Photo: “person on body of water reading book” by Toa Heftiba on Unsplash
Often in life, to be successful it doesn’t require doing more. It requires you to stop. To eliminate the waste in your life.
In a culture hardwired to “do it all”, it can be counterintuitive to do less. It goes against everything we’ve been told to do. Try harder, do more.
One man that lived nearly 2,000 years ago learned to implement the subtle art of elimination. By ceasing to do many “normal” habits and behaviors, he was able to overcome enormous challenges.
Marcus Aurelius, emperor of Rome from 161–180 AD, had unprecedented access to all the riches of Rome as emperor but due to his position, he also bore the weight of the entire empire.
His entire life was met by hardship and unfathomable situations requiring decisions that would make most men crumble under the pressure.
Loss of loved ones was a constant throughout his life: his parents at a young age, his wife, and even several children at a very young age. Throughout his reign, he witnessed the devastating effects of plagues and famines. War was a constant in his time as emperor, most notably with the Parthian empire to the east and the barbarians to the north. He even had to deal with what we would call a “hostile workplace” today: a treasonous general, Avidius Cassius, proclaiming himself emperor and trying to overthrow his power.
How did he survive? “Only philosophy” as he would say. Through restraint, he found the answer to each problem. By doing less he found a way to do more.
Fortunately, we know this because miraculously his journal writings survived nearly 2,000 years and have been compiled into the astounding work called Meditations.
Let’s look at how Marcus dealt with common life obstacles and how he would have found the answers through elimination with 16 different quotes from Meditations.
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1. Stop caring what other people think
“Enter their minds, and you’ll find the judges you’re so afraid of — and how judiciously they judge themselves.”
If someone doesn’t like you, so be it.
There are 7.6 billion other people in the world for you to befriend.
Focus on improving yourself daily and people will flock to your new brilliant attitude.
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2. Stop doing so much
“‘If you seek tranquility, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential — what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”
In a culture that favors activity over inactivity, we’ve been hardwired to believe that doing something, anything, is greater than doing nothing.
But at what cost does this busy lifestyle come?
Are you distracting yourself from dealing with the real issues at hand? Are you distracting yourself with trivial tasks rather than confronting your greatest fears and problems?
As the author Greg McKeown writes about in Essentialism, essentialism is the key to a great life. If you feel like you’re working your ass off to no avail, then take an inventory of where your efforts are focused. Rather than spreading yourself thin across many activities, focus on one and do it well.
Watch how far you go by doing less.
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3. Stop meddling in other people’s affairs
“Nothing is more pathetic than people who run around in circles, ‘delving into the things that lie beneath’ and conducting investigations into the souls of the people around them, never realizing that all you have to do is to be attentive to the power inside you and worship it sincerely.”
Why are you so preoccupied with other people’s problems?
Are you doing it to genuinely help or are you distracting yourself from attending to your own problems? If they sincerely need help, help. If they can’t get out of their own way and are unwilling to change, so be it.
Focus on yourself and do one thing each day that makes you better than yesterday. Focus on your work, your family, and be the best role model you can be by being excellent at what you do.
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4. Stop seeking pleasure, seek purpose
“And why were you born? For pleasure? See if that answer will stand up to questioning.”
Pleasure is overrated.
Today pleasure is omnipresent and our pleasure receptors are shot.
We sit in perfectly controlled environments at 68 degrees, order fast food to be delivered in minutes, suck off of 72 oz energy drinks, all the while seeking likes and hearts. Like a heroin addict, we are chasing for the next quick hit of momentary pleasure. Each time extracting less and less enjoyment from each hit.
Rather than focusing on fleeting pleasure, find what leads to satisfaction: a purpose in life. Long-lasting achievement, accomplishment, and meaning that will propel you forward in life to thrive.
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5. Stop filling your mind with garbage
“The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.”
If your soul takes on the color of your thoughts, then what is paying attention to the news doing to your brain? What is the lasting impression on your mood after watching all the hysteria unfold on TV?
If you pay attention to the headlines you would be lead to believe the world is spiraling out of control and things have never been worse. War is spreading like wildfire, hate is an epidemic, and poverty is rampant.
Are you that big of a narcissist to believe that what you are experiencing in this time is monumental and unprecedented?
What about the hundreds of thousands of people that lived and died in the bloodiest war in America, the Civil War. Or how about all the parents for centuries that faced the unbearable odds that having a child pass at a young age was one in four.
We like to think that what we are experiencing is unique, but in reality, it’s not.
In fact, things are measurably better than they have ever been. In his new book Enlightenment Now, Harvard psychology professor Stephen Pinker proves that “rates of war have been roller-coastering downward since 1946, rates of American homicide have plunged since 1992, and rates of disease, starvation, extreme poverty, illiteracy and dictatorship, when they are measured by a constant yardstick, have all decreased — not to zero, but by a lot.”
Fill your mind with knowledge from the masters of stoicism and seek the good in life. You’ll be amazed by how your anxiety washes away. Watch as your outlook on life changes.
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6. Stop deciding outcomes
“Disturbance comes only from within — from our own perceptions.”
Like most stoics, Marcus believed what occurred in life was neither good or bad. Only our perceptions deemed something good or bad.
You can decide something is terrible or you can choose to see the event as an opportunity to learn.
Victor Frankl, Holocaust survivor and psychologist could have decided that nothing good could come from his experience in WWII concentration camps. However, he made a conscious decision to learn and apply his knowledge as a trained psychologist to his experience in the concentration camps.
By using his experience in the camps he was able to help others through tragic events. To find meaning in tragedy. By finding this purpose he had the will to survive the camps and to thrive after. For those that couldn’t find purpose while in the camp, Frankl found that death was almost a guarantee.
7. Stop being hurt
“Choose not to be harmed — and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed — and you haven’t been.”
“Stop perceiving the pain you imagine and you’ll remain completely unaffected.”
Did somebody insult you? Are they saying things behind your back?
Do what is right. Focus on what makes you better.
You could waste countless hours fretting about what they said or you could do something productive that advances you forward.
It’s amazing how your problems suddenly disappear after you focus on doing what is required of you and focusing on improving your life.
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8. Stop stalling
“At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: ‘I have to go to work — as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for — the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?’”
Emperor and commoner alike, sometimes we all wish we could hide under the sheets and never leave. But what good would that do?
Too many people today are content to hide under the covers for one reason or another, metaphorically speaking.
The anticipation of starting something is always much worse than the actual event. The key is to just start. Rip those covers off and go!
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9. Stop babying your ego
(In reference to his adopted father Antoninus.) “His tolerance of people who openly questioned his views and his delight at seeing his ideas improved on.”
What happened to stimulating debate? The type involving respect, a lack of emotions, and a genuine interest to understand where the other person is coming from? What can another person’s point of view and perspective give you?
In today’s climate, we are so quick to judge someone based on one single belief. The problem is, it’s impossible to fully understand a person’s belief system because you can’t possibly know all their life experiences that led to those beliefs.
However, if you listen, you have an opportunity to learn and gain a better understanding.
Stop assuming when somebody has an opposing view that they are wrong and stop assuming when one questions your beliefs that it’s a personal attack. Instead, assume it’s an opportunity to learn and expand your mind.
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10. Stop trying to do it all alone
“Don’t be ashamed to need help. Like a soldier storming a wall, you have a mission to accomplish. And if you’ve been wounded and you need a comrade to pull you up? So what?”
If the emperor of Rome was humble enough to ask for help, why can’t you?
In the 1988 baseball film, Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character playing catcher, approaches a young, stubborn pitcher on the mound, played by Tim Robbins, and imparts the following bit of wisdom: “Don’t try to strike everybody out. Strikeouts are boring. Besides that they’re fascist. Throw some ground balls. It’s more democratic.”
The point being, involve the team. It doesn’t matter how you win as long as you win. By asking for help you can counteract your weaknesses with other people’s strengths. Imagine how far you’ll go together.
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11. Stop worrying about the future
“Forget the future. When and if it comes, you’ll have the same resources to draw on — the same logos.”
It’s easy to become awash in the unknown. When you haven’t started, the limitless choices and options presented to you can be suffocating.
Often the fear of the unknown is simply the fear of not seeing the path ahead of you.
While in medical school, Dr. Drew Pinsky suffered debilitating panic attacks. He was overwhelmed by looking miles down the road into the future as opposed to focusing on his next step.
The solution to these attacks was quite simple. He pictured he was building a brick house. Rather than jumping to the end, worrying about the roof and finer details of the house, he focused on laying the first brick in his medical school journey. Once he laid that brick, he focused on the next brick in his schooling that would get him closer to becoming a doctor.
Focus on defining what your goal is and work up to it one brick at a time.
Similarly, try the step stair goal method and suddenly the unknown will have a defined path.
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12. Stop comparing yourself to others
“Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them.”
In a world of Facebook and Instagram it’s almost impossible not to compare yourself to others, but remember, what’s being posted is only what they want you to see.
If you find yourself frequently envious of what others have, reframe your mind.
Spend time writing what you’re grateful for. Focus on what you do have no matter how small or insignificant. Your mind will shift from scarcity to abundance. You’ll find greater satisfaction in all the pleasures of life that you’ve forgotten about.
As Olympic runner Shannon Rowbury does before going to bed, write 3 things you are grateful for that day and watch how your mood changes.
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13. Stop putting off what’s most important
“Even if you’re going to live three thousand more years, or ten times that, remember: you cannot lose another life than the one you’re living now, or live another one than the one you’re losing.”
In the very sweet 2009 movie Up, the main character Mr.Fredricksen in his old age finally decides to go on an adventure of a lifetime that he and his wife have dreamt of for decades. The adventure is traveling to a tropical wonderland named Paradise Falls.
The only problem: they waited too long to take the trip.
After years of putting off their dreams, Mrs. Fredricksen becomes sick and sadly, passes away. Only after experiencing the loss of the love of his life does Mr.Fredricksen finally muster the courage to go on this epic adventure.
What are you putting off in your life that would be a travesty if you never were able to experience it? Imagine what that would feel like. Visualize that sinking feeling in your gut. Now go and plan for it. Make it happen.
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14. Stop being anywhere but here
“Give yourself a gift: the present moment.”
Put the phone down, turn it off, and look up. Be with those around you.
Do the most loving thing you can do with your family by giving them your full undivided attention.
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15. Stop losing control
“Pay attention to nothing, no matter how fleetingly, except the logos. And to be the same in all circumstances.”
As the popular meditation app Headspace declares, brilliant things happen in calm minds.
Calm minds lead to clear thoughts. Clear thoughts make great decisions.
However, this doesn’t mean ridding yourself of emotion. It means to be aware of your mind and body. To seek equilibrium like the keel of a boat acts as a ballast, finding center after a strong gust of wind.
Look at two of the greatest coaches in all of sports today. Bill Belichick, coach of the New England Patriots, and Nick Saban, coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide, are steadfast and calm in any situation. No matter the game or the pressure they remain unphased. They comically say little and give even less to the press and naysayers. These two coaches don’t just know that calm minds lead to great decisions, they live it.
In the last game of the year, the 2018 National Championship game, Alabama found themselves down 13 points to start the second half. In what seemed like an insane risk, Saban pulled his first-team All-SEC starting quarterback out of the game for an untested freshman, Tua Tagovailoa. In the highest pressure situation, in the National Championship of all games, Saban chose to go with a player that hardly played all year.
How and why did he make this decision?
By staying in control. By paying attention to his logos, Saban was accurately able to analyze the situation and make the right decision that nearly no other coach in the league would have done.
The result: a thunderous comeback and another Alabama National Championship.
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16. Stop acting surprised
“Boorish people do boorish things. What’s strange or unheard-of about that? Isn’t it yourself you should reproach — for not anticipating that they’d act this way?”
How many times must somebody repeat a behavior before you wise to it?
Acting astonished and being caught off-guard is lazy. It requires no foresight. Anticipate what will happen and prepare for it.
How will you respond to an insult? With a level head.
How will you overcome an objection? With clear and well-thought logic.
How will you respond to the most recent “catastrophic breaking news”? You won’t!