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The Wisdom of the Old Greeks: 7 Powerful Fundamentals


Image by Wolfgang Staudt (license).



“Let him that would move the world first move himself.”
Socrates

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Plato

“Nothing endures but change.”
Heraclitus

“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”
Pericles

Obviously, old greeks like Plato, Epictetus and Aristotle were really sharp. And what they talked about over 2000 years ago is just as relevant and useful today. Our outer circumstances may have changed dramatically over the last few thousands of years, but on the inside we seem to have stayed pretty much the same in many ways.

Here are just 7 of my favourite fundamentals from that place and time. I hope you will find them as helpful as I have.

1. If you are going your own way, prepare for reactions.

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.”
Epictetus

I believe this is very relevant to self-improvement. And something that is holding people back, no matter how much tips or knowledge they have about how to make their lives better. The fear of social rejection is strong in many people.

If you start changing then people may react in different ways. Some may be happy for you. Some may be indifferent. Some may be puzzled or react in negative and discouraging ways.

And that’s OK. Most likely they won’t react as negatively as you may imagine. Or they will probably at least go back to focusing on their own challenges pretty soon.

2. To get what you really dream about out of life, you have to wo/man up.

“Courage is the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees the others.”
Aristotle

So to make some real changes you must accept that you may look foolish. You will need courage to actually apply what you have learned on this blog or through other sources. This is one common sticking point. The problem is not that you don’t have the correct tips or solutions. It’s simply that you avoid facing what you fear (even though you mind might still be telling you that the solution does not lie there but rather in gathering more information).

If this is something that you do often then you have to increase your courage. So, how can you do that?

You have to take action and face your fear.

Maybe not what you want to hear, but in my experience and from what I have learned from others this is probably the best way to build courage and self confidence.

You can make this a bit easier though. Three of my own favourite tips for doing that are:

  • Be curious. When you are stuck in fear you are closed up. You tend to create division in your world and mind. You create barriers between you and other things/people. When you shift to being curious your perceptions and the world just opens up. Curiosity is filled with anticipation and enthusiasm. It opens you up. And when you are open and enthusiastic then you have more fun things to think about than focusing on your fear. How do you become more curious? One way is to remember how life has become more fun in the past thanks to your curiosity and to remember all the cool things it helped you to discover and experience.
  • Be present. This will help you snap out of overthinking and just go and do whatever you want to get done. This is also probably the best tip I have found so far for taking more action in life since it puts you in a state where you feel little emotional resistance to the work you’ll do. One of the simplest ways to connect with the present moment is just to keep your focus on your breathing for a minute or two.
  • Realize that failure won’t kill you. It is when you face your fears that you discover the thing that billions of people throughout history have discovered before you. Failure won’t kill you. Nor will being wrong. The sky will not fall down. That’s just what people that haven’t faced their fear yet think. Failure is actually a great way to learn things about yourself and life. And to make yourself tougher and more courageous.

3. What they say might not really be about you.

“People often grudge others what they cannot enjoy themselves.”

“The unhappy derive comfort from the misfortunes of others.”
~ Aesop

Criticism that may be valid should be taken seriously. But negativity directed towards you is often not about you. It’s more about someone else having a bad day, week or year and directing their negative energy at anyone passing by in their life.

This ties back to fundamental #1. So much complaining and negativity that people put out into the world is about how they feel about themselves and their lives. The problem is just that we are often so focused on own lives that we take every negative thing said to us personally. But the world doesn’t revolve around me or you.

So remember those two quotes when someone’s directing negativity towards you.

And more importantly, remember those quotes when you feel the need to lash out towards someone. Ask yourself what the real problem in your life is. And what you can do about it.

Instead of just lashing out and feeding more negativity into your and someone else’s life.

One thing you can pretty sure of is that the more people try to boost their own value and temporary positive feelings by putting someone else down, the worse they feel about themselves and their lives. And that goes for you and me too of course.

4. Discard the things that aren’t helping you.

“The most useful piece of learning for the uses of life is to unlearn what is untrue.”
Antisthenes

Some of what you learn in life is simply social conditioning that is fed to you over and over as you grow up. And so you believe that it is true. But you have to realize that some of the things you have picked up may not serve you in the best way. But you may have simply grown so comfortable with those beliefs that you cling to them – no matter how negative they are – like a safety blanket.

Another thing is that was once true for you may not be true anymore. As you improve yourself you have to let go of your past and your old self-image to be able to move forward fully. You have to accept that you have changed and then keep your focus steadily on your new areas of interest so you don’t slip back into your old – and so familiar and comfortable – self over and over again.

Also, if you have learned read a lot about personal development then you might have a lot of tips on different topics in your head. To simplify your life and thinking you might not need 25 ways to handle nervousness.

Articles with that many tips can be helpful but it’s important to try that stuff out for yourself and see what tips that work most effectively for you. And then simplify so you always know what action to take if you get nervous for example. Instead of having your mind so cluttered with information that you become paralyzed and take no action at all.

5. Your wishes may not be all that they are cracked up to be.

“We would often be sorry if our wishes were gratified.”
Aesop

Here is one of those beliefs that you may hold but may want to let go off to live a happier life.

We wish for something. A new car, a new job, a new relationship or perhaps a new pair of shoes. And perhaps you think: “if I only get this thing, then I’m home, then I’ll feel happy and good all around”.

And then you get it. And it’s awesome. But often for just a while. And then you may feel like maybe something went a bit wrong. Like it didn’t fulfil you or complete you like you thought it would.

Why? Well, after while when you get used to something, when it becomes normal, then the ego tends to want more once again.

Or maybe you can’t enjoy something for what it is because even though your environment changes, you are still the same. The same person with the same outlook on life. With the same self-imposed barriers for your own success and happiness and maybe self-sabotaging behaviour. And until you take a look at those things you may find yourself repeating the same patterns over and over. When you are the same, you often tend to get the same results over and over again.

Our wishes can also often come through accompanied by unexpected and not so pleasant side effects. Things may seem just perfect when you dream about them. In reality, it can become a little more complicated and messy.

Now, new things or people can be great. But if you think this one thing or person will fix all your problems or if you focus on the wrong aspects – what is not perfect, how can I get more etc. – instead of the positives and gratitude then you may find yourself always looking for the next thing and create quite a bit of unhappiness within.

6. Focus on building helpful habits.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Aristotle

Becoming really good at something or making real improvement in your life isn’t about short spurts now and then when you feel like it. It’s about habits and consistency.

Here are two tips that have been helpful for me to establish new habits in my life.

  • The 30 day challenge. You have probably read about this old personal development concept from for example Steve Pavlina. Basically, you make a deal with yourself to do one thing for just 30 days (one example: exercise every day) and no more than that. But after those 30 days you may discover that your mind will have become so accustomed to this new behaviour that it will be easier to continue doing it than stop doing it.
  • Just focus on the process. While doing something for those 30 days you focus on the process rather than the results. I for instance use this when I workout. I don’t take responsibility for the results in my mind. I take responsibility for showing up – even the days when I don’t feel like it – and doing my workout. The results come anyway from that consistent action. And this makes it easier for me to take this action and establish the new habit when I know that is all I need to focus on. Instead of using half of the energy and focus I have available on hoping that I “reach my goal real, real soon”. Focus on the process and you will be a lot more relaxed and likely to continue than if you stare yourself blind on the potential results that never come as quickly as you want to and puts you on an emotional rollercoaster from day to day.

7. Suffering is optional. And so is happiness.

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

“I must die. Must I then die lamenting? I must be put in chains. Must I then also lament? I must go into exile. Does any man then hinder me from going with smiles and cheerfulness and contentment?”

“It is not death or pain that is to be dreaded, but the fear of pain or death.”
~ Epictetus

Suffering is optional. And so is happiness. What you choose to think about determines how you feel. It may seem “normal” and be common to go through a lot of mindmade suffering after the initial pain that ignited the suffering. And it’s easy to slip back into old thoroughly ingrained thought habits. But you don’t have to. You can learn to gain more control over your happiness and suffering.

One tip that I have found helpful for this is to learn to reconnect as much as possible with the present moment. Suffering is to a large extent created when your mind is thinking thoughts about either the past or a possible future. As mentioned already in this article, one of the simplest ways to connect with the present moment is just to keep your focus on your breathing for a minute or two.

It is also very useful to realize that you are not your thoughts or emotions. They are just things that are flowing through you. But they are not you. You are the one observing them. This realization can gradually free you more and more from keeping negative thought and emotions going. Whenever they arise and you realize that you aren’t them and that you don’t have to identify with them then their power over you fades away.

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  • Ahmed October 28, 2010, 6:49 pm

    Love the post! Socrates has gotta be my favorite though.

  • Organic Joy Blog October 28, 2010, 7:25 pm

    Love this. Imo, being curious and being present are excellent suggestions for letting your guard down and becoming confident. Being curious is an interesting way to put it…You’ll get similar results with being open; feeling as if everyone else is more like you than not. I can tell you’re actually putting to practice what you learn, seeing the results, and then reporting back.

    • Janet November 2, 2010, 5:23 pm

      Yes! That’s why I like your writing, Henrik – the real feeling you are practicing and speaking from experience. This was a wonderful post, Henrik. I almost wished you had made it seven posts because each thought deserves dwelling on and time to practise it. Thank you.

      The part about habits is my favourite. In Hinduism sometimes people say that if you think about God at the moment of death, you’ll be free (from the cycle of rebirth). But the trick is you won’t think about God at the moment of death unless you have already practised by thinking about God in every moment of your life :)

  • Sandra Lee October 28, 2010, 7:49 pm

    This is one of my favorite posts. There’s so much ancient wisdom that applies to the modern world! We really don’t need to reinvent the wheel but instead listen and apply.

    This is the quote that struck the strongest chord for me: “The most useful piece of learning for the uses of life is to unlearn what is untrue.” Antisthenes I liked your phrase about clinging to familiar habits and ideas like a “safety blanket.” In my mind, the whole way we understand the world and our own mind is “untrue” and if we could see and undo this all happiness would be ours. Neither the world nor our mind and fixed and solid as we tend to think. Thanks!

  • Tomasz October 29, 2010, 3:12 am

    Great article. I believe harnessing the ability to maintain an ‘observer’ perspective is key to not only staying on a path of self-improvement, but also overcoming those mental blocks we all create because of old conditioning.

  • David October 29, 2010, 10:27 pm

    Challenging and concise perspectives!

    I would add that in all seven categories, there is an interplay between our responsibility and divine sovereignty, an interplay which does violence to neither, but allows for both.

    Thus suffering may not be optional, but my attitude toward it is. Thus the stuff that happens to me that I don’t like might be for my greater good in the long haul–or for my punishment.
    Thus my dreams are best when performed in submission to the God
    who made the universe,
    who controls its history,
    and who ultimately defines what is good and bad,
    positive and negative
    for all
    and most importantly for Himself.

  • Paulene Angela October 30, 2010, 10:01 am

    Great Post. First the colour of the photograph are spectacular and secondly powerful words of wisdom.

  • Chris Akins October 31, 2010, 6:25 am

    Very thought provoking article. I particularly enjoyed the point regarding going your own way, and being willing to risk looking foolish to achieve your dreams. This reminds me of two of my favorite sayings:

    “He who does not risk, cannot win” – John Paul Jones, father of the US Navy

    “There is no failure, only feedback” – NLP Presupposition

  • harsha October 31, 2010, 1:19 pm

    Excellent article….. relevant for all times…..best suggestion is being in the present, I personally feel just being in the present helps you to be alert and focussed…..
    Thank you!

  • arina nikitina October 31, 2010, 2:12 pm

    Aha! Now this is one thing I’d like to share with others, particularly people who write about their woes, miseries and wants. Not only would it open their eyes to reality, it would hopefully lead them to defeat the negative forces in their life – particularly those that’s within them, huh?

    So thank you, Aristotle, for that wisdom . Indeed, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” The practice to do good or to be in control or to be always open-minded, patient, optimistic and all that will ultimately define who we are.

    It goes to say that WE ARE the captain of our own ship, thus we must muster the strength to be one and master the best way to live life. So that regardless of what storms, high seas or failings of our “crew” and vessel, we’d weather it all. Or something like that.

    So there goes, BRAVO to your Henrik! Keep up the great work!
    ~Arina~

  • maryawrites November 1, 2010, 4:11 am

    I most relate to point no.2 at this time. At the expense of looking foolish, and feeling even more so, I have decided to take up on my life long calling, writing, and to give it all I’ve got. Scary stuff.

  • Michael Kimber November 1, 2010, 6:12 am

    I have enjoyed your writing for a long Henrik. A while ago I had some troubles of mine with anxiety and depression and checking out this blog gave me some useful and well thought out tips. And there is a lot of writing on the internet on depression and anxiety that should be ignored. You should be proud that you use your intelligence to make something that hits the heart and head. As a former philosophy student I also admire how you intrepret the philosophers just right. Well done.

  • Mayson November 2, 2010, 4:56 pm

    Henrik,
    Your blog is so great man! Long time reader and I have to say, it’s post like this that keep me coming back time and time again!

  • Henrik Edberg November 2, 2010, 6:33 pm

    Thank you all for your kind words and for sharing your insights! :)

  • Madelynan Doyle November 3, 2010, 1:56 am

    Great article chock full of great tips but the one I appreciate the most is living in the present. Worry truly is being caught up in the past and projecting it into the future. If we can be present in the moment, there is much more room for joy. Worry is is such wasted energy and it’s always thoughts about what has not even come to pass. Live in the present and enjoy.

  • Kim November 3, 2010, 11:26 am

    Another adorable post! I love the way you see things . Yes happiness and suffering comes by choice . The key to happiness is satisfaction. Satisfaction with what you have . Like you said , when we want something which we better not have , and when we get that thing we still feel incomplete. That’s because of greed . So we should kill the greed by becoming more and more satisfied with what we have .

  • samarpal singh November 11, 2010, 10:17 am

    wonderful quotes of timeless wisdom.
    thank u Henrik

  • Gabriel November 27, 2010, 2:54 pm

    “Suffering is optional. And so is happiness.” gosh that is beautiful :’). That resonates with me the most!

  • Julissa December 10, 2010, 8:14 pm

    Finally, got what I was looking for!! I definitely enjoying every little bit of it. Glad I stumbled into this article! smile I have you bookmarked to check out new stuff you article. Yours trully, Julissa.