How To Incorporate Stoic Principles Into Your Life as a Photographer
As events in our modern world change at an ever more rapid pace, stoic philosophy has seen a resurgence, particularly in the military, sports, and business professions.
This is because Stoicism can work as a handy blueprint for thriving in an unpredictable world.
Prominent entrepreneur and author Tim Ferriss describes Stoicism as an “ideal operating system for thriving in high-stress environments.”
Notable leaders like Montagne, Thomas Jefferson, and Bill Clinton frequently studied and used stoic principles. Montagne even had a quote from stoic philosopher Epictetus carved into the ceiling of his house – “That which worries men are not things but that which they think about them” – as a frequent reminder of the impermanence of all things many stoic teachers have stressed in their works.
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For centuries, only the privileged few (mostly elite aristocrats in the Greco-Roman empire) had access to this philosophy, and roughly less than 1 percent of the ancient writings involving Stoicism survive today.
But even the few texts we have left contain invaluable information to help human beings thrive in an unknowable world with an uncertain future.
So, how can you use stoicism as a photographer, or simply in your daily life?
Before we get into specific action steps, it’s good to have a general understanding of Stoicism, so in case you’re new to these ideas, here’s a brief history lesson about where these ideas came from.
A Quick Crash-Course on Stoicism
The first Stoic (as they became known) was Zeno of Citium, who founded the stoic school of philosophy in ancient Cyprus in the early 3rd century BC.
The reason it was called a “school” of philosophy is simply because his teachings were taught in a classroom-like setting to ancient Greeks and Romans.
Lessons typically covered a broad curriculum that included both intellectual and practical elements. We’ll be covering a little of both in this article, but I want to bring these ideas into the “real world” as much as possible so you get the most out of applying them.
The goal of these schools, and of stoic philosophy in particular, was to improve and/or transform the minds and hearts of students. In other words, to build their character.
Sadly, the person-to-person tradition of teaching stoic principles ended roughly by 529 CE, and most of the writings from stoic thought leaders did not survive the middle ages. So, we’re left drawing conclusions and lessons from later texts to re-imagine what this school was all about.
The vast majority of our knowledge comes from 3 important people (all of which are Romans, interestingly): Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius.
These guys lived a full 300 years after Zeno of Citium originally founded the Stoic school of thought. From their writings, as well as fragments from earlier Stoics and writings from non-Stoics, we can piece together a philosophy of life and a practical guide to applying ancient wisdom to our choices.
One of the core beliefs we can tease out of Stoic teachings that remain is the idea that human distress is caused by mistaken judgments or misconceptions about “good” and “bad.”
Stoicism is all about the study and practice of leading a fulfilling life, free from these misconceptions.
Stoics tend to call this practice “living in agreement with Nature.” This concept is a bit tricky to explain in modern times – because “nature” meant something completely different to the stoics of ancient Greece and Rome than it does to us.
“Living in agreement with Nature” doesn’t mean becoming a Disney princess to animals or constructing a rural cabin in the mountains. The real meaning of “Nature” to stoics was closer to what we call the divine, or the very fabric of the universe and everything in it (which includes physical as well as corporeal things).
The interesting part about these ideas comes when you combine them with another stoic assertion; that we lack free will – also known as Determinism.
Stoics generally believed that external events were beyond human control. They emphasized being prepared for when bad things happen and exercising control of the only area of our lives we can control: our inner state. In a way, Stoicism is like a badass form of Buddhism.
To sum up our brief and very broad overview (of the practical side) of Stoicism:
- Stoicism identifies humans as mostly rational, thinking, reasoning beings. But we tend to get distracted or caught up in the day-to-day minutiae of our lives, and the emotions we feel.
- Without a cohesive philosophy of life, we can wander through life without a clue and risk living a less fulfilling existence than what is possible.
- By learning about and practicing stoic teachings, we can live and act contentedly and freely in an ever-changing world, knowing and accepting what we lack control of (including our own mortality). We can live “in accordance with Nature.”
Now we can get into applying Stoicism in your daily life, and how these ideas are (very) relevant to photography.
(Note: If you want to dive deeper and learn more about the intellectual concepts of Stoicism, Reddit’s r/Stoicism is a good place to start, as is their list of recommended reading, where you’ll find a few great books from Stoic philosophers and the history of Stoicism)
Stoic Lesson #1: The Sphere of Choice
The stoic philosopher Epictetus states:
“In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”
Think about the last time you were disappointed. Maybe a shoot didn’t turn out the way you had hoped, you didn’t get the job or business opportunity you wanted, or perhaps it’s been a long time since you captured a photo you were really pleased with.
You probably felt (or still feel) that these were negative experiences that made you feel bad (disappointed, sad, frustrated, angry, anxious, or fearful). They could have turned out better.
The question is, could you have changed these outcomes? What do you really have control over?
Epictetus and other stoic philosophers were grappling with these ideas thousands of years ago. He proposed one of his central ideas as being the “sphere of choice.”
According to Epictetus, we only have control over our internal goals, not our external goals. It’s our choice to feel destructive emotions when things don’t go the way we had planned. Put into practice, focusing on our internal goals would give us peace of mind, which is in our control.
Applying this to your work – you can try your best to capture the photos you want, but whether or not you get them is out of your control.
Let’s say you’re working on a new project that involves a lot of variables: changing subject matter, weather concerns, equipment considerations, fast reaction times, fussy babies – you name it.
Your job as a photographer is to be there and to be prepared as best as you can for when those fleeting moments happen and the great shot is within your reach – but don’t beat yourself up afterward if things don’t turn out the way you expect. Stoicism teaches us that outside circumstances were out of our sphere of control.
This isn’t to say you don’t have control over anything. You can usually control where you shoot, for how long, what equipment you decide to use, and when to press the shutter. Of course, if you spend more time focusing on your craft, you’re more likely to create better and more powerful photographs.
But if you don’t end up capturing the perfect moment, or getting more “likes” on your photos, or getting into the prestigious gallery …it’s probably due to forces outside of your “sphere of choice,” and the best thing you can do is accept it and move on.
It may also be helpful to remember that photography isn’t just about the end result (or how many likes your photo gets). It’s a chance to explore your subject, and to appreciate the fascinating people and beauty of nature that you witness. It’s a privilege to be a part of such an art form.
Photography, just like all good art, is more about the process than the end result.
Then, in the sage words of Elsa, “Let it go.”
Lesson #1 in a nutshell:
- Your “sphere of choice” determines how you feel, not external events.
- At the end of the day, you have 100% control over your own goals and desires when it comes to photography. The second you rely on forces outside your control (other people liking our work, subjects behaving a certain way, the weather staying calm) – that is when you give up all your inner control and feel inadequate.
- Accept that external events are unpredictable, and you will find yourself less bothered when things don’t go as planned.
- Focus on the process, not the end result. Doing so will make you a better photographer.
Stoic Lesson #2: Practicing What You Fear
“Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who “expect nothing but good fortune.”
You have probably heard about thinking positively or visualizing what you want. Stoics believed in negative visualization – rehearsing in their minds the very things they feared happening the most. Not only that, some even practiced living out these worst-case scenarios.
The idea was that this practice will help prepare you for bad things that inevitably happen. You also appreciate the good stuff a whole lot more when you realize just how much worse things could get.
Here are some practical ways you can practice what you fear:
- Negative visualization – Imagine something that you fear will happen has come to pass (your expensive DSLR gets smashed, for instance). Actually visualizing how you might feel and the consequences of that event happening will help you be grateful for what you do have. It also helps in the event the “bad thing” actually does come to pass; you will have thought about it beforehand and be better equipped to deal with the loss.
- Practicing Poverty – Actually practicing negative situations like a badass stoic sage can help you handle what’s in your control (your inner state), and let go of attaching your happiness to outside things that are ultimately out of your control. A common fear we humans have is losing what we have acquired (money, our home, our comforts, our Starbucks…). An easy way to practice experiencing this fear is to live and eat on “the scantest of fare,” as the stoics would say. You could practice eating only rice and beans for a week while drinking only water. If you’re comfortable with it, you could try wearing the same clothes for a week (probably best if you live alone). The idea is to face what you fear, and realize it doesn’t have the power over you that you think it does.
- Imagine the worst day – Unlike an inspirational quote, reciting a stoic exercise for your day goes something like this: “I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill. I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my fellow human or hate him, without my decision to choose that opinion. The harm is done in my response to their actions, not in their actions.” Most of the time, the worst-case scenario is far from what happens, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by all that goes right.
Lesson #2 in a nutshell:
- It’s perfectly fine to visualize success, but just as important is to visualize failure (your camera gets ruined, no one buys your work, you contract horrible diarrhea traveling abroad for a shoot). This will help you to A: be grateful for the good things in your life, and B: come prepared for when things do get sh*tty (pun intended).
- Practice inoculating yourself against unfounded fears. You can do this literally by experiencing them for yourself, trying them out when it’s safe and appropriate to do so. You may find that eating ramen noodles for all your meals isn’t the end of the world.
- Imagine, “what is the worst that could happen today?” Probability states that this scenario isn’t likely to pass, so you may realize you have a lot to be grateful for. And if things do go south, you’re better prepared.
Stoic Lesson #3: Getting Over Hedonic Adaptation
A man thus grounded must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.”
The Stoics recognized that human beings have some interesting adaptations.
Usually, an adaptation is beneficial (opposable thumbs, for instance). But some adaptations can be downright silly when placed in the modern world.
Think about the first camera you ever got. It may have been a gift, or you may have saved up all your extra money to purchase your first DSLR. Perhaps it was a hand-me-down point-and-shoot from one your relatives who ended up never using it.
If you’re like me, you absolutely LOVED this camera when you got it. You spent hours taking photos around your neighborhood and tinkering with the settings. You thought the world looked so amazing and interesting through your lens. Even if the subject was only your cat.
You thought this camera was awesome. Until …it wasn’t.
You started to notice that other photographers, the serious ones, carried around much nicer cameras that could capture the smallest details. They had different lenses for every occasion and their photos seemed more crisp and vibrant than yours ever could be.
So you coughed up the money (lots of it) for a nicer camera. You love showing it off and capturing even better photos that you can blow up to the size of a wall in your house. You like having different lenses for different occasions ..until, you see other photographers with even nicer equipment. Perhaps a Digital Leica worth the price of several of your cameras.
You get the point? This could apply to almost anything in the world, but the metaphor works nicely for photography.
We never seem to be satisfied with what we have, and our demands increase the moment something “gets old” and loses the value it once had.
Why do we have this tendency to want what we don’t have, and then move on once we get it? Scientists speculate that our “selfish gene” helped our ancestors survive – the greedier humans who hoarded more food or resources were better able to keep themselves and their families from perishing.
So, hedonistic adaptation makes sense when you very well might run out of food. But what about the modern age when it makes you miserable and unappreciative of what you’ve got?
The stoic secret to getting over hedonic adaptation is simple: create a desire for the things (cameras/equipment) that you already have.
Lesson #3 in a nutshell:
- Stoics broke this endless cycle of “more, more, more” by thinking in terms of a glass half-full, instead of half-empty. Also by thinking they were lucky to have a glass in the first place!
- Every morning and evening, take out a piece of paper, a small journal, or just recount in your mind 3 things you have gratitude for.
- One woman took a photo of something she was grateful for every day for an entire year. It ended up transforming her outlook on life and her relationship and seems like a wonderful practice if you are already capturing photos nearly every day. In the end, you’ll have a wonderful collage of all your days and things you feel grateful for, which is a lovely stoic reminder of your glass being half-full. Worth a shot!
Stoic Lesson #4: Smoke, Dust, Legend
“Alexander the Great and his mule driver both died and the same thing happened to both.”
– Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius also wrote himself a simple reminder to help him maintain daily perspective and balance, which sums up our fourth stoic lesson:
“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are.”
An important note here is that “passion” in this sense isn’t what we would normally define as passion today. Passion to Marcus Aurelius meant patheiai – the irrational, unhealthy, destructive desires and emotions we feel because of external events we have no control over. Such as your computer having a problem right as you’re about to finish editing an important photo, or your website suddenly crashing. The stoics argue the anger you feel about these events doesn’t help, and can lead to destructive actions such as throwing your computer (I know I’ve been tempted). Even the emotion itself releases chemicals and hormones into your system that can harm your long-term health.
Returning to the point of the exercise, it’s simple: remember how small you are. For that matter, remember how small most everything is.
During our day, there are so many things calling for attention. Some of them seem urgent but aren’t very important in the long run. But we need to feed ourselves and our family, and work to pay the bills. That’s a fact of life.
But you may find there are lots of little things that you don’t have to do. For less than the cost of a daily coffee, you can hire a virtual assistant a few days a week to take care of many of those tasks you find irritating to finish. The same goes for housecleaning!
We use up our valuable time doing just about everything except our craft. When we have enough money to sustain us, we think about working harder to earn more (hedonic adaptation again!).
A good metaphor for the shortness of our lives comes from street photographer Eric Kim:
“My analogy on the shortness of life is like a smartphone battery. Imagine you were born with a 100% charge on your smartphone, but you didn’t have a charger. And every day, your charge went down a few percentage points. If you knew you only had 20% charge left, how would you best use your energy, time, and efforts?
I know personally when my phone is at about 20% charge— I get anxious. I stop fiddling around with my phone, checking stupid websites, and conserve my battery for important things (like calling an Uber late at night, or perhaps calling Cindy in-case of emergencies). I don’t waste any of my battery.
That battery is your life. Nobody really knows how to “best” use their life— but we certainly know how we waste our life. We waste our life by mindless and passive entertainment, on bodily pleasures, and anything that causes us to regret.”
Thinking about death can help you appreciate the life you have, for however long you have it. Stoics and their disciples often placed memento mori – physical reminders of death – throughout their homes. Every day they would be reminded of the eventual fate of all humans.
Even when things seem to be going wonderfully, the stoics believed it was equally important to remember that achievements can be ephemeral, and just like with physical things, they will eventually be let go or forgotten.
This whole part of Stoicism may sound depressing, but when you step back and realize that life is temporary and we are all “being led thither toward the grave,” your life takes on greater meaning and beauty.
“The gods envy us. They envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment may be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed. You will never be lovelier than you are now. We will never be here again.”
– Brad Pitt, Troy
Lesson #4 in a nutshell:
- Focus – remove distractions and superfluous activity from your life, and try to spend most of your time doing things you value and find important. This could mean spending the first half of your working day creating, leaving the latter half to marketing your photography, checking emails, etc.
- Contemplate death – and the impermanence of everything around you – daily.
- Place a reminder of memento mori (literal translation “remember that you have to die”) in your office or somewhere in your home. This will help put your setbacks and achievements into the ultimate perspective.
“Our life should observe a happy medium between the ways of a sage and the ways of the world at large” – Seneca
We live in an always changing, sometimes incomprehensible world.
As a photographer, your work involves capturing moments in time from this crazy world, which are all full of meaning.
Sages knew that Stoicism and art and life could all live in harmony together. And the only way to truly succeed and find tranquility was to master their internal world – for the external was beyond their control.
Even in the 21st century, you can apply these ancient principles to your life in a meaningful way. One of the reasons Stoicism has become so popular again is because of how practical its applications are compared to other schools of philosophy.
The ultimate attainment of a stoic was something like a profound inner peace; living in accordance with Nature. Though you certainly don’t have to become an enlightened being to experience the benefits of Stoic principles.
Our 4 key lessons from Stoicism are can be summed up like this:
- Recognize what is within your Sphere of Choice, and what is beyond your control. Let go of trying to control the outcome of your work, and just focus on showing up and being prepared.
- Decide what you’re really afraid of, and see if you can Practice What You Fear – this will help you realize living on rice and beans or losing a piece of equipment is really not the end of the world.
- Open your eyes to any Hedonic Adaptation you may have fallen victim to in your life. When you can step back and look at these desires for what they really are, they stop becoming so important and you can truly be grateful for what you have.
- By placing a daily reminder of memento mori in your home, you can Recognize the Impermanence of Life. You will be less likely to waste time or sweat the small things that don’t matter.
Finally, living as if all things are impermanent, things may go wrong, death will eventually happen, and our inner state is the only thing in our control – can actually help you become a more grounded, content human being. In your photography, it can allow you to focus on what’s truly important.