Stoic life philosophy and others’ judgments
In the series Black Mirror, there’s an infamous episode where the main character is judged for her actions minute-to-minute by her peers, gaining and losing points via a social media-style app. A cascade of missteps, largely outside of her control, results in a lower score—and, as a result, a disturbing downgrade in her real life. The episode is called Nosedive, and it’s terrifying. (But apparently not so scary to those who turned it into a "fun" game sold at Target!)
This sounds like a futuristic nightmare. But it’s already happening in some countries. Artificial intelligence is quickly combining with facial recognition, social media, and crowdsourcing to become tools of social control.
I find this situation of great concern as a human being—and also as a follower of Stoic practices. It makes me wonder: No matter what scary impositions technology enables, how can we, as individuals, effectively cope with others’ judgments?
Ancient Stoics, with Epictetus the strongest voice among them, teach us that we have no control over what other people think or do, and therefore should ignore others’ opinions. In day-to-day life, this is hard. People’s judgments happen everywhere, all the time, and they can affect our lives in real ways. Others’ opinions cost us jobs, school admittances, relationships, and more.
At times, I’ve found myself swimming in a sea of criticism, and it’s toxic. As a student and a young professional, I would slave over projects trying to perfect them and protect them from criticism, trying so hard to please that my own unique imprint got lost. (In that way, worries about others’ judgments actually kept me from doing my best work.) I wanted my efforts and my external persona to be bulletproof. This tendency among girls, in particular, has been highlighted in recent media stories that try to explain why girls' high achievement in school does not always translate into success in the workplace: perfectionism is the enemy of more lasting, real-world accomplishment.
But critiques of my work (and of me!) inevitably happened, and though I tried to maintain a brave face, I was crushed inside. That was before I accepted that I couldn’t control or change others’ reactions, and that I could still live a good life no matter what they thought. Before I began practicing a Stoic life philosophy.
Now, as I have developed a more self-reliant idea about my own value and core principles, I’ve come to see interactions with others as a dance with an often-unreliable partner.
The ancients knew this. That’s the source of all the language about being able to “bear” other people. Marcus Aurelius had to do this as emperor, and I think he spoke most eloquently about what needs to be done: As humans, we are built to work together in society, so we have to balance our wishes and drives with those of others. That means we must put up with people who are separated from reason and their ruling center.
So we have to learn this dance. Even if our feet are often stepped on, bringing involuntary tears to our eyes.
This is a lifelong project. We can interact with our coworkers, gathering input, without letting their agendas penetrate too deeply into our ruling centers. We can learn from mentors, without being controlled by their point of view—asking ourselves, like Socrates, “Is it true?” We can share what we create, and hope that others, through our common humanity, will respond to the work as intended or will offer ideas to inform us—but we can’t expect this to happen. We can be close with family, yet still follow our own paths.
We could learn to view our work, and our relationships, not as finished, polished, perfect things, but as living entities, like trees in the forest, always expanding and shifting. That way, everything is a work in progress, like our own moral development, where there’s always room for growth ...that is, until we somehow become Stoic sages.
I’ve found I make more progress on this when I heed the advice of my daughters’ teachers, who inculcate a “growth mindset.” The crux of it: You don’t know everything to begin with, and 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.)
Where does that leave our “score”—in other words, how we are assessed by others?
The hard truth is that we must learn to ignore it and endure the consequences. As I feel myself being judged by peers or colleagues, I tell myself: This is yet another opportunity to exercise my core principles and hope that my truth will win out. After all, a good social or professional rank is not essential, but rather a preferred indifferent in a self-reliant life lived according to the virtues.
This Friday, I'm trying something different: a pop music-inspired philosophy reflection.
My kids got me into pop. I had always preferred jazz and classical, aside from a lingering love of 1980s-era Police and Talking Heads.
When my daughters were very small, I played recordings of Mozart and Beethoven for them, in addition to lots of kids’ songs and folk music. They seemed to like it all, but really gravitated towards songs they could sing along with. Another favorite I shared was Allan Sherman, the musical comedian (his parodies of 1960s and American folk songs are still classics).
It was my daughters’ early experiences at summer camp finally made me start to appreciate frothy pop. They attended programs run in our neighborhood, where day camps rent out private schools for the summer. In the tradition of camps, they are staffed by teenagers. And both my girls, starting at age 5, would come home singing tunes loved by teens, mostly songs I’d never heard. They even made up special versions just for camp.
Camp Galileo was at the forefront of this cultural appropriation. They subbed in “Galileo” for many other lyrics. For example, the 1980s German pop song “Amadeus” became “Galileo, Galileo, oh, oh, oh, Galileo” rather than “Amadeus, Amadeus, oh, oh, oh, Amadeus.” The lyrics from Taio Cruz’s “Dynamite” were altered this way:
“I throw my hands up in the air sometimes,
Saying ‘Ayo! GALILEO!’
I want to celebrate and live my life,
Saying ‘Ayo! GALILEO!’”
The kids got to know these songs well, performing some of them for an audience of parents and caregivers on the last day of each week-long camp session. Seeing the children sing and dance made me smile. The kids' enthusiasm was palpable. Slowly I dropped my negative judgments, my pre-existing bias against pop. I let the words and sounds wash over me. I felt myself start to move to the beat. Suddenly I realized: This is fun!
A song that both my daughters loved, and one that helped finally break down my skeptical armor when it comes to pop music, was “It’s Always a Good Time.” This 2012 song, by Owl City and Canadian singer Carly Rae Jepsen (of "Call Me Maybe" fame) is about as fluffy as pop gets. The female and male singer croon about what a great experience they have going out and how everything in their lives is pretty great.
As unexpected as it sounds, I’d like to take the opportunity to point out some ways in which the lyrics (such as they are) support my life philosophy inspired by Stoicism.
“We don’t even have to try, it’s always a good time”:
Remember when I wrote against “trying”? Well, this message is good reinforcement. Rather than tensing up and trying very hard to remain true to your philosophy, ease up. Internalize its key ideas, and work from there. This was the crux of what my Alexander Technique teacher taught me: Learn the method, and then live it. Put your principles into practice, without fear or stress.
The type of stress we develop when we are about to try to tackle something “really hard” creates a physical barrier that makes it tougher. Sometimes it also surfaces a sense of failure before we’ve even begun. So go ahead, live with the energy of the universe flowing through you and have a good time!
“Doesn’t matter when—it’s always a good time then”:
I love this line even more. Anytime is the time to put your principles into action—and to live life to its fullest. This is the core of mindfulness, too. Any moment is a good time to acknowledge the extraordinary world all around us, and to become more aware of what we are thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
Marcus Aurelius wrote about concentrating on the present moment: "We live only in the present, in this fleet-footed moment. The rest is lost and behind us, or ahead of us and may never be found."
So did the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: "The present moment is the only moment available to us, and it is the door to all other moments."
Both of these quotes inspire me.
One of the concepts I’m trying to live by these days is reducing resistance to the world around me. Resistance in this sense is when I feel a conflict between what I want/expect and what reality gives me. (I know there are many other terms for this, and many other uses of the word resistance.) I’ve had a habit of noticing, commenting on, and quite frankly overly focusing on this frequent gap. It creates suffering. And it’s largely unnecessary.
(That is, aside from when we witness real injustice, or danger, or truly immoral behavior. Then, noticing and pointing it out, and fighting it, is our duty as followers of justice, wisdom, and courage.)
How does this align with a Stoic-inspired life philosophy? Starting with Zeno, the Greek founder of Stoic thought, the Stoics wrote about living “in accord with nature.”
This means, in part, living without resistance. Being in accord with nature means using that spark inside us that’s rational. It means being truly human, and I think we can express that in the very human balance of work, play, and reflection.
“Happiness is a good flow of life,” Zeno is also quoted as saying. The flow happens when we align with the universe and build our capacity for making good decisions and forming excellent judgments.
In mindfulness meditation, people sometimes speak of “being breathed.” It’s when the air flow seems to be happening on its own, our lungs perfectly able to manage this process masterfully, and naturally, enabling us to let go of our fears and distractions. Perhaps the “good flow of life” feels that way.
I can picture Zeno now, talking with his students. I’m wondering if he might, just might, enjoy pop music if he were around today…
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.
When I was in high school, after my classes were done, I’d walk towards Lake Michigan and wait at the public bus stop on nearest large road. There was not much to do as the cars whizzed by. Not too many kids relied on the public bus, so many times I was alone facing the road and the lake shore park across the way. Sometimes I’d read. But often, I would sit there on the concrete and look up at the sky.
I’d watch the movement of white against blue against gray. I’d see just a small opening in the clouds beginning and then gathering clarity, revealing azure behind the mist, and finally rays of sun visibly filtering across a milky white backdrop.
I’d try to read the clouds for impending weather shifts, which could happen moment to moment. But mostly I’d take in the beauty of it. The fluffy cloud formations and play of light reminded me of a renaissance painting. Magic.
Even now, looking at clouds above, I imagine sitting up there. It looks so close I could nearly touch it. There’s a reason those fantastical Italian ceiling frescos feature the sky, clouds, and beams of light so prominently, and why we picture the gods in this "celestial" realm. It’s otherworldly.
As I look up today, I stop to consider two ways my sky-study supports my life philosophy based on Stoic principles.
First off, I think looking up offers a kind of reverse "view from above." We could call it “a view from below.”
Traditionally, the ancients practiced the “view from above” by picturing themselves floating high over the people and cities and world that they knew, and seeing things from a new perspective where our problems and, indeed, our whole lives look small and inconsequential.
If we try the “view from below”as a practice, as we look up, we are reminded of the beauty and structure of our whole planet and the environment we live in—and of how small we are in the wider perspective. Seeing the timeless sky above, one that originated with the dawn of Earth, also serves to indicate how fleeting and short our time is.
Looking up, we can also feel very keenly that we all see the same sky, the same clouds. Every human being, no matter his or her location or profession or status, can study those remarkable clouds and sinuous patterns of light and shade. And we all can appreciate them.
In that way, it’s a reminder of our inter-connectedness as well. Looking at the clouds and sky can serve as an exercise in what the ancients called cosmopolitanism. Because we all share the same sky, and we can all potentially respond to its beauty and its life-giving light and air.
So the next time you’re outside, take a few minutes to turn towards the sky. Really study it. Be moved by it. And let it serve as a vivid reminder of our small place in this world, of the beauty and joy we can find here, and of the millions (billions?) of other people who are also looking up at this very moment.
When she was about 6, my older daughter got pretty busy with school, activities, friends, and family. She wished she had more time.
I remember one day when she said she wanted time to fit in an extra gymnastics class. After a quick conversation about how hard it would be to add another lesson to our packed schedules, my daughter piped up.
“I’ll do gymnastics on Washanzga Day,” she told me and her little sister on the drive home from swim lessons.
“What’s Washanzga Day?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s this extra day of the week. It's the eighth day. And it’s a day when you can do all the things you don’t have time for during the regular week.”
Maybe it was the day when she’d be able to meet up with her imaginary friends Cuppa or Layla—I heard a lot about how busy they were too--for an extended playdate. Or maybe she could do a few extra activities that her family’s schedule couldn’t accommodate other days. Or just play around, with a boon of free time.
She talked about it like it was a real thing. Her power of imagination was always strong, and her will to conjure this special day amazed me. I laughed at first, and then I started to think. What if we did have an extra day?
I’ve never forgotten Washanzga Day. In fact, I’ve longed for it.
I’m the kind of person who is very busy. As another mom friend once said, “we are all busy, but no one is busier than Meredith.” I took it as an extreme compliment!
I like to be busy—not doing “busy work,” but doing things that I love and that strengthen my interests and impact. In fact, I am pretty selective and exercise caution when it comes to long term commitments. But when I do commit, I don’t go by half-measures. I put in lots of energy and my full heart and soul.
Deciding what to do, and what attitude to bring, is central to the Stoic project. I love Epictetus’ discussion of the difference between times when we should use caution and those when we should be confident to forget ahead. It’s a bit counterintuitive:
“Nothing is impractical in the philosophers’ advice to ‘Be confident in everything outside the will, and cautious in everything under the will’s control.’” (Discourses, Book II, II)
In other words: Be bold with—and untroubled by—the things you can’t control. After all, you can’t really change those things, so your actions won’t have significant impact. And it’s not the things in themselves that bother people—it’s the fears they engender. Epictetus puts pain and death in that category: don’t fear them, and they won’t trouble you. (Markedly easier said than done! Speaking from several weeks of dental pain, this is a tough principle to live by, though it is at the core of Stoic practice.)
On the other hand, he argues, be very careful with the things in your power. That is where you need to exercise your own judgment, and you have the opportunity to change your own thoughts and actions for the better. That’s the work that truly matters.
Maybe we'd feel less pressed for time if we all had a Washanzga Day for the extra things we might like to magically fit in to our busy lives. And if that day could expand to encompass everything we want to do. Making choices and living well is hard, and in the end, it is impossible to fathom the limit on our days. Our real lived days, not our Washangza Days.
We just don’t know when the Fates will stop us short.
Here’s where Seneca's writings on the shortness of life call out to us. As Seneca reminds readers, it is essential to keep control of how we devote our attention and—whenever possible—how we spend our time. Granted, we may need to work at jobs for income and we may have to change diapers and do daily kid pickups, just to keep things going. It’s not always negotiable. But when it is, it behooves us to make wise choices with our time. It’s our most precious resource. We’d better not waste it.
This brings us back once again to the question of how to figure out what’s worth our time. There is no easy answer.
Like Japanese organizing maven Marie Kando, we could ask: does this activity spark joy? Does this add value to me? Or even if I don’t love doing it and rather might not, does this add value to my community, my family, my job or organization in a way that promotes one of the key virtues? Am I acting with courage, justice? With compassion? If so: Is this more worthwhile than other ways to spend my time?
How do we know the right attitude to take when making commitments? Question your impressions, the Stoics would say. If everyone around you seems to expect you’ll be this year’s Cookie Mom for Girl Scouts, ask yourself, is this really how I should spend my time? Is it using my strengths and is it my choice, or am I doing this because of the way other people would judge me if I said no? Be cautious in proceeding, as Epictetus tells us. You could find another path—a role that suits your abilities and interests is ideal. If you decide to go forward, commit.
Let's recall Seneca's words (using male language, but this applies equally to women), "You'll find no one willing to distribute his money; but to how many people each of us shares out his life! Men are thrifty in guarding their private property, but as soon as it comes to wasting time, they are most extravagant with the one commodity for which it's respectable to be greedy."
I can be greedy with my time, but I love to spend on my favorite things. In my free time, I gravitate towards immersive “flow” activities and try to squeeze them in as often as I can.
For me, these are the creative pursuits or activities with my family where I lose track of time completely. Perhaps that is a tiny way to defeat time’s dominance over our lives. It’s a way of maximizing the moment by being completely enveloped in it.
I find "flow" when I’m working on an artistic project. Or hanging out with my daughters dancing to pop music (for which I’m mercilessly mocked!). Or learning about the latest research in my field in an online seminar. Or playing piano. Or writing this blog.
How do you decide how to spend your time? What would you do if you had a Washanzga Day?
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, 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.