Digitization: What We Can Learn from Seneca

From Silicon Valley, back to Europe: The ancient school of thought known as Stoicism teaches people how to deal with uncertainty. Perfect for these chaotic times.

“Our life is what our thoughts make it,” wrote Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and the most powerful man of his time. Aurelius and his empire constantly faced overwhelming challenges, whether it be war, natural disasters, or epidemics. Despite all this, he remained composed. Instead, Aurelius saw the opportunity to act virtuously when faced with adversity. Stoicism is the philosophical teaching that one should practice reason, abstinence, and resilience. Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, written while he was on military campaign, are part of today’s world literature. Helmut Schmidt is even rumored to have kept a copy on his bedside table so that it was always close to him.

For star podcaster Tim Ferriss, Stoicism is “the perfect operating system for thriving in high-stress environments.” And Ryan Holiday, a US entrepreneur, sees the approach as a practical instruction manual for handling situations with more composure. His book, The Obstacle is the Way, has sold thousands of copies in Europe. The core message that the work conveys is: “Many things cannot be changed. However, you can change how you think about them.”

Philosophy for Trial and Error

This Greek philosophy has found its way back to Europe via Silicon Valley. But isn’t this hotbed of technology full of people who believe anything is possible? For Nassim Taleb, best-selling author and practitioner of mathematical finance, this is not a contradiction. He writes, “My idea of the modern Stoic sage is someone who transforms fear into prudence, pain into information, mistakes into initiation, and desire into undertaking.” This stance fits perfectly with the principle of trial and error in the digital age. Thinking in this manner supports those who want to implement big ideas and new business models without fear.

Taleb sees Stoic teachings as the basis for the concept of “antifragility”. That is his name for the quality of overcoming uncertainty, variability, and stress. Many people incorrectly regard the world as ordered. They underestimate the possibility of unpredictable events, such as natural disasters, stock market crashes, and accidents, with all of their negative – but occasionally positive – consequences. The Stoic is always prepared for the worst. An unexpected turn of events does not cause him to panic. He has Epictetus’ values instilled within him: “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” Epictetus was a former Roman slave. His teachings are full of timeless wisdom for composed management and strong leadership, such as, “There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond our power.” In practice, what this means to him is, “Practice yourself, for heaven’s sake, in little things, and then proceed to greater. Only then can we go on to bigger things.” This could have come directly from a guide book on agile project management. Small steps toward big goals are better than a rigid plan.

The Best Advice in the Digital Age

And what if your plans fail and your efforts just aren’t enough? Seneca was the fighter amongst the Stoics. To him, every defeat was an incentive to improve. And he was of the belief that only those who are familiar with the downsides of life can achieve great things. “No prize fighter can go with high spirits into the strife if he has never been beaten black and blue.” Perseverance is the name of the game. Seneca even provided the inspiration for Steve Jobs’ legendary Stanford speech, with the quote, “Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life.” There is no better advice one can give to entrepreneurs, managers, and decision makers in the digital age. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

Further reading:

Epicetus – The Handbook
Marcus Aurelius – Meditations
Nassim Taleb – Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder
Ryan Holiday – The Obstacle Is the Way
Seneca – Moral Letters to Lucilius
Tim Ferriss – The Tao of Seneca: Letters from a Stoic Master

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