I first learned about Stoicism while listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast. Ferriss interviews some of the most influential people in the world today to ask them about the habits and systems that helped create their success. From time to time, Ferriss talks about his own approaches and inevitably he mentions Stoicism. Ferriss describes Stoicism as an operating system (or ‘OS’) for your mind: a guideline to live a life of awareness and virtue.
For those who are unfamiliar with Stoicism, it is an ancient philosophy (think 2000 years ago) that focuses on improving an individual’s ethical and moral well-being. Stoics apply stringent control of their perceptions of the world around them to be able to manage emotions and see things as they truly are. According to Stoic philosophy, it is not the objects or events in our lives that cause problems; rather, it is our perception of the events that create issues.
What I really like about Stoicism and the teachings shared by the likes of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius is how practical and tangible they are. The lessons that they share around exercising careful control of your perceptions and taking personal responsibility are lessons I apply every day.
In Stoic philosophy, the crucial moment starts with recognizing the emotion and creating awareness of it as soon as it arises. It’s about making a conscious decision that you won’t let that emotion control your behavior, and bringing objectivity to your emotions. It’s not easy, and requires a tremendous amount of practice and self-awareness.
For example, Aurelius, one of the most beloved and respected emperors in Roman history, would remind himself each day that the people he’d encounter could be challenging for him—they might be angry, dishonest, jealous or any number of other frustrating qualities. And at the same time, he would remind himself that he had a choice in whether or not he allowed the words or actions of others to affect him. In essence, he put the responsibility of handling the negativity that could happen in his own hands, and by exerting self-control, he had the ability to decide if he felt slighted, belittled, or hurt, and to become immune to their influence.
In the 21st century, we’re faced with an even more challenging workplace. Yes, Aurelius may have met with hundreds of citizens and advisors over the course of a day, but with the increasing influence of social media and communication tools like Twitter, Slack, Snapchat and email, the modern worker is exposed to even more interactions—both positive and negative. That one-line email from your boss with no context, tweets from frustrated customers, or a colleague who bombards you with messages or impossible deadlines—every interaction can be a trigger.
Think about a time when you were angry or upset by something at work. What was the trigger? How did you handle it? Were you happy with the way you processed that emotion? Personally, I know there are at least one or two moments a day that I get triggered at work. 99% of the time it’s not a comment or event that was intentionally meant to be critical of me or my work. Yet when this happens, emotions can take over. Approaching these moments through the framework of Stoicism has helped me to pause, identify my emotional response as it’s happening, and then course correct in the moment.
So how do we go about handling the modern workplace like a Stoic?
Practice self-control in emotionally charged situations.
It all starts with awareness. Be aware when you’re being triggered. Write down the specific scenario and what you are feeling. Do this for a week and you may see a pattern, as triggers often originate from insecurity or a past experience. Identifying the source of your emotional response will help you to manage that response in the future.
Find ways to keep your mind clear.
Triggers happen when we are least expecting it, and they’re worst when you can’t seem to find an objective reaction to it. Aurelius took a moment each day to remind himself that he is responsible for the way he responds to negativity. Personally, I enjoy taking time to meditate in the morning to ground myself and prepare me for the day ahead. Find what works for you to keep your mind clear.
Take personal responsibility
Ultimately, this is about you. It’s so much easier to blame others or the environment as the reason for impeding your progress. What’s interesting about Stoicism is that the blame is never on others. Although this was a constant struggle for Aurelius, when faced with bad behavior by others, he would ask himself when he might’ve acted like that or if he should’ve trusted that person in the first place. Take a moment to think about the situation objectively and think about how you would do things differently next time.
In the 21st century, we’ve seen some significant improvements to the workplace environment. Discussions around culture, engagement, and work-life balance are commonplace now. Perhaps it’s now time to re-introduce a “new” concept—philosophy—to help teams and employees manage their mindset so they can best live in this fast-changing work environment.