Focus on What Matters Most: Set Priorities Like a Stoic

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Should you seek fame, approval, wealth, and pleasure? What would such pursuits produce in your life?

Too often, what people think will make them happy ends up robbing them of joy. They waste energy going down fruitless paths in life. In A Guide to the Good Life, philosophy professor William B. Irvine argues that the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of Stoicism offers a better way.

Read more to learn how to focus on what matters most, according to Stoic philosophy.

Focus on What Matters Most

Just as Stoic philosophy encourages you to focus on only what you can control, it urges you to focus on what matters most. That first practice actually helps you employ the second. As you ignore what other people think of you, you’ll eventually realize that many of the things we think are important—such as fame, luxury, and wealth—actually aren’t. In fact, Irvine says that pursuing these things tends to make us unhappy.

For instance, the ancient Stoics argued that you shouldn’t seek fame or approval. To begin with, both of these depend on how other people react to you, which means you have at best limited control over them (and you should avoid setting goals for things you can’t control). Besides, people’s opinions are fickle, so even if you gain esteem, you’ll likely lose it again anyway. Therefore, if you find yourself craving approval, Irvine suggests asking yourself the same question you might ask when insulted: Why do you care what anyone else thinks—why give them that power over you?

(Shortform note: In The Courage to Be Disliked, Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga agree that seeking approval only leads to unhappiness. They add that when you inevitably fail to gain the universal approval you seek, you risk developing one of two harmful coping mechanisms. First, you might unconsciously adopt feelings such as fear and self-loathing as excuses not to try to connect to people at all. Second, you might adopt a belief that there’s something wrong with you that prevents others from liking you and that limits your possibilities in life.)

Likewise, Irvine says, the ancient Stoics suggested that you should avoid luxury (meaning unnecessarily fine, expensive, or high-quality things). Irvine explains that the ancient Stoics weren’t opposed to pleasure in and of itself, but they were cautious about luxury because they feared it would destroy their capacity to enjoy simple things. For example, it’s fine to enjoy a morning cup of coffee, but Stoics would warn that if you start drinking fancy espresso drinks from a boutique cafe, you’ll eventually stop enjoying the basic coffee you make at home. As you become pickier and pickier, the logic goes, you’ll enjoy life less and less.

(Shortform note: Our pursuit of luxury often dovetails with our desire to gain approval. That’s because many times, the luxuries we pursue aren’t just for us—in The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson argue that much of our consumer spending is actually a form of social signaling. In other words, when you buy the fancy espresso, you signal qualities such as your wealth (such drinks are several times more expensive than a basic cup of coffee), discernment (you drink only the finest, best-crafted drinks), and trendiness (you only frequent the hippest coffee shops). You might enjoy the drink itself, but Simler and Hanson would argue that you also hope to enjoy the social approval your purchase implicitly promises.) 

That said, according to Irvine, if you happen to achieve fame or wealth, enjoy them—just don’t cling to them. The ancient Stoics didn’t believe you should immediately renounce any good fortune that comes your way, but they would remind you that fame and money are as temporary as anything else in life, so you should be prepared to lose them at any time.

(Shortform note: Ironically, coveting wealth is a common way to lose it. That’s because, as we’ve discussed, if you base your happiness on wealth, your satisfaction will quickly fade once you’ve attained it. In The Psychology of Money, Morgan Housel explains that this dissatisfaction drives some people to take ill-advised financial risks—and, in extreme cases, to pursue illegal avenues toward ever-increasing wealth (such as Bernie Madoff’s multibillion-dollar Ponzi scheme).)

Focus on What Matters Most: Set Priorities Like a Stoic

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Here's what you'll find in our full A Guide to the Good Life summary:

  • A simple step-by-step guide to developing a Stoic practice
  • How to be happier, calmer, and more fulfilled in life
  • How you can evaluate your Stoic progress daily

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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