Stoicism Basics for Creatives & Other Human Beings

creativity personal development stoicism Feb 11, 2019

I think stoicism is stupid.

To be clear, what I mean is ordinary English usage, lowercase "s" stoicism, is a pretty poor strategy for cultivating happiness while creating a life worth living.

Meaningful living and work, without question, involves challenges, misfortunes, and invitations for shame and suffering. And "keeping a stiff upper lip" and grimly enduring such hardships will bring no feelings of peace, prosperity, or well-being.

On the other hand, capital "S" Stoicism, the ancient philosophy of life, has much wisdom and value to impart to those striving to improve. First and foremost, Stoicism asserts that excellence of character is all that is required to "live the good life."

That's right. All that's required to live a better life is to become a better person.

Although virtue is sufficient, Stoicism encourages us to strive to improve the world and ourselves. Stoic philosophy provides many principles and practices for doing just that.

In a video titled, How Stoicism Can Help You Endeavor Better,1 I shared additional thoughts on stoicism Vs. Stoicism from my first book, The Stoic Creative Handbook.2 The virtues of intentional enterprises are further unpacked in my follow-up titles, Endeavor: Cultivate Excellence While Making a Difference3 and Onward: Where Certainty Ends, Possibility Begins.4 See the footnotes to access those resources.

A Quick Look at Stoicism

What the Heck Does Stoicism Have to Do With Creativity?

My engagement with Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca at an early age fostered a lifelong interest in Stoicism. Applying Stoicism to my creative journey cultivates greater fulfillment and well-being while doing meaningful work.

When I share lessons drawn from Stoicism in my daily life, I don’t always mention the source of that wisdom unless someone asks, “Where do you get this stuff? The Stoics themselves advocated a covert practice of the principles they preached.

Epictetus, the best-known Stoic teacher from the ancient world, advised his students.

“Keep your philosophy to yourself for a bit.”

Marcus Aurelius, a student of Stoicism and arguably the most uncorrupted Roman Emperor, similarly admonished himself by writing this in his journal.

“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”

Love for this beautiful, sublime, and powerful philosophy fed my desire to shun this advice and marry Stoicism to my love of the creative process.

It resonated with many, and I sincerely appreciate that.

But far too many prospective readers who would otherwise benefit from the concepts and process within these pages passed it over because of the overt Stoic reference. For some, it was unfamiliarity with Stoic philosophy and associating “stoic” with grim resignation. For others, it was a perception that engaging with this content required signing up for some arcane dogma.

For those attracted to the Stoic references, I offer this quick look at Stoicism.

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle. Some things are within our control, and some things are not.” - Epictetus

“stoic” Vs. “Stoic”

Isn’t a "stoic" someone who is passionless and a "creative" someone fueled by passion?

The meaning of the word stoic depends on whether it begins with a small s or a capital S! In common usage, “stoic” describes someone who grimly endures life’s challenges. A “Stoic” is a student of an ancient philosophy that cultivates a sense of well-being by developing your potential.

The common usage of "stoic" is the opposite of what Stoic philosophy teaches!

And Stoic philosophy can teach Creatives plenty!

A Brief History of Stoicism

Let’s quickly look at Stoicism's philosophical tradition and teachings that inform many of the exercises shared below. This is an intentionally brief introduction. If you’d like to investigate this beautiful intellectual tradition more deeply, I’ve included several references in the final section.

For the ancients, philosophy was not a navel-gazing activity reserved for academics but a daily practice for everyone. Every ancient philosophy tried to determine what it meant to be human and happy and develop systems for becoming more of both. Among the competing philosophies, Stoicism endures. Why?

Stoicism was founded in 300 B.C. by Zeno of Citium, a shipwrecked merchant who lost everything and landed in Athens, Greece. Making the best of his situation, he took up philosophy by reading about Socrates and studying with a teacher. Over the years, he developed his own philosophy based on his learning. He taught and discussed it with his students in a covered portico in the Athens market, the stoa poikile (the painted porch), from which Stoicism gets its name.

Stoicism was popular in ancient Greece and thrived for years thanks to subsequent leaders of the Stoa, in particular Cleanthes and Chrysippus. As the power of Athens and Greece faded and that of Rome rose, Stoicism continued to develop and remain popular. The primary Roman Stoic writers were a freed slave turned teacher; Epictetus, a playwright and political advisor; Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, the last of the “good emperors” of the Roman Empire.

With the rise of Christianity, secular philosophy fell out of favor, but what little Stoic literature remained continued to find an audience throughout history. Stoicism is undergoing a resurgence now, thanks to the many books, blogs, sites, and events that advocate Stoicism’s virtues, values, and relevance.

So, what is Stoicism, and what are its basic principles and practices?

Like most ancient philosophies, Stoicism addresses the question, “What is the good life?” In other words, what does it mean to be human and happy, and can we become more of both?

The Stoics believed “the good life” was one of “human flourishing.” The ancient Greeks had a word for it:εὐδαιμονία or eudaimonia.

All that is required for such a life is virtue. For the Stoics, virtue is the only true good, and virtue is its own reward. The ancient Greek word for virtue was arete, meaning “excellence of character.”

Striving to achieve our potential as happy and healthy humans requires us to “live in agreement with nature.” Meaning not only living in agreement with our human nature as social creatures born with the capacity for reason but also aligning with the entirety of the natural world, including the cosmos.

Applying reason to social living for greater tranquility and thriving is central to the teaching of Epictetus, who began The Handbook (based on notes taken by his student) with the following statement. 

“Some things are up to us, and other things are not.”

Staying in the “here and now” (hic et nunc, the Romans would say) and mindfully addressing what is within and outside our control is at the heart of Stoic practice, as is what is within our influence.

The words of Epictetus often remind people of the Serenity Prayer. 

“God grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the Courage to change the things I can, and the Wisdom to know the difference.”

The Serenity Prayer also alludes to the four Stoic virtues: Temperance, Courage, Justice, and Wisdom.

Temperance is moderation—do nothing in excess. Courage is the ability to resist temptation and persist through adversity. Justice is being a good citizen, treating others fairly, and doing no harm. Wisdom is knowing and doing what is right.

Now that we have a little historical context, let’s look at some practical Stoic exercises and resources that serve as force multipliers for boosting your progress and peace of mind in living a life that matters and makes a difference. 

“Progress is not achieved by luck or accident, but by working on yourself daily.”—Epictetus

Stoic Mindfulness Exercises

Developing Stoic mindfulness to life’s celebrations and resilience to life’s challenges are achieved through exercises that apply our reason to what we experience in the here and now and to do what is best for ourselves and others, in alignment with our virtue. Here are a few.

  • Quotes – Citations from ancient Stoic texts, like those peppered throughout this article, serve as maxims, exhortations, and warnings for living a life of virtue. The Stoics deliver their advice as pithy, provocative, and memorable.

  • The View From Above – Imagine a bird’s eye view by looking down at yourself from above and beginning to zoom further and further out. This exercise helps contextualize your place in the planetary community and beyond.

  • Hierocles’ Circle – This is similar to the exercise above but reminds you of your place as social creatures in service to each other. Again, starting with yourself, you reach out to ever-widening circles of connection. Your family, friends, neighbors, people living in the same city or town, and so on, to the planet and beyond. As you reach each new circle, you imagine pulling those people closer to you and into the previous ring.

  • Negative Visualization – Begin the day by imagining what obstacles or misfortunes you may meet and planning how you might face or handle them in alignment with your values and virtues. This exercise helps you de-catastrophize minor issues and perhaps see impediments as opportunities.

  • Gratitude for What You Already Have – Contemplating the simple gifts and benefits already in your possession. Not material objects necessarily, but basic human needs, connections, the beauty of the natural world, and another day of life to live.

This overview of Stoic philosophy briefly introduces the basic tenets of Stoic philosophy and practice. There are many resources for further investigation into this beautiful and powerful philosophy of life at the end of this handbook. However, with this brief overview complete, let’s continue our journey and apply some of these ideas and exercises to develop a courageous, creative posture and a thriving artist’s mindset.

A Relevant Anecdote

Author's Note - I unpack my lifelong creative adventures as informed by Marus Aurelius' Meditations in an article written for The Modern Stoicism blog, Stoicism Today, titled The Creative Stoic – An Artist’s Adventures with Marcus Aurelius.5

I began studying Latin in middle school with an extraordinary teacher, Don Kelly. In that class, we translated quotes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

The reminders of an emperor of Rome to himself in the second century AD resonated with me. I even asked for additional quotations to translate! Instead, Don lent me his copy of Meditations. I read it multiple times before I returned it and borrowed it to read through at least once a year through high school. At the end of my senior year, Don presented me with the book as a graduation gift.

I continued to read it at least annually through college and beyond. I don’t recall associating the book with Stoic philosophy until well into my forties. It was a journal written by a man who talked to himself like I did. Marcus urged and pushed himself to become a better human being in the same way I wrote to myself in my childhood journal and continue to do so to this day.

“Everything, a horse, a vine, is created for some duty. For what task, then, were you yourself created? A man’s true delight is to do the things he was made for.”—Marcus Aurelius

The words of a Roman emperor written almost two thousand years ago significantly impacted my development as a teenager and informed the adult I became. Sure, Stoicism is powerful medicine, and I encourage you to take it. But the power of its lessons is in the way we put them to use.

Key Takeaway and Exercise

Key Takeaway

Achieving your potential as a happy and healthy human being is a struggle without an operating system. Slaves and prisoners, artists and entrepreneurs, and employees and emperors have successfully applied the time-tested approach of Stoicism.

You must identify, understand, and work with your strengths and weaknesses to realize your potential. Developing yourself and delivering the goods requires handling internal doubts, fears, and external obstacles and misfortunes.

To do this, you must develop your creative nature, use your reasoning, and develop your social instincts. Whether or not you become a declared Stoic, you can draw upon the philosophy’s lessons and exercises to undertake this journey with a greater sense of thriving.

Another Exercise

The Stoics aspired to be an ideal human being called the Stoic Sage, one who was wise and a citizen of the world. The Sage experiences natural emotions and desires but is not enslaved by them. The Sage loves others and loves fate, even when doing so subjects him or her to misfortune and poor treatment. The Sage remains unperturbed, tranquil, and joyful through life's vicissitudes.

Is becoming the Stoic Sage likely? No. Many Stoics believed no such person has yet walked the earth, but they saw glimpses of the Sage in men like Socrates and other great teachers.

Sit and contemplate how the ideal human thinks and acts for a minute. Make a list of people who exhibit those qualities. They can be people you know, people from ancient or recent history, or characters from books or movies. Write them down and list the virtues or acts you associate with each. Identify your heroes, and it’s more likely you’ll become one.

Stoicism Resources

Here are my favorite translations of the defining works of the Roman Stoics:

  • Meditationsby Marcus Aurelius - My go-to Stoic. Meditations is a collection of the Roman Emperor's journal entries—timeless reminders and reflections.

  • The Art of Living, by Epictetus - This former slave wrote down ninety-three concise, witty, and insightful practices on meeting the daily challenges of living.

  • Letters From a Stoicby Seneca - Perhaps the most en-vogue Stoic. A Roman businessman and political advisor deliver timeless advice to his friend Lucilius.

Here are some of my favorite contemporary Stoic advocates and resources. 

  • Donald Robinson - Donald is a leading figure in the Modern Stoicism movement. His book Stoicism and The Art of Happiness is an accessible deep dive into the philosophy’s must-know principles and practices. He also has several online courses on understanding and applying Stoicism.

  • Massimo Pigliucci - Massimo is a professor, author, and blogger. His book, How to Be a Stoic, and blog by the same name are a treasure trove of engaging and helpful information about Stoicism.

  • William IrvineA Guide to the Good Life is an engaging and easy-to-understand approach to learning about Stoicism, why it matters, and how to start implementing its principles.

  • Ryan Holiday and Stephen HanselmanThe Daily Stoic is part of my morning routine. 

You can find all of these titles in the Creative on Purpose Bookstore.6

I regularly share thoughts and resources on Stoicism and creativity on my blog7 and Facebook Page,8 where I host a weekly live broadcast. I have a free online course called Stoicism 101,9, a painless introduction to this pragmatic and profound philosophy. You can also listen to replays of my interviews With the best-known leaders of the Modern Stoicism movement on the Creative On Purpose Podcast.10


While lowercase "s" stoicism isn't an effective strategy for a happy life, capital "S" Stoicism offers valuable insights. Focused on excellence of character, Stoicism encourages continuous improvement aligned with the natural order. The distinction between common usage and Stoicism's teachings is crucial for creatives. The mindfulness exercises provide practical applications.

Stoicism is a practical operating system for navigating challenges and realizing one's potential. While aspiring to be a Stoic Sage may be an ambitious goal, it guides personal growth and resilience. Understanding and working with strengths and weaknesses is vital to thriving amid doubts and obstacles.

For those interested, the resources in the footnotes below offer further exploration into Stoicism. Whether one fully embraces Stoicism or not, incorporating its lessons can enhance the creative journey with purpose and fulfillment.

 Be well. Do good. Have fun!

4  Onward

Scott Perry, Chief Difference-Maker at Creative on Purpose

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