An Ancient Philosophy for Modern Times
A Roman Emperor, a football coach, a U.S. president, and a publishing mogul walk into a bar.
No, I’m not about to tell you a bad joke. I’m going to share something interesting. This group would have a great time together talking about something they all have in common. They all ascribe to Stoicism. (I’ll tell you who they are at the end of the column.)
Stoicism is an ancient Greco/Roman philosophy that is perfect for these difficult days. Wait, don’t stop reading because you think philosophy is useless, just a bunch of folks sitting around pondering. Stoicism is action oriented. It’s all about doing.
Adopting the Stoic philosophy is giving people the resilience they need to thrive. And it’s more popular than ever, permeating all aspects of life. It’s in movies like Shawshank Redemption, lyrics of rap songs, TV shows like “Star Trek,” and Ryan Holiday’s bestselling business book, The Obstacle Is the Way.
What exactly is Stoicism? “A tool to use in pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance, and wisdom. Something one uses to live a great life,” according to Ryan Holiday’s The Daily Stoic. It provides the strength, wisdom and stamina for all of life’s challenges.
There are four essential values in Stoic philosophy. They are courage, temperance, justice and wisdom. The Stoics believe that everything we face in life is an opportunity to respond with these four values.
Courage – When the world throws misfortune your way, you can look at it as a tragedy, or you can look at it as an opportunity to do something about it, which takes courage.
Temperance – Moderation allows us to do the right thing in the right amount of time. It helps keep courage in check. Too much courage can result in recklessness. Temperance is about doing nothing in excess.
Justice – It’s important to be brave and to keep a sense of balance, but the Stoics tell us that at the heart of it all is the will to do the right thing. Marcus Aurelius said, “Justice is the source of all the other virtues. Fighting for ideals that matter, moving towards what is right in a world with so much wrong.” Stoics not only see the world for what it is; they see it for what it can be.
Wisdom – This virtue helps determine answers to certain questions offered in The Daily Stoic: “What situations call for courage? What is the right amount? What is the right thing to do?” It’s important to acquire knowledge, but you want to acquire the right kind of knowledge. In today’s world it can be difficult to separate the important facts from the noise.
In Stoicism the most important discipline to master is the dichotomy of control. This is the ability to differentiate between what we can change and what we can’t. Stoicism emphasizes the use of rational logic instead of impulsive behavior. It is important to make the critical distinction between the things that are in your power and the things that are not. Examples of things in our power are our emotions, judgments, creativity, attitude, perspective, decisions and determination. Things you can’t control are a flight being canceled or a traffic jam that makes you late or the weather ruining your plans. It’s your reaction to the things you can’t change that is most critical. You can throw a tantrum, pound the steering wheel, or start spewing words that most of us would rather not hear. But the time and energy you expend on things you can’t change is time not spent on things that you can.
Let’s talk about how Stoicism can be used at work.
According to Marcus Aurelius, “Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can, eliminate it. You’ll have more time and more tranquility. Ask yourself at every moment, is this necessary.” Other questions to ask yourself:
- Does it have to be this way?
- Why am I doing this?
- What would happen if I changed?
In his book Essentialism, The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, Greg McKeown says that essentialism involves doing less but better so you can make the highest possible contribution. It replaces the ideas of having and doing it all with the pursuit of the right thing, in the right way, at the right time. You regain control of your choices when you apply a more selective criteria for what is essential. The Stoic virtues can keep us grounded and more productive.
In her Workplace Leadership article “Stoicism in the workplace: a new look at an old philosophy,”Johanna Leggatt tells us that an important tenet of Stoicism is not wasting time but instead living every day as though it could be your last. Seneca offers a very helpful method for ensuring that we make the most of the present moment. Ask yourself these three questions:
- How am I better today?
- What did I do with my time?
- What were my outcomes?
Holding yourself accountable each day will ensure you get things done.
Stoicism can help you find peace and clarity at work by helping you reduce stress. Ryan Holiday offers some Stoic ways to ease stress.
Divide and Conquer – Remember the dichotomy of control: separating things we can control from things we can’t. When you stop worrying about what is not in your control, you have more energy to put toward the things you can influence. Dichotomy of control promotes resource allocation and eliminates unnecessary stress by not worrying about what is not up to you.
Dissect the Source – The next time you are feeling stressed or anxious, stop and analyze it. Ask: “Where is this coming from? Am I bringing this on myself?” It’s natural for stress to creep into your life. Just don’t let it stay there for no good reason.
Use Cognitive Distancing – This is best summed up by Epictetus who said, “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinion of things.” Cognitive distancing is the ability to separate our judgment from the external event.
2020 threw a few personal tragedies my way, and I can tell you from my experience, this stuff works. In this column, I’ve only touched the very tip of the iceberg. If this intrigues you at all, there is so much out there on Stoicism, an ancient philosophy for these modern times.
Oh, and as promised—Marcus Aurelius, Bill Belichick, Theodore Roosevelt and Arianna Huffington.