What The Stoics Teach Us About Crisis - By Ocatavian Graf Pilati
Updated: Nov 9, 2020
In this article we shall have a look at how the wisdom of stoic philosophers can be applied in a crisis or rather how stoic wisdom will help you get through a crisis.
Philosophy is often underrated. What is a philosopher good for you may ask yourself?
Philosophers spend a lot of time thinking about life - from personal troubles to world problems. At the end of their thinking process they will tend to offer advice and solutions on a meta level. If you look at some of the most famous philosophers, they often have varied backgrounds, from politicians, former slaves, roman emperors, scientists etc. Some of their scripts have been kept from the Classics all the way to now and they hold incredible wisdom.
In my case reading stoic philosophy gave me a lot of insight into many worldly and human dynamics and helped me conquer my own demons. We will start off with the Five Stoic P’s of Success, which I also like to call the stoic success formula, then we will have a look at the “Inner Citadel” and then at what the stoics call “Your reasoned choice”.
Purpose + Perspective + Persistence + Perseverance + Patience = Success
As with all “magic” formulae this one is kept simple and there is more to success than just this. But as with Pareto’s Law, if you can grasp 70-80% you are already well underway. This formula does cover most of the key things that will help you in a crisis.
Purpose - “A person’s sense of resolve or determination”.
Purpose is a word that is being used and thrown around quite a lot lately. Everyone needs a purpose, as does every business. Some call it a vision or an inner calling. You may call it whatever you want, but fact is that it is a vital part of success. The stoics in the classical times were already aware of it.
What’s the big deal about this? Well in a crisis - where you are facing great obstacles daily - you will need a clear answer to the question “Why am I doing this?”. If you don’t have one, you will have a major down drop of motivation and your team or colleagues will notice it. Especially if you are the leader or manager, any drop in motivation will move on to your team. Exactly as you are asking yourself this question, so will everyone else.
Often the lack of purpose will lead into a crisis. Especially if the business has a long history - the original vision may have been diluted, gotten lost, or might not be up to date any longer - or if the business starts out without a clear vision, you will soon hit a wall. If the business was built on a heroic story of the founder and the founder provided the vision, this vision may get lost when he moves out of the business. It’s an important act to create an official purpose/vision for the business before this happens.
In our case we didn’t have a clear vision at first. Not having a clear purpose, of why one is doing what he is doing is poison in a crisis. In the good times you manage to ignore this, but when things get hard, you will start doubting every move.
“Those who have a 'why' to live, can bear with almost any 'how'.” – Viktor E. Frankl
If you read this and find that your team is lacking purpose, it might seem overbearing to find a purpose - especially amidst a crisis. It might also seem that other things are more important. Please don’t let other things get higher on the priorities list. Purpose really is the foundation for surviving a crisis and the foundation for turning a crisis into an opportunity. I can highly recommend getting a business coach. I myself have engaged Value Partnership in London. If you lack resources for a coach, get the books “Start with Why” and “Find your why” by Simon Sinek. They really helped me to find my purpose of “Turning adversity into business opportunity”.
Perspective - “A particular attitude towards or way of regarding something; a point of view.”
In a crisis perspective is incredibly important. This is somewhat similar to the process of defining the problem in Design Thinking. By changing your perspective, you can find multiple angles at a problem, that you can in return use to find the problem at hand. Often the problem in a crisis is not clear, often you have multiple problems and then prioritization comes handy. Each party in a crisis (stakeholders, shareholders, partners, employees etc.) has their own perspective, their own reality in a sense. From each point of view the problem may look different and success may be defined in a different way.
The single most powerful use of perspective is its power to change mindsets. You can view a crisis as a terrible problem at hand or you can view it as an opportunity.
“Out of adversity comes opportunity.” – Benjamin Franklin.
By finding the good things about a crisis you can greatly enhance motivation in your team and yourself. As the leader in a team solving a crisis your example is of paramount importance. To implement change in your family/business/office you first have to lead the change by changing yourself. Perspective starts with the small things; perspective starts with lots of questions and ends with enlightenment.
Another important form of perspective is the eagle’s view. This is another stoic method, which holds a lot of power. When you sit down and try to think about your situation, it will help to image yourself as an eagle or maybe if you are more tech savvy imagine yourself as a satellite. By looking at things from above - from a neutral standpoint - you will gain important insights and perspectives on the situation. Often in crisis people will run around with blinkers on, only looking at the path in front of them. But a crisis is a highly dynamic environment. And by purely focusing at what is right in front of you, you will not see the things which are left and right of you. Resulting in never knowing where a possible solution or a helpful insight might be hiding or waiting for you.
“You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind, and by contemplating the eternity of time, and observing the rapid change of every part of everything, how short is the time from birth to dissolution, and the illimitable time before birth as well as the equally boundless time after dissolution” – Marcus Aurelius
You can use perspective to zoom out even further and use the art of Negative Visualization. Especially if you are having a hard time this exercise will be of great value to you. When things get overwhelming and you are thinking that this is the worst situation you have ever been in, sit back, close your eyes and start envisioning how things could be even worse. Yes, you read right – how things could be worse. Imagine losing your leg, or your spouse, or your eyesight, tomorrow. Get deep. Try to see it in front of you; try to feel what you would feel. Once you get deep into it, start to compare this to your current situation and the current situation will not feel so bad anymore. Some of the most successful people use this. Michael Phelps for example. Every time before he would go to a race, he would imagine everything that could go wrong. He would imagine slipping at the turn, losing his goggles at the start etc. It made him prepared for it and when he did lose his goggles, he finished with a new record.
Keep in mind that you won “the lottery of life” as Gary Vaynerchuk loves to say, You could have been born in Somalia or in the Congo instead of wherever else you are. If you read this and by any chance you are from one of those places – give it your all and feel free to reach out.
Persistence - “The fact of continuing in an opinion or course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.”
Crisis means that things have to change. There is only one issue with this, humans are reluctant to change. We are an animal of habit. Especially if you are in a family business and things have been constant for decades or even centuries, you will hear all sorts of things like “we have always done it this way”, “things will blow over, don’t worry”, “twenty years ago this always worked” etc. This will not only be an issue within your team/organization but also with outsiders. Your lawyers, your tax advisor, your bank, policy makers etc.
Do not get disheartened. The stoics already preached that persistence is the key to success. Nothing ever is easy, especially nothing worth it. People will oppose your creative solutions to the crisis and this will lead to great difficulties in executing your ideas and strategies. As an analogy, sometimes to get through a wall you just need a bigger hammer.
“What is to give light must endure burning.” -Viktor E. Frankl
Perseverance - “Persistence in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.”
Now you might ask yourself, where the difference to persistence lies? Persistence means that you will stay on the same track and continue trying even though you have difficulties. Perseverance takes persistence a level further. It is continuing despite failure. In a crisis you will have many different plans and you should prepare yourself to fail with some of your plans. As a crisis is a highly dynamic environment you should be prepared to change your plans at any moment and this is what perseverance entails. No matter how often a path needs changing, you will continue towards your larger goal. In persistence you stay on the first path you chose until the bitter end, but during perseverance you will change the path if need arises. If your first path leads to a canyon, it is sometimes better to look for a new path, rather than climbing down the canyon and back up on the other side.
“The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out. There are brambles in the path? Then go around. That’s all you need to know” - Marcus Aurelius
So, shouldn’t perseverance just overrule persistence? No, most definitely not. It’s important for those two mindsets to work in unison, otherwise you will end up abandoning plans to early. Having these two in balance is a very powerful weapon in a crisis. You will be much more adapt at eyeing up your options and deciding which one to follow.
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” - Viktor E. Frankl
Patience - “The capacity to accept or tolerate delay, problems, or suffering without becoming annoyed or anxious.”
Crisis often calls for immediate action, but at the same time many things that need to be changed will require patience. Often the different parties will need their time to decide, it will take time to convince them, problems with implementing something will occur or you are asking things of your team they are inexperienced with and due to the pressure they will make mistakes. All this will lead to a lot of stress and anxiety for you. But remember that all good things take time.
Sometimes you will ask yourself why people do what they do, why are they so slow in making decisions while you are suffering. Why do they not care? Sometimes it’s a tactic people use to bring out the worst in you – to fuel you with anger and self-pity; to fuel you with emotions leading to mistakes.
Marcus Aurelius as emperor of Rome will have had this issue many of times. Here is what he has to say about it:
“When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come out of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger.” - Marcus Aurelius
Here again you can try to use perspective and empathy. Put yourself into their shoes and feel sympathy for them. I know it is much easier said than done, but it works a charm. Especially when you have to negotiate with counterparts and you reply to their actions with compassion, you will throw them off. Have patience with yourself, your team, your stakeholders and your opponents.
The stoics have the concept of a sort of inner fortress, which nothing can permeate. It is your inner citadel, which is yours alone. Imagine this citadel to be a mighty fortress within your head - with thick gates and huge walls and mighty towers. All the influences from the outside are soldiers trying to attack it and get inside. In a crisis you can imagine a massive army with catapults and siege towers trying to storm the citadel. Your citadel will be tested to the maximum of its strength.
To build your inner citadel takes immense amounts of willpower and some time. If you have not started with it yet, please start. Best is you begin before a crisis. If you have to face a crisis without it in place, you are making life much harder for yourself. I didn’t have it built when I faced the first few crises in my life. I also only started this process in the last 3 years, and it is helping greatly. But still my citadel is only in the early stages and growing daily. No one is born with a mighty citadel. It takes time and hard work and all the 5 P’s mentioned above. The 5 P’s form the structure of your citadel. They make your citadel lively; they fill it with the weapons to repel enemies. Your principles on which you base your actions and decisions are the basis of this mighty castle.
Your Reasoned Choice
Your reasoned choice is the keep of the citadel. It is the basis for building it. The stoics teach us that the only thing that we are really in charge of, is our reasoned choice. You are not fully in charge of anything but that. The moment you realise this, you can see much clearer when making decisions in a crisis. Essentially there is nothing you can control. You can only influence things as to say. Stephan Covey (The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) describes it as increasing your circle of influence and it is exactly that. You don’t control your business, your spouse, your children – only your reasoned choice. And in a crisis you will have to make decisions every day that will decide the fate of your family, business, employees etc. It is a heavy burden, but as the name “reasoned choice” states, your choices are reasoned. It is in your power to think about them and then decide. Sometimes you will make guestimates, because it is the only way to make a choice, but with every choice you get closer to your goal. And do not be afraid to change your opinions or decisions. It is your choice after all and your responsibility. It is also your choice, what your inner citadel looks like, how it is built and what it stands for.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” – Viktor E. Frankl