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Marcus Aurelius’ Advice on Dealing with Negative People

At some point in your life, you’ve probably heard of an idea called Occam’s Razor.

Usually recited as, “The simplest answer is usually correct,” a more correct way to state it is:

“Amongst competing hypotheses, the one that makes the fewest assumptions is most likely to be correct.”

I talked in detail about Occam’s Razor in my post on black-and-white thinking. In that post, I also mentioned another razor-themed concept called Hanlon’s Razor, which is what I want to focus on today.

Hanlon’s Razor deals with the intentions of other people. Here’s how it’s normally stated:

“Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity.

To illustrate this concept further, think about a time when your friends forgot to invite you to something (maybe a movie). We have a natural instinct to feel slighted when things like this happen; it’s easy to believe our friends don’t like us for some reason, or that they intentionally didn’t want us to come along.

In reality, 9 times out of 10 it’s simply a case of the organizing friend being a doofus and forgetting to invite everyone they should have invited.

Viewing negative events in this light can have a surprisingly strong effect on your happiness. By viewing them as a product of imperfect people living in an imperfect world, you don’t stress yourself out by getting angry and constructing adversaries in your head. Rather, you simply acknowledge the imperfection and move on with your life.

Writers and thinkers throughout history have pinpointed the usefulness of this type of mindset. One of them was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Known as the last of the Five Good Emperors and reigning from 161 to 180 CE, Aurelius was certainly a great leader – but he’s even more well-known for his philosophical insights. Aurelius was somewhat of a disciple of Stoicism – a philosophy in which one of the central ideals is control over one’s emotions, even in the face of adverse circumstances.

Many of Aurelius’ thoughts were written down, and these writings have been collected in a book now known as the MeditationsIn Book II of Meditations, Aurelius reminds himself:

“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 of the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.

And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.”

Even though this passage – as with the rest of Meditations – is self-addressed, I think it serves as a powerful piece of advice for the rest of us as well.

When you acknowledge that we all are of the same nature and that we’re all living through the same imperfect circumstances, you can more readily view any negative interaction you have with someone through that lens. You have an easier time realizing that negativity is almost always a reaction to a struggle someone is going through.

When you do this, you can more easily let that negativity wash over you without fueling your own negative response. This will make you a happier person, and it’ll also help you embrace the other part of human nature that Aurelius points out – that we’re meant to cooperate and help each other.

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Looking for More Study Tips?

10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades - Thomas Frank

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll also enjoy my free 100+ page book called 10 Steps to Earning Awesome Grades (While Studying Less).

The book covers topics like:

  • Defeating procrastination
  • Getting more out of your classes
  • Taking great notes
  • Reading your textbooks more efficiently

…and several more. It also has a lot of recommendations for tools and other resources that can make your studying easier.

If you’d like a free copy of the book, let me know where I should send it:

I’ll also keep you updated about new posts and videos that come out on this blog (they’ll be just as good as this one or better) 🙂

Video Notes

Marcus Aurelius' Advice on Dealing with Negative People
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Images: Marcus Aurelius