In this piece we are going to show the importance of two stoic principles: telling apart what you can control from what you cannot, and how little importance (or no importance at all) should we attribute to the opinion of others.
When we think about pressure, we imagine people expecting something from us, clocks ticking, anxiety. If you have identified yourself with this picture, let me ask you to back up a bit and look at it as a third party, as an observer.
Without expectations, there is no pressure
Whenever we meet someone, we idealize them in our minds. We barely know the person but we make our conclusion by all the external aspects and from what they have allowed us to see. This applies to bad impressions as well as to good ones.
This mechanism is triggered naturally, but we can be aware of it and control our expectations. The best surprises that happen to us, happen when we were not expecting them. That´s a very good reason to avoid defining someone else’s persona and creating expectations.
Expectations lead to disappointment, especially for the person who has held them. But we should be careful, because it can also hit the target of the expectation if he/she is not ready to deal with it.
Epictetus, in his The Art of Living, teaches we should not care about what other people may expect of us. Seneca in his letters, tells us to ‘mind our own business’. With that in mind, we should not accept someone else’s expectations on us, neither should we develop expectations of another being.
This is the first aspect of pressure, living up to someone else’s expectations and acting as another being thinks we should. Stoics do not function like that. Historians say Marcus Aurelius was an emperor that frequently was seen dressed like his servants.
Knowing what we can control and what we can’t
Over and over again you will read about the direct relationship between Stoicism and the dichotomy of what can and cannot be controlled. This is also fundamental to stoics. Acceptance has been their answer to what they cannot control.
Let’s say a stoic has a deadline in 5 days. They can manage their time, make a plan on how to accomplish that and do their best. They account for the misfortunes that might happen and also leave time to resolve them. So, for a real stoic there is no reason to be anxious about it.
As Epictetus said, “There is no shame in making an honest effort”. It’s up to us to understand and live honestly. What would you think about someone who has a deadline in 5 days and leaves the 4th day to do it? Do you think this person has honestly considered all odds, everything that could happen, which they can’t control?
Let’s say someone is writing a paper for school, a summary of a two-page text. The text sits there for 3 whole days, and on the 4th they read it and barely understand it. Then they try to draft something, and when it is almost done, the computer suddenly shuts down (by the way I just saved this article) and all their work is lost.
Is it really fair to say they’ve done their best? As stoics we are not supposed to judge others, but if you were this person, would you say you have planned well and done your best? Being responsible is part of a stoic character, there is no blaming fortune for things one could have controlled.
And on a final note, as pressure is something that comes from outside of us, it will only feel like pressure if we take it as such.