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From Vol. 4, Issue 9, September 2022

Using Stoicism to Find our roles


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“Knowing ourselves and our talents will be a guide in choosing the roles which correspond to us, and will also allow us to fulfill our potential.”

Trying to be everything to everyone

In today’s hectic world, we occupy many roles in our lives and may be tempted to be everything to everyone. Following this perspective may cause us to lose focus of the proper role for us to take. Epictetus, the Greek slave turned Stoic philosopher, recognized that we all inhabit multiple roles in our lives. He outlined these roles into two categories. The first and primary role we play is that of the human being; a citizen of the universe with the ability to reason and act rationally. The second category is comprised of local roles which are individually specific roles we fulfill in our everyday life. These may be the roles of friend, parent, employee, writer, and teacher, to name a few. The local roles are diverse depending on our circumstances, and are different for each person. Choosing the right role for us is critical in putting ourselves on the path to success.

The obligation to be rational

Our first role of human being is universal to all of us, and one we are born into. For Epictetus, this role focuses on our obligations of being a rational human citizen and acting accordingly. Our chosen or acquired roles depend on a myriad of factors, including our talents, likes and dislikes, abilities, social relations and how we see ourselves. When choosing our local roles, Epictetus urges us to ask ourselves who we are, as self-awareness is crucial in ensuring that we choose the right roles. We should honestly reflect on our wishes, abilities, and talents. In addition to choosing the role fitting for us, we should also understand the responsibilities these roles encompass.

Epictetus points out that our physical abilities may limit or suggest our roles, and that we should not take on roles if we are not suited for them. If we discover that we have a talent for long distance running, then we may choose to become a marathon runner but not a violinist. Finding that we are proficient at writing, but not cooking, it may be prudent to try and become an author instead of a chef. The Stoics do not teach us to “fake it until you make it”. This is tiring and counterproductive. Also, just because we want to do something does not mean that we are capable of doing it. The Stoics do teach us to self-reflect, and to be honest with ourselves about our knowledge and abilities.

Choosing a role that corresponds to our abilities

So the roles we choose to acquire must also correspond to our capabilities. As Epictetus reminds us in Enchiridon 37, if we undertake roles beyond our means, we may miss the chance of a role we might have filled successfully. Knowing ourselves and our talents will be a guide in choosing the roles which correspond to us, and will also allow us to fulfill our potential.

When looking for a job or a career, we may be attracted to an occupation because it pays well, comes with a certain status or benefits which we deem important. Accepting a position based on those factors without having the knowledge or expertise to fulfill important requirements and responsibilities will not serve us in the long run. We will most likely not perform well, and risk being let go, as we are unsuitable for the role. If we are not honest with ourselves regarding our abilities and talents, we will be prone to taking on the wrong roles.

This is why Epictetus urges us to be discerning when choosing our roles. We cannot play our roles well when adopting the wrong one. Our roles not only come with duties and responsibilities, but also dictate our actions. Whatever our role in a given moment or situation, our actions should be consistent with our role.

Each of our titles, when reflected upon, suggests acts appropriate to it. (Epictetus, Discourses Book II 10:11) In keeping with Epictetus, a musician should read notes and play their instrument well in sync with the orchestra.

Choose your role carefully

We should follow Epictetus’ teachings and chose our roles carefully. Ultimately, the job we take should be based on our circumstances, talents, knowledge, and abilities. In performing the job, we should adhere to the Stoic virtues, and always help fellow colleagues, be honest, kind, act wisely and justly in dealings with others and ourselves.

When we find the role that suits us, we will play it well. We will also find joy in our role, have set ourselves up for success, and be on the path to living a flourishing life.

Santara Gonzales is the Executive Director and co-founder of Wisdom Unlocked, a non-profit organization that uses Stoic principles to help people cultivate good character in difficult circumstances. Please see: