On the surface, a practicing stoic may seem unemotional, unmotivated, and not empathetic. A stoic accepts what comes and does not judge, no matter how awful the event may seem. A stoic recognizes that the universe (nature, God, etc.) would not inflict pain or harm onto a person or people without a worthwhile reason. A stoic recognizes that pain or harm only comes from deeming something as bad (perception) — which he or she would not do.
In stoicism, dreams and hopes don’t really exist. An earthly being hoping to achieve something sets them up for potential “failure” — for being wrong and being hurt. Most achievements rely on external matters — namely, other people. Putting yourself in a position to feel like a failure because of someone else’s decision is not what a stoic would do.
“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Sanity means tying it to your own actions,” Marcus Aurelius wrote in Meditations.
Many people tie their definition of success to external matters mostly out of their control. Earning a certain job title, a certain amount of money, buying a certain thing, or having a certain amount of prestige.
In stoicism, success is a lot more simple and easier: do your job.
“What is my job?”
The only thing we owe ourselves and the world is to be true to ourselves. Spending time in solitude and getting to understand what makes you tick will help you determine what your “purpose” is. Then, it’s easy.
Whether the external achievements come or not (they will, with enough time), working towards this purpose means a successful life. Doing the things that make us who we are creates successful minutes, hours, days, weeks, and years.
“So, are stoics not ambitious?”
The definition of ambition needs altering here, too. Ambition is typically defined as something along the lines of “a desire to achieve.” In stoicism, we know this wouldn’t work, as both desiring and achieving are not necessarily of interest.
A stoic can be ambitious in continually being true to themselves, which does include work. The difference is that the work matters to them, the work is important, and the work fulfills the stoic. It gives them joy, it makes them grateful, and therefore the external gains that are sure to be awarded are nothing more than the cherry on top.
A relentless and unapologetic pursuit of staying true to ourselves is not selfish, but in fact incredibly selfless, as we are apart of nature and it is apart of us. To abandon ourselves is to abandon nature. Why would nature reward you for abandoning it?
“But true good fortune is what you make for yourself. Good fortune: good character, good intentions, and good actions,” Aurelius said.
We can’t always control what happens to us but we can control our response to it. The only thing we have complete control of is our actions. Our reception of that job, raise, or material item does not determine our success. The absence of those things does not determine our failure.
Rather, we succeed every day by having good character, good intentions, and good actions. Everything else is up to the universe.