The Use of Philosophy to Build a Mental Fortress [Video]

A mesmerizing mural featuring an intricate blend of psychological motifs.

Stoicism teaches that before you try to control events, start with learning to control yourself.

Editor’s note: This is part six of a six part Emotional Intelligence Series. Please find Part 1: It’s Never too Late to Create a Bold Self-help Plan & Execute It  , Part 2: Addressing Emotional Career Challenges When So Much Is at Stake Part 3: Integrating Emotional Intelligence & Stoicism for Professional Growth [Video] Part 4:Emotional Intelligence and Stoicism in Careers and Life- Part 4 [Video] Part 5: Ten Tips to Bring Ancient Philosophy to Your Daily Modern World [Video]

In college, many of my classmates studied philosophy. Each evening, when they huddled around the dorm dinner table recounting lessons from well-known ancient Greek thinkers, it sounded so pretentious and lacked any practical orientation. I was lost in the intellectual nature of their debates and too dimwitted to recognize any value in them. I had no idea what they were talking about. Since I was studying finance, how could it possibly help? I dismissed the subject as irrelevant and avoided it like the plague. For the rest of my college days, the mere mention of philosophy made me cringe.

Yet, in my adult life, I began to see glimmers of their discussions wonderfully appear when least expected. Whether a quote from an ancient Greek philosopher or a YouTube video titled, “Ten Lessons from Friedrich Nietzsche,” I started to come around. As I became more curious, most attempts to learn about famous philosophers sadly came from the superficiality of a Wikipedia page. Fortunately, from time to time, I was inspired to take a deeper look into topics that resonated.

More open minded to the idea that philosophy may have merit, one school spoke to me at unusual times and in surprising places. It also lent credence to the adage, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.” It is called Stoicism. And, from my anecdotal and rather unsophisticated conclusion, it is woefully misunderstood. When I pictured a Stoic, I saw a disheveled man standing in a torrential snowstorm without a hat, coat, or boots. He is staring into a void with a blank expression, devoid of any feeling. To my

ignorant teenage mind, that way of life was code for “emotionless.” A hollow life with neither passion nor purpose. Now older, and hopefully wiser, I see how Stoicism flips that view upside down. The Stoic chooses how to feel, and subsequently frees their emotions from the control of the external world. As Nassim Taleb, author of the blockbuster book The Black Swan said, “Stoicism is about the domestication of emotions, not their elimination.”

Taking this seriously, I started to read about concepts like “frame of mind” and “pushing past your comfort zone.” As I dug deeper into Stoicism’s roots, I was becoming calmer and more focused on all matters. My behavior steadily evolved into a powerful means of deciding how to feel when pushing a boulder up a proverbial hill. Faced with any struggle, the goal was not to burden my mind with heavy and unproductive thoughts, but to clear it.

Subsequently, I started to find peace and develop what Rolf Dobelli, a modern-day philosopher refers to in his remarkable book The Art of the Good Life, as a Mental Fortress. He states, “What cannot be taken from you are your thoughts, your mental tools, the way you interpret bad luck, loss, and setbacks. You can call this space your mental fortress; a piece of freedom that can never be assailed.” Dobelli is “convinced if we don’t have a sold mental toolkit to fall back on, chances are we fail at life. I simply cannot imagine how you could be successful with one.” I couldn’t agree more!

I now rely heavily on this philosophy in my executive coaching practice and teach it at Columbia University. Learning to understand Stoicism helped me develop a coping mechanism that is practical and effective. Stoicism teaches that before you try to control events, start with learning to control yourself. Your attempts to exert influence on the world are subject to chance, disappointment, and failure. But control of the self is the only kind that can succeed one hundred percent of the time. Stoicism hence is a school of philosophy that flourished in ancient Greece and Rome. It has been relied on by some of history’s greatest leaders, and practiced by presidents, artists and entrepreneurs. Tom Brady, singer/songwriter Camilla Cabello, and Army general James Mattis – to name a few – are influenced by Stoic philosophy.

To describe them succinctly, a Stoic follows the notion that they don’t control the world around them, only how they act and react. They believe that practicing virtue is enough to achieve a well-lived life. Add to that, the well-heeled Stoic always responds through the lens four principles: Courage, Justice, Wisdom, and Temperance. In the words of Roman General Marcus Aurelius, a disciple of the Greek Stoic philosophers, “If, at some point, you should come across anything better than these four, it must be an extraordinary thing indeed.”

If any aspect of Stoicism resonates, and you would like to explore how to stay calm under the weight of pressure and learn to clear you mind from life’s daily clutter, I offer the following books: MEDITATIONS by Marcus Aurelius, The Art of Living by Sharon Lebell, and The Art of the Good Lifeby Rolf Dobelli. I wish you well on this wonderful journey of self-discovery. After years of experimenting with different approaches to personal and professional development, I have not found a more effective philosophical practice. Reach out if I can assist on your journey.

Enjoy the video:

Chuck Garcia is author of The MOMENT THAT DEFINES YOUR LIFE: Integrating Emotional Intelligence & Stoicism when your Life, Career, and Family are on the Line and teaches at Columbia University.

Related content:

Part 1: It’s Never too Late to Create a Bold Self-help Plan & Execute It

Part 2: Addressing Emotional Career Challenges When So Much Is at Stake

Part 3: Integrating Emotional Intelligence & Stoicism for Professional Growth [Video]

Part 4: Emotional Intelligence and Stoicism in Careers and Life- Part 4 [Video]

Part 5: Ten Tips to Bring Ancient Philosophy to Your Daily Modern World [Video]

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