Apotheosis episode 26: Is this necessary? "On every occasion, ask yourself, Is this one of the unnecessary things?" ~Marcus Aurelius

Episode 26: Is this necessary?

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Calm, Skills, Stoicism

Key ideas

You will face difficulties and difficult people; this fact is certain. To cultivate a tranquil mind, don’t waste time and energy on unnecessary things. Train yourself to focus only on those things within your control.

  • When you wake up today, there is a strong chance you will encounter someone rude or antagonistic. Coworkers, employees, bosses, or clients will frustrate you. Politicians will be corrupt, inept, or both. Can you be calm despite these difficulties?
  • Stoicism teaches us that we are capable of maintaining a tranquil mind – one that is unphased by the challenges we will inevitably face. Tranquility allows us to think more clearly and experience joy despite our circumstances.
  • How can we achieve this state? One way is to do less – as Marcus Aurelius wrote, to ask ourselves, “is this one of the unnecessary things?” We should focus only on those activities that matter.
  • The trichotomy of control provides a useful framework: there are things we cannot control at all, things we can control, and things over which we have partial control. Don’t waste time on the first; focus on the latter two.


"When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly." While many of us might relate to these words, they come to us from the journal of Marcus Aurelius, written nearly 2000 years ago. Marcus wrote these words to remind himself of the many difficulties he would face daily as ruler of the Roman Empire. Whether you are leading a nation, an organization, a team, or even just starting your professional journey, one thing is guaranteed: you will face difficult people and difficult situations. Accepting this fact, as Marcus did, prepares us to meet those difficulties with a cool head and a steady hand.

This episode is part of a series on cultivating calm under fire. Stoicism offers some practical perspectives for maintaining our composure even when faced with the kinds of difficult, dishonest, and surly people Marcus wrote about all those centuries ago.

One of the appealing characteristics of Stoic philosophy is that it's immensely practical. No matter what our profession, no matter what era in history we're alive, life will present obstacles – often one after another. Our ability to overcome those obstacles and achieve our goals depends heavily on our mindset. Not entirely, but as we'll see, Stoicism places a heavy emphasis on exerting effort on the right things.

In any case, our ability to take action hinges on our state of mind. We need a clear head to take full advantage of our greatest gift – our capacity for reason. Therefore, a central aim of Stoic practice is to train oneself to achieve and maintain a state of tranquility. As Marcus Aurelius describes, "… there is no retreat that is quieter or freer from trouble than a man's own soul." Especially, as he says, when his thoughts lead him to perfect tranquility. And tranquility is nothing else than the good ordering of the mind."

Countless things in our day threaten to disrupt that tranquility, our ability to maintain a "good ordering of the mind." When we achieve a calm state of mind, we can gain clarity. We can see potential paths forward, rather than get stuck in repetitive, reactionary thinking.

As Seneca described in his treatise On Tranquility of the Mind, "This abiding stability of mind, the Greeks call euthymia, "well-being of the soul"… I call it tranquility." He goes on to say, in much more flowery language, that the Stoic seeks to achieve a steady mind that rests in a persistent state of joy.

Now, especially considering the seemingly endless onslaught of difficulties and difficult people we face, what does Stoicism suggest for how we can achieve tranquility?

To start, another quote from Marcus: "Occupy yourself with few things, says the philosopher, if you would be tranquil." He says that doing fewer things helps us do the important things better, which leads us to feel a sense of greater satisfaction. While his era was filled with far less distraction than we face today, he still pointed out that most of what we say and do is unnecessary. Cutting the unnecessary from our lives creates more space and greater calm

He then offers a gem that could find a great home on a post-it note on your computer screen or the fridge door. On every occasion, we can ask ourselves, "Is this one of the unnecessary things?"

Another Stoic practice for applying this idea is the dichotomy of control. Some things are totally out of our control. However, there are other things over which we have total control. We should spend our time and energy on the latter. The Serenity Prayer, made famous by Alcoholics Anonymous, captures this sentiment well: 

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Professor William Irvine, a modern Stoic philosopher, practitioner, and author of A Guide to the Good Life, takes the dichotomy of control one step further. He adds another category, creating the trichotomy of control. This version recognizes that there are some things over which we have partial control.

For example, you might be looking for a job. You have no control over whether an organization will look at your CV or call you for an interview. However, you have some control over how well suited you appear for the role relative to other candidates, such as how carefully crafted your cover letter is. And you have total control over how much time you spend polishing your CV, how much effort you spend networking with current employees where you'd like to work, or building the skills that will help you succeed.

Or looking at social or political events: You have no control over the political beliefs of others or over the policies they support, like whether they support The Former Guy, for example. You have some control over presenting a counter position that might influence their views and actions, such as first seeking to understand why they hold their position – and framing your arguments according to their values, not your own. You have total control over how much time you spend learning about a particular policy or issue, how carefully you craft rational arguments, and how open you are to identifying your own blind spots.

If we spend time fretting over the things we can't control, we are guaranteed to feel stress and anxiety. We are also far less likely to achieve our goal, whether the goal is landing a job or influencing government policy. On the other hand, if we spend our time on things we have at least partial control, we can rest more easily, knowing that we've done everything in our power to achieve that goal.

Tranquility follows intentional, thoughtful action. Ask yourself: Is this necessary? Is it helpful? If not, then it is a waste of time. Focus on the essential.

Well, that's all for now. I hope that you find these ideas useful – and that they help you to experience prolonged tranquility. No doubt we could all use a bit more of that.

Join me again next week as I continue this series about calm under fire with some perspectives from psychology. In the meantime, check out the Project Indra website. I recently did some major revamping of the site to make it easier to find information related to specific skills for impact leaders. You can subscribe there for irregular newsletter updates, and feel free to subscribe to Apotheosis on your favorite podcast platform. And if you have a moment to leave a review or a quick rating, that's always very helpful. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License