A Guide to the Good Life

Book review

May 17, 2016

Finally managed to read "A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" by William B. Irvine. The book came highly recommended by Derek Sivers, an artist and writer that I respect and identify with due to our almost identical world views.

I had only a vague idea of what stoicism was prior to reading the book, but based on my little knowledge I suspected that I have been practicing, albeit unknowingly, many of the tenets of this philosophy. Reading the book confirmed my theory, and introduced me to some new tools and techniques to improve the way I live. Here are 10 key ideas of the book that I highlighted:

  1. The objective of Stoicism is to enable you to live a good life by pursuing tranquility (defined as the absence of negative emotions).
  2. Stoicism teaches us to use our reasoning ability to banish negative emotions like anger, grief, and envy. Rational people will find Stoicism easier to practice than overly emotional people.
  3. Stoicism recommends the practice of "negative visualization", basically to imagine how would life be if we lose the things or people we value. By engaging in negative visualization we diminish the anguish and grief of loss in two ways: first, because whatever happens we will be expecting it, and second, because it teaches us to be grateful for the things we still have.
  4. We need to master the "trichotomy of control", by recognizing the three categories of things: 1) Things over which we have complete control, 2) Things over which we have no control at all, and 3) Things over which we have some but not complete control. We should only concern ourselves with things over which we have complete control, or some level of control. It is useless to worry about things over which we don't have control.
  5. Along those lines, Stoicism teaches us to choose "internal goals" as opposed to "external goals". For example, if we're playing a game of tennis, our goal should be to play our best tennis possible, and not to win the game. By internalizing his goals, the Stoic is able to preserve his tranquility while dealing with things over which he has only partial control.
  6. Stoicism teaches us that the key to being wealthy is not to have a lot but to need very little. Stoics don't necessarily reject material wealth. They enjoy it but they don't cling to it.
  7. Stoics prepare to lose their wealth by regularly practicing "voluntary discomfort". The most likely result of practicing this technique is that we will soon notice how little do we really need to live a happy, productive life. Some things we can practice on a regular basis are to eat simply prioritizing nutrition over pleasure, get rid of non-essential possessions and practice minimalism, take public transportation instead of our car, sleep in couches, take cold showers, etc. These are minor things that we will get used to and learn to enjoy with time. Because they have learned to enjoy things that are easily obtainable or that can’t be taken from them, Stoics will find much in life to enjoy.
  8. Stoics recognize that our anger about something is usually worse and lasts longer than the damage done to us, therefore we should avoid getting angry. To get rid of anger we should practice putting things in their right perspective. For example, we can ask ourselves: "will this really matter in 100 years?".
  9. Stoics value their freedom, and they are therefore reluctant to do anything that will give others power over them. If we seek social status, we give other people power over us. That is why as Stoics we must become indifferent to other people’s opinions of us.
  10. We must train ourselves to not hold grudges or consider ourselves a victim. If we consider ourselves victims, we are not going to have a good life.

If you want to learn more about this book I recommend checking out Derek Siver's book notes, or reading the whole book (it's worth it!).


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