Lessons from Stoic philosophyThis has been a pretty hard year on me so far. Due to a rather distressing family crisis, I ended up pulling out of a promising business in San Francisco and returning home to England. I’m not complaining, as such things can happen to anyone, and generally, I know I am still a very lucky person.
I’m not religious, and I haven’t had many people to confide in. But through the whole experience, I’ve found solace in a new interest: Stoic philosophy. There isn’t space to go into detail about its origins and core principles here, and besides, I’m unlikely to do a better job of explaining them than the texts that are out there. But I have come to believe from my reading that certain Stoic precepts would be highly applicable to modern Korean society.
There’s one I’d like to discuss here. It’s a simple piece of advice — so simple as to sound like something from a self-help book — but one that is hard to follow. The Stoics tell us to not worry about things that are out of our control, and focus on doing the best we can. This doesn’t mean we should withdraw inward or ignore what is going on in the world. We may actually have more influence than we might think. Nelson Mandela, a Stoic in his outlook, certainly knew this.
No matter what I do, there will always be someone smarter, better looking, or richer than me, and so on. My two great loves are writing and guitar, but I shouldn’t be upset over the extreme unlikelihood that I’ll ever be a Nabokov or a Hendrix. I may never be the best, but I can always become a better writer or guitarist through effort, because that is something I can control. I cannot control how good or bad I am in relation to others, because that would require me to be able to control their level as well as my own.
Sadly, modern society doesn’t really find good to be good enough. One is pressured to be the best, or at least, better than others. That’s certainly the case in Korea, where there is a disproportionate amount of fuss over the country’s world rank in Olympic medals and GDP, and where the child’s basic duty is to out-compete his or her classmates.
Yet I find I can get more done when I focus on simply doing better rather than bettering others. The latter makes for self-doubt, frustration and resentment. I also get more done when I don’t think about the potential reaction of others. If I write a book and have done the best I can on it, I still have no control over what reviewers say or whether they even review it, at all. I have no control over whether anyone buys it or not, either, and since I’m not J.K. Rowling, probably very few will. So I may as well not concern myself with that and just get on with my work. I can hope for the best, but should have no expectation of it.
There have been times in my life where I had high expectations for something and ended up failing miserably. At other times, the opposite has been true. While working as a journalist in Seoul almost four years ago, I found I had absolutely nothing to write one day; so, I just decided on a whim to file a story on South Korean beer, and how North Korean beer was better (yes, its true, sorry). As silly as it sounds, that article remains the only thing I ever did in life that had a real impact — and yet, that impact was driven by randomness rather than design.
Our ability and effort certainly influences what people think of our work, but sheer chance is undoubtedly a major factor. In any field there will be the over-rated and the under-rated. And the person judging us is human, just like us — so other things being equal, their opinion is no more or less valid than our own. We should then try to treat both their praise and criticism with a degree of detachment, resisting the natural responses of ego inflation or anger.
We can control our own behavior and thoughts, but we can never have full control over how others see us — our image or status within society. Status depends upon relative performance, and also the perception thereof. If we concern ourselves with it too much, we will be forever locked in competition with others, as well as forever trying to change how others think about us. This is an unwinnable battle. Or rather, an unwinnable arms race. The pursuit of status will only bring temporary happiness at best. I tend to think there’s a direct choice between status and happiness. You can only have one of the two.
I’m not advocating laziness or mediocrity, but rather, putting the absolute above the relative, and focusing more on the effort than the result. For me at least, this is one way of being a much happier and more useful person. So if the reaction to this column is positive, maybe I’ll write more about Stoicism in the future; if it’s negative, I won’t be disappointed.
*The author is co-founder and chief curator of Radish Fiction and author of ‘Korea: The Impossible Country’ and ‘North Korea Confidential’’. Twitter: @danielrtudor