Challenges Are Opportunities: Adopting a Stoic Perspective

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Discourses of Epictetus" by Epictetus. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you stay calm when you face adversity? Can you see the bright side in difficult times?

The Stoic philosophers taught that the human powers of reason and choice are of paramount importance. Epictetus discussed how to use those abilities to overcome hardships, explaining that challenges are opportunities for growth.

Continue reading to learn how you can take advantage of tough situations.

Challenges Are Opportunities

Stoicism strongly emphasizes calm dignity and inner strength—in essence, that you don’t let anything upset or excite you so you can bring your reason to bear in every situation. Epictetus teaches how to remain calm in the face of adversity so that you can meet challenges with quiet rationality.

Challenges are opportunities to become stronger and to prove yourself, not deliberate attacks or harmful situations. This perspective will help you to stay in a positive state of mind instead of becoming frustrated or overwhelmed.

Face challenges head-on, Epictetus recommends—avoiding them is cheating yourself out of the chance to grow. Even the great heroes in stories would never have become strong or famous without challenges to overcome. To give a modern example, if Bruce Wayne’s parents hadn’t been killed, he wouldn’t have become Batman.

(Shortform note: Growing stronger through hardship can be explained, in part, by a phenomenon called post-traumatic growth. Sometimes, when someone lives through a traumatic experience, they find a new appreciation for life, along with a sense of increased inner strength and confidence. Researchers say that the people most likely to undergo post-traumatic growth are open-minded—which makes them more likely to learn from their experiences—and extroverted. Extroverts are more likely to seek out support and connection after a traumatic event, which helps them to grow.)

When you face any kind of challenge, Epictetus says that you must bring your reason to bear on it. Ask yourself what tools you have available to deal with the situation—these “tools” include your thoughts, your skills and abilities, and any resources you could use to help solve the problem (whatever it happens to be).

Exercise: Think Like a Stoic

Try applying Stoic reasoning to some events in your own life. Think about a challenging or upsetting situation you’ve encountered recently, and use calm rationality to determine the best response to it.

  • Describe a challenging or upsetting situation you’ve encountered recently. Was this situation in your control, or outside of your control? For example, maybe you got into an argument with a family member or made a mistake at work. (Remember that Epictetus says the only things fully in your control are your own thoughts and actions.)
  • How did you respond to this situation when it happened? Did you become emotional, or did you approach the problem calmly and thoughtfully? Using the benefit of hindsight, was there a more rational way you could have handled it? 
  • What lesson can you learn from this situation to help you act with reason and dignity in the future? For example, if you lashed out emotionally, perhaps next time you could pause for a moment and think about your response first.
Challenges Are Opportunities: Adopting a Stoic Perspective

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Discourses of Epictetus summary:

  • Why you need to understand the laws of nature to be happy
  • Stoic strategies for remaining calm in the face of adversity
  • Epictetus's specific rules for living well

Elizabeth Whitworth

Elizabeth has a lifelong love of books. She devours nonfiction, especially in the areas of history, theology, and philosophy. A switch to audiobooks has kindled her enjoyment of well-narrated fiction, particularly Victorian and early 20th-century works. She appreciates idea-driven books—and a classic murder mystery now and then. Elizabeth has a blog and is writing a book about the beginning and the end of suffering.

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