Do you do each task to the best of your ability? Are you committed to doing the right thing?
The Stoic philosophers taught that people should pursue virtuous living. They saw this as both a daily imperative and a lifelong commitment. In The Daily Stoic, authors Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman explain that you should strive to do your best on each task and avoid getting sidetracked.
Continue reading for the Stoics’ advice on how to practice virtue today and every day.
Practice Virtue Today
The Stoics believed that you should practice living virtuously now, in each present moment. Their advice on how to practice virtue involves their belief that a whole life is merely the sum of its parts. Thus, they argued, a virtuous life is lived in the day-to-day interactions and opportunities we each face.
(Shortform note: Evidence from neuroscience backs up this insight. Researchers find that the human brain physically changes in response to experience by reinforcing neural pathways activated in that experience (this attribute is called experience-dependent neuroplasticity). Through repeated experiences, such as daily interactions, our brains develop behavior patterns that can either be positive or negative. This suggests that by practicing good behaviors in our various daily interactions we make it easier for our brains to respond that way. Conversely, practicing bad behaviors makes it harder for us to act differently.)
Toward that end, they taught that you should put your future legacy out of your mind—don’t concern yourself with how (or if) you’ll be remembered. Instead, the authors say, simply focus on the task in front of you, whatever it is: Do it to the best of your ability.
(Shortform note: By contrast, some psychologists warn that you may regret not thinking about your legacy. It’s common for the elderly to regret the way they spent their lives—the choices they made and the relationships they neglected, for instance. Accordingly, psychologists suggest that it can be healthy to think about how you want to feel in the future and how you want to contribute to humanity. By considering these kinds of things you can make better choices now and avoid future regret.)
Similarly, choose to practice virtue in your daily interactions. Be a good listener, encourage others, never seek revenge, and always tell the truth. The authors say these daily interpersonal practices build virtuous character and comprise the bulk of your life.
(Shortform note: Some business leaders approach this idea from a different angle—to them, your daily interactions constitute an important part of your reputation. They argue that, since a good reputation is invaluable to a successful business and career, you should go out of your way to build that reputation. Help others look good. Be consistent. Even though this approach treats good behavior as a means to an end, the Stoics would recognize the practical benefits of having a good reputation.)
Practice Virtue Every Day
The authors write that, to live justly and courageously, you should aim to do good. To do good, the authors recommend you start by studying Stoic philosophy, and then follow up that study by taking action. The study of Stoic philosophy will enhance your sense of justice. Following through on that sense of justice will require courage.
(Shortform note: The authors encourage you to study Stoic philosophy, but they don’t claim to give a comprehensive guide to it in The Daily Stoic. For that, you might turn to introductory books, such as Brad Inwood’s Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction, which explain how the entire worldview fits together. Consider reading such a guide if you’d like to take your study of Stoicism further.)
The authors argue that doing all of this demands effort. It’s easy to avoid this effort through procrastination, cowardice, or laziness, so the Stoics advise us to be on the lookout for these vices and cultivate a strength of character that enables us to overcome them.
For example, many of us put off doing the right thing until tomorrow because we don’t want to do something difficult, and we think that it’ll feel easier tomorrow than it feels today. The Stoics disagree—now is the time to do what’s right, whether it’s hard or not.
Similarly, many of us get sidetracked in our efforts to live virtuously. We want to be entertained, look attractive, or avoid suffering. None of these distractions is inherently bad, as the Stoics saw it, but each can sidetrack us from courageously pursuing justice.
(Shortform note: Once again, the way to avoid vice and distractions, say the Stoics, is by exercising reason. This is evident from their beliefs about children: They held that children are more prone to vice and distraction than adults because their reasoning is undeveloped. They argued that a child’s tendency to act on impulses—much like an animal’s—is a natural survival mechanism: Nature inclines them to jump in fear and eat whenever they’re hungry so they avoid harm and meet their bodily needs. As humans mature, reason serves to control these impulses. Once we can discern right from wrong and truth from error, we can avoid vice and distraction and do good.)