“In order to do something, you must be something.” – James Stockdale
Stoicism is a life philosophy that dates all the way back to the time of the ancient Greeks. To be Stoic is to maximise positive emotions and reduce negative emotions, so it’s a philosophy designed to help individuals live their best lives. Sounds great, but is it relevant in today’s world?
Philosophy in Action
Stoicism was created as a philosophy that should be put into practice. Its creators and followers firmly believed that Stoicism was demonstrated in what you did, not what you said. It wasn’t about sitting around thinking about things, it was all about being and doing, and living a virtuous life.
The Stoic virtues:
- Wisdom – including good judgement, perspective, good sense, and excellent deliberation skills.
- Justice – including fairness, good-heartedness, public service, and benevolence.
- Courage – including confidence, bravery, honesty or authenticity, and perseverance.
- Self-discipline – including self-control, humility, orderliness, and forgiveness.
To be Stoic meant aspiring to and living by these virtues, and in so doing, each virtue became its own reward. Living a virtuous life meant ensuring that everything you did was the right thing to do. In ancient Greece, Stoics realised that no-one had control over external events, but everyone had control over the way they chose to respond to external events – choosing the right thing to do. Stoicism became a way of positively directing thoughts, emotions, and behaviours in an unpredictable world, helping individuals to find happiness from within, rather than looking for it in a constantly changing outer world. For this reason, Stoicism is as relevant today in the modern world as it was in ancient Greece.
In a nutshell, Stoicism promotes calm, rational thinking, no matter what is happening externally, by encouraging us to focus only on what we can control, and to accept (rather than fret over) what we can’t.
A Story of Stoicism in Action
In 1965, Commander James Stockdale was shot down on a mission over North Vietnam, becoming a POW for over seven years in Vietnam’s infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison camp. He was beaten severely on multiple occasions and routinely tortured, but he survived. On his return to the US, he spoke often of his belief that his understanding of Stoicism got him through the ordeal. He said: “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” Not every POW survived, and when asked who didn’t endure the conditions, he said, “The optimists.”
In what became known as the Stockdale Paradox, this apparent contradiction was explained when he added: “The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart… This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end – which you can never afford to lose – with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
The lesson we can learn from James Stockdale is that enduring tough times and overcoming difficulties is not simply a matter of thinking positively, it’s maintaining the ability to think, be, and act positively while accepting the reality of the situation you’re in.
The Stockdale Paradox of balancing optimism with realism is a Stoic demonstration of focusing on what can be controlled and accepting what can’t.
Some Things Are Not Up to Us
You may not be facing seven years of torture as a POW, but whatever challenges you face, getting through them successfully comes down to focusing on what you can control and accepting what you can’t. It’s fair to say that we all want to achieve something and to be happy in life, but not everything is within our control.
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” – Epictetus
The things that are up to us are the way we think, the judgements we make, and the actions we take. As James Stockdale once said, “I think character is permanent and issues are transient… In order to do something, you must be something,” so be stoic and be your best in everything you so that you can do your best in everything you do, and you will become the best you can be.
Don MacNaughton is a High performance coach having worked with thousands of people over the last two decades to achieve their goals and dreams.
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