Dealing With The Unduly Demanding In the Workplace by Greg Sadler

Say to yourself in the morning:  I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men.  All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill.  But I, because I have seen that the nature of good is the right, and of ill the wrong, and that the nature of the man himself who does wrong is akin to my own . . . I can neither be harmed by any of them, for not man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth.  To work against one another therefore is to oppose nature, and to be vexed with each other or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism. – Marcus Aurelius, 2.1

This passage is among the most often-cited in classic Stoic literature – and rightly so, since in it Marcus sets out an exercise that bears fruit in daily practice.  Notice several key things about it.  First of all, Marcus doesn’t excuse or euphemize anything about the characters or conduct of the people one is to anticipate encountering.  He doesn’t pretend that, deep down inside, they’re really decent people.  He labels them as what they are, picking out a number of negative character traits that presumably do actually apply to them.

Second, he reminds himself that these troublesome people are the way they are – and behave the ways that they do – because there’s something fundamentally screwed up in their own lives.  They are ignorant, mistaken, off-base about what genuinely is good and bad.  This itself is a bad state to be in, and they quite likely don’t even realize that this is the case.  Many of them will be convinced that they have matters fundamentally right, and that it is other people (perhaps even the whole rest of the world) who are messed up and mistaken.

Third, precisely because he does not share in their wrongheaded perspective – because he does know what the genuine natures of good and bad are, and because he understands how human choice, agency, and responsibility work – he draws some practical conclusions.  To get angry with those people, to hate them, to work against them, to turn away from them is to act against nature, and to do damage to oneself.  One should attempt to work cooperatively with them instead, one might then surmise, at least as best as one can.

Problems The Unduly Demanding Pose

But what about people who are unduly and unreasonably demanding?  People who take advantage of your repeated attempts to be reasonable with them?  People who view you adopting a Stoic attitude as a sign of weakness, and vulnerability to be exploited?  Let’s go even further.  What about people who have already displayed disrespect, denigrated and downgraded you, demanded more of you than is their due – people who have already developed a track-record of treating you – and likely many other people – badly, unjustly, wrongly?  Is Marcus’ approach still applicable?  Or does it just lay you in for more mistreatment?

This represents a serious challenge for the Stoic prokopton in the contemporary workplace.  We have not only the age-old challenges of dealing with the sort of misguided and morally underdeveloped people Marcus describes – and the proportion of them in our own times is quite likely similar to that in his own – we also live in a time when one constant theme in the workplace is doing more with less, getting more out of everything and everyone.  Many workplaces are already stressful on their own, and continuing to have steady employment, clients, or income can be unpredictable, precarious, subject to whims and wishes of those who temporarily possess the power to decide those matters.  (This isn’t everyone’s experience, of course – some people would say that their work life is wonderful, exciting, fantastic. . .  or at the very least uneventful, all right, and satisfactorily remunerative).

Dealing with unduly demanding people presents particular obstacles for the Stoic.  They are not the run-of-the-mill problematic persons encountered in the workplace.  We’re not talking about those who every once in a while blow up in stressful situations, or occasionally add extra work to your plate through their own poor planning and last-minute panics.  Nor do I mean people with idiosyncratic needs that remain more or less constant once you find out about them (the person, for example, who is a stickler for a regular report being done a certain way).

What I mean by the “unduly demanding” is the kind of person keeps making new demands on top of older ones (which you’ve probably met or attempted to fulfill).  They never admit full satisfaction with work you do.  This sort of person can always find one more thing that should be changed, added, reworked.  By the time that you realize that you’re dealing with something and someone who just keeps unreasonably demanding more, and you start to push back and establish limits, you are usually already mired in a relationship that becomes more and more difficult the more you attempt to make sense of it.

The unduly demanding might be your boss, an owner, a customer, a client, a team-member, a teacher, a supplier.  They could be a colleague, a business partner, a subordinate, an employee, or a student.  They might even be a family member, or a friend (though not a real friend from a Stoic perspective), a neighbor.  These categories sometimes blur together even in normal interactions.  But with the unduly demanding, that dynamic is even more common, as they play off confusions and conflations of multiple relationships, with their differing obligations and limits, to their advantage.  At one moment, they are your boss and expect to be treated as such, and in another they want to be your friend, since that entitles them to a different kind of treatment.

Reasonable expectations, good faith, reciprocity – these are what they count on from you, and may talk about quite a bit (in some cases, even teach about!), but they don’t provide these in return.  And should you point out the imbalances, the undue demands, the inconsistencies – as experience all too often shows – you can expect to be undermined, dismissed, or attacked.   You’ll inevitably be the “bad guy” in the story as they tell it – to themselves, to others, and to you.

Stoic Perspectives on The Unduly Demanding

Dealing with the unduly demanding is difficult for nearly everyone.  In my practice, I have observed workplaces where employees become progressively demoralized.  They fulfill tasks assigned them, only to be told that they have done those tasks wrong, that they should have done something they were not told to do (or sometimes even explicitly told not to do), that they should have been doing something else. . . it goes on and on.

Passive resignation is one coping response for dealing with mercurial, never satisfied supervisors, who then will likely accuse employees of failing to show proper initiative.  “I never know what so-and-so wants, so I just do whatever he tells me, and then wait for him to tell me how to do it again, do it differently. I think he doesn’t even know what he really wants . .  But, I get paid whatever he decides.”  That is not a recipe for workplace satisfaction, for taking pride and ownership in one’s work. Wherever you find them, the unduly demanding exercise a corrosive influence on other people and on organizations.

When faced with dealing with the unduly demanding, what sort of perspective and practices  can one adopt?  Can Stoic philosophy help us deal successfully with people who routinely make excessive, progressive, and even contradictory demands upon us in the workplace?  The answer is yes, and the first way is by providing us with useful perspective on the basic problem, once we realize what – and who – we are dealing with.

Consider first how Stoicism would view the unduly demanding person him or herself.  People behave the way that they do because – at least at that time – they have the view that what they are doing makes sense.  Put a bit more formally, they believe that the course of action that they choose is right, reasonable, appropriate.  So, for example, they think on some level that it is entirely all right to ask someone to do work along clearly defined lines for a certain amount of compensation, then to tell them that the product is not what they wanted, and to demand that the work be redone.  It may even make sense to them – in moral terms – that they repeat this process over and over, shifting direction, adding more tasks, expanding the scope of what was originally assigned or agreed upon.

The Stoic can say:  This person has clearly got a mistaken understanding of what is good or bad for human beings.  So, it is quite understandable that this person desires and is averse to the wrong things, chooses and acts the wrong ways, gets mixed up about their own and other’s duties, exhibits excessive or misoriented emotional responses, adopts the wrong perspectives on matters, and operates with a host of mistaken beliefs and judgements.  It also is not surprising from the Stoic perspective that the person exhibits inconsistencies, since their life, psyche, and relationships are beset by conflicts and contradictions (machai, to use Epictetus’ term).

In the case of the unduly demanding person, their basic mindset doesn’t rest on a simple (let alone single) misunderstanding that could be quickly cleared up.  As those who set themselves upon and labor along the Stoic path well know, improving oneself requires attention, discipline, and choosing over and over again to remain on course (and to get oneself back on it, when one departs).  It requires self-examination, admitting one’s failures and deficits, breaking and remaking habits, deliberately shifting one’s desires and aversions.  The unduly demanding person is far worse off, Stoically speaking, than those of us who are making some progress (even if with some setbacks and backsliding).  Within their personalities, they have developed at least some of the habitual dispositions that Stoic philosophy calls vices, which take many specific shapes and forms.

Dealing With Them As A Stoic

For the would-be Stoic, one set of difficulties in dealing with unduly demanding people arise from the very ideals and goals of Stoic philosophy.  The Stoic aim of living in accordance with nature – classically understood as developing and living in accordance with the cardinal virtues – is one of these.  Classifying things that we might desire, value, choose as either good, bad or indifferent – that is another key aspect.  Making the distinction between what is in our control and what is not.  Fulfilling the duties or obligations that we either have chosen to take on, or find ourselves tasked with because of our roles and relationships.  Deliberately working on ourselves, rather than requiring the world, or circumstances, social dynamics, or other people themselves to change to suit us.  Paying attention to our emotional responses and the associated assumptions and judgements, and gradually bringing our passions into line with right reason.  All of these are important components of a Stoic approach to life in general, and work in particular.

Typically, when people prudently apply these key distinctions and precepts of Stoic philosophy within their workplace and in the matrix of their relationships – although doing so requires some time – the results they experience are that they are able to do their job better, they get involved in less conflicts with others in the workplace, they get more tasks done that they can take some satisfaction in, and in some cases they may actually find themselves flourishing at work.  This requires figuring out for oneself what one’s priorities ought to be, where one’s genuine good lies, what duties one really does need to fulfill.

The Stoic prokopton learns how to let many things go, recognizing them as externals and as indifferents, and focuses upon what really is within one’s power, what is genuinely good or bad for oneself.  In the workplace, this might mean realizing that the negative attitudes or actions of one’s coworkers are their own business, and that allowing those to affect one is at some level a choice that could be made differently.  To use Epictetus’ metaphor, everything comes with a cost, and it is up to us what we think is worth what price.  If getting the report done that I am tasked with compiling requires that I once again email a reminder (that I’m tempted to think is really unnecessary, if so-and-so had a good work ethic, was responsible, etc.), then that is the price of tranquility.

Following this course would seem to put us at a disadvantage when our co-worker, our supervisor, our client, or our customer turns out to be someone unduly demanding.  We accommodate ourselves to them, so that we can, as so many of the Stoics suggested, do our part, precisely as a part of a larger whole.  They don’t do that, but instead press their partial claims even more strongly. We grasp the problem they present to us by the proverbial handle by which we can carry it, and then we discover that they add even more weight to the burden we are trying to carry.  But maybe we are wrong to get upset when this happens.  Perhaps that is the time when we ought to double down on our Stoic self-discipline?  Should we remind ourselves that the things that other person focuses on are really indifferents and externals that we can afford to let them “win”?  Aren’t we supposed to live out the principle that the only real harm that can come to us derives from our own choices, desires, thoughts, actions, and attitudes – not from what other people do, say, think, or feel?  Doesn’t one have to “bear and forbear,” if one is going to really try to be a Stoic?

When one goes down that path of thinking about Stoicism and considers responses to unduly demanding people, there are two things that need to be emphasized.  The first is that while we may take the legendary sage for an ideal, we must recognize that we are nowhere near that level of self-control, fortitude, and practical wisdom (those of you who are, feel free to ignore this!).  The sage can treat the unduly demanding just like any other foolish person, but the rest of us have to recognize our own vulnerabilities to those “toxic” people and their characteristic dynamics that we can get drawn into.  The second is that, if we look at what Stoic authors and figures actually do say – and do – this will lead us to developing a more adequate, and authentically Stoic response when dealing with unduly demanding people.

Why Might A Stoic Push Back?

When faced with troublesome situations, actions, and persons, the Stoic response will not always be – as some mistakenly represent it – withdrawing into the “inner citadel”, accommodating oneself, patiently enduring whatever another person does, construing their behavior as simply “their business”.  There are conditions in which Stoic philosophy and concrete Stoic examples indicate that a different approach is required.  Unduly demanding people, precisely because they keep pressing their claims, pushing their narratives, altering agreements or assignments, place us in those conditions more often than do other people.

Justice is among the cardinal virtues recognized by Stoics.  It is not only entirely legitimate for a person to stand up for him or herself when motivated by considerations of justice and injustice; in some cases, it may even be obligatory.  Unduly demanding persons are unjust in multiple manners, for not only do they make demands that go beyond what is their due, and not only do they refuse to give other people what they deserve, they do something else.  They claim that they are the ones who are just and that the others – who typically are behaving justly – are the ones who are unjust.

Consider the employer who alters the expectations about the days and hours employees are required to work, demanding that they now come in on weekends, “just to help out” (which then transforms into the “new normal”).   Or expecting they show up uncompensated at company events, which at first are framed as “voluntary” and then as “required if you know what is good for you”.  Paying employees for only some of the time they are actually working, arranging schedules in order to avoid paying actual overtime – these sorts of workplace abuses are genuine injustices.  The fact that they concern something that strictly speaking is an indifferent – money – does not mean that these practices, and the persons who engage in them, are any less unjust.  And if you examine classic Stoic authors and texts – take Cicero’s On Duties, and Seneca’s On Anger as examples – you will see that Stoic ethics will at times counsel us to actively engage ourselves against injustice.

If we do not orient ourselves rightly – presenting some prudent measure of resistance – when faced with the unduly demanding, then the injustice that takes place may not affect only ourselves.  If one is earning a living not only for oneself alone but for one’s family, for example, allowing oneself to be deprived of one’s fair wages, salary, benefits, fees, or other compensation likely has negative consequences for those others dependent upon oneself.  The costs can go far beyond money, though.  It might be time and attention that one can devote to or share with others.  It could be in the coin of one’s very energy, moods, affection – for the Stoic-in-development, the emotional energy required to deal with the unduly demanding draws upon finite reserves, and results in there being less for others who have a better claim upon it.

Courage is another important virtue relevant when dealing with the unduly demanding.  It does require some modicum of courage to stand up for oneself and for others.  As Epictetus counsels us in Enchiridion 10, whatever situation we encounter, we should look within ourselves and see what resources, what capacity (dunamis) we have for properly dealing with (khresis) those things. In the case of the unduly demanding, courage is one we need as an adjunct to justice. Cicero provides some helpful advice and clarification:

 If [courage] is devoid of justice and fights for selfish ends instead of for the common good, it is a vice. . . The Stoics, therefore, correctly define courage as ‘that virtue which champions the cause of right’. . . . .[W]e demand that those who are courageous and great-souled also be good and straightforward, lovers of truth and foes to deception; for these qualities are at the core of justice. (On Duties, 1.19)

Proper use (khresis) of external and indifferent things – matters that are strictly speaking outside of our control, and subject to others or to the workings of the universe – is a central, though at times, overlooked feature of Stoic ethics.  Just because something does not fall within the scope of what is in our control, or what has intrinsic value as good or bad, does not mean at all that we ought to adopt an attitude of complete indifference.  Instead, we ought to consider what use we make of those things, or how we deal with them, if you like (both good ways to translate the Greek khresis one sees referenced so often in Epicteus’ Discourses and Arius Didymus’ Epitome of Stoic Ethics).  The use of externals – like wealth, position, reputation, relationships, our bodies – is something that is in our control and for which we are responsible. Giving in to the unduly demanding will generally prevent, or at least hinder and diminish, making proper use of those externals.

A Few Useful Practices

There is another side to dealing with unduly demanding people at work – what one can and ought to do for oneself – and Stoic philosophy provides practices and insights useful for that.  Here, I’ll outline just four of these: reminding yourself about your own priorities; prudently expecting people to behave as they do; minimizing emotional entanglements; visualization of negative situations; and, sticking to a truthful narrative.  Each of these reflects one dimension of the “care of the self”, an idea going all the way back to Socrates, and further elaborated through Stoic philosophy and practice.

What is it that you want from work?  That is a useful question to ask, in order to put matters into perspective.  Most of us work because we need an income, and from the Stoic perspective, money is not simply indifferent, entirely neutral in value – it is a preferred indifferent.  We often desire (and sometimes get) other things we value through work, ranging from social status or positions, to relationships with people in the workplace, to experience and opportunities.  Many people also find some sort of satisfaction within the work they do, in performing their distinctive duties well, in benefitting other people.  Stoics counsel that we ought to also keep the development and activity expressive of the virtues – or for Epictetus, maintaining our faculty of choice in accordance with nature – at the top of our priorities.  It is fortunate when we can have it all.  But, when we find ourselves stuck dealing with the unduly demanding, we should expect that, sooner or later, we have to make choices and sacrifices.  And if we want to be happy, free, undisturbed, those will need to reflect Stoic prioritizations.

People can and do change their lives in dramatic ways, but that is the exception rather than the rule.  The commonplace, “for people to change they have to want to change,” is quite true from a Stoic perspective.  Barring some drastic shift in personality or unusual epiphany on their part, it is prudent to expect that the unduly demanding person will continue their negative behavior in all of its different modes.  So, as much as possible, don’t make anything important depend on them changing in general, or even doing anything differently in a particular case.  Expect them to continue following their mistaken conception of what the good is for them and for human beings in general, which will lead them to making unreasonable demands on you.  Make sure that expectations, benchmarks, and agreements are as explicitly specified as possible.  Try to minimize room for reinterpretation, adding in new things, shifting direction, or expanding scope on their part.  It is a sign of a generous spirit to offer people second chances, but by the time you’ve realized you’re dealing with someone who is unduly demanding, they have long since passed that point.

One Stoic practice commonly used to address a wide variety of potential problems is negative visualization, and that is particularly helpful in dealing with the unduly demanding in the workplace.  Before engaging with people of that sort, one can devote some time to thinking about how the interaction might go.  One of the features of the unduly demanding that makes them hard to work with is precisely the fact that they surprise the reasonable person with unreasonable additional demands, unjust complaints and assessments, false narratives of what has taken place.  So instead of hoping that the interaction will, contrary to past experience, go well, why not imagine to yourself that they will behave as they so often do?  Doing so enables you to consider just how bad things might be – and whether they are really as bad as you fear –  as well as what response or resources you could bring to bear.  It brings your likely emotional responses (like fear, anger, or embarrassment) to light ahead of time, so you can examine some of the associated thoughts, assumptions and judgements, work on those, and thereby not have to feel them (or at least, feel them less) in the actual situations.

As a last note, although it can be tempting, engaging with the unduly demanding over the narrative about what took place, who did or didn’t do things, what was said or wasn’t said, or what should be the case, is guaranteed to be unproductive.  They already have their story, in which they are the good, reasonable person and you are the one who let them down, who hasn’t done enough, who misunderstood matters, who deliberately did wrong (or whatever else they require to be the case).  Although it may have some elements to truth to it, on the whole it will be false.  It will likely change over time, as they modify it to fit their shifting desires and aversions, and it will be rife with inconsistencies.  It will be tempting to try to set the record straight – and you may need to do that with other parties – but that will not be possible with the unduly demanding, since one of their constant demands is that their version of things be accepted.  Reminding yourself that you know the true story (or at least a truer version of events), and that the unduly demanding distance themselves from truth by their own choice, can liberate you from entanglements and trouble.  At the very least, you align yourself with the truth that is one of the core desires of healthy human nature.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He has created over 100 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Stoicism and Modern Farming by Scott Hebert

“But if a person studies philosophy and farms at the same time, I would not offer any other way of life to him; nor would I advocate another occupation”  (Musonius Rufus, Lecture 11.3)

 

The odds are in on successfully starting a business and I’ve got some bad news.

Starting any type of business is extremely difficult. Knowing that I had the bright idea to start something with an even higher chance of failure, I wanted to start a farm. I fell in love with the idea that I could have a business that positively interacted with the environment, produced the best food in the world and gave me an income I could live on. It seemed like the best way I could make a positive impact in the world, in my community and in my life.

Consequently, earning one’s living from farming is noble, blessed, and god-favored, as is paying attention to nobility of character. – Musonius Rufus, Lecture 11.4

I went on a long quest to find profitable farming models that would fit within that framework. I found out about vegetable growing operations and when the time was right I sprang into action. In the fall of 2015 I started my own market garden.

With farming, you must deal with pests, weather, government regulations, and market fluctuations but I also had the added challenges of having no experience, little money, destructive habits, and I was still working a full-time job. I was on a slippery slope with a mountain of work in front of me.

How are you going to react when your world starts to fall apart around you? The answer for me has been Stoicism. My adventure into learning about farming and about Stoicism followed a similar timeline and sequence. At first, I was fresh and naïve on both, as I read and learned more I started to see results and now, even though I still feel new to both, I’m at a point where I can start to share my experiences and give back to others.

I found out about small-scale farms and had done a design course, some workshops and read a lot of books but I was stuck in a dead-end job working with my dad at his kitchen cabinet shop. I wasn’t going to abandon him and had repeatedly asked him for an exit strategy but, like a lot of conversations between father and son, my requests fell on deaf ears. Over the years it had morphed from a business into a lousy job and I felt trapped in a situation I couldn’t get out of. Everything was showing signs of age from hose lines splitting, to saws and drills, the company vehicles and even our relationship, everything was deteriorating. Feeling trapped and without autonomy I was making bad choices in life. I was fostering unhealthy relationships, drinking too much, and spending money on useless things, like a nice truck, that I thought would bring me happiness.

In the summer of 2015, after a particularly bad week of things breaking, we were on coffee break when my dad said to me, “We are shutting the shop down in two months.” My heart sank, I thought I would be given at least 6 months to 1-year notice but two months?! This was not an ideal situation but if this was how it was going to end I was going to do what I could.

CHOOSE YOUR TEACHERS

We are in the habit of saying that it was not in our power to choose the parents who were allotted to us, that they were given to us by chance. But we can choose whose children we would like to be. – Seneca, On the Shortness of Life

Anytime I brought up wanting to start a farm my dad drilled into my head that farms don’t make money. It sent me on a long journey to find a profitable model that I could emulate on my property. By the time my dad said we had 2 months left at the shop my best lead was something called SPIN Farming. SPIN (Small Plot Intensive) farming was a vegetable production system that focused on direct marketing high profit crops farmed intensively with hand tools on a small land base.

Since I had no experience farming I decided that I would look for the best SPIN farmer within a weekends drive of me and try to line up a consultation to see how all this might work. I was very lucky and had subscribed to a podcast where I found out about this SPIN farmer named Curtis who lived only 2 1/2 hours drive away from me. I emailed him and we set up a consultation a month later. He told me to come prepared, that he had some videos on YouTube, and had a series on the podcast I had listened to where they did a week by week account of what was happening on his farm.

HARD WINTER TRAINING

We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared. – Epictetus, Discourses, 1.2.32

I still had 7 weeks left at the cabinet shop with my dad so my days consisted of going to work, coming home and trying to learn everything I could about SPIN farming and listening to the podcast. Within a few weeks my dream had started to seem very tangible. On the podcasts Curtis mentioned a course he was starting, I was intrigued so I searched for it and found out about his new online course: Profitable Urban Farming.

It was incredible timing and exactly what I needed to go all in on my idea. It was a 10-week, self directed online course. I still had 2 weeks before I was going to see him, this was going to be a hard two weeks but I knew what I had to do. Even though I was still working a full-time job with my dad I signed up for the course and did most of the 10-week course in 2, after work and on the weekends. By the time I was going to see him I had already torn up the lawn around my house and I had decided to do a small local Kickstarter to raise some money and market my farm.

The meeting went well because of the work I had done. After the job with my dad ended I went and got a full-time job at an architectural mill working company and did all my farming/learning after work and on weekends. Within 3 months of coming home from seeing Curtis I had sales at restaurants, within 5 months I had successfully ran my Kickstarter where I raised $5600 to help fund my farm.

I kept working hard from the summer of 2015, straight through fall and well into the winter, trying to put myself in the best possible position for my first season in Spring 2016.

CLARITY OF PURPOSE

In small-scale farming labor is your biggest cost so having an efficient farm is the only way to make any money. The Kickstarter helped me out but I was going to need around $20,000 to get all the tools that I would need to be super efficient on my farm. The only problem was I didn’t have $20,000 but I did have a $20,000 truck.

The reason we make mistakes is because we all consider the parts of life, but never life as a whole. – Seneca, Letter 71.2

I had bought the truck because I thought it would make me happy. I can’t pinpoint exactly how I thought it would make me happy, maybe I thought it would earn me status and respect, but it did not. I was still the same person just with a nice truck that I couldn’t really afford.

When a man does not know what harbour he is making for, no wind is the right wind. – Seneca Letter 71.3

I knew where I wanted to end up: I wanted to have a successful farm. Having a farm was so much more important to me than having that truck it was an easy decision to make. One funny thing that I did not expect to happen was other people became very sad for me, they were disappointed I ‘had’ to sell my truck. I didn’t ‘have’ to sell it, I wanted to start my farm. I weighed the pros and cons and at the end of 2015 I sold my truck and bought a cheap car. 

COURAGE TO SEE THINGS AS THEY ARE

In 6 months, my life had been through a whirlwind of change but some old habits die hard. I had been drinking less but I was still drinking a lot.

“Show how base it is to pour down more liquor than one can carry, and not to know the capacity of one’s own stomach; show how often the drunkard does things which make him blush when he is sober; state that drunkenness is nothing but a condition of insanity purposely assumed. Prolong the drunkard’s condition to several days; will you have any doubt about his madness? Even as it is, the madness is no less; it merely lasts a shorter time.” – Seneca, Letter 83.18

If that quote is true, I was a madman. I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol, I drank to get drunk. I didn’t want to feel my feelings, living in reality and dealing with life is tough and I wanted to be numb to my problems. The easy choice is often the wrong choice and the easy choice of going for a bottle was easier than dealing with everything I had to deal with. It started off innocent at first, I’d have a drink with a friend or pour myself a drink before bed. I started having extreme anxiety at night because I felt guilty about the choices I was making. Instead of facing my problems I let it escalate. The hangovers were bad but the moral hangovers were worse. I couldn’t sleep because of the anxiety and I would feel terrible the next day which would make me go for a drink earlier and earlier. Soon having an afternoon drink didn’t seem that unreasonable. Instead of doing my work I’d hang out with shallow friends and waste the entire day. A wasted day would turn into a wasted weekend and eventually it was way out of control. I’d wake up late still slightly drunk from the night before knowing that a wicked hangover was on its way so I’d have a drink well before lunchtime.

It takes a lot of courage to live in reality. When you see things as they are, not as you want them to be you must face some hard truths. One morning I had to face the truth: I had a problem.

One morning I went to the fridge and poured myself a stiff drink. I stood in front of my sink with the bottle on the counter and a glass in my hand and thought of the Stoic virtue of courage. Did I have the courage to see things as they were or was I going to keep on pretending everything was fine? Will you make the easy choice or the hard choice? I told myself it would be fine to have this one last drink then I will quit tomorrow, or maybe next week, or maybe I could just take a break for a couple days. I was trying to justify things instead of being courageous, it was a tough pill to swallow. I ended up pouring that drink down the sink followed by the rest of the bottle. I’ve still had some stumbles with alcohol after that but they were minor and I’m proud to say I now live a sober lifestyle.

THE DICHOTOMY OF CONTROL 

For the 2016 growing season I had chosen 2 different revenue streams to sell at, I was going to do restaurant sales and sell at a farmer’s market. I had gone down to working 4 days a week at my new job so I could have 1 day to deliver to restaurants and the farmer’s market was on a Saturday. It was going to be a lot of work, especially for the summer months, but it’s what I had to do to start my business. I had gone to the farmers market at the end of 2015 and had spoken with the manager about selling there in 2016, I was told it wouldn’t be an issue.

The applications came out in the spring and I quickly sent mine in with all my information attached. I was doing sales calls at restaurants as well as finishing building all my farm infrastructure. It was a very stressful time because I had a lot of work to do and it was my first time doing any of it. The weeks crept closer to the start of the farm market season and my crops were doing well, everything was going to be ready just in time. I still hadn’t gotten confirmation of my status at the market so I called the manager and he told me not to worry, I hadn’t been approved yet but it wasn’t going to be an issue. I had my doubts but I had too many other things to do to worry about this specific problem.

Men are not disturbed by things which happen, but by the opinions about the things. – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 5.1

2 weeks before the start of the farm market season I received this e-mail in response to an email I had sent weeks before:

Yes, finally at a meeting last night. I now know what their hesitation was about. We are not going to be able to offer you a space in the market. The selection committee feels that we are at capacity right now with the line of products that you are offering. They are concerned that if we add more of the same, it will just water down the result for everyone.

Sorry.”

I wanted to colour my experience with negativity and take it personally. “HOW COULD THEY DO THIS TO ME? DON’T THEY REALIZE HOW HARD I’VE BEEN WORKING? THEY LIED TO ME.” But I didn’t, I stared at the e-mail in slight disbelief. I thought to myself, “This isn’t bad, it’s different. Do something.” With Stoicism, you need to default on action, it is not a passivist philosophy, it’s supposed to lead you to the correct action. I needed to take some sort of action, I couldn’t stall in this moment. I had been telling people I was going to this farmers market, they were going to be in a panic when I told them I didn’t get in and if I didn’t have an answer for my next move their reaction would make me panic. It was too late to get into a different farmer’s market that would work with my schedule. I sat at my computer for a couple minutes and thought through my options. I went on my website and made a new page for a “buying club” idea that I had. I would do restaurants and the buying club. Fire put out, crises adverted.

THE OBSTACLE BECOMES THE WAY

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. -Marcus Aurelius, 5.20

In the end, the buying club idea ended up being a big failure but I’m happy I did something in that moment. A few weeks later I was contacted by another brand new local farmers market that was closer to my house. It seemed like a great opportunity but it also ended up being a bust. Nearly through my first season I had some restaurant sales and no other sales outlets. I had overproduction on all my crops and I was burning out badly between my day job and my farm. One of my mentors had recently started selling his lettuce to grocery stores and, even though it was my first season, I had beautiful lettuce. I took samples to local grocery stores to inquire if they were interested in my products for next season. To my surprise all the stores I approached said yes. If I had been accepted into the farmers market I never would have had the time or a reason to approach the grocery stores.

DECATASTROPHICATION

Going into the start of my second season I was nervous. I had already been burned the year before by believing I had an outlet for my products and here I was doing the exact same thing. I was planning on selling to grocery stores but all I had was handshake agreements. A promise of a sale does not equal a sale, a sale equals a sale.

There are more things, Lucilius, likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality. – Seneca, Letter 13.4

I needed to spend some more money to upgrade my infrastructure so my products and packaging would be nice enough for the stores but I could do all that work and then have something happen at the end where the stores didn’t want my products. I couldn’t get the image of being rejected last minute again out of my mind, it was causing me a lot of stress. I have a great imagination and I could feel the pain of future rejection as a real experience already coming true, I could feel the shame of being a failure with a failed farm. I knew the odds of success, why did I think that I could do this? Why had I even started? All my past failure and wrongdoings bubbled to the surface. Everyone who rejected me in my life was right, I am a loser. Those people that doubted me were right, I am crazy. This was one of those moments again where I didn’t want to feel my feelings. It would be much easier to ignore everything and numb the pain. I wanted to take another trip to the bottom of a bottle.

How was I going to deal with this new challenge?

The Stoic concept of ‘negative visualization’ or ‘decatastrophication’ was a very useful tool for me in this situation.

I ran through my mind my most catastrophic worst-case scenario:

I pull into the parking lot. I grab my samples and I walk into the store and ask to talk with the manager. We shake hands, he’s happy to see me but the store is going a different direction. They don’t want my products. Thanks for coming in kid. I walk out of the store with my samples still in my hands. I have a field full of lettuce that I can’t sell and no other outlets to go to. What’s my next move? What was I going to do? Where was my farm at?

Well, since I had sold my truck to pay for everything I was out money but I wasn’t in debt for my farm so having a field of lettuce ready to sell wasn’t the worst thing. I might have to throw it in the compost but even that was just labor and if I didn’t have to harvest, wash and pack orders I would have time to do it. I still had a full-time job so I wasn’t relying on that income to pay my mortgage or my grocery bill. Maybe I could find another farmers market to go into, I had more time this year since I got a new job at a golf course. Maybe I could try some other ideas I had…

Suddenly after going through the exercise I didn’t feel quite as bad. It didn’t take away all my nervous energy but it allowed me to take the nervous energy I did have and turn it into something productive instead of something destructive. I would have to do this exercise every time the doubts became overwhelming.

You can put yourself in the best position for success to happen but you can’t place your happiness in expecting it to happen. One of the hardest lessons in life to learn is that you can do everything right and still have a negative outcome. Fortune doesn’t always smile on us, although, sometimes it does. My fears were not realized and I started selling to two local grocers where my products have been well received by the customers.

 Indeed, don’t let anyone say farming gets in the way of learning or teaching essential things. This is unlikely to happen as long as the student can be with the teacher and interact in the manner described above for as long as possible. Under these circumstances, farming seems to be the ideal occupation for a philosopher. – Musonius Rufus, Lecture 11.6

In farming, and in life, the question you start asking yourself isn’t, “is something going to go wrong?” but rather, “what’s going to go happen next?” You need to have an answer for how you’re going to deal with it all, for me, that answer has been Stoicism. Fate permitting it looks like things are in line for me to have a profitable business but we will see what Fortune has in store for my future.

Scott Hebert is the host of the Stoic Mettle podcast where he uses stories from his own life to bring Stoic quotes to life. He also interviews contemporary Stoics in the hope of learning more about Stoicism. He is the owner/operator of Flavourful Farms in Chilliwack, BC.

User Accounts Migration

Hi everyone,

We are in the process of migrating all user accounts from the Modern Stoicism WordPress site to our new Learn Modern Stoicism site hosted by Teachable.  This is an e-learning site that we will use to deliver Stoic Week, SMRT, and to provide resources such as videos from conferences.

All users of this site should have received three emails recently:

  1. An announcement from this domain (modernstoicism.com) saying that your account is being migrated to our new Learn Modern Stoicism site hosted by Teachable.
  2. A system-generated email from Learn Modern Stoicism (learn.modernstoicism.com) asking you to confirm your email for the account.
  3. An announcement from the new domain Learn Modern Stoicism (learn.modernstoicism.com) explaining the migration process.

All user accounts have now been removed from Modern Stoicism.  If you’re having problems logging into Learn Modern Stoicism just get in touch.  Alternatively, you can just set up a new account on Learn Modern Stoicism.

We’ve been planning to migrate accounts for a long time.  The existing WordPress site was suffering from performance problems as the numbers of users grew.  We currently have nearly 14,000 registered users, which is likely to grow in advance of Stoic Week 2017.

The main benefits of moving to Teachable are:

  1. The site is faster and more stable
  2. It’s more responsive and works better on mobile devices
  3. We have greater capacity to add larger numbers of new users
  4. Videos (hosted by Wistia) will stream faster and be more responsive
  5. We benefit from the e-learning features of Teachable
  6. The email notification system in Teachable works better
  7. There’s also an integrated iOS app for Apple users (an Android app will follow eventually)

I hope that information is of help.  Please get in touch if you have any more questions.

Donald Robertson

Press Release – Stoicon, Stoicon-Xs and Stoic Week 2017

As we gear up for Stoicon, Stoicon-X events (this year on 4 continents!), the Stoic Week course, and a number of events worldwide celebrating Stoic Week, we – the members of the Modern Stoicism organization – have a short press release ready to send out.  You can download the Press Release for Stoic Week 2017 here.

Please feel free to share this press release with any media outlets who you think would be interested in knowing about and publicizing Stoic Week 2017, the Stoicon and Stoicon-X conferences and events, and the work of the Modern Stoicism organization.  All of these are definitely newsworthy, and we hope to spread the word as widely as possible!

We will be updating – and that means significantly expanding! – the list of events worldwide during or around Stoic Week.  If your organization, institution, or group is planning an event, make sure to get the full information of the event sent to us, and we’ll get it into our list.   And the same goes if your organization, institution, or group is engaging in Stoic Week together – send us that information, and we’ll add you to our listing!

Modern Stoicism Officially Incorporates

We have some major news to share, so we’re taking a brief pause in our ongoing series of Saturday posts on Stoicism at Work (the theme of this year’s Stoicon).  Earlier this week, Modern Stoicism officially became incorporated as a company.  More specifically, Modern Stoicism is a private, limited by guarantee – and most importantly, not-for-profit – company.

This has been in the works for some time.  The Modern Stoicism steering committee discussed the matter in detail in a meeting preceding Stoicon 2016, and continued conversations about incorporation through 2017.  Christopher Gill (pictured there above, along with John Sellars, at a 2014 Stoic Week event) took prime responsibility for seeing the many different steps through – a significant amount of work, for which we are all very grateful – in consultation with the entire steering committee.

The last several years have seen a number of changes for the Modern Stoicism organization, not least of which was the shift from being a more loosely structured working group to an actual organization, and now the official incorporation as a company.  The consolidation of the various websites and functions into the Modern Stoicism website was another major step. Behind the scenes, there have been many conversations and a lot of work by all of the members of the Modern Stoicism team, to bring things to this point.

It may come as a surprise to some of readers to learn that all of the work carried out so far by the members of Modern Stoicism has been on a volunteer basis.  Every member of the team puts in many hours for free to further and fulfill the mission of the organization.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that money doesn’t get spent on a number of legitimate expenses, (for example, booking event spaces, travel and lodging for Stoicon speakers, hosting the website online classroom spaces, an editorial assistant’s wages for the Stoicism Today volumes). But all of the time that the Modern Stoicism team devote to the work of the organization is uncompensated.

Why incorporate?  That is a good question, and it was one whose pros and cons we examined and discussed at length, before arriving at that decision (in Stoic terms, collaboratively exercising the virtue of prudence!).  The simplest answer is that doing so allows the Modern Stoicism organization to much more effectively engage in and even expand its distinctive and valuable work.

This includes developing resources and running a class each year during Stoic Week – but also engaging in a lot of outreach about Stoic Week, encouraging organizations to participate, publicizing events, and so forth. Putting together all the elements required for the annual Stoicon conference – securing a venue, lining up a set of excellent speakers, coordinating a myriad of details – that is another major endeavor (which this year also involved setting up a Stoicon-X the following day in Toronto).

Hosting, building, and updating the Modern Stoicism website itself. Producing, redeveloping, and leading the 4-week Stoicism Mindfulness and Resilience Training course each summer. Assembling and analyzing the data we gather into reports about correlations between Stoic practice, well-being, emotional states, and outcomes.  Soliciting pieces, working with authors, and producing weekly content for the Stoicism Today blog.  Editing the best pieces – often requiring substantial rewrites by the authors – for the Stoicism Today volumes.  Networking and collaborating with partner organizations also focused on promoting Stoicism worldwide.  These are just some of the many things we do.  And for a good many of them, that work is made a good bit easier by having an actual company structure.

Every company has a set of purposes, and for not-for-profit companies these are particularly important.  They provide an ethos, a mission, a direction, and accountability.  The steering committee collaboratively worked out these for Modern Stoicism, listed among the “objects for which the Company is established”:

  • to disseminate knowledge and encourage discussion about Stoic philosophy and practices and their applications to modern living
  • to reach as many people from around the world as possible with our work and provide opportunities for them to explore Stoicism, whatever their orientation or interpretation with respect to Stoicism
  • to provide accurate and reliable information about Stoic philosophy and practices, and in doing so to maintain continuity with classic forms and sources
  • to focus on the application of Stoicism to everyday problems of living in the modern world
  • to conduct philosophical inquiry into, and empirical research on, Stoic philosophy and its applications to modern living, in order to advance our knowledge of its benefits
  • to represent a broad spectrum of views on the subject by including people who approach Stoicism from different theoretical perspectives, personal backgrounds, and religious, political, or cultural commitments;

These points encapsulate what Modern Stoicism as an organization is all about – and will continue to focus on going forward.  On that note, there are two last things that I think bear saying.

First of these is that when it comes to the sort of organization that Modern Stoicism developed into, an important matter to keep in mind is the need for continuity.  Although each of the individual members of the team make important contributions – drawing heavily upon their particular talents and energy – the Modern Stoicism organization is indeed a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  And, fate permitting, we all hope to see it continue its vital work past our own capacities to contribute. In a period of less than a decade, Stoicism has become a widely influential and adaptable philosophical approach in the public and practical spheres. What started with individual projects, came together in those early gatherings of philosophers and psychotherapists at the University of Exeter, then developed into a constellation of publicly available resources (like the Stoic Week handbook and course), and gradually became consolidated into an entire organization.  Modern Stoicism is far from the only group, organization, or institution that played a part in the growth of Stoicism in the present day, but it has clearly had a central role in it.  This formal incorporation as a company will help assure a continuity to the ongoing work of the organization.

The second (and last) remark I will make is a personal one.  I am a relative newcomer to the Modern Stoicism organization, having onboarded into the position as Stoicism Today’s editor (and with it, a seat on the steering committee) a bit less than two years ago.  A vast amount of work had already been done by the original and earlier-joining members of the organization by the time I came on.  A perhaps equally vast amount of work has been done since then as well, much of it involving collaborative discussions and iterative back-and-forth work by professionals whose time is always in short supply, but they give generously to Modern Stoicism and its activities.  What I’ve been privileged to observe is that the other members of this organization – when it comes to the Stoicism they speak, write, and teach about – are the “real deal”.  And that consistency of ethos should place this new company on a very solid footing indeed!

Interview with Andi Sciacca

At this year’s Stoicon conference – coming up in Toronto –  Andi Sciacca will be co-presenting the workshop “Dealing with Difficult People At Work – Stoic Strategies.”  Andi owns an educational consulting company, ReasonIQ, LLC, and serves as the chief operating officer for the Big Mind Institute for Education and Messaging.  She was also the founding director of the Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, and the director of curriculum and program design for the CIA’s Food Business School.

Q: How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I am someone who came to study philosophy a bit later in my academic career.  My background was in American Studies and Literature – and I spent almost twenty years teaching both subjects across colleges (and a few prisons!) in New York State – which was an experience I really enjoyed!  But it wasn’t until I decided to pursue my PhD through the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee Switzerland, and had the opportunity to study directly with the people I’d read in my critical theory courses while in my graduate literature courses that I realized that the deeper desire was for philosophy all along.  It doesn’t hurt to be married to a philosopher, of course, and one of the things I most enjoy is when he and I get to work together, as we’ll be doing when we present together at Stoicon this year.  

When not working, I really enjoy music (all kinds) and traveling.  I’m happiest when I’m on the road, exploring new places and meeting new people.

Q: How do you currently makes use of Stoicism in your work?

The work I do affords me ample opportunity to make use of Stoicism – or, at least try to!  One of my roles is as co-founder of the company ReasonIO, working with my husband and business partner, Greg Sadler.  Greg and I have worked with prisons, churches, libraries, schools, universities, community organizations, and corporate clients on a range of projects geared toward our goal of putting philosophy into practice.  Given that many people and groups seeking our services are focused on solving problems or creating opportunities, the lessons found in Stoicism can be useful to both sides of the client relationship in our daily work.

Q: When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

I remember my first introduction to Stoicism being as a member of our high school’s academic decathlon team.  We had passages from Epictetus in our study packs, and I remember those being among the most rewarding we were assigned.  Then, as an undergraduate, we translated Cicero as part of a Latin course, and I again felt like there was a resonance in what I was reading – but it wasn’t until Greg introduced me to Donald’s Stoic Mindfulness & Resilience Training course a few years back, that I really found my “home” in Stoicism and began a real course of study

Q: What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?  

For me, and likely for many other “Type-A” / entrepreneurial types, the aspect of relinquishing control – or, perhaps better put, the relinquishing of the desire to have control – has been the most helpful.  The other aspect that I find incredibly rewarding is the opportunity to study with my partner and husband, and to share in the larger Stoic fellowship community with others in Milwaukee, where we now live.

Q: In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

This is a difficult question to answer, because I would be hard-pressed to find ways in which it doesn’t matter today.  When we meet monthly in our MKE Stoic Fellowship sessions, where we’re currently focusing on the Enchiridion, the topics and applications of Stoicism that come up in conversation with people who have little to no experience with the topic are proof to me that there is a real hunger for the lessons that can be learned, and the benefit of applying those lessons to daily life.

Q: How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

Well, we’d likely have to ask Greg, or my friends and other family members for validation on this – but I think it’s made me a better listener, more cooperative, and less likely to jump to conclusions in my day-to-day conversations and interactions.  I know that it’s helped a great deal with my internal processes in terms of helping me maintain a more constant and measured approach to things that otherwise might cause extreme stress or anxiety.  This is not to say that I don’t still experience those things – but I do feel like I’ve benefited from being able to look at my thoughts and behaviors through a Stoic lens.

Q: What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

As we read and re-read the Enchiridion in the MKE Stoic Fellowship, there has been one passage that I keep returning to, and that is Chapter 17:

Remember that you are an actor in a drama, of such a kind as the author pleases to make it. If short, of a short one; if long, of a long one. If it is his pleasure you should act a poor man, a cripple, a governor, or a private person, see that you act it naturally. For this is your business, to act well the character assigned you; to choose it is another’s.

This passage is one that helps me remember my inclinations to attempt control.  It reminds me that my “drama” (whether we take that to mean situation, day, or life) is short or long, designed to be something, or not something, and that my task is to act it naturally and well.  It is freeing in ways that only such a structured way of thinking can provide – and it is most helpful, especially as someone who takes delight in many interests, many projects, many things…

Q: What advice would you give someone wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Well, naturally, I think going to Stoicon, joining a Stoic Fellowship, subscribing to Stoicism Today, or taking courses and buying books by those in the Modern Stoicism community are great resources – as would be immersing oneself in the writings of great Stoic thinkers… However, the advice I most often give to someone interested in learning more about any subject is to explore it with an open mind and then find communities in which you can explore ideas, share experiences, and test your assumptions.  I think that’s where, how, and when some of the best learning takes place.

Q: Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Simply that I’m absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to interact with the Modern Stoicism community – and that I’d like to share my gratitude for the work being done here.  As I’ve learned more about the people and processes that drive events like Stoicon, or the incredible dedication Donald has to building an ever-more-rewarding SMRT program, I am struck by how rich and generous this community is – and I look forward to becoming more involved in years to come.

The Three Meanings of Stoic Work by Piotr Stankiewicz  

“Work” is a broad term with a wide range of meanings, many of which slip out of the Stoic scope. There is, I think, no clear Stoic interpretation of “work” in physics, i.e. force acting through a distance, or of “work” understood as “labor,” which is a social and economic matter. Yet, there are at least three important senses of “work” in which we can learn much from the Stoics.

First of all, there is “work” in its “workplace” meaning. We may rightly wonder how would a Stoic perform in doing her job, earning a living and doing all else that her social obligations require her to do. I have little doubt here that a Stoic will excel in most of the possible contemporary jobs, trades and ways of life. Why is that? Let’s just consider three precepts the Stoics advance.

“You must plan your life, one action at a time,” says Marcus Aurelius (Meditations, 8.32). When you seek earnestly that which is not your own, you lose that which is your own,” says Epictetus (Discourses, I.25.4-5). “All […] adversities [a Stoic] counts mere training” adds Seneca (On Providence, 2.2).

These three ideas of, respectively, paying attention only to the task at hand, focusing on what is up to us, and treating adversities as challenges have a clear and great power as ethical rules. But let’s note that on the practical level they give a very precise, down-to-earth and objective-oriented code for conduct. This code is very close to what is valued in business and in the workplace in general. After all, what boss wouldn’t love an employee that doesn’t get distracted by things above her paygrade? What business venture wouldn’t benefit if those in charge of it focused solely on what they have influence on? What manager worth her salt wouldn’t agree that obstacles should be treated as challenges which motivate us to overcome them?

In this regard, the Stoic principles shape a reliable and responsible person, who does her job expertly and efficiently. According to Lawrence Becker the fitting, modern interpretation of Stoic virtue is that it can be understood as maximized, or even perfect agency. In the workplace, this perfect agency translates the Stoic ethics into surprisingly solid work ethics.

Another way of expressing it is this. We may say – simplifying a bit – that virtue can be interpreted as the ability to take whatever not-within-our-power input materials we get, and put it to the best use possible. In the words of Epictetus:

This is the magic wand of Hermes. Touch what you will […] and it will turn into gold. (Discourses, III.20.12).

In other words, a Stoic will be able to thrive no matter what circumstances she founds herself in. If she ends up being a president of United States, then she will do her job responsibly and with dignity, employing reasonable policies, and leading by example. If she turns out to be a teacher in some forgotten Antebellum-ville, she will also do her job well, teaching the kids, leading them into the complexities of human knowledge, explaining to them what it means to be a responsible member of society. If, on the other hand, she turns out to be a professor of philosophy, she will take that opportunity to teach Stoicism to others, to the best of her ability. The idea is clear: whatever circumstances she finds herself in, she is always able and willing to apply her reason to produce the best outcome available.

And again: doesn’t it sound familiar to the business ear and workplace environment? What a Stoic sage does ethically is analogous to what the everyday business requires us to do. We have certain resources (human, budgetary, institutional etc.) and we need to utilize them expertly to turn a profit. No matter what are circumstances are, no matter which way the market is shifting – business is about profit and doing one’s job is about doing it ably and effectively. These two situations are similar and the growing popularity of Stoicism among high-level managers testifies to that.

Of course, Stoicism cannot be equaled or reduced to “being good at one’s job.” There is much more to Stoicism than that.  And yet certain analogies are undeniable. After all, don’t all the CEOs of this world dream of that “magic wand of Hermes” that turns all to gold? All of this is a  reason enough to claim that it’s hard to imagine a sloppy or slacking Stoic. She will thrive at her workplace, whatever that workplace turns out to be.

On the other hand, we may just as well expect that a Stoic will not become a workaholic. The word “work” is to be found not only in “workplace,” but also – more importantly – in the phrase “work-life balance.” After all, earning a living, doing our job, performing our social duty, these errands never comprise the entirety of our life. We usually have family life too, we have hobbies and leisure time, all that tempting things that we don’t usually count as “work.” The continuous challenge of our life is how to balance all this, how to put this in order, how to avoid one part of life taking its toll on another. Can Stoicism be of help in this matter?

Sure it can be! A Stoic life is impossible without harmony and without hammering out a compromise between multiple values and endeavors (which often contradict each other).  Stoicism isn’t about passing over the diversity of values and complexity of life. Quite the contrary! It’s about acknowledging it. A Stoic tries her best to accept the multifarious facts on the ground and the complexities of human axiology. Lawrence Becker argues that a Stoic lives her life the best she can allthings-considered.

This “all” element is vital here. It denotes that the Stoic ethics aims at over-arching, long-haul and wide-scope project of a good life. Decisions and judgments of a Stoic always need to be based on the most accurate and comprehensive information obtainable (e.g. a Stoic won’t enter partnership in business without researching her partner-to-be) and it is the whole life perspective that counts (e.g. decades of unethical conduct  adorned by a singular heroic act won’t add up to a Stoic life). But above all, in the Stoic calculus no value is written off for no reason. A Stoic consciously decides to focus on a specific and individually chosen setup of values, which includes certain values while excludes others. This exclusion is always a deliberate choice, not a random development.

Consider this: will we call someone a Stoic sage if she is great rock star, enjoys stellar success, but at the same time neglects all of her family life and spirals down into drug abuse? I presume not. On the other hand, imagine someone who is, say, a convicted criminal, always unable to stay on the legal side of life, but, for some reason, she nevertheless manages to be a reliable and supportive sister to her siblings? No, it doesn’t add up.

Or take a politician. Will we call her a Stoic, will we call her a stateswomen on a par with Marcus Aurelius if she negotiates international trade agreements well but at the same time she takes tons of bribes and bullies her aides cruelly? No, this also isn’t enough. Why isn’t it? Because these pictures lack the necessary degree of reasonable harmony of values and goals. Blind devotion to just one value and equally blind disregard of all others don’t make a Stoic.

This is exactly why just as it’s hard to imagine a sloppy Stoic, it’s also hard to imagine a Stoic that is so caught up with her job that she forgets about her family, friends and hobbies. Focus and axiological choice are necessary, because it’s impossible to cover all values in one life. But single-mindedness about just one walk of life makes neither a Stoic nor a good life. 

The third side of the coin is, as always, the most interesting one. Besides all the duties and challenges that await us with our jobs and with work-life balance, we, the Stoics, are primarily focused on the internal front, so to speak. Stoicism is mostly about our own toil of self-improvement. This is the most intimate and the most philosophical understanding of “work.” In this respect, Stoicism is one great system for care and betterment of the self. And there is no shortcut or discount here, it’s indeed all about hard work. Climbing up the Stoic curve is highly rewarding but tough and tiresome. The logic of it is akin to that of sport training: the unused muscles wither. To avoid that, regular workout is needed, the Stoic workout, crossfit for the soul, continuous challenge, perpetual effort.

Interestingly, this can shed some light on the debate between the Stoics and Epicureans. The difference between the two is often misstated and misunderstood, but juxtaposing their approach to work can help a lot. We can look at it this way: the Epicurean way of life is frugal. It’s a life of mental relaxation, spiritual leisure and cutting slack. An Epicurean craves to be not bothered (and that’s why she opts for a simple life). With a Stoic it’s quite the opposite. In Stoicism we constantly exert, we press and push ourselves, we stay sharp and vigilant. We restlessly climb the ladder of spiritual development.

Another related issue is the question of nature. In ancient Stoicism “nature” was our ethical direction and an ally. We were obliged to follow it, we were supposed to believe that whatever nature commands is by definition good and that, in short, the overall goal of human life is to find harmony with nature. From the modern point of view – as I have argued elsewhere – the situation seems much more complicated. From the today’s point of view we may consistently argue that the Stoic good life and virtue are attained not through consistence with nature, but through overcoming it. A degree of struggle against our very own human nature may be prerequisite to the Stoic development, particularly if we take “human nature” in the biological, evolutionary sense. This is the position that William Irvine suggests between the lines of his A Guide to the Good Life. I concur with it. And the argument for it is as follows.

Has the Darwinian evolution designed us for Stoic virtue, integrity and reason? It’s highly doubtful. Biologically speaking, there has never been (alas!) any evolutionary profit in development of virtue. The Stoic virtue, with all its perks, doesn’t in any obvious way contribute to our reproductive success. Above all, there has never been any evolutionary incentive for being content with little. Actually, evolution has prepared us to do just the opposite. In our evolutionary past it was a rare occurrence to have an abundant supply of all the necessities, like food, water, shelter, sexual partners, safety, social stability, etc. Thus, there has never been any real and lasting opportunity to adapt to conditions which rewarded self-restraint. There has never been evolutionary pressure to exercise it. Quite the contrary: in most cases it made the best evolutionary sense for our ancestors to always exploit every situation to the limit. Thus, we evolved to be insatiable. We evolved to be never satisfied, to always crave for more. In this sense, evolution has put us on the pointless hedonic treadmill.

This treadmill situation is, of course, the exact inverse of the Stoic picture. And hence, we are in a very particular position. We learn from the Stoics what we ought to do in order to live a happy life, but we find that our biological hardware is designed for just the opposite. So, in order to follow the Stoic principles we need to overcome these innate inclinations of our evolutionary past. In this sense, once we understood “nature” biologically, we realize that the path of Stoic progress leads not conformably to it but against it. And this perennial battle against our biological nature is exactly what makes Stoic training such a hard work.

But doesn’t it sound a bit discouraging? Doesn’t it sound pessimistic? Possibly. But let’s remember adaptation. There is the hedonic adaptation (so distasteful to us, Stoics) which tries to keep up inside the aimless hedonic treadmill and which makes us drown in the unquenchable desire for more. But, on the other hand, there is also the Stoic adaptation. Again, it’s like in sport. We can never abandon our training regimen, unless we agree to lose the gains we have gotten. We can never stop working on our self-improvement. But: this isn’t running in place! The more we push ourselves, the better our performance is. If we work hard, then we constantly move up, we enter new levels and become better and better.

This interpretation may help us ease the problems with the all-or-nothing concept of Stoic virtue. Seneca himself pointed out that this theory of virtue makes Stoic ethics so high‑standard, that we, the mere Stoic progressors, may be sure that we’ll never get there fully. However, in the light of what I said above, this doesn’t mean that progress is impossible. The Stoic training is an upward spiral and even tough it may never actually bring us to the perfect imperturbability, to the pristine bliss of the sage’s soul which is like “heavens above the moon,” our Stoic skills will still steadily grow while we march upwards.

Piotr Stankiewicz, Ph.D. is a lecturer affiliated with the University of Warsaw in Poland, and the author of a bestselling Polish handbook of Stoicism (“Sztuka życia według stoików”).  He is currently working on making his Stoic books available in English. In the meanwhile he advances Stoic and non-Stoic agendas in his native Polish.