Freelancing, stress and Stoicism

We freelancers are a happy lot, but that doesn’t mean it’s a stress-free lifestyle. The corollary of freedom and flexibility is inevitable uncertainty. Sometimes it feels as if you’re always stressing about either time or money. How can Stoicism help?

According to recent research:

  • 92% of freelancers said the freelance lifestyle was important to them
  • 63% said freelancing had a “positive impact” [on their lifestyle]
  • 60% said freelancing has helped them become healthier
  • 66% said they are less stressed as a freelancer.

Sometimes though, it doesn’t feel less stressed. That time-money tension is always there. Training? You won’t take the time when you’re busy, but you won’t spend the money when you’re quiet. Holidays? You can’t get free when there’s work on, but you feel like you should be doing relentless sales and marketing when the pipeline’s a bit saggy. And then there’s: sales, debts, bills, admin and difficult clients.

Stoicism is a philosophy that dates back to the third century BC. Yet, it often feels surprisingly contemporary and has been enjoying something of a resurgence, recently.

Here are five areas where applying a little Stoic perspective can make your daily burden lighter.

1.  Don’t stress about what you can’t control

One of the core tenets of Stoic thinking is the observation that, as Epictetus says, “some things are within our power, while others are not.”[1]

“If you regard that which … is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings”[2]

Worrying about things you can’t change just increases stress. Let them go.

Doing that can feel as tough as the observation sounds trite. Yet, it’s fundamental.

Try listing all your worries, then call them out for what they are. Make a positive decision to let go of the things you can’t control. Put your mental energies towards the things you can: the quality of your work, meeting deadlines etc.

2.  Choose how you respond to events

“It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them,”[3] Epictetus says.

In other words, “Mind the Gap!” between any stimulus and your response to it. Without realising, we too often “choose” to get stressed by an unanswered email, a late purchase order, an ill-informed comment or off-the-cuff feedback. Take a moment. Pause. Choose a better response. Realise that a slow reply is not likely to be a personal insult. A slow purchase order is more often bureaucracy than second thought, after all your big-company client isn’t as agile as a freelancer. That’s one of the reasons they hired you.

3.  Keep a sense of perspective

“In the universe Asia and Europe are but two small corners, all oceans’ water a drop, [Mount] Athos a puny lump of earth, the vastness of time a pin’s point in eternity.”[4]

This from the most powerful man on earth, second century Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. Stoic philosophy can be very grounding. Marcus returns time and time again to humanity’s minute and fleeting spot in time and space.

“The first rule is, to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus.”[5]

In other words, get over yourself. What can seem calamitous in the small and sleepless hours is often somewhat smaller in the cool, morning air. Step outside for some oxygen, some sunlight and a cappuccino.

4.  Enjoy the moment

And, enjoy the ride. Live in the moment and appreciate the world around you:

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”[6]

The Stoics were big on Reason.

“A little flesh, a little breath, and a Reason to rule all – that is myself.”[7]

Stoic thinking isn’t fatalistic, but it’s deeply pragmatic.

Stoics were (are) also very aware of humanity’s integral place in Nature and of its beauty. I love this passage from Marcus:

“When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit. So, too, the drooping head of a corn-stalk, the wrinkling skin when a lion scowls, the drip of foam from a wild boars jaws, and many more such sights, are far from beautiful if looked at by themselves; yet as the consequences of some other process of Nature, they make their own contribution to its charm and attractiveness.”[8]

Very wabi-sabi.

Remember that the freedom and flexibility of the freelancer entitles you to walk bare-foot on the grass, or wander among the trees, and appreciate nature’s ever-changing beauty.

“Time is a river, the resistless flow of all created things. One thing no sooner comes into sight than it is hurried past and another is borne along, only to be swept away in its turn.”[9]

Everything changes.

5.  Live with integrity

For Stoics, the four cardinal virtues are: Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance.  

The concept of duty is a recurring theme in Marcus’s Meditations which may or may not be surprising, depending on your view of Rome’s emperors. History has remembered him as one of (often the last of) the “good emperors”.

His thoughts are relevant for freelancers. We stand or fall by our last project and the reputation that follows us. Therefore:

“Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it.”[10]

“Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice.”[11]

And, especially for stressed-out sleepyheads:

“At day’s first light have in readiness against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’”[12]

Reputation is all you have. Never be tempted to compromise or surrender it for the expediency of a project.

A Stoic guide for the stressed?

I came to Stoicism by accident.

Like many, I first read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, attracted by its easily accessible 150-odd pages of mostly snackable aphorisms. For me, it, has a real sense of authenticity. It was written as a note-book, not a text book. It was Marcus’ notes-to-self, never intended for publication. In it, you read him berating himself for his failures, struggling with the frustrations of his office and contemplating the nature of the world and society around him. For notes written over 1,800 years ago, it sounds strikingly familiar.

Often, the simple realisation that “this is not new, I’m not the only one” is valuable in itself. For that alone, I think every freelancer should have a copy of Meditations to hand. Stick a copy in your bag or on your desk and dip into it wherever you feel stress crawl across your skin.

Further resources

This sounds a bit geeky, I know, but there are many different translations of Meditations out there. It’s worth taking some time to find a god one that resonates with you. My favourite, which I quote from above, is a 1964 translation by Maxwell Staniforth. It’s available as one of Penguin’s Great Ideas series.

However, Gregory Hays’ 2003 translation has a more contemporary feel and is widely recommended. You’ll also find Robin Hard’s 2011 version highly recommended, though I don’t know it so well.

More generally, Stoicism is enjoying a resurgence of interest and there are some fantastic online resources. These two are useful starting points:


Photo by Hailey Kean on Unsplash

[1] Epictetus, Handbook (1.1)

[2] Epictetus, Handbook (1.3)

[3] Epictetus, Handbook (5)

[4] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (6.36)

[5] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (8.5)

[6] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.8)

[7] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (2.2)

[8] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (3.1)

[9] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.43)

[10] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.31)

[11] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (2.5)

[12] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (5.1)