How philosophy can help us get unstuck in work and life
If you're trying to carve out a better career and life for yourself, you face obstacles. Some of those obstacles are external - finding the right job opportunity, testing your idea, choosing your partners and investors, balancing the books. But a lot of the obstacles are internal - cognitive, emotional, ethical. Fear of failure. Fear of loss of status. Fear of letting down your parents. Fear of not being able to support your family. There’s also the fact that we are creatures of habit and inertia. It’s easier to keep on in our habitual groove. It takes energy and focus to change.
One life-hack that a lot of entrepreneurs and business people have found useful is ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly a philosophy called Stoicism. Fans of Stoicism include Tim Ferriss, self-experimenter and champion of the ‘four-hour work-week’, who says Stoicism is ‘the perfect operating system for thriving in high-stress environments. For entrepreneurs, it’s a godsend’.
Another fan is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, investor and author of Black Swan and Anti-Fragile - the latter book is a celebration of how Stoicism makes us less exposed to the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. Other Stoic entrepreneurs and business-people include Luke Johnson, chairman of Risk Capital Partners; Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International; and Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, which is about how to apply Stoicism in business life.
The more forward-thinking businesses are running courses in practical philosophy or wisdom to help their employees be more resilient and to help build a more value-driven culture. Personally, I’ve run workshops in practical philosophy for everyone from Premiership-champions Saracens rugby team (they have a regular monthly philosophy club for their players and coaches); to blue-chip corporates like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Allianz; to mental health charities and prisons. Alain de Botton’s philosophy shop, the School of Life, also creates humanities-based courses for companies, as does a new US consultancy, Strategy of Mind.
This might not be to everyone’s taste. Hard-nosed businesspeople might think this sounds like a waste of money, while humanities academics might turn up their noses at what might sound like the dumbing-down, instrumentalization or commodification of philosophy.
But the idea that philosophy should offer practical help to people in their daily lives goes back to the origin of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome. Socrates thought philosophy taught people how to ‘take care of their souls’. Cicero thought the humanities ‘enhance prosperity and provide solace in adversity’. Indeed, Stoicism was the main inspiration for the two inventors of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, and also inspired self-help writers like Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey.
At its best, ancient philosophy is not just a ‘life-hack’, a short-cut to conventional goals of status or wealth. Rather, it’s a value-hack - it wakes us up from the rat-race so we can think for ourselves and discover what flourishing means to us.
So what practical advice can Greco-Roman philosophy offer to help us get unstuck? Here are seven ways.
1) 'It’s not events, but our opinions about events, that cause us suffering'.
This is a quote from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD. It inspired the psychologist Albert Ellis to invent cognitive therapy in the 1950s. What it means is, nothing is good or bad in itself, but thinking makes it so. The way we interpret what happens to us dictates how our emotions react. You will face ups and downs in your journey, but you make the journey a lot harder if you catastrophize when adversity happens. We can modulate our emotional reactions by learning to take a more philosophical perspective when the sea turns choppy. Charlie Munger, vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway investment, says he learned from Epictetus that ‘your duty is not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion’.
2) Recognize traps in your habitual thinking
Socrates suggested we sleepwalk through life, following an automated programme of beliefs and values which we picked up from our parents or society and follow blindly, even if it leads us down cul-de-sacs or off a cliff. We may be particularly prone to misreading reality in a certain way - so that certain events push our buttons and trigger strong emotional reactions. When that happens, we can notice our strong emotional reaction, and ask if we’re falling prey to the same habitual misinterpretation. For example, I have a habitual tendency to be over-sensitive to perceived slights - by now, at age 38, I’ve learned that’s a habitual bias of mine, so I’m wary when I jump to that conclusion.
3) Focus on what’s in your control, accept what isn’t
This technique, which is at the heart of Epictetus’ philosophy of resilience, is hugely helpful for people trying to manage very complex situations. If you fixate on the uncontrollables, you will feel helpless, frustrated, and the slave of circumstances. Bring your attention back to what Stephen Covey called ‘the circle of response-ability’ - your own thoughts, beliefs and actions. Derren Brown, who is writing a book about Stoicism, told me: ‘For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief.’
4) Avoid ‘tilting’
Tilting is a poker expression, when people lose emotional control and their decision-making becomes irrational and error-prone. If you’re in business, you can try to set speed-bumps or decision-checks to make sure you’re not on the tilt, but are staying rational. For example, the investor Sir John Templeton would set investment rules, so that he automatically bought shares if the price tanked too low, and automatically sold if the price rocketed too high. He knew that, in the grip of a stock market boom or bust, his decision-making would be clouded by the crowd hysteria, so he set controls to defend against his automatic irrationality. Many other top investors use similar techniques to maintain rationality in the midst of crowd-hysteria. Following your heart / gut isn’t always the best method in business.
5) What’s the worst that could happen?
Sometimes, our fears about the future keep us stuck in a mediocre present. Entrepreneurs, or potential entrepreneurs, can be crippled by the fear of failure. It can be useful to ask oneself, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’. The Stoics practiced a technique called ‘rehearsal of bad things’, where they imagined a check-list of what could go wrong in a situation. That can be useful in itself as a form of ‘defensive pessimism’. And it’s also useful to practice saying ‘so what?’ You do a talk and it goes badly. So what? You make a pitch and you don’t get the deal. So what? Life goes on. Philosophy can teach us how to shrug, to accept mistakes and imperfections and ‘keep buggering on’ as Winston Churchill put it.
6) Memento Mori
The ancient Greeks and Romans, like Buddhists, practised the ‘memento mori’, or remembrance of death. This can be very useful if we’re feeling anxiety, disappointment or shame - you can zoom out and see the bigger picture, which is that everything passes, and no one is going to remember your failed ethical cupcake business in 10 years anyway. But the memento mori can also be a spur to action. Don’t assume you’ve got 10, 20, 30 years left. If there’s something you want to do, get on and do it. Never mind the risks, do the things you need to do while you are still functioning.
7) We are what we repeatedly do
The Greeks understood that we’re creatures of habits, so if you want to change, you need to practice repeatedly, to weaken old habits and strengthen new habits. ‘If you want to be a writer, write’, said Epictetus. The only way humans get anywhere is by repeatedly practising an action. There’s no short-cut. Get into daily rituals - a 10-minute morning meditation, say, or 10 minutes at the end of the day to ‘recollect’ and think about what you did well or badly. Or assemble your own storehouse of maxims to remind yourself of, over and over, until they become internalized. Or get out and practice in real life situations - practice networking, practice writing, practice public speaking.
These are mind-hacks to help individuals change, but philosophy is just as helpful for groups - it helps groups to reflect on their shared values and culture, and ask what's important to the culture and whether the organization is living up to that.
If all this sounds interesting to you, come to a one-day conference on practical philosophy on November 7 in London, called STOICON, where you can hear from some of the leading figures in the revival of ancient philosophy in modern life. It’s only £30, which is a bargain considering how much companies spend on learning the same lessons. You can also enrol for a free week-long online course, called Stoic Week, which is running from the 2nd to the 9th of November.