Stress, anxiety, panic attacks, impostor syndrome, obsession, sleeplessness, dreaming about code, are among the mental conditions we, developers, are exposed to because, to put it simply, we developers are professional thinkers, we are weight lifters of the mind, but when you push your symbolic mind hard enough it can come back to you in overdrive mode and attack you like a hammer hitting your hand instead of the nail, or even like a chainsaw chopping a finger instead of a branch.
Coping with these mental issues is hard but important to have a healthy mind, life and to be an effective, efficient and holistic developer and I believe that the Stoic teachings are valuable tools to manage our emotions and behaviours and they provide a useful framework to tackle any situation in our life.
Let this serve as a high-level introduction to Stoicism and a good start towards a better life.
Developers are professional thinkers, weight lifters of the mind.
What is Stoicism?#
Stoicism is a philosophical movement that aims to help people manage and even reduce pain in their life by recognising, at a high level, that life is just a series of events and that we are the one that classify them as good or bad and that the only real control we have is in how we classify or interpret those events, and how willing we are to accept the outcomes.
Stoicism trains the mind to be more resilient to pain by understanding that it is unreasonable to get sad or anxious because of things we don’t have control over, we can only do our best, hope for the best and react as best as we can to whatever outcome life has in place.
As you can see these are powerful teachings and have I found them very useful in my life, even when things turn dark.
Stoicism aims to achieve strength of character, endurance and resiliency in the face of hardship by separating what is in our control from what’s not.
Of course Stoicism doesn’t negate free will nor the things we humans can achieve by affecting life around us, but instead, it talks about reducing suffering in the outcomes by accepting that, although we do have control over small aspects of life, we are largely subject to the randomness of the universe but that we do have a strong control over how our hearts and minds react to the outcomes.
Stoicism doesn’t also go against pursue of success or riches, it just states that we shouldn’t feel attached to them so that we don’t become prisoners of the outcomes of those pursues, because if you are successful and you feel attached to your success then you become a prisoner of your success and you will live in fear of loosing it, same goes for money, recognition or whatever. And if you couldn’t get it in the first place you will also feel bad. With this, rather common, mindset, we become prisoners of randomness. Stoicism seeks to take control, become free, and ultimately live a more peaceful life without so much suffering.
Stoicism seeks to take control, become free, and ultimately live a more peaceful life without so much suffering.
These teachings become even more important in the 21st century, where we are in constant stress, anxiety and fear even for the smallest things, like not getting the new phone, not getting enough likes, not having the latest clothes, or of not being able to go the pub on weekends.
Stoicism at last seeks deep thought about the nature of reality and how can we interact with it in a peaceful and relaxed way, by doing what we can and accepting the outcomes unconditionally.
The core message of Stoicism has been incorporated in many modern new age “self help” books and material like the famous and strongly recommended The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, and it shares some values with Buddhism and other older philosophies.
By the way, many people have a strong sense that “self help” books and materials are hippie nonsense when in reality there are a lot of valuable takes on how to improve oneself and deal with the hard stuff in life, and a lot of them are modern takes of old teachings like The Bible, Buddhism, et al, and that many different takes have greater probability of coming through the many different personalities and stages in life that humans have. And of course there will be always nonsense out there if you really look for it.
I strongly recommend The Practicing Stoic by Farnsworth if you want a no nonsense practical introduction to Stoicism ready to be applied to your day to day life. The audio book is specially good.
Disclaimer: strictly speaking this is my interpretation of Stoicism. Hollywood has a somewhat shallow version of a stoic person, typically in the form of an action blockbuster hero that doesn’t show emotion, there is so much more.
Also, do not confuse Stoicism with emotional repression, Stoicism is about emotional management or emotional intelligence but never about repression, in fact, emotional repression goes against the Stoic teachings.
Let’s go over 3 quotes from each of the most important figures of Stoicism: Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
I encourage you to come back often to them and reflect on them, they are mystical synthesis of knowledge that the Stoic consider valuable and I entirely agree.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus 26 April 121 – 17 March 180) was Roman emperor from 161 to 180 and a Stoic philosopher. The name might ring a bell since it appeared in the movie “Gladiator”. His thoughts were solidified in books among which the famous Meditations, is encountered.
If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgment about it. And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgment now.
Take away your opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, […] Take away the complaint, […] and the hurt is gone
What if someone despises me? Let me see to it. But I will see to it that I won’t be found doing or saying anything contemptible. What if someone hates me? Let me see to that. But I will see to it that I’m kind and good-natured to all, and prepared to show even the hater where they went wrong. Not in a critical way, or to show off my patience, but genuinely and usefully.
Epictetus (c. 55 – c. 135 AD), born a slave, was a Greek Stoic philosopher. The name given by his parents, if one was given, is not known. The word epiktetos in Greek simply means “acquired”. You can read more about his teachings in Discourses and Selected Writings.
In a word, neither death, nor exile, nor pain, nor anything of this kind is the real cause of our doing or not doing any action, but our inward opinions and principles.
It is difficulties that show what men are.
For it is not death or pain that is to be feared, but the fear of pain or death.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, 4 BC – AD 65, usually known as Seneca, was a Roman Stoic philosopher, statesman, dramatist, and in one work, satirist from the Silver Age of Latin literature. I highly recommend Letters from a Stoic.
True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so, wants nothing.
Throw me to the wolves and I will return leading the pack.
We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.
I have tried many different things to improve my self and be more resilient and resistant to whatever life throws at me. Stoicism, meditations and physical exercise are the best tools I currently have available, I hope this little post serves as a reference point to developers and people going through these same problems in life.