Seneca wrote, “We must also make ourselves flexible, to avoid becoming too devoted to the plans we have formed.” Following the rules and living a purposeful life is extremely important. However, being rigid all the time is not a sound strategy.
You must be willing to adapt yourself as per circumstances. Whether it be your work or life, having principles and solid ethics is important. But they needn’t be ironclad. Sometimes, other priorities take precedence in real life and must be addressed urgently without any guilt or remorse.
Cato, one of the most revered Stoics, became famous for his unwavering determination in the face of pressure. He was hell-bent on keeping Rome the way it had always been and never compromised in politics. He was known for being very firm and upright.
However, Cato's stubbornness didn't always help the public. While he tried his best to prevent the downfall of the Roman Republic, his refusal to cooperate with others sometimes made things worse. For example, when Pompey, a powerful general and politician, proposed a marriage alliance with one of Cato's relatives, Cato refused, and this decision led Pompey to ally with Caesar instead. Together, they had enough power to change Roman politics dramatically, breaking long-standing traditions. Cato's refusal to compromise, even though it was based on his strong moral beliefs, might have been a bit naive and self-righteous. Ultimately, it played a role in bringing about the very end he feared.
One of the 48 laws of power put forward by Robert Greene that beautifully captures this notion is Law 48: Assume Formlessness. “Instead of taking a form for your enemy to grasp,” Robert advises, “keep yourself adaptable and on the move.” He explains, “Power can only thrive if it is flexible in its forms. To be formless is not to be amorphous; everything has a form—it is impossible to avoid. The formlessness of power is more like that of water, or mercury, taking the form of whatever is around it. Changing constantly, it is never predictable. The powerful are constantly creating form, and their power comes from the rapidity with which they can change. Their formlessness is in the eye of the enemy who cannot see what they are up to and so has nothing solid to attack.” And so, the most effective way to protect yourself is to be as fluid and formless as water.
We can be as rigid and uptight as we want to be, but in order to emerge victorious, we also need to be flexible. When we face the storms of life, our rigidity may work against us breaking us to the core. We need to be both rigid and flexible to live and thrive well.
Even when faced with challenging situations and difficulties in life, similar to how bamboo handles strong winds and typhoons, we should be resilient and adaptable. We stay upright and composed. Following the natural course of events, embracing what we cannot change instead of resisting it, and being flexible and bending rather than breaking — these virtues can help us achieve greater success and maintain a well-balanced life.
We need to develop the capacity to be flexible, to adjust, and to change. In a world full of disorder, unpredictability, and constant change, the Stoics believed that we should nurture our ability to adapt, bounce back, and align ourselves with life's ever-shifting currents. In a memorable conversation between Epictetus and one of his students, the student asks, “Give me instructions!” Epictetus responds, “It would be wiser to ask, ‘Help me make my mind adaptable to any situation.’”
Embracing formlessness, therefore, is an incredible strength. Staying rigid and uptight under all circumstances is a major weakness. As Ryan Holiday succinctly puts it, “Rigidity is fragile. Formlessness is unbreakable.”