It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. – Epictetus

Epictetus was born into slavery in 55 AD Turkey. He studied in Rome and moved to Greece as a teacher and philosopher in the Stoic movement of the times. Much of what we know of Epictetus is from the writings of one of his students. The writings of his teachings in Discourses and the Handbook offer practical advice that is still applicable today.

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions,

To be productive and build strong relationships at work, it’s critical to let go of the opinions of others, to understand what policies, actions, and opinions that you are able to influence — and when to take the high road and just let things go. Epictetus taught this 2 centuries ago.

Humans, with our pre-frontal cortex have the ability to look ahead. More than any other species, we can take pause in that moment between stimulus and response. Our reptilian brain can take a back seat while we make a conscious decision on how to respond.

So here are some things we can learn from Epictetus and how we might apply his teachings:

  • Don’t let the thoughts of others influence your calling — especially true in the era of social media
  • Take advantage of our uniquely human ability to decide how to react — don’t be impulsive
  • Be nice to everyone
  • Be humble, and don’t try to take credit for achievements that are not uniquely your own
  • Ensure that you are contributing to the success of others

So how do these actions help with productivity? Let’s take a look at a few examples.

“It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters”

In 1912, Alfred Wegener lectured on an idea of his own — a theory of continental drift. He plowed forward with his research for 17 years until his death in 1930. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that his work was accepted.

The story of Ignaz Semmelweis is more well-known. He was the doctor who accidentally discovered that washing hands before helping women give birth had a direct impact on infant mortality. He died in 1865 and the importance of his work wouldn’t be recognized until years after his death.
These are two brief examples of the importance of not reacting to or being discouraged by the criticism of others.

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak”

The importance of listening cannot be overstated. Listening to others will help make you a better person. There is great research on the importance of listening. We can look back to great leaders in history and understand the importance of listening. Practically, the ability to set aside distractions, avoid interrupting the speaker, to not rehearse a response are key elements to understanding. In the workplace, any and all efforts to open communication channels and to be able to listen to co-workers, senior leaders, and individual contributors will help make you more effective and productive in your day to day work.

“Imagine for yourself a character, a model personality whose example you determine to follow, in private as well as in public”

Empathy is another uniquely human trait. As we enter into conversations and relationships with others, it’s important to walk in the shoes of one another. We have great historical examples — too many to name — from Epictetus to Aristotle, Ludmila and Saint Wenceslaus in Prague, Abraham Lincoln, Gandhi, Florence Nightingale, Martin Luther King — to Gutenberg, Edison, Grace Hopper, Andrew Carnegie, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, and Elon Musk.. We are fortunate in this Internet age that we have full access to the history of these amazing people who can inspire us in our own lives.

“No great thing is created suddenly”

Harry Markowitz is an American economist, whose work on portfolio theory is family to anyone with a 401K and diversification. In the 1950’s, Markowitz published an article on Portfolio Selection in the Journal of Finance. In 1990, Markowitz accepted the Nobel Prize in Economics, saying, “when I defended my dissertation as a student in the Economics Department of the University of Chicago, Professor Milton Friedman argued that portfolio theory was not Economics, and that they could not award me a Ph.D. degree in Economics for a dissertation which was not in Economics. I assume that he was only half serious, since they did award me the degree without long debate. As to the merits of his arguments, at this point I am quite willing to concede: at the time I defended my dissertation, portfolio theory was not part of Economics. But now it is.”

Say Yes to Life, Ignore Your Critics

We can find tremendous lessons in the words of the ancients. The guidance to rely on your will and volition — your prohairesis — is timeless. And to add a shout out to the Daily Stoic for inspiration. We live in interesting times, but it’s important to look to our past and stand on the shoulders of giants. Technology increases the pace of communication and interaction, yet the core principles remain the same. As we enter the world of increased human-computer communication, artificial intelligence, and augmented reality, it’s increasingly important that we learn the timeless lessons of our ancestors — and Epictetus and his thoughts on prohairesis — are perhaps even more valuable in our modern world of social media and real time communications than they were in his day.

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