[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)