Very Old School Self-Improvement: Ancient Wisdom for Today’s Woes

Today when we talk about best ways to engage in self-Improvement, we typically focus on modern concepts, technological advances, or using new learning techniques. In this article let’s instead take a trip back in time and see what we may have lost about self-improvement.

Marcus Aurelius (120–180 AD) was the last of the Roman Empire’s “Five Good Emperors” and was a ‘Stoic’; stoicism is a philosophy which some have called the ultimate self-improvement philosophy. Stoicism can be summarized as follows:

“Stay calm and serene regardless of what life throws at you.”

Marcus Aurelius journaled and his private writings are called “Meditations” – in them he tries to answer questions about the meaning of life, such as: Why are we here? How should we live? What is the best way to handle adversity? He points out that:

“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

Below you’ll find 2 ‘lessons’ from “Meditations” that seemed very relevant for our situation today.

First Lesson –Control Your Thoughts

You can choose what to think about what’s happening around you. Here are quotes from “Meditations” that reflect the importance of taking charge of your thoughts:

“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”

“Today I escaped from anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions; not outside.”

Second Lesson – How to Deal with Obstacles

Marcus Aurelius teaches us to turn obstacles into opportunities:

“Our actions may be impeded by people or situations, but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

“A cucumber is bitter. Throw it away. There are briars in the road. Turn aside from them. This is enough. Do not add, ‘And why were such things made in the world?’”


The teachings of Marcus Aurelius remain as relevant today as they were almost 2,000 years ago: focus on what you can control. And one more quote, from another Stoic, Seneca, reminds us:

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.”