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.