Are we witnessing a Renaissance of Greek philosophy? It seems that Stoicism has been gaining popularity in recent years.
Have our lives become so complicated that we are willing to search for words of wisdom that are thousands of years old? If so, what makes us believe that they can solve our modern problems?
Well, I’m willing to risk voicing the following idea. Societies were less complex and information scarcer back then. Philosophers could dedicate more time and cognitive focus to meditate about life, meaning, and human tendencies to succumb to hedonic motivations and self-indulgence. In short, they spent a great deal of time thinking about us, almost to the exclusion of anything else.
Following a friend’s recommendation, I recently read How to think like a Roman emperor by Donald Robertson. In his book, Robertson, a Stoicism practitioner himself, tells us the story of Marcus Aurelius, a Roman emperor and one of Stoicism’s most significant figures. He also illustrates many teachings and techniques of the Stoic philosophy and explains them with modern concepts mostly borrowed from cognitive behavioral phychology.
Inspired by the book, I thought it would interesting to try to apply these teachings in a business scenario, and I imagined Marcus living among us today. That’s how the story would go. I hope you’ll enjoy the absurdity of it.
2021, Marcus Aurelius, a successful business executive coach, twice The Time’s person of the year, and a regular columnist in Forbes magazine, is hired by a struggling organization. A life-long practitioner of Stoicism, Marcus is also the author of 2 best-selling books, “Stoicism in the workplace” and “Meditate, and get things done!”.
Stoicism, the elevator pitch
Every time Marcus begins a coaching engagement with a company, he invariably starts with the top: the board of directors.
He knows how busy directors can be and has developed over the years an elevator pitch that explains his approach in simple and direct terms.
“What is the biggest enemy of any business?” he asked Acme Associates’ board. And without leaving much time for the directors to respond, he answered himself: “Bad decisions.”
He had their attention.
“Where those bad decisions come from? Overconfidence, misguided intuition, lack of emotional control, self-interest over company’s interest, fear, etc..”
“Our approach is to reduce the number of bad decisions by applying Stoicism teachings to develop self-control, critical thinking, and a more acute sense of perception.”
Having helped hundreds of companies across many industries, Marcus is painfully aware of the symptoms of a struggling organization:
- High levels of stress and anxiety
- No communication or collaboration between divisions
- Leadership driven by greed and self-interest
- Decisions driven by emotions, fear, and risk aversion
Recognizing a few of these symptoms, a slightly anxious director asked Marcus how he suggested mitigating these challenges. Marcus’ approach consists of four steps:
- Create a high-performing culture based on the four virtues of Stoicism
- 1-on-1 coaching with senior management on critical thinking
- Masterclass on stress management for all the staff
- Workshop on self-improvement and routine building
Knowing he had the directors on-board with his plan (pun intended), it was time for Marcus to put it in motion with the first item on its agenda.
Virtues in the office
Highly performing organizations have one thing in common: a deeply ingrained culture that strives for excellence. Conversely, struggling organizations usually demonstrate weaker cultures, often due to a lack of higher purpose.
It didn’t take too long for Marcus to determine that Acme Associates was in the second category. After interviewing 2 executives and 1 senior manager, he had heard 3 different corporate missions, 12 different values (5 of them contradictory). Nobody seemed to agree on which human qualities were the most praised within the organization.
He organized a weekend retreat with all the executives and some of the most senior staff to increase their awareness of the situation, and have them involved in the cultural changes to come.
Marcus likes to kick-off the retreat by presenting his battle-tested framework to be used in the subsequent workshops.
“In order to strive for excellence as an organization, it is vital to establish a culture driven by human qualities that you value. In our Stoic Approach to Management or S.A.M©︎ for short, we propose a framework of 4 building blocks, or values, that we call the 4 Cardinal Virtues of Stoicism: Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation”.
Acknowledging the puzzled look of a few executives, he illustrated the four virtues in more business terms:
- Seeing long-term, without being blinded by short-term profit
- Systematically learning from our mistakes and improve our processes
- Making people smarter around us by sharing knowledge and insights
- Practicing a fair business and embracing fair competition
- Providing equal opportunities to all the staff
- Perseverance during difficult times
- Courage to speak up and stand up against the wrong
- Courage to take risk and try new ideas
- Not letting greed and profit being the only drivers of the business
- Restraining from excess
- Staying humble
Happy to see most of the crowd nodding of approval, Marcus instructed the executives to get started with the workshops.
Inspired by the presentation, ideas were flowing, and it didn’t take too long for the leadership team to come up with the values upon which the new culture will be built.
The rest of the retreat was enjoyed with a renewed sense of purpose and enthusiasm about the future.
Having had the opportunity to discuss with many executives during the retreat, it came to Marcus’ attention that a few costly mistakes had been made in the last quarter; they resulted from poor decision-making from a couple of senior managers trying to keep up with their personal objectives. That seemed the perfect segway to Marcus’ next topic: critical thinking.
Marcus knows all too well that we are not born with a natural aptitude for rationality and that our emotions or biases can heavily influence our decisions.
For critical thinking to be effective, we must be able to describe any situation or problem as factually as possible, without any value judgment. Events are not good or bad, just or unjust; they just are. Stoics call this Objective Representation.
Business is all about problem-solving, and to find the right solutions, we need to make sure we are describing the problems as objectively as possible.
A second important mechanism is to realize that our judgment may have tainted our perception of reality and that we are not processing information as objectively as we would like to. We need to separate the perception of facts from our interpretation of the same facts, being aware that we are most likely applying some level of filtering in between. It’s like seeing the world through color lenses and be able to look at the lenses instead of through them.
This concept of separation is called Cognitive Distancing in modern cognitive-behavioral psychology and is commonly used in behavioral therapy.
When it comes to Objective Representation and Cognitive Distancing, Marcus favors 1-on-1s over group meetings, as everybody comes with a different set of biases and judgments. This part of the coaching activities takes the longest, but it also brings the most result in the long run in Marcus’ experience.
How to cope with stress and anxiety?
The next big event on the agenda was the masterclass on stress management.
In the area of stress management, no one has more experience than Epictetus. Born extremely poor, his life has been a long series of crippling misfortunes. Famous in the academic circles for his pioneering work on trauma management, he is often considered as one of the thought leaders of Stoicism. While Marcus has always had a more “hands-on” approach to Stoicism, he very often quotes Epictetus’ work during his presentations. So who better than Epictetus himself as the guest speaker at the masterclass!
Epictetus’s approach to stress and anxiety management revolves around two key axes: awareness and acceptance.
The first, awareness, is about realizing that things are not stressing us out, but we are letting ourselves be stressed by things.
It’s not things that upset us but our judgments about things — Epictetus
It’s a direct application of the concept of Cognitive Distancing introduced earlier.
The second axis, acceptance, is to consciously try not to be emotionally affected by things on which we don’t have control.
There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will — Epictetus, Discourses
No control? No problem!
“We all crave for control,” Epictetus continued. We like to believe that everything that happens to us is within our control and that we are in command of our destiny. But in reality, only very few things are actually under our control, and feeling strongly about something over which we have no control is irrational and a great source of emotional suffering.
“Consciously differentiating what’s under our control and what isn’t is what we call: Dichotomy of Control. I like to call it the Stoic Fork,” he added, with a nerdy smile. “And you’d be surprised to realize how much is not within our control. That includes:
- What people think and how they feel about us
- The actual outcome of our actions
- Our own health and wealth.”
“We may have good intentions, but that never guarantees a good outcome. We may be nice to people, but that never guarantees they’ll like us in return.”
Accepting to relinquish the notion of control, or to be more accurate, the illusion of control can liberate us from misguided expectations and unfounded entitlement, the two most significant sources of stress and frustration.
“We can now focus on doing things because they are right, not because we expect something in return.”
Do what you must, let happen what may – Pierre Hadot, The Inner Citadel: The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
“From time to time, however, we may encounter a crisis,” said Epictetus, with a grave face. “During a crisis, anything can go wrong, and any unwise decision can worsen the situation even more. Panic is the last thing we want.”
Epictetus went on to introduce one of the techniques Stoics use on such occasions: Worry Postponement.
The concept is exactly how it sounds. When something of worrying nature occurs, try to consciously delay the worrying. Tell yourself: “Alright, something bad is happening. I’ll start worrying later. First, let’s have a clear description of what’s going on.”
Using Objective Representation, try to describe the situation as factually as possible, removing any emotional information. A nice trick is to describe everything, including yourself, at the third-person, to add even more emotional distance.
“Of course, it’s easier said than done, and it needs practice.” He added. “There is a category of people who are doing this daily: first responders.”
First responders are frequently confronted with life and death situations. They have been trained to “decatastrophize” any given situation and see death as one possible outcome of their future decisions. That emotional distancing allows them to stay cool-headed and weigh their decisions based only on facts.
“Think like a first responder, and over time, your stress levels will go down, because you’ll realize that there are very few things that actually deserve your worries.” Concluded Epictetus. Marcus encouraged a second round of applause and thanked the participants of the masterclass.
Let’s put into practice
After having focused mostly on theory, it was time to put things into practice. Unlike hard skills of which progress can often be measured, the soft skills promoted by the S.A.M can be difficult to monitor. That would be the key focus of his workshops on routine building.
Marcus is a big believer in routines. Things that are important to us and that we want to develop shouldn’t be left to chance. Setting daily routines is the first step.
For Marcus, the two routines he has been following religiously are his morning and evening meditations (not to be confused with Buddhist meditations, although there might be similarities).
His morning meditations have for goal to prepare him for all the challenges and adversity he might encounter during the day. Robertson calls it “Premeditation of Adversity”.
Begin the morning by saying to yourself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial – Marcus Aurelius
It’s a little bit like doing a “premortem” of the day before it starts.
“Today, something wrong is going to happen on my project, and we are going to be late on the delivery and receive complaints from the client. My boss is not going to recognize all the hard work I’ve been doing for the company, and Tony, who hasn’t contributed at all to the project is going to be promoted. Alright, let’s do our best today as usual.”
Armed with this form of Cognitive Distancing, in combination with Objective Representation and Worry Postponement, we are mentally ready to deal with anything that may come our way.
If the morning meditations were the premortem, evening meditations are the post-mortem.
“It is vital to reflect on the day. That’s the only way to make sure we are on track with our aspirations.” Insisted Marcus.
“I usually ask myself:
- What did I do badly today?
- What did I do well?
- What could I have done differently?”
Marcus acknowledged that it could be challenging to analyze oneself objectively; we have many blind spots when it comes to our own shortcomings. He stressed the importance of feedback and mentorship.
Feedback and mentorship
“If our goal is to become a better person, we should constantly ask for feedback.” Said Marcus. “And we should always crave for unflattering feedback, hopefully from someone we trust and respect. Nothing beats having a mentor for that.”
If we desire to learn wisdom, we must be ready to listen to anyone we encounter and show gratitude “not to those who flatter us but to those who rebuke us” – Galen
For those who don’t have access to a physical mentor, Marcus recommends using an imaginary one.
“Imagine someone you respect and admire for their virtues. It could be anyone you fancy. We, Stoics, like to call him The Sage.”
“Now, visualize that mentor having unrestricted access to your thoughts and feelings and giving you (unsolicited) comments on them.” He said with an almost sadistic smile. “I often imagine having Socrates and Epictetus debating in my head about the pettiness of my thoughts.” He added, laughing openly.
“Put these tools into practice, and I guarantee that you’ll be a different person in no time!” Concluded Marcus, satisfied with the eager faces of the audience.
Keep up the good work!
It was time for Marcus to congratulate the staff for the amazing progress they had made within just a few weeks. They had achieved the hardest part of their journey: its first step; realizing what was going wrong, and deciding to do something about it.
Building a culture doesn’t happen overnight, and the pursue of virtues takes a lifetime, but Marcus was confident that they were on the right path.
In a warm closing speech, he reminded them that the most important thing was not to try to get everything right every time but to practice consistently and intentionally without losing sight of the ultimate goal: becoming better versions of ourselves. Perfection is the enemy of good. Or as Marcus best puts it:
Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be; just be one – Meditations, 10.16.
What I’ve learned
I hope you enjoyed this piece and that it was as much fun for you to read as it was for me to write.
Stoicism teaches us a way to accept our lives as they are and live them to the fullest. These teachings are as relevant at home as they are at the office.
- We are not affected by reality itself but by our perception of it. Ultimately, our mindset will determine how we experience the workplace.
- Stoicism is all about the pursuit of virtues while navigating the vicissitudes of life, and these principles can apply to a business setting.
- Objective Representation and Cognitive Distancing are two powerful mechanisms that can increase our awareness and help us thinking and acting more critically.
- Embracing the fact that we have very limited control over our choices’ outcomes can liberate us and make us more creative and innovative.
We live in an ever-changing world, where time constantly renders the past obsolete and keep the future uncertain. No truth is everlasting. How we live and value our lives is entirely up to each and every one of us. Or, as Marcus said it best:
The universe is change, life is opinion – Marcus Aurelius
- How to think like a Roman emperor, Donald Robertson
- Meditations, Marcus Aurelius
- Discourses, Epictetus