspring. Both of these elements should be familiar to Stoics: We have limits on what we are able to change, and we need to come to terms with that.
And third, this story shows that no matter how busy or preoccupied we become with work and our own callings, we should attempt to make the time needed to raise our kids to be decent human beings. (As a corollary, we should forgive ourselves if we fail.)
Marcus did what he could to train Commodus, especially when he was a teen. But I’m sure that the pressures and responsibilities of running the Roman Empire at its height left little time for really getting to know and influence his son, causing him (like anyone in his role, surely) to rely instead on tutors and assistants.
My personal takeaway from the Marcus and Commodus story is to remember to take a step back from work whenever I can to be there for my children and family. Many parents and caregivers I know have changed from full-time to part-time employment, left jobs, or opted for full-time positions that offer stability and limited hours to be able to take care of children during their formative years (realizing that not everyone has the financial flexibility or option to do so). For those who can make it work, spending time with kids in their younger years can demonstrate the value of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control… instill caring about and helping other people (encouraging our pro-social nature as humans)… and model how to question what we think we know, and understand what’s going on below the surface (stop, drop, and question your impressions!).
All this is well and good, you may say, but how much is enough, and how much is too much time and influence on our children? During the pandemic, some parents learned the limits of what they could and wanted to do. The shutdown of many schools and daycare services demanded that caregivers spend more time teaching and helping our kids—which was sometimes very demanding, especially to parents stretched thin by many responsibilities. It was made all the more tough when in-person social contact was cut off.
In the ideal world, we’d find a middle ground. We wouldn’t leave our kids to learn everything from school and other kids and YouTube and TikTok – we’d be there to teach our values. We also wouldn’t be stuck at home continuously with our kids, serving as their only influence, cut off from everyone else. Instead, we would balance our community’s educational and social influences with family- and caregiver-instilled virtues and values.
There are lots of ways to find this path, and there’s no one right answer, but simply searching for this middle-ground way forward—and prioritizing sharing our life philosophy with ours kids and our communities in the time we do have—seems to be the rational approach to working to shape our kids into good human beings. We can also acknowledge that kids are individuals, with their own temperaments and characters, and there are limits to what parents can do to form and educate them.
Please share your thoughts on this, and any other aspects of Stoic parenting in the comments!
The Gift of Self-Compassion
Want a meaningful holiday gift you can give to yourself? Try self-compassion.
You may ask yourself: Why do I need to focus on self-compassion? Take this 10 second quiz. How many times in the last few weeks have said to yourself something like: “That was so stupid, why did I do that?” Or: "I wish I hadn't said that silly comment... It sounded dumb.” Or: “Why do I always make these ridiculous mistakes? Can’t I do anything right?”
If you’re like me, you hear that voice in your head far too frequently. And it’s a tough thing.
How did I get so hyper-self-critical? My theory is that I have used these voices to drive myself forward and to cope, however incompetently, with my worries about my performance and my mistakes.
Somehow, in the depths of my consciousness, being my own harshest critic seemed preferable to waiting for other people to notice a mistake and criticize me. And it gave me a dark momentum. The more I berated myself internally, the more I pushed myself to do challenging things. “It’s not good enough” simply meant I had to try harder and be even more critical of myself or my work.
I’ve learned from studying Stoic life philosophy, and from working with ideas from cognitive behavioral therapy, that this is NOT a healthy way to achieve motivation or to “protect” myself from outside criticism. It’s just a bad idea, and it is one that I try to help short-circuit in my daughters' thinking. (I am doing OK in that department: In fact, if my kids hear my self-critical narration out loud, they now tell me: “Mom, that's not true! That wasn't stupid!”)
Fortunately, I’ve found some better approaches: Self-compassion, and a less judgmental perspective on myself and my world based on Stoic ideas. Now, when I hear that harsh voice, I try to remember these words from Marcus Aurelius' Meditations:
“I am not justified in causing myself pain, for I have never deliberately caused pain to another.”
This thought shifted my whole perspective on the emotional harm I’m doing to myself when I let my inner critic go wild. Why cause internal pain to myself, when I’d never choose to do that to someone else?
Let’s put Marcus’ quote to work when I think about the inner monologue that started this post. Would I say the same nasty things to a friend, calling her stupid, dumb, essentially worthless? No! Of course not. I love my friends. Plus, we wouldn’t stay friends for long if I were so unkind. Would I say these things to one of my kids? No! It would be considered verbally abusive, and it would cause shame and hurt their morale going forward.
I knew my approach had to change a few years ago when I started reading the work of Kristin Neff, an academic researcher in psychology who has focused on self-compassion who also teaches and writes for the general public. I’ve learned a lot about how to cause less inner pain to myself by following her approaches. I’ll share here a glimpse into Neff’s work, and you’ll see how well it resonates with Stoic ideas.
Neff explains that self-compassion consists of three components: self-kindness, mindfulness, and common humanity.
Self-kindness is the conscious decision to view yourself with kindness and affection, rather than ignoring internal pain or being harshly self-critical. When their expectations are not met (however unrealistic), people tend to feel increased stress and frustration, and may launch into self-criticism. But when we accept the reality of our situation, with less judgment and with more equanimity, level-headedness is possible. (This is a very Stoic concept.) In truth, all people are imperfect, make mistakes, and deal with difficulties in life. It is inevitable. Our choice to be kind to ourselves rather than express negative emotions is a choice we can all make.
Mindfulness focuses on noticing your thoughts, emotional reactions, and sensations in the present moment without judgment. Common humanity means that we understand that all humans share vulnerabilities, deal with frustrations and disappointments, and are less than perfect. It’s a recognition that we are all in the same boat—which helps us gain more compassion towards ourselves and others, as well as a pro-social connection.
Which leads me to an important point: It’s not like my inner monologue is doing any good. Neff cites research about motivation showing that people who are kind to themselves about their mistakes and failures—people who have self-compassion—are more likely to set new goals for themselves rather than ruminating about their disappointments and frustrations. They also have been shown to demonstrate healthier behaviors and stick to their health-related goals, such as quitting smoking, exercising, working towards weight loss. Self-critics are more likely to be anxious and depressed, and they harbor a fear of failure because they view mistakes as unacceptable, Neff says.
Self-compassion, on the other hand, gives kids and adults the “emotional resources” they need to pick themselves up and try again. The self-compassionate people Neff has studied find a way to accept past mistakes and acknowledge them with equanimity, while moving on.
In other words: Motivation doesn't have to rely on stark self-criticism. Instead, it can spring from the recognition that no one is perfect and we’re doing our best, and that we always have the opportunity to improve (even in small ways).
The gift of self-compassion doesn’t end after we make a decision to treat ourselves this more kindness, mindfulness, and awareness of common humanity. Like other life philosophy practices, it may take constant reminders and a long period of time to train ourselves to think differently. But what a gift if we can do so.
Stories That Teach
My husband and I like to tell our kids stories about times when things didn’t work out quite as well as we had hoped—in a funny way. Looking back, we realize that we could have made a better choice. But because the consequences were pretty minor, or even silly, these tales are entertaining rather than painful. They might just teach something along the way.
A favorite one we harken back to happened early in our relationship, when my husband picked out a “romantic” bed and breakfast inn from a small ad on the still-young Internet, located a stone’s throw away from a national park we wanted to visit. We were excited as we drove up late at night to a large house, finally arriving after facing a ton of traffic and a longer-than-expected drive.
We were soon confronted, however, with the reality that the place was far from romantic. We were ushered inside to a heavily decorated room in the basement of an older couple’s home, complete with a “Big Mouth Billy Bass” singing fish affixed to the wall, and a noisy laundry station right outside the room’s door. Clearly the wife’s “fun” retirement project, the bedroom was filled with mismatched chintz.
The mistress of the house, irked at having to wait up late for us, had just one burning question: Would we like eggs and sausage or waffles and fruit for breakfast in the morning?
The next day we were greeted by her in the kitchen while her husband, in a gray undershirt and little else, sat nearby watching TV, his bare feet and unclipped toenails propped up on an ottoman in full view as we tried to eat…. clearly intent on ignoring the intruders in his house.
We headed into the park and took a hike that inadvertently lasted well into the dark as we rushed to find our way back without flashlights. Our stay was topped off by my husband’s scary hypothermia that evening.
These kinds of tales are called “Epic Fail" stories by our daughters, who often try to run from the room instead of hearing them. They find them cringe-worthy. But the “fail” is actually the point. It’s a way of examining what we’ve done well and not so well, figuring out how we could do better, and teaching them some things to avoid too. My husband especially enjoys sharing these, and to me, they’re pretty funny, even on repetition. (I try to restrain myself from giving away the ending!)
The story above, for example, contains a lot of valuable lessons. Don’t buy a singing bass fish and hang it up to decorate your new basement B&B. Another: Don’t book a room—or, much more importantly, don’t go to a school or accept a job or travel to a faraway destination—on the basis of a small, cute ad you find quickly online. Do your research!
It’s a valuable takeaway: You need to do due diligence in life. And if you do, and you still find you're stuck in a basement listening to a fish singing "Don't Worry, Be Happy," do your best to laugh at it.
Also: Don’t plan an 8+ mile summer hike in the mid-afternoon without quick-dry clothing or flashlights. (We have since become big fans of synthetic athletic shirts, and of starting early.)
Time and experience have taught us many life lessons, and we try to share those with our children. Stories are an ideal way to do that, since they are memorable and relatable. With the distance of a few years, what was really frustrating at the time now seems funny.
And the act of framing what happened to us, and our role in shaping it, is best done at a distance—looking back from a safe perch to see the full context. It's a good way to sneak in a little teaching with kids of any age... and even to remind ourselves of what to do differently next time.
Socrates is famously quoted as saying, “the greatest good is daily to converse about virtue,” and “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Plato’s Apology). We humans do need to talk, to share our stories, to probe all our experiences and our thoughts—to understand the choices we have made and the personal tendencies and real-life situations that pull us away from virtue. We do need to examine who we are, and what we do, on a regular basis, in order to improve our understanding and our choices. (For an interesting take on these quotes, see this Vermont Philosophy blog post.)
And, within reason, it is beneficial to share this practice with our children. Children, especially as they get older, need to learn how to fail, and how to get back up again after a reversal. Also, since our culture often misinforms them about what they should value and how they should behave in a tough situation, hearing a parent or trusted adult rationally review a mistake or even a difficult misfortune can teach them something, too.
It's helpful to review our actions for ourselves, either in writing or in our personal thoughts. Ancient Stoics looked back to Pythagoras’ Golden Verses, where he advocated reviewing our own behavior daily:
“Never allow sleep to close your eyelids, after you went to bed,
Until you have examined all your actions of the day by your reason.
In what have I done wrong? What have I done? What have I omitted that I ought to have done?
If in this examination you find that you have done wrong, reprove yourself severely for it;
And if you have done any good, rejoice.”
It’s a practice I do in a sideways way, sifting through what’s on my mind through writing about my thoughts and challenges, especially by blogging. I also like jotting down a few lines of verse here and there in the evening, sometimes transforming a painful experience into a lyrical moment.
This all reminds me of a favorite possession in my family. When I went to Universal Studios’ Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park several years ago, I got a baseball cap as a souvenir. The hat said “Seeker”—Harry’s position in the game of Quidditch. But for me, it held a deeper meaning. I’m constantly seeking to understand where we derive our value and moral worth, how we can examine and refine our intentions, and the way we live our lives. How we can be in harmony with our world, but also strive to bring good to our relationships and our communities. How to see things clearly in a world where emotional appeals (backed by cash) are used to constantly sell us products or even political candidates.
How to cut through the noise? By seeking the truth and pursuing the virtues in our daily engagements, and by recalling our “fails” and our successes through stories. Life is messy, and that's why this process will take all of our days. But that is what being human is all about.
I’ve since given the hat to my younger daughter, passing on this bit of wisdom.
The college admissions scandal has exposed wealthy parents for transforming their kids into "perfect" college candidates by lying and cheating—by illegally manipulating a system that’s supposed to be outside their influence.
Many people were not terribly surprised: In the service of “what’s best for our children,” we are all tempted to go to outrageous lengths. As a parent, I, too, have sometimes felt the desire to control my children’s lives and pave the way for their success (though never using illegal means).
But I have realized that this is an impossible—and misguided—task. Ultimately, I have found a way to handle my frustration without falling into the trap of trying to control everything.
I found ancient Greek and Roman Stoicism. And I think all parents could benefit from a dose of Stoic philosophy.
Here’s the central reason it can help parents: Stoicism’s core tenant, "the dichotomy of control," teaches us to stop trying to exert control over things that are outside our power.
One of the defining experiences of parenting is loss of control. From the moment I became pregnant, my body was doing things I had zero power over. And when my first daughter was born, and then my second, I quickly realized that they were unique human beings whose personalities and behaviors seemed inborn. They acted in ways I couldn’t manage, organize, or keep to a “proper” schedule. When I tried, the tantrums got worse, and the anxiety increased for me, making me so irritable that my ability to make good decisions faltered.
But by taking a Stoic approach, I focus on things I cancontrol—my own thoughts, emotions, actions—and on recognizing that others’ judgments of me and my family are just not that important. What matters is cultivating an ethical character and doing the right thing, even in the face of criticism, doubt, and fear.
For three years now, Stoic ideas have helped me become a better parent and person. I have absorbed original ancient texts by Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca, and I’ve read modern interpretations. Stoic philosophy has given me a new acceptance of my lack of control over my children’s behaviors, preferences, and interests. And it’s helped me set my kids on a path of well-reasoned choices that, I hope, will serve them long beyond college.
And now, as a teen and a preteen, my daughters still do their own thing. Though they look like me, they often do not do what I would, and do things I’d never do. It’s still hard to accept, but I do my best.
I’m sure when college applications roll around, I’ll be a basketcase, too. The admissions process tests people’s sanity. It’s the same challenge that we have with our kids in general, but writ large: The process is (or is supposed to be) completely outside our control, it is capricious, and it is largely impenetrable.
We wish the admissions system were clear, and yet, we want schools to assess the “whole student,” not just a score on one high stakes test like in some other countries’ systems. (Americans want to have it both ways in that sense.)
With the new criminal case, we have seen searing examples of well-heeled parents’ desire to control both their kids and the process. These parents believed that money can and should exert control over what seems uncontrollable to others. It’s all crashing down now.
So are there lessons we can learn from Stoic philosophy about how parents (and kids) could approach college admissions differently?
First, we must stop pretending the we can, or should, control other people, whether that’s our children or admissions officers.
Studying Stoicism has reminded me that kids are not cars or computers or robots—nor are they performing circus animals who happen to live in my house. Parents can’t manage kids’ intelligence or how much they apply themselves in school. We can’t force them to become talented athletes. And obviously we can’t change their SAT scores or pretend that they are something they’re not for the sake of applications or awards.
This is hard to swallow because our society is forever telling us that as parents, we need to give our kids the very best in life. We are also reminded that we are responsible for our kids’ success—and that it reflects on us and our own achievements.
But let’s try to remember that our children have to be allowed to be themselves. Not everyone is a competition-winning water polo player. Students should be able to exercise freedom, even if it leads to missteps along the way. That means parents letting go of everything from the sense of “I should be able to stop my kid’s tantrum” to “I should be able to get my kid into a prestigious school.”
In the service of control, the indicted parents used money to impose their will on the system. And in the process, they took autonomy and personhood away from their children.
Second, in contrast to controlling our children and their circumstances, we can encourage our kids to find the right path “in accord with nature.” In Stoic thought, this means using your own sense of right and wrong—a sense embedded in all humans—combined with an understanding of the reality we live in, to make good judgments and decisions.
This approach doesn’t mean letting kids do whatever they want. We can model good choices and set high standards, demonstrating how to live inspired by the Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and self-control. We can guide. Kids who ignore this will face their own consequences.
One more note on choices: Key to Stoicism is ignoring others’ judgments of you, your status, prestige, wealth, looks, etc., because those things have no real value (they are mere “preferred indifferents”). All parents want a great education for their kids, but the prestige of a particular university is not what really matters.
And third, we should all (parents and kids alike) keep in mind our common humanity, and with that, a sense of fairness and justice.
Though we all make choices individually, we aren’t isolated. Ancient Stoics emphasized that all humans belong to the same family. By that reasoning, we should aim to help one another, collaborating to solve mutual problems.
It’s not easy, though. We are all “patients in the same hospital,” as Seneca put it. We all have troubles, we all seek answers, and we all struggle. There’s no mythical doctor coming to cure us. But some patients, Seneca suggests, have been aware of their ailments longer, and can help others make progress.
Maybe we could find a silver lining to this admissions scandal if universities and parents, along with regulators, worked together to find more rational approaches to the college admissions process. We’d all benefit from changes that would minimize the insane competition and financial pressure that applicants and their families experience—forces that drive so many schemes, legal and not, to manufacture ideal college candidates.
Until that happens, it’s absolutely essential to become a Stoic mom (or dad).
Not Throwing Away My Shot
My younger daughter is obsessed with Hamilton, the modern musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda about the “founding father without a father” Alexander Hamilton. Nonstop I hear it in my house, both in recordings and on her lips.
It started with my older daughter a couple years ago when she began middle school, but now my younger child is the super-fan, reciting raps rapid-fire on the playground with a few other Hamilton-adoring kids. She said she learned to sing better from this effort and was excited to be cast as a lead in her school play, also a musical. She spent her special spending money ordering Hamilton t-shirts online. So yeah, it’s big around here.
There are some fringe benefits. I, too, love the mashup of hip-hop, rap, pop, jazz, big band, and dance hall music. After hearing the musical, my daughters and I have explored the history of this period further, learning more about the Revolutionary War and the foundation of the national bank, as well as the historical Hamilton. Both of my kids have aced a few history projects thanks to the inspiration provided by this Broadway production.
Now that my daughters have exposed me to the musical so much that I’ve memorized my fair share of songs, I can say that a number of the show's concepts support my life philosophy based on Stoicism.
Aaron Burr, the lawyer and politician who was Hamilton’s greatest rival, serves as the show’s narrator. In a musical about Hamilton, we expect to dislike Burr, but it’s far more nuanced.
In the song “Wait for It,” Burr delivers a number of Stoic ideas, most notably this line: “I am the one thing in life I can control.”
The whole song is about self-control, in fact. Burr, unlike the frenetic, constantly moving Hamilton, is willing to wait for success, to wait for his destiny. (Unfortunately that destiny left him known primarily as Hamilton’s killer and as the loser in a presidential race.)
Burr, like Hamilton, is also keenly aware that death is always lurking, unpredictably, for all of us, no matter our achievements or goodness:
“Death doesn’t discriminate
Between the sinners
And the saints
It takes and it takes and it takes
And we keep living anyway
We rise and we fall
And we break
And we make our mistakes…”
The song creates sympathy for a man that you might otherwise despise. Burr is thoughtful, emotional, and very human, and he draws on Stoic ideas to stay balanced in a time of war and upheaval and impassioned rivalry.
Hamilton, too—though the most un-Stoic of men—is a very sympathetic and appealing character whose tremendous productivity is motivated by his impending sense of death and the potential for failure before he’s done. He puts it this way in “The Room Where it Happened”:
“God help and forgive me
I wanna build
Something that’s gonna
Hamilton’s character is summed up by the song “Not Throwing Away My Shot.” (Yes, there is a lot of irony there, given his final duel.)
Hamilton’s key idea: “Just act.” It’s not good to wait for someone else to make things right for you. Instead, go ahead and take action, and push for your point of view. You might just make history.
The script depicts Hamilton's main critique of Burr as centered around the idea that Burr lacks principles. He doesn't "stand for" anything, and politics has consumed him (I hear echoes of Epictetus' dislike of amoral politicians in this script).
Hamilton views Burr as an opportunist and supports another rival, Jefferson, for the presidency because "Jefferson has beliefs, Burr has none." That leads to their deadly last dispute.
Of course, Hamilton is also the story of a man who destroys himself because he lacks a specific virtue: Self-control.
He’s got a lot of courage and a keen sense of justice, but his wisdom fails him in a few important moments. The show demonstrates how his infamous extra-marital affair and angry sense of self-justification brings about his undoing in politics and in life.
Sucked in by bad passions and insults, guilty over his son’s demise in a duel after receiving his unfortunate advice, Hamilton is not able to recover the sense of honor that he has lost. He seems obsessed with proving his own righteousness to others, especially his fiercest rivals. With an almost suicidal intent, he enters the duel with Burr that he doesn’t survive.
Despite Hamilton's ill-fated end, we can take away a few key ideas to live our own lives better.
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.