Why the Loneliest Person is also the Most Powerful

Madhav Malhotra
10 min readNov 8, 2019

Obviously, you’re thinking, “Well, that doesn’t make much sense… 😕”

How can loneliness bring power? Or power bring loneliness? Everyone’s looking for power and avoiding loneliness, so surely not everyone can be wrong.

But if you look at some of the most powerful, successful people out there, you often see people that aren’t satisfied.

Consider the modern billionaire. Tony Robbins (#billionaireGENIUS 😉) describes his seven richest friends as all being unhappy. A billion isn’t ever enough until it turns to two. And some of them then decide to take out their unhappiness on the rest of us 😢

People who find power also have a surprising trade-off of negative emotions. We see this throughout all of history, from kings 2000 years ago to businesspeople now. You might even ask whether power is worth it because of this side effect.

Thankfully though, history has also given us one special example of how someone can have power, but also deal with the negative emotions that come with it.

I’m referring to Marcus Aurelius of course.

Perhaps you haven’t heard that exotic name before. Aurelius was the last of the great Roman emperors. Certainly, he’s a fitting example to look at — he had all the power in the world!

His Roman empire stretched from Egypt to England. He had absolute control of 60 million people. Anything he could imagine (ie. the most lavish foods or the largest mansions) was a single command away from being his.

Yet Aurelius also highlighted the downsides of power. He even left behind a journal, Meditations, outlining what he thought of his life as emperor. And far from lavishness and luxury, he instead describes a world of constant military threats, political standstills, and personal tragedies.

He was indeed the most powerful man of his time. But he was also the loneliest. There was literally no other person like him in all of Western civilisation. So it would be understandable if he let the power get to his head and the loneliness get to his heart, making bad decisions as emperor.

But instead, Marcus Aurelius was one of the most humble and successful emperors in all of Rome’s history.

Don’t get me wrong — his life was riddled with all those pesky nuisances and major losses. But somehow, he managed to overcome the absolute loneliness that came with his absolute power.

AMAZING right? 😄😄😄

Okay fine, it’s not that exciting when it doesn’t apply to our own lives… but what if it could? Remember that journal Aurelius left behind? Well, it still survives on in translations with his lessons for us. And they’re so special that they’ve influenced multiple U.S. Presidents and Nelson Mandela.

So what are the secrets written in this magical journal…?

Only the most epic stoic philosophies! (Fancy word for ways to accept life and control yourself.) So here are three lessons Aurelius used to handle the loneliness of power.

Lesson #1: Live Life as if You Had Already Died

This sounds like some prophecy out of the Matrix, but hear me out.

My friend Michael has one of the most inspirational stories I’ve heard. We were walking to the subway on the way home and he had me completely captivated telling me about the day his life changed.

See, it was late at night downtown with a few questionable people around — we were just having that average day that everyone has had. Well, that’s how Michael’s story started off as well.

He told me about this one average day where he was going home from his high school in a not-so-pristine neighbourhood in the evening. No one would really expect anything eventful to come out of that situation, but Michael almost died that day.

In a freak stroke of bad luck, Michael ran into a gang member who thought he belonged to a rival gang. That complete stranger suddenly pulled out a knife, threatening to stab Michael.

I was standing there in disbelief at this literal movie scene, wondering how an average day turned into such a nightmare. So (of course) I did what any reasonable person would do; I turned to face Michael and asked

So did you die? 😮

Turns out, not only did Michael not die 😁 (he managed to prove he wasn’t a rival gang member), he actually told me he started to live like never before. From that day on, every moment was a second chance to make the most of life and be grateful for every tiny joy.

That’s why I find Michael’s story so powerful. He treats life as if he had died that night, not out of sadness but to acknowledge all the beautiful moments everyone takes for granted.

And it turns out the most powerful man in the world also recognised this. No matter how harsh it sounds for Aurelius to advise you to live life as if you were dead, Michael’s story helps me realise how important that is.

What if everyone were to live life as if every moment was a second chance? What if everyone was forever grateful in the present because they’d almost never gotten to experience it? Most of us haven’t been through these extreme situations, but we can all apply this gratitude to the way we live.

“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now, take what’s left and live it properly.” — Marcus Aurelius

Lesson #2: Don’t Wonder HOW to Be Good — Just Do It

In Hollywood movies, they have those ‘coming of age’ characters realising the harsh world around them. Well, as someone LIVING through that right now, I can definitely say they’re accurate — and for the worse.

Now that I’m growing up, I can see people’s expectations of me changing. Before, I could go out as a child and do a nice/cute thing and everyone would love me. Now, when I try to do a nice/cute thing, people are surprised (in a bad way) and think I’m being weird.

And I guess it changing my will to go out and do good too. Take the scenario of a crowded bus for example. Two years ago, young-tween me would immediately give up my seat for any senior.

Two days ago though, I was in that situation and I just thought about whether I should give up my seat. And in all the time I spent dilly-dallying, the seniors already had gotten off a few stops later. No matter what influenced it, as I’m growing up I’m spending more time thinking, “HOW can I be good?” and less time doing it.

Which makes me wonder… how many opportunities to do the right thing are lost not because people don’t want to be good, but just spend too long thinking instead of doing?

What if everyone went back to that naïve, childish tendency to simply act out of kindness instead of contemplating it?

Marcus Aurelius realised the significance of that key lesson, especially as he gained power. SO WHAT if the most powerful emperor is alone in acting like a child? 😅 At least he was able to do good, while others just thought about it.

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.” — Marcus Aurelius

Lesson #3: Life is Out of your Control. Your View of it isn’t

Now although it’s better to be more childish in some ways, it sure isn’t in others. I’m thinking of the pouting and tenter tantrums that make up most people’s youth.

Now that we’re older, we’re so much better at dealing with negativity right?!?

Wrong. All we do better is make that negativity less explicit. We still whine and complain about every little thing that doesn’t matter. From the never-ending traffic to the uncooperative bosses to the want for the latest gadgets, we still are essentially whiny babies.

When I look for a recent example of this, I think of my last chemistry test. My entire class of high-achievers flunked that test. Everyone knew it handing the papers in. So obviously, they chalked up their losses and started preparing to better handle the next one…

I’m just kidding of course. 😈 Everyone started panicking and asking everyone else what they got for Question X and Proof Y and Theorem Z. And what most struck me was that none of that chaos helped anyone! People just got more and more worried hearing how whats-her-name and whats-his-face had the audacity *gasp *to get a different answer than themselves.

In the meanwhile, I was sitting in the corner of the room thinking, “Well, I can’t change any of the answers now… so why would I bother worrying about it? We’ll just get back the mark we get back 😕”

Of course, I’m not some magical man of steel able to withstand any stress. I was just following Marcus Aurelius’ lessons on how to deal with life! As he put it:

“ Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do…Sanity means tying it to your own actions.”

In simple terms, hoping for results you don’t have control over (like an already-written test) always leaves you wanting something more. But if you look for results that you CAN control instead (like an upcoming test you can study for), you can stay calm while everyone else is freaking out.

So I did.

But events like these just make me realise how much most people worry about. It just seems so natural! You don’t ever HAVE TO stop and think — you just go from one worry from the next never realising whether you can control any of these things you’re worrying about.

But with Aurelius’ lessons, now I can draw a line between the things I can and can’t control. It basically never makes sense to worry about all the things we make such a big deal out of. All those problems are in our heads.

And that’s not just an abstract metaphor. We’re scientifically processing the entire world’s sights, sounds, feelings, etc. in our heads. Your brain processes one world with your thoughts and mine processes another.

The perfect illustration of people’s different thoughts 😁

These problems are LITERALLY just in our heads. We’re in control of the way we see the world — we’re the one processing it in the end! So we don’t have any control about these external results and worries, but we do have control over our own actions and views of the world.

So why not control them to accept life as it comes????

You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength. — Marcus Aurelius

Now, these are just three of the ENDLESS lessons Aurelius left behind in that journal. It may seem foreign to us to imagine the hardships of power, but he really is a great example to show the virtue he needed to live up to as emperor.

Remember, he never had to act on ANY of these principles.

He could’ve been another spoiled dictator who took pleasure in all of life’s comforts while his empire lived in unimaginably harsh conditions. But instead, he CHOSE to stick to his principles and give his best effort back to the people.

He showed future generations the burden of being good. He went through life alone in holding himself to a higher standard. He was the exception to that ominously accurate saying:

Absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And what I find most inspiring of all is his legacy. When Nelson Mandela spent 20 years in jail trying to achieve equality in South Africa, he read Aurelius’ Meditations. When Theodore Roosevelt was weathering his nation through the Great Depression, he carried a copy of Meditations.

Aurelius’ lessons have guided the most powerful leaders of our modern world, just as they guided him thousands of years ago.

He lived his entire life alone in pursuing these principles, like other great leaders. So can’t we accept our individuality and take back control of our tiny lives — no matter the traditions of the crowd?

Key Takeaways

  • If you could live life as if you had already died, every day would be an opportunity to make the most of your second chance at life.
  • When we were younger, we took every opportunity to act with kindness. Growing up, we somehow lost that and just think about doing so instead.
  • The entire world is in your head. So control what you can and accept what you can’t.

P.S. This is THE best lecture on Marcus Aurelius I’ve found if you want to dive into the rabbit hole of stoicism.

Before You Go

Hey, I’m currently contemplating the intersection of stoic principles and economic theories of market failure! If you liked this article, feel free to:

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To aid my philosoeconomic neurons in firing ;-)

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Madhav Malhotra

Is helpful/friendly :-) Wants to solve neglected global problems. Linkedin: linkedin.com/in/madhav-malhotra/