What Is Modern Stoicism? – Additional Reflections from Sellars and Sadler

A little over two months back, we published a Symposium on Modern Stoicism, a piece in which seven of the members of the Modern Stoicism steering committee weighed in on several questions.  The first of those is:  “what does Modern Stoicism mean?”  Following up on those are several others:
  • what modern Stoicism includes
  • what (if anything) it excludes
  • how it differs from “traditional Stoicism” (if one thinks it does)

As editor, I refrained from providing my own take on these matters in the original piece, thinking that we already had quite a number of very interesting views expressed.  One of the other members of the organization, someone who was involved from the start, and has made numerous contributions to contemporary understanding of Stoicism – John Sellars – also refrained from that “first round” of discussion, but later sent me a short write-up of his own thinking on the matter.

In the interests of continuing the discussion of what many think to be a very important and contested question – what is “modern Stoicism” – below you will find John Sellars’ contribution to that, followed by my own.

John Sellars

I don’t particularly like the label ‘Modern Stoicism’. It’s fine as a title for this website (as an equivalent for the previous title ‘Stoicism Today’). But I find the notion of Modern Stoicism understood as an updated version of ancient Stoicism unhelpful, and in some ways quite concerning.

Why? Stoicism was a philosophy, not a religious movement. There was never, so far as I can tell, a fixed, monolithic set of Stoic beliefs to which every self-describing ancient Stoic committed themselves. To be sure, there was plenty of common ground, but one can find leading ancient Stoics rejecting many key doctrines, and yet remaining Stoics. In other words, they all thought for themselves, and didn’t feel bound by a fixed belief system.

So, in the spirit of ancient Stoicism itself, I think the last thing one should do is try to update or amend ancient Stoicism (if there ever was such a single thing) in order to come up with a set of beliefs that might be attractive to people today. I think it is, in many ways, a virtue that some aspects of ancient Stoicism now seem implausible (e.g. in physical theory), because this helps us to maintain a critical distance from the material, and encourages us to think more carefully about what we think is cogent, what is not, and how these might be related to one another.

I think that one of the attractive things about the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is that we can see him doing this himself in his own reflections on various Stoic ideas. Unlike the much earlier Stoics in Athens, Marcus was never a member of a formal Stoic community; he simply self-identified as a Stoic after having read books by Stoic authors whom he had never met. He found the general thrust attractive, but downplayed some aspects, and questioned others.

The same could be said for much earlier Stoics who were part of a more formal community, such as Panaetius and Posidonius, who were also very clearly thinking for themselves within an ongoing tradition. That strikes me as a pretty good model for how people might approach Stoicism today: read, think, adapt, apply. It’s not eclectic or unorthodox; it’s just how it’s always been.

Given that, I don’t see much to be gained from trying to define something called ‘Modern Stoicism’ that is supposed to be in some way distinct from ancient Stoicism.

Greg Sadler

When I started seeing recurring discussions on the Facebook Stoicism group focused on the question of what “modern Stoicism” either is, or ought to be – and when I noted that thinkers central within contemporary Stoic communities were weighing in on the matter- I was reminded of a set of debates and discussions that I did a lot of research on in the first decade of the 2000s.  Some of that research eventually went into my first book, Reason Fulfilled By Revelation: The 1930s Christian Philosophy Debates in France.

Now you might say: what’s that got to do with Stoicism?  We might be talking about philosophy, but we’re definitely not talking about Christians or the French – so what gives?  Well, what I see taking shape is a similar dynamic, having to do with self-definition within a diverse community or movement.  It is also a dynamic, I should add, that I’ve seen develop in recent years in other circles.  There was a very interesting set of back and forth discussions starting in the 1990s, focused on the very notion of African-American (and Africana) philosophy – just to mention one example.

In each case – “modern Stoicism,” “Christian philosophy”, “African-American philosophy,” – there are several elements that go into that dynamic. A term exists that people have employed for some time, using it to describe something they and others are engaged in.  As the term gains more prominence, it gradually becomes apparent that people mean quite different things by it. They stake out differing claims within discussions about what that term can or should apply to, what it involves or excludes, and whether it is even a legitimate term to use.  Typically, there will also be some people who entirely reject the term, or consider it redundant, or who regard it as applying to something they consider wrongheaded.

Once this becomes apparent, well, the debates are on – often before those involved fully realize the scope of what they’ve managed to get themselves involved in!  In the case of the French debates, they drew in dozens of Francophone philosophers and theologians of major stature, generated a number of books and hundreds of articles, spurred the convening of conferences, and continued on as a major issue of discussion for about five years.  They never did end up producing a universal consensus, but the participants did manage to clarify their own positions, make some cogent critiques of other positions, and move the discussion much further along.

I envision that something like that is taking place with this phrase “modern Stoicism”.  I suspect that although the phrase has been around for quite some time, we are at a rather early stage in what will develop into further discussions, and quite likely some debates.  I’m actually quite happy to see a variety of viewpoints articulated about just what “modern Stoicism” means, because to me that is a sign of the vitality of that contemporary community of practice and thought.

The Kitchen Stoic: A Beginner’s Approach to Stoic Thought by Andi Sciacca

You participate in a society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions—all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension. Like the man in the Assembly—a faction to himself, always out of step with the majority. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 9.23

Stoicism and the Culinary Arts

In March of 2011, the great French Chef Paul Bocuse spoke to students and faculty at The Culinary Institute of America.  He was on campus that month as part of a mighty trifecta that also included world-renowned Chef Ferran Adria and technology-geek turned chef-scientist Nathan Myhrvold.  These three visitors – celebrities in the culinary sphere, and beyond – spoke in celebration of their achievements as experts within the industry.  Their presence on campus was marketed by the CIA as being representative of the past, present, and future of the culinary world.  As part of their respective addresses to an enthusiastic audience of culinary hopefuls and practiced educators, each of these men spoke about their own paths into culinary prominence, and their unique views on culinary education.

As a student of philosophy who was then working as the founding director of the CIA’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning, I had the opportunity to attend all three of their lectures – and I recall being struck by how dramatically relevant their shared experiences and the information they provided was to the study of philosophy.  Their advice on what makes for a good culinary worker was clearly connected to ethics and moral philosophy, the long-studied works of classical thinkers, the interdisciplinary range within the history of ideas, and continental philosophical thought.  

And now, understanding a bit more about Stoic practice, and having had the opportunity to further reflect on my own experience, it is even more clear to me how so much of what they shared in their lectures connects not only to what makes for a successful restaurant worker (whether chef or server or dishwasher) but also to what the thoughtful application of Stoic writings and Stoic teaching can offer to an industry that impacts so many – whether directly or indirectly.  For as Scott Hebert’s recent article reminds us in his examination of farming and Stoic practice, food and its preparation offers important opportunities to connect to the kinds of experiences that are central to us all.

Act Well the Character Assigned You

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. – Epictetus, Enchiridion, 17

When Chef Bocuse spoke, he was then a man of eighty-five years old, and had served as mentor to many award-winning chefs himself.  Bocuse is responsible for having created the current grand medal of culinary achievement, the Bocuse d’Or, which has inspired olympic-style training on an international platform, and is seen by many as the premier award for any culinarian. When asked by one young culinary candidate what qualities are most essential in the training of a young chef, Bocuse responded, “la crème, le beurre, et le vin.”

Thinking something to have been lost in translation, his son Jerome – who was serving as a translator, himself a graduate of the CIA – asked again.  He was barely able to begin rephrasing the question, and Bocuse responded – in his heavily accented English – that he is a chef, not a philosopher. He would repeat this response repeatedly whenever he was asked for his opinions on issues of health, obesity, and school nutrition, stating he was – again – a chef, not a medical doctor, or a practitioner of public policy.  At one point, he went on to say that he left it to other schools and other lines of education to respond to these issues – as his job was simply to attend to his craft, and the best that he could do would be to inspire these students to do as he had done, and continue in the long line of traditional French apprenticeships.

As the afternoon Q&A he hosted following his lecture came to an end, Bocuse reminded our culinary students to treat their graduation from the CIA’s degree program not as the end of their education, but as the beginning – encouraging them to train with as many chefs as possible, learning from each what keys to the tradition of culinary arts might carry them into their intended path. This was more than simple lip-service, as Bocuse clearly valued the accumulation of historical knowledge and seemed to view achieving what he called his own “small place” within the long and esteemed link of his culinary forbearers being its own reward.  Having been given an Augie the night before – an Augie being the culinary equivalent of the Oscars (including the statues, made by the same goldsmith as the Oscars themselves) – and having been declared the Chef of the Century for his contributions – throughout his speech to the students, Bocuse never lapsed into complacency or arrogance, and consistently pointed to others – including his mentor, the corpulent Fernand Point – as the men to whom he owed his own achievement.

Bocuse did not, as Epictetus warns us, behave in a manner “prideful with any excellence that is not [his] own” (Enchiridion, 6).  In an academic culture where the mantra is simply, “Yes, Chef!”, Bocuse – despite his professed inability (or unwillingness) – to grapple with questions of philosophy, had nonetheless suggested that the students embrace some key elements of Stoic thought.  Here was a man who had achieved much, was globally celebrated as an expert in his craft, recently reminded by the industry in which he worked that he had achieved significant honor in his lifetime, had even been declared the Chef of the Century – and yet, his response and the advice he gave to those who sought to emulate him was that they should focus their attentions on acting well the character they had been assigned, and continue to seek knowledge from those who might act well their own roles of mentor, teacher, competitor, and friend.

Turn Each Setback Into Raw Material

We have various abilities, present in all rational creatures as in the nature of rationality itself. And this is one of them. Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it—turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself—so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal. – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.5

Whereas Bocuse is of the past, Ferran Adria is completely of the present.  Adria is a modernist in the sense of culinary movements – with culinary modernism being what culinarians choose to use as a referential term for what the early proponents [but now only fringe participants] have come to call molecular gastronomy.  Adria reacts against tradition by creating and recreating food into representative models.  It is not enough to have an olive in Adria’s kitchen.  His olive must be extracted and reduced, its juice gelled into an outer shell that resembles itself – its meaty flesh liquefied into something that fills that gelled, juice shell – with both components being served as a whole, on a spoon, doused in its own fragrant oil, which has been extracted and compressed.

In Adria’s kitchen-laboratory, using chemistry and art, a glass of wine becomes something deconstructed on a flat plate into solids. Adria would ask, “Why drink the wine and speak of what your palate can tell you about its terroir, when you can experience it visually in three-dimensions and consume it with your fork?” And while the world at large, attempting to make sense of his particular approach to food might choose either term when referring to this particular craft, Adria calls himself neither a molecular gastronomist nor a modernist. He sees himself as a deconstructivist, and has been famously quoted as saying that diners came to his famous restaurant, El Bulli, not to eat, but “to have an experience.”

If Bocuse celebrates cream, Adria eliminates it – making meat foams solely out of a genetically- extracted protein base, compressed air, and nitrous oxide that serve to capture the sensation of meat – but devoid of anything we might think of in terms of its substance or content. Even though his dishes are impeccably prepared and incredibly delicious, Adria seems to see the food itself as little more than a means to an end – and his influence has polarized culinarians on either side.

In 2010, Adria and one of his most noted mentees, Jose Andres, co-taught a course on culinary science at Harvard’s school of Engineering and Applied Sciences to a capacity class of four-hundred students, firmly cementing his work in structural engineering and applied physics – far removed from the apprenticeships at the hands of expert chefs as recommended by Bocuse – choosing, instead, to recruit the brightest students for further work at the food-synthetics company Adria owns with his brother. All the same, over the course of his career, Adria has won the highest possible ratings of three Michelin stars for El Bulli – and in terms of his influence on culinary education, perhaps it can best be seen in the content of the debates his approach and achievement tends to inspire.

Recently, two culinary discussants were arguing on a blog about Adria being defined as chef or artist – and what these definitions tend to imply. One blogger, when questioned on Adria’s tendency to see the product of his work as art, responded, “Why shouldn’t an artist just be someone who endeavors to make art? Some will do it with great genius and some will fail. Let them all be artists. Save all the philosophy and the critical apparatus to decide whose art is most significant, and for whom, and for what reason.”

His opponent responded, “Would any or all other cooks or chefs who endeavor to make art be equal to him in terms of being an artist then? The critical apparatus is being used no matter whether it is separating or including in any category . . . whether that category is the one of ‘what one is’ or whether it is in terms of ‘how well one does it’. Apply the mind to something and one has already applied the critical apparatus in some fashion.”  

Clearly, the lack of tradition in Adria’s case creates an anxiety that seems to posit itself in the space between art and craft – and between tradition and revision or mutation. As with the questions left unanswered by Bocuse as symbol of the past, Adria’s role as symbol of the present includes a kind of unanswered (perhaps unquestioned) structure of education that could well be served by Stoic thought.

Some might argue that the increasingly blurred boundaries between the work of the chef and the work of a scientist are doing damage to the whole of either or both professions.  As example, how many times have we seen parodies of artisanal products, petulant chef-characters, and seemingly inedible concoctions served up in absurd platings?

But the third speaker in that celebrity panel, Nathan Myhrvold – who was meant to represent the future beyond Adria’s present – acted as an unlikely catalyst for synthesis between Adria and Bocuse. Myhrvold’s claim to fame was not his Ivy league college career, which he began at the age of fourteen, earning a PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by the time he turned twenty-three, nor was it working for Stephen Hawking, or founding Microsoft Research. It is true that he holds, or has applied for, over six-hundred patents – but he also is a two-time world champion barbeque winner, the former chief gastronomic officer for the Zagat survey, and has apprenticed under James Beard Award winning chef Thierry Rautureau.  

Myhrvold has also written a six-volume, forty-six pound, two-thousand-four-hundred-thirty-eight page text entitled Modernist Cuisine – in which he explains in exacting detail how, once a culinary enthusiast has learned to make a perfect soup stock in the traditional sense, he might be inspired to clarify that same stock using centripetal acceleration in a hemastatic centrifuge.

How do these two celebri-chefs contribute to Stoic practice?  By showing their abilities to work within the fields of culinary art and science to take “every obstacle, every impediment, and [work] around it—[turn] it to its purposes, [incorporate] it into itself.”  Rather than be limited – and potentially frustrated – by the obstacles they faced in their respective fields, the chef turned scientist and scientist turned chef show us how embracing the challenge and relinquishing attempts to control the boundaries that may exist can produce a more integrated whole.  Through their extraordinary efforts, both Adria and Myhrvold provide clear examples of how a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.

But what about those of us who wish to seek lessons from the world of food without dedicating our lives to its study and practice as have Bocuse, Adria, and Myhrvold?  And how can we find Stoic inspiration if our goal is simply to work in a professional kitchen in our own neighborhood – or, even more likely, the kitchens and/or occupations we choose for ourselves – whether at home or in the workplace?

Mise en Place as a Form of Stoic Practice

So by keeping in mind the whole I form a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. And because of my relationship to other parts, I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t. If I do all that, then my life should go smoothly. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.6

In the culinary industry, we speak of having mise en place as a governing component of the craft tradition in culinary education and culinary production.  Literally meaning to “put in place”, the concept of mise en place is one owed to one of the most influential French chef-educators, Auguste Escoffier.  In simple terms, the goal of mise en place is to have the ingredients ready and par-prepared, the ovens pre-heated, and the various components of a dish ready and neatly organized well before your shift is scheduled to begin.  The completion of setting up your workstation and gathering your mise en place is, quite simply, the defining preparatory work that separates the successful restaurant shift from the unsuccessful one.  Having your “mise” done early and skillfully; working fast, quietly, and clean; stepping up where and when needed – these are desirable skills for any cook to have, but in a busy, successfully run professional kitchen, they are not simply desirable, they are absolutely essential.

Given its emphasis on organization, proper planning, and previsualization of what is required for the successful completion of the task at hand, the term has grown to include what could be seen as a quality of preparedness in not just culinary education, but also in life – involving skills that drive toward excellence – but also involve virtues like justice, humility, and courage.  As a way of approaching work, or life, from a Stoic perspective, mise en place can be the underlying outlook involved in completing your tasks appropriately; working as a member of a team; trusting your mentor to assign you tasks that you may not understand; following the orders of a master (whether that be a parent, a union boss or a kitchen brigade); keeping your tools neat, sharp, and ready to be used; keeping your possessions and your surroundings clean and well-presented (whether that’s kitchen whites, or a uniform, or your own clothing), and so on.  

For many, mise en place becomes a way to define a lifestyle choice, or an approach to living and acting well.  When used as a guidepost, mise en place includes a sense of preparedness, rightness of being, and an ordered way of approaching the day.  

In the culinary classroom or teaching kitchen, mise en place permeates the entire process of teaching, learning, and production.  In the professional kitchen, restaurant, or culinary workspace, it defines the order of relationships.  In the general workplace, it means showing up early, with your work prepared, and a sense of order and calm.  At home, it includes the use of processes and actions that facilitate peace, order, enjoyment, and harmony.  

And in connection to Stoic thought, mise en place is about recognizing that your business if to “act well the character assigned you” – while understanding that choosing it is indeed another’s.  For if you are applying Stoic principles and mise en place in concert with Stoic frameworks, you will recognize that this combination provides the foundation for a practice of preparedness that most readily permits you to be ready to assume whatever task you are assigned.  

Finally, with an understanding of mise en place as a guiding tool, with the addition and adoption of a Stoic outlook, you can be reassured that you will accept your assignment, and perform it as you should, even if that assignment changes suddenly, or if the drama in which you are acting requires you to assume a new part without the luxury of warning.  At its most basic level, mise en place could also be seen as a form of “acting well.”

But what about after the shift begins, and the rhythm is set, and the group is working together?  How do we approach the nature of the kitchen, and the necessary opera of movement, sound, function, and form that takes place?

If we wish to be truly successful in our performance, we are required to do much more than simply have the tools in place to complete the task – we must do the work required to see it through to the end.  And in a kitchen space, this often means we are working with others on interdependent and co-dependent tasks connected to one assembled whole.

We must be willing to give up control.  We must fulfill our roles and be willing to step into the role of another when directed, or asked, to do so.  We need to see the pressure of the busy kitchen, the challenge of heightened emotion in a shared workspace, and the requests of the clients and customers as opportunities to be part of a larger whole – one in which we are acting, thinking, and desiring in accordance with that whole and its purposes.

In the kitchen, as in life, if we choose to practice Stoic ways of thinking, acting, and being, we should take the lessons we can learn from the great chefs, and the server who seats us for our next restaurant meal, and the person who puts our dinner on the table this evening (whether that be another or ourselves) with a sense of appreciation for the part-whole relationship we are called to examine so that we can be reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius who tells us:

So by keeping in mind the whole I form a part of, I’ll accept whatever happens. And because of my relationship to other parts, I will do nothing selfish, but aim instead to join them, to direct my every action toward what benefits us all and to avoid what doesn’t. If I do all that, then my life should go smoothly. Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 10.6

 

Andi Sciacca is relatively new to Stoic practice and is pleased to be part of the Modern Stoicism movement.  She is an ABD doctoral candidate with European Graduate School’s program in Philosophy, Art, and Critical Thought.  She has served as the director of curriculum and program design for The Food Business School and the founding director of The Culinary Institute of America’s Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning.  Andi also taught for The City University of New York, The State University of New York, Marist College, and the Bard College Prison Initiative.  She now owns an educational consulting company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Stoic Week 2017 Class is Now Enrolling

Stoic Week is coming up soon – running from the 16th to the 22nd of October – and the new Stoic Week online course is set up and ready for you to enroll in it!

You may have noticed the new tab already on the Modern Stoicism site, but just in case you haven’t, here’s the link that will take you directly to the new Learn Modern Stoicism site.

Over 1,500 people have already enrolled in this free course already, and we are about three weeks away from the start of Stoic Week.  Record numbers of people are expected to work their way through the course, following the intent of it’s original name to “live like a Stoic”.

If you haven’t previously done Stoic Week, here’s a bit of what you can expect to get access to in this free online course:

  • a Handbook with daily readings, reflections, and exercises
  • a set of MP3s with Stoic meditations (read by Donald Robertson)
  • worksheets you can use to monitor and reflect upon your experiences through the week
  • Forums in which you can discuss the ideas, your reflections, and other related matters with other participants

For those of you who have previously gone through the course, we have a revised handbook, themed around the idea of self-renewal, and if you remember the old course site (which was pretty good), odds are you’re going to really like the functionality of the new Teachable site.

One last thing.  Is it Stoic to get excited about the new Stoic Week class?  Some people say no – that’s too emotional.  But the Stoics did recognize the good emotional states, and among them are joy (kharis) and rational desire (boulesis).  If that’s what “getting excited” means, then it makes perfect sense to feel that about this year’s Stoic Week class!

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 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!