Act on your principles, not your moods. How the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can help us smash creative blocks and do our best work.
Observing individuals who lead a creative life, we can identify elements of expertise, grit, an understanding, and passion. What’s easy to overlook is the inner system within an individual—the set of principles that govern their mind and behavior. When failure ensues or the need to adapt is necessary, how does one respond? What do they tell themselves? In other words, what’s their philosophy? When failure ensues or the need to adapt is necessary, how does one respond? What do they tell themselves? In other words, what’s their philosophy?
Not only does philosophy teach us how to live well and become better humans, but it can also aid in overcoming life’s trials and tribulations. Some schools of thought are for more abstract thinking and debate, whereas others are tools that are immediately practical to our current situation in life.
THE FUNDAMENTAL PRINCIPLES OF STOICISM
The principles within Stoicism are, perhaps, the most relevant and practical sets of rules for entrepreneurs, writers, and artists of all kinds.
The Stoics focus on two things:
How can we lead a fulfilling, happy life?
How can we become better human beings?
The goal of Stoicism is to attain inner peace by overcoming adversity, practicing self-control, being conscious of our impulses, realizing our ephemeral nature and the short time allotted—these were all meditative practices that helped them live with their nature and not against it. It’s important that we understand the obstacles that we face and not run from them; it’s vital that we learn to transmute them into fuel to feed our fire.
Our guides to Stoicism today will be its three renowned leaders: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca.
WHO WAS EPICTETUS?
Epictetus was born a slave at about A.D. 55 in Hierapolis, Phrygia, located on the eastern borders of the Roman Empire. Early in his life, he had a passion for philosophy, and with permission from his owner, he studied Stoic philosophy under the master Gaius Musonius Rufus. After Nero’s death—the fifth Roman emperor who ruled with tyranny and cruelty—Epictetus began to teach philosophy in Rome and then later in Greece where he founded a philosophical school teaching Stoicism—among his students was the future emperor of Rome, Marcus Aurelius.
- Paperback, small, easy to store
- Epictetus, Sharon Lebell
- Edition no. unknown (06/26/2007)
- Paperback: 144 pages
WHO WAS MARCUS AURELIUS?
Marcus Aurelius was born in A.D. 121, considered one of the greatest Roman emperors to have ever lived, and wrote in his journal during the dull moments of a war campaign. In his journal, which inadvertently became the book Meditations, served as reminders for Stoic principles that focused on humility, self-awareness, service, death, nature, and more.
- George Long classic translation of Marcus Aurelius Meditations
- Marcus Aurelius
- Greyhound Press
- Edition no. 1 (04/25/2017)
- Paperback: 88 pages
WHO WAS SENECA?
Seneca was also a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, a tutor and advisor to Nero. His work involves dozens of essays and 124 letters that involve topics like education, friendship, civic duty, moral obligation, humility, self-awareness, self-denial, and more. He had many admirers like Montaigne, Tom Wolfe, Emerson, and John Stuart Mill.
- Letters From A Stoic Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca
- Penguin Books
- Edition no. Reprint (07/30/1969)
- Paperback: 254 pages
I’m going to share some of my favorite principles from the Stoic school of philosophy, most of them pertaining to these three thinkers. If embraced and exercised regularly, Stoic tenets will champion your creativity, facilitate your workflow, and improve your overall state of mind and life. Creative work requires us to be vulnerable, committed, adaptive, and courageous, and that requires a mindset that can readily negate distractions or negative impulses while focusing our hearts and minds on what’s important. It’s a tough balancing act.
Without a philosophy to guide our work and life, we will relentlessly succumb to our excuses and distractions. We will make the comfortable mistake of acting on our moods (“I’m just not feeling it today”) and not on our principles.
THE 9 PRINCIPLES TO KEEPING CALM IN THE STORM
1. Acknowledge that all emotions come from within
“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
It is not outside forces that make us feel something, it is what we tell ourselves that create our feelings. A blank document, canvas, or unmarked to-do list is not inherently stressful—it’s your thoughts that are stressing you out.
Many of us want to place blame and responsibility on external objects because it’s easy to do, but the truth remains that all conflicts start internally, in our minds. When we flee from reality—a deadline, an urgent email—we are doing nothing but harming ourselves and undermining our self-discipline.
The next time you run into an obstacle and feel resistance, don’t look at what’s around you. Instead, look within. It is not outside forces that make us feel something, it is what we tell ourselves that create our feelings.
2. Find someone you respect and use them to stay honest
“Choose someone whose way of life as well as words, and whose very face as mirroring the character that lies behind it, have won your approval. Be always pointing him out to yourself either as your guardian or as your model. This is a need, in my view, for someone as a standard against which our characters can measure themselves.
Without a ruler to do it against you won’t make the crooked straight.” — Seneca, Letters From a Stoic
When I first started my blog and called myself a writer, who could I look up to? The courses at my university were irrelevant to my aspirations and desires. Luckily, the Internet provided access to great writers, their stories, work, and admonishments. I can point to someone I respect and say, “Ah, look at the value they provide, their work ethic, their platform—that is worth learning from.”
Whatever you do—create apps, draw portraits, write books, or make animation films—there are individuals that you can learn from. You can study their story, works, techniques, successes, and failures. You can listen to interviews or even reach out to them by sending an email. You can discover patterns of success and apply it to your life.
What’s important to realize is that this isn’t an exercise of comparison. If you don’t get a book deal in eight months or if your product doesn’t hit #1 in the first week, like your role model, that doesn’t make you a failure. Instead, how can you learn from your heroes? How are their teachings and principles helping you grow, learn, and create? Everyone, no matter how successful they are, has heroes/mentors to look towards.
3. Recognize there is life after failure
“Does what’s happened to keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness, and all other qualities that allow a person’s nature to fulfill itself?
So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
You can spend months or even years on a project, only to watch it be criticized, or worse, ignored. I once worked on a project thinking that it would do fairly well. I spent an entire year on it, and it was my most vulnerable work to date.
The outcome was similar to having a baby and all the doctors laughing out loud, saying, “My goodness that is an ugly baby.”
That’s what failure feels like when you share a part of you. But recovering from that failure is a practice, a mindset—in fact, the lessons that I internalized from that experience is helping me do better work. The thinking goes No failure, no growth.
No failure, no growth.
- Ryan James
- CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform
- Paperback: 82 pages
4. Read purposefully, and apply your knowledge
“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind.
They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.” — Epictetus, The Art of Living
Reading books on marketing or business or creativity will supply endless dots that have the potential for connection to develop a more in-depth awareness, but what will ultimately make you effective at that craft is by applying it. Reading prepares your mind, even helps you avoid foolish mistakes, but at the end of it all, there must be the result of some action: a failure, maybe a success, or a lesson.
The purpose of education is to internalize knowledge but ultimately spark action and facilitate wiser decisions. Reading self-help books will, in that moment, make you feel inspired for a change. But are you following your principles when you have a troll, rude customer, or angry stranger in your face?
5. Challenge yourself to be brutally honest
“‘A consciousness of wrongdoing is the first step to salvation.’ This remark of Epicurus’ is to me a very good one. For a person who is not aware that he is doing anything wrong has no desire to be put right. You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform. Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their care? So—to the best of your ability—demonstrate your own guilt, conduct inquiries of your own into all the evidence against yourself.
Play the first part of the prosecutor, then of the judge and finally of pleader in mitigation. Be harsh with yourself at times.” — Seneca, Letters From a Stoic
It’s hard to change habits if you aren’t aware as to why you didn’t do your work today and chose to watch Netflix instead.
It’s important to be mindful of the urges that obstruct us from showing up, engaging, committing, and being present. “Why, exactly, am I feeling this way?” Get to the bottom of that. Investigate it. Dissect it. When you feel resistance, use that as a cue to go forward. The challenge, of course, is training you to think that way.
This isn’t about talent or some unconscious reflex. The practice of self-awareness—to think about your thinking—in how you think, feel, and behave is a muscle. The more you use it, the stronger it becomes.
When you feel resistance, use that as a cue to go forward.
6. Reflect on what you spend the most time on
“A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
That troll on your Twitter feed? It’s probably best to not respond. You don’t need to tell them where the to unfollow button is located; I’m positive they know. That email? I know it’s fun connecting, but can it wait?
In my own observations, people who do excellent work, who master their craft, do so because of their ability to prioritize. They honor every hour of their day. If we put cameras behind our heroes, would our work ethic compare? Our focus? Our determination to get things done?
The other day I was genuinely shocked at how much time I spent spectating on Instagram, watching other people live their lives and eat boats of sushi. Although these little breaks throughout our days are okay, we must be mindful of how we interact with our distractions (or is those addictions?).
A lot of spectating and flicking our finger on Guerrilla Glass is the time that could be spent creating the stuff that people want to see.
- William B. Irvine
- Oxford University Press
- Edition no. 1 (11/04/2008)
- Hardcover: 336 pages
7. Remind yourself: you weren’t meant to procrastinate.
Whenever I have trouble waking up or getting started, I read this passage:
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?
—But it’s nicer here…
So you were born to feel ‘nice’? Instead of doings things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
—But we have to sleep sometime…
Agreed. But nature set a limit on that—as it did on eating and drinking. And you’re over the limit. You’ve had more than enough of that. But not of working. There you’re still below your quota. You don’t love yourself enough. Or you’d love your nature too, and what it demands of you. People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat. Do you have less respect for your own nature than the engraver does for engraving, the dancer for dance, the misery for money or the social climber for status? When they’re really possessed by what they do, they’d rather stop eating and sleeping than give up practicing their arts.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
8. Put the phone away and be present
“Nothing, to my way of thinking, is a better proof of a well-ordered mind than a man’s ability to stop just where he is and pass some time in his own company.” — Seneca, Letters From a Stoic
It’s not that we live in an age of distractions, but rather an age where we are failing to teach and embrace mindful motives. To me, a child in a restaurant playing a game on her iPad is no different than an adult flicking through Instagram when friends are around. Both scenarios are moments of connection (to the people around you, not through your screen), communication, and enjoyment.
To be present as well as learning to be alone is a habit. Some people are really good at it because they make time to do it—in fact, they need it or else they would go mad.
Throughout your day find a moment, however fleeting, to just sit and be still. Doesn’t matter where you are. Take a few deep breaths, put your phone on vibrate so there’s no chance of interruption, and just reflect on the series of events that took place throughout your day. When you’re working, be ruthlessly present. Let your mind focus on the task at hand, what you’re trying to accomplish, and do it with diligence, patience, attentiveness, and care. Sooner or later, you’ll realize how much of an asset this is to your creativity and overall quality of life.
When you’re working, be ruthlessly present.
9. Remind yourself that time is our most precious resource
“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able — be good.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
What I particularly love and find challenging about Stoicism is that death is at the forefront of their thoughts. They realized the ephemeral nature of humans and how this is repeated in many facets of life.
It provides a sense of urgency, to realize that you’ve lived a certain number of hours and the hours ahead of you are not guaranteed as the ones you have lived. When I think of this I realize that every day truly is an opportunity to improve, not in a cliché kind of way, but to learn to honestly appreciate what we are capable of achieving and how we are very responsible for the quality of our lives.
This makes our self-respect, work ethic, generosity, self-awareness, attention, and growth ever more important. The last thing any of us wants to do is die with regret, hence why following principles of Stoicism puts your life into perspective. It humbles you and should also deeply motivate you.
Lastly, in the words of Seneca, “We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”
The way we lead our lives and do our work must embody the principles that we practice. Less comparing, criticizing, and consuming; more creating, learning, and living.
- Ryan Holiday, Stephen Hanselman
- Hardcover: 416 pages