In 2014, author Ryan Holiday had a surprise No. 1 bestseller with The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph, which applied the ancient Greco-Roman philosophy of stoicism to modern problems. It was a major hit in the business world, leading to an empire of follow-ups such as Ego Is the Enemy, Stillness Is the Key, Lives of the Stoics, and The Daily Stoic.
This Stoic Virtues series sold millions of copies, but did we maybe get too carried away with it over the past decade?
What does stoicism teach?
On paper, there’s certainly merit to stoic thought from a business perspective. These are some of the basic tenets:
- Control what you can; ignore what you can’t. (Stoicism saw a surge of popularity during COVID-19 lockdowns, when most people felt less in control than ever.)
- Let wisdom and temperance guide your behaviors and intentions.
- Don’t attach yourself to outcomes — like whether you succeed or not — but rather the process of achieving an outcome.
Before you embrace stoicism as the golden rule to run your business, however, consider the potential drawbacks.
Emotions have a place in business
Stoicism argues that emotions are destructive and chaotic, so curbing our emotions is necessary to stay centered. Sure, that might be good advice when you get into a disagreement with your CFO, but did Steve Jobs lack zeal? Does Elon Musk lack it today? (If anything, the two most successful CEOs of the modern age have been emotional loose cannons!)
Taken literally, stoicism can lead to an overly clinical mindset that leaves you without the passion, imagination, or authenticity that made you an entrepreneur in the first place. Emotional intelligence, or EQ, is perhaps more important than IQ.
Your employees aren’t all stoics
You can’t expect your workers (or your customers) to bury their own feelings just because you’ve studied Marcus Aurelius. Psychologists have found over and over — and over — that a company dedicated to fostering positive emotions will have more staff creativity and less burnout.
The Silicon Valley fad is a little ironic
It’s easy to roll your eyes at tech giants embracing a philosophy that centers on avoiding distractions and outbursts. Their entire business strategy is based on keeping us tethered to our smartphones in a state of outrage!
What’s beyond your control still impacts you
The ancient stoics believed that because reputation is ultimately outside of your control, you shouldn’t waste time worrying about it. However, this will lead you to a modern PR nightmare. In our social media age of hyperconscious consumers, public perception has never been so important. Any advice to the contrary might be a Trojan horse.