Stoic Week 2013 and Business

Not a productive business solution.

Not a productive business solution.

A focus for today in the Stoic Week experiment is what lies within our power and what does not.  For  recognizing that externals are beyond our control you can’t do much better than dealing with business.  There are the obvious factors beyond our control like the economy, the state of a particular industry, the agendas of competitors.  In a way those are easy to deal with in terms of pathe, passionate emotions.  Those environmental factors are impersonal.  To use a gangster film cliché “it’s nothing personal, it’s just business”.  It becomes more difficult when dealing with subtle factors that seem like they should be in our control but aren’t.  If you give a presentation then it is within your control if it is successful, right?  Either you gave a good presentation or you didn’t.  The good presentation wins the day.  That is how the heroic model works.  When I write about Agathos, that concept has its origins in the Homeric epics.  It is the idea of the good and worthy individual as skillful, effective, able to achieve.  The heroic figures of the Iliad used their abilities (along with the odd bit of divine intervention) to effect outcomes.  The results might be joyfully successful or tragically suck but the outcome was directly linked to the individual’s impact on events.  Later Greek philosophers, notably Stoics, would recognize it is not always so.  The CEO you are presenting to may just have had a bad breakfast and dislike your boldly colored tie.  You may give the best presentation of your life and it may not make a bit of difference.  This lack of control can be even more frustrating when you are dealing with people who theoretically should be in cooperation with you.  It can be hugely frustrating when those who seem to be sharing common cause towards common goals become your greatest hindrance.

Marcus Aurelius talked about this at length in his Meditations.  He certainly had cause to know.  As Emperor of Rome one would think he, of all people, could clap his hands and say “Let’s go team!” and it would be so.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  But as he observed, Stoicism teaches us to recognize that these external frustrations are no hindrance to our conducting ourselves well or to our internal well-being. Do any business outcomes harm our character, our rational faculty?   It is part of our life as human beings, living in accord with nature, to work with others and accept the limitations and frustrations that come along.

Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.  

Meditations 2:1

I freely admit to struggling with that.  I DO take some business matters personally.  I find it hard to ignore when a supposed ally acts against my interests.  I DO want to launch a thousand ships and storm the walls of the company that doesn’t sign the deal.  Part of me still recites the old line from Schwarzenegger’s Conan and vows to crush my enemies, see them driven before me and hear the lamentations of their women.  Stoicism (as well as practices from Buddhist and Taoist thought) helps me to get over it and move on.  I remember to detach from outcomes and focus on the process and on my own character.  It helps to refer to my favorite passage from meditations which I’m sure I have quoted on this blog before. 

Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man to do what thou hast in hand with perfect and simple dignity, and feeling of affection, and freedom, and justice; and to give thyself relief from all other thoughts. And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last, laying aside all carelessness and passionate aversion from the commands of reason, and all hypocrisy, and self-love, and discontent with the portion which has been given to thee. Thou seest how few the things are, the which if a man lays hold of, he is able to live a life which flows in quiet, and is like the existence of the gods; for the gods on their part will require nothing more from him who observes these things.

Meditations 2:5

It doesn’t have quite the primal satisfaction of “Crush your enemies” but it has its virtues.

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