What does it really mean to be a Stoic?

A lot of people have asked me about Stoicism. This is a very short answer that touches the surface of Stoicism and tries to relate it to our lives.

An answer to the question “What does it really mean to be a Stoic?”

Viktor Frankl in his book Man’s search for Meaning writes that “everything can be taken from us but the last of the human freedoms – the freedom to choose our attitude in any set of circumstances.”

He describes how even in Auschwitz it was possible for a few prisoners to remain as they were, refusing to be molded into the typical miserable, conniving prisoner, eager to collaborate with his guards and to steal from his fellow mates.

It’s a very good definition (I used it in my UPSC interview too), and it covers the essence of Stoicism.

But most of us won’t find ourselves in Auschwitz.

So I had the same question. What does it really mean to be a Stoic – what does it mean to me?

This is how I pictured it.

Every single thing that befalls you is a stimulus. Often, it’s not in your control.

What is in your control is your response.

Many times we think the response is not in our control. We think the response has to follow the stimulus.

So if your laptop crashes and you lose all your work – you have to be upset.

If you do badly in an exam – you must be sad.

That isn’t necessarily the case. You don’t have to be. The stimulus does not determine the response – you do.

It’s very easy to preach. But when you find yourself in such a situation, all the theory too often goes out of the window.

Most of us will probably never reach the level of Viktor Frankl’s companions, let alone perfect stoicism.

Instead, it’s possible to improve.

A simple way to gauge your progress:

Ask yourself: What does it take to trigger me? (trigger meaning cause you to lose your balance for long, not that you have to shun all sadness or natural emotion)

The smaller the person, the smaller the stimulus it takes to trigger a response.

You have a surprise quiz scheduled that day.

The food delivery guy never came at all and you missed lunch.

Your answers on Quora don’t get many views; no one reads your books.

You upload a video and get the usual hateful personal comments.

Your boss gives you a dressing down because you messed up.

You lose a loved one.

You’ll notice that the stimulus is getting bigger and bigger with each example. Somewhere, there’s a stimulus that marks our breaking point (there almost always is one)

The question is – where is yours? How easy is it to trigger you?

That’s what stoicism really means.



I am eager to know about stoicism. I didn’t know what it is until I read about Marcus Aurelius Roman king. & his work meditations. Please keep writing about it. You possess a great skill to explain difficult things in a simple way.

Sachi Mishra

Would love to know your views about utilitarianism (as a way of living)…P.S. I feel Walden by H.D. Thoreau is a brilliant book as well.


I haven’t read Walden yet, I’ve heard about it for a long time but I think I came across some negative reviews which put me off. I’ll see it one day soon.

Utilitarianism – at an individual level. The book How I found freedom in an Unfree World sums it up. Not very different from existentialism imo.

Sachi Mishra

Thanks for the reply. 🙂


Interesting !!!
Any easy reads to know more about stoicism?

Also, talking about youtube videos, I have seen some of your interviews on YouTube & handful of hateful comments under them, do they trigger you?

Also, your views on religion, considering many young people like to shun religion these days to fit in the definition of “cool”?


Ryan Holiday – Obstacle is the Way perhaps. My own book Beyond Human (though it’s not really Stoicism only, sort of a connection to other ideas too).

No. I just glanced once, knew it would be there and moved on. I think anyone who uploads a video gets them. At the risk of coming across as condescending, I don’t really listen to those who go out of their way to criticize complete strangers – there are surely much better ways of spending your time. And how you spend your time tells everything about you.

Religion – same as everything else. If it helps you and doesn’t harm anyone else, what’s the problem. Someone else’s religious views aren’t my business.

And I don’t hate average (I’m not sure if I’ve said / written that). When I say “I don’t hate average” I mean “There’s no problem being average” – it’s up to people to decide what they want to be. If someone’s happy being average then that’s great and they definitely shouldn’t change. And in many fields I am below average (anything to do with drawing or any art at all). All I meant was I don’t like being average (only applies to me) in those fields I take up seriously.


Another question why you hate average? What is the problem with being average?


I thought stoicism is a negative term like nihilism .What’s the difference between the two?

This sounds similar to Sundar Pichai’s philosophy – the Cocroach theory -> what matters is how you react to things/ problems rather than the enormity of the problem .

vishal kunwar

Hello sir, first of all congratulations.
I have two questions :

1. When did u start ur UPSC preparation exactly.

2. I am also a stoicism follower and i practice it most of the time in life. Further i have read The gay science and i am big follower of Neichze. If there is any book that you can suggest me which you have read related to Stoicism philosophy then i will be very happy.

thanku in advance.


i decided in my 2nd year, 5th sem – around nov/dec I think. Came home from college in Feb when I prepared full time till september.

Thus spoke Zarathustra by Nietzsche is great too. For stoicism – Ryan Holiday (Obstacle is the way), Marcus Aurelius, Man’s search for Meaning, Seneca.

vishal kunwar

Thanku sir… Indian has got a great administrator… I will meet you very soon bcz now u are in my list of great persons whom i admire.
Please keep uploading life/relationship related posts on the blog. I would like to suggest some YouTube channels that produce great videos on various philosophies – Einzelganger, Thoughts of thinking, Academy of Ideas, The school of life and Dare. to do motivation.



The outer reaction is in our control ,hence can be done but what about the reaction within . One can control the physical reaction but the thoughts within are difficult to control or change by will .

What you have to say .


No the inner reaction is within our control. That’s what Stoicism is about.


If you can tell ,how this philosophy has affected you?


Hi ! What are your views on “ Negative Visualisation / Premeditation “ while we are operating on Universal Laws of attraction
( Like attracts like)? Do you see any trade off?


I haven’t heard of it, so can’t comment


Oh Okay. Alright.
If ‘New Thought Philosophy’ interests you, you might check out “The Secret” Book/ Movie. Or “ Power of your subconscious mind” book. Not suggesting these because they are the most popular ones but because they cover the basics right. Especially, The Secret. Happy Learning !


Philosophy doesn’t really interest me beyond a point. I’d have chosen academia if I wanted to live in the world of ideas (and most books don’t have great ideas in my opinion).
Only those books that you can get an idea or two and actually live – not massive tomes of pages that you read and forget interest me.

I’m not particularly impressed by what I see on googling New Thought Philosophy honestly so I’ll skip it. At the risk of being judgmental – it seems like the thing you read, feel good about and then get on with your life again.

manish choudhary

stoicism is based on wisdom, justice, courage and temperance . what is right and what is wrong that varies person to person so how far do you agree that a stoic could be a extremist too .


Could be. “Extreme” isn’t always a bad word (it obviously can be harmful too)- you do anything with a little conviction or intensity and people will call you extreme. I’ve found so many times that what is called moderation is really mediocrity…

manish choudhary

thanks for answer. IKIGAI and THE DAILY STOIC(Ryan Holiday) are good books if you haven’t read them then plz go through.

can you plz tell how to prepare additional topics for GS ,like:society ,effects on globalization etc in GS1. can i follow vision’s value added material or have to make my own notes.
thanks for your time.

vishal kunwar

Sir what’s your take on why Fredrich Nietzsche used to hate Stoicism??


He didn’t. He mentions it favourably in Ecce Homo actually. It doesn’t matter even if he did though.


You are awesome sir…you are my inspiration…I will be going in first year of college in this year and I want to prepare for UPSC.. I want to be an IAS…
Sir how should I do that …how should I proceed I dont knw anything about the preparation….pls share some tips…so that I could Clear exm at frst attempt….


Sir, please share your complete source for mains

[…] really ties very closely with what I think it means to be a Stoic. Except it goes one step beyond – not simply bear it, but love […]


Don’t you think the stimulus doesn’t need to be really categorised as something big or small. Rather it is different for different people.
It’s not about how easy it is to trigger you rather ‘what is that point’ that triggers you?
A person ‘X’ might be triggered by a surprise quiz(maybe hindrance in his quest of academic excellence) but do not really mind hateful comment on his uploaded video & for person ‘Y’ it could be vice versa.

Would love to hear your view 🙂


I meant big or small in terms of frequency or time – how often you get triggered and how long you stay triggered.
To be easy to be triggered means you get triggered often and stay triggered long.


Oh! got it.
I realised it lately, isolated triggering events can be handled but some times when all happens at once or back to back, then it can get really challenging to stay mindful.
Dealing with it is perfectly summed up in Viktor Frankl’s quote that you mentioned.

However, I am slowly realizing that our internal reaction is more within our locus of control than what I perceived it to be earlier.

It’s like the ultimate form of freedom.

You literally gave words to what I have been thinking/facing lately. Somehow that makes me feel grateful.
Big thanks : )

PS: bad at brevity, sorry for the lengthy post!