Mentor Yourself – Stoic Reflections on Life

Time is like a river made up of the events which happen, and a violent stream; for as soon as a thing has been seen, it is carried away, and another comes in its place, and this will be carried away too.

Marcus Aurelius, The Thoughts of the Emperor M. Aurelius Antoninus, 4.43

I tend to treat my writing in much the same way I would have an actual conversation with another person. In many ways the person who writes out my thoughts on these pages and provides me advice on how to endure and live my best life is a better version of myself. He’s an alter ego of what the perfect version of myself would say or do. I’m not that person, but I can strive to become more like him.

This alternative ego is my Mentor in the same way others use role models. He is the person I want to be. He is the man I’m struggling to become. He is someone who is unaffected by pain, heartache, setbacks, and misfortunes. He is a man who understands and accepts that life has a bit of everything in it. It’s how we react to those uncertain and often unpleasant circumstances that determines who we are.

We can endure or we can complain. I’d rather endure. So, what I’m attempting to do today is a Stoic exercise in reframing my perception and acknowledge that the only thing I control is my response to the world. I can acknowledge my setbacks and adjust my perception to allow these experiences to become building blocks rather than obstacles in my way. Let’s see how well I’ve understood the Stoic concept of altering our perception when analyzing two issues that have become personal stressors this month.

Reality Check – Sometimes Life Sucks

So, I’m at one of those times in my life that’s incredibly stressful (at least from from my very limited and self-focused perspective). I realize that my stress is inconsequential in the greater scheme of universal events and that my attempt to reframe my perspective is the seed for this post. My stress and my problems can be placed in another larger perspective, and that alternative frame of mind can make them less overwhelming. It doesn’t change the fact that I still feel pain, my heart rate jumps, a migraine begins to roll behind my eyes and even moving hurts as my previous injuries from a few years ago begin to flare up to the point that I can’t walk, sit, or lie down without feeling varying degrees of pain.

I accept the pain. At some point the pain becomes a dulled sensation and I can ignore it, more or less, but never really for long. It’s always lurking there in the background and one turn or step can send an unpleasant reminder that life isn’t always easy. The same can be said for all of us really. Problems are never really absent. They are just hiding in the fog beyond our vision. They are always there, just beyond our sight. I won’t complain. My life is amazing. I think it’s helpful to acknowledge a good life has pain and uncertainty. That’s okay. Pain can put things in perspective.

Problem 1 – Home Repairs, Selling a House and Building the Dream

As I get ready to sell our current home, I deal with the complexities of working with many people with conflicting agendas. There’s a continual headache of trying to overcome communication gaps and the general mishaps common when a dozen people are working on similar but unrelated activities. Contractors, insurance adjusters, subcontractors, real estate agents, photographers, builders —and of course your career and family—all battle for your very limited time during this short 30-60 day window. It can feel like too much at times. I have to pause and force myself to remember that it’s a blessing to have a home, and an even greater blessing to have the means to sell one and afford another. Likewise, I have a job and family. So, those headaches are well worth the suffering when the alternative is to be unemployed and alone.

That’s the framing we need to constantly challenge ourselves to create when we experience obstacles in our path. It’s not about other’s mistakes or the delays that mess up our plans. We get to choose how to respond to those setbacks and that tells us what type of person we really are. Are we really living up to our aspirations to become the best version of ourselves?

We all face setbacks, and yet time moves on. The work will eventually be done and your expectations may even need to be changed, but if you start to have the right conversations rather than arguments, you can build a future. Can you move on and fix the problem or are you creating a new problem by not letting go?

Problem 2 – The Workplace Will Always Have Issues

We all know promises don’t exist in the workplace so when I was told a new position was a “sure thing” and that “you have nothing to worry about,” I was cautiously optimistic. It felt nice to be told such things, but I kept that Stoic phrase in mind the entire time “Fate Willing.” I knew anything could happen. There are no guarantees. Sure enough, I wasn’t chosen for the position, and though I’ve been told “you have nothing to worry about,” my actual job is likely to be discontinued in the near future. Will I find a new position? Will I have to look elsewhere? I’m not upset, but let’s be honest, I’m definitely a little stressed.

I don’t have the answers for my future. I never did. However, I always knew that “anything is possible,” and “it’s better to be prepared than surprised” in life. So this scenario was always a possibility whether I acknowledged it or not. Nothing really changed in my day to day activities but my perception of the events around me were darkly misleading. I became more aware of the potential fears that were always around me but were previously ignored or overlooked. Will I lose my job? Will I go broke? Will I lose my possessions? What could I sell to pay the mortgage? Crap, what happens if I lose my health insurance? My life insurance! I was caught in a mental eddy of panic rather than action. So, I stopped myself. I simply said that’s enough. Move on.

In a nutshell, I decided I wouldn’t let this perception ruin my week. Am I disappointed I didn’t get the position? Sure. Will my disappointment change their decision? No. So why bother being upset about it? They’ve moved on and hired someone so I need to move on as well. That doesn’t mean all my fears or concerns vanished. I’m still uncertain if I’ll even have a job in 3 months, but I’m not letting that fear impact the quality of my life or the decisions I make. I’ll plan to the best of my ability, but I won’t panic. I’m going to sell my home. I’m going to finish building a new one. Panic at this point will only make things worse. If things get bad I can always sell the new home and starting building the dream again.

Always look for the facts. Stay objective. That’s where we find clarity in uncertain times.

I hope these thoughts help you get through your own rough patches this month. I recognize my stressors are uniquely my own, but I do believe if we approach all our problems with patience and distance ourselves from a self-focused perception we can endure almost anything.

Happiness is a Metaphor

It seems everyone has heard of at least one apocryphal or even modern sage who has some “secret” to share for achieving your best life. They speak confidently that if you listen carefully, and follow their instructions precisely, you will ultimately find happiness.

It’s absurd.

The goal we are told to seek is flawed. We look for joy and forget the truth that the concept is fleeting. We treat our emotions as if they were tangible goods that could be bought in any marketplace. Then, when we can no longer grasp and hold on to this phantom “feeling,” we flounder in despair.

We struggle, and we fight against the world. We do more of the “right” things. We follow more of the same archaic rules. We continue to rely on the illusion of hope, because we’ve invested so much time and energy toward this single idea that we can’t bring ourselves to admit defeat and change our course. We act as if action and belief are enough to manifest joy and banish pain. We desperately justify and narrate our stories with grand fictions placing ourselves as either heroes or tragic victims. We create myth so that at least in fiction there is a version of happiness that will last the remainder of our lives.

This is the happinesses illusion. We end up blaming our failure to find our unobtainable goal as a defect in ourselves—in our faith, in our character or even in our will. Those “secrets” we were given only led to empty promises, and our unfounded hope binds us to an unpleasant truth.

  • We can do all the right things.
  • We can follow all the rules.
  • We still won’t find lasting happiness or joy.

Somewhere along the way we drew the erroneous conclusion that happiness should be the goal of life. We decided pleasure and joy were the endgame. If we could just achieve this almost sublime state of mind, then we had made it to the “promised land”—the mystical height of the human condition.

This is clearly untrue, but we still blindly support this belief system. Every time we make it our goal and purpose in life to be happy, we set ourselves up for failure. We reinforce this false dynamic with happiness traps.

  • If only I could save up enough money to buy a house, I’d be happy.
  • If only I could finish school…
  • If only I could get this job…

What’s keeping us from being happy with what we have? What’s preventing us from living successful and impactful lives without acquiring something more?

We all understand that happiness feels good. Pleasure is fun and it’s easy to to pursue. Who doesn’t want to have a little more fun in their lives? In contrast, hardships are unpleasant and we will do our best to avoid them. So, we end up choosing the wrong priorities. We stop thinking about how we can can live more impactful and influential lives, and instead we focus on what we can acquire to make our days a little more convenient and less burdensome.

Just because we avoid hardships doesn’t mean we should seek happiness as the end goal. The unfortunate truth is that we’re incapable of being happy 100% of the time. Happiness is a subjective, emotive and ever-adapting response to our environment. Happiness has never been a tangible measurement or a lasting state of mind. We can’t weigh happiness and ensure everyone keeps 5 lbs of joy on them at all times. So, why do we keep acting as if joy were something we can purchase or acquire through hard work?

Emotions are temporary responses to changes in our environment. By definition they cannot be sustained indefinitely. You can’t keep yourself in the throes of jubilation laughing for the rest of your life over the joke you told when you were in the third grade. Happiness is a roller coaster of highs and lows.

  • I can have a rough morning and find true happiness savoring a cup of coffee.
  • I can break my leg and find bliss looking into the eyes of my partner who’s there by my side.
  • I can lose my job and still come home to an enthusiastic, tail-wagging dog who always wants to play and has no concept of his human’s trials.

Happiness is like the rising and setting of the sun. It’s always there if you know both when and where to look for it. Joy is the metaphor we use for reminding ourselves to pause and appreciate the passing of the time.

  • All things come and go.
  • Bad things will eventually end.
  • Good things will ultimately disappear.

We need to make peace with the reality that we’re temporary—just like happiness.

Expand Your Perspective

To be extraordinary, you have to be willing to constantly challenge your perception of the world.

Do you see a limited view of the world or do you see the world through the perspective of others? We need to be mindful of our personal beliefs, because our moral compass can be easily swayed by the fear of personal sacrifice.

To put it in another way, we dislike what causes us discomfort—inconvenience, money or sacrifice. Even if the end result would benefit a thousand of our neighbors, we often find such positions unacceptable. We will fight against such changes because our focus is on one person—ourself—and unfortunately that means those around us stop mattering.

Here is the challenge for you. Take all of your deeply held beliefs—politics, economics, religion, ethics, morals and personal values and imagine yourself without them. If today you awoke from a coma with total amnesia, what values would you adopt? Begin your search for them.

One option is to declare to your friends and family that your mind has changed on a key issue with which you know they will disagree with you. Have them persuade you using only Reason and Logic that their belief returns the maximum value for everyone in the world. You can broach the topic by saying you are starting to see things differently. Nothing appears black and white to you anymore. Now, you see too much gray in other people’s opinions. Perform a thought experiment if you cannot bring yourself to verbally disclose a change of heart.

You don’t have to internally agree with the opposition, but you do have to surrender your own beliefs and imagine life from another perspective. Explain this other point of view. Use the human gift of Reason to empathize, sympathize and share the many reasons why someone else’s point of view is just as valid as yours.

Just as you cannot learn to swim if your arms never let go of the raft, you must let go of your personal beliefs in order to learn how to navigate a world of diverse human perspectives. We have to understand how rationalization and bias impact our beliefs and consistently challenge those assumptions. We should always be willing to have our beliefs challenged. If someone can show us a better way to do anything, why would we refuse to listen with patience? Alternatively, if someone shows you a less effective method of work, would you not show them a better way from your own perspective?

Do everyone a service by keeping an open mind and always accept that there may be a better way just around the corner if you’re willing to look for it.