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You’re listening to the Stoic Solutions Podcast – practical wisdom for everyday life. I’m your host, Justin Vacula with episode 84 – Progress and Setbacks. I explore the upsides of setbacks explaining why they might not be so terrible and how progress can be attained amidst adversity.
Stoicism, as I’ve mentioned in many podcast episodes, encourages us to be focused on what is inside our control. With this comes a clearer perspective about the world: focus on a process or effort rather than results, and increased self-mastery. We can be more in control of our emotions allowing for freedom from intense negative emotions like despair and hatred. When taking upon challenges to test our mettle, improve the world around us, and progress in our quest for self-improvement, we will inevitably face what we might consider setbacks – reverting to old harmful habits, stagnation, weight gain, failure to attain goals, and changes in our social environments. Stoic authors encourage us to think ahead, accept the fact that change is inevitable, and anticipate outcomes we may view as adverse.
Change that is out-of-line with our expectations, on the Stoic perspective, isn’t necessarily a negative thing. This runs contrary to common wisdom – people will quickly jump to judgments assessing situations as ‘horrible’ or ‘stressful’ rather than seeing situations as, well, situations. We place value judgments on events around us and should question them. Surely different people in an identical situation will come to different judgments about what is horrible or stressful, so it is not the situation itself which is stressful, we associate labels with events.
Perhaps a change we may think of as negative in the short-run could be of benefit in the long-run. Maybe a ‘no’ regarding that promotion you aspired to take seemed crushing at the moment, but a better opportunity becomes available shortly after. At the time, a breakup with a significant other seemed terrible, but looking back, you can be happy that the situation ended while valuing new perspective and freedom in the present.
We can say, well, this seems bad now, I don’t prefer that this happened, but I will cope the best I can and continue adjusting. We can continue while others have given up assuming the effort is still worthwhile. You can be the pilot amidst a storm who can successfully perform a duty rather than being overwhelmed and crashing.
We can practice overcoming adversity in many ways aiming to transfer skills from one domain to another. Surely, it’s easier to wrestle with adversity amidst low-stake events in environments free from what we view as extreme stress. Personally, I apply turn-taking games with strategic elements into my Counseling-related activities. Battle Sheep has been a recent favorite! Students I work with experience degrees of frustration, excitement, and confusion while playing the games as do I. I encourage them to be patient, plan ahead, pay attention, ask questions, learn from mistakes, experiment, focus on the process rather than results, recognize elements of chance, and accept consequences being good winners and losers. I aspire to model this behavior. You too can learn much from games and other domains of life to prepare for hardship. I’m especially convinced that much of what I’ve learned through Poker, something which primarily drew me to Stoicism, has greatly benefited me to keep a cool head and reconceptualize much of life amidst many many many setbacks some involving hundreds of dollars for no seasoned poker player is immune from financial upswings and downswings.
Setbacks allow us to reevaluate our approach to life and allow us to experience degrees of gratitude and humility. We should be grateful for recognizing room for improvement as opposed to blaming others or thinking progress is impossible. We exercise humility when we admit we don’t have all the answers and can improve. We take accountability for our actions recognizing that we have the ability to make and exercise choices. In taking personal accountability, we acknowledge that control lies in our hands and are not lost in wondering how to improve. Blaming others, saying things like, ‘he made me angry’ does not allow for room, questions like, ‘how can I better deal with my emotions?’ and ‘is anger really worthwhile.’ Was the setback the other person or was it how you managed the situation? If the other person is totally to blame, which almost certainly is not true, what room is there for improvement for there is no escape from other people. Where you go, you still remain though, lest you want to live in solitude, but that’s not, for many, a viable option.
After making a personal commitment to self-improvement, we can set reasonable goals, be patient with ourselves, keep track of progress, and work to manage our time well so that we can achieve goals. We don’t want our expectations to be too high because this will almost certainly lead to failure. Let’s also not focus on what we consider negative; let’s recognize what’s going well for us and where we excel.
Especially for those with low self-discipline and ingrained habits, baby steps may be appropriate on the road to change. While undergoing a process of recovery, take time to question many of your assumptions, your automatic thoughts, and work to reevaluate. Statements like ‘that is what I heard’ or ‘I’ve always done it this way’ which pose significant barriers to progress amidst setbacks. Trying novel ways to solve problems, taking calculated risks, being eccentric, asking questions, engaging in some research, and taking action especially in an era of so much free information is the way forward rather than procrastinating, blaming others, and complaining. We ought to question our preferences, lower expectations, and accept that even great fame, riches, and luxury won’t guarantee a blissful life.
On what is preferred, Stoics talk of preferred indifferents noting that many aspects of life are not necessary to live a good life, but some things like wealth, possessions, and talent can enhance life. Lacking an expensive Victorian home will not compromise our moral character; this will not interfere with a fulfilling life. We ought to even shun such lofty desires and come to realize that certain possessions may interfere with a good life – this element of Stoic Philosophy, surely, comes from the philosophical school of Cynicism which inspired the Stoics. Maybe that home could be put to good use and make good sense for someone’s life circumstances, but a better investment of resources and time is likely renting a modest apartment or home. How many later lament what they thought was a good purchase then end up in financial ruin wondering how they can afford their new lifestyle adjustment! The content frugal person is surely better off than the stressed-out individual with more possessions viewed by the frugal man as empty in value. We can ask, what are the downsides of expensive home ownership, especially being tied to one location and making payments on a mortgage? Would this desire actually be a setback and interfere with progress?
Setbacks will be inevitable. Our expectations won’t always be met. Life isn’t always a picnic. We can reconceptulaize the way we think about setbacks to not be overwhelmed, defeated, or hopeless. Things we initially think of as negative may allow for progress and, with the passage of time, likely not feel so terrible in days, weeks, months, or years to come. Prepare for adversity through study and application of Stoicism so you can better navigate the journey of life by being more content, humble, grateful, present, and mentally strong.
Thanks for listening and stay tuned for more content.
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Podcast music, used with permission, is brought to you by Phil Giordana’s symphonic metal group Fairyland from their album ‘Score to a New Beginning.’ John Bartmann offered free consultation and audio edits for episodes 51-63. Thanks to generous patrons and fans of this podcast who help support my work. Have a great day.