Stoicism is undergoing a bit of a revival today. There are active groups on Facebook, an excellent project called Modern Stoicism which offers training, http://modernstoicism.com and a number of articles on it recently in Forbes. So what is it all about and how can it help us?
Stoicism is a philosophy which was founded in Ancient Greece and was very influential in the ancient world. While a lot of its early writings have been lost, those of the major Stoics from Roman times remain including those of the ex-slave turned philosopher Epictetus, the emperor Marcus Aurelius and the writer Seneca who came to a nasty end under Nero.
Today we retain the word “stoic” in our vocabulary and it implies a grim, suffering, stiff upper lip type of attitude. This is a caricature of what Stoicism is about. Stoicism is essentially a form of “philosophy as a way of life”, as distinct from the sterile academic discipline it has become. Stoics sought to achieve eudaimonia or human flourishing i.e. happiness, through restraint of negative impulses and thinking and active engagement in the world. Its influence has been very significant and today its most important contribution is that it influenced the pioneers behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the main non drug form of therapy for depression and anxiety.
CBT is based on the insight that our negative feelings arise from erroneous or unhelpful beliefs. Recognising this and challenging our distorted thinking is the key to alleviating emotional suffering. This approach, which has been scientifically validated in numerous clinical trials over several decades, was inspired at least in part by the insights of Epictetus who said “It is not death or exile which is terrible but the fear of death or exile”
So how can it help us today in our busy, stressful working lives? That is not something that can be answered simply in one single blog post. But to make a start we need to start to think about the matter of our beliefs about our projects. Today there is a widespread illusion that success in any project is a matter of persistence, that unsustainable burdens are in fact sustainable and that everything is under one’s own control. The implication of this is that failure or success is entirely our own responsibility.
In the startup world, the hype and the success stories and now the new fad of aiming to build billion dollar startups called “unicorns”, creates a totally distorted picture of the reality for aspiring entrepreneurs. The reality of entrepreneurial depression and even suicide was well described in an article in Inc. magazine, The Psychological Price of Entrepreneurship http://goo.gl/gqZtqc. a subject whose profile has been raised by the VC Brad Feld who has himself experienced depression as described in his blog.
The remedy for the pressure is simple in theory, even if putting it into practise takes time as does mindfulness meditation. Central to the philosophy of Epictetus is the view that events and things fall into one of two categories; those which are under our control and those which are not. What is under our control is our volition i.e. our will to choose a virtuous course of action in every circumstance; outside of our control is everything else; the circumstances of our life, our health (although we can exert some influence) and the behaviour of others in particular. Only what is under our control can be called “good”; other things we normally classify as “good” or “bad” are indifferent and only by retaining focus on what is under our control can we achieve serenity and happiness.
These ideas are quite a challenge to our modern mindset especially in the world of work. They are very countercultural since the self-help gurus are constantly saying that all we need is the belief that the outcome of our careers, projects and lives are entirely in our own hands. Just believe they say, make a great effort and it will all work out and of course, if it does not work out it is because you have not believed enough! That is not realism – it is magical thinking. But if we look into it we do find that we have much less control than we either think or would want. Whether your company succeeds or fails, grows or downsizes, whether it is acquired or not, is overtaken by new technology or competitors is not under the control of most people or even anybody. Back in 1958 the average lifespan of a US company in the S&P 500 Index was 61 years but by 2013 that had declined to 18 years. Whether your project succeeds or not, how your work relationships go (to some extent anyway), whether your boss or co-workers like or dislike you, appreciate you are not, reward you justly or not is also not under your control. Of course you are always free to make choices; you can choose to work hard to improve work relationships and may make some progress although you cannot control it; you can always leave a company whose environment is not acceptable to you, although there is no guarantee the new one will be any better!
This is not a recipe for passivity or fatalism or not trying as hard as you can or being the best you can be. But a lot is not up to you. What is under your control is to recognise that outcomes often or even generally depend on things other than yourself but that you can still learn to remain calm and happy despite whatever difficult circumstances you face.