Having control over outcomes is one of the most comforting feelings for human beings. No wonder why authority and power are so appealing to humans: we can use them to do everything our way and see the consequences of our actions all the way through.
On the other hand, uncertainty and lack of control over outcomes can make us feel anxious, paranoid, inefficient, and a plethora of other negative states. Even when we know we can’t do anything about something that is completely out of our control, we struggle to let go and to focus on what we can actually control.
These are all reasons why we usually have difficulties when dealing with changing circumstances, especially if this change is associated with negative events like the current coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing chaos it is inflicting upon the world. It is in situations like these when we should get creative and experiment with resources that can make us thrive. Stoicism is one of those resources.
Stoicism was created around 300 BCE in Athens by Zeno of Citium (currently Cyprus). It was represented and practiced by remarkable historic figures such as Roman thinker, writer, and intellectual Seneca, Greek philosopher Epictetus, and Roman Golden Age emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Entire libraries have been written about this fascinating school of thought. At a very large scale, it could be summarized as a way of thinking and acting based on the extreme acceptance of the outcomes we can’t control, and the exertion of maximum effort to get the most out of the results we can control.
Stoicism is a bulletproof, result-yielding way of thinking and acting in any setting. Its characteristics make it the perfect mindset to adopt in times of extraordinary uncertainty, like the ones we are currently navigating.
Seneca stated that, “The wise man regards the reason for all his actions, but not the results.”
The core principle of Stoicism reflected in Seneca’s quote is also what makes it the secret to surviving special operations SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) scenarios. Stoic expert and bestselling author Ryan Holiday calls Stoicism “the unofficial philosophy of the military.” To illustrate this affirmation, Holiday shares the remarkable story of James Stockdale, whose life and toughness of mind are subjects of study and sources of inspiration.
Stockdale was an American aviator whose aircraft was shot down on September 9th, 1965 over Vietnam, leading to his imprisonment in the brutal “Hanoi Hilton” camp. Stockdale spent eight years captive in Hanoi including “two years in heavy leg irons and four years in isolation“. The highest-ranking Navy prisoner of war in Vietnam, his story is a masterclass on mental toughness, relentlessness, and, ultimately, stoicism.
Author Jim Collins went a step farther and coined the term Stockdale paradox in his bestselling book “Good to Great.” This paradox is based on the principle that inducing certain doses of negativity and mentally preparing for the worst will help us deal with extremely tough circumstances since we would have already considered them as possible outcomes.
Likewise, becoming too optimistic or excited about future possibilities can lead to unfulfilled expectations and mental breakdowns. When Collins interviewed Stockdale for his book, the latter pronounced an iconic quote that perfectly illustrates the paradox that bears his name:
“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.”
Stockdale’s example and encouraging use of a sense of purpose and control over his intentions despite extremely adverse circumstances resemble those of Victor Frankl, the famed Austrian psychiatrist imprisoned in Nazi internment camps. In his must-read book “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Frankl detailed his profound experiences in several concentration camps and the practices that enabled his physical and psychological survival.
In times such as these, in which “we are drowning in information but starving for wisdom”, it would be useful to follow the mantra of business and personal development guru Tony Robbins. Stoicism can be our ally, our north star that keeps us in check, making our highs lower, and our lows higher.