XIV. Don't Play Other People's Games

Life is short and a Stoic meditation for anger

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share three emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

This week is all about reacting to others. I hope you find it useful.

– Caleb

🏛️ Theory

It’s a common tactic in sports to rattle your opponent through insults. Players do this to throw opponents off their game. Sometimes it works. In a rage, some retaliate and throw their athletic hopes away.

We care too much about what others think. This psychological fact is what people who taunt us try to exploit.

Why then do we lose our heads? Because we want to prove something to the audience? Because we crave our opponent’s admiration?

Whatever it is, we can keep our cool.

The philosophy of Stoicism offers techniques for achieving equanimity. Behind each technique is a fundamental shift. Instead of reacting with anger, we can focus on living well.

When we pay attention to others’ opinions we play their game. We choose to become subject to their whims.

But that’s not the game that matters. What matters is living according to Nature. For Stoics, this means acting with courage, justice, discipline, and wisdom.

This requires shifting our attention to pursuing knowledge, instead of building reputation.

When you feel the pressure of others’ judgements, pause and then simply see the world as it is.

Sometimes other people’s judgements are useful information. They help us pursue what is true. In that case, we can be grateful to them. In other cases, their thoughts are irrelevant and do not help us live better.

In either situation, focus on the game that matters: pursuing knowledge and living well.

When we waste time because we care too much about others' beliefs, we are letting them take our life.

Stay centered on the life you want to lead.

When you feel pressured by others, pause, see things as they are, and reorient yourself towards what matters.

🎯 Action

When you become perturbed by another’s actions do this:

  • Pause

  • Describe: represent what’s going on in objective terms.

  • Reframe: do not play their game.

🔗 Links

🧘‍♂️ Practice this Contemplation of the Sage exercise to manage negative emotions, like anger. This meditation is designed to help you emulate your models so that you can become a better, happier, person:

📰 Life is short. One of my favorite essays by the investor, Paul Graham.

Arguments of the form "Life is too short for x" have great force. It's not just a figure of speech to say that life is too short for something. It's not just a synonym for annoying. If you find yourself thinking that life is too short for something, you should try to eliminate it if you can.

Paul Graham

🎧️ You should care what some people think. People with epistemic virtue – virtues of thought – make informative judgments. If a good mechanic says that we should treat our car better or replace a car engine, that’s useful to know.

So, sometimes other people’s beliefs matter, not because we care about our reputation, but because they help us get closer to reality.

Michael and I talked about some of the subtleties of this issue in this episode of Stoa Conversations.

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