Mired in the dictatorship of “positive thinking”, phrases impregnated with toxic optimism are everywhere. From “you can achieve it” and “you will achieve what you set your mind to” to “pursue your dreams” or “the only limit is you.” This type of philosophy is very attractive since it tries to paint the world in pink. After all, who wouldn’t want to have a positive mind and have the universe align in their favor?
However, this “philosophy” reduces the world to mere will, forgetting the thousand factors necessary to achieve certain objectives in life. In Spain, for example, 90 out of every 100 entrepreneurs fail within 10 years, according to OECD data. That means the odds of starting a company in a garage and becoming the next Google, Microsoft or Apple are very low.
Success and social recognition do not only depend on our skills and effort, there are many other variables involved, including being in the right place at the right time. And although there is nothing wrong with nurturing a positive attitude that helps us face bad weather with a good face, we also need a good dose of common sense and realism.
Epictetus shared that vision. Although his life was an example of improvement because he broke the chains of slavery and had to carry a significant limp, this philosopher did not promote an extreme optimistic vision, but instead proclaimed balance, good sense and pragmatism. In these times, his philosophy goes against the current and can be particularly useful to us to avoid useless efforts, frustrations and disappointments, helping us to direct our lives in a more fruitful and satisfying direction.
Wanting is not enough, you also need to be able to do it
“Before undertaking anything, take a good look at what precedes it and what follows it, and only after such an examination, undertake it,” Epictetus recommended. If you do not seriously reflect on what you need to launch a project and the consequences of what you have undertaken, but instead act on impulse, perhaps getting carried away by the enthusiasm of the moment or, even worse, by a passing fad, It is likely that “In the end difficulties will appear and you will feel confused.”
“Do you want to win the Olympic Games? Me too, that would be great! But first examine well what precedes and what follows such an undertaking. You will have to submit to a disciplinary and nutritional regime and abstain from eating sweets, exercise at designated times, whether it is hot or cold; drink water and wine moderately… In a word, you will have to give yourself unreservedly to daily exercise and after all this, participate in the games. There they can injure you, dislocate your legs or humiliate you, and after all this, even win. When you have weighed all these factors, decide if you want to be an athlete […] If you don’t take those precautions, you will only do stupid things,” this philosopher warned.
Epictetus proposes weighing the pros and cons of the projects we would like to undertake, so that we can prepare ourselves psychologically to face all the obstacles that will appear along the way. He encourages us to be aware of the magnitude of the undertaking we propose and, above all, not to fall into the false illusion that the path will be easy.
In fact, this philosopher encourages us to do the math with our resources instead of feeding magical thinking. “Consider first the nature of the matter you will undertake, and then examine your own nature to see if it is strong enough to bear that burden. Do you want to run the marathon or be an episkyros player? Look at your arms, consider your thighs, examine your lower back, because we were not all born to do the same things.”
“Reflects on it and decide if you want to pay that price: tranquility, freedom, perseverance. If not, apply yourself to something else […] You just need to be a man, that you apply yourself to what your soul desires or what your body really craves.”
The power of pragmatic optimism
Epictetus was not a person who would easily throw in the towel. In fact, although his speech may sound pessimistic, he was not actually advocating surrender, but only a deep and wise reflection marked by rational and pragmatic thinking. His philosophy leaves no room for vain illusions, but understands the role of passion and commitment.
This philosopher does not urge us to give up, but to look for what we are made for, what motivates and passionate us, regardless of social trends or pressures. “If you imitate everything you would like to do, and each time you like something different, you have arrived at none of that with reflection, but rather you act impulsively, without any consideration or guidance, but by simple chance and whim.” In this way, it is likely that “You will pass from laughter to tragedy,” he warned.
Epictetus motivates us to do an exercise of introspection to find our ikigai, in the wake of Japanese philosophy. He encouraged people to pursue their dreams, but only those that came from a true willingness and inner desire. “Remember that the object of your desires is to obtain what you want, what you long for, since in this way you will not regret anyone and you will not accuse anyone since you will not do anything – not even the smallest thing – that does not correspond to your desire”.
“If you want something that is not in your power, you will necessarily feel like a failure.” For this reason, he recommended that when you are not clear about what you want or the path you should follow: “Be content for the moment with listening to yourself and analyzing things, but slowly, always with reservations and without rushing, but without pause.”
Epictetus, more than an optimist, was a “possibilist.” And his philosophy can be particularly useful for us to not waste energy, save ourselves frustration and achieve what we really want and for which we are most qualified.
Arriano, L. F. (2013) Equiridion, o manual de Epicteto. CreateSpace Independent Publishing.