What is Stoicism?

Stoicism has become a popular topic lately, but what is it exactly? How have its principles helped people like Elon Musk, Warren Buffett, Sarah Blakely, Robert Greene and Arianna Huffington become and stay successful? The foregoing individuals may not identify as Stoics, but have used certain Stoic principles in their lives.

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy founded in the 3rd century BCE by Zeno and was popular during the Roman Empire.  Stoicism has had a strong influence on Western philosophy and culture, where it influenced philosophers like Friedrich Nietzsche, Baruch Spinoza and René Descartes.  It has also had an influence on the development of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) in modern psychology. CBT focuses on developing coping strategies, emotional regulation and challenging cognitive distortions.

The practical teachings of Stoicism provide guidance on how to deal with challenges. If you follow five Stoic key principles, you will improve your chances to reach and maintain success in business and in life in general. Many men and women have put Stoic principles into practice to reach great success.

Five Key Principles of Stoicism

1. Embrace adversity and learn from challenging experiences. Obstacles are opportunities to develop strength and resilience, and lead to personal growth.

2. Focus on things in your control, like your own attitudes, beliefs, thoughts and actions. Ignore things out of your control, like the actions of others. In Stoicism, this is alignment with nature that leads to less suffering and more peace. As a result, you will stay calm under pressure and will be able to make good business decisions.

3. Be mindful. Free yourself of past regrets and future anxieties. Focus on the present moment and accept it without judgment.

4. Develop self-control and self-discipline and be prepared for the unexpected. Become aware of and control your emotions, desires, and impulses, so you can be peaceful and not be affected by external circumstances.

5. Be humble. Realizing that you do not know everything, will help you learn new things.

Living by Stoic Principles Leads To Success

Stoicism offers valuable insights that can be applied to different aspects of life and business. The following quotes from Stoic philosophers elaborate on Stoic principles:

I

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”  

– Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism encourages you to embrace and accept challenges and setbacks. There will inevitably be obstacles, failures, and unexpected changes in life and business. A Stoic mindset will help you view those challenges as opportunities for growth and learning. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by challenges, become resilient and adapt to navigate through difficult times.

Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, tells the story of how her father asked her each evening at the dinner table how she had failed that day and what she had learned from the experience. As a result, she grew up believing that failure was not a negative thing but rather a regular part of life. Sara Blakely embraced and accepted failures and saw them as opportunities to grow.

One of Sara Blakely’s first jobs was going door-to-door selling fax machines. She had many doors shut in her face, but she continued and became a successful salesperson. The rejections became fuel to keep her motivated. Sara Blakely’s upbringing and life experience taught her to grow through challenges and become resilient.

Using the Stoic principle of “the obstacle is the way”, Sara Blakely became a self-made billionaire and a role model for women around the world.

II

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Stoic philosophy focuses on the importance of maintaining emotional balance and avoiding being controlled by outside circumstances.

Emotional detachment helps you remain calm and rational when you encounter stressful situations or criticism. Develop the ability to be emotionally detached and you can make more objective decisions and respond to challenges in a calm and controlled manner.

Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX, who was born in South Africa, has said that starting a new company is like staring down the abyss and chewing glass. Despite finding the experience of starting a company highly stressful, he has started many companies and has been very successful. This is because Elon Musk is able to emotionally detach from the experience and stay rational.

Each time Elon Musk encounters a challenge, such as for example a failed SpaceX launch, he responds in a calm and controlled manner and finds a better way to achieve his goal.

III

“My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it”

–  Friedrich Nietzsche

Amor Fati means love of fate, which is one of the main principles of Stoicism. Accept life as it is without judgment. Be in the present moment, and realize that positive and negative experiences are an inevitable part of life. Love and accept everything that happens in your life.

Robert Greene, the author of The 48 Laws of Power, has stated this principle as follows: “We need to accept the fact that all events occur for a reason, and that it is within your capacity to see this reason as positive.”

In 2018, Robert Greene had an almost fatal stroke when a bee sting caused a blood clot in his neck. He has followed the Amor Fati principle in his life, and has loved and accepted everything which has happened, even his stroke. In 2021, he published the New York Times Bestseller “The Daily Laws” and has continued his success through learning, growing and reaching people on a global basis.

Together with Ryan Holiday, the author of The Obstacle is the Way, Robert Greene created an Amor Fati medallion which people can carry in their pocket or purse as a continuous reminder of this Stoic principle.

IV

“We should constantly reflect that all things are changing: that nothing proceeds in an unbroken straight line, but that all is coming to an end and beginning anew in an unexpected way.”

– Marcus Aurelius

Introspection and self-reflection lead to self-improvement. Take time for self-reflection so you can assess your actions, evaluate your decisions, and learn from your experiences.

Regular contemplation allows you to align your actions with your values. In addition, it identifies areas for personal and professional growth, and helps in making better choices as well as be prepared for the unexpected.

Arianna Huffington, the co-founder of The Huffington Post, has expressed her interest in Stoicism and the important principles of self-awareness, mindfulness, and overcoming adversity.

In 2007, Arianna Huffington collapsed and broke her cheekbone on her desk as a result of sleep deprivation, exhaustion and burnout. She realized that something had to change and became more introspective and self-reflective to improve her life.

The successful and busy entrepreneur started taking time for herself, to contemplate and to learn from her experiences. In 2016, she created Thrive Global which focuses on the burnout crisis and helps individuals, companies and communities improve their well-being and performance.

Arianna Huffington put Stoic principles into practice by using introspection and self-reflection to embrace her challenges, and create a new business focused on the problem she encountered: burnout. For her, the obstacle became the way and she is helping thousands of people around the globe.

V

“It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

– Epictetus

It is a basic tenet of Stoicism that humility kills pride. When an individual has a big ego, he will not be able to admit that he does not know something. As a result, he will not be able to learn anything new. Author Ryan Holiday wrote an entire book on this principle, called The Ego is the Enemy.  

Warren Buffett is a prime example of an individual who lives by the Stoic principle of humility. He is a self-made billionaire but still lives in the home which he purchased with his wife in Omaha, Nebraska in 1958 for $31,500. Buffett is down-to-earth and is known to eat breakfast at McDonald’s every day. He knows that he does not know everything and delegates to those who do know. 

Conclusion

Incorporating these five key Stoic principles into your mindset and practices will help you cultivate a more resilient and effective approach to decision-making and handling challenges. It will contribute to your success in business and life.