One of the philosophers who has influenced my thinking the most is Marcus Aurelius. He was one of the last “good emperors” of Rome — who genuinely cared for the well-being of his citizens.
Marcus Aurelius lived in a time where death was prevalent— and chaos was everywhere. He wrote a manual (for himself) which we now know as the “Meditations.” I don’t think he ever intended to publish it to the public. He wrote it for himself— to deal with his own internal demons.
Even though he wrote these words around 2,000 years ago — his insights still carry strong weight today.
How can we apply his stoic philosophy to our everyday life? Below are some insights you can apply to your own life:
1. Ignore what others are doing
“Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbors. Anything that distracts you from fidelity to the Ruler within you— means a loss of opportunity for some other task.” – Marcus Aurelius
We have a limited time on earth. Why waste our precious energy worrying about our neighbors? Why do we care what they are doing, what they are up to, and what they think of us?
What we need to do is focus on our task at hand. What is our task? Whatever is our calling on earth — whether that means creating art, empowering others, or being a loving parent.
With social media, we are addicted to what others are doing. We waste our mental energy being envious of others. We compare ourselves to them — we feel frustrated that we aren’t as successful as our peers. We look at others with fancy cars, fancy cameras, and fancy houses.
What if we spent our entire life ignoring what others are doing — and only focused on ourselves?
For an entire week, don’t use social media. Uninstall all social media apps from your phone, and don’t check your Facebook, Instagram, or any other social media network.
Don’t do anything for a week that concerns others. Focus only on your task at hand.
This doesn’t mean to totally ignore your friends and loved ones for the rest of your life. But try this experiment for a week to devote all your time, energy, and effort to your own needs. See how less envious, jealous, and focused you will be in your own creative work.
2. Reality is shaped by your opinion
There is no “objective” reality out there— we shape our own reality.
For example, you can be a billionaire with all the material possessions you desire, and still feel like a “failure” (you might compare yourself to other billionaires who are even richer than you).
You might be poor and living in a slum, but you might be supremely happy — because your heart is full of gratittude.
Marcus Aurelius tells us:
“Life is but what you deem it.”
He also reminds us:
“Life is opinion.”
Whenever it comes to anything in our life, it depends on our own opinion of ourselves. We deem what is good and bad in our life.
We shape our own perception of the world with our thoughts. No external “reality” exists outside of our perceptions.
The practical way you can apply this mode of thinking in your life is this: see everything in a positive light.
For example, let’s say that someone talks shit about you to your face. Rather than feeling frustrated, you can tell yourself: “I’m glad that someone is talking shit about me, it means that I am not boring — and doing something interesting.”
Furthermore, when people insult us, try to harm us, or criticize us — it isn’t the insult which hurts us. It is our interpretation of what they are saying which hurts us. Marcus Aurelius tells us:
“If I do not view the thing as an evil, I take no hurt.”
If we interpret others’ actions as irrelevant, how can we feel hurt?
Marcus Aurelius also tells us:
“Reject your sense of injury, and the injury itself disappears.”
Any “injury” we receive in life is just our opinion.
One metaphor I love is this: imagine you’re in a boat in the middle of a lake. It is foggy and dark. You suddenly get hit by another boat, and you bump your head. You’re angry and frustrated, and want to curse out the other person who just bumped into you. But then when the fog clears, you realize that the other boat was empty. Now you no longer feel angry, because you realize the other boat was empty. Realize that everyone else who tries to harm us is just an empty boat.
For a week, interpret every action that happens to you as positive.
For example, if someone insults you, think to yourself: “How can this insult make me a stronger person?”
See every opportunity as a growth opportunity.
3. Do less
In one of Marcus Aurelius’ meditations to himself, he reminds himself the importance of doing less in life— and cutting out the superfluous actions from his life:
“‘If thou wouldst know contentment, let thy deeds be few,’ said the sage. Better still limit them strictly to such as are essential, and to such as in a social being reason demands, and as it demands.”
What are the benefits of sticking to a few actions, and just doing the essential? Marcus Aurelius tells himself— we are happiest when we do a few things, but doing them well:
“This brings the contentment that comes of doing a few things and down them well. Most of what we say and do is not necessary, and its omission would save both time and trouble. At every step, a man should ask himself, ‘Is this one of the things that are superfluous?’ Unnecessary action will not ensue.”
Many of our actions and words are unnecessary. By not doing superfluous actions, we will be less stressed.
We should always ask ourselves: “Is this superfluous?”
We need to cut out the unnecessary things in our lives. The less superfluous actions, words, thoughts, and emotions — the more focus we will have for what is really important to us in life. That might be time with your family, time to do your creative work, or the chance to help others.
For a week, always ask yourself: “Is this superfluous?” whenever making decisions.
You can apply this in many different ways.
For example, if someone hurts you, and you feel upset — ask yourself, “Is this emotion superfluous?”
When it comes to social obligations— ask yourself, “Is this social meeting superfluous?”
Learn how to say “no” — and say it as often as you can.
4. Death is knocking at your door
I think about death a lot. A lot of people forget the phrase: “memento mori” — remember, you will be dead soon.
When we know that death is close, we don’t waste our time. We don’t waste our precious leisure time watching TV or other forms of passive entertainment. We rush into doing what we are passionate about, and work that is meaningful to us. We spend more time with our loved ones, and omit superfluous people and actions from our lives.
Reminding ourselves of death gives us focus.
Think about all the people who learn they have cancer or some other disease. Once they discover this, they drop all the shit they don’t like doing in life — and only focus on what is important to them.
Yet we all have the ability to only do what is important to us. By meditating on death on a daily basis, we won’t waste even a drop of our time.
Even Marcus Aurelius would tell himself:
“Very soon you will be dead; but even yet you are not single-minded.”
We need to be single-minded to our life’s task.
A simple exercise we can do to remind ourselves of life and death is this:
“Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforward regard what further time may be given you as an uncovenanted surplus.” – Marcus Aurelius
Whenever I go to sleep, I imagine like it is the last time I’m going to sleep. I consider my entire life, my day, and whether I did everything in my power to help empower those around me. I only procrastinate on things that I wouldn’t mind being undone if I were dead.
And when I wake up the next morning, I throw my hands up in the air and tell myself: “It is amazing to be alive! I wonder how I can best use today to help others.”
We all need to remind ourselves of death knocking on our door— or else we will never have focus in our lives.
Today, imagine like it were your last day on earth. What would you do, and what would you not do for your day?
What would you tell your loved ones? Who would you spend time with, and who would you not spend time with?
What creative act would you do? What would you not do in your day, if you knew today was the last?
Constantly meditate on this — live everyday as if it were your last. Because one day, it will be.
5. You’re stronger than you think
If you want to be a world-class boxer, you will have to fight difficult opponents. You will get beaten up, break a few bones, bleed, and as a result— you will get stronger.
Whenever someone tries to harm you, think of these words from Marcus Aurelius:
“How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future. The thing could have happened to anyone, but not everyone would have emerged unembittered.”
You’re tougher than you think. You can’t prevent others from throwing shit at you. But you can change your interpretation of the situation.
Life is fucking hard. As the sages said: “Sometimes to live is an act of courage.”
And let us not forget what Marcus Aurelius teaches us:
“The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.”
Life isn’t easy. Don’t expect it to be easy.
You will get punched, bruised, and break a few bones in life (figuratively and physically).
Imagine yourself like the strongest person in the world. You’re stronger than others. Whenever others try to harm you, imagine little arrows trying to pierce your golden armor. You’re a giant, and others are ants trying to harm you.
Whenever harm comes your way, remind yourself: “Thank God I’m so strong, this could have broken others, but it hasn’t broken myself.”
6. You are rising for the work of humankind
As humans, we live to help one another. No man is his own island. And the more we help others, the more we gain. It is a win-win scenario.
No person would want to live on Earth if nobody else existed. Society is the glue which holds us together, and it is the reason we are alive and the reason we live.
There are days where living is hard. We don’t want to get out of bed. We don’t have motivation or inspiration.
Even Marcus Aurelius (the emperor of the Roman empire) often felt like this. The meditation he gave himself to encourage himself was this:
“At day’s first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’ Must I grumble at setting out to do what I was born for, and for the sake of which I have been brought into the world? Is this the purpose of my creations to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm? ‘Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant!’ Was it for pleasure, then, that you were born, and not for work, not for effort?”
We’re not put on earth to feel pleasure. You don’t exist to eat delicious foods, to see exotic places, or to ‘feel good.’ You exist for your fellow man and woman.
What brings us true happiness in life? It isn’t just filling ourselves with pleasure. Rather, it is helping others and doing what we were made for:
“A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.” – Marcus Aurelius
What were you designed for? It depends.
What is your gift? It might be your ability to socialize, to make others feel loved, your skill for reading or writing, your skill for research, your skill for synthesizing information and data, your skill for making visual images, your skill for empowering others, your skill for teaching, or your skill for making the world a more beautiful place.
Discover your gift, and figure out how you can best share it with others.
If you don’t know what your gift is— ask your friends, family, or your mom. Think about your gifts as a child, and how you can best use your personal gift to help those around you.
How can you best empower humankind with your gift? Always meditate on this, and don’t get distracted.
7. Never complain
“Is your cucumber bitter Throw it away. Are there briars in your path? Turn aside. That is enough.” – Marcus Aurelius
Why must we complain about the world?
If there is someone who annoys you — just ignore them. Unfollow them from social media, or just cut your social ties with them.
Do you hate your job? Either quit your job, or figure out a way to make it less painful or miserable.
We often cannot change our external situations in the world — but we can always change our attitude towards it.
And not only that, but life is all about making the best of what we have.
A good meditation to think to ourselves from Marcus Aurelius is this:
“What is the very best that can be said or done with the materials at your disposal?”
Most of us don’t have much time, energy, or money. Yet given our limited means, how can we make the best of what we have?
Instead of complaining about life, think of how you can best use your limited means to do your life’s task.
I like to call this a “creative constraint” — think of your limitation or constraints as an opportunity for you to be more creative.
Let’s say your dream is to become a great photographer. Yet your camera sucks. Think of that as a creative constraint and a fun challenge— how can you make the best images with the crappy camera you already own?
Let’s say your dream is to start your own business. But you have no experience, money, or time. How can you turn that into a benefit? Perhaps you don’t have any dogma holding you back when it comes to business. Perhaps by not having a lot of money, you can be more creative to be frugal with your business— and create an economical business.
Creativity breeds on constraints— so harness your constraints in a positive way.
8. You can live happily anywhere
“Let it be clear to you that the pace of green fields can always be yours, in this, that or any other spot; and that nothing is any different here from what it would be either up in the hills, or down by the sea, or wherever else you will.” – Marcus Aurelius
What causes a lot of misery for many of us is our homes, where we live, and the wish to be somewhere else.
We might live in the suburbs, and wished we lived in the city. We might live in the city, and prefer living in the countryside. We live in the countryside, we might wish living at the beach. We live at the beach, we wish we lived on an island. If we lived on an island, perhaps we might prefer the convenience of living in a suburb.
If you were happy with where you lived and the home you lived in — and didn’t desire to live elsewhere, or in a bigger or better home, how much more energy, money, and attention could you have for better things in life?
For example, I always get the “grass is greener on the other side” syndrome. I generally prefer to live in big cities.
But my biggest learning lesson is that nobody is happy where they live. My friends in NYC wish they lived in Tokyo. My Tokyo friends wished they lived in London. My London friends wished they lived in San Francisco. And my San Francisco friends wished they lived in NYC.
Rather, switch it up. Think to yourself: “The grass is greener on my side.”
Even if where you live sucks — you can find positives in it.
If you live in a “boring” place— it will force you to be more creative to find interesting things to do. And it might be an opportunity for you to start something interesting.
You’re the master of your own destiny— never complain where you live. Rather, reap all the benefits of the neighborhood or city or place you live in.
Write a list of the positives of your home, your neighborhood, or city. Never think of the negatives.
And likewise— think of all the other places you would prefer to live. Then write the negatives of living in those other places (the cost of living, traffic, pollution, distance from family and friends, etc).
And then seek to not complain about your home or where you live. And dedicate all of your creative energy to doing something personally-meaningful.
9. Help the common good
He who lives for himself is truly dead to others.
How do you find your purpose and sense of mission in life? Simple — think of how you can best help the “common good.” Marcus Aurelius reminds himself:
“Avoid all actions that are haphazard or purposeless; and secondly, let every action aim solely at the common good.”
To be a honorable and purposeful human being is to help others. To help others not as fortunate as us. To share our gift, our knowledge, and our resources for us. It means to keep doing good towards others, even though they may hate us. As Marcus Aurelius says:
“Piling good deed on good deed until no rift or cranny appears between them.”
It is hard. We need to learn how to do good for others, without expecting any sort of reward. The good act in itself is good enough. To be human is to help serve others:
“Once you have done a man a service, what more would you have? Is it not enough to have obeyed the laws of your own nature, without expecting to be paid for it? That is like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. It is for that very purpose that they exist; and they have their due in doing what they were created to do. Similarly; man is born for deeds of kindness; and when he has done a kindly action, or otherwise served the common welfare, he has done what he was made for, and has received his quittance.” – Marcus Aurelius
And once you help others, forget it. Better yet— don’t even be conscious that you’re helping others. Marcus Aurelius tells us to have “no consciousness of all of what he has done, like the vine which produces a cluster of grapes looks for no more thanks than a horse that has run his race.”
The pleasure of having helped others is good enough.
For a week, do good unto others, without expecting any praise.
10. Be grateful of your blessings
“Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours.” – Marcus Aurelius
No matter how wealthy or successful we are, we can never get everything that we want.
Happiness isn’t having everything in the world. Rather, happiness is being grateful for all the blessings we already have.
Count your blessings, and then vividly imagine if you didn’t have those blessings. How much would you crave those blessings if you didn’t have them?
“The Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius is one of the few books that I have re-read over 10 times (in different translations as well). It is a book that I know will guide me into old age.
There is a reason why the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius has held up so well over the last 2,000 years or so — the stuff works.
I hope that you can also integrate some of these lessons into your life, to give you less suffering, stress, anxiety, and more strength to do your life’s task — to serve the common good.
Learn more about Stoicism
To learn more about Stoicism, I recommend the following books: