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Think you’re failing in life? Think again

Think you’re failing in life? Think again

  • Date06 January 2020

What are you hoping for in 2020? Maybe you’re looking to buy a new car, start a new relationship or finally achieve that pay rise? Well Stoicism can help you.

2020 New Year

Whilst there’s nothing inherently wrong with pursuing any of these things, says Dr John Sellars, lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, by attaching your sense of self-worth to these markers of external success, it can be fraught with danger. Perhaps this New Year it’s time to rethink what’s worth chasing.

Buy why is it so dangerous? Well, for one thing, we might end up thinking that if we don’t achieve the goals we set ourselves then we are some kind of failure. ‘If only I was more determined and worked harder, I’d fulfil all my ambitions’, but if we don’t, then it’s all our own fault and have failed miserably.

So how can we avoid this sort of trap? The ancient philosophy of Stoicism may have some answers.

The ancient Stoics put forward a number of ideas that suggest a quite different way of thinking about these things. There are three key Stoic ideas that are especially relevant.

First, accept that much that happens in our lives is out of our control. Indeed, although we can certainly contribute to outcomes – such as doing our best in a job interview – we can never completely control the result. Our performance may be excellent, but the outcome will be as much determined by what the other candidates do as it will by our efforts.

The final result of whether we get the job or not is simply out of our control, no matter how hard we try or how well we perform on the day. If you tie your sense of success and self-worth to something out of your control, then you are turning your happiness into a hostage to fortune. That’s not a good position to be in.

This takes us to the second idea: focus on the activity, not the outcome. The Stoics drew an analogy with archery.

As paradoxical as it might sound, the goal of archery isn’t about hitting the target, they argued, but simply to shoot well. The reason why is that hitting the target is out of our control – a gust of wind might blow the arrow off course. So instead, we ought to focus on mastering the technique of archery.

That won’t guarantee that we’ll always hit the mark, there’ll still be gusts of wind, but it will increase the likelihood of hitting it more often. But most importantly, the goal of shooting as well as we can is completely within our control, and no annoying side winds can stop us from achieving that.

Suddenly our happiness is back within our control, and we are no longer hostages to fortune.

This shift in focus from external results to how well we perform takes us to the third Stoic idea: true value resides inside, not outside. Getting that new job, promotion, or pay rise is not genuinely good, the Stoics would argue. Why? Because even if you get it, you might still be miserable.

It might even make things worse – more responsibility, more stress and greater expectations.

Or it might be quickly forgotten as you focus attention on climbing up the next rung of the ladder.

The Stoics insisted that for something to be really good, it must always benefit us, and they suggested there’s only one thing that always benefits us when we have it: a calm, rational, and consistent mind.

This is where real value lies.

Forget the external ambitions and instead focus on cultivating the right frame of mind, such as the desire to do whatever you’re doing as well as you can, simply for the satisfaction of doing it well, without any thought for further reward.

That’s an ambition completely within your control.

Nothing can thwart you, and so you can be master of your own success on 2020.


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