Marcus Aurelius: Lessons In Personal Development From A Roman Leader


In 170 B.C., Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors, sat down to write. To an audience of one, the Roman Emperor recorded what was on his mind; the troubles of constant war, a horrific plague, possible infidelity, an attempt at the throne by a friend and a rapidly depleting treasury to name a few. Marcus, like the rest of us, had his fair share of challenges to overcome.

Unbeknownst to Aurelius, his series of writings (which would set forth his ideas on Stoicism) would become published into a book called Meditations and be considered by many to be an effective formula for overcoming every negative situation in life (entrepreneur Tim Ferriss even called it an operating system for life).

The following are quotes from Meditations that pertain to some of the problems we all face daily. Pay close attention to how it applies to yours.

On Resistance and Overcoming Obstacles

What is it—this thing that now forces itself on my notice? What is it made up of? How long was it designed to last? And what qualities do I need to bring to bear on it—tranquillity, courage, honesty, trustworthiness, straightforwardness, independence or what?

It’s likely you have goals and if you do, resistance to achieving those goals is an inevitable part of the process; obstacles stand in our way and push us to our limits. But overcoming those obstacles in more than doable – once we know how.

If we choose to look carefully, they’re not to discourage us, but to ascertain whether we really want what we think we want. Challenges are opportunities for feedback. Lessons in strengthening our character. Reminders we’re on the right journey. If we change how we look at our impediments – impediments that once challenged us – change, and become blessings in disguise.   

On Criticism from Others

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.

In the pursuit of happiness, others stand in our way (be it purposely or not). Our “friends” will deter from that pursuit in the guise of concern and realism; motivated by their own inadequacies. Employees will discourage us from escaping the drudgery of our nine to five existence with sentiments of “why, what’s the point?”

However, we are not to concern ourselves with these people. You are the sum of the five people you spend most of you time with. Some, are not our choice, but others are. And in the latter case, choose them wisely and look to them in your hour of need. Their words of wisdom will spur you on.

On Impulse Control

Stop allowing your mind to be a slave, to be jerked about by selfish impulses, to kick against fate and the present, and to mistrust the future.

People who labor all their lives but have no purpose to direct every thought and impulse toward are wasting their time—even when hard at work.

Impulses atrophy the mind. Impulses to spend money on material possessions we don’t need, to watch television and to eat when we’re not healthy and so on, lure us away from the long-term pleasure of goal attainment.

Our need for immediate gratification weighs us down and delays our progress, especially when breaking bad habits. Life is about mastering your emotions; you wants and your needs are all important, but they serve a time and a place. 

On Believing in Yourself

Everything you’re trying to reach—by taking the long way round—you could have right now, this moment. If you’d only stop thwarting your own attempts. If you’d only let go of the past, entrust the future to Providence, and guide the present toward reverence and justice.

It’s not uncommon to have insecurities about yourself; “weaknesses” we’re motivated to “fix” and often as soon as possible (and at a price). Don’t fix what’s not broken. Instead, focus on the resources that are available now. They’re all for the taking.

Believe in yourself and others will.

On the Present Moment

Forget everything else. Keep hold of this alone and remember it: Each of us lives only now, this brief instant. The rest has been lived already, or is impossible to see.

Nowhere you can go is more peaceful—more free of interruptions—than your own soul.

An integral part of goal-setting is thinking about what you’d like to have or be – one day. You believe, the values you want to move towards – happiness, love, security – will come from attaining what you want in the future.

However, by being present with the Process, you learn those values you want, you already have. Stop, and be present with that’s there now. You have abundance, but perhaps you don’t see it. There’s no pain in the now.   

On Perseverance

Don’t let anything deter you: other people’s misbehavior, your own mis-perceptions, What People Will Say, or the feelings of the body that covers you (let the affected part take care of those). And if, when it’s time to depart, you shunt everything aside except your mind and the divinity within … if it isn’t ceasing to live that you’re afraid of but never beginning to live properly … then you’ll be worthy of the world that made you.

You must persist. It breaks resistance. You must not stop. You’re here for a reason. Pursue what you believe you’re entitled to with a sense of purpose. There are plenty of interventions to choose from that’ll serve as viable excuses to quit, but no one will hold you more accountable than you future self. The world is for the taking and there’s enough to go around for everyone. But only if you want your share.


[1] Aurelius, M. (2003) Meditations: A New Translation, New York: Random House.