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).
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.
Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
My younger daughter slightly injured my older daughter in the pool today. The injury faded very quickly—but the daughter responsible had much more trouble with the emotional consequences of her mistake.
She immediately apologized for the minor pain she’d caused, but she did not like the response she received. “That hurt,” her older sister said, “Ouch… why did you do that?” It wasn’t the “I accept your apology” that she wanted.
My younger child acted like the one wronged and in pain, crying furiously.
I knelt poolside and tried to impart some of the wisdom of the Stoic philosophy I’ve been studying. “You can’t control how other people react to you,” I said to her. “Even if you think you’re doing the right thing, people will respond in ways you don’t appreciate or even understand. It may seem hurtful. But you can't make her change how she feels or what she says.”
“But I want her to forgive me, I want her to be OK with me, and to not be angry with me,” she said between sobs.
“Unfortunately, It’s not possible to force someone to be OK with you.” I tried to get past her tears. “It may feel hurtful, I know. But the only person who can change that hurt is you. You have to try to learn how to act when you make a mistake. We all make them," I said.
"To me, all you can do when you make a mistake is to apologize. To try to make it better and fix whatever you caused--like if you spilled all the milk, clean it up, and then go out and buy new milk. After that, work on moving past it.
"Others' emotions can't be controlled or fixed. You can’t make her happy with you right now. And as hard as that is to accept, it's just how things work.”
Eventually the sobbing subsided. And soon they were friends again, doing a vague semblance of synchronized swimming together.
In our perfectionistic society—our culture that privileges flawless behavior and looks, and that celebrates outward success that appears immune to criticism—mistakes are simply not accepted by many people.
In my experience, you can have one or two reactions to a mistake. Either deny it completely (a la our president, who never acknowledges doing anything wrong), or say you’re sorry and try to make things whole again as best you can.
When you apologize and try to make it right, you hope to start fresh. But that is the tricky part. You want to make sure you are still loved and accepted by those around you—but you simply are not in charge of other people’s thoughts and feelings.
That’s where my daughter fell apart. And maybe that’s why so many people deny their mistakes, errors, failings to begin with.
Stoicism offers a good way to frame how to respond when we make a mistake, do something wrong, or when others see us fail at something. In our usual fantasy of control over the world, it's hard to acknowledge a basic fact: that we can only master ourselves.
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.