How to Use Stoicism to Conquer Fear and Supercharge Your Business

by Corey Pemberton 9 Minutes

Ever feel like you’re sailing through a storm on a tiny rowboat

Running a business sometimes reminds me of that. You work your tail off to get things moving in the right direction… only to get thrown off course when your fortune changes.

Even worse?

When you aren’t struggling through a storm, you’re crippled by anxiety and fear. When will something go wrong next? Maybe I should just stop trying and turn this thing around?

Being successful in business forces us to face these obstacles head on.

Embracing the practices from the philosophy of Stoicism can help.

Keep reading to see how it can revolutionize the way you run your business… and turn your mind into your greatest strength instead of an instrument of worry and self sabotage.

Most Philosophy Doesn’t Offer Practical Advice for the Business World

Customer trends come and go. So do technology and business strategies to make a quick buck.

If you’re going to be successful at business for the long haul, you need something that transcends those things.

It’ll take intelligence and a work ethic, sure. But it also takes something more than that: principles to guide you.

Many people turn to philosophy, only to be disappointed by the high-level, abstract thinking and lack of practical advice.

When you think of the typical philosophy major, you probably don’t think of a savvy entrepreneur down in the trenches making things happen. You probably think of a cardigan-wearing, espresso-sipping intellectual discussing Descartes at your local coffee shop.

Stoicism is different. It’s a philosophy with solid, real-world advice to make better decisions, do quality work… and worry a heck of a lot less while you do it.

Stoicism: A Philosophy You Can Live By

Stoicism was founded by the Greeks and rose to popularity in ancient Rome.

The main aim of the philosophy was to show people how to live according to nature – to do what they were meant to do without worry.

What made Stoicism unique was it offered a blueprint for how to live a good life. It was a philosophy meant to be lived, not just endlessly thought about.

The three major thought leaders were Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of Rome, Seneca, a wealthy statesman and adviser to Nero, and Epictetus, who was born a slave and rose to prominence thanks to his Stoic teachings.

But does Stoicism have a place in the world of entrepreneurship today


Here are some of the key Stoic practices that can transform your own business:

Mentally Prepare for Negative Events

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Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness… – Marcus Aurelius

So many of us focus intently on the best-case scenario.

What will our business look like when everything goes right?

What kind of work will be doing?

Which yacht will we buy?

It’s easy to gloss over the missteps that could happen along the way. When something (inevitably) goes awry on the long road to success, we end up blindsided.

The Stoics used a technique called “negative visualization” to fight the helpless feelings that come with these sudden changes in fortune. Stoics would meditate on negative future outcomes ranging from illness and financial losses to the loss of loved ones.

This sounds grim to think about, and it is…

But considering potential misfortunes in your business now will help you navigate the shock if/when they come to pass. Instead of being paralyzed by fear, you’ll be better able to handle an evolving market or deceitful business partner when you’ve already rehearsed those things happening in your mind.

A few minutes of negative visualization each day also makes you incredibly grateful for everything you have now and your current achievements. You might not be where you want to be yet, but this practice helps you put things in prospective and enjoy your successes.

No need to obsess about potential bad outcomes! You can spend most of your time figuring out how to make your ideal outcomes a reality. But a few minutes here and there will help you respond to crises and come out stronger in the end.

Understand the Difference Between Events and Your Perception of Them

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The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. – Marcus Aurelius

This is by far the most useful Stoic exercise I’ve applied in my own business:

Recognizing that events themselves and our perception of them are two very different things.

According to the Stoics, we are constantly perceiving the world not as things really are, but through the lens of our own perception. Our perception is loaded with value judgments about which things are “good” and which things are “bad.”

Viewing our interpretation as the truth makes us worry, fearful, and anxious. What if our new product gets negative feedback? What if our next ad campaign loses money? Those would be “bad” outcomes!

This perspective stops us from seeing situations objectively and making the best business decisions.

But what if no event was “good” or “bad?” What if the problem lies in our perception?

Psychologically distancing ourselves – separating the event itself from our perception of the event – allows us to respond to these events (even challenging ones) calmly and effectively.

Stoics had a practice called “flipping the obstacle,” where they would brainstorm different ways to see difficult obstacles as opportunities.

Give this a try net time something “bad” happens in your business.

Client doesn’t pay you all you’re owed?

It’s an opportunity to exercise your assertiveness and patience. How can you rework your contracts or business processes to keep this from happening in the future?

Your email marketing software crashes?

There’s a chance to test your resourcefulness. What other ways – maybe ways you haven’t considered – could you get in touch with your leads?

The better you remember the only thing making an event “bad or good” is your perception – and you’re in control of that perception – the easier it is to take positive action. It’s easy to spot opportunities everywhere when that’s what you’ve trained your mind to see.

Practice Misfortune from Time to Time

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Set aside now and then a number of days during which you will be content with the plainest of food, and very little of it, with rough coarse clothing, and ask yourself: ‘Is this what one used to dread?’ – Seneca

Most people bury their heads in the sand and try to avoid thinking about possible negative events.

As I mentioned earlier, Stoics don’t do this. They visualize negative scenarios, but they go even further. They proactively live misfortune from time to time.

Seneca, one of the wealthiest men in the Roman empire, would set aside a few days each month to live outside his comfort zone. He would skip lavish meals for simple dishes, swap his bed for the floor, and wear his oldest clothes.

Sounds crazy, right?

But the practice helped Seneca overcome his fear. Even with all of his wealth, he didn’t have to worry about it being taken away because he lived his misfortune (poverty) and came out just fine. He proved to himself that the fear of the misfortune was much worse than the misfortune itself!

You don’t have to get this extreme, but a similar practice can be incredibly liberating if you’re afraid.

Worrying about money is one of entrepreneurs’ and freelancers’ biggest fears.

Set aside a few days and live very simply – get away from the comfort of your home/office if possible. Eat simple meals. Wear simple clothes. Get by with as little as you can. Then ask yourself:

“Is this what I was really afraid of?”

This technique puts your greatest fears into perspective. You see what your true priorities in life are, and it becomes easier to take bold action and make calculated risks.

Focus Only on What’s In Your Control

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Freedom is the only worthy goal in life. It is won by disregarding things that lie beyond our control. – Epictetus

Stoics agreed that knowing the difference between what they controlled (their “internals”) and what they didn’t control (“externals”) – and doing everything within their control to achieve their goals – was key to living a good life.

Even Epictetus, who developed his branch of Stoic philosophy while he was still a slave, used this principle to help find tranquility. It worked just as well for Marcus Aurelius, a man who, as emperor of Rome, had a lot more control but still recognized his limits. So it can work for you too!

Obsessing over things you don’t control or wishing they were different isn’t just unproductive. It’s also a recipe for anxiety, frustration, and fear.

Here are some common things people obsess about – even though they’re completely outside our control:

  • Hypothetical future events
  • Other people’s thoughts/opinions
  • Sports scores
  • The past
  • The weather
  • Traffic

You don’t have control over how long that client took to reply to your email or a freak accident when your computer got destroyed. There’s no reason to obsess over them or wish they were different.

You’re better off focusing your thoughts on what you can control and maximizing your effort there. You can control your actions, virtue, and behavior. You can choose to see setbacks as opportunities.

This helps you set smart, attainable goals and appreciate your successes as you achieve them… instead of getting thrown off course when something outside your control goes wrong.

It might seem discouraging to realize how limited our sphere of influence really is. But it’s actually incredibly freeing. There are only a few things to worry about; it’s just a matter of exercising the control we do have to the fullest.

Treat Every Task Like It’s Your Last

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You will give yourself peace of mind if you perform every act of your life as if it were your last. – Marcus Aurelius

Once you’ve determined exactly which things are in your control, it’s time to put them into action.

The more mindful we are at performing each task, the more effective the outcome. We make fewer mistakes. We end up with higher-quality work because we put all our resources into the task at hand.

Working hard on one thing – the task right in front of you – and setting everything else aside will evaporate your stress.

It’s so easy to write up a huge to-do list, get stressed out just looking at it, and justify never getting started. That’s how a spent most of my first few months in business: completely overwhelmed.

Little did I know the answer to my anxiety issues was as simple as focusing on one task with all my effort. Worries about everything else on the to-do list eased when I was absorbed in the task at hand.

Marcus Aurelius suggests we perform every task like it’s our last.

How do you do that?

Well, you sure wouldn’t be checking your cell phone every few minutes or inviting distractions from social media. You’d do your best to create a work environment where you could focus. You’d work in focused sprints for a set period of time, casting all other thoughts aside.

You’ll only get more effective with practice. Every day is an opportunity to flex your “focus muscles” and perform each task like it were your last.

Perform a Nightly Review

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You have to catch yourself doing it before you can reform. Some people boast about their failings: can you imagine someone who counts his faults as merits ever giving thought to their cure? – Seneca

Because Stoicism is something you live instead of just think about, tracking how well you do is a great way to improve.

Planning your upcoming schedule is important, but so is review.

A “nightly review” was common practice among Stoics as a way to check in within themselves and identify any areas that needed improvement.

The same technique can be helpful for you. At the end of every workday or just before bed, have a short conversation with yourself where you ask these three key questions:

  • What went wrong?
  • What went well?
  • What could I do better next time?

Complete transparency and honesty are key. The goal isn’t to beat yourself up, but to be direct – the same way you’d be with a trusted friend. I’ve found that doing this process in writing (just a short page in a notebook or text document) is a nice way to form the habit.

It’s amazing how many people don’t do this. They might do a yearly or quarterly review, but the vast majority of progress – or stagnation – is the result of tiny course corrections day after day.

Just the process itself (knowing you’ll review what happened later) makes it easier to be more cognizant throughout the day.

Overcome Obstacles – Without Self Sabotage

Obstacles and sudden changes in fortune are inevitable…

But you don’t have to let them overwhelm you anymore!

By applying these simple Stoic practices in your business, you’ll strengthen your mental fortitude, make better decisions, and do what it takes to succeed without letting fear or anxiety sabotage you.

Do you follow a personal business philosophy you follow? Are you already using any of these Stoic techniques? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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by Corey Pemberton
Corey Pemberton is a freelance copywriter and blogger who helps small businesses and software startups get more traffic and conversions online. You can find him on his website or follow him on Twitter.