Stoic Letter 19
Over the past year, most of us have been working from home and spending more time than usual on our own. Throughout the day, there’s no one who’s watching what we’re doing. It’s been the perfect self-awareness exercise to figure out what our true motives are.
So often, we’re motivated by getting the approval of other people. The jobs we take, the books we read, the clothes we buy, the pictures we take for social media, the people we associate with. We do those things because we want to be liked by others.
I can’t lie, I’ve lived the majority of my life that way. I only stopped looking for outside approval once I started applying Stoicism to my life. Reading Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus has reminded me that life is not about how people perceive you. It’s all about what you think of yourself. At the end of the day, you’ll spend the most time with that voice in your head.
That’s why it’s important to actually like yourself. This might sound weird, but do you enjoy spending time alone? Even if it’s a few minutes. Or are you always thinking about what other people are doing? Or what so-and-so said about you yesterday? Or, as I often did, thinking about how you somehow can get ahead in life?
When you’re always thinking about external things, you risk living your life just to please others. When we do that, we lose our character. Epictetus said it best: “You compromise your integrity when you seek outside approval. Be satisfied that you live up to your rational principles. Be your own witness if you need one. You don’t need any more witness than that.”
I can relate to that a lot. As kids, we’re all conditioned to please others. We get good grades so our teachers and parents will say, “Good job!” And in fact, we need people’s approval as kids, otherwise, we can never finish school. The sad thing is that this conditioning remains alive in most adults.
We feel like everything is about approval. In our intimate relationships, we want to make our partner happy. In our careers, we want to make our boss and co-workers happy. In our businesses, we want to please our customers.
All of that is great. But it should never be the primary reason we do something. In a relationship, we should enjoy spending time with our partners. At our job, we should be pleased with the job we do. In our business, we should be proud of the products and services we offer.
Whether there’s a witness or not, we should still do what we do. I wasn’t like that at all in the past. When I played basketball in high school, I would show up at 3:59 pm when our practice was at 4 pm. And I would never work out on my off days.
And when I had a corporate job, I would work harder when I was surrounded by my teammates and boss. When my boss was off, I would slack off more. And in the evenings and weekends, I didn’t care much about my work. My witnesses were external. Looking back, it wasn’t fair on my teammates, coach, boss, and even to myself. When you’re not self-motivated, you never perform at your best.
What do you do when no one’s watching? Your actions during those moments define you. Do you work because it matters to you? Do you show up early because you’re excited to practice? Do you read books because you want to learn? Do you think of your partner because you care about them?
When you’re giving everything your best when no one’s watching, you know that you’re the only witness you need. That’s the epitome of self-motivation. We often look at others for motivation, but we should look within. By changing your mindset, and becoming your own witness, you never need other people to motivate you. You’re always there to keep yourself accountable. All the best.