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Stoic philosophers had a very practical approach to life 2000 years ago. Theirs wasn’t the abstract dancing on the head of a pin that characterises so much of modern philosophy. To them the word philosophy was a way to get better at the art living. It was very much focused on how to live a life in equanimity, unruffled by extremes of passion.
One of their core ideas, as expressed by Epictetus, was to focus on what we have control over and to pay less attention to the things that we don’t have control over:
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.
— Epictetus in The Enchiridion
In reality this leaves us with direct control over a very small subset of the things that affect our lives. The things that we have direct control over are our thoughts, our emotions, and our actions. But even this is being optimistic! Getting control of our thoughts and emotions can be challenging to say the least.
In fact much of the writing of the Stoics is on how to be more aware of our thoughts and emotions and how to have more control over them. Generally the idea though is that if we focus on what we are doing, and why we are doing it, we have a greater chance of influencing other people and the world around us.
Sadly in the world of work the norm is if anything the exact opposite. We are encouraged to focus on anything but our own thoughts. Sitting thinking is seen as doing nothing. We are encouraged to busy ourselves with what other people are doing and should be doing.
In fact I once commented, while working at the BBC, that when promoted to a new post a senior manager couldn’t be seen to do nothing. They couldn’t look around, consider what was happening, and decide that things were working fine. They got more praise for being active and screwing things up than leaving things alone!
We have not been encouraged to develop the self-awareness required to think hard about our motivation and the effects of our actions. We are more used to be reactive than responsive in our work relationships. Even 2000 years ago this was a challenge:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of the ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no 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…
— Marcus Aurelius
We are taught to see solutions outside of ourselves. To sort the world rather than ourselves. To value externalities in the form of salaries, titles, and status rather than our own ability to deal effectively with life. There is a strong pressure on us to be seen to be doing things whether we are truly coping or not. To be seen to be succeeding. Even if sometimes our busyness is in the long term counter-productive, in the short term it gets our boss off our back.
In fast changing and unpredictable times true strength and leadership come from integrity and self-awareness, what the Stoics would call virtue, and these are going to be increasingly called for in the world of business.
Increasingly there is more and more over which we have no control. This is only going to get worse in the future. The world around us is changing increasingly quickly. Staying up with the speed of advancing technology and its impact is a significant source of stress.
In fact it is a common experience of early adopters of new technologies that they need to find a way of slowing down and finding moments of silence. Hence the current interest amongst geeks in mindfulness and meditation.
In fast changing and unpredictable times true strength and leadership come from integrity and self-awareness, what the Stoics would call virtue, and these are going to be increasingly called for in the world of business. As the world around us begins to change more quickly and more profoundly than perhaps ever before, there will be a greater need for people who exude the sort of calm and stability that a more thoughtful approach leads to.
“Don’t just do something, stand there”. This inversion of the usual advice is worth repeating like a mantra. Particularly in fast moving online environments, especially if you view yourself to be “responsible” for how people behave in those environments, as is the case or an internal enterprise social network for instance, there is an inclination to leap in and fix things when tensions begin to rise.
But in fact, as I learned at the BBC, very often the most effective thing to do is to wait. If you wait people in the network begin to learn how to deal with things themselves. They don’t stand back and wait for you to sort things for them. They take responsibility.
Stopping to think is our secret weapon.
It is also true when we are faced with large-scale change. We love “initiativitis”. We find it easy to busy ourselves with meetings and memos about nebulous concepts such as “culture change”. We get busy with the mechanics of change very often as a displacement activity and the means of avoiding the existential challenge that we are actually facing.
The noise of busyness drowns out our fear. Sometimes being brave and not doing something, being prepared to sit and deeply consider our thoughts, emotions and next actions, is the most effective thing we can do.
We don’t have to sit around doing nothing all day. Even grabbing a moment to sit in silence before an important meeting can make a huge difference. The centring, calming, effect of being aware of our thoughts and emotions can have a greater impact on our effectiveness than running around like a mad thing all day.
It also improves our relationships. And relationships, in a soon to be real world of robots and artificial intelligence, are increasingly key to our effectiveness at work. It is our USP. We should aspire to become better at it.
Stopping to think is our secret weapon.
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