“It’s what you do next that matters” said slave turned philosopher, Epictetus on resilience

Epictetus (AD 55 – 135) was born a slave but became a leading philosopher whose work continues to influence today. His life is a story of resilience.

Epictetus loved philosophy and his owner allowed him to study the subject. When Epictetus was thirteen, emperor Nero died (68 AD) and Epictetus was freed. He continued with philosophy, and this learning elevated his social status. Time passed and Epictetus started teaching philosophy in Rome, but when he was thirty-eight, philosophers were banished from Rome so Epictetus went to Greece. There, he set up a philosophical school. Epictetus’s stature and reputation grew; he was charismatic and sought after as a conversationalist, including by Emperor Hadrian. Epictetus’ teachings survived because his pupil Arrian wrote them down and published them in “Discourses” and “Enchiridion”. This is how we know that Epictetus’ literal words on bouncing back were “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”

Many modern thinkers follow Epictetus’ views. Some identify “bounce ability” as the prime indicator of success: US psychologist Angela Duckworth studies what makes people successful. She claims that the prime indicator of achievement is the possession of “grit”, the ability to dig in and keep going*. This view is widely endorsed, including by Dr. Siegel who lists resilience as one of the six essential psychological characteristics of successful people. The other five characteristics are optimism, creativity, self-control, emotional awareness and sociability.*

Interestingly, the U.S military uses the term “intestinal fortitude” for resilience and identify it as the ability to overcome adversity, learn from it, and push through to new heights*. Epictetus lived this fortitude – despite being born enslaved, he became a respected thinker whose work survives today.

Epictetus’ story evidences Dr. Siegel’s characteristics of success. It is interesting that Epictetus used philosophy to improve his life; this was his constant skill. Epictetus’ success informs for modern times: a central discipline can evolve you. This concept is attractive, with it suggestions of self-care and self-development – both of which combat mental distress while helping develop resilience.

Read about the boy with the bread sandwich here and book Estelle’s talk on resilience here.



“Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance” – Angela Duckworth

“Suite Success: The Psychologist from “The Apprentice Reveals” What It really Takes to Excel—in the Boardroom and in Life” – Dr. Siegel

“The One Quality All Successful People Have in Common” – Jeffry Harrison

The story of the boy with the bread sandwich


“Out of massive suffering emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.”

Khalil Gibran


In “How People Learn to Become Resilient” Maria Konnikova writes about Norman Garmezy, a developmental psychologist researching resilience, who “met thousands of children in his four decades of research. But one boy in particular stuck with him. He was nine years old, with an alcoholic mother and an absent father. Each day, he would arrive at school with the exact same sandwich: two slices of bread with nothing in between. At home, there was no other food available, and no one to make any. Even so, Garmezy would later recall, the boy wanted to make sure that “no one would feel pity for him and no one would know the ineptitude of his mother.” Each day, without fail, he would walk in with a smile on his face and a “bread sandwich” tucked into his bag.

The boy with the bread sandwich was part of a special group of children. He belonged to a cohort of kids – the first of many – whom Garmezy would go on to identify as succeeding, even excelling, despite incredibly difficult circumstances.”

Since Norman Garmezy’s work, Harvard Graduate School of Education has found that “Resilience can be built; it’s not an innate trait or a resource that can be used up” (The Science of Resilience) and the importance of building resilience is recognised. Resilience is part of the YoungMinds programme, funded by the Department for Education in 2011 to improve outcomes in schools.

Resilience needs to be developed in the UK’s workforce – government statistics show that in 2016/17, 12.5 million working days were lost due to work-related stress, depression or anxiety, while 526,000 workers suffered from work-related stress, depression or anxiety (new or long-standing). This trend is worsening and professionals are by far the worst affected – 2% of the workforce:

Diagram from hse.gov.uk


Presenteeism is also increasing, with employees at work being too stressed to be productive.

The cost to employers is significant and the personal cost to employees is even greater. Building resilience can improve lives, reduce business costs and increase profits.

I’d like to see people coming to work with a smile on their face – and a filling in their sandwich.

Book Estelle’s interactive talk on resilience.