It’s in looking back and reflecting that one’s life journey is sorted and makes sense. Marcus Aurelius knew this. The entire first book of Meditations is a review of the people that shaped him. A process in which he expresses sincere gratitude to family, friends, colleagues, and teachers.
What is creativity? Creativity is a fundamental human impulse. Along with our capacity for reason and social instinct, it’s a defining characteristic of the human animal. Creativity is the simple human act of bringing something forth into the world that did not heretofore exist. You employ your creative inclination every time you send a message, prepare a meal, make a mess, or make amends.
What Is Stoicism?
Stoicism is an ancient philosophy of life that, like any worthwhile metaphysical pursuit, answers the questions, “What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be happy? And, how can I be more of both?”
Stoics suggest that our rational and social nature are defining human traits and that developing and employing both cultivate excellence of character. They believe that virtue is all that is required to live a good life. Stoics further assert that clarity of what is and what is not within our control is essential to maintaining our sense of happiness.
Regarding life’s inevitable challenges and misfortunes, the Stoics suggest that if we employ ourselves purposefully where we have influence and do so for the common good, we can maintain a sense of flourishing even as we accept what fate bestows.
But, what the heck does Stoicism have to do with creativity? It’s where the art of living converges with the creative process. Stoicism encourages me to be a more purposeful and flourishing creative and creativity helps me approach the meaning of life with a greater sense of craft and appreciation.
Marcus Aurelius sums it up succinctly and eloquently:
Love the humble art you have learned and take rest in it. Pass through the remainder of your days as one who wholeheartedly entrusts all possessions to the gods, making yourself neither a tyrant nor a slave to any person. – Meditations, 4.31
Marcus, of course, is referring to the art of living. The responsibility of being a human being, and an individual, in service to our fellow human beings through the roles we play and the work we do. This is the path to equanimity, tranquility, and happiness through all of life’s challenges and celebrations.
In this art of living, we all possess the capacity to cultivate and encourage this “smoothly flowing life.”
At every hour, give your full concentration… to carrying out the task at hand with a scrupulous and unaffected dignity and affectionate concern for others and freedom and justice, and give yourself space from other concerns… You see how few things you need to be able to live a smoothly flowing life. – Meditations, 2.5
And creativity is one of the primary human motivations we can employ toward this end.
Marcus was my introduction to Stoicism, the philosophy that informs and influences my life and my work as a creative. Marcus’ delivers the virtues and values of Stoicism through metaphor and an aesthetic perspective that resonates especially deep with creatives. What follows are thoughts and reflections about my journey thus far as a creative and a “student” of Marcus.
My Journey Begins
My adventures in Stoicism began in a 7th grade Latin class where I was introduced to Marcus through translating passages from Meditations from Latin to English from my textbook (although Marcus originally wrote them in Greek). Encouraging my interest, my teacher gave me his copy of Meditations. I read and reread it until the book was tattered.
At the time, I didn’t know I was reading a definitive ancient Stoic text. I just loved the way Marcus spoke to himself. It was the same way I talked to myself. This is one thing purposeful work can do, it can connect people disconnected by time and place.
Another interest that developed at this time was playing guitar. In this adventure, I failed to meet a worthwhile guide until I went to college. However, once I connected with this teacher, I was “ruined.” Music frequently “interrupted” my studies and eventually my career as an academic.
Upon graduating, I taught at a few private schools you’ve probably heard of and tried my hand at sales and restauranteuring. But soon, I went all the way to “the dark side.” I became a professional musician. Again, Marcus spoke to me.
Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. For what task, then, were you yourself created? A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for. – Meditations, 8.19
The Stoics speak of the four roles or personae. Cicero writes of it in On Duties. We are simultaneously living as human beings, individuals, members of society, and the role we choose for ourselves. I’d found my purpose. My calling. Or at least my calling for the moment. A vocation as a performing musician was work at the intersection of my values and talents that enhanced the lives of others.
The Stoic Guitarist
Making a living as a guitarist is not for the faint of heart, but earning a living equal to that of your average academic was a pretty low bar to meet. I managed to build and sustain a music career while holding on to the woman of my dreams and raising two happy and healthy boys.
Fame and fortune eluded me. But that was not the point. I was happy to make a living doing work that was fulfilling. After all, Marcus reminds:
Does anything genuinely beautiful need supplementing? No more than justice does – or truth, or kindness, or humility. Are any of those improved by being praised? Or damaged by contempt? Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it? – Meditations, 4.20
To explore and develop my craft and be able to share my work with others. To serve the song, the audience, and my collaborators on stage. This was reward enough.
There were, of course, plenty of challenges. Disreputable club owners, irresponsible bandmates, indifferent audiences, nights traveling long distances for short money, and worse. But Marcus taught me to mitigate the impact of these misfortunes on my equanimity.
The thing ordained for you – teach yourself to be at one with those. And the people who share them with you – treat them with love. With real love. – Meditations, 6.30
It is easy to become bitter and jaded at any level of the music business’ pecking order. I certainly experienced instances of falling into these unhealthy states. But over and over again Marcus pulled me out with this reminder. The work was the reward. The work as a musician, sure. But also the task of being a human being striving for excellence through loving others and serving them through my work.
Receive without pride, let go without attachment. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.33
Marcus helped me approach my musical craft and career with greater intention and gratitude. Becoming a professional music maker is not work I have to do, its work I get to do. And for a long time, it was the work I felt I was meant to do.
Mindfully engaging with my craft, remaining present, and focusing on the reasons for my work rather than attaching myself to external rewards and results. These practices helped me navigate the ups and downs of a career in music while maintaining a love for the work, a sense of wonder and curiosity, and a desire to excel and experience a feeling of prosperity and even abundance.
The Stoic Creative
Around my fiftieth birthday, I found myself returning to Marcus’ Meditations frequently. More aware than ever before that my days are numbered, I felt the urge to make whatever was left count.
Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly. – Meditations, 7.56
I felt I’d shined a light, but felt I could shine brighter, with more purpose, and with a more significant impact.
To see the nature of a sunbeam, look at light as it falls through a narrow opening into a dark room. It extends in a straight line, striking any solid object that stands in its way and blocks the space beyond it. There it remains—not vanishing, or falling away.
That’s what the outpouring—the diffusion—of thought should be like: not emptied out, but extended. And not striking at obstacles with fury and violence, or falling away before them, but holding its ground and illuminating what receives it.
What doesn’t transmit light creates its own darkness. –Meditations, 8.57
My career as a performing musician and guitar teacher felt like it had been “a good run,” but increasingly, it also felt like a race I was ready to abandon. But what was next?
Our sons grown and gone, my wife and I sold the farm where we raised them and moved to town. I built up my lesson studio practice and dialed back on gigging. I began thinking about the what the next thing might be, and the words of Seneca kept ringing in my ears.
What ought to be done must be learned by one who does it. – Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius, Letter 18
These words informed my next steps. I enrolled in Seth Godin’s altMBA program. Through it, several epiphanies came to me and I re-acquainted myself with my love for writing. I blogged my way to some clarity about a book idea and during another Godin workshop, The Marketing Seminar (TMS), I wrote and published The Stoic Creative.
The Stoic Creative is a book about where the art of living collides with the creative process. It’s based on the assertion that struggling creatives are driven by passion and thriving artists are driven by purpose. TSC shares concepts and tools based on Stoic principles and practices to help creatives elevate to artists by sharing work that matters with those that need it.
Toward this end, TSC shares many quotes from the ancient Stoic literature such as this one from Marcus Aurelius.
First, do nothing inconsiderately or without a purpose. Second, make your acts refer to nothing else but a social end. – Meditations, 12.20
We have our duties to pursue and fulfill as human beings, individuals, and members of society. But it is in the roles we choose for ourselves that we can enhance ourselves and those we connect with. Employing our creative capacity with intention provides us the opportunity to act as artists in the way we live.
This can, of course, be facilitated by heeding this admonition from Marcus’ favorite Stoic teacher, Epictetus.
Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily. – Epictetus, Discourses, Book 3
Seth Godin, the altMBA coaches, and the altMBA alumni community became my teachers, guides, and fellow travelers. I developed a daily writing practice. More important, I published this work on my blog and in an unofficial altMBA alumni publication called It’s Your Turn.
In addition to becoming a better writer and teacher, my work with Seth Godin and other collaborators helped me see the wisdom of some of Marcus’ most pointed advice.
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one. – Meditations, 10.16
Learning, personal development, study, these enterprises are all well and good in and of themselves, but it’s in the doing and sharing that transformation occurs. The process of the altMBA and the work I launched thereafter, along with my continued Stoic practice, helped direct the shift I sought. I began moving from work as a musician and guitar teacher to that of an influencer and change agent in the creative sphere.
And my adventures in aligning my creative impulse with my love of Stoic philosophy are far from over.
Creative On Purpose
My book met with enough success to encourage me to further develop this new enterprise. My experience in the altMBA and TMS led to an influential mastermind group and a coaching position working alongside Seth Godin and several other impressive leaders in The Marketing Seminar.
I’m still developing my potential and delivering on my promise as a creative and teacher. I seek more connection and collaboration through meaningful endeavors. And daily, Marcus reminds me:
People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them. – Meditations, 8.59
All of us teach. It is woven into our role as both human beings and members of society. We influence and instruct through our words and deeds. If we do so with an empathetic motivation, a clear and beneficial intention, and a generous aspiration, we elevate our teaching to artistry and initiate a transformation that elevates and enhances those with whom we engage.
Toward this end. I recently launched Creative On Purpose, an online “home” and gathering spot for those wishing to cultivate excellence through work that matters. Work done with and for others to enhance the lives of those it touches.
The Journey Continues
Throughout the ages, thoughtful human beings have sought to answer these questions. “What does it mean to be human?” “What does it mean to be happy?” And, “How can I be more of both?”
Marcus Aurelius found answers in Stoic philosophy which asserts that what distinguishes us from other living things is our capacity for reason and our social nature. For the Stoics, happiness depends on our ability to control our impulses, adopt a courageous posture, serve the common good, and cultivate wisdom.
Marcus found the path through the three disciplines of perception, action, and will.
Everywhere, at each moment, you have the option: to accept this event with humility, to treat this person as he should be treated, to approach this thought with care. So that nothing irrational creeps in. – Meditations, 7.54
In engaging our creative capacity in any enterprise worthy of our time and talents, we would do well to heed Marcus’ personal entreaty. Developing our will and accepting what comes from our work in our current situation. Taking action that is aligned with our values and those of who we seek to serve through our work. While we frame our perception intentionally and rationally.
Although it has an aspiration, creativity occurs in the present moment. Again, Marcus advises us to follow the three disciplines.
All you need are these – certainty of judgment in the present moment; action for the common good in the present moment; and an attitude of gratitude in the present moment for anything that comes your way. – Meditations, 6.52
In addition to presence, generosity, and acceptance, creativity is enhanced by focus and prioritizing. Struggling or suffering creatives are led about by their whims and passions. Thriving creatives advance their craft as artists and as human beings by “pruning” distractions and the unnecessary from the task at hand.
“If you seek tranquillity, do less.” Or (more accurately) do what’s essential – what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better.
Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you‘ll have more time and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24
The peace of mind and a general sense of prosperity brought about by mindfully remaining in the “here and now” is enhanced if we also embrace our work and the art of living with a sense of curiosity, gratitude, and wonder. Marcus, arguably the most powerful man of his day, fought against self-corruption by cultivating this mindset.
“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.47
Confidence and certainty undermine our creative capacity, which relies on curiosity and the courage. To create is to embrace the unknown and the possibility of failure. Curiosity and courage help us face these, and other challenges without abdicating our happiness or equanimity.
Stoicism promises that we can experience a greater sense of flourishing, tranquility, prosperity, and overall well-being in any situation or circumstance. Creativity is the tool we all possess that helps us fulfill this promise by being creative on purpose.
I’d like to thank my friend Chris Gill, Emeritus Professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter University (and a Modern Stoicism team member). Chris generously shared his time and expertise with me in an hour-long chat about Stoicism, Marcus, and creativity to help me with this piece.
Scott Perry is a husband, father, teacher, and musician from Floyd, VA. In addition to his work at Creative On Purpose, Scott is a coach in Seth Godin’s The Marketing Seminar. Scott’s book, The Stoic Creative, is available on Amazon.