How to Win Your Goals

Stoic State of Mind #2

This post is about a Stoic exercise to help you win your goals. There are a number of long-haul project goals that I’ve scheduled for completion in 2023. One of them is to finish writing a long-form book thing: my second novel. 

This novel has been on my list for a few years now and each year I don’t quite get there. I keep writing. I keep adding words to it. But I don’t finish it. 

Yet, each and every year, I “commit” to it. “Finish [Working Title of Novel]” is top of the list year in, year out.

So, what’s going on? Am I serious about being a novelist or am I just play-acting? 

Epictetus once had a chat with a man who had his own long-haul project goal. He wanted to win at the Olympics. So, you want to win at the Olympics? Epictetus engages him (Discourses 3.15) and then proceeds to teach him to approach his goal (and all things) with circumspection. 

Avoid enthusiasm

First of all, Epictetus makes it clear that enthusiasm cannot be what drives the athlete to set his Olympic-win goal. If he jumps in with enthusiasm, with no thought to the consequences that might follow, then he might embarrassingly give up when one or another of them makes an appearance.

Consider what comes before and what follows

Epictetus advises the young man to consider what comes before and what follows after and only then proceed with the action itself. 

For the athlete, he’ll first have to commit to a strict training programme, and a diet, and submit to the orders of his trainer and doctor. Then, during the Olympics, he’ll have to suffer physical discomfort and stress and maybe even injury. The athlete might dislocate his wrist, or sprain his ankle, swallow quantities of sand, and get whipped—and then sometimes end up being defeated!

Examine who you are 

Epictetus says it’s important to consider what you are taking on but also to consider your own nature and what you are able to bear.

Consider this: Different people, he says, are made for different things.

If you want to be a philosopher, are you capable of talking like one?

Do you want to be a wrestler? Do you have the shoulders, back, and thighs?

And, if you want to be a novelist, are you able to endure hours and hours of solitude and putting words on paper which might never be read by another living soul?

Consider any advantage

Finally, the athlete is to consider if there’s an advantage for him in training and competing at the Olympics. Consider if there is an advantage for you. And, by advantage, I guess we’re also considering moral advantage – is this part of your ethical role in life? Does this align with your values, your striving to be morally excellent? Does this offer you the opportunity to exercise the virtues, to grow, to flourish?

Reflect first, commit later.

It’s only after all this reflection, and if the athlete still wants to go ahead, that he can now commit. 

Otherwise, says Epictetus, just accept that you’re acting like a child who plays at being an athlete at one moment and then a gladiator and then a musician and then an actor.

Are you just playing? Or are you like an ape just imitating everything you see that looks fun and interesting but ceases to be so when the novelty has worn off and the actual work has set in?

On Sundays, I’ll email and post here the ‘Stoic State of Mind’ newsletter, which will include a short meditation and an exercise (see below). 

I’ll send some more news about some of the other activities I have planned for 2023. I briefly introduced them in my previous email here.

Let me know how you go with the below exercise. Just send me an email! I may be slow, but I reply to all my emails.

Stoic State of Mind – Exercise:

    Read Discourses (3.15). If you don’t have your own copy, you can find it online here.
    Note how Epictetus thoroughly reflects on everything the young athlete ought to consider and also gives some other examples.
    Arrange that list in order of the most important to least important. 
    Adopt the voice of Epictetus and write a letter to yourself from Epictetus. (Take 5 minutes or 20 minutes.)
    In the letter, Epictetus will question you to consider your proposed goal commitment. Consider every single thing!
    Share your letter or your thoughts about this activity in the Stoic Salon. We’re discussing this in the #stoic-state-of-mind channel.