The ancient Stoics have many powerful quotes. Here are some of my favorites:
Do not act as if you were going to live ten thousand years. Death hangs over you. While you live, while it is in your power, be good. — Marcus Aurelius
There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn. — Seneca
Who are those people by whom you wish to be admired? Are they not these whom you are in the habit of saying that they are mad? What then? Do you wish to be admired by the mad? — Epictetus
Needless to say, each of these is brilliant. It can be easy to move through quote after quote like this. Sometimes we can read a line and use it as inspiration. Motivating action that we really care about. But sometimes, I’ve noticed that people scroll through them like they scroll through their newsfeed. Like our scrolling through a newsfeed, reading a quote can make it seem like we’re sharing in something powerful. When we’re simply reading, not acting. I’ve noticed this in myself from time to time.
This, of course, isn’t just a problem with Stoicism. Many life philosophies have similar problems. It can be easier and more fun to consume than put the wisdom into practice.
By consuming content you can feel like you’re making progress. In reality, you’re not, and you’ll notice that you’re not later. If you’re not careful, you can end up spinning your wheels.
Given the Stoics emphasis on action, it is harder to get away with purely consuming by reading their stuff. Moreover, Stoics, contemporary and modern, suggest a panoply of practical exercises that you can do immediately. For Stoics, one’s character, thoughts, and actions are the ultimate good after all.
That said, it can still be easy to find oneself surfing through quotes without making significant progress.
Stop wandering about! You aren’t likely to read your own notebooks, or ancient histories, or the anthologies you’ve collected to enjoy in your old age. Get busy with life’s purpose, toss aside empty hopes, get active in your own rescue-if you care for yourself at all-and do it while you can. — Marcus Aurelius
Decide what you’d like to change and then do it.
Suppose I want to wake up earlier, one way to start thinking about this is to raise the stakes. Ask, how much am I willing to pay if I fail? One can use friends or a variety of different websites to hold you accountable.
Asking how much you’re willing to pay clarifies how much you’d like to change and what your chances of success are. For example, I may be tempted to think that I can move my wake up time to 7am to 4:30am immediately, but if the thought of paying money if I fail makes me queasy that’s some evidence that the goal may be too ambitious. Or that I don’t actually want to do it at all.
If you find yourself consuming self-help, stop now and again, ask yourself, is there a concrete action this is helping me take? How can I raise the stakes to ensure that I follow through? How can I make myself accountable?
Holding yourself accountable in this way is like Ulysses strapping himself to the mast in the face of the sirens. In our case, the sirens are singing about the temptations of consuming more inspirational and deep content. There’s a place for this consumption, but moderation is key. We need to ensure that we’re acting, not just reading.
Reading should serve the goal of attaining peace; if it doesn’t make you peaceful, what good is it? — Epictetus