By: Rebecca Kerzner  | 

A Philosophy for Ambitious College Students

College students are constantly busy. Running from activity to meeting to next activity, there is always something going on and off campus. That’s part of the fun: the buzz of things constantly happening. This student body is filled with ambitious students. Presidents of clubs making endless meetings with the Office of Student Life. Athletes running from class to basketball or softball practice. Peer tutors hopping around to teach calculus to struggling newbies. Everyone has their own reasons for why they do what they do. For some it’s the perfect GPA. Others just want to look good on paper. But at the end of the day, everyone’s really in it for one overarching goal: Success.

What is success? We can try to delve into the topic theoretically. But I’ve chosen to focus on successes frenemy: it’s opposite, failure. Sometimes the familiar library noise rings of laughter and joy as students socialize and talk about their school work and projects. Other times though, the noise becomes maddening, and all one can hear is talk of deadlines, pressure, and lack of time and the rumble becomes a white noise of constant stress. Somehow we've ended up involving ourselves in what feels like every club that exists on campus and staying up late to work past the yawns and coffees that keep multiplying on our dorm desks. We start scribbling down to do lists on napkins, Iphone notes, even backs of hands to try to keep up with everything around us. Our eyes and postures droop lower and lower until the stress and anxiety finally catch up to us.

So what happens when we snap? Failure is inevitable but still, when we face it, it comes as a shock every time. Everyone has their own way of dealing with their issues. But what’s most annoying about failure is that the struggle to overcome is setback for the meta goal: success. Each failed moment has its own degree of emotional fallout to deal with, which just increases time lost. So, how should one deal with such obstacles? How should one respond in the face of failure?

I love those cheesy quotes like “Choose to be happy” and “Enjoy the little things”. They give me the inspiration and positivity to keep moving forward. I recognize that such “isms” tie a bow on life’s issues and share an idealistic view that is often dubbed as cliche, irrational, and overused. But still, they adorn of lock screens, post it notes, and posters in our rooms. They’re so widespread, and printed on so many consumer goods, so there must be a logical reason for why all of these isms have come to be part of today’s consumer culture.

In my search for success, I came across a game changer called Stoicism. Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BCE. Famously practiced by Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, the tenets of Stoicism asserted that attaining inner peace comes from within, rather than from external events. The goal is to battle destructive emotions head on by practicing self control and conscious intention, with a recognition of  the short time we are given on this Earth. Stoics place great importance on facing and understanding our obstacles to overcome them instead of running away from them.  

There is so much to knowledge to gain from the Stoics. But for the purpose of success, I’ve chosen to focus on three simple understandings.

First: Practice misfortune. Seneca believed that “It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favors on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs”. Practicing misfortune is about making a point to practice what we fear. Seneca practiced living in quasi-poverty once a month. He would eat less food and wear worse clothes to put himself in the situation of poverty to experience it and would ask himself “Is this what I used to dread?” The idea behind his actions was that in putting himself in the situation where something bad like poverty actually occurred, he would be prepared. So if we were to prepare ourselves and anticipate that things would not always go our way by pushing ourselves more physically and mentally, we’d be prepared for whatever life throws at us.

Second: Train your perception to avoid good and bad.The stoics exercised “Turning the Obstacle Upside Down.” With this logic, every “bad” moment became a new source for good. Every “bad” was supposed to be seen as an opportunity to develop strengths and break down limitations. For example, usually if someone was getting on your nerves, the response would be anger and frustration. But, with the stoic logic, it would be just a chance to practice patience and understanding. Debating whether situations are good or bad becomes irrelevant with this positive outlook because there is only perception, and that is something that we fully control.

Third: Remember-it’s all ephemeral. It’s important to remember just how small we are in the world. What we achieve, no matter how big, is all miniscule in the larger scheme of the universe. If it’s all fleeting, than what are we aiming for? The present. Be conscious of how you treat those around you: kindness to another human being is eternal.

I think practicing stoicism has a lot to offer in elevating the quality of life and could definitely help out in running things smoother.

The relevant practical sets of rules that Stoicism offers influenced presidents, entrepreneurs, writers, and artists, throughout history. George Washington was introduced by his neighbors to Stoicism as a teenager and later put on a play about Cato, Julius Caesar’s old enemy and famous Stoic, for his troops at Valley Forge to inspire them. The economist Adam Smith’s theories on capitalism were significantly influenced by Stoicism that he studied as a student. It should also be mentioned that Aurelius was not just a lone philosopher who spent his days sitting under a tree sharing deep thoughts and quotes. He was the Emperor of Rome from 161 AD and ruled for around twenty years. He put his own ideas on Stoicism into practice and attributed his successes to these philosophies.

Stoicism is timeless. The same philosophies were applied to powerful men two thousand years ago.  I find it amazing that the same philosophies, through generations of technological advancements didn't turn obsolete, demonstrating the wisdom of the ideas. This is because the theories aren’t meant to be a discussion for intellectual pursuit, but as tenets for practical application.

As for applying these principles to everyday life, I’d like to refer to the four questions psychologist Chuck Chakrapani, a Stoic minimalist, often asks himself when dealing with conflict:

  1. Is this under my control?
  2. Am I reacting to someone without exercising my choice to act the way I want?
  3. Am I getting irritated by the little things?
  4. Am I enjoying the life that I am blessed with?

These are definitely big questions. It’s impossible to address them in their full scope. But if there’s anything we know it is that asking the tough questions and delving into the possible answers for those questions is beneficial too.

Being that the YU college experience can be so intense and all encompassing, tough times are unavoidable. But Stoicism says that we are more in control than we think when it comes to handling those emotions. Changing one’s perceptions on the good and bad is a great tool to use when dealing with the everyday college struggles, especially because It’s impossible to guarantee that everything around you will always run smoothly. But dealing with the hard times efficiently begins with understanding yourself. There will always be times where it seems the deans just aren’t listening, the Office of Student Life is taking forever to pass on your event, and you have two projects and three tests on one day but the next time it happens, remember to channel your inner Stoic. Of course, we are by no means all philosophers here. But everyone can take a moment to take advantage of the insight Stoicism has to offer.

Think about it. It might be worthwhile.