Nutshell: Stoicism: a practical philosophy for life and work

Written by
Future Talent Learning

24 Nov 2020

24 Nov 2020 • by Future Talent Learning

If you’re looking for a set of personal ethics to help guide you in your career, consider turning to stoicism.

Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that translates fluently to the 21st century. 

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 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) and the playwright and political adviser Seneca the Younger, tutor to the emperor Nero. 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.

Cardinal virtues

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: 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 a kind of optimism.

If you’re still worried that stoicism doesn’t sound a laugh a minute – you might well be wrong. “Laughter, and a lot of it, is the right response to the things which drive us to tears,” said Seneca. 

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 can help us cope with 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.

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 Willam B Irvine, writing in A Guide to the Good Life.

Not only does this process help us to appreciate what we have today, 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 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.


Register for insights and updates or implement one of our levy-funded leadership programmes by clicking on the buttons below.