Focusing on Right Now

I’m re-reading some Stoic writings, and I highly recommend it for anyone who’s ready to make a change in the way they’re handling their emotions. If you’re just getting started with Stoicism, Matthew Van Natta’s The Beginner’s Guide to Stoicism: Tools for Emotional Resilience and Positivity is a great place to start. He starts out with some ancient history, but quickly goes on to outline how the Stoics chose to live and why it’s still so relevant today.

I’ve written about Stoicism before; it’s a philosophy many leaders embrace, for good reason. One is that Stoic thinking keeps you focused on what’s most important. Van Natta says one of the main principles of Stoicism is the Dichotomy of Control. It’s the most fundamental of the Stoic premises: Some things are in your control, and some things are outside of your control. Stoics divide every situation according to this and focus only on the things that are in their control.

Think about how this might transform the way you experience any challenging or difficult situation. I can’t control whether I win the race, but I can control how positive my campaign messages are. I can’t control the outcome of the contest, but I can control how I prepare, play the game, and treat my opponent when it’s over.

I can control how I treat people, but I can’t control how they treat me or whether they like me. I can tell the truth, but I can’t control whether people believe me. I can do the right thing, but I can’t control whether I’ll be thanked, or whether it will even be noticed.

Think about how different your mindset would be if you could embrace this way of living. Most of us spend most of our energy worrying about the things we can’t control, rather than focusing on what we can control. “Will they like it?” is unknowable. “Have I prepared as much as I can?” is in your control.

Seneca wrote, “These two things must be cut away: fear of the future, and the memory of past sufferings. The latter no longer concerns me, and the future does not concern me yet.” Let go of your worry about what might happen and let go of your pain from what did happen before. Transformational thinking from 2.300 years ago.

Here is the Stoic secret to happiness: “train yourself to desire only what you can always have, and fear only what you can always avoid. The Discipline of Desire exists to give you this mind-set, one that remains undisturbed by life’s challenges.”

Think of the time we waste wanting things we can never have. Of course, it’s healthy to want a good life: a comfortable home, good friends, meaningful work. Those are natural ambitions. But we often crave things that we aren’t likely to achieve, and which aren’t likely to make us happy once we get them. A million followers on Instagram. A Ferrari. Your cousin’s boyfriend. Modern society has perfected the formula for creating desire, which also makes us unhappy and restless, and ungrateful for what we do have.  The secret to having everything you want is to want everything you have.

It’s the second part of the Discipline of Desire that hit me harder: fear only what you can avoid. If you know that something difficult is unavoidable, it doesn’t do any good to fear it. You can stop wasting your time on fear and spend it on preparation and enduring it as best you can.  Usually, fear is about the unknown. Once the worst news is known, you can choose how to handle it and how to live during difficult times.

Viktor Frankel said, ” “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” The Stoics believed that every situation offered the opportunity for you to practice a virtue: patience, kindness, courage, or wisdom. Focusing on what you can do instead of how you feel will help you get through hard times.

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