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Founded by the Ancient Greeks, stoicism has long been used as a way to overcome strife and turn troubles into triumph.
History is studded with stoics; those inspiring thinkers, inventors and leaders who adapted their perception, actions and will in order to succeed. Historians even believe that many of these people wouldn’t have risen to greatness at all without a whole load of woe to wade through.
Abraham Lincoln’s lifelong battle with depression is believed to have given him the tenacity and courage to fight slavery in the US. Edison’s commitment to hard work, epitomised in his famous remark, “I have not failed, I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” made him America’s greatest inventor. And Suffragettes, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, endured imprisonment, violence and ridicule to ultimately change history for women.
Using adversity as a source of strength can be seen in the triumphs of our modern paralympians and injured military heroes too, and closer to home in our own empathetic responses to humanitarian crises and terrorist incidents. It seems we all have the ability to respond to even the worst of events with something powerfully constructive.
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What surfing can teach us about resilience
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the mindfulness expert, said of life, “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”. We can’t splash out into the sea and ride right back to shore first time. First we must develop our core muscles and balance, build resilience to going underwater and shake off any bruises and wet sand we endure. Stoicism is like surfing.
It takes persistence and practice. We face both big waves and no waves in life, we go under and we come up again gasping. With determination, we get back on the board. Sometimes the waves are violent, we are hurt and it takes us time to recover.
But each time we clamber up again we’ve learned something new. Perhaps something practical, but more likely something about ourselves. And, like the determined surfer, we can pick up our board, wiser, ready for the next wave.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can and wisdom to know the difference.
Put stoicism into practice
It’s natural to feel rattled by life’s problems. After all, our survival on this planet is down to ancestors who were hardwired to fight or flight when danger was imminent. We’re still geared to respond to any threat like startled pheasants.
However, it’s worth remembering that pheasants often run out into the road. We don’t have to – instead, we can switch to stoic. In his inspirational book, The Obstacle is the Way, media strategist Ryan Holiday, (whose ideas are used by Twitter and Google) distils the philosophy into three practical steps that anyone can apply in their everyday lives.
3 steps to stoicism
However much you might flap and yap, the problem really hasn’t arisen from fate, bad luck, destiny, the ‘fact’ that this sort of thing always happens to you, or the alignment of the stars in the sky. It’s an event, making it as indifferent as the rain. And as soon as you ditch your diva and start to see it that way, your options increase.
Once you’ve taken that first healthy step back by changing how you look at the crisis, Holiday emphasises choosing the ‘right action’ to deal with it. Simply put, that’s doing something that is actually likely to help.
Next time you’re faced with frustration, think through the problem logically. ‘Would swallowing my pride lead to a better outcome? Can I break the problem down into smaller steps? Should I try again? Could I settle for something short-term in order to achieve my long-term goal?’
Once you’ve considered all of these things, you’ll know which is the right action to take. And, remember, even deciding to do nothing may be the best option.
Perception and the right action often lead to success when things go wrong, but sometimes the problem is bigger than we are. And this is where the stoic’s third, and perhaps most valuable, step comes in. Will – the ability to accept that there are times when you can’t make things better and that simply wishing with all your heart that you could isn’t going to change a thing.
Everyone has problems like this. That’s life. But, as Holiday points out, it is in accepting our limitations and adjusting to them that we are able to learn and keep going.