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.

  • Arushi

    Hi Dale,
    I am hoping you will soon be taking up Hinduism as well (perks being that you’ll be celebrating most of the time- too many festivals! :P); and I am excited to know how you shall be taking that up , considering I am a hindu myself and I am clueless and I find it miserably confusing (not trying to discourage you at all, just sharing!).
    So the reason I am talking about Hindusim is that , one of our Holy books called Bhagvat Gita preaches something which is very relevant to what you spoke about in this post and that is ‘apna karm karte raho phal ki chinta mat karo’ – Keep doing your work without worrying about its result/consequences. This remark by the Hindu God Lord Krishna brought about massive revelation among Hindu followers and also because of the context in which it was spoken.

    • Hi Arushi,

      Hinduism is on my list. I’m not sure how I will practice it. I’m thinking of doing some sort of yoga practice, but I’m not sure how to practice it in a way that’s not commercial. Yoga as a form of exercise is incredibly popular right now so I’m looking for something more “authentic.”

      If you have any ideas I’d love to hear them.

      I’m familiar with the general story of the Gita. You are right, and it has much in common with Stoic goal-setting practices. In modern culture, I think we’ve lost that sense of “duty” when it comes to our work. I personally have a difficult time viewing my work in that way. I’m not sure if it’s because we have so many options now, or if it’s because work has become more superficial and less meaningful (i.e. boring corporate job). I suspect it’s our mindset, but I haven’t found a great way to overcome the contempt I feel for my work sometimes.

      I’ll keep you posted on Hinduism. If you had ideas on how I should go about practicing it, and what trait or quality I should try to cultivate through Hinduism, I’d love to hear them.


      • Arushi

        I feel absolutely motivated to help you on this.
        But as I mentioned I lack much knowledge about Hinduism myself. As I think about it – I feel overwhelmed; to begin with – there are a lot of Gods (no offense to anyone). But grandmother has almost 5-6 deities in our in house temple where she prays daily.
        So,All I can think about is – the religious rites that my grandma performs – like daily praying and reading the holy scriptures. But again- I haven’t really understood Hindusim in entirety. Maybe I could take this as an opportunity to talk to her about Hinduism for a change (will make her happy too) and report back at you – this could be a learning experience for me too 🙂

        • It does seem like a confusing religion from the outside. I’ll be doing some research as well. Maybe choosing one particular religious rite to practice like you mention may be the best way to go.

          If your grandmother has any advice for me I’d love to hear it!