The ancient philosophy of Stoicism was developed in a vastly different era. The world of antiquity lacked the skyscrapers, smart phones and email that characterize the world of the modern professional. In this post, I’ll attempt to draw a line between the challenges of that ancient world and those of the modern workplace. I’ll make the case that Stoic philosophy has aged gracefully and applies equally to a technically advanced world that the ancients could never have envisioned.
The world of the modern professional has vast differences from those of ancient Greece or Rome. Most notably, advances in transportation and communication technologies have created a world that would be unimaginable to Marcus Aurelius. These advances have led to some marked differences in how work is conducted as well as to the pace of activities. The most significant difference would involve interconnectedness. The development of modern communication capabilities such as email, smart phones and collaboration software make us accessible in real-time, around the clock. The next major difference involves the pace of activity. In many professional settings, there is an increased expectation of rapid results, instant responses and, in general, a reduced time-to-market. In the competitive world of modern business, this pressure is relentless, with increasingly short “cycle times”.
Despite these new developments, many of the same challenges existed in the ancient Stoic world. The ancients needed to deal with difficult and petty people, political rivals, and highly stressful situations – including near constant warfare. Marcus, as emperor of Rome, would seem to be in an enviable position of power, immune to the vicissitudes of life. Instead, he faced the constant weight of high office. He dealt with a variety of ominous matters. These included such existential threats as wars, assassinations threats, and mutinous rivals. He also dealt with the mundane yet disturbing matters of adjudicating disputes, granting approvals and interacting with coarse ungrateful people.
Let’s consider some challenges of the modern work world and how we can apply Stoic wisdom as a practical tool.
Starting the Day
Our workday struggles often start with the simple sounding of our morning alarm. Often, we fight to simply get out of bed and face the harsh realities ahead. This is further exacerbated by dreary weather, the fact that it’s a Monday or by the realization that you have a high pressure deliverable in the upcoming workweek. Marcus experienced that same sense of dread and recognized the natural comfort of simply staying in bed. But the Stoics were keen on the idea of playing a role that had been assigned to them by nature. They believed that it was critical to perform this role with excellence, enthusiasm and acceptance. Marcus exhorted himself as follows:
At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself: “I have to go to work—as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm? —But it’s nicer here. . . . So you were born to feel “nice”? Instead of doing things and experiencing them? Don’t you see the plants, the birds, the ants and spiders and bees going about their individual tasks, putting the world in order, as best they can? And you’re not willing to do your job as a human being? Why aren’t you running to do what your nature demands?
Although you are not the ruler of an empire, you too have a critical role to play professionally. By embracing that role and understanding its importance to your organization, you establish purpose and motivation to move forward with your day.
Getting out of bed is simply the first of many challenges that we will face across the work day. Our next challenge can simply be our trip to work. Our frustrations can range from being cut off in traffic to that ‘jerk’ that holds up the line by taking too long to order their latte. Marcus also understood that he would likely have to deal with a series of jerks over the course of the day,
“Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil”
Don’t allow the anticipation of morning stresses to damper the enthusiasm and energy needed to start your workday. As a source of comfort, recognize that people have been dealing with these same issues since ancient times. Leverage Marcus’ quotes as fuel to power you forward.
Arriving at Work
Upon arriving at work, we are often met with a series of immediate stressors. Our inbox may be full, with new requests from co-workers in other time zones or from those who simply get in earlier. A glance at your calendar may show a day packed with meetings, with some requiring critical advance work.
While Marcus may have faced numerous challenges as the Emperor of Rome, he probably didn’t face the barrage of real-time issues confronting today’s professional. Nevertheless, an excellent Stoic thought is that of limiting one’s scope of focus to not be overwhelmed by a difficult and pressing situation. Marcus counsels us:
“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?”.
Often, we let the enormity of a situation paralyze us, keeping us from immediate, constructive action. For example, we may have an assignment to produce a critical presentation for senior management. Our mind instantly shifts into overdrive, ruminating over a series of rapidly changing fears. “Will I be able to source the appropriate data for this presentation?” Do I have the latest corporate standard template to use for my slides?” “Will I be able to finish all of this in time?” Our natural tendency is to allow these thoughts to overwhelm us leading to unhelpful actions such as procrastination. Marcus’ suggestion is as follows –
“Concentrate every minute like a Roman— like a man— on doing what’s in front of you with precise and genuine seriousness, tenderly, willingly, with justice.”
His message here is to focus your energy on a single item, completing that task with excellence. You can break down a large, complex “crisis” into a series of manageable tasks. Focus on each one, without allowing the overall issue or subsequent tasks to distract or disquiet you. In the case of the aforementioned presentation, turn your “fears” into a checklist. Attack each item with unwavering focus and confidence. By “zooming in”, we can approach our challenges with greater clarity, effectiveness and equanimity.
Rightsizing our Concerns
Another way to put difficult challenges into perspective is through a Stoic exercise that modern Stoics have named the View from Above. It is derived from Meditations 7.48 where Marcus states:
“That he who is discoursing about men should look also at earthly things as if he viewed them from some higher place; should look at them in their assemblies, armies, agricultural labours, marriages, treaties, births, deaths, noise of the courts of justice, desert places, various nations of barbarians, feasts, lamentations, markets, a mixture of all things and an orderly combination of contraries”.
Marcus is again describing how trivial human drama can appear when imagined from afar. In the modern world we can go beyond mere imagination. Most folks today have traveled on an airplane, with many professionals doing this routinely. Viewing the world from 35,000 feet can create an amazing sense of perspective. Flying over a major metropolitan area, one is technically viewing millions of lives, with all of their attendant drama and intrigue. But at that height, they are all reduced to indistinguishable dots. Any one person, structure or geologic feature is inconsequential relative to the enormity of the landscape. The world you are viewing has existed for billions of years. The troubles that anyone on that “view below” is experiencing are tiny and ephemeral – and so are yours.
Many times at work, we will lament our situation. Perhaps we have a demanding and unsympathetic boss. We may feel under appreciated, having been passed up for a recent promotion. Perhaps our teammates are unhelpful, competitive and snarky.
It’s easy to take a “woe is me” perspective, bemoaning our fate and fantasizing about a more ideal work life. The Stoics had a valuable approach to dealing with this situation. They advised that one imagine that they are an actor in a play. One has been assigned a particular role. Now it’s your duty to perform your role with excellence and professionalism. As Epictetus counsels:
Remember that you are an actor in a play determined by the author: if short, then short; if long, then long. If he wants you to act as a beggar, then act even that with excellence, just as a cripple, a ruler or a citizen. Because that is your objective: to act the role that is given to you well. To select the role is up to someone else.
Focusing on what you can control
On a similar note, the Stoics looked, in general, to accept a fate driven world. They counseled that a peaceful person would accept things as they are. As Marcus describes –
that which is peculiar to the good man, to be pleased and content with what happens, and with the thread which is spun for him
A normal reaction at this point, would be for readers to challenge the notion of fate, misunderstanding it as cynical and unhelpful. It seems to contradict the conventional notion of taking control of your career and directing your own success and satisfaction. Here it is helpful to understand what may be the most fundamental Stoic principle – control.
The Stoics believed much of what disturbed people stemmed from agonizing over things that were outside of their control.
In his opening passage in The Enchiridion, Epictetus advises –
“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”
The Stoics used the example of an archer to demonstrate this concept and separate our intentions and actions from the ultimate outcomes. An archer should do everything possible to hit the target. This could include training, using proper technique and focused attention. But ultimately, there is no guarantee of a bullseye every time. Something as simple, and uncontrollable as a wind gust, could blow your shot off course.
In much the same way, as committed professionals, we should practice our craft with seriousness and care. But we should understand that there are always many factors outside our control that can impact an outcome. While we may strive to complete a task with excellence, and truly believe we have met our objectives, we can’t control the opinions of others. A boss or peer may take a negative view of our work through ignorance, competitiveness or by simply having a different perspective. We may work earnestly for years, marching on a path of career progression and have our advance abruptly halted by corporate event such as a bankruptcy, acquisition or office relocation.
The Stoics would counsel that we should simply focus on our own professional excellence, measuring ourselves by how true we remain to our committed ethical values. The rest is up to fate, not within our control and not worth our worry.
Anxiety Over the Thoughts of Others
Another area of stress in the modern workplace involves reputation. Often, we are highly concerned about the views that others have of us. One particular way we see this involves public speaking or formal presentation work. Many professionals find this extremely stressful. Epictetus breaks down the anxiety of public performance through the lens of a concert musician:
Take a lyre player: he’s relaxed when he performs alone, but put him in front of an audience, and it’s a different story, no matter how beautiful his voice or how well he plays the instrument. Why? Because he not only wants to perform well, he wants to be well received — and the latter lies outside his control
Epictetus notes that the fear of being poorly received, and having a diminished reputation, creates the performer’s (or speaker’s) anxiety. But ultimately that audience reception is outside your control. All you can do is simply prepare and perform to your best ability. If you can adopt that mindset, than your next public presentation should be no more stressful than your rehearsal in front of a mirror.
In addition to concerns about our performance, we have a general tendency to obsess about the thoughts and actions of others. A particular driver of disquietude in the modern workplace is social media. Many professionals follow their colleagues on Facebook and other popular platforms. Many firms also have their own internal social media platforms. While the ancients didn’t have these modern tools in place, the notions of gossip, bragging and social envy were equally prevalent. As Marcus advises:
Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people—unless it affects the common good. It will keep you from doing anything useful. You’ll be too preoccupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.
Our takeaway here is consistent with other Stoic principles. We don’t control the thoughts and reactions of others. We should simply focus on our own excellence and tune out the bleating of the herd.
Dealing with change
Perhaps we are able to put some Stoic wisdom to work, getting through our typical workday with composure and effectiveness. In today’s fast paced world, as soon as we’ve adjusted to our circumstances, we’re faced with a new set of challenges. As mentioned earlier, another hallmark of the modern world is an accelerating pace of change. This creates great uncertainty for people as firms, professions and job roles move rapidly in and out of favor. It’s hard to scan the news without seeing another dystopian story about the elimination of a class of jobs or an entire industry. The Stoics also viewed the world as being in constant flux. They saw this as natural, understandable and to be fully accepted. Marcus notes:
Often think of the rapidity with which things pass by and disappear, both the things which are and the things which are produced. For substance is like a river in a continual flow, and the activities of things are in constant change, and the causes work in infinite varieties; and there is hardly anything which stands still. And consider this which is near to thee, this boundless abyss of the past and of the future in which all things disappear. How then is he not a fool who is puffed up with such things or plagued about them and makes himself miserable? for they vex him only for a time, and a short time.
When you’re confronted with uncomfortable changes, view them as necessary and natural. Don’t resist changes and ruminate over them. Instead, embrace the Stoic metaphor of life as a flowing river, with constant, inevitable transitions.
For those professionals who rise to a level of leadership, a different challenge emerges. Now, you can be that same uncaring boss that you complained about earlier in your career. One needs to look no further than the latest news story to see disturbing examples of successful leaders in government or in the corporate world acting arrogantly or abusing their power. In his time Marcus was as powerful as any leader alive today. He understood the grave responsibilities that came with that power. He recognized the temptation to act corruptly and selfishly that came with virtually unchecked authority. He thus counseled himself as follows:
“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor’, avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work….the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”
Marcus is reminding himself to maintain his character, continue to embrace important virtues, especially the Stoic cardinal virtue of justice. We too can embrace these ideals, remembering our own roots and never allowing our values to be perverted by our own success or power.
Putting it all Together
The present world can feel like a daunting place, with new, unique challenges. Our work lives have been transformed by technology and the social pressures of modern culture. Studying and applying Stoic philosophy can act as a comforting counterbalance. The ancients faced similar problems, even if they were embodied in different forms. Stoic wisdom is valued today because it is has a universal and timeless essence. As you are confronted with an issue at work, ask yourself “how would the Stoics have handled this?” This will lead you back to a powerful toolkit that will serve you well.
Dan Greller is an information technology professional who has worked in a number of corporate settings over the last 35 years. He takes an interdisciplinary approach to work, drawing inspiration from economics, psychology and philosophy. He views Stoicism as a helpful framework for establishing greater professional effectiveness and for maintaining personal equanimity.