Stoicism: Practical philosophy for the 21st Century Professional
Learn how the Ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism can make you not only a happier person, but a better leader.
If my Linkedin feed is anything to go by, stoicism is making a comeback, after 1,838 years!
This is something that particular interests me, as firstly I read a fair bit of philosophy during my university years - in between drinking sessions of course, and secondly I was beginning to get a bit disillusioned with the positivity crowd. Personally I couldn't see how by just positively visualising my perfect career would somehow eventually get me there. There had to be something more, an alternative with more substance that resonated with me.
So I went searching and found stoicism! In this blog article I'll try and describe what stoicism is, its origins and how this ancient philosophy can be practically applied in the corporate world.
What is stoicismNow I hope I don't lose you here, but stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy developed by Zeno of Citium (yes, he had a long hipster beard) in 300 BC, that came out of The Cynics movement (apparently they shunned social conventions and lived as simply as dogs).
The word itself, stoicism, is derived from stoa, which literally translates as porch, which is exactly where Zeno would teach, give lectures and probably stroke his beard. His school was also formed here.
Stoicism really is a way of life that needs to be practiced and mastered every day. The good thing is, the main teachings are simple, logical and built for action - not endless discussion and debate. The main principles of stoicism are:
- Reminding us of how unpredictable and chaotic life can be - there really are a lot of external things that are completely out of our control;
- How brief life really is;
- How to control our emotions;
- The art of negative visualisation.
The three most famous Stoic leaders were: Marcus Aurelius, the emperor of the Roman Empire; Epictetus, who endured the horrors of ancient slavery; and Seneca, who was a Roman statesman that was ordered to commit suicide by the crazy Roman emperor Nero. They had plenty of teachings, and I'd like to share just a few that can be implemented and practiced.
4 key teachings from the Stoic Leaders
1. You can't change things outside of your control, but you can control your response to them
“You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
A key principle of stoicism is to be able to recognise events in life and work, that you do, and do not, have control over. If you become emotional or frustrated over events that you have no control over, you are wasting your valuable energy. However, you can control how you respond to the event.
When applying this to the workplace it is important to quickly determine if an event is within or outside your control. If it is outside of your control, first take some time to digest, seek clarity, and then choose how you would wish to respond. Avoid immediate reaction at all costs, as it's usually negative!
2. Make the best use of your time
“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested."
In other words, live your life with intention and be the master of your own time. When applying this to the workplace, follow these golden rules:
- Don't procrastinate
- Set intentions for the day
- Create daily to-do lists
3. Forgive others, but be hard on yourself
“Search others for their virtues, thyself for thy vices.”
- Benjamin Franklin
When you look at your team members behaviours, skills, knowledge and input, you should look for positives. Consider what you can learn from them as well as show gratitude towards them. Be more reflective and identify how you can improve yourself.
Stoicism teaches us that we should be realistic and forgiving of others, but ambitious and aggressive in how we push ourselves. Your standards need to be set high, and you should be working hard every day to meet those standards. This balance is important as it helps us grow and find happiness.
4. The power of negative visualisation
I'm not talking about being a negative person in life or at work, that isn't cool. However the buck is beginning to turn on positive visualisations. Positive visualisation is where you imagine winning that big new client, or pay rise, or shiny new job, and through the power of these positive thoughts they say that the universe will somehow deliver.
Constantly doing this can lead to what psychologists call the hedonic treadmill. The human mind is insatiable, and positive visualisations will eventually leave us feeling unfulfilled, dissatisfied and possibly miserable.
Good news though, the stoics have a remedy for this! The concept basically is that you should spend some time each day contemplating losing the things that you value the most, for example, imagine losing your job. Yes this does sound a little bleak, but they're onto something here.
They understood that everything we value in life is really just on loan to us, and that any of it can be recalled at a moments notice through an event that might be out of our control. Understanding this helps us appreciate what we've got, encourages us to live in the moment, and makes us truly appreciate what we have today.
In conclusionIn this article I've really only just scratched the surface, and I do understand that Stoicism might not be for everyone, but it really is a tool that can be practically applied to help us become a better person, friend, partner, colleague, employee and employer. Living by the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism has genuinely made me a happier person, and a better leader.
Check out some of these great reads:
- Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
- The Daily Stoic, Ryan Holiday
- The Obstacle Is The Way, Ryan Holiday
- Stoicism and The Art of Happiness, Donald Robertson