If you’re looking for a set of personal ethics to help build resilience and thrive at work and beyond, consider turning to stoicism.
With hindsight, it might be hard to know what to think of the life and career of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, or Seneca the Younger as he’s often known. Born into a wealthy family and educated in imperial Rome, Seneca had a highly successful, and rather dramatic, political career: accused of adultery with the Emperor Caligula’s sister and exiled to Corsica; tutor and advisor to Nero; ultimately charged with conspiracy and forced to commit suicide. Yet he’s now most readily associated with his lifelong espousal – and evangelism – of a philosophy that seems a million miles away from such power, wealth and intrigue. As a leading stoic, Seneca was the living embodiment of a school of thought founded on the ideas of virtue and ethics. Confused?
But that seeming paradox is perhaps the point. Seneca not only wrote philosophy; he also saw it as a practical route map for how we might live our lives, to handle and navigate our changing fortunes. So, while we might not face the same highs of power and wealth on the one hand and the lows of exile and dignified suicide on the other, Seneca’s stoicism offers all of us a guide to those situations in life where we might be tempted to lose sight of what really matters or feel overwhelmed by adversity.
It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that stoicism is an ancient philosophy that translates fluently to the 21st century, speaking directly to modern concerns about shaping ourselves and our lives, and how to face those ups and downs that life throws at us.
What is stoicism?
Often misrepresented as a grim and humourless approach to life – a suppressing of emotions and withdrawal from the world – it is, in fact, a “simple and immensely practical set of rules for better results with less effort,” according to US entrepreneur Tim Ferris, one of its modern-day advocates. It is a philosophy for doers – a set of ethical values that we can actually adopt, Seneca-like, in life and at work.
Founded 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece (by Zeno of Citium), stoicism was formally introduced to the Roman world by Cicero, flourishing almost as the unofficial ‘religion’.
Its three best-known latter-day proponents are:
- Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, one of the most powerful leaders in European history, whose Meditations on the subject were published posthumously.
- Epictetus, a former slave who become an influential lecturer and friend of the emperor Hadrian – and strongly influenced Aurelius.
- Our friend, the playwright and political adviser Seneca the Younger.
Stoicism gained support among all classes, crossing social as well as national boundaries.
Today, it is regaining popularity due to it its relevance within our volatile, unpredictable and emotionally draining world. In an age of technology, where we must continually reinvent our working identities, resilience becomes a critical virtue for everyone – and stoicism offers a potential toolkit, grounded in reality. Philosopher Jules Evans draws parallels with the birth of stoicism in ancient Greece, a society in transition just like ours. Then, as now, it’s a practical philosophy that teaches us that we can learn to live a good life, even when faced with uncertainty and stress: “Stoicism says, accept that you cannot control the external world, but that you can find a measure of serenity and happiness and moral meaning by focusing on what is in your control, your own beliefs and your own actions.”
While stoicism is a way of life, informed by its system of logic and views on the natural world, there is no formally agreed definition, just commonalities in practitioners’ beliefs. In essence, it involves living by reason and rationality rather than emotion, in alignment with nature, and in the pursuit of virtue, according to four cardinal pillars:
- Wisdom – good sense, good calculation, quick-wittedness, discretion and resourcefulness
- Justice – piety, honesty, equity and fair dealing
- Courage – persistence, certainty, righteousness, liveliness and alertness
- Temperance – self-control, moderation, discipline and mastery
In other words, stoics aim to respond to everything in life with these four behaviours. “If, at some point in your life, you should come across anything better than justice, truth, self-control, courage – it must be an extraordinary thing indeed,” said Aurelius.
Detachment and realism
Since we cannot control external events or situations, stoics place their emphasis on learning to understand and control what is within our power – our own thoughts, feelings, emotions and desires. All benefits and harm come from within ourselves. For example, desire makes us unhappy because it is about wanting something we cannot have. To gain peace of mind, tranquillity and freedom, we must give up attachment and the rewards of the external world.
As Epictetus argued (and today’s mindfulness practice echoes): “Very little is needed to make a happy life. It is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.”
While stoicism does not promote the overt learned optimism of positive psychology, nor strategies for maintaining positive emotions (preferring balance), it shares an emphasis on virtue ethics and the building of resilience.
Stoics live in accordance with reality, acknowledging that life can be tough and bad things happen, but finding peace in acceptance. Death is inevitable and obstacles are opportunities to grow, so we must try to live purposeful and virtuous lives, with honesty, humility, kindness and devotion to a greater good. The only thing that always contributes to, and is sufficient for, happiness is virtue. Contemporary stoic champion Ryan Holiday rejects the pessimism label often attached to stoicism, seeing it as just another kind of optimism. Every situation we face, whether good or bad, offers us an opportunity to practise one of those stoic virtues.
When a fire wiped out Thomas Edison’s research and facilities, he showed himself to be a model of the stoic idea of amor fati, a willingness to accept, even embrace, whatever happens to us. Edison’s response was to say to his son: “Go get your mother and all her friends. They’ll never see a fire like this again.” Don’t worry, Edison calmed him. “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.”
If you’re still worried that stoicism doesn’t sound a laugh a minute, you might well be wrong. According to Seneca, “Laughter, and a lot of it, is the right response to the things which drive us to tears.”
Applying stoicism in the workplace
Stoicism is meant to be lived rather than discussed and its ‘tools’ are eminently transferable to the workplace. Living according to the cardinal virtues gives us a guiding framework (or moral compass) and many of stoicism’s teachings are reflected in modern workplace psychology.
Reams have been written about this and practical applications abound. Here, we suggest four ways in which stoicism can help us to cope and thrive at work.
Stoicism helps us to build resilience in the face of impermanence and change.
The modern world of work is characterised by relentless and exponential change, fuelled by technological advances. Today’s careers will not be tomorrow’s; many of yesterday’s ‘hard’ skills are already outdated, with ‘human skills’ such as adaptability and resilience core to success. These are the very skills that stoicism instils.
Rather than resisting change, stoics accept that it is natural and necessary for existence, and that external factors are not within our control. Where change is negative (for example, a valued co-worker leaving), stoics teach that the suffering we experience is merely our inability to accept change. Instead, we should embrace the opportunities that having a new colleague might bring.
Stoicism helps us to prepare for and overcome obstacles, anxiety and stress.
We can’t control events and situations, but we can control how we react to them, in terms of our thoughts and actions. Remember that stoicism is not about suppressing our emotions, but transforming them by understanding how they are connected to our beliefs and attitudes.
‘Practising misfortune’ (sometimes described as negative visualisation, though its stoic name is the ominous sounding premeditatio malorum – premeditation of evils) can be viewed as a form of strategic pessimism which helps us to put things in perspective and to acknowledge gratitude. It involves “giving thought to what things you value most in your life and then imagining losing those things”, according to William B Irvine, writing in A Guide to the Good Life.
Not only does this process help us to appreciate what we have today, but it can be used as the stoic version of pre-mortem planning, preparing us for worst-case scenarios and enabling us to avoid them, in some cases. “Misfortune weighs most heavily on those who expect nothing but good fortune,” said the ever-quotable Seneca. There is a wisdom in seeing the glass half empty – and quite a bit of humour too.
Stoicism urges us to get things done and promotes time management.
Stoics have an action mindset and are opposed to what Seneca described as “spineless inertia”; hard work and perseverance lie within stoicism’s cardinal virtues and chime with what Angela Duckworth calls “grit”.
However, since “time is the most important thing we have”, Seneca (and Socrates before him) also called out unproductive ‘busyness’, stressing that “a delight in bustling about is not industry – it is only the restless energy of a hunted mind”.
Packing our working lives with activity does not automatically lead to success or fulfilment, rather we must use our limited time effectively, ignoring distractions and achieving sustained attention (what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls ‘flow’). Not all things are worth equal amounts of attention, says stoicism, so we must choose where we spend our time, focusing on what is important and valuable.
At work, we should tackle our most challenging tasks first, rather than putting them off. Interestingly, Aurelius argues that “the impediment to action advances action… what stands in the way becomes the way”, meaning that every obstacle we face is the way to advance our next action; action is the cure for procrastination.
Stoicism builds self-awareness, emotional intelligence and self-confidence.
EQ is at the core of stoic philosophy, which, in turn, is key to thriving in the modern workplace, where ‘soft’ or ‘human' skills are now paramount. As Travis Bradbury wrote in a post for The Daily Stoic: “The Stoics were pioneers of focusing on what today is somewhat belittlingly referred to as ‘soft skills’.”
To build EQ, we must look inwards, taking responsibility for our actions while challenging distorted thinking with a rational, resilient approach; for example, moving from “I didn’t win the pitch; I’m a failure” to “the pitch didn’t go well today, but I have won many others and can improve my technique”.
Marcus Aurelius championed self-reflection, role-modelling it through journaling. Originally entitled To Himself, his journal (published posthumously as Meditations) was never intended for publication, but as a vehicle for his own understanding and growth. Stoicism stresses that confidence and self-esteem come from within, rather than from external validation, and should be the fruits of living a purposeful life according to a moral framework. “Be your own spectator; seek your own applause,” concluded Seneca.
Like Seneca, we need to find ways to help us make sense of, and cope with, the world around us. That can be tough, especially when we have to deal with unpredictability and those voices in our heads are leading us towards unhealthy rumination and many a thinking trap. Stoicism teaches us that the key to a good life is to try to accept the world as it is; all we can do is to decide how best to respond, to harness those stoic virtues to find a way through. With awareness and acceptance, we can build the realism and resilience we need. As Epictetus told us: “Don’t seek for everything to happen as you wish it would, but rather wish that everything happens as it actually will – then your life will flow well.”
Test your understanding
- Describe the four stoic virtues.
- Identify two ways in which stoicism can be applied in the workplace.
What does it mean for you?
- Reflect on the stoic principle of amor fati. How might a more stoic embrace of even tricky situations help to build your resilience?
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