One Question to Find a Sense of Tranquility

If you’re wondering why you’re not happy, why things are always hard, try this thought experiment from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius

Ryan Holiday
Published in
4 min readApr 5, 2021


Photo: zero take/Unsplash

We can imagine that Marcus Aurelius was a busy man, perhaps the busiest man in the world. He had 14 children. He was living through a pandemic. He had a nagging stomach ailment. He was taking philosophy classes.

Oh, and he was the emperor of Rome. His domain stretched some 2.2 million square miles and included some 120 million people for whom he was both responsible for and in charge of.

How did he manage it all? How did he get it all done? Without losing his mind? Without falling behind?

We know that one question played a huge role.

“Most of what we say and do is not essential,” Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations. “If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’”

Think about your own life. How much or how little you work. Where you live. What your marriage or your relationships look like. The political policies you support. What you spend money on. What your goals are. The way your schedule is arranged. The thoughts running through your head.

With everything you do, say, own, or dwell on, ask yourself, “Is this necessary?” “Is this essential?” “Does it have to be this way?” “Why am I doing this?” “What would happen if I changed?”

We wonder why we’re not doing our best. We wonder why we’re not happy. We wonder why things are hard.

It’s because we’re doing too much. Or we’re doing the wrong stuff. Or doing it in the wrong way.

Greg McKeown has a great book called Essentialism. I love that word. You want to get to a place where your life is defined by it — where you’re doing only what needs to be done, in the way it ought to be done.

That’s going to mean getting comfortable with saying “no.” It’s going to be mean cutting fat from your life, maybe even hurting some feelings. But you’ll soon realize: When you say no to something, you’re saying yes to something else. And conversely, when you think…



Ryan Holiday
Writer for

Bestselling author of ‘Conspiracy,’ ‘Ego is the Enemy’ & ‘The Obstacle Is The Way’