I started drafting this a while back. When I came back to it this morning, after looking at various news and social media sites, I couldn’t help but think of its relevance not only to government leaders in our country and around the world, but in the struggles of friends, colleagues, and ordinary people.

We are human, and bound to make mistakes – often the same ones over and over again. We also have the capability to learn from our mistakes, so seeing them clearly as they arise in us (as opposed the after the fact) is essential to our individual and collective success.

In about 100 BC the Roman statesman, philosopher and historian Marcus Tullius Cicero, made a few notes concerning what he believed were the 6 mistakes made by most of mankind. It may read as list of job qualifications for Emperor of Rome (or President of the United States), but they are traits we find today in others and even in ourselves. In fact, if we really look at it, these 6 mistakes probably cause 90 percent of our misery and suffering. They tend to be the reason we have conflict with others and others have problems with us.

Despite all our technological and academic advancements over the past 2,000 years, all of these mistakes are repeated time and time again, by governments, by businesses, and by individuals like you and me. Lists like this are useful in that they give us things to watch for, so we can see the traps we so often set for ourselves when we live reactionary or unconscious lives. The “6 Mistakes” are:

  1. The delusion that personal gain is made by crushing others.
  2. The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.
  3. Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it.
  4. Refusing to set aside trivial preferences.
  5. Neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habit of reading and studying.
  6. Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.

All of these are errors in action and judgement I see everyday in clients, strangers, friends, and even myself. They create infinite problems for us that circle out though our lives and limit our ability to live and choose freely, to form meaningful relationships, and find lasting success. I have added some brief commentary below, more reflection than statement or solution with the hope that maybe it might open up your own perspective, reader, on how these mistakes impact you and the communities you are connected to…

“The delusion that personal gain is made by crushing others.”

The difference between dominance and leadership, between a child and an adult (ideally) is the basic recognition that my individual needs do not supersede yours – that my success isn’t paved with the misfortune of others. It’s one of the basic tenants of nearly every moral teaching around the world. The very idea of democracy is founded on it.

Our impact on each other (and on the Earth) has clear consequences that are well documented. Yet, we continue to consume and chase profit as if there was no consequence at all. Something is lost when we chase individual success at all costs – when pursue our self interest without concern for how it impacts our communities, our families, our world.

There is little surprise that this mistake is made time and time again in a culture of competitive capitalism. However, in our art, literature, media, it is rare to find a man or woman of this type portrayed positively. Certainly the scriptures of our majority religions don’t support the behavior. Yet, time and time again, for over 2,000 years we see this mistake bring forth leaders and men of power.


Culturally, I believe, it is a mistake that shows how our values and beliefs can become so divorced from our choices and actions. Preacher’s scamming for a believers last dime, populist politicians pursuing personal advancement over following through on the promises that brought others to support them.

But we are not saints. All of us at one time or another, to varying degrees, have made a choice that benefited us at the cost of someone else. The desire to stand out from others, to be winners, requires a a certain amount of self interest. And that in itself isn’t wrong.

This is where the idea of fair play comes in, and where honesty and integrity really matter. Make no mistake, these are traits that are adult, grown up, choices. They speak to our evolution more than our primitive instincts.

“The tendency to worry about things that cannot be changed or corrected.”

We all have a drive to want piece of mind, to know that everything is going to be OK. We all want to be seen as valuable. But when we place our piece of mind in the hands of things outside our control we are essentially jumping into a current we cannot swim against.

If you are in the ocean and get caught in a riptide the advice is not to swim against it. It is also not wise to surrender and let it take you wherever it wants to. The correct advice for escaping a riptide is to swim to the side, to escape it. It is only this lateral movement that allow us to be free enough to see where we are and establish a plan for getting back to shore.

Its an imperfect metaphor, but I think it makes the point. Worry and regret can be overwhelming forces. I see in so many of my friends, and from countless people posting online and covered by the news, so much anxiety and fear concerning our current political leadership. If they are opposed, they should speak their concerns – this isn’t about being silent. But the whirlwind of ‘what is he doing now,’ minute my minute posting, letting it impact their jobs and relationships is really worrying about what cannot be changed.

Or in school or the workplace, I have seen employees and colleagues fret over a known mistake in a report or presentation, or let the fear of speaking grind them to a standstill.

We are wired for it, the fear of uncertainty and the unknown that turns to worry. It can overwhelm us. It can quite literally degrade our physical and mental health when we let it go on too long. In the dance between our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems we need to resolve the fight/flight response for our bodies to be able to rest, heal and be healthy.

Though your rational mind may know the difference, to paraphrase something my yoga teacher told us in a training, your nervous system doesn’t differentiate between a tiger chasing you through the woods and the fear that arises when you are waiting for your boss to catch you in a mistake. The difference with the tiger is that the fear is resolved pretty quickly – you either escape or are lunch. You have the same reoccurring fear of your boss day in and out.

Knowing the difference between what is your power to change and what isn’t, finding ways to manage your stress, and facing up to your fears are the best ways to manage this mistake. What you can control is the effort you put in. What you cannot is the influence of other people and how the final result is received.

“Insisting that a thing is impossible because we cannot accomplish it.”

Where would humanity be if this mistake were as prevalent as the last two?

On the whole I see much less of this in our culture at large than the others, but it still comes up when we set out to do things which are outside the perceived cultural norms. Most often I see it in advice from one well meaning person to another. It is the belief that our own limits hold true for the person we are advising – most often taking the form of discouragement.

“Its too dangerous”, “…too risky”.

Personally, I hear this often when I talking to someone about one of the vision fasts I have participated in (and training to lead).

“4 days without food, that’s impossible for me. I could never do it.”

Yet, tens of thousands of people have been doing this kind of practice since the dawn of humanity.

It shows up in corporations and governments. The company’s best salesperson can’t close a deal. A diplomat can’t get to favorable terms on a treaty. It’s the other person’s fault – not ours. No one else could have gotten a result. The client, the other country, was too difficult.

It is a mistake which leads to blame and giving up before you really began.

It is a mistake of seeking out poor advice from small minded people, of not believing in yourself enough to take a risk – to be better in some way than those who came before you.

Balance the lessons learned in the past with taking intelligent risk, seek support from people who believe in you, and this should not be a mistake you make often.

“Refusing to set aside trivial preferences.”

Though I haven’t done the math, I think its fair to say that majority of interpersonal (& probably international) conflicts in the world arise out of trivial bullshit more often than they do from matters of real significance – though I doubt they were seen as trivial by the people involved.

It is one of the reasons avoiding the next mistake is so important.

If we cannot differentiate between what is vital and what is trivial in our own lives we will waste our energy and resources needlessly, often depleting them before we have to defend something which is really important to us.

We allow opinion on who gets to use which bathroom to dominate political conversation while police are shooting children with rubber bullets, beating protestors, and imprisoning elders in kennels because they are trying to protect land shared to their people, and protected by treaty, from an environmentally risky oil pipeline. In other places unarmed teens are being shot because of their race and police are being murdered in retaliation. I’m not trying to downplay gender rights issues. What I am saying is that how we honor our agreements, how we treat our own people, and how police & private military contractors are infringing on our civil liberties has much more weight, and says so much more about what is wrong with our country. It would have made for a much more serious conversation on our potential leaders’ points of view, one which would have to make us think seriously and deeply about who we nominate and elect – regardless of which side of the isle you are on.

Apologies for the rant.

We have a habit of letting the little things define us more than we allow the substance our beings to come forth, to meet each other as human beings with the same essential needs and rights. All bigotry and sexism arise from this mistake. Racism, violent nationalism, religiously motivated terrorism all arise from this mistake.

The non-trivial is in realizing we are all alive on this earth, with limited resources, and we all have the same needs and the same basic rights, yet time and time again we refuse them to each other based on the most unimportant of our trivial preferences.

“Neglecting development and refinement of the mind, and not acquiring the habit of reading and studying.”

Its fair all of these mistakes could be minimized if we could just correct this one.

Culturally we seem to carry the belief that somewhere in our mid-twenties we are done with our education, that we are done developing and learning and growing. We go forth into the world full of opinions and with a sense of certainty about who we are.

To some extent, that is how it should be, initially. We need the fullness of that adolescent ego to drive us forward. But many of us never come back to self reflection, to realizing the aspects of life we still need to learn, the character traits that need refinement, the vision of our future that needs to be reevaluated.

Throughout our lives there is always more to know about ourselves, our habits, our desires, about how they drive us, impact our relationships, and trip us up from time to time.

From an Integral perspective we all have blind spots in our thinking and we all have weak lines of development. In the Yoga Sutra, Patanjali highlights the importance of study of the sacred text in combination with “self-study”, as essential to achieving any form of enlightenment. We can all continue to improve, to broaden our knowledge of others, ourselves, and our relationship to the larger world.

“Attempting to compel others to believe and live as we do.”

And again, at this time it is increasingly difficult to avoid thinking of our recent divisive election…

We live in county and a time where diversity is a reality of everyday life. Whether ethnic, religious, political, sexual, or financial, we all have differences. Our democracy depends upon diverse opinions and conversation. It is what drives us forward, what improves life for all of us. The same rights that allow you to live the way you choose to are there to protect the rights of those who choose to live differently than you do.


Most of us, at one time or another, have had the pleasure of being in a conversation where someone was trying to convince you the life you chose for yourself and the beliefs that got you there were mistakes. Most of us have at some point been on the other side of that conversation as well, trying to convince someone else they were going about it entirely the wrong way. (If you haven’t invite in a Jehovah’s Witness next time one knocks on your door and try to convert them to your world view the same time they are trying to convert you.)

Its frustrating, mostly because we are all individuals with our own past experience, with our own beliefs and values. It is always easier, and more productive, to try to find common ground than it is to forcibly convert someone to your point of view.

One of the great paradoxes of human life is that we all have the same needs and are the same in so many ways, yet we are so different and diverse in so many others. This mistake is perhaps more than the others “folly” – we are the same, but I am unique, and you should be less unique like you and more unique like me.

These 6 mistakes are ones we all make, which most human beings have been making for over 2 millennia. While coaching can’t make you mistake proof, it can offer some insights into unraveling the mistakes you made in the past to free you now, for the future. Check out my website @ www.nyclifecoaching.com to contact me about a free 30 minute coaching conversation.



One Comment on “Marcus Tullius Cicero’s 6 Mistakes Of Man

  1. Pingback: Weekly Update, Links, News… – NYC Life Coaching Blog

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