Business advice from Ancient Rome

This article by Guy Blaskey was originally published on 

Stoicism is a school of philosophy that is looked over by many philosophy professors and students. Unlike other schools of philosophy the stoics were less bothered with searching for the meaning of life, and more bothered with how they should live their lives. The three most well-know Stoic writers are Marcus Aurelius – the Emperor of Rome who died at the beginning of the film Gladiator, Epictetus – a freed slave and Seneca – one of the richest businessmen of ancient Rome.

I discovered the Stoics when listening to a talk by Derren Brown at The School of Life, and since have been more aware of their influence in many of today’s business writers, including Tim Ferris – author of The Four Hour Work Week and Ryan Holiday – author of The Obstacle is The Way.

Here are some great tips from the great Stoics, which I find particularly useful:

“If one does not know to which point one is sailing, no wind is favourable.” Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4BC-65AD)

My wife’s version of this is “know what success looks like”. Every entrepreneur will tell you how hard they work, but if that work is not to a specific goal then there is a large chance that your time, effort and money could be wasted. Eliminate waste by focussing on your goal/ what your success looks like/ the port you are sailing to!

“You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength.” Marcus Aurelius (121-180AD / Emperor of Rome 161-180AD)

Like it, or most likely not, things will not always go your way. Buyers will not buy everything that you want to sell. Delivery people will not always deliver on time. You will not always be able to get an internet connection on your phone. The key learning from the Stoics is to know what you can control and what you can’t control, and not to let the things beyond your control stress you out. You will never be able to control whether or not you get good internet reception on your phone on a train journey, but you ‘have power over your mind’ to realise this is beyond your control and not get stressed by it. You also have the power to set an out of office on your email when you have a long train journey.

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” Epictetus (55-135AD)

Not everything that you do will work. People get worried about failure and rarely realise that failures are quickly forgotten. Think how many more people remember the iPhone and iPad (you might even be reading this on one) than remember the Apple Newton or the Apple eMate. If Apple was put off by looking foolish by their failures it wouldn’t be the biggest company in the world today. Be content to look foolish, try things, if they work you won’t look foolish, if they don’t work you won’t look foolish for long.

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