“What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance.”
Stoicism focuses on the fact that they only thing truly good is an excellent mental state, identified with virtue and reason. The three roman stoics Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius offer a wide range of practical advice surrounding emotional awareness and how to achieve the unconquerable mind, nine of which are extracted for the purpose of this blog.
In essence the Stoics were pioneers of what today is often referred to as "emotional intelligence" - those skills that go beyond the specialist requirements of professional work but recognised as hugely influential to career success. At it's core Stoicism can be broken down into three simple lessons
- How unpredictable the world is and how brief life is
- How to be steadfast, strong and in control of yourself
- The dissatisfaction that comes from impulse rather than logic
By focusing on these lessons it is not difficult to see how they are relevant to (and have inspired) many of today's leaders. For example politicians, public figures and business leaders all retain unshakeable equanimity and this in turn increases their following - it makes them credible to the public and clients. Stoicism focuses on "internal administration" - the belief that life is all about perception and with the right frame of mind, you can take on anything. At its heart, it's about controlling things within your remit, i.e your mental state and ignoring the rest.
By using a set of principles, such as Stoicism, to guide your work, you hold yourself accountable to your values - you ensure decisions are made in line with your beliefs (rational) instead of impulsive, based on your mood (irrational). For example, deciding to procrastinate is an irrational thought however if we consider why we are doing a piece of work, i.e. to reach a career goal, we are far more likely to progress that task.
9 lessons from Stoicism
1 - Keep the view from above
Quite literally, always strive to be objective. In Stoicism this is explained as a double strategy – firstly, use suspicion towards our own senses and judgements and then exercise sympathy towards the intention of others - or at the very least first try to see things from their perspective and not ours. These two simple strategies were the birth of emotional intelligence in Western practice!
2 - Acknowledge that all emotions come from within
In the words of Marcus Aurelius “Today I escaped anxiety. Nor no, I discarded It, because it was within me, in my own perceptions –“. Always remember, there are plenty of situations you cannot control in life, but one thing you can control is how you respond to those situations. It is not outside forces that makes us feel something, it's our inner dialogue that generates those feelings – a blank canvas is not inherently stressful – it’s your thoughts that are stressing you out.
3 - Find a mentor
Find someone you respect, and use them to stay honest. A good mentor will keep you accountable to your goals especially if they are willing to ask you the hard questions about your decisions, that you won't ask yourself.
4 - Recognise there is life after failure
We rarely get it right the first time but have enough conviction in your abilities to keep pushing on. Don’t let failure define your limits. The most successful embrace failure and use it as a medium for self improvement. No failure, no growth.
5 - Propel out of academia and practically apply your knowledge
Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them, you have learnt to be a better person. The purpose of education is not just to internalise knowledge but ultimately to spark action and facilitate wiser decisions.
6 - Challenge yourself to be brutally honest
If you’re constantly procrastinating, you need to reflect on why. You might dislike your work. You might not feel it aligns with your overall goals or purpose. If this, or anything else you may be burying your head in the sand about, is the case, you need to be brutally honest about it and make the requisite changes otherwise you are just wasting your potential. When you feel resistance, use that as a cue to be introspective.
7 - Reflect on what you spend the most time on
Quite simply you’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve. Make a log of what you spend your daily time on. Do include things like scrolling on your Facebook newsfeed. Cut out the small things taking up more time then they require.
8 - Be present
Throughout your day, find a moment, however fleeting, to just sit and be still. This brain exercise, if practised, will help you to be ruthlessly present whilst you’re working. Without distractions, we produce better work, more efficiently. Sooner or later you will see how much this brain technique is an asset to your productivity and overall quality of life.
9 - Be aware that time is the most expensive commodity
“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able — be good.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations.
In light of this - spend time on the things that matter to you. Hopefully by reading this blog and following the above principles you can ensure that happens.
For more information on Stoic principles for the modern worker read The Stoic: 9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos by Paul Jun.