Prudent Career Advice from Ancient Greece

A quick scan of Amazon’s best seller list in the career development section reveals some well known titles.
  • Seven Habits of Highly Effective People
  • Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress Free Productivity
  • What Color is Your Parachute?
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
All of these books offer solid advice, and a man can get a lot of tips and tricks to become more successful in his job. In fact I am willing to guess more than a few readers own one or two of them. Here is a title you may not be a familiar with: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life by Epictetus.

I can hear you now, Epic-who?

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher from the first century AD who was a proponent of the stoic branch of philosophy. Stoics believed that what happened to a man was less important than how that man reacted to the event. Therefore the most important teaching of stoicism was one of self-mastery. Epictetus became one of the most well known teachers of this way of life.

Born a slave, he never wrote anything down but simply taught those who wanted to learn to become better men, much like his more famous predecessor, Socrates. What we now know of Epictetus’ teachings is thanks to his pupil, Arrian, who wrote them down in his collection Discourses.

OK, so he was a great Greek philosopher. How does that help me be a better sales manager?  

Glad you asked.

Just about all of Epictetus’ teachings are in the form of short sayings that embody some profound idea. Many of these can be directly applied to your career, no matter what you do for a living. For the purpose of this article I have grouped some of the best (in my humble opinion anyway) into three categories. Prudent attitude, prudent words and prudent action.

Prudent Attitude

Without the correct attitude about your job, it really won’t matter how hard you work. Sure, you may have some success, but it will not be truly satisfying, or lasting. If you approach each day- each project- with the right attitude, the rest can fall into place so much easier.

“There is only one-way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”
How many times have you stayed awake at night replaying the day’s events or looking forward to some anticipated occurrence? More often than not, there is nothing we can do about these things. This is what Epictetus is talking about. There are events we have control over and events that we don’t. Wisdom comes in knowing the difference.

By zeroing in on those things that are under “the power of our will,” we can accomplish a lot more. No needless energy is wasted running around in circles nipping at the heels of projects or situations where someone else is the main driver. Speaking of other people, we also need to pay attention to how other’s attitudes affect us.

“Other people’s views and troubles can be contagious. Don’t sabotage yourself by unwittingly adopting negative, unproductive attitudes through your associations with others.” 
Here is my modern version of this quote: Beware the break room

It is so easy to join in with co-workers in the inevitable bitch-session that often takes place in the break room. And while everyone needs to vent once in a while, a steady diet of this attitude will eventually poison your own work ethic. This attitude can lead to you not taking responsibility for your (occasional of course) faults and instead blaming it on someone else. The pass-the-buck syndrome was born in a break room bull session.

Don’t be anti-social, just be sure that those who you spend the most time with share your general outlook.  Don’t sabotage yourself.

Prudent Words

We have all heard some form of the maxim, What you think, you say. What you say, you do. Well, we are at that mid point. Cultivating the ability to say the right words, to speak well, will directly inform who we are and how we act in our careers.

“Nature hath given men one tongue but two ears, that we may
hear from others twice as much as we speak.”
“First learn the meaning of what you say, and then speak.”
Epictetus points to the first step in speaking well here. In essence his advice is to speak less. No one likes a know-it-all, and we are all familiar with that particular person who just can’t seem to keep his mouth shut during meetings and planning sessions. (If you aren’t, it is probably because you’re it. Note: Pay specific attention to this section!). In contrast, most organizations also have the quiet and thoughtful man. The one who doesn’t speak up often, but when he does, everyone listens.

The goal is to become the latter. By rushing in to speak up you do not allow your reason to fully digest what is going on, what the full parameters of the discussion entail. Therefore your comments are more opinion or repetition, not suggestion or evaluation.  A man needs to fully listen to what others are saying before he jumps into the fray.

Try this at your next meeting or informal business discussion. Say as little as possible; just listen. You’ll be surprised about what you may learn. Things like others’ true motivations, hidden agendas and possible leanings all become much more evident when you take a step back. Then when you do join in the discussion, your comments will be that much more targeted and useful.

Prudent Action

We have now reached the point where Epictetus has some advice for how we should act in our jobs and careers. His points here echo throughout history as advice given to all those who strive to do something great, and yet, the actual substance of his words is plainly simple. First, he explains how we should begin.

“First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”
Really? This is his profound advice?  Sounds like a Nike commercial, you say. 

Well, you’re right. The gist of this advice is to “just do it.” But just because we have heard it before doesn’t mean it is not valid. And let’s be honest with ourselves. Do we really, consciously, decide what we want in our careers and then actually make a plan to achieve it. Do we take daily steps in that direction, no matter how small, but always forward in a clear direction? Or do more of us tend to drift, letting those around us dictate the direction of our professional lives.

If we unpack this simple advice we see many more eternal truths, not just about career development, but about life in general. Think for yourself. Take responsibility for your own actions. Don’t blame others for your mistakes. Decide, and then do.

However, even the best laid plans…well, you know, sometimes things just go wrong. Epictetus has some fatherly advice for us here as well.

“Difficulties are things that show what men are.”
“The greater the difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it.”
You need fire and a heavy hammer to sharpen steel. A man’s character requires just as powerful a tool. Your fire and hammer are provided by the obstacles that you meet along the way. Rather than bemoan the fact that your boss has given you twice the work load, or cut your territory, or your co-worker has stolen credit for your latest project, pick yourself up and keep moving forward. Decide on a course of action that will rectify the situation and then act.

The tougher the problem, the more refinement your character can receive. You have all you need already inside you, but only if you truly apply all of the advice Epictetus has to offer. Prudent attitude. Prudent words. Prudent actions.
“Epictetus [Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy].” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Web. 18 July 2011. .
Long, A. A. Epictetus a Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life. Oxford: Clarendon, 2002. Print.
Oates, Whitney J. The Stoic and Epicurean Philosophers; the Complete Extant Writings of Epicurus, Epictetus, Lucretius, Marcus Aurelius. New York: Modern Library, 1957. Print.

Lessons from My Father

My dad was a small business owner for almost 25 years. From the age of 9 through college I worked with him. This small retail establishment was in many ways my school. I didn’t learn math or literature or science there. I learned people. There has never been a more valuable thing to understand if you want to be successful in this world. And I don’t just mean financially, I mean making a real difference.

Unfortunately I forgot just about everything I learned.
Just about 10 years ago my oldest child was born. At that point my wife and I were not sure whether or not she wanted to go back to work, so we decided to start our own micro-business as a way of making some extra income.I had always been a writer, so we embarked on a resume writing adventure.
Starting out I felt I needed to compete with others who had a much larger footprint in the marketplace. They had large staffs, I had me. They had huge advertising budgets, I had none. They did massive volume, and therefore charged relatively low prices. So, I did my best to be cheaper. I presented myself as a much larger company with multiple email addresses that in actuality all went back to me. I did my best to be one of the big boys in the field. Over the years it allowed my wife to stay home and home school our kids while still keeping a roof over our heads. But it has never really thrived.
Then I started thinking about the lessons I’d learned watching my father all those years ago. I asked myself: what made him successful? He had to compete against stores much larger, with bigger staffs, bigger advertising budgets and cheaper prices, yet he thrived
I realized what he did, and I failed to do, was build a business relationally based around just dealing with people. He didn’t deal with customers so much as deal with friends. Some were old friends, some were new friends, some were one-day-only friends. But the point was he related to people on an individual basis. People were treated justly, fairly, and that made a difference. This was what he could do that other, larger, more multifaceted, businesses couldn’t do. It is what made him stand out.
So over this past summer I changed my business model entirely. I stopped trying to pretend I was something I was not. I dropped the pretense that I was a bigger business than I was. I redesigned my website to make it perfectly clear I was a one man show. That I was a teacher who wrote resumes as a side business, and that I was damn good at what I did. My business emails became much more personal. I looked at my clients less as paying customers and more as people who needed my help. Payment would come, but that was secondary.
I also stopped trying to compete with bigger companies on price. I raised my rates- considerably. But I told people exactly what they were getting for their investment- me. Not a big-box style service, but a personal writer who would walk them through the process, make them more comfortable, and provide them with a product they would be proud to use.
And what did following my father’s implied advice get me? The best two months I have ever had. More clients have of course meant more money, but something even more important has happened. I have started to really enjoy my work. And I have gotten emails like this one from my most recent client:

I think you hit a homerun! I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this! You most definitely have a special gift! How you were able to transform my resume into something I would never have been able to do….is amazing! Don’t be surprised if you get more business …. because I will definitely be recommending you to all my family and friends that are in need of professional resume builder. I will keep you posted on my career search. 

What makes this so impactful to me is this one line, I will keep you posted on my career search. This really means a lot to me because it means this client and I made an honest connection. Yes I provided a service for a fee, but I also connected relationally. That will probably lead to more business and that is great. But more important is the fact that it leads to a more fulfilling job. It took me almost 10 years, but I have finally implemented the business lessons my dad taught me about how to treat people justly.

If I haven’t said it before, thanks Dad.