Stoic advice: my career isn’t going anywhere, and I’m ashamed of failure

Zeno’s lentil soup?

[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]

S. wrote: I am a filmmaker based in India. Lately I have had a very tough time with my career. I feel like I am working hard but I just can’t seem to catch a break. I mean I write my scripts, I follow up with people and nobody responds. It’s like I am just being rejected. I have been studying and following Stoicism and I know this is not in my control. But what if I am not working hard enough? What if I am just not good? How will I know? There is a thin line between trying hard and realizing this is not for you. I made a movie and it never got released. I kind of feel as if all the odds are against me. Everyone around me has made it. The ones who were struggling with me except me. I feel demoralized and have really low self esteem. I feel like people are judging me. I am embarrassed as to what people are thinking about me. That I am a failure. I am a very disciplined and hard working person. And relentless and resilient. But I feel like my life is wasting and I can’t do anything about it. I wake up everyday determined and positive, but then there are days I lose hope. I really want to catch a break. I want to make it and be lucky like others. My personal and financial life is very good and I lack nothing there. It’s just in my career I feel like a failure.

Well, you may know about the dichotomy of control, but you clearly have not internalized it. Let’s take another look together:

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Enchiridion, 1.1)

As you can see, Epictetus explicitly includes “reputation” and “office” (more broadly, one’s career, not just political office) under the things that are not up to you. Trust me, I know this is hard to do, that’s why we are all prokoptontes (hopefully, those making progress) and not Sages. But you need to seriously meditate on that passage and almost adopt it as a mantra, until you absorb its meaning and make your own.

Of course Epictetus is not saying that we shouldn’t try to safeguard our reputation or pursue a career. Those are both preferred indifferents, in Stoic parlance. But, according to your own description, you have tried, hard, and for a long time. Of course, working hard doesn’t guarantee a result, because you may not be cut out for the job. Or if you are, you may have really strong competition from others. Or there may be other external factors getting in the way, such as the overall state of the industry. (I have a friend who is an excellent journalist, and yet — after years of trying and barely making it — has wisely decided to move on and refocus on a different career, with success, I may add.)

As for being embarrassed, that too is not a Stoic virtue. Remember the famous episode involving the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium. Apparently he, like many people, was prone to being embarrassed. Here is how Diogenes Laertius describes what Zeno’s teacher, Crates the Cynic, did about it:

“Crates, desirous of curing this defect in him, gave him a potful of lentil-soup to carry through the Ceramicus; and when he saw that he was ashamed and tried to keep it out of sight, with a blow of his staff he broke the pot. As Zeno took to flight with the lentil-soup flowing down his legs, ‘Why run away, my little Phoenician?’ quoth Crates, ‘nothing terrible has befallen you.'”

(Incidentally, the Ceramicus, or Kerameikos in Greek, was an area of ancient Athens to the northwest of the Acropolis. It was were the potters lived and worked, hence the modern English word “ceramic.”)

This episode too is something to meditate on. What, exactly, do you have to be ashamed of? Did you do something immoral in the pursuit of your career? Did you betray someone’s friendship? Lied in order to get a job? Unfairly took advantage of a situation or person? If not, your so-called failure is not a reason to feel ashamed. You tried, you did your best, and it didn’t work out. Loads of people go through the same experience, including my journalist friend, and yet they find a way forward. And if people do judge you, that is entirely their problem, it reflects badly on them, and it is certainly not under your control.

Now, is there something positive you can learn from your experiences so far, and see a way through an alternative, yet similar, career, or perhaps the same one, but adopting a different approach? As Marcus puts it:

“For everything that stands in the way of its activity is adapted and transmuted by the mind into a furtherance of it, and that which is a check on this action is converted into a help to it, and that which is a hindrance in our path goes but to make it easier.” (Meditations V.20)

Or, as modern Stoic author Ryan Holiday reformulated it, (sometimes) the obstacle is the way.

More broadly, you say that there is a thin line between trying hard and realizing this is not for you. Perhaps there is, it depends on the circumstances. One of the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism is that of phronesis, or practical wisdom. It means to develop the ability to assess any complex situation correctly (which is why it is connected to the discipline of assent) and to arrive at the best (which is not synonymous with ideal, or optimal) decision, all-things-considered, as Larry Becker puts it in a New Stoicism. So take this is a test of character and virtue in your life: think hard about your experiences and your options. Is that line thin, or is it thicker than you wish to admit? On which side of that line do you really find yourself, right now? If you don’t feel confident to tell, then have a heart-to-heart talk with someone you trust, a close friend, preferably familiar with your line of work. Ask him or her to give you their dispassionate opinion, no holds barred. Then take a chance, one way or the other. Life doesn’t come with guarantees, the universe didn’t promise us anything.

You say that you want to be lucky like others. But Fortuna is a fickle friend, as Seneca reminds us:

“No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that she did not threaten him as greatly as she had previously indulged him. Do not trust her seeming calm; in a moment the sea is moved to its depths. The very day the ships have made a brave show in the games, they are engulfed.” (Letters to Lucilius, IV. On the Terrors of Death, 7)

Moreover, forgive me, but it sounds to me from your own letter that you may not be sufficiently appreciative of what Fortuna has already given you. You state almost in passing that your personal and financial life is good, and that, I assure you, is more than a lot of people can say at any moment in their lives. I’ll leave you, therefore, with another pertinent thought from Seneca:

“Fortune has taken away, but Fortune has given. Let us greedily enjoy our friends, because we do not know how long this privilege will be ours.” (Letters to Lucilius, LXIII. On Grief for Lost Friends, 7-8)

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Categories: Stoic Advice

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20 replies

  1. What about the opposite problem? I’m thinking of the “imposter syndrome”… Believing you’re a failure when you have achieved success. I wonder if Stoicism would have something to add to it.

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  2. You might also want to remember that anyone whose judgment you would respect would realize one’s professional success always (and I mean always) involves the intervention of the goddess Fortuna. I was fortunate enough to have a career as an English professor at a liberal arts college in a, for me, wonderful location. It would be the height of hubris, however, not to believe that any number of the 200-500 applicants for my position wouldn’t have been as good as or even better than I was in the position. So, why should I judge others, and why should you worry about any foolishly vain people who might judge you?

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  3. Bruno,

    Good question about imposter syndrome, though my guess is that it is less common and less crippling than its opposite. I guess the Stoic answer, however, would be the same: use phronesis to arrive at the best judgment possible, if need be with the help of the kind of friend who can hold a mirror to your soul, as Aristotle put it.

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  4. I would also think that having a healthy personal and financial life would take some pressure off of the need for success in one’s career…it’s not like this person is going to starve upon failing to have a successful movie. It’s perfectly fine to do something that you’re not especially good at, as long as the goals are reasonable and, preferably for Stoic purposes, internal. But in this case, it’s necessary to think hard about why you’re doing that thing. If it’s just for fame or success, it’s not worth it.

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  5. I agree with Julie. I think that a huge source of anxiety regarding “success” originates in this (mostly western) idea that we MUST do something we love and find our meaning in work. I started to see work as primarily my duty as a human being, regardless of the particulars (well, of course I still do what I’m talented at, but the whole “I’ll be miserable if I’m not doing what I’m passionate about” has faded a bit).

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  6. Like the one asking the question here — I, too, gained an intellectual understanding of the dichotomy of control in my first ten minutes as a prokopton —- and have been working ever since in the effort to internalize it.

    One thing that I find helps me in getting pas things that are not within my domain is to distill the situation and identify the most relevant factors that are in my domain — and that way to attempt to displace the things that are not truly mine from my circle of concern by inserting things that are truly mine to rule.

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  7. For me this post raises an interesting question that relates to perhaps the only concern I have about Stoic practice. That is, does it risk reducing one’s drive and motivation? Our emotions can be powerful motivators. Indeed, there is something biological to emotive drive. Take fear for instance, arguably the most powerful emotion and a well known survival mechanism. In the context of this post, fear of failure can be a major driver inducing one to focus, work hard, and, with enough good fortune, reach their goals. These may very well be virtuous end goals not relating to personal gain. Imagine a scientist , afraid of the worst effects of climate change, devoting all their energies to implementing social, technological, or policy solutions. In my understanding, I suspect a Stoic sage would council against focusing on the fear of, or desire for, the outcome and instead placing one’s attention on the virtue of the end goal. But as the end goal is not in our control, can that be used as motivation? If we are to be mindful of remaining indifferent to the outcome and focusing instead on the things that are up to us, do we risk an attenuated drive?

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  8. Massimo would probably point out that many famous stoics displayed great drive and motivation. However, I sometimes wonder if, especially in the USA, drive and motivation become overwhelming goals, almost to the point of obsession. I remember scientists at the college at which I taught bragging about the hours they devoted to work. Seemed absurd to me. I was conscientious about my teaching and am still publishing the occasional essay, but I wanted to leave time for other parts of my life, like family and community. If stoicism can put drive and motivation into perspective, more power to it.

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  9. @Jeff – From my personal experience, fear isn’t going to help me concentrate on anything. All I will achieve with fear is fretting over something I can not control — maybe panicking my way into a few mistakes — being over-consumed by worry. In my entire life, never once has fear helped me concentrate on anything.

    Fear would be fine in the primordial age when the most complex decision you had to make was whether to fight the animal in front of you or run like the wind away from it. Then, the adrenaline boost could help you. Your thoughts being in disarray would be the least of your concerns — as running directly away from a threat isn’t exactly rocket science.

    Also — our ability to turn our attention to things other than those outside our control is just as much evolution-endowed as the capability of fear itself is. Of course – in the case of most humans, one has to learn how to use that ability (which is why we need philosophy) but that doesn’t prove that we don’t need it — because it is anyways known that (even in the wild) a human is of a species (though not the only species) that can’t survive on instinct alone — and that must incorporate learned behaviors as well in order to be able to survive. Therefore, the fact that thinking like a Stoic requires training doesn’t prove that it isn’t what evolution intended.

    But never once in my life has fear helped me concentrate on anything. If anything, it has pushed me to avoid things — and I have had to engage Stoic teachings in order to overcome such paralyses.

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  10. Sure, emotions are powerful motivators. But without a measure of what we might call emotional intelligence, the blending of those emotions with reason, or in modern pop-neuroscience parlance, your right brain and left brain working together, those powerful emotions can lead us down blind alleys. Fear of failure and fear of an impending apocalypse, without full acceptance that these things really can happen and willingness to consider how one would try to live out a meaningful rest of one’s life if they do, are pretty useless, or even counterproductive.

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  11. Siguiendo a Epicteto: hay asuntos que dependen de tí y hay asuntos que no dependen de tí. Los primeros pueden ser buenos o malos, los segundos son indiferentes. No podemos obsesionarnos en cosas que no dependen de nosotros, dejemos a los hados su función.

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  12. @ Sophia and @Julie

    Yes I agree completely. Let me expand a bit as referring to fear was simply an example of a motivator. I’m not referring to a paralyzing fear that leads to inaction or one that leads to poor, hasty choices devoid of reason. Rather I’m wondering about something more subtle than that, an aversion to, or desire for, an outcome and its motivating effect. My concern is with respect to our opinions about a particular outcome providing drive. I agree that focusing on the virtue of an outcome, being indifferent to what results, and placing importance only on the things we can control can be very motivating and allow one to achieve great things. However, I do have concerns that in cases, for some people (myself perhaps), having complete indifference to an outcome can attenuate motivation.

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  13. @jmyers8888

    I remember my days in graduate school when we students would regale each other with tales of late night heroics. I remember one person telling me they hadn’t slept in 4 days because they were so busy running experiments. I recall wondering about the quality of those results! I agree. If the trade off is between killing oneself out of desire for an outcome versus focusing a bit more in the here and now, then I also find the latter more preferable.

    With my original post I’m simply attempting to flesh out any potential pitfalls of the practice and improve my application of it.

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  14. Well, ok…it’s obvious from modern neuroscience, among other things, that emotion is an integral part of the human decision-making process. However, modern Stoics take this into account and use a definition of “reason” that includes well-schooled, examined emotions, and a definition of “passions” that excludes these well-schooled emotions and encompasses only the pathological and unexamined (and mostly negative) ones. So, a certain amount of fear or concern that’s well-examined and results in a wise and brave course of action – like recycling more, doing environmental research and green tech development, or calling your child or elderly parent if you suspect something has happened to him or her – is not outside the realm of a Stoic life as I understand it. If an excessive and underexamined degree of similar fears or concerns results in becoming a conspiracy theorist and hoarding weapons and emergency supplies, or restricting your child’s or elderly parent’s movements and behaviors to a depressing extreme to avoid anything happening to them, then that’s a whole other story.

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  15. Just catching up with the discussion, a few random observations:

    Jeff says: “does it risk reducing one’s drive and motivation?” The way I have come to think of this is that the Stoic wants to shift the range of our emotional spectrum, away from negative emotions like fear and hatred and toward positive emotions, like concern for humanity and love.

    The scientist in your example is better served, I think, to act out of concern for humanity, rather than fear of Armageddon. Fear leads to rush, likely irrational, actions, while positive emotions can be more receptive to the use of reason. And I’m just not convinced by people (not you) who think that there is too much reason and too little emotion in the world…

    Jmyers: “I remember scientists at the college at which I taught bragging about the hours they devoted to work. Seemed absurd to me. I was conscientious about my teaching and am still publishing the occasional essay, but I wanted to leave time for other parts of my life, like family and community.”

    Exactly! I know the type, and I refused to play by those rules from the beginning. I doubt my career has suffered as a result, but I know my quality of life has definitely benefited.

    Sophia: “From my personal experience, fear isn’t going to help me concentrate on anything. All I will achieve with fear is fretting over something I can not control — maybe panicking my way into a few mistakes — being over-consumed by worry”

    That’s been my experience as well. And I agree with your take on the ancestral usefulness of fear and other basic emotions, when we had to operate in a much simpler world.

    “the fact that thinking like a Stoic requires training doesn’t prove that it isn’t what evolution intended.”

    In the broad sense, yes, evolution “intended” for us to be a species capable of deploying reason as a major survival tool. But even if biological evolution didn’t lead to that sort of outcome, cultural evolution certainly has, and that’s just as real as the first variety. For human beings, even more so.

    Julie: “emotions are powerful motivators. But without a measure of what we might call emotional intelligence, the blending of those emotions with reason, or in modern pop-neuroscience parlance, your right brain and left brain working together, those powerful emotions can lead us down blind alleys”

    Indeed. And, again, don’t forget that the Stoics don’t counsel the suppression of emotions, only a shift in our emotional spectrum.

    Jeff: “I do have concerns that in cases, for some people (myself perhaps), having complete indifference to an outcome can attenuate motivation.”

    But we are not completely indifferent to outcomes, since some of them are preferred and some are dispreferred. We simply rank them lower than the practice of virtue. In an essay here I used the modern concept of lexicographic preferences from behavioral economics to interpret and modernize Stoic thinking on the matter: http://tinyurl.com/hr3e5nu

    Julie: “modern Stoics take this into account and use a definition of “reason” that includes well-schooled, examined emotions, and a definition of “passions” that excludes these well-schooled emotions and encompasses only the pathological and unexamined (and mostly negative) ones”

    Nicely put!

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  16. @jeff

    You wrote: “My concern is with respect to our opinions about a particular outcome providing drive.”

    My answer: That’s what Stoicism allows for indifferents to be preferred or dispreferred.

    Stagnation of your career, for example, is not seen in Stoicism as an inherently bad thing. It is seen as an indifferent. But it can be a dispreferred indifferent — and, if it is dispreferred, you should plan your actions accordingly.

    But it is sound planning of your actions that must be desired — not the external end-result.

    I recently wrote an article in my blog about how this works: http://virtualstoa.org/2017/05/18/complex-situations-and-the-locus-of-control/

    In the article, I illustrated the concept using the example of being late for an appointment — but the same applies to things such as stagnation of your career and what others may or may-not think on account of it.

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  17. I have been learning about stoic philosophy on and off (mom of a toddler) for a little over a year now. It was actually my husband’s dissatisfaction with his career and personal struggles within my own career that prompted our interest. I appreciate the practicality of stoicism because I think it makes us actors in our life. It helps us realize what we can and can’t control.

    My understanding of stoicism is still budding, but here’s my main question after reading this post: Is there a principle akin to “faith” in stoicism?

    Let me give you some background to this question. I watched La La land recently, and thought about how a stoic would have advised the stars at different low points in their respective careers. (I think this relate’s to our friend’s dilemma in this post.) If either Ryan Gosling’s or Emma Stone’s characters had responded to their respective situations as a stoic would have, would they have achieved their “dreams?”

    For example, when Emma’s character is repeatedly rejected audition after audition, when would a stoic have said, “enough is enough” ? Would a stoic have listened to Ryan Gosling (a dreamer who can’t hold down a job because of his obsession with traditional jazz)? Would a stoic have taken his “dreamer” advice to “write her own “one-woman” play” when she has never written before nor received a single call back? I realize this is a movie, but stories of defying the odds are not uncommon in out culture. It seems to me that these situations required faith more than reason. Does a stoic apply faith to certain situations and if so, how does he/she know when to apply one over the other? Is it possible that the one thing holding our friend back is his own “self-doubt” ?

    I don’t know if it is even fair to ask this question. Perhaps stoicism is merely a way of dealing with life, not necessarily something that can affect outcomes?

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  18. Lindsay,

    Your question and considerations are perfectly appropriate, actually. My take is as follows: first off, as you say, let’s not forget that we are talking about a movie. I don’t doubt something like that happens in real life too, but how many other times someone keeps going despite obvious signs that it’s time to change approach, and ends up ruining his life and maybe that of his loved ones?

    So I would say the Stoic response is to use practical wisdom to tell you when it’s still worth going on and when it’s time to call it quits. It doesn’t require faith, but rather good judgment. But judgment isn’t equivalent to the application of formal logic, as there are elements to it that are rather imponderable, the result of experience and maturity.

    On my other blog I’m actually writing a series of posts on Julian Baggini’s book about reason, which is entirely premised on the idea that judgment is grounded in reason, and yet it transcends any straightforward application of logic. The series is here: http://tinyurl.com/ycuboth4

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  19. What an interesting post! Seems to me that faith would not be a particularly stoic value, especially in regard to dreams of unlimited self-potential. When I was a kid, I wanted more than anything to be able to dunk a basketball like James Worthy, a wonderful player with the Los Angeles Lakers. I soon realized, however, that when I seemed to stop growing a 5′ 8″, I was never going to achieve that dream, no matter how much I wanted it. Since I couldn’t control my height, my stoic response was to concentrate on other areas in which I could succeed through talent and, of course, sustained effort.

    More interesting to me, however, is what the movie you cite reveals about our post-talent culture. That term comes from the visual arts, which have entered what some call a post-talent period in which one doesn’t have to be able to paint or draw, etc. in order to claim to be an artist. The same seems to be true of pop music, much of which requires no musical ability. Similarly, Gosling and Stone, with their limited ability to dance, are no Astaire and Rogers, the latter pair responsible for the classic expression of the genre. Nevertheless, people obviously respond to what seems to me a degraded example of that kind of movie. Why?

    Perhaps “stories of defying the odds are not uncommon in our culture” and are so appealing to many because they reinforce an American myth (or just desperate hope) of success through luck in an age when hard work doesn’t seem to guarantee anything. E.g., go to college and you’re liable to just be 4 years older and deeper in debt with little chance of a career. Is the peddling of such dreams in movies like this just an opiate for the American masses, where success is more and more limited to the 1%? Would Stoicism endorse pursuing such dreams, or would it demand logical action, both personal and political, after looking at the world as it is? Of course, any such action would also imply a dream insofar as it would imagine the possibility of a world different from the one we now inhabit. But the nature of that kind of dream seems different to me because it is not merely personal.

    In any event, thanks for the post!

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  20. What I like the most about Stoicism is precisely that it doesn’t require “faith” in the sense of beliefs against the odds. Seneca and other Stoics even suggest openly admitting to yourself just how the best-laid plans can go to hell in a handbasket due to external factors, so that you can respond reasonably if those things do happen. It only requires that you find a reason among the things within your control, and the things that matter (the virtues), for doing things. So it’s perfectly compatible, and aided by, “faithfulness” or loyalty to one’s principles and ideals.

    Not having “making it big” as a goal in the first place will not hold you back if you have a higher goal that making it big can serve. Also, letting go of fame and status as goals might actually help reduce the fear of failure. If I worry about making great discoveries as a scientist, then I can only conclude that the odds are against me, because I am not exceptionally smart or creative and have passed the age and career stage at which most people make their great discoveries in my field. A non-Stoic would probably say, “Oh, how can you think that? Surely you’re selling yourself short.” My older non-Stoic pessimistic tendencies would say, “Well, I’m washed up, what can I do?” But as a Stoic, I can say, “Career success is largely a matter of luck anyway, and irrelevant to virtue. Meanwhile, my career as it is allows me to practice some virtues and proto-virtues: continue to learn to be less envious of more externally successful colleagues (especially given how questionable today’s quantity-over-quality and sexiness-over-rigor standards for scientific career success tend to be, and how much successful people by those standards often sacrifice to get there), use my scientific knowledge to support a wiser way of living by reminding myself of how small and irrelevant the petty concerns of life are in the context of the Universe, and contribute to society in ways that are not all about material luxury through the education of others and the cultivation of a deeper understanding of nature, in however tiny a way.”

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