Stoicism: Day 18 – Stoic Fatalism and Goal Setting

Yesterday during my ice bath I couldn’t help but think about what the Jesuit priest said to me, “I wonder what God has planned for you.”

It was exciting and terrifying. Exciting because maybe God has an awesome life planned for me. Terrifying because the statement implied it was out of my hands.

I’ve felt “fatalistic” before, in a positive sense. I felt destined to become a Navy SEAL during my time in college, and I, of course, looked for confirming evidence, In the Warrior Elite, a book about BUD/s, the author wrote that successful BUD/s students aren’t Rambo types, they are about 5’8” or 5’9” and lean. I was excited because I was 5’8” and lean!

Then, an enlisted SEAL joined our NROTC unit and became a mentor to the few of us trying to go to BUD/s.


It was all coming together, until it didn’t, and I quit.

I thought my side-project, TrekDek, would take off and make me millions of dollars. Everyone said it was a good idea, I sold a bunch of them to an Internet famous blogger, I was becoming ingrained in the Portland start-up community, etc.

I’m still waiting for that million bucks.

So, in regards to God’s plan for me, if there is such a plan, I’m excited, but nervous that the outcome will not be a pleasant one.

The Stoics had a good process for embracing fatalism. William Irving does an excellent analysis of the Stoic view of fate and goal-setting. He addresses the concern that fatalism will make us ambitious and lazy, the attitude of “why bother going to work? Whatever is fated to happen will happen.”

First, Stoics set appropriate, goals that are worthy of a philosopher.

Stoic philosophy, while teaching us to be satisfied with whatever we’ve got, also counsels us to seek certain things in life. We should, for example, strive to become better people—to become virtuous in the ancient sense of the word. We should strive to practice Stoicism in our daily life. And we should, as we shall see in chapter 9, strive to do our social duty: This is why Seneca and Marcus felt compelled to participate in Roman government and why Musonius and Epictetus felt compelled to teach Stoicism.

This means they would reject goals of fame and fortune.

And what about worldly success? Will the Stoics seek fame and fortune? They will not. The Stoics thought these things had no real value and consequently thought it foolish to pursue them, particularly if doing so disrupted our tranquility or required us to act in an unvirtuous manner. 

Second, they would internalize the goals and focus on the process, not outcomes of their objectives. Irving uses an aspiring novelist as his example.

How can the aspiring novelist reduce the psychological cost of rejection and thereby increase her chances of success? By internalizing her goals with respect to novel writing. She should have as her goal not something external over which she has little control, such as getting her novel published, but something internal over which she has considerable control, such as how hard she works on the manuscript or how many times she submits it in a given period of time. 

Getting her novel published is not within her control, but practicing her craft is.

Third, if worldly success happens to find you, it is ok to accept it.

Indeed, the Stoics we have been considering would all have counted as successful individuals in their time. Seneca and Marcus were both wealthy and famous, and Musonius and Epictetus, as heads of popular schools, would have enjoyed a degree of renown and would presumably have been financially comfortable. They therefore found themselves in the curious position of people who, though not seeking success, nevertheless gained it. 

Enjoy it without letting it corrupt you.

Furthermore, the Stoics see nothing wrong with our taking steps to enjoy the circumstances in which we find ourselves; indeed, Seneca advises us to be “attentive to all the advantages that adorn life. We might, as a result, get married and have children. We might also form and enjoy friendships. 

How am I doing according to the Stoic fatalism goal-setting model?

  1. I have a noble goal. I want to cultivate virtues based on the teachings of ancient philosophy and religion.
  2. I have not done a good job of rejecting goals of fame and fortune. I’m still very excited about the potential side-effects of doing this book project. Being internet famous seems like a wonderful thing. I need to do a better job of negative visualization and planning for that never happening.
  3. Have I achieved worldly success? I’m better off than most of the world’s population. I’m not a worldly success by American standards, but I have lot of good things going on for me at the moment. This was not the result of this project, but still, I’m counting it as “success.”  I’m working on not being corrupted by it. If I were to lose my job tomorrow, I think I’d be okay mentally…well…maybe after a short period of mourning.

I’m still mildly ambitious in terms of fame and fortune, but hopefully Stoicism will cure me of that.