The 2016 MLB season was full of much excitement for Cubs fans, who finally lived their dreams of winning the World Series. It’s easy to forget now, but in April of 2014, the same excitement was held by Brewers fans, whose team was off to a fast start, putting Carlos Gomez on the cover of Sports Illustrated. This author, however, being a bit of an experienced Brewers fan, had this advice for his fellow fans: “don’t get too excited guys, this is the Brewers we’re talking about”. Well, sure enough, an epic September collapse knocked the brew crew out of the race, and to this day the franchise still has not recovered. While “don’t get too excited” may seem to be good advice to fans of bad teams like the Brewers, according to the Stoics and thinkers like UCLA’s John Wooden, it’s actually good advice for everybody. Stoics from ancient Greece to Wooden, to today’s time argue that focusing on our character and on things we can control will lead to greater happiness than focusing on external outcomes and events, which we have very little say in.
First, consider the advice Wooden gave his players. Wooden needs very little introduction as a coach, seeing as he won 10 national championships, including seven in a row at one point. Many of his games were blowouts, including several of his championship game wins. Yet Wooden would do something curious in some of these Final Four blowouts-he would call timeout, not to change strategies, but just to prevent his players from getting too excited. Here’s his quote that explains his thinking: “All of life is peaks and valleys. Don’t let the peaks get too high and the valleys too low.” This seems like odd advice for a winning coach-shouldn’t a national title team be excited? But Wooden had the bigger picture in mind. College is only a small slice of a young man’s life-it’s mostly used as preparation for the real world. Considering the way life works for us all, Wooden had the right idea.
Life is sometimes exciting, but all too often is full of disappointment. The business world is filled with unanswered applications and rejection letters. Fans of seemingly every team get excited over a good regular season or playoff run, only to be inevitably disappointed when the team comes up short. And most tragically of all, our loved ones will fall sick or pass away, or perhaps our own health will fail us. Stoics don’t argue against having any emotions they just focus on having different ones. Emotions such as pain, fear, craving, and base pleasure are unhelpful. Emotions such as caution, willing, and a thoughtful and ethics-based joy are good emotions. If we live our lives focused on positive emotions, we’ll be prepared when things go wrong, which they surely will at some point.
When it comes to success and failure, whether in the business world or on the field, contemporary Stoic William Irvine offers good advice. Winning really isn’t in our control, whether it’s career success or winning a title, as there are too many external variables. The other team may be too good. The officiating may not be favorable. Another applicant may have better qualifications. But if we just focus on playing our game as best we can, whatever our game may be, we should feel satisfied, regardless of the actual result.
The benefits of Stoicism in a life full of uncertainties can best be summed up by an anonymous examination I stumbled across once on success and failure in life: “Adversity in our lives is inevitable, but it’s how we handle adversity that’s a reflection of our character and determinant of our destiny”. If we take the Stoics’ advice and focus on positive character traits and things within our control, when something goes wrong, we’ll have the tools to handle it. Life is, indeed, full of disappointment but Stoicism gives us the tools to handle that disappointment.