Maintaining Your Character

“It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.”

 

Ryan Holiday starts one of the chapters in his book Ego is the Enemy with the above quote from Marcus Aurelius. Holiday, in both Ego is the Enemy and his previous book The Obstacle is the Way, outlines principles of stoic philosophy and connects stoicism with the modern day. The only thing we can control, Holiday explains, is how we react to the events of the world around us. We are going to experience a lot of good and bad luck, and it is how we react to the events of our life that determine whether we will be successful.

 

No matter what goes on around us, Holiday argues that we can always think about how we are behaving and reacting and choose to act in the way that will be the most helpful for us. Whatever bad luck, failure, loss, or challenge rolls our way, we can decide how we will react to it and what impact it will have on who we are. We may lose the physical ability to do something, we may lose a spouse or family member, our property could be taken away from us, our career paths may be derailed, or our Facebook post might not get any likes. In each of these situations, we could react as though our life is over and as though there is no possible recovery. If we do, then we will create an almost self-fulfilling prophecy where the negative thoughts and opinions of our minds manifest in our lives. Stoic philosophy would encourage us to look at the loss around us and see that within the misery exists the opportunity to display strength in character and to maintain clear thoughts.

 

Most of us will never be tortured in our lives, but Holiday does give examples in his two books of prisoners of war who used stoic philosophy and maintained their character to stay united and survive the horrors of torture. There are people who are trafficked and exploited, and their pain and trauma is certainly real and help and guidance is certainly something they should seek out, but a touch of self-awareness can help everyone look at their current situation and think about how they can move forward in a positive way. For most of us, we can recognize that we will struggle and will feel as though things could never get worse, but we can also remember that people have faced far worse pain and recovered.

 

Ultimately, we can look at the negative pieces in our lives and the decisions we make each day and try to move in a direction which continually improves our character. The good things and the bad things in our life are only good or bad based on our opinions and decisions. Nothing can ruin our lives unless we decide that it has the power to ruin us. Choosing to maintain our character in any situation always gives us the option of being strong in the face of obstacles and turning those obstacles into learning opportunities for ourselves and the people around us.

A Clear Picture of Success

In 2017 I wrote a piece about an idea from Colin Wright in his book Come Back Frayed. In our lives, the primary yardstick we use to measure our success, Wright explains, is often a monetary yardstick. We look at our bank account, the funding levels of the organization we are a part of, and how much we make each pay check and determine whether our lives have value and are meaningful based on how much we make. Colin Wright was one of the first authors who helped me be aware of how frequently I judged myself and others based on income, or cues related to income (how fancy is someone’s car, what shoes does someone have, do they live in a wealthy neighborhood?).

 

Wealth and income, however, are both impacted by a number of forces beyond the control of a single individual and both people who we hold in high esteem and people who are self centered and morally questionable can become fantastically wealthy through either hard work or dumb luck. Therefore, judging someone based on wealth and income is an incomplete measure of another person. Wright was one of the first people to express this in a way that really connected with me, and I found the idea again in the writing of Ryan Holiday and Marcus Aurelius. In a long quote from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, he writes,

 

“You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail.
    How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” “Ambition,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do … Sanity means tying it to your own actions.””

 

We cannot expect that in our lives everything will go well and we will live up to the external yardsticks we use to define success. If we expect a certain number of followers, likes, or shares then we are deciding the value of something based on the perceptions of other people and whether something randomly becomes a hit. If we decide that we are only successful if we have enough money to buy a new Tesla, we are putting ourselves in a position where we may compromise on being a good human being in order to obtain enough money to purchase something that we think will tell people that we are valuable and successful. We give control of ourselves to other people when we live this way. Our happiness is not our own, but a yo-yo string controlled by the opinions of our social, work, and family networks.

 

Changing our definition of success to measures internal to who we are is more healthy and reasonable. Pursuing a craft, hobby, or passion for self-fulfillment is different from pursuing a goal for reasons of obtaining greater wealth, respect, and admiration from others. Those things may come from living well, but when they are a result of good work and arrive obliquely through our efforts to do our best at what is in front of us, they will be more rewarding and less tied to our definition of who we are. This can give us the opportunity to live on our own terms, content with the person and lifestyle we pursue.

The Reflections of a Stoic

Meditations is a work by Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. It is a collection of letters written by Aurelius in his common place book, a journal where he wrote his important thoughts and reflections so that he could return to them and always be cognizant of the lessons life had provided him.

 

Aurelius’ Meditations begins with the emperor reflecting on his childhood, his family, and his upbringing.  He lists lessons that he learned from those around him during his development, and what those lessons meant to him at the time he was writing.  As I return to Aurelius’ thoughts, I am struck by how well his work parallels ideas from Fred Kiel’s book Return on Character. I recently wrote about a study that Kiel completed as part of the research for his business book written over 1,800 years after Aurelius’ meditations, and I am struck by the overlap of the ideas.  Kiel argues that our most successful and responsible business leaders, those who provide the greatest value for those in their lives and the companies they run, are those who have a whole and complete understanding of themselves and the experiences that shaped their lives.  He argues that to be a truly moral and responsible individual you must be able to reflect on the influences that shaped your life, and understand how those influences shaped who you are today.  By understanding and having a complete life story you can better connect with people and be better prepared to lead through having a greater understanding of humanity and your place within society.

 

What Kiel wrote in his book in 2015, Aurelius clearly understood in the 2nd second century.  He explains how he developed the thoughts and ideas that shaped him, and he explains exactly where his character traits and habits come from.

 

The Emperor begins Meditations by writing, “From my grandfather Verus [I learned] good morals and the government of my temper” and he continues, “From my mother, piety and beneficence, and abstinence, not only from evil deeds, but even from evil thoughts; and further simplicity in my way of living, far removed from the habits of the rich.” Aurelius extends beyond family to show what lessons he learned from people in the society in which he lived, “From my governor…I learned endurance of labor, and to want little, and to work with my own hands…” “From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and discipline … nor to showing myself off as a man who practices much discipline, or does benevolent acts in order to make a display.”

 

The quotes above are key tenants of stoicism, and they struck me as very powerful when I first read Meditations. Aurelius explains what forces in his life shaped his thoughts and beliefs, and he continues  throughout his work to show how this backing helped him approach the world in a constructive and positive manner as he governed not only the Roman Empire, but his own mind and actions. Incorporating the ideas outlined above in his quotes can be very powerful in the way we approach others and apply ourselves toward the efforts and goals that we all have.  Remembering that character requires discipline and continual improvement helps us stay humbled in our relationships to others, especially if we can practice such discipline without making a great show or display of it.  When we can focus on these key concepts and understand what molded us into the complete individuals that we are today, we will be better prepared to react to a changing world, and we will better understand our role and place within our society.