The Stoics taught self-control, perseverance and patience—essential virtues for learning Mandarin. Photo by Şafak Atalay on Unsplash

Even if you aren’t big into philosophy, Stoicism is arguably the most directly useful.

What separates Stoicism from other schools of philosophy is that the Stoics tossed out highfalutin ideas with little practical value in favor of real-world wisdom you could actually use in your day-to-day life. It’s no wonder so many of their teachings are as applicable today as they were back in Stoicism’s heyday, around the 3rd century BC.

In this article we’ll look at some of the top quotes (because who doesn’t love quotes?!) from Stoicism’s greatest minds, and see if there isn’t anything we can’t steal to help us stop procrastinating, stay motivated and even optimize the way we learn. 

So here are 7 quotes from the Stoics we can apply to our Mandarin learning.



“How long can you afford to put off who you really want to be? Your nobler self cannot wait any longer. Decide to be extraordinary and do what you need to do  now.” ― Epictetus

If you ever need a little motivation, just keep in mind that the quote above is coming from a guy who was literally born a slave. 

Today, Epictetus would be around 2,000 years old, but his ideas are still so fitting for our modern times, particularly the ones on procrastination. Let’s break up the above quote so we can explore some of the ideas packed inside it:

 I. Your nobler self can’t wait

For Epictetus, the nobler self can be seen as our actualized selves, or that spark within us that really shines when we do those things that we’re most passionate about.

Sometimes, we tend to think that that “self” lives in some far-off future. In doing so, we tend to procrastinate on those things we’ve been really meaning to do (like learning Mandarin) because well, we’ll get to it at some magical point in the future.

But to Epictetus, the “nobler self” is already within you, and it’s tired of waiting. 

So be good to your nobler self and pursue your passions, even if it’s just an hour a day. (By the way, a fun way to learn Mandarin in an hour a day is by listening to the Mandarin Monkey Chinglish podcast!)

 II. Decide to be extraordinary

The big idea here is that you actually get to decide to be extraordinary. Remember, Epictetus was born into slavery—not exactly a privileged start, by any means—but that didn’t stop him from pursuing his passion of philosophy. (The guy eventually went on to teach philosophy in Rome and establish a philosophy school in Greece.)

For Epictetus, being extraordinary isn’t something that you either are, or you aren’t. It’s a choice you get to make. 

To tie it back to learning Mandarin, sometimes we can be fooled into thinking we need to have a natural talent for languages to really get better. Epictetus would disagree. He would argue that if we aren’t improving in our Mandarin, it’s because we either haven’t actively (and resolutely) made the choice to do so, or we aren’t doing what needs to be done to get there. (Which brings us to the next point!)

 III. Do what you need to do, now 

It almost sounds as if Epictetus is talking to himself in his own quote, doesn’t it? The reality is that everyone procrastinates. And though there are many techniques out there on how to beat procrastination (beware of looking for the perfect way to beat procrastination becoming, err, procrastination), Epictetus was already way ahead of the game when he said to do what you need to do, now.  

So if you’ve been putting off learning Mandarin, stop searching for the best way to learn Mandarin or the best method to learn Mandarin and just take action.

Take that lesson. Review over 350 nouns. Commit to studying just 15 minutes a day.

Wherever you start is the best place to start.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it was built because someone got started one day. Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash


“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” ― Epictetus

Have you ever been worried that you’ll look foolish or stupid when learning Mandarin?

That you’ll make common mistakes and be totally embarrassed?

Mistakes can be scary, especially if we let our fear drive us to imagine all sorts of ways we’ll be humiliated, shamed or otherwise emotionally flogged if we, say, use the wrong tone in public!

But stoic wisdom on the fear of making mistakes (and personal experience) says that more often that not, our imaginations are just flat out wrong.

It’s more likely that if you make a mistake, you’ll get valuable feedback, a gentle correction, or people may not even notice you made a mistake at all! You may find that the mistake you made is a common one that everybody makes and even bond over that.

It’s natural to want to circumvent mistakes, but by doing so, we miss out on opportunities to learn. That’s because mistakes show us the gaps to fill, the weak areas to strengthen, and the ways we’ve been going about something all wrong. They open us up to receive input that helps us improve.

So make mistakes. Embrace them, even. Take it from another stoic, Seneca (more wisdom from that dude later), “A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials.”



“The key is to keep company only with people who uplift you, whose presence calls forth your best.”

― Epictetus

Okay, so here Epictetus is basically saying choose your friends wisely. But beyond that, he’s also saying that your social life has an important role in helping you bring out that nobler self we talked about earlier. 

When it comes to learning Mandarin, making friends that are also on the journey can be super helpful. For one, they get it—it’s not easy learning a foreign language (nevertheless Mandarin, arguably one of the hardest languages to learn in the world!)—plus, having the right, supportive people in your circle can help you practice better.

Oh, and also, remember how we talked about mistakes being so important on the learning journey? Well, when you’re around the right bunch of reassuring, empathetic language learners, it’s a lot easier to be comfortable making those mistakes!

Epictetus would actually love the Hangouts at Mandarin Monkey. Everyone on there is pursuing their passion and they’re all about bringing out the best in the group. I speak from experience.

In the words of another Stoic, Seneca, “Associate with people who are likely to improve you. Welcome those who you are capable of improving. The process is a mutual one: we learn as we teach.”

Mistakes can be fuel to propel us further on the learning journey. Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash


“No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”― Epictetus

Growing grapes or learning Mandarin calls for a certain level of patience.

Yes, you’ve heard it before. It takes time to become fluent. Be realistic. Build a Mandarin learning habit and put in the hours. You have to learn to walk before you can run.

But there’s also something else at play here, and it’s called the cumulative effect of learning, which basically says that the way we learn (and possibly artificial intelligence too) involves building new concepts on top of concepts previously learned. In other words, we build up our learning, little by little. It’s an upward curve that rises over time.

Mandarin is a great example of this. First, we learn the basics of pinyin, then we’re able to use those to form words, and then use those words to form grammar patterns, which make up sentences, and on and on. If you’re studying Mandarin characters, a similar process is involved in learning radicals first.

Can we skip steps? Not without its drawbacks. Can we speed up the process? Maybe.

But back to Epictetus, in his quote, he is also saying that we should enjoy the process.

So whether you consider yourself a slow or fast learner, remember that the best pace for learning Mandarin is your pace, and that it’s also important to make it something rewarding and that you look forward to, even savor!

So follow Epictetus’ advice: take the time needed to let your Mandarin blossom, bear fruit and ripen.

Epictetus believed all great things take time—and they’re sweeter that way, too. Photo by Amos Bar-Zeev on Unsplash


“If a man knows not to which port he sails, no wind is favorable.” 

― Seneca

Unlike Epictetus, Seneca was at one point one of the wealthiest people in the Roman Empire. Also, one of his gigs was as advisor to emperor Nero (infamously one of the Roman Empire’s most evil rulers), which Seneca got a lot of crap for, understandably. After all, who would want to be associated with a man who would put a hit on his own mother.

Seneca’s questionable job history aside, he had a lot of interesting things to say on tranquility, happiness and science. In the quote above, he was most likely talking about being specific with our goals.

If you’re not specifically defining your goals, how can you be sure you’ve reached them—or even on the right path to get to them?

This is obviously applicable to learning Mandarin. The more specific the goals, the better. That way, you’ll make better use of your time (or wind, if you will).

And you can switch goals periodically too. For me, my current goal is to improve my listening comprehension, so I’m less focused on speaking at the moment. Then I’ll switch my focus and repeat the process, each time working to improve each “focus goal” a little more.

Marcus Aurelius is your guy whenever you need a motivational pep talk. Photo by Antonello Nusca/Gamma-Rapho/Getty


“The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and talk less.” ― Zeno of Citium

Zeno is basically the guy that started it all, Stoicism, I mean. He’s famous for teaching, among other things, that you conquer the world by conquering yourself.

Curiously, I found the quote above totally relevant to where I’m at with my own Mandarin learning right now—with an almost exclusive focus on listening. So yes, I’m listening more (and more intently) and talking less, or at least, less concerned with speaking. Why? Because like Dr. Margret Chang shared on podcast #167, listening can directly improve your ability to speak Mandarin.

The Stoics considered being a good listener an essential virtue. Photo by Simone Pellegrini on Unsplash


“Just because something is hard to master, do not think it is humanly impossible, but, if a thing is humanly possible, consider it within your reach.” — Marcus Aurelius

Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor, and also the guy you want to talk to when you need a fresh perspective on things. The above quote says a lot about his approach to accomplishing anything.

First, it shows that even though the dude practically ruled most of the western world, he was humble enough to recognize when a thing was a hard thing—and when that thing took a ton of work to master. So if he could see things that way, why shouldn’t we?

Mastering Mandarin can feel really (!) hard. Because it is (Marcus would say so himself). Sometimes, it feels like it’s not humanly possible hard.

But it’s not (and Marcus would agree with that, too).  


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