While our expectations took a battering in 2020, stoicism arms us with the resilience to continue to pursue our goals.
By Johanna Leggatt
In the past year of adapting to a global pandemic, of lives played out on Zoom and a mass retreat to our homes, many of us had to draw on inner wells of resilience.
We had to be flexible, resourceful, patient. Above all, we have been stoic.
Industry professor and director of development with Adelaide University’s Faculty of Professions and Business school, Petrina Coventry, argues many of us were transformed into unofficial stoics this year.
Coventry says the tenets of the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy – espoused by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca – are remarkably similar to the skills needed in 2020’s upended work landscape: a philosophical approach to change, an acceptance of reality and calm under fire.
“The theme of stoicism is to focus on the positive no matter what is happening, so 2020 is definitely the year of stoicism,” Coventry says.
Controlling the mind
The ancient philosophy emphasises the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of life, the importance of mastering our thoughts and the use of rational logic rather than impulsive behaviour.
The philosophy is useful, Coventry notes, not only in our home life, but in the “world of business and work”.
“Stoicism has nothing to do with becoming a monk or depriving yourself,” Coventry says.
“It starts with the awareness of how your mind can control you and how you can then control your mind in a variety of situations.”
Business owner Dene Menzel agrees. She is the founder of Branthem, an award-winning brand engagement agency in Melbourne, and she uses the principles of stoicism in business to keep focused on the bigger picture and set work goals.
“I’m very deliberate in my business and very intentional,” she says. “I focus on the outcome and then plan from there.”
She manages stress by finding time in her morning each day to achieve clarity by setting intentions for her day and quieting her mind.
“I see stress as a messy room where you don’t know where to find things,” Menzel says. “But stress can easily be dealt with when you have clarity.”
Another key tenet of stoicism is the importance of building resilience, often by reframing the perception of external events.
“In stoicism, it is important to be focused on what is truly important,” Coventry says. “We’re alive, that is a great thing in itself, and everything else is cream on top.”
For example, rather than reacting impulsively to a missed promotion or opportunity in the workplace, a stoic approach would encourage workers to step back and re-frame their mindset.
“Stoicism helps you become aware of how you see things, the lens you use to view the world, as we all have triggers that may be set off by external events,” Coventry says.
Unchecked ambition and ruthlessness can also cause great misery at work, and Coventry says stoics resist this black-and-white approach to success.
“People who covet things are generally going to be unhappy because they are generally measuring themselves according to what they have and what other people have got,” she says.
This doesn’t mean you should crimp your ambition – far from it – but that your outlook “from the get-go should be philosophical”.
“And if your plan doesn’t pan out, then it wasn’t the right thing to do,” Coventry notes.
Menzel adds that one of the reasons her business is so successful is because of the stoic lessons she has learned from the past.
“I used to run a performing arts company and I was a lot more manic and reactive in my approach,” she says.
Instead of reacting impulsively to setbacks, she now gives herself time to process how she is feeling and determine the best path forward.
“For me, now, stoicism is about being very aware about how I feel, and being more deliberate with what I choose to focus on and create, rather than being distracted by what I don't actually want in my life,” she says.
It is not surprising that stoicism has taken off so thoroughly in Silicon Valley, where the likes of entrepreneurs Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday have extolled its life-changing potential.
Not only does stoicism help many workers build resilience and a positive mindset, but it can also help generate commercial success, Coventry adds.
“Entrepreneurs have discovered stoicism because it generates innovation and it is all about seeking out ‘failure’, learning and pushing forward,” says Coventry.
“This often leads to success.”
However, Coventry points out that this commercial success is more of a “by-product of stoicism rather than an end in itself”.
“We stoics see ‘bad’ events as ‘good’,” she says. “Without pain there isn’t any joy, and you need those contrasts in life.”
5 techniques for applying stoicism in the workplace
- When conflict arises at work, ask yourself if you are repeating a hard-wired pattern that needs to change.
- Accept “bad” events are as crucial as “good” events.
- Embrace failure or so-called setbacks — and look for the opportunity in each.
- Write daily goals.
- Stop comparing your career progress to others as that leads to unhappiness; instead, adopt a more philosophical approach.
Source: Petrina Coventry.
Further reading and viewing:
Stoicism 101: A Practical Guide for Entrepreneurs by Ryan Holiday.
Lives of the Stoics by Ryan Holiday.
The Consolations of Philosophy by Alain de Botton.