In my previous blog, The Acts of the Apostles, I discussed the need to act as what we do is what people will remember about us. This blog takes a different approach and starts from the point of view that we are first and foremost human beings, not human doings, and it is who we are (ie our character) that matters.
Epictetus was a Roman slave born in Turkey who was exiled to Greece. He became a Stoic philosopher, whose teachings were written down in his Discourses. He taught that all external events were determined by fate and since they were beyond our control we should just accept them stoically. However, he didn’t completely believe in determinism and taught that we are responsible for our own actions. His conclusion was that suffering happens when we try to control the uncontrollable or fail to control what is within our power. Stoics generally considered their philosophy was a way of life rather than just a way of thinking, and that the best way to judge a person’s philosophy was to look at how that person behaved. In that context, Epictetus said
First say to yourself ‘what would you be’ then do what you have to do.
Doing comes out of being.
But how do we describe ourselves so often? By what we do. Our identity is so often tied up in what we do rather than who we are – which then leads to what we do. Our actions do indeed often demonstrate our character. So, for wide variety of reasons, we act and pretend to be someone we are not. But it is not sustainable and the truth will out.
But if we can apply the teaching of Epictetus our starting point can be ‘what would I be?’ This isn’t a fatalistic ‘I am what I am and can never change. I have always been bullied and always will; that is just who I am.’ Rather, by asking a simple question “what would I be?” it is setting a clear vision of who I want to be in order to fulfil my potential or dream. And then, based only on the answer to the first question, ask yourself the supplementary question ‘what do you have to do?’ It is at this point that we are in the position of implementing the third and final step. Based on answers to the first and second questions, and in the words of perhaps one of the most famous and successful advertising slogans, ‘just do it’.
The order of the steps is important. There is no point planning your actions if you haven’t first envisioned them. Planning is important … but it does not come first. And finally do the doing to your best ability.
Can I apply this in my life?
As I have mentioned before, Epictetus believed in fate. In that world if we wanted change we had only two choices; wait for fate to come up trumps or doing something about it ourselves. Whether we believe in fate is not the point. What matters is that we do have choices and we can sit back and hope for things to change or get better. Or we can do something about it ourselves. And this applies equally to injustices we see in the world or things in our own lives we do not like. It is not magic. We might not be ‘all-powerful’, but neither are we ‘all-impotent’.
Try following the following steps:
- What would you like to change in your life?
- Envision what that would look like in practice.
- Be explicit and describe in one or two positive statements the key aspects.
- Do you really believe any of them? Do they resonate with you?
- How will you know when you ‘have arrived’ or achieved your aspirations?
- Be as explicit as you can.
- Consider what you have to do to get there.
- Set explicit goals or targets with dates.
- Flesh out the detail of your first step.
- Do you need support or help or information etc?
- Then just do what is necessary to achieve your desired change.
- Keep repeating the process as required so that you can learn from your experience.
- But … keep focussed on your envisioned new state of being.
In context I think it is clear that Epictetus considered being to be character related. So he would have been more concerned about whether we are generous, open, kind hearted or mean spirited etc than whether we wanted to be successful. But it seems to me that the principles apply equally to whatever it is we want to be.
We cannot control everything in our lives, but if we do what we can to become what we wish to be, then we will have a head start on those who sit back to see what happens. Many of the great athletes and sportsmen of our time emphasise that one of the keys to their success is differentiating between those things they can and can’t control and focussing on what they can control – their performance.
I think that the principles discussed in both this and the previous blog are valid. First we need to envision, then we need to act. If you would like help envisioning change in your life or making the practical steps to change then please contact me.