Stoicism is a school of philosophy that flourished throughout the ancient Roman empire up until the 3rd century AD. Its practitioners included the great politician and court strategist Seneca, the slave Epictetus (who rose to great prominence despite his origins) and the most powerful man of his time, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoicism is predominantly a philosophy of personal ethics which is informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. You might associate the term to mean ‘being emotionless’ or immune from feelings, but it is in fact a very practical philosophy, meant to help us deal with the many trials and tribulations of life. We have much to learn from the many famous stoics.
According to its teachings, the path to happiness for us is to accept whatever we have been given in life, and to never be controlled by our desire for pleasure or our fear of pain, and to use our minds to understand the world around us and to do our part in nature’s plan – all the while working together and treating others in a just manner.
Not that esoteric, is it?
Briefly, Stoicism’s main tenets aim to help us to:
- Separate the event itself and our feelings and emotions associated with that event. We cannot control something from happening or not happening, but we can certainly control how we feel about it post facto.
- Realize that life is unpleasant business – and is full of rejection, failure, sadness and illness. It also tells us, however, that if we keep at it, keep doing our duty, we will get through it eventually and that the bad times will end. Stoicism is particularly helpful in trying times.
- Invest time in learning – either from a mentor or from books. This is a no brainer.
- Dedicate ourselves to a high purpose, or, to a virtuous life. For example, don’t set yourself a life goal to be a successful businessman with $5 million in the bank account in 10 years time. Instead set yourself a goal to be the best businessman you can be, build the best business you can build and help as many people as you can through your products / services.
- Think about a specific life purpose and dedicate our actions to ensuring we are progressing towards that purpose.
- Seize every moment and be mindful and present in whatever we do. Time is ticking fast and wasting this valuable resource is criminal. So focus, be present and get stuff done.
As I mentioned above, there is a great deal to learn from the stoic school of philosophy, not in the least about personal finance.
I list below 4 great lessons from Stoicism that are applicable to you and your finances.
Focus on what you can control and forget about everything else.
You cannot control the fact that you have to walk past a number of luxury goods stores on your way to work. However, you can control your response to this. You can chose to walk past them and not be tempted by their wares. You cannot control the clothes your friends wear, the cars they drive and houses they live in. However, you can chose to feel happy for them, instead of feeling jealous and the need to keep up. You can instead chose to focus on your friends as the people you love and want to be around, instead of looking at them as competition.
Life will most certainly throw punches at you. So be prepared as best you can.
The stoics urged you to accept that life is hard – filled with trials and tribulations, pitfalls and dejection, heartache and woe. Once we accept that, things get easier. They advise you to acknowledge this upfront and urgently. Accepting this helps avoid unnecessary anger and frustration when things go wrong. You must focus instead on preparation for life. The same goes for your personal finances. Don’t know how to invest, or how to pare down your debt? There are many ways to learn how to do so. Read diligently. Meet people who can share experience. Pursue knowledge and education continuously. Find a good mentor to teach and guide you – someone who you can always count on to serve as a sounding board. It was Issac Newton who once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants”. So find your giants in books and learning. They will serve you well and will help you to see further.
Also, in keeping with the ‘being prepared’ theme, ensure that you get the basics of personal finance right. Make sure you have adequate medical insurance in place, ensure you have a good term life insurance plan going to take care of your family after you’re gone, and also a solid emergency fund to tide over unfortunate and unforeseen events such a death or illness of a loved one, a job loss or any other sudden large expenditures.
Define a purpose, focus on this and work hard towards its fulfillment. Success will follow.
We often set ourselves narrow goals, many of which involve getting rich, being desirable or becoming wildly famous. The stoics warn you against this sort of goal setting. They urge you instead to focus on a life of virtue and constant improvement, and push you to become the best possible version of yourself that you can be – and that will be the most worthwhile goal to achieve over your lifetime. The same holds true for your finances. Don’t focus too much on the numbers and the net worth (though these are worth tracking) too much. Focus instead on the negative behaviors that you can change or on the positive practices you can initiate. If you internalize better personal finance conduct and habits, savings and financial progress will follow automatically. For example, if it is normal for you not to be affected by your peers’ material acquisitions, then you save yourself a ton of money in trying to not keep up.
Desire is eternal. Beyond a point, try not to covet the material things in life. We don’t need much to be happy. Focus on relationships, people and wider communities instead. Giving provides more true joy than taking.
There is no end to human want. We adapt very easily to more and more. The stoics practiced the art of negative visualization and often took if to extremes by sleeping on the floor, drinking dirty water from the streets and walking around in rags without footwear – all this to prepare themselves for the inevitable wrath of misfortune which will strike eventually strike at all of us. Through this they realized that not much was needed for a happy life, materially speaking. Beyond a roof, some clothes, three hot meals and some basic financial flexibility, not much else is needed, materially. We are at our happiest when we are doing meaningful work, engaging positively with our family, friends and community and getting the sense that we are contributing positively to something bigger than ourselves.
I found this nice little video from the School of Life’s website, which introduces the wonderful wisdom of the Stoics in a succinct and fun filled 5 minute film. I hope you like it and that it helps you appreciate its teachings better.