Self-Sufficiency: The Ultimate Stoic Virtue

Above all else, the Stoics were masters at assigning things their proper value. The great Stoic philosophers knew the importance of identifying what was within their control, what was beyond, and what fell in-between. And they maintained an unwavering sense of focus on the things within their realm of control.

Nowhere is this more evident than the core Stoic virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. But at the foundation of this Stoic range of virtue and your sphere of influence sits one underlying principle that ties it altogether – self-sufficiency. From self-sufficiency stems all other virtues.

It’s a dangerous game to tie your sense of meaning and wellbeing to someone or something else. When you fixate on things beyond your control, you become restricted, dependent, and weak. And you introduce dependencies that can drop you into a state of anxiety, envy, or despair without warning.

But when you guard your self-sufficiency above all else and focus more attention on what’s within your sphere of control, you gain flexibility, independence, and strength.

If a person gave away your body to some passerby, you’d be furious. Yet you hand over your mind to anyone who comes along, so they may abuse you, leaving it disturbed and troubled – have you no shame in that?
— Epictetus

Self-sufficiency is about focusing more of your time and energy on the things you can actually have an impact on. And it demands that you assume responsibility for those things.

There are those who argue against self-sufficiency as if it’s the enemy of progress. And there’s an element of truth to this. Since we don’t all have to worry about harvesting our own food, sewing our own clothes, or building our own tools, we can get further up on the hierarchy needs. We can trade chores and focus on what we find meaning in. This is progress.

But I mean self-sufficiency less in terms of technology, and more in terms of the reliance on others for the internal quality of your life and your wellbeing. Assuming you’re healthy, the less reliant you are on others to provide the things that only you’re able to give yourself – meaning, virtue, character, integrity – the greater your capacity to give something back to the world.

And while it might fly in the face of progress, voluntary hardship is an important tool for self-sufficiency. Sometimes you have to do the work, suffer a little, and take the long way home. This is a training ground for your mind. It builds willpower and resilience.

As wood is to the carpenter, bronze to the sculptor, so our own lives are the proper material in the art of living.
— Epictetus

Philosophy is about the art of living. By focusing on developing yourself first, you’re able to improve yourself as a human being. And in doing so, you increase your capacity to give and amplify the impact you’re able to have. But so many people want to give advice without first figuring out their own lives and accepting responsibility for themselves.

It’s easier to focus on other people’s problems – the latest gossip, family drama, or outrage featured in today’s news – rather than facing your own uncomfortable truths. Distractions are the crutch we use to avoid facing ourselves.

Self-sufficiency is about recognizing that life is a single player game. The only person you can change is you. It might seem counterintuitive, but if you start here you’re able to increase your capacity to make a difference in other people’s lives.

By becoming less dependent on others for your every need, you’re able to create more than you take. And you provide yourself with more opportunities to demonstrate virtues like wisdom, compassion, and courage.

There are obvious exceptions when it comes to the sick or elderly. But if you’re a provider for someone else and you fail to establish a degree of self-sufficiency, you’ll always have a self-imposed limit on what you’re able to provide. To make up for the discrepancy, you’re likely taking from other people in your life to help fuel that. And if you’re lucky, the world breaks even in the exchange.

Your capacity to give without expecting something in return is directly tied to your degree of self-sufficiency.

By requiring reciprocity for an act of kindness, you negate its impact. With a stronger sense of self-sufficiency, you eliminate the ego-driven need for anything in return. And this is how you flip the script and create a net positive in the world.

In the pursuit of self-sufficiency you increase your capacity to contribute in every other facet of your life. It’s foundational to giving more than you take. And that’s what the world needs. More people giving back to the world. More people taking risks to live at their best. More people with a deeper well of kindness for the people around them.

But it all starts with self-sufficiency. With this foundation in place, the rest of your virtues can grow without limit.

The question, then, is how to begin honing your own self-sufficiency. Here are five first steps to help push you in the right direction.

1. Assign things their proper value

Self-sufficiency begins with identifying what’s within your control, what’s beyond, and what falls in-between. By going through this exercise, you can map out and assign things their proper value. What’s within your control should take precedence, in terms of both time and energy. After all, this is where you can have the largest measurable impact.

2. Create room for reflection

This also requires creating room for reflection each day. It doesn’t matter if it’s a meditation practice in the morning, taking a walk after lunch, or journaling in the evening. What matters is that you create space to process and think for yourself. This helps guard you from being pulled into races that you’re not willing to run. 

As humans we’re highly impressionable. Opportunities for reflection will help you discover what’s meaningful to you and avoid absorbing someone else’s guiding principle as your own. And this is perhaps the most difficult skill of all – sorting through the noise and determining what’s your own.

3. Practice voluntary hardship

In a world of mental hacks and shortcuts, there’s no substitute for discipline and resilience. To develop this, look for occasional opportunities to remove automation and assistance. These can act as barriers to your own abilities and your natural filter for priorities.

This might mean cooking tonight instead of ordering out or going for a run instead of watching another sporting event. The ability to embrace a little bit of discomfort goes a long way when it comes to self-sufficiency. If you want to create something meaningful and transform yourself, it rarely comes through the path of least resistance. 

4. Master a multidisciplinary approach

As you push yourself, you create more opportunities to pursue a wealth of experience across disciplines and dial in a multidisciplinary strategy. This begins with fueling your natural curiosity, drawing connections between your wide-ranging interests, and exploring new ways to stack the skills that set you apart. 

From here you can assess things from new angles, identify your gaps, and survey the range of available options. It also guards you from false patterns and foolish attempts to apply a single model to every problem you face. If you only have a narrow range of mental models available when you negotiate the challenges inherent to life, self-sufficiency is impossible. You need multiple weapons if you want to outthink and outmaneuver obstacles.

5. Embrace the silence

But self-sufficiency doesn’t mean you need to have an opinion about everything. It’s more about the ability to subsist without validation. If you’re focused on the right things, for the right reasons, you won’t need external recognition each step of the way. Everyday conversations are a good place to begin practicing this. 

Another way to practice this is when you experience something memorable – a landscape that humbles you or a concert that inspires you. Allow that to be enough. Avoid the temptation to reach for Instagram. Not everyone needs to know every minute detail of your life. The meaning you find in that moment is worth far more than the short-term high that comes from someone mindlessly scrolling through their feed and tapping your post.

“These are the characteristics of the rational soul: self-awareness, self-examination, and self-determination. It reaps its own harvest…It succeeds in its own purpose…”
— Marcus Aurelius

Self-sufficiency doesn’t mean you need to live off the grid. You can and should enjoy the conveniences of modern life. But you should also assume responsibility for your personal wellbeing.

Living well is about eliminating internal dependencies. No one can tell you what’s meaningful to you, what your guiding principles should be, or what the right decision is each step of the way. You have to determine this yourself.

If you want to make a measurable difference in the world, it starts with assuming responsibility for yourself. This is perhaps the most important lesson the Stoics had to offer. You can’t create anything meaningful without first taking responsibility and transforming yourself.

If you’re a well-rounded human being, you can give more back to the world and the people around you. It starts and ends with you.

*This article was originally featured on Daily Stoic.

In Defense of Moderation: The Stoic Range of Virtue

As a society we pride ourselves on extremes. We flaunt how few hours of sleep we maintain, how insatiable we are in our careers, and how comfortable our lives are thanks to an excess of luxury goods. But the problem is that when we aspire to extremes, we also run the risk of taking our virtues too far, which collapse into their opposite–crippling flaws in character.

Qualities and virtues are not something you either have or you don’t. There are varying degrees of intensity. A dualistic attitude in this context proves dangerous, as two categories fail to capture the ambiguity that defines life. We should ignore the impulse to designate personal qualities as good or bad with no in-between.

Instead, it’s far more reliable to frame qualities in context of a spectrum using Aristotle’s “golden mean,” which explains that the range of virtue is found firmly in the middle, between excess and deficiency. Seneca offers a similar perspective when he observes that, “So-called pleasures, when they go beyond a certain limit, are but punishments…”

The idea is that on one end of the spectrum, we see those who lack a specific quality and interpret it as a flaw. But virtues in their excess are just as prominent signs of weakness. You can in fact be too ambitious (insatiable), too empathetic (codependent), and too disciplined (repressed). Only those who embody moderation are able to identify this golden mean, guard themselves from the downside of the extremes, and establish an equilibrium in the delicate range of virtue.

Moderation (the range of virtue): Between deficiency and excess

Ambition: Between Lazy and Insatiable
Empathy: Cold and Codependent
Endurance: Fragile and Depleted
Self-confidence: Insecure and Arrogant
Adaptability: Rigid and Soft
Self-sufficiency: Dependent and Isolated
Discipline: Impetuous and Repressed
Composure: Frenzied and Stagnant
Calculated: Reckless and Timid
Euthymia: Nihilism and Grand Narrative

Ambition: Between Lazy and Insatiable

Laziness is an obvious enemy and sign of weakness. But the spectrum stretches further in the opposite direction than ambition. Calculated ambition is a virtue. It’s important to have goals, aspirations, and a purpose that you’re working towards. But when taken too far, we cross into the realm of insatiability.

It’s here where we burn out–unable to reconnect with the present and appreciate what we already have in our lives. Insatiability is a flaw in equal proportion to laziness. Without moderation in our ambitions, retaining personal sanity becomes an impossible task.

Do not go past the mark you aimed for; in victory learn when to stop.
— Robert Greene

Empathy: Between Cold and Codependent

Empathy is more advantageous than coldness or indifference. If you’re in tune with those around you, the stronger your relationships will be and the better you’ll be able to navigate specific situations. However, if left unchecked, empathy can lead to codependence and deriving your self-worth from meeting the emotional needs of others while neglecting your own.

It’s critical to keep these extremes in mind so you can use them as a checkpoint to operate within the range of virtue. If you find yourself in situations where people are exploiting your empathetic nature, check yourself, but also make an effort to distance yourself from those relationships.

Avoid those who are gloomy and always lamenting, and who grasp at every pretext for complaint…a companion who is agitated and groaning about everything is an enemy to peace of mind.
— Seneca

Endurance: Between Fragile and Depleted

Endurance is a common virtue among top performers. In this context, it’s interchangeable with mental and physical endurance. Those who lack the endurance to overcome life’s obstacles are fragile and will fail to demonstrate the persistence required to set themselves apart. However, there comes a breaking point at the opposite end–total exhaustion–when you have nothing left to give.

It’s important to prepare and build endurance. But in your preparation, know your breaking point and guard yourself from burnout. You have a limited amount of energy. It should be allocated only to things that fall in line with your personal aspirations and goals. Don’t run yourself into the ground.

We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.
— Epictetus

All Good Things Come in Moderation

We often hear people speak of wisdom, justice, and courage, but rarely do we hear people praise moderation. Moderation is the best kept secret and perhaps the most underrated value in modern society. It might not be the most exciting principle, but locating this middle ground—the golden mean—has the capacity to make the largest difference.

Consider your strengths and what you believe gives you a competitive advantage. You should leverage these as you learn and grow, but remember that there also comes a point where your best qualities should be kept in check. Don’t allow them to inflate your ego and grow into unnecessary liabilities. All good things come in moderation.