Actionable Book Summary: The Little Book of Stoicism by Jonas Salzgeber
The Book In Three Or More Sentences:
This tiny little book, from an author who’s still unpopular, sought to document the best stoic practices and present them in an easily graspable way. The outcome? A fresh squeeze on the sometimes hard to understand philosophic topics we all must follow if we want to make our stay on the planet Earth a bit more bearable. The Little Book of Stoicism is the perfect read for someone who’s just getting started in the Stoic teachings.
The Core Idea:
In order to live a great life, according to Stoicism, one must focus only on the things he can control and be indifferent about the rest. But numbing your emotions is not an easy task. So, the author presents us with 55 Stoic practices that are designed to help us swiftly handle difficult situations in the modern world, free our minds and become less occupied by meaningless activities.
The three core principles of Stoicism are: Live with Arete; Focus on what you can control; Take responsibility.
To get better at focusing, you need to take advantage of the little gap between the outside stimulus and your reaction.
The more you depend on outside circumstances to feel good, paradoxically, the worse you’ll feel.
Lesson #1: There are Three Building Blocks for a Happy Life
A lot of texts on Stoicism fail to give a clear-cut answer to what exactly this philosophy is. But not Jonas Salzgeber.
He packages all of the complex principles of Stoicism in one simple idea called, the Stoic Happiness Triangle. The aim of this geometry-sounding concept is to help you understand the basics of Stoicism in a simple way.
So, here we go:
The goal of stoicism (the middle of the triangle): Achieve eudaimonia. Live a happy life and don’t allow emotions to control you. You should approach life with reason and seek to do good.
The three corners of the triangle:
Live with Arete: In every breathing moment, you should strive for excellence. Living in arete is all about becoming the highest version of yourself in anything you do.
Focus on what you can control: The root cause of our misery lies in our ambition to change things we can’t. Stoics spotted this flaw in our behavior years ago. That’s why they extensively talk about accepting what happens to us without complaining and focusing only on things we can control – our daily actions.
Take responsibility: This third corner is only possible if you have the other two in place. Once we understand that we’re the ones responsible for our happiness – not other people nor material possessions – we’ll finally crack the code for a happy, joyful life.
Of course, these three corners don’t ever imply that things will be easy. Quite the opposite, it’s going to be really hard. The idea is to get that life is hard and to realize that that’s a good thing.
“Life isn’t supposed to be easy, life is supposed to be challenging to make sure you actually grow.” Jonas Salzgeber
Lesson #2: Take Advantage of The Gap Between Stimulus and Reaction
Something happens (stimulus) and then we react to it (response). Oftentimes, this response happens automatically, unconsciously, and without us thinking about it.” Jonas Salzgeber
“I can’t resist social media on my phone. I feel like I’m addicted to Instagram and Twitter,” is the most common statement these days when you ask folks why they’re procrastinating.
And unknowing what to do, people all around the world continue with their behavior and waste entire years engaged in mind-numbing activities.
But Stoics have a solution to this problem. They call it, as the author states in the book, reasoned choice.
Here’s the overview:
When something happens, say you receive a notification on your phone, there’s a little gap between the stimulus (the notification) and your reaction to it. If you act impulsively, without thinking about it, you’ll immediately check your phone which will probably lead to an extensive social media browsing with no clear purpose. But if you stop for a moment – mind the gap – and choose a different reaction (or non-reaction) you’ll able to keep your focus.
It sounds easy on paper but it’s really hard in the real world. Since the gap is really short, you should be aware all the time. If you don’t act fast enough you’ll do what you normally do – check your phone. But if you approach life with caution, you’ll have the chance to spot the opportunity, think of the options and choose the best reaction. All it takes is awareness.
Lesson #3: Don’t Depend on Outside Circumstances to Feel Happy
There are three things in your composition: body, breath, and mind. The first two are yours to the extent that you must take care for them, but only the third is in the full sense your own.” Marcus Aurelius
The sharpest tool in your toolbox is not your house, your possessions, the money you have in the bank or the fancy tech job, it’s your mind. It’s where you direct your thoughts and how you react to outside stimuli.
Thinking way too much about TV series, funny fail videos, where to go on vacation, what to buy and other superficial activities is going to sabotage your existence. You can only advance in life by paying attention to the right things.
Sadly, nowadays, we’re mostly worried about material possessions. About events that are ought to happen in the future. And instead of living in the present, we daydream. We say stuff like, “I’ll be happy when I get X.” But we all know what happens, we get this new fancy thing, we feel joy for a little while and it’s back to the drawing board – we’re still not satisfied and we seek something else, another X.
Or in other words, when we solely depend on outside events to feel happy, we’ll never feel true contentment. We’ll jump from one thing to another, hoping, the next item will be the ONE that will make all the difference. But it’s not. It never is.
Stoics knew this fact. That’s why they were careless of outside stimuli and always directed their thoughts inwards. Finding inner peace and focusing their thoughts on things they can change, not such that are outside of their scope.
Lesson #4: Focus on The Process, Not The Outcome
As said, Stoicism is all about living a good life. About achieving internal nirvana and reinforcing your spirit – i.e. becoming resilient to the hardships life throws at you.
But how? How can one shut the voice of self-doubt and continue pursuing something meaningful despite the negative results?
Easy. Well, at least easy in terms of understanding and remembering the principle. But surely extremely hard to execute.
This top-secret life-altering approach is the following: focus on the process.
To explain this idea better, in the book, the author shares a story of an archer who’s about to release an arrow. Everything prior to taking the shoot is within the archer’s power. The moment the arrow is up in the air, he has no control over the situation. He can simply wait for the outcome which is something beyond his control.
But even if the wind blows his arrow, he’ll not blame mother nature for missing the target. He’ll go back to practice and work on his skills. Because that’s the only thing he has control over – his actions.
Success, then, is defined by our effort to do everything that’s within our power. Whether we hit the target or not, whether we win or lose, whether we drop some weight or not, ultimately does not matter. We succeed or fail already in the process.”
Lesson #5: Do Good, Not Only No Evil
If you notice someone throwing their plastic cup in the local park, you can act in one of the following three ways:
Pick the garbage and throw it in the appropriate place.
Confront this person and shame him publicly.
If we do nothing, we’ll soon have to search for another planet. But picking up the garbage for this person is also not much of a help because this will mean that we need to go alongside him forever to make sure he’s not littering. So, the right approach is the last one – explain to this person that what he is doing is wrong.
Calling someone names behind his back when he is misbehaving is not going to work. If we spot evil deeds or behavior that’s not appropriate, we should act. That’s living a noble life and also the only way we can make the planet a better place to live. It’s not simply taking selfies with dogs on the street, it’s acting courageously when we see someone doing something sinful.
If we don do nothing, we’ll never beet the madness. Or as the author shares in the book, “The only tiling necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
There are three things in life: The good, the bad, and the indifferent things. The first two – good and bad – are things you can change. For example, what you do is either good for your future or present self or bad – eating healthy vs eating junk food. The third category is about the things you can’t change – for example, life and death. Obviously, we should do everything in our power to do things that can be defined as good.
Depend less on outside circumstances: If you feel happy only when you go shopping you clearly have a problem. To achieve eudaimonia and to feel good in your own skin, you shouldn’t depend on outside circumstances. Or in other words, you should strive to become independent. Here we don’t mean only starting a business and becoming your own boss, it’s more of taking the wheel out of the pleasure-craving monster within so you can live by your principles and higher values.
Practice the equanimity game: When unexpected things happen to us – the bus is late, you get a flat tire, you spill your popcorn in the lobby before the movie starts – you should do everything in your power to return to your heaven-like state. That’s what the equanimity game is – your response to the upsetting events that will inevitably going to happen. The rules are pretty simple: 1) Notice when you’re off-balance – start losing your patience about something, then 2) correct your behavior. Take a deep breath and remind yourself what’s within your power and what’s not.
Focus on the present moment: The future and the past are all things outside of our control. Even what’s supposedly going to happen in the next 5 minutes is something out of our control. If we want to progress, I mean, really kick-ass, we should start focusing on the present moment. Nothing else is as powerful as this principle. Every time a distraction tries to derail your attention, or a thought tries to steer you somewhere you’re currently not, block it and get back to your task. This simple exercise will have a huge positive impact on your productivity and how you live your life in general.
Review your day: How organizations get better? By observing what works for them and what doesn’t. But this practice shouldn’t be limited only to big corporations. You can use this technique to your advantage. Just like the famous stoics – Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. At the end of the day, sit down and reflect on what happened. What did you do well? What not so well? How can you improve? Ask yourself these questions and you’ll flourish.
Commentary and My Personal Takeaway
The Little Book of Stoicism is a Stoic book for the modern men and women. Jonas Salzgeber analyzes the most famous teachings of Stoic gurus and presents us with 55 practical implementations of these timeless principles.
Most of what’s shared in the book already exists in other Stoic books but the author nicely uncovers the well-known old-school maxims and allows us to understand, and implement them in our daily lives.
The book is good for both beginners in this philosophy and also for folks who consider themselves master Stoic philosophers.
My main takeaway: Dominating our emotions and being capable of controlling them even when we’re challenged is essential for our well-being.
Life and all its various situations can be used wisely or foolishly, it’s our actions that make it good or bad. That’s important. Although external things are indifferent, how we handle them is not. It’s exactly the way of use of indifferent things that makes a happy or crappy life.” Jonas Salzgeber
You and I, we’re responsible for our own flourishing. We’re responsible for not letting our happiness depend on external circumstances—we shouldn’t let the rain, annoying strangers, or a leaking washing machine decide upon our wellbeing.” Jonas Salzgeber
“Life isn’t supposed to be easy, life is supposed to be challenging to make sure you actually grow.” Jonas Salzgeber