A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine is the one book I’ve read in the last year that keeps calling from the bookshelf, “read me again, read me again”. It’s a concise, accessible summary of stoicism as a “philosophy of life”. I’ve applied it many times so far, including in my morning affirmations.

My notes:

We should seek out a philosophy to live our lives by. A framework that tells us what things in life are and are not worth pursuing, and how to obtain the things worth having.

The author argues for and presents stoicism as a philosophy of life. According to the ancient Stoics, tranquility and virtue are worth pursuing, and the practice of stoicism helps you obtain them, even while “vigorously participating in public affairs”.

That last point is important. By design, stoicism is a practical philosophy – it doesn’t require us to withdraw from the external world.


a psychological state in which we experience few negative emotions, such as anxiety, grief, fear; and an abundance of positive emotions such as joy and gratitude


moral wisdom that allows you to live a good, happy life. Attaining virtue creates tranquility, which in turn makes it easier to pursue virtue

Stoic Mind Hacks for Tranquility

  • We should embrace adversity as an opportunity – an opportunity to discover who we are, what we’re made of, and where we can improve.

You are unfortunate in my judgment, for you have never been unfortunate. You have passed through life with no antagonist to face you; no one will know what you were capable of, not even you yourself.

– Seneca

  • When we wake, we should prepare our minds for the day:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.

– Marcus Aurelius

  • When we rest, we should reflect on the day. We should be self-aware. What adversity was I met with and how did I respond? What can I do better tomorrow?
  • We should practice negative visualization. The author calls this the single most valuable technique in the Stoics’ psychological toolkit. By thinking about how things could go wrong or be worse than they currently are, we delay or prevent hedonic adaptation.

We need to firmly keep in mind that everything we value and the people we love will someday be lost to us. If nothing else, our own death will deprive us of them. (…) A few times each day or a few times each week, a stoic will pause in his enjoyment of life and think about how all this, all these things he enjoys, could be taken from him.

  • Use tranquility as a decision filter. Tie every decision back, using our reasoning capabilities, to whether the outcome is likely to result in gaining or losing tranquility. For example, what good is fame or fortune if it leads to stress? This reminds me of Derek Sivers’ answer to Tim Ferriss’ question, Who is the most successful person you know?
  • Perform Epictetus’ Dichotomy of Control, or the author’s Trichotomy of Control. Our most important choice in life, according to Epictetus, is whether to concern ourselves with things external to us or things internal.

Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.

– Epictetus

The trichotomy of control involves performing this triage: separate all things into three categories:

  1. Within our complete control: Values, Belief Systems, Character, Adherence to Virtue, Goals, Self-Control, Emotions. The pursuit of these brings tranquility.
  2. Not within our control: others’ opinions, others’ actions, Luck. Stoics try to avoid reacting to these things.
  3. Partially within our control: It is best to use an example to illustrate this one. Take a soccer game – you can play your best game but is not completely up to you whether you win. What can you control? You can control your work ethic, your practice regimen, your nutrition. However, many external factors play into the final result. With these situations, the author recommends internalizing our goals.