Ced earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies in 1999. His interests include history, traveling, and mythology.
Mention Stoicism and chances are, people would think you are referring to the noun form of the commonly known adjective. Tell them that Stoicism is an ancient philosophy that continues to have relevancy for the modern business world, and I'm guessing you would receive a frown or a loud, "WHAT?"
This is not to say that people are ignorant, though. Stoicism was popular during Roman times but went downhill with the fall of the Roman Empire. The tenets of stoic wisdom also clashed with another rising school of belief, i.e., Christianity, an example being debate over the nature of God. With the rise of Christianity, it’s no surprise that stoicism was soon rendered obscure.
Religious and historical aspects aside, Stoicism still has plenty of useful guidelines for today's world, particularly in the areas of business resilience and success. To begin with, the philosophy is a constant reality check. One that forces you to embrace limitations before revealing the correct way forward.
Subsequently, that path might not feel tolerable. It might even come across as hugely painful or sacrificial. But once you’ve fully understood what Stoicism is all about, you will realize you have made the best of what you have. Simply put, you have opted to work with reality, not to endlessly, futilely, challenge it.
1. Focus on Controlling What You Can
Life sucks. Bad things happen to the best of us, the most capable of us. The stoic response to failures thus begins with accepting that disasters happen no matter how hard you try to prevent them. Instead of brooding over why it happened, focus on how to react to it. And move on.
To be clear, this is not to sideline the reasons for failures. Instead, it is to acknowledge the grim reality that many things are simply beyond our control, foremost of which is the past.
While we can all learn from the past, can we change it? If not, why brood over it? Why allow it to drag down the future?
Stoicism encourages the clear separation of what we can control and what we can't. To put this in the context of business resilience, do not obsess over external factors such as industry downturns, technological changes, lousy staff, etc. Focus instead on your reaction to them.
Acknowledge too that beyond your thoughts and intentions, practically everything is outside of your control. Therefore, make the best of what you do have an actual grip on i.e. your reaction to shock, loss, tragedy, and so on. Never sink into negative emotions. Never slip into anger. Doing so only makes things worse.
2. How You Choose to React to a Crisis Is Entirely on You
One way to summarize stoic wisdom would be to say that it is a set of guidelines for life. A philosophy with an emphasis on surviving adversity and practicing self-restraint.
Stoicism furthermore views fear, anger, and despair as intensely personal choices. In other words, you do not have to feel negatively towards a crisis. You only do so because you chose to.
Yes. You whine over the loss of a business contract not because you're “only human,” but because you choose to react that way. You lose sleep over an industry downturn not because it’s “only to be expected,” but because you allow the downturn to creep into your personal life.
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The gist of it, instead of allowing these negative emotions to overwhelm you, concentrate on managing and suppressing them. To put it in another way, do not allow yourself to be lured into a state of learned helplessness. Always believe in and practice your conscious ability to both contain and redefine adversity.
3. Awful People Do Not Deserve a Response From You
This goes under the umbrella of what was stated in (1) and (2).
Think about it. There are so many terrible characters in the world. The school bully. The nit-picking boss. The scheming colleague, and so on.
All are people who obviously do not adopt the stoic approach to life; they attempt with all sorts of unpleasant ways to manipulate things beyond their control. Thus, why waste time joining their games? Why be their pawn? Why allow their negativity to dictate your actions and life?
Again, this isn't to say you should just allow a bully to take your lunch money or a business competitor to steal your trade formula. It is about having a realistic, controlled approach to such nuisances.
Respond with a clear and calm mind, not with one that is enslaved by negativity, or worse, clouded by fury. Seek to remedy, never to get back. Aim to resolve, not to avenge.
Most important of all, aim to survive, never for vengeance.
4. A Mastery of Self Through Stoicism
The Stoics have an interesting exercise called the practicing of misfortune.
Seneca, one of the key figures of Stoicism, recommended that in times of affluence, we set aside days to practice poverty. This involves doing things like abandoning your creature comforts, going hungry, dressing in rags, etc.
Now, the above sounds like asceticism. Frankly, it could even be deemed silly in today's world. And yet, consider the real purpose of Seneca's exercise. Is it not to strengthen yourself against the possible downturns of life? By thinking about it, knowing it, and imagining its taste, wouldn't you have a clearer idea of what to do if it indeed happens?
Coming back to the topics of business resilience and success, Seneca’s exercise is a superb reality check. A practical one too.
So your business is booming now. You have a huge new office and you are taking your clients and staff out for thousand-dollar meals. Are you going to regret such extravagances when times are bad? Are you going to look back and regret not managing your funds more wisely?
Of note, stoic wisdom emphasizes four cardinal virtues. That of wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. While these sound somewhat contrary to business, which is a contest for material gain, metaphorical dosages of the four virtues in business management never hurt.
If you need examples, just google how many businesses failed because of excessive expenditures during good times. These businesses surely regret not practicing temperance, in the form of expenditure restrain, during their best days.
5. Business Resilience Through Knowing There Is Another Tomorrow
As stated by Seneca, Stoics "count each separate day as a separate life." They cherish the new opportunities available with each coming day.
Stoic wisdom also advocates clear goals. Another quote from Seneca goes that if you have no clue which port you are sailing to, no wind is ever good for you.
The worth these beliefs have for business resilience and management is crystal clear.
To live each day as a separate life encourages the belief that failures are finite. Yes, a disaster could be very traumatizing. It might even be crippling. But life always goes on, doesn’t it? Life only stops if your negative emotions insist that it stops.
Yes, you lost a huge contract. Your business might even be going under. But does this mean you wouldn't have another opportunity? Does this mean you would never be able to do business again for the rest of your life?
Of course not. Your failures are permanent only if you want them to be. Only if you subconsciously will them to.
Move on, a Stoic would tell you. Learn from it and move on. Don't dwell on things you cannot change. Move on and there is always another tomorrow. Another new life.
© 2016 Ced Yong
ann on April 17, 2020:
Hi, currently in the first few weeks of a Coronavirus lockdown and so many good bits of advice here that can be applied.
I may loose a job and a contract at the end of all this, but other doors will open and life goes on. Thank you.
Ced Yong (author) from Asia on July 19, 2016:
Hi Kyriaki, thanks for your comment. :) Stoicism is a gift from ancient Greece for all of us.
Kyriaki Chatzi on July 19, 2016:
That is what I call "UNIQUE HUB"! The idea behind this article is so great! Great job! And to answer your Poll question: After reading this Hub, YES! I think that Stoicism can be applied in terms of business.