“Life is 10% What Happens to You and 90% How You Respond To It” - Who Said It?

Updated June 7, 2024

When you’re faced with adversity in life, it’s tempting to feel like the world is against you. After all, isn’t what happens to you in life one of the biggest determining factors of how well your life turns out?

The truth is, that’s not really the case. In fact, the same thing can happen to two different people with radically different results. The thing that distinguishes these two characters isn’t what occurred in their lives but rather how they thought and acted in response to what happened to them.

A pithy quote you can remember to remind yourself of this truth is the focus of today’s article– “life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it.” Attributed to Charles R. Swindoll, this quote can help us keep in touch with what we know to be true– that we should focus our attention on the things we can control, like our attitude and our actions.

Let’s take a closer look at the Stoic meaning behind this quote, the man behind the words, and how you can practically apply the wisdom of this saying to your day-to-day life.

“Life is 10% What Happens to You and 90% How You Respond To It” - Who Said It?

The quote, "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it," is typically attributed to Charles R. Swindoll, an American pastor, author, educator, and radio preacher.

This quote reflects a number of Stoic ideas as well as Swindoll’s emphasis on attitude and personal responsibility in facing life's challenges.

Who Was Charles R. Swindoll?

Charles R. Swindoll was born on October 18, 1934, and is an American evangelical Christian pastor, author, educator, and radio preacher. He is a well-known character due to his practical and engaging teaching style and his emphasis on living out the Christian faith in everyday life.

life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it

"If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment."

– Marcus Aurelius

Throughout his career, Swindoll has served as a pastor in several churches. Most notably, he was the senior pastor at the First Evangelical Free Church in Fullerton, California, for 23 years.

His ministry extends beyond the church walls through his radio program "Insight for Living," which he founded in 1979. The program is broadcast internationally and has garnered a significant following due to its insightful and practical approach to biblical teaching.

In addition to his ministry work, Swindoll is a prolific author, having written numerous books on Christian living, leadership, and spirituality. Some of his well-known works include "The Grace Awakening," "Laugh Again," and "Living on the Ragged Edge." His writings often reflect his emphasis on grace, joy, and the practical application of biblical principles.

Swindoll's leadership extended to his role as president of Dallas Theological Seminary from 1994 to 2001, after which he became its chancellor.

Searching for other inspirational quotes to help guide you in your life? Check out some of our other recent posts:

Breaking Down the Meaning of the Quote

The quote, "Life is 10% what happens to you, and 90% how you respond to it," conveys a powerful message about the significance of attitude and personal responsibility in shaping our lives.

There’s something so satisfying about the fact that Swindoll actually gives us a ratio here to describe how life’s circumstances and our response are weighed in reality.

Let's break down the most important meaning of this quote.

Life's Circumstances (The 10%)

The first part of the quote, "Life is 10% what happens to you," acknowledges that events and circumstances beyond our control do affect us. Epictetus was well aware of this, having been born into slavery and facing tremendous adversity in his life. Marcus Aurelius knew it, too, outliving several of his children and facing many personal tragedies during his lifetime.

life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it

"Seek not the good in external things; seek it in yourselves."

– Epictetus

This 10% represents the external factors, such as unexpected challenges, successes, failures, and random occurrences that can influence our lives. These are the situations we find ourselves in, often dictated by luck, fate, or circumstances.

One Stoic quote this notion automatically brings to mind is one from Epictetus, found in his work The Enchiridion:

"Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions—in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or that which is not our own doing."

– Epictetus

We are all dealt our cards in life, but that doesn’t mean there is only one way for us to play them. Next, let’s look at what makes up the rest of what life is– our response to those things that happen to us.

Our Response (The 90%)

The second part of the quote, "and 90% how you respond to it," emphasizes the importance of our reaction to these events.

life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it

"He who suffers before it is necessary, suffers more than is necessary."

– Seneca the Younger

This 90% reflects our attitudes, decisions, and actions in the face of life's challenges. It highlights the idea that our responses, not the events themselves, play a more significant role in determining our overall well-being and success.

The Meaning of the Quote Through a Stoic Lens

Understanding the quote "Life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it" within the context of Stoicism reveals a deep alignment with Stoic philosophy. We see a relationship in terms of the emphasis on the development of self-control and fortitude as a means of overcoming destructive emotions.

External Events vs. Internal Reactions

One of the things that many modern adherents to Stoicism find so useful about the philosophy is the way that it can help us distinguish between what we are and aren’t in control of. Once we can identify the difference between external events and our internal reactions to them, we all of a sudden have a lot more power in our lives as we can focus our energy on the things within our span of control.

Stoic View on External Events (The 10%)

Stoics believe that external events are beyond our control. According to the Stoic principle of dichotomy of control, we cannot influence external circumstances or the actions of others. These are the "externals," and Stoics maintain that we should accept them with equanimity, recognizing that they are governed by fate or natural law.

Epictetus famously stated, "It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters," echoing the essence of Swindoll's quote. Another example can be found in the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, where he wrote:


life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it

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

– Marcus Aurelius

Stoic View on Internal Reactions (The 90%)

Our favorite ancient Stoics all placed great emphasis on our internal reactions, which are within our control. This includes our thoughts, emotions, and actions. Stoics argue that by cultivating rational thinking and virtue, we can respond to life's challenges with wisdom and composure.

The Stoics teach that we should focus on our judgments and perceptions, as these are the sources of our emotions and reactions. By maintaining rational and virtuous thoughts, we can respond positively to any situation.

Key Stoic Principles Reflecting the Quote

There are a number of key Stoic principles that come to mind when reflecting on this quote.

life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you respond to it

“Even if some obstacle comes on the scene, its appearance is only to be compared to that of clouds which drift in front of the sun without ever defeating its light.”

– Seneca the Younger

First and foremost is the concept of acceptance and amor ati, which is central to Stoic philosophy. Amor Fati, which translates to "love of fate," embodies the Stoic idea that we should embrace whatever happens to us, good or bad, as part of the natural order. This principle teaches us to accept life's events without resistance, recognizing that they are beyond our control and are meant to be part of our journey.

Control and resilience are also key tenets of Stoicism. The Stoics teach that we should develop inner resilience and strength by controlling our responses to external events. This practice helps us exercise our inner freedom and maintain our tranquility, regardless of the circumstances we face. Swindoll's quote underscores this idea by highlighting that our true power lies in our response, not in trying to alter external events. By focusing on our reactions, we can build resilience and maintain a sense of peace and stability.

Virtue is considered the highest good in Stoic philosophy. For the Stoics, living a good life means living virtuously—through wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. This principle aligns with the idea of focusing on our responses to life's events, ensuring that they are guided by virtue and rationality. Swindoll's emphasis on response reflects this Stoic idea, suggesting that our reactions should be virtuous and rational regardless of the circumstances. By prioritizing virtuous responses, we align our actions with the Stoic pursuit of a good and meaningful life.

Practical Stoic Applications of the Quote

Inspirational quotes are great, but they don’t do us much good if we can’t actually use the wisdom hidden within them practically in our lives.

Here are some of the exercises you can do to ensure that you internalize the truth that 90% of life is how you respond to things that happen, not the things themselves.

Mindfulness and Reflection

Ancient and modern Stoics alike practice mindfulness and reflection to remain aware of their reactions and maintain control over their internal state. This helps in responding to events with calm and reason.

Negative Visualization

By contemplating potential hardships in advance in a practice known as premeditatio malorum (known to us modern folks as negative visualization), Stoics prepare themselves to handle adversities with equanimity.

This proactive approach mirrors the 90% emphasis on response– after all, you’ll be in a much better place to deal with anything life throws at you if you are prepared for what could come.

Daily Practices in General

Stoics often engage in daily practices, such as journaling or meditative exercises, to reinforce their focus on what they can control and to cultivate a mindset of acceptance and rational response.

That being said, healthy daily habits of any kind can help reinforce what you are in control of in life. For more ideas of what some positive routines you can create in your own life might consist of, check out our list of 21 good habits to have and develop.

Practically Applying This Quote to Your Life

Now that we have looked at this quote under a magnifying glass, let’s discuss some of the ways you can actually apply it to your life.

In Your Personal Life

When facing personal challenges, such as health issues, relationship problems, or financial setbacks, focusing on our responses can lead to better coping strategies and solutions. For instance, adopting a problem-solving approach rather than dwelling on the problem can help overcome obstacles more effectively.

At Work

In the workplace, responding positively to feedback, changes, or failures can enhance personal growth and professional development. Emphasizing adaptability and a proactive attitude can lead to better job performance and career advancement.

Socializing With Others

How we respond to others, especially in conflicts or disagreements, can determine the quality of our relationships. Choosing to respond with empathy, understanding, and patience can strengthen connections and resolve issues amicably.

Related Quotes from Stoic-Minded Thinkers

Looking for other quotes that touch upon similar themes? Here are some powerful ideas that you can carry with you throughout your day and life.

Personal Responsibility

“You must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons, or the wind, but you can change yourself. That is something you have charge of.”

– Jim Rohn

“The greatest day in your life and mine is when we take total responsibility for our attitudes. That's the day we truly grow up.”

– John C. Maxwell

“The choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.”

– Eleanor Roosevelt

“I long to accomplish a great and noble task, but it is my chief duty to accomplish small tasks as if they were great and noble.”

– Helen Keller

“You might well remember that nothing can bring you success but yourself.”

– Napoleon Hill

“Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”

– Sigmund Freud

“The willingness to accept responsibility for one's own life is the source from which self-respect springs.”

– Joan Didion

“Nothing strengthens the judgment and quickens the conscience like individual responsibility.”

– Elizabeth Cady Stanton

“Character isn't something you were born with and can't change, like your fingerprints. It's something you weren't born with and must take responsibility for forming.”

– Jim Rohn

“The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny.”

– Albert Ellis

“Every duty is a charge, but the charge of oneself is the root of all others.”

– Mencius

“The price of greatness is responsibility.”

– Winston Churchill

“It is easy to dodge our responsibilities, but we cannot dodge the consequences of dodging our responsibilities.”

– Josiah Stamp

“Let everyone sweep in front of his own door, and the whole world will be clean.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

“Find joy in everything you choose to do. Every job, relationship, home... it's your responsibility to love it, or change it.“

– Chuck Palahniuk

“Life is a gift, and it offers us the privilege, opportunity, and responsibility to give something back by becoming more.”

– Tony Robbins

Attitude and Mindset

“When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it.”

– Epictetus

“You can conquer almost any fear if you will only make up your mind to do so. For remember, fear doesn't exist anywhere except in the mind.”

– Dale Carnegie

“Successful people don't have any fewer problems than unsuccessful people; they just have a different mindset in dealing with them.”

– John C. Maxwell

“Only changes in mindsets can extend the frontiers of the possible.”

– Winston Churchill

“Successful people do not have a part-time mindset nor a full-time mindset, but a lifetime mindset.”

– Orrin Woodward

“Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.”

– William James

“We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”

– Gautama Buddha

“A passive mindset "manages" to live with mediocre, but an active mindset "leads" to change until excellence results.”

– Orrin Woodward

“Happiness depends on your mindset and attitude. Happiness is in your mind, not in the circumstance.”

– Roy T. Bennett

“If you want things to be different, perhaps the answer is to become different yourself.”

– Norman Vincent Peale

“One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn't do.”

– Henry Ford

“Beliefs have the power to create and the power to destroy. Human beings have the awesome ability to take any experience of their lives and create a meaning that disempowers them or one that can literally save their lives.”

– Tony Robbins

“Always look at what you have left. Never look at what you have lost.”

– Robert H. Schuller

“Attitude is an inner concept. It is the most important thing you can develop in your life.”

– Wayne Dyer

“Your mental attitude is the most dependable key to your personality.”

– Napoleon Hill

“Attitude drives actions. Actions drive results. Results drive lifestyles.”

– Jim Rohn

“Attitude determines how well you do it.”

– Lou Holtz

“With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.”

– Wayne Dyer

“Your living is determined not so much by what life brings to you as by the attitude you bring to life; not so much by what happens to you as by the way your mind looks at what happens.”

– Khalil Gibran

“Whenever you're in conflict with someone, there is one factor that can make the difference between damaging your relationship and deepening it. That factor is attitude.”

– William James

“Life is too short to spend your precious time trying to convince a person who wants to live in gloom and doom otherwise. Give lifting that person your best shot, but don't hang around long enough for his/her bad attitude to pull you down. Instead, surround yourself with optimistic people.”

– Zig Ziglar

“Become a possibilitarian. No matter how dark things seem to be or actually are, raise your sights and see possibilities -- always see them, for they're always there.”

– Norman Vincent Peale

“Your mental attitude is something you can control outright and you must use self-discipline until you create a Positive Mental Attitude - your mental attitude attracts to you everything that makes you what you are.”

– Napoleon Hill

“Don't go around saying the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.”

– Mark Twain

“Man can change his life simply by changing his attitude.”

– William James

“The trick is in what one emphasizes. We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves happy. The amount of work is the same.”

– Carlos Castaneda

“We tend to live up to our expectations.”

– Earl Nightingale

Resilience and Adaptability

“The more obstacles you face and overcome, the more times you falter and get back on track, the more difficulties you struggle with and conquer, the more resiliency you will naturally develop. There is nothing that can hold you back, if you are resilient.”

– Jim Rohn

“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

– Confucius

“Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant.”

– Horace

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

– Helen Keller

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

– Winston Churchill

“I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind. Some come from ahead and some come from behind. But I've bought a big bat. I'm all ready you see. Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!”

– Dr. Seuss

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage.”

– Anais Nin

“The ability to take misfortune and make something good come of it is a rare gift. Those who possess it are ..said to have resilience or courage.”

– Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.”

– Stephen Hawking

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change, that lives within the means available and works co-operatively against common threats.”

– Charles Darwin

“The art of life lies in a constant readjustment to our surroundings.”

– Okakura Kakuzo

“Action and adaptability create opportunity.”

– Garrison Wynn

“I can't change the direction of the wind, but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination..”

– Jimmy Dean

“Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”

– Bruce Lee

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.”

– Alan Watts

“We must cut our coat according to our cloth, and adapt ourselves to changing circumstances.”

– William Ralph Inge

“The truth is outside of all fixed patterns.”

– Bruce Lee

“In war as in life, it is often necessary when some cherished scheme has failed, to take up the best alternative open, and if so, it is folly not to work for it with all your might.”

– Winston Churchill

Emotional Regulation

“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”

 – Viktor E. Frankl

“It is a choice. No matter how frustrating or boring or constraining or painful or oppressive our experience, we can always choose how we respond.”

– Edith Eger

“How you react emotionally is a choice in any situation.” 

– Judith Orloff

“My message for everyone is the same: that if we can learn to identify, express, and harness our feelings, even the most challenging ones, we can use those emotions to help us create positive, satisfying lives.” 

–  Marc Brackett

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

– Viktor Frankl

“You can conquer almost any fear if you will only make up your mind to do so. For remember, fear doesn’t exist anywhere except in the mind.” 

– Dale Carnegie

“When a man is prey to his emotions, he is not his own master.”

– Benedict de Spinoza

“If your emotional abilities aren’t in hand, if you don’t have self-awareness, if you are not able to manage your distressing emotions, if you can’t have empathy and have effective relationships, then no matter how smart you are, you are not going to get very far.”

 – Daniel Goleman

“We are dangerous when we are not conscious of our responsibility for how we behave, think, and feel.

 – Marshall B. Rosenberg

“Your emotions are the slaves to your thoughts, and you are the slave to your emotions.”

- Elizabeth Gilbert

Quotes With a Similar Message

Finally, let’s look at a few of the most famous quotes that convey a similar meaning as our quote of the day.

"When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves."

– Viktor E. Frankl

"No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

– Eleanor Roosevelt

"The greatest discovery of any generation is that a human can alter his life by altering his attitude."

– William James

"The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others."

– Mahatma Gandhi

"I am not a product of my circumstances. I am a product of my decisions."

– Stephen R. Covey

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference."

– Serenity Prayer

"Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."

– Winston Churchill

"Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."

– Helen Keller

“I judge you unfortunate because you have never lived through misfortune. You have passed through life without an opponent— no one can ever know what you are capable of, not even you.”

– Seneca the Younger

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

– Marcus Aurelius

"How people treat you is their karma; how you react is yours."

– Wayne Dyer

Stoicism as a Tool to Change Your Mindset

It’s tempting to try and live life in a way that keeps us free from troubles, but trouble will find us one way or another. Things are going to happen to you in life that is unexpected– both the good and the bad– and there’s nothing you can do about it. What you can do is learn to become self-aware and be thoughtful about how you respond to the things that happen to you in life.

If you’re searching for tools to help you be more thoughtful in this exact way, Stoicism is a philosophy you’ll want to learn more about. Check out the rest of our Stoic Quotes blog for more articles, inspirational quotes, and philosophical musings.

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Written by: Sophia Merton
Sophia received her BA from Vassar College and has always maintained a deep interest in the question of how best to live one’s life. She hopes to help others understand how they can apply Stoicism in their day-to-day lives in order to become the person they want to be, embrace the present moment, pursue their purposes, and rid themselves of unnecessary anxiety.

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