Out of all the Stoic philosophers in history, Epictetus was certainly one of the brightest ones — as well as the ones that walked the walk (in addition to talking the talk).
Epictetus was known to have a lame leg, lived with bare-bone necessities, and was very down to earth. He is not as known as the more famous Stoic philosophers (Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) but one who I keep re-reading over and over again.
Below are some lessons I’ve learned from him, applied to my life, and lessons I hope will resonate with you:
1. Beware the poisons of fortune
We all want to be wealthy, become rich, and perhaps hit the lottery to do so.
But in reality, wealth has its hidden poisons. More money, more problems.
If you won the lottery, imagine all of your fake friends and relatives who would come out of the woodwork— asking for a share in your fortune. Apparently for almost all those who win the lottery —it ruins their lives. They wish it never happened to them. It is the worst thing that can happen to you — only something you should wish upon your enemies.
Epictetus describes the issue below:
“When you see a viper or an asp or a scorpion in an ivory or golden box, you do not on account of the costliness of the material love it or think it happy, but because the nature of it is pernicious, you turn away from it and loath it; so when you shall see vice dwelling in wealth and in the swollen fullness of fortune, be not struck by the splendor of the material, but despise the false character of the morals.”
I know the translation is pretty bad — but pretty much Epictetus says this:
“When you see a viper, wasp, or scorpion on top of a golden box— you would turn away from it and hate it. Similarly, when you see vices dwelling in wealth and fortune, don’t be fooled by the shininess and splendor of it.”
With additional money, wealth, and fortune comes additional problems. It is true that money in itself isn’t an evil. But know that for many people, unnecessary wealth adds unnecessary problems and complications to our life.
The solution is to appreciate the things we have. And not only that, but if we are living in abject poverty — to hustle hard to pull ourselves out of poverty. But once we have a respectable income — why do we need more?
2. How to be content
Stoic philosophers have been talking about this for millennia— how does a human being find contentment and happiness?
Unfortunately by our human nature, we are never satisfied or content. However we can re-wire our brains to find contentment in life— by appreciating what we have.
Here are some insightful quotes from Epictetus:
When a man asked Epictetus what kind of man is rich, Epictetus answered: “He who is content.”
Another golden gem from Epictetus:
“Contentment, as it is a short road and pleasant, has great delight and little trouble.”
No matter how much we have, we will always want more. So rather than wishing for what we don’t have — we should rejoice for what we have (already):
“He is a wise man who does not grove for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus
It is pretty refreshing to hear that even people from over 2,000 years ago dealt with issues about contentment, desire, and wealth.
For me, it makes me feel a little less guilty for wanting what I don’t have (instead of rejoicing for what I already have).
It is hard to appreciate what we have— because we’re always comparing ourselves to others. For me, the solution has been to ignore everyone else.
For example, don’t compare yourself to someone who earns more money than you, to people who have higher positions to you. They probably work a lot more than us, have to sell their ethics, and have to deal with all these stresses in life (just for a little more money, power, and prestige). Don’t envy them — rather, pity them.
3. Always expect the worst
What causes anxiety? Because we fear the future. We imagine catastrophic things happening to us. And we are afraid because we think we are powerless.
How do we take away the fangs of fortune? How do we bravely move forward in life, without fear?
A practical tip from Epictetus: vividly imagine that the worst-case scenario has already happened. If so, how bad will it really be?
“If you wish to live a life free from sorrow, think of what is going to happen as if it had already happened.” – Epictetus
The fear of something bad happening is often worse than the bad happening itself.
For example, if you fuck up at work, and you’re afraid for your boss getting angry at you — imagine the worst-case scenario. You get fired.
If you got fired from your job, how bad would it really be? Would it even be a blessing in disguise? What is the worst-case scenario — you become homeless and on the streets?
Adjust yourself to the worst-case scenario, and you will discover it really isn’t that bad.
4. Listen twice as much as we speak
There is no voice sweeter than our own voice. Trust me, I love talking about myself. I have a huge ego.
Yet one of the biggest lessons I learned from Epictetus is the importance of listening (over talking). He points out a good point about humans having one tongue, but two ears:
“Nature has given to men one tongue, but two ears, that we may hear from others twice as much as we speak.” – Epictetus
I’m guilty of talking twice as much as I listen. I make this mistake all the time when I’m with friends, my students, or with Cindy.
Nowadays, I always try to hold my tongue. I ask more questions than talk. I try to deflate my ego.
By listening twice as much as I talk, not only do I avoid taking over a conversation — but I learn more from others. After all, I already know everything I know. My best teachers are others — not myself.
But perhaps you have the issue of hearing too much, and not speaking enough.
A good ratio — we should listen enough, but also talk enough. Listening to talking should be a 2:1 ratio.
5. On decision making
The problem with today’s world is that we are hyper-connected with communication. We over-communicate via text messages, emails, and the phone.
We’re always told to do things quickly and efficiently. Yet when it comes to important decisions, slow down. We need to deliberate a lot before we say or do anything (important) — because we cannot recall our actions or words:
“Deliberate much before saying or doing anything, for you will not have the power of recalling what has been said or done.” – Epictetus
Slow down. When people ask you to do something for them, delay. Pause — and wait a day or two before responding.
Sure, some individuals might be impatient — but by deliberating more before making an irreversible decision, you will be a lot more effective (and happy) in life.
6. Follow your duty
“As the sun does not wait for prayers and incantations to be induced to rise, but immediately shines and is saluted by all: so do you also not wait for clippings of hands, and shouts and praise to be induced to do good, but be a doer of good voluntarily, and you will be beloved as much as the sun.” – Epictetus
Do we need praise before we do our duty? Does the sun need applause to rise in the sky everyday?
Treat your duty in life the same. You do your duty for the sake of helping others. You want to always make yourself useful for your fellow citizens:
“As the fire-lights in harbors by a few pieces of dry wood raises a great flame and give sufficient help to ships which are wandering on the sea; so also an illustrious man in a state which is tempest-tossed, while he is himself satisfied with a few things does great services to his citizens.” – Epictetus
Lady fortune gives us all a different role in life. Epictetus says the secret of happiness isn’t to complain about what duty we have in life. Rather, to embrace our duty — and make the best out of what we’re given:
“Remember that thou art an actor in a play of such a kind as the teacher (author) may choose; if short, of a short one; if long, of a long one: if he wishes you to act the part of a poor man, see that you act the part naturally; if the part of a lame man, of a magistrate, of a private person (do the same). For this is your duty, to act well the part that is given to you; but to select the part, belongs to another.” – Epictetus
What is your duty in life? It is different for everyone. Some of our duties include taking care of our families, our friends, our society, by being a lawyer, a doctor, a scientist, a businessperson, a teacher, or artist.
Don’t seek approval from others to follow your duty. Think of yourself like the sun — regardless of the day, you will always rise to shine your rays upon humanity.
7. Don’t anchor yourself to just one hope
“Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.” – Epictetus
You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. Or better yet — you don’t want to secure your ship on just one anchor.
The problem that many of us make is that we put all of our hope in one dream. And when we fail at that one dream, we lose all zest for living and life.
Give yourself more options. Don’t put all of your life’s energies on a single hope. Have many different dreams in life. This way you will have more opportunities to achieve your best.
So instead of thinking to yourself: “What is my dream in life?” think to yourself: “What are several of my dreams in life?”
Pursue many different dreams. Don’t limit yourself to just one.
8. Disregard haters
“As a goose is not frightened by cackling nor a sheep by bleating, so let not the clamor of a senseless multitude alarm you.” – Epictetus
The next time someone insults you, hates on you, or criticizes you — just imagine them like the sound of sheep. Would the sound of sheep bother you if you were a goose? No.
If you were a horse, would you be annoyed by the barking of dogs? No — you’re greater than that.
A good way to deal with negative criticism — make fun of yourself (self-deprecating humor).
For example, if someone makes fun of you — do as Epictetus says:
“If anyone tells you that such a person speaks ill of you, don’t make excuses about what is said of you, but answer: ‘He does not know my other faults, else he would not have mentioned only these.’” – Epictetus
So the next time someone makes fun of you, you can respond by saying: “That is all they said? They certainly don’t know more of my faults.”
If you’re the first to make fun of yourself, nobody’s insults will sting you.
9. Hustle when you’re starting off
There is a nice story that Epictetus tells us— regarding business, wealth, and being an entrepreneur:
“Lampis the shipowner being asked how he acquired his wealth, answered, With no difficulty, my great wealth; but my small wealth (my first gains), with much labor.” – Epictetus
When we’re starting off in our business, our company life, or any other entrepreneurial pursuit— it is very hard. Know that when you’re starting off, there are no shortcuts. But it gets easier as time goes on.
For example, when I started blogging, teaching, and traveling — it was damn hard to build up an audience. I had to hustle hard, close to 12 hours a day. Yet as time goes on, it is becoming easier — because I put in the hard work early on in my career.
Hustle hard early in your career. Your gains will continue to accrue well into the future.
10. Friends above wealth
What is true wealth and happiness? Relationships and friends:
“Instead of a herd of oxen [wealth], endeavor to assemble herds of friends in your house.” – Epictetus
If we had all the wealth in the world, but no friends to share it with — would we desire the wealth? Or the friends?
11. Live a frugal lifestyle
Nowadays we’re told to live frugally, minimally, and economically to be happy. Yeah yeah, we’ve all heard it before. But why is this a good strategy?
Epictetus tells us this — when we have big expenses in our lives (spending a lot of money on rent or a mortgage, an expensive car payment, etc) — we are constantly disturbed and feel anxiety. Because we feel stressed. We have huge payments to make each month— which makes us slaves to our jobs, our incomes, and our lifestyles.
What Epictetus tell us instead is this — live a life with fewer cares, fewer cares, and fewer expenses:
“As you would not choose to sail in a large and decorated and gold-laden ship (or ship ornamented with gold), and to be drowned; so do not choose to dwell in a large and costly home and to be disturbed (by cares).” – Epictetus
For me, happiness is having fewer expenses, and more time and freedom. Never trade your freedom for anything. And to the best of your ability, keep your lifestyle simple and humble. Then you will have more time for your friends, family, creative work — and less stress.
12. Always think about death
“Let death and exile and every other thing which appears dreadful be daily before your eyes; but most of all death: and you will never think of anything mean nor will you desire anything extravagantly.” – Epictetus
If you always think about death — would you waste 10 years of your life working hard, to earn a lot of money, to buy a big house, and a shiny BMW?
No. If we think that we’re going to die soon — we would never waste our time on superfluous wealth that won’t really help us. Rather, we would focus our time doing our creative work, creating art, and spending time with our loved ones.
Memento mori. Remember you must die, and you will die (soon). What would you not get distracted by if you realized you would die soon?
13. Love fate
“Seek not the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life.” – Epictetus
In the West, we try to control our fate. Yet Epictetus tells us that tranquility in life is being flexible. By following our fate— and making the best out of what is given to us.
The next time something really shitty happens to you in life, rather than becoming upset and blaming God— tell yourself: “I wanted this to happen. It has helped me.”
Don’t try to control your fate. Embrace it — and make the best out of what life has given you.
14. Ignore what isn’t in your power
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.” – Epictetus
There are things we have control over in life, and things we don’t have control over.
Things that we can control: our opinion of ourselves, what we decide to pursue, what we decide to avoid, and whatever action we have complete autonomy and freedom over.
Things we cannot control: if we are healthy or not, how much money we own, how many houses we own, our reputation, the things that other people say about us, government, and politics.
Only focus on what you can control. Ignore what you cannot control. This way you will have complete freedom, less stress, and more ability to make the best out of your life.
15. Always benefit, regardless of what happens
“Whatsoever happens, it belongs to me to derive advantage therefrom.” – Epictetus
No matter how bad something happens to you — you can always be clever enough to think about what kind of benefit you can derive from it.
For example, let’s say your friend dies. The advantage: you had a wonderful friendship, and you can spend more time with your (alive) friends — and show them more appreciation.
Let’s say you lose your job. The advantage: you no longer have to work that job that you hate, with that crappy boss. You have the chance to start a new career.
You become sick. You learn to not take life for advantage— and perhaps pursue what you are truly passionate about in life.
When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.
16. Nobody else can hurt you
“Another cannot hurt you unless you allow them.” – Epictetus
We’ve all heard this — sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me. As trite as it may sound, it is true.
Think about it — where does pain and suffering come from? Your mind. Your opinion of what others say and do to you.
If you retrain yourself to not feel harm from others— nobody can harm you.
Imagine yourself like a giant, and others as tiny ants. When others try to harm you, their stings or attacks will barely even affect you.
Or image yourself like a knight in shining golden armor. When people try to attack you, they throw sticks at you. Nobody can pierce your armor— you are far too powerful.
17. Measure things by their function, not form
Epictetus tells us a good example about things — get things for the function, not the form.
For example, when it comes to shoes— we need them to protect our feet. We don’t need our shoes to be gilded, purple, or studded with jewels. Because if we only care about appearance and form, there is never a limit:
“[In the] case of a shoe, if you go beyond its fitness to the foot, it comes first to be gilded, then purple, and then studded with jewels. For to that which once exceeds the fit measure there is no bound.” – Epictetus
You need a car. But do you need a car with shiny red paint, fancy wheels, leather seats, and a sporty look?
You need a camera. But do you need shiny accessories, paint, and for it to look cool?
You need clothes to keep you warm. But do you need designer clothes, jewels, studs, or any other extraneous ornaments?
Measure things by their function, not form.
18. Expect to be rejected
If you’re an entrepreneur, expect to be rejected. Imagine the door to be shut in your face. If you expect rejection before it happens, it won’t hurt you:
“When you are going to any of the people in power, represent to yourself that you will not find him at home; that you will not be admitted; that the doors will not be opened to you; that he will take no notice of you. If, with all this, it is your duty to go, bear what happens, and never say [to yourself], ‘It was not worth so much.’” – Epictetus
No matter how rich, successful, or hard-working we are — there will be someone who rejects us.
This is because we cannot control whether others accept or reject us. We can work hard to make a good impression — but ultimately, the decision of acceptance or rejection lies outside of your own power.
Expect to get rejected in business, by a romantic partner, by your kids, or by other artists.
But that doesn’t mean not to try. Try your best, but expect the worst. And keep hustling and “failing forward.”
19. Others are following their ethics
It is easy to be frustrated by others who try to harm you, who criticize you, and say ill about you.
But don’t forget— everyone else is just saying what feels true to them.
For example, who is “right”? Conservatives or Liberals? Republicans or Democrats? Western ideals or Eastern ideals?
Each side thinks that they are “right” — and the others are idiots (or wrong).
Epictetus reminds us — not to be upset by others. After all, everyone is just following their duty:
“When any person harms you, or speaks badly of you, remember that he acts or speaks from a supposition of its being his duty. Now, it is not possible that he should follow what appears right to you, but what appears so to himself. Therefore, if he judges from a wrong appearance, he is the person hurt, since he too is the person deceived. For if anyone should suppose a true proposition to be false, the proposition is not hurt, but he who is deceived about it. Setting out, then, from these principles, you will meekly bear a person who reviles you, for you will say upon every occasion, ‘It seemed so to him.’ – Epictetus
Don’t think about life in dualistic terms. Meaning, don’t think of things as “right”/“wrong” or “good”/“bad”. For every “right” there is also a “wrong.” For every “good” there is also a “bad.”
When others disagree with you or argue with you — don’t label them as an idiot. Just realize they’re following what feels true to them. And how can you blame others for that? After all, you’re doing the same.
20. Follow your own rules of conduct
“Whatever moral rules you have deliberately proposed to yourself. abide by them as they were laws, and as if you would be guilty of impiety by violating any of them. Don’t regard what anyone says of you, for this, after all, is no concern of yours.” – Epictetus
We can’t expect others to listen to us or follow our rules of conduct.
The only thing we can do is follow our own ethical rules for ourself.
We can set an example for others — and hope others follow us. If not, that is fine too.
Don’t concern yourself with what others say about you. Just follow your own heart, and do what feels ethically right to you. And never do unto others and you don’t want others to do unto you.
The biggest lessons I learned from Epictetus is to not worry so much about what is outside of my control. I can control how hard I work, my attitude, and my opinion of others and myself. I cannot control my reputation, others’ opinions of myself, and I cannot control how others think.
By letting go trying to control others, I feel more tranquility in my heart. Furthermore, to realize that others are not “evil” — they’re just following their own hearts.
Life is tough. So armor up. Put on your golden chain-mail, your impenetrable helmet, and gleaming shield. Know that you’re going to be attacked from everybody else. But you’re going to be too powerful to be pierced.
Always be strong friend,
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