Whilst the term Stoicism might conjure up images of a stiff-lipped, emotionless philosopher living a grim and humourless life detached from the world – the term, in fact, represents a simple set of rules. At its core, Stoicism is a philosophy. However, unlike schools of thought reserved for the classroom and ‘thinkers’, it is a philosophy designed for action – for the ordinary and the elite alike.

What is Stoicism?

Stoicism was founded 2,000 years ago in Ancient Greece, a society in transition, by Zeno of Citium. It was later introduced to the Roman world by Cicero, where it gained much of its popularity and became a pseudo-religion.

It offers a toolkit grounded in reality – a way of seeing and reacting to a volatile, unpredictable, and emotionally draining world. It’s a practical philosophy that teaches us we can learn to lead a happy life in the face of uncertainty. Philosopher Jules Evans puts it best: “Stoicism says, accept that you cannot control the external world, but that you can find a measure of serenity and happiness and moral meaning by focusing on what is in your control, your own beliefs and your own actions.”

Whilst there is no formally agreed definition for Stoicism, it often can be broken down into four cardinal pillars which can lead us on the path to living by reason and rationality rather than emotion, in alignment with nature, and in pursuit of virtue:

  • 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 Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Resilience, not resistance, in the face of impermanence

Nowadays, exponential change is what categorizes the workplace. Today’s jobs will not be tomorrow’s; skills relevant now will not be in the future. It can all seem overwhelming, but new colleagues, technologies and trends are all fixtures of the modern world of work.

Stoics accept that change is natural and necessary for existence – that it’s something not in our control. If change is supposedly negative, Stoicism teaches that the negativity we experience is merely our inability to accept change. For example, when a valued colleague leaves, instead of feeling negative about the change, embrace the benefits having a new colleague might bring, or, say, a familiar software is being replaced by something new, it’s important to realise the benefits the new software can behold. Whilst is not a bad thing to feel negatively about times and people gone, Stoicism teaches us that seeing the benefits a new era can bring is innately healthier and more fulfilling.

Emotional Control

“Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it easier to maintain control.” – Epictetus

Whether it’s a project failing, a rude co-worker or a bad meeting, the nature of work is that things will happen that you didn’t want to happen. Stoicism teaches us that these events are outside of our control and that the only thing we can control is how we react. There is a finality to everyone’s actions, what’s done is done and that cannot be changed. What can be changed, and what can change how negative events affect our careers, is how you control your emotions and how you use the knowledge you’ve gained in the future.

So, if a colleague is rude to you, trying to assert their dominance, see it as an example of their emotional immaturity. Use what you’ve learnt from the interaction to inform how you deal with the person in the future.

Keep things simple

Although the philosophers of old probably couldn’t possibly conceive of the hectic world we live in, their teachings of steady discipline can help simplify a world constantly bombarding you with new information.

“At every moment keep a sturdy mind on the task at hand, as a Roman and human being, doing it with strict and simple dignity, affection, freedom, and justice—giving yourself a break from all other considerations” – Marcus Aurelius

According to Stoicism, not all things are worth equal amounts of attention, so we must prioritise how and where we spend our time, focusing on what’s most important. In the workplace, 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.

Life isn’t just work

As we (hopefully) begin to move to a post-pandemic world, there are some lessons that can’t be forgotten. One such lesson is the importance of a healthy work/life balance – after all, if it’s all work and no play, how are we that much different to the computers we use to do our work?

Every day, it’s important to remember why you work, whether it’s for family, security, or new experiences. Discipline is important, but not just in work. You must be active and disciplined in making time for yourself, time with friends, and time doing the things you love.

“Dwell on the beauty of life. Watch the stars, and see yourself running with them.” – Marcus Aurelius