How to Face Challenges in Life: Stoic Advice From Epictetus

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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Is there any point in getting upset when hardships come your way? When you complain, what are you subconsciously admitting to?

Stoicism teaches that you should think rationally about every situation you encounter and always choose the best response possible. That includes challenging situations. Stoic philosopher Epictetus says that, as a reasoned person, you have a toolbox for such times.

Read more for Epictetus’ advice on how to face challenges in life.

Facing Life’s Challenges

When you understand why the human powers of reason and choice are so important, you can use those abilities to overcome challenges.

In his discussion of how to face challenges in life, Epictetus says that you must start by bringing your reason to bear on them. 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). 

(Shortform note: Here, Epictetus is saying that the first step in facing any challenge is to make a plan. In Extreme Ownership, former Navy SEALs Jocko Willink and Leif Babin elaborate on this concept. They say that making a plan requires first knowing your desired outcome; then, considering what tools and assets you have at your disposal; and finally, determining how to use those resources to achieve your goal with the least possible risk to yourself.) 

It’s also crucial to the Stoic mindset that you endure challenges and hardships without complaining. Epictetus teaches that complaining about hardship is like saying you’re not capable of handling it. However, every person has the ability to handle any situation—overcoming adversity simply requires recognizing that you have power over yourself and deciding how to use that power.

(Shortform note: In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius offers an especially utilitarian piece of advice regarding hardship, suffering, and complaints about them. He notes that complaining is pointless because you already know that you can endure any problem you encounter. An unendurable situation will, by definition, quickly end itself. In other words, you can withstand anything that doesn’t kill you—and if something does kill you, then you won’t need to worry about it anymore. Either way, complaining about the situation won’t help you.) 

Epictetus suggests meeting every unpleasant experience by asking, “Is this related to something that’s in my control or something that’s not in my control?” This question will help you keep your equanimity in any situation. If the situation is in your control, then there’s no reason to get upset because you can fix the problem. If it’s not in your control, then getting upset about it is useless. 

Learn How to Let Go

Epictetus says to let go of things that aren’t in your control, but he doesn’t give much advice on how to do that. In true Stoic fashion, he believes that exercising your reason will be enough to recognize when worrying isn’t necessary and, therefore, to stop worrying. Here are a few more practical tips for learning to let go of what you can’t control

Commit to letting go. It’s one thing to say you’re giving up on worrying about what you can’t control, but it’s another to convince yourself to actually do it. Try writing down something specific that you need to stop worrying about and why—by doing so, you turn a nebulous thought into a concrete commitment. For example, if you’re stressed out waiting for an important piece of news, you might write, “The news will come when it comes. I will stop worrying because I can’t make it arrive any faster, and worrying is getting in the way of my happiness and peace of mind.” 

Believe that you’ll be alright. People often fixate on their worries because they’re afraid of something, such as getting hurt or losing something important. To break out of those worries, trust and believe that you’ll be okay no matter what happens—that it won’t be as bad as you think, and that you can endure whatever challenges come your way. 

Learn from the experience. If you’re stuck worrying about something that already happened, or you’re afraid that it’ll happen again, ask yourself what lesson you can take away from the experience. This will help you to create a sense of closure with the past event, as well as help you feel more prepared in case something similar happens in the future. 
How to Face Challenges in Life: Stoic Advice From Epictetus

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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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