Stoicism, an ancient philosophy for a modern workplace

One of a pair of twin brothers dies. When a foolish student runs into the surviving twin, he asks, “Did you die, or was it your brother?”

This joke comes from the Philogelos, the oldest existing collection of jokes, written 1,600 years ago. Most of them are quite childish or make fun of illiterate people. Still, you probably laughed at this one, which was written before the fall of the Roman Empire (we confess we chuckled). In short, our sense of humour hasn’t changed much in the last two millennia. 

Similarly, neither has our relationship to love, life, death, power… you name it. These are what  makes us human and drive our desire to live a good life—a central element of Stoicism.

Stoicism is a trending philosophy that is having a major revival over the last decade. However, we admit that its rebirth might be linked to the current trend of “instant tips and tricks” to become happier, live healthier and so on, which, too often, leads to misunderstandings about what Stoicism really is.

So, this philosophy is a system of personal ethics that focuses on accepting what we have in life. As an example, Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and Epictetus’ “The Enchiridion” are two classic Stoic texts. Today, many initiatives have been created to apply the Stoic philosophy to modern living for the benefit of the general public, such as Modern Stoicism, the Stoic Fellowship or the Aurelius Foundation, to name a few.

It’s undeniable that, for various reasons, our modern workplace is undergoing a deep change, with people prioritising jobs that, as a prerequisite, fulfil them and align with their beliefs. Thus, how does Stoicism fit into the recent shift in our workplaces? 

In this blog entry, we will show you, through concrete examples, how we can apply some of the principles of this philosophy in our modern professional lives to become a better version of ourselves and keep growing.


Four Cardinal Virtues

The Stoics —Greek and later Roman thinkers— who lived 2,000 years ago believed that the path to eudaimonia (happiness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself. That is, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or the fear of pain. The Stoics are too often portrayed as people that shut down all emotions, but in reality they embrace positive emotions—joy, love, gratitude—and want to reduce the impact negative emotions—anger, fear, hatred—have on their happiness.

The most important pillar of Stoic philosophy is the “Four Cardinal Virtues”, which, with constant practice, lead to positive personal changes:

  • Practical wisdom makes the distinction between what we can and can’t change. It’s fundamental to understand that wisdom is about having the knowledge to know what’s good and what’s bad. We are constantly facing many challenges and choices in the workplace, and we have to judge what we can and can’t do on a daily basis. Wisdom helps you answer questions about the other three virtues below. It helps you make the best decisions with long-term benefits.
  • Courage is about standing up and being morally strong to do the right thing. A few weeks ago, we had an Advisory off-site event. During a speech, one partner said that integrity was about saying to our clients what they need to hear, not what they want to hear. And that integrity requires courage—that is, bravery to face adversity.
  • Justice is about doing the right thing. This is the highest virtue according to the Stoics. It means that we exist for the benefit of others rather than ourselves. Everything we do should contribute to the good of society. And our modern workplaces are filled with inspiring visions about doing the right thing.
  • Temperance is the idea that we should do things in moderation, not overreacting to events or neglecting to do enough to fix them. For the Stoics, your role isn’t to disgrace yourself, but to live up to the highest potential of human beings—no matter what life, gods or whatever, threw at you at birth. Interestingly, two of the most noteworthy Roman Stoics couldn’t be more different: Epictetus was a slave and Marcus Aurelius, an emperor.

In the workplace, young workers face challenges like information overload or repetitive tasks, and experienced workers face other challenges like conflict of interest, complex choices, high responsibilities, among others. Lord Acton said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Each role has its own advantages and issues, and Stoics believe you should live up to your highest potential, and be a good, wise and tempered human being.

To sum up the four virtues, let’s use a common example of wrong behaviour in the workplace —undeclared extra-hours. Practical wisdom tells you that it’s a situation where you can have some level of control. Courage is having the strength to do something. Justice is doing the right thing and speaking up. And temperance is about keeping your response and actions reasonable. So, depending on the situation, you can contact human resources, comfort your colleague, have a direct talk with your boss and so on. By following these virtues consistently and putting in effort, Stoics believe you can make progress and that your character can grow stronger with time and reflection.


Journaling

“We need to regularly stop and take stock; to sit down and determine within ourselves which things are worth valuing and which things are not; which risks are worth the cost and which are not. Even the most confusing or hurtful aspects of life can be made more tolerable by clear seeing and by choice.” Epictetus

Journaling isn’t a monotonous task to be repeated every day. It provides an emotional release that calms your mind, relieves tension, and improves your clarity of thought. Through journaling, Stoics kept track of their principles and focused on growing their character. For this blog, we asked Bernard de Villepin, who’s a business coach and an ethics counsellor, to share how he does journaling.

In fact, he has three different journals. The first one is a gratitude journal in which, twice a week, he writes three things he’s grateful for. These can be something simple like a good night of sleep or an enjoyable family time, or something linked to success such as a new diploma, new client, new personal record broken. We’ll not go into the details of the benefits of gratitude, but there are many of them, and you can find out more by reading this blog.

The second one is a journal for his daughter in which, once a week, he relates their adventures together and how she’s growing. If one of them has to disappear, the other one will have something to cherish until the end. That’s part of Memento Mori (more on that later). This journal will be one of the closest physical things that will remain from him to her or her to him.

The last one is “work journaling” in which Bernard recalls his successes, the important problems he solved, the persons he helped, where he went wrong and why. As he puts it, it’s “some kind of a virtue journal filled with healthy self-criticism”.

This journal has three main advantages:

  1. It fosters Bernard’s ability to keep moving forward as we often forget about what we accomplish if we don’t write it down. 
  2. It’s ideal when he must fill his “end of year evaluation” since he already has everything written in detail. For example, what he did right and wrong, how he can improve and how his self-awareness (a pillar of emotional intelligence) was confronted to the feedback of his peers and hierarchy. 
  3. Lastly, it’s about gratitude and taking the time to savour what he’s done well.

Because we are living in a super-fast paced environment, where we don’t take enough time to reflect and appreciate what’s going on in our lives, it’s more and more important to have such a philosophical journal as this one. Moreover, Bernard shared that this type of journaling allows him to celebrate a job well done, because “even though that’s what’s expected, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be savoured.” 


Dichotomy of control

“Some things are up to us, and some things are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing.” – Epictetus

This is known as the “dichotomy of control” and is a basic principle of Stoic philosophy. It follows that we should focus on where we can exercise our agency and develop an attitude of equanimity towards things we don’t control.

This may be a real shocker (or not), but in fact, we don’t control the world and our lives as much as we think we do. The founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, was a merchant until his boat sank with all his merchandise. The tempest was out of his control, but how he would recover from the disaster was, and that’s how he became a philosopher.

In the workplace, we can influence certain things such as our reputation, our presence, and our office, but they aren’t under our power. Somebody can gossip and ruin our reputation (“Slander boldly, something always sticks,” said Francis Bacon), we can become ill, or lose our job due to economic recession, and so on.

In contrast, some things are our own responsibility: our opinion, motivation, desires, aversions, just to name a few. How we behave at work, how we respond to good and bad news, how we are influenced by the reaction of a client or our hierarchy— this is where we are able to make the difference, because we have control over it.

Distinguishing between the things you can control and the things you can’t, and adjusting how you react in both situations can transform your work experience incredibly. You will be less concerned with the outcomes of your decisions and more with their soundness. This can be life changing because while bad things are unavoidable in life, how you react to events (whether under your control or not) is up to you. That’s one of the Stoics’s key lessons, which is the point developed below.


Separating thoughts from events

“Run down the list of those who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend…or not even a legend. Think of all the examples. And how trivial the things we want so passionately are” – Marcus Aurelius

If you give it some thought, we tend to suffer from our judgement about events more than by the events themselves. “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them,” wrote Epictetus almost 2,000 years ago.

We can’t get up in the morning and expect our day to go as we planned. Well, we can, but it never does. That’s not how life works because —you’ve guessed it— many things are out of our control. 

For example, we hear a lot of people asking “Why does this only happen to me?”. In fact, that’s not true most of the time. One of the Stoics’ focal points is to overcome emotions that can lead us to faulty thinking and unpleasant consequences. 

Workplace anxieties based on unfounded opinions or judgement about certain events abound. For instance, people not going on holidays because they fear it would hurt their promotion target, when in fact their boss never told them such things. Or people getting very anxious when they receive an email from their boss saying, “Can we meet to talk about something?” and recalling all the small mistakes they had done that could be harmful to them. 

To separate thoughts from events, there are two good things you should remind yourself of: don’t exaggerate problems and accept them as challenges, and be specific about your worries and deal with them one step at a time. 


Memento Mori

“Not to live as if you had endless years ahead of you. Death overshadows you. While you’re alive and able — be good.” Marcus Aurelius

In his famous 2005 commencement address at Stanford, Steve Jobs commented on the power of acknowledging his own mortality: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life […] There is no reason not to follow your heart.”

Memento Mori (contemplation of death) is a meditative exercise that reminds Stoics that things of the world might be swept away in an instant by death and that while we can, we should focus on doing good things around us.

While it can be uncomfortable at first, this exercise can help you with problems that we often find in the workplace like how to balance our personal and professional life, or how to get the big picture when we seem to be in a complex situation. Back to Bernard,on a personal level, he uses journaling and Memento Mori to cherish what he has around him today that might not be there tomorrow. On a professional level, it helps him deal with work pressure, reminds him that most of his mistakes won’t be remembered in a few years, and puts the role of work in his whole life into a long-term perspective.

Former Coca-Cola CEO Brian Dyson used the metaphor of the five balls —work, family, health, friends, soul— to explain that work is the only rubber ball. Whenever you fall, you will jump again, while the other balls are made of glass. If one of them falls, it won’t return to its previous form. 

To develop a bit more, the Roman Stoic Seneca used to tell himself each night, “I may not awaken tomorrow morning”. We like to think about this sentence in a positive light. We are almost 8 billion people on the planet, which formed 4.5 billion years ago. And absolutely nobody has ever lived the day that we will live tomorrow. It’s a blank page for all of us. Memento Mori could encourage you to give your best as well as help you to analyse your professional or personal life, and see what will be important for you.


In conclusion

Professor Michael Sugrue said, “Marcus Aurelius lets us know that all people suffer, but that not all people pity themselves. Marcus Aurelius lets us know that all men die, but that not all men die whining.” We believe these sentences summarise the core of Stoicism.

Philosophy is about solving life problems, both theoretically and practically. Stoicism is about living a good life and growing a virtuous character. It can help us meet the new requirements of our modern and overloaded workplaces and societies, which are acknowledging our needs for something deeper than just working.


What we think
Bernard de Villepin, Senior Data Advisor and Business Coach at PwC Luxembourg
Bernard de Villepin, Senior Data Advisor and Business Coach at PwC Luxembourg

Today, the focus is on what companies can do for the well-being of their employees. But, too often, we overlook what employees can do for themselves. In fact, we often have our answers somewhere at our fingertips, and Stoicism can help us grow a virtuous character and live a good life.

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