Throughout university, we studied a lot of theory. We read the works of thinkers like Karl Marx and Michel Foucault, and were taught to question a variety of societal norms that we commonly held to be true. While these theoretical ideas excited us, there was something noticeably missing from our education, that being a focus on the mental health side of student life. We often felt unsure about how to handle difficult situations at school, such as remaining optimistic after receiving a low grade on a paper or staying motivated during the mental grind of exam season. It was not until we started reading Stoic philosophy on an ongoing basis that we learned how to stay positive in the face of adversity.
We never formally studied Stoicism in university. In fact, the only mention of it came when one of our English professors briefly referenced the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius during a lecture on Williams Shakespeare’s Richard III. Though we did not dive into a deep exploration of Aurelius’s ideas at the time, the first Stoic seed was planted, one which would eventually grow into not only a fascination of the philosophy but a willingness to live out its core principles and teachings.
After finishing graduate school, we continued to explore the philosophy by reading not only the original texts of the Roman stoics Epictetus, Seneca, and Aurelius but also contemporary authors like Ryan Holiday and Donald Robertson, both of whom write about Stoicism and its relevance to the modern society. We found that the time-tested practices that Stoic philosophy had to offer made a real difference in our day-to-day lives.
Since these ideas were not being discussed at university, we decided to build our own workshop around the most effective Stoic practices for letting go of worry and finding peace. We were lucky enough to present to a couple of Teachers College classes not too long ago about how Stoicism has changed our lives and were grateful for how receptive the students were to our ideas. One student thanked us for confirming that the fears she has about her future are also shared by her peers. She left the presentation feeling more at ease, knowing that the challenges she has are not unique to her situation while at the same time feeling optimistic that the practices we discussed could help her moving forward.
We will be going through five Stoic practices below that we include in our workshop, practices that we use on a daily basis in both our personal and professional lives. Though many people would consider them common-sense practices, we find that the business of life sometimes gets in the way of remembering their usefulness.
Practice #1: Separate What Is In Your control From What is not in Your Control
Epictetus said that obsessive worrying is often a result of stressing over an external outcome that has not happened yet. He argued that we should instead concern ourselves with matters that we have complete control over. This idea is central to the Stoic teaching known as the dichotomy of control. The dichotomy of control is all about making the best use of what is in our power and not being attached to external results. This principle is easier said than done, but if practiced, it can help simplify our priorities in life while making us more serene.
If you are a student, consider the things that you have complete control over, such as how you frame events, how you respond to difficult situations and your intentions. Since things like reputation and grades are not completely under your control, it should be the least of your worries. Prioritize attending class as frequently as possible, going through course readings carefully, putting as much effort as you can into a given assignment, and making a daily schedule that works for you. If you focus your attention on factors that are only within your control, you give yourself the best possible chance to succeed.
Practice #2: Premeditate upon Future Difficulties
A second useful practice is what Seneca calls “premeditatio malorum,” which means to meditate upon future difficulties. This practice involves imagining what you believe to be the worst-case scenario that could arise from a particular situation and learning to be okay with the outcome. For example, if you are working on a seminar presentation, consider the possibility that your audience will not be receptive to your ideas and questions. This kind of thinking may seem pessimistic, but it is far from it. Premeditating on difficulties is not about continually fixating on what could go wrong but briefly considering what could happen if it does and understanding that, in most cases, our world will go on. If we can make peace with the worst-case scenario, we can then effectively work towards improving our chances of success.
We believe that there are significant benefits to contemplating the possibility that you may not receive the grade you were hoping for in a course or considering that you could end up switching programs at some point down the road. Premeditation can help us take pressure off the need to reach a particular destination as quickly as possible (e.g., a career upon graduating). Instead, this practice teaches us to slow down and appreciate the unpredictable journey of life.
Practice #3: Take an Outside View
Epictetus says that when we go through some type of misfortune, we should imagine as if the same thing happened to a friend and consider the advice we would provide him or her. Reminding ourselves that difficulties happen to everyone is comforting and can help us to avoid catastrophizing the hardships we are facing. A related practice that Aurelius uses is to ask ourselves if we would likely feel the same way about the particular problem we are dealing with 10 or 20 years from now. If you think you would not even be able to recall it, then the matter might not be as life-altering as you think.
Students can remind themselves that other people in their program have encountered and will continue to encounter similar difficulties, such as failing an assignment, pulling an all-nighter, or even dropping out. Knowing that others have lived through rough patches and became stronger for it can help us realize that we can do it too.
Practice #4: Be Willing to Reframe Your Value Judgements
The Stoics believed that the words we use to describe something affect how we feel about it. Therefore, using strong words (such as horrible, stupid, etc.) when we evaluate things can fire up our emotions in a vicious cycle. Instead, we should avoid catastrophizing events and instead stick to the facts as accurately and objectively as possible.
In his book How To Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, Robertson details the frail state that Aurelius was in while governing Rome. Due to his chronic health problems, the Roman emperor went through an extraordinary amount of pain daily and was bed ridden near the end of his life. However, he did not complain nor view physical discomfort as a bad thing. Instead, he saw it as an opportunity to develop internal strength and resilience. We can use Aurelius’s positive attitude during his final days on earth as motivation. His outlook inspires us to consider the silver lining in any situation we may face.
If you are met with hardships at school, try using any of these Stoic reframe mottos to help you view an event from a different perspective:
- “It is not what we bear, but how we bear it.” – Seneca
- “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” – Marcus Aurelius
- “Whenever you find yourself in a hole, remind yourself of Hercules who became strong only because of the challenges he faced.” -Jonas Salzgeber
- “The divine will exist and directs the universe with justice and goodness. Though it is not always apparent if you merely look at the surface of things, the universe we inhabit is the best possible universe.” – Epictetus
Practice #5: Follow a Morning Routine
Aurelius believed that one of the best times to look inward, examine, and reflect is in the morning. He would spend time meditating on the potential challenges he might encounter later on in the day. As opposed to waking up and immediately rushing to school or work, a morning routine allows you to get a head start on the day. Having a morning routine will allow you to attain a small victory before you leave the house, and this feeling can lead to a domino effect for the rest of the day.
Start thinking about what your current morning routine looks like and whether it needs to be improved. Do you find yourself rushing to get to where you want to be? As an example, our morning routines look similar and consist of waking up early, reading self-development books for around thirty minutes, exercising, showering, meditating, and writing. We also make time for journaling, a practice that Aurelius valued as well. If you are unsure about where to start with your journaling, start with writing one thing you are grateful for. Then, write about what your day is expected to look like while including some potential problems that may occur. For example, you may consider the possibility of not doing well on your midterm or having a disagreement with group members about a presentation idea. Lastly, reflect on what you could tell yourself to help get you through these difficult situations (you may want to revisit some of the above reframe mottos).
Please know that we are not trying to be prescriptive by suggesting that all of the above practices will work for every student. Anyone reading this blog post is free to discard the bits of advice that they disagree with or find irrelevant to their current circumstance. The great thing about the Stoic philosophers is that they did not consider their words to be doctrinal and were open to being challenged. However, Stoic philosophy has shaped our worldview for the better and, in our opinion, can help influence others, especially students trying to keep up with the demanding expectations placed on them by teachers, parents, and themselves. Stoicism is a philosophy of life and it’s meant to be practiced in the real world, so go out there a give it a shot. Like many others before you, you may well find that the philosophy of Stoicism, if practiced regularly, can bring more joy, serenity, and freedom into your life, even during the most trying of times.
Igor Ratkovic is a full-time entrepreneur and award-winning YouTuber with over half a million subscribers. He completed Teachers College in 2017 and a Masters of Arts in English in 2018 at Brock University.
Ryan Racine is a school teacher and college instructor. He received his Masters of Arts in English in 2017 and has published in magazines such as PACE, The Ekphrastic Review, and University Affairs.