Mastery Learning and Stoicism

As I continue on this journey to mastery at Launch School, I have come to value certain disciplines that go hand in hand with mastery learning and are applicable to other areas of my life. One of those disciplines is at the heart of stoic philosophy.

But what is stoic philosophy? In short, stoic philosophy is the practice of self-control in order to overcome volatile emotions, such as anger, anxiety, and fear. The stoic is less concerned with definitions of complex philosophical concepts, what it means to exist, or who God is (though there’s nothing wrong with those sorts of things). Rather, in every situation the stoic asks himself a simple question: “what can I control?”

Too many times in my own life I have been overcome by fear, anxiety or anger because I could not control the circumstances or people around me. Removed from the situation, the expectation to control any of those things is rather silly, I admit. But in any given moment, the idea that I control my own destiny often (falsely) includes the notion that I also control those around me and what external things happen to me. I am not all-powerful and all-knowing. Therefore, I don’t have control over anyone else, or anything else, but me.

How does this tenant of stoic philosophy relate to mastery learning?

Let me sketch a few details to help shape my explanation. I am a married man with a infant daughter. My wife and I work full-time in order to crawl out from under a mountain of student loan debt. In the meantime, I am trying to better myself and assist my family in our goals by learning how to be a top-notch programmer. The fact is, I am unable to go full-time at Launch School. It would be financially irresponsible to do so at this time.

I read many of the blog posts and articles that are recommended in the weekly summaries and many of them are by students who have much more time to do what I would love to be doing. I also watch in the Slack channel as people are moving through courses (many people put what course they are currently in next to their name). The unadulterated truth is, I really wish that were me.

But it can’t be. Not now. And not for some time.

In addition to all that, I am not a natural problem solver. I sooner run to fear and anxiety in the midst of difficulty than step back and try to examine the situation as rationally as I can. There have also been topics or problems in the material that I have covered thus far that have lead me to a deer-in-the-headlights look on more than one occasion.

This brings me back to stoic philosophy. What can I control?

First, my time. While I may only be able to put in around ten hours a week on Launch School, I can control how I use that time available to me. I love reading. I love playing board games and video games. I love playing paintball. But I must force those hobbies to the back burner for a while.

Second, my expectations. This is mastery learning. And regardless of the time I can spend on it in any given week, I am a lifelong learner of programming. I’m not going to just stop. It may take me longer than some, but that’s no reason for me to call it quits or freak out. I expect to learn to mastery. There’s no timeline; there’s no exam at the end of the semester. I move along as I master a topic and that’s it.

Third, my emotions. I do feel jealous of the time and energy that other students have to put into Launch School. So, rather than act on that temptation to jealousy and self-pity, I choose to learn from the best. I recently read a blog by a student and started implementing some learning strategies I hadn’t considered using. It’s been about two weeks and some of those learning strategies are already paying off.

And in the midst of it all, if anything comes up that takes me away from Launch School for a minute or for the entire day, I ask myself, “what can I control?”


For more info on Stoicism, I recommend the Enchiridion by Epictetus.