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7 Epictetus Quotes to Keep You Steady Through Life's Storms
A fountain of timeless wisdom from the ancient world
Epictetus flung himself into his studies and, in gratitude for his master, worked diligently. Later, when he was freed, he set up his own school to teach Stoicism.
“He not only preached but also lived and breathed Stoicism.”
Stoicism is a philosophy that had and continues to have a wide appeal. This is thanks to its simple principles for better living that you can adopt irrespective of your situation or standing in life.
What made Epictetus exemplary among them was that he not only preached but also lived and breathed Stoicism.
Being banished a couple of years after starting his school didn’t deter him. He continued to teach and live the Stoic way. He died soon after, but his teachings and works have survived through the ages.
Here are 7 nuggets of wisdom from them, accompanied by my thoughts, to weather the storms of life.
“Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”
I consider myself to be a cool and rational person, but during a recent traffic incident, I had a severe outburst of anger and went ballistic.
I blamed the circumstances — I had a throbbing headache, was tired, and the other guy was driving irresponsibly. But after some reflection, I found quite a few similar incidents which I had slapped away with some or other kind of justification.
We all do this. As the self-serving bias explains, we have a tendency to attribute positive things to our personality and negative events to our circumstances.
So, more often than not, the circumstances aren’t to blame; we are.
What to do?
When you act irrationally or out of character, take a step back and ask yourself, “Why did I act that way?”. Think about it and get to its root. In my case, I had a short temper deep down which I had to work on.
I like to view circumstances as a test of character. The more extreme the circumstances, the harder the test. With this point of view, you will be able to use every situation to strengthen your character.
So, every time you act out of character, reflect on it and use it as an opportunity to reinforce the chinks in your armor.
“The more extreme the circumstances, the harder the test.”
“It isn’t the events themselves that disturb people, but only their judgments about them.”
What we think of as objective reality is nothing but our perception of the actual world. Our “world” is nothing but the output of our brains after processing the input from our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and touch. So, by changing our perception of things, we can change our worlds.
I am living evidence of this. A couple of years ago, I was a completely different person — one that complained, got jealous, acted toxically, and viewed the world through a negative lens.
I felt miserable, and the world was a dark dreary place. Now I feel great and the world’s a bright utopia.
The world didn’t change, my perception of it did.
“Our “world” is nothing but the output of our brains after processing the input from our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and touch.”
What to do?
External factors that are outside our control dictate over 99% of our life, but the one thing we are always in control of is our perception of things. As Viktor Frankl says,
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
Once you start looking at things positively, you can use anything and everything to empower you.
Failure is an opportunity to learn and try again. Betrayal is a lesson to be careful about who you trust. A disease is a reminder to take care of your health.
An exercise to help train your perception to look at the bright side is — try to find at least 3 positives before you complain or worry about something.
You might not always find three, but by searching, you’ll find at least one. And one is more than enough.
“Deliberate much before saying or doing anything, for you will not have the power of recalling what is said or done.”
I used to have a sharp tongue and let me tell you; it has cost me dearly. I lost quite a few good friends and made unnecessary enemies.
Under the influence of emotions and pressure, we say things we don’t really intend to, and these become a cause for much regret later on. The effects of speaking before thinking aren’t just limited to this, though. As psychologist Shirley Vandersteen explains:
“Your speech influences your thinking and can alter the course of your future. Your words are a way of underlining your thoughts and reinforcing them.
When your words are harsh, negative, inconsiderate, or judgmental, then these are the aspects of your experience that are emphasized. It won’t be long before you have developed the habit of always focusing your thoughts on the darker side of life.”
This is exactly why it’s important to think before speaking.
What to do?
When you get worked up and your emotions start pushing words to your mouth, pause and take a deep breath. Then, ask yourself, “Am I better off leaving what I am about to say unsaid?”
This simple question I learned from Cato’s famous quote works wonders. If what you are about to say isn’t affirming, genuine, helpful, or humorous, it most probably isn’t worth saying.
“Am I better off leaving what I am about to say unsaid?”
“There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things that are beyond the power of our will.”
External factors that are outside our control dictate over 99% of our life. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s the truth.
This is exactly why there is no point worrying about things such as what others think of you, how they behave, or what you are born with. Instead, focus on what you think of yourself, how you behave, and hone whatever you are born with.
What to do?
Understand the dichotomy of control, recognize the things you are in control of and focus only on them. Completely let go and arrive at acceptance with the things you cannot control. As the Serenity prayer goes,
“God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
“When you are offended at any man’s fault, turn to yourself and study your own failings. Then you will forget your anger.”
Thanks to the fundamental attribution bias, we are more likely to attribute someone’s negative situation to their character instead of their circumstances.
Because of the self-serving bias, we attribute our own positive events to our character rather than our circumstances.
So we are much more likely to find faults in other people than in ourselves. Doing the former is easy, but doing the latter despite being harder is rewarding.
What to do?
Before you criticize or find fault with someone, pause and remind yourself that you have enough faults of your own. An exercise I like to do is — mentally switch positions with the other person and see how you would feel.
You wouldn’t feel comfortable, would you?
Every person has faults and shortcomings of their own and at some or other level is aware of them. You don’t have to remind them. Instead, remind yourself of your own faults and work on them.
“Mentally switch positions with the other person and see how you would feel.”
“Nothing great is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig. I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”
Good things take time and effort, excruciatingly so at times. This is exactly what makes them good — if you could build your dream physique in a matter of months or become a viral writer within weeks, there wouldn’t be dad bods or struggling writers around.
Nothing worth having comes easy, and if it did, it wouldn’t be worth having.
What to do?
When you undertake something, consistently put in the work, enjoy the process, and stay patient.
Don’t let failures or “not-good-enough” results dissuade you. Instead, learn from them and use them to further fuel your motivation. As basketball legend Michael Jordan said,
“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life.”
In the long run, consistency beats out everything. As long as you are progressing, you are on the right track.
“Nothing worth having comes easy, and if it did, it wouldn’t be worth having.”
Success isn’t a straight line, but a messy tangle of failures and demotivated days.
“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
Back in school, when I had a stutter, the fear of speaking held me back from speaking much. Surprisingly, people loved speaking to me much more than later when I lost my stutter and became a talkative person.
It’s simple. People love speaking, especially about themselves, and consequently, love good listeners. Speaking is great, but it’s only when you allow the other person to speak that it becomes a conversation.
Listening is a win-win situation — not only do you please the other person but also get to learn something new.
What to do?
When you are speaking, now and then remind yourself to pause and let the other person speak. Then, give them your undivided attention — make eye contact, don’t check your phone, and don’t just nod blindly while awaiting your turn to speak.
Listen with the sole intent of listening.
Epictetus left a fountain of timeless wisdom for posterity to tap into and lead better lives. At face value, his quotes seem simple and elegant but upon strong reflection, you’ll find them rather deep. Here are the takeaways from the ones we examined:
Don’t blame your actions and behavior on the situation, but understand that the situation revealed chinks in your character. Reinforce these chinks.
In any situation, how you perceive it determines how you feel about it. There’s always an upside. You just have to look.
Before saying something, pause, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, “Am I better off leaving what I am about to say unsaid?”.
Recognize and worry only about the things you can control. Cease worrying about the things you cannot.
Before you criticize someone about their faults or shortcomings, remind yourself that you have plenty of your own.
When you undertake something, consistently put in the work, enjoy the process, learn from your failures and stay patient. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Listen twice as much as you speak and when listening, give the other person your undivided attention.