Rome is often called the city of monuments, status symbols some say for the powerful emperors who ruled long ago. And if you ever visit, be sure to explore Piazza Colonna in the heart of the city, there you will find a column dedicated to Marcus Aurelius, one of Rome’s greatest leaders. The column stands 39 meters tall and its surface boasts carvings depicting Marcus Aurelius’s great battles as well as scenes from his military career.
It’s just one of Rome’s tributes to someone who was once the most powerful man in the world.
Yet Marcus Aurelius was much more than a military leader. He was deeply reflective and introspective, someone concerned about the welfare of his fellow man. In a time of great turmoil, death was a constant and he more than most felt the weight of his power and responsibilities. He was guided by the teachings of Stoic philosophy, a philosophy that reminds us that the world is unpredictable and chaotic, a philosophy that teaches us how to remain strong and resolute in the face of it.
Over the last decade of his life Marcus Aurelius would memorialise his thoughts and insights. The unpredictability of life, our emotions and behaviour, how to persist and persevere through challenges, were all things he pondered and wrote about. His diary is a living testament to the internal battle we all face within and with the world.
So what can we learn from him about how to succeed in the face of everything that life throws at us? Here are seven lessons in his own words.
1. Focus on the things you can control
‘You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.’ Marcus Aurelius.
Your company goes out of business.
Your spouse walks out.
A hurricane destroys an entire island.
In life we get these constant reminders of how little we actually have control over. Knowing how vulnerable we are can be quite humbling but it can also serve as a reminder of what we do have control over.
Events occur and we can react without conscious thought, falling into the trap of thinking that we’re totally helpless. But we forget that although we may not always be able to control what happens to us we do have the power over what we think and how we respond.
That can be the difference between feeling like a victim and feeling empowered. The bottom line is we alone are responsible for our happiness or sadness. Can we choose to focus our energies on the things we can control and respond in ways that move us forward not hold us back?
As Marcus Aurelius instructs, understanding where our power lies will give us strength in a world that can make us feel weak.
2. Perspective is everything
‘Life is but what you deem it.’
‘If I do not view the thing as an evil, I take no hurt.’ Marcus Aurelius.
Do you see your glass as half full or half empty? One perspective keeps us focused on the negative, what we’re missing and what we don’t have. The other infuses us with positivity, keeps us looking forward with optimism and encourages us to be grateful for what we do have.
It may sound incredibly simplistic I know but I’ve come to realise that Marcus Aurelius was right. Everything in our lives comes down to how we choose to see it. That can be the difference between feeling like a victim or feeling empowered, between creating and living a life of misery or one of happiness and fulfilment.
The question to ask in any situation is: ‘Is this point of view hindering or helping? Is it giving me the impetus to move forward or is it keeping me stuck?’
At any time we can adopt a perspective that serves us better. It can be challenging, it takes practice but can we get to a point where we see that a problem isn’t a problem unless we make it one?
3. Take action
‘Begin – to begin is half the work, let half still remain; again begin this, and thou wilt have finished.’ Marcus Aurelius.
It seems a no-brainer to say it but without starting we have no chance of finishing.
So often we don’t go for what we want because the goal seems impossible, so far away from where we are. Sometimes we’re waiting to have all the answers before we start.
And yet often it’s after taking that first step that the path unfolds and the answers come. But until we take that first step we don’t give ourselves a chance.
Whether we are walking one mile or twenty it all comes down to taking a step then another and then another.
To finish anything we first have to start.
4. Don’t confuse being in motion for taking action
‘If thou wouldst know contentment, let thy deeds be few. Better still limit them strictly to such as are essential, and to such as in a social being reason demands, and as it demands.’ Marcus Aurelius.
Are you always busy, working hard but not necessarily making any progress?
Could you be mistaking being busy for taking the right action?
We will have many opportunities to be distracted and we can convince ourselves that these are things we have to do. Marcus Aurelius reminded himself of the need to do less, to eliminate the unnecessary. It’s something we should heed too.
We all fall into the trap sometimes of doing busy work but not necessarily the important work. But our time and energy are limited and precious. Even more reason to figure out what is really worth spending it on.
Of all the things you do in any given day how much of it is truly essential? Figure that out and then invest your time in the important things, those things that will take you forward.
Don’t just take action for action’s sake, do the right work.
5. See challenges as opportunities to grow and remember you have what it takes
‘The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.’
‘Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.’ Marcus Aurelius.
In life we will encounter challenges and it can sometimes feel like we’re on a rollercoaster. But it’s in those moments when we’re tested that we learn what we’re made of.
Our choices will determine whether we succeed or fail but we have to believe that we have what it takes to get through it. We can see it as a chance to dig deep to find the courage, strength and determination to keep going. We have everything we need.
I think the beauty of Stoic philosophy is that we’re not asked to sweep things under the carpet and pretend that problems don’t exist.We acknowledge that challenges are an inevitability of life but we choose to face them head on. We use them as an opportunity to become stronger and decide how we want to react to what comes. When we’re brought low we remember that eventually it will start to move in the other direction.
It’s a matter of perspective and choosing the appropriate response remember?
6. Don’t be distracted by what everybody else is doing
‘Do not waste what remains of your life in speculating about your neighbours. Anything that distracts you from fidelity to the Ruler within you— means a loss of opportunity for some other task.’
‘How much time he saves who does not look to see what his neighbour says or does or thinks.’ Marcus Aurelius.
Human beings by nature are creatures that compare. Perhaps it’s because we are socialised as children to compete. Who’s the smartest, wealthiest, prettiest we are continually comparing and ranking ourselves against others.
Comparisons are not always a bad thing, they can inspire us to learn and improve but they can also distract us from focusing on our own goals and lives. With social media the problem is exacerbated, we look at what others have and what others are doing and can feel envy and frustration. It’s a waste of energy and can leave us feeling like a failure, unworthy. The result is unnecessary pain and unhappiness.
Do you find yourself getting caught in that trap?
Just think how much more you could accomplish if you eliminated that distraction and focused your time and energy on your own goals.
7. Memento mori – remember you will die
‘Despise not death, but welcome it, for nature wills it like all else. Do every act of your life as if it were your last.’
‘Do not act as if you had ten thousand years to throw away. Death stands at your elbow. Be good for something while you live and it is in your power.’ Marcus Aurelius.
Front and center in the mind of every stoic is the reminder of death’s ever-present shadow. It is not meant to keep us worrying about the negative but rather to create a sense of urgency in our lives.
Death is the ultimate reminder to choose carefully how we spend the time that we have on this earth. Will we opt for a life of purpose and meaning or will we fritter it away on the frivolous to the exclusion of everything else?
When we are aware that death is around the corner we don’t waste our precious time. We focus on what is truly important, knowing that our time on this earth is limited. We spend it on the things we care about, the things that excite us and create meaning in our lives.
Memento mori reminds us to delay nothing, to be mindful of the time we do have, to remember the importance of living in this moment.
It’s no accident that nearly 2000 years after it was written Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations continues to be a source of wisdom, guidance and inspiration for so many. More than words on a page it is a practical guide, one that provides the tools we need to create a successful life, a life of purpose, meaning and fulfilment.
Can these seven lessons serve as a guide to you too? Let me know in the comments.