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How To Be In Control When Things Are Out Of Control

In a year’s time what will we look back and regret?  How will we wish that we had behaved differently?
What learning opportunities will we acknowledge we had failed to exploit?

The Stoics would have had an answer. They were a group of Roman philosophers who lived in the first and second centuries AD. Seneca was a statesman, who served as tutor to the Emperor Nero; Epictetus was born into slavery but on gaining his freedom, set up a school of practical philosophy; Marcus Aurelius was the last Emperor of the Pax Romana. Despite these differences, they shared a common view of the good life.

So what regrets would they have warned against?

Here are three:

“I wish I hadn’t fretted quite so much about things over which I had no control”

The Stoics argued against wasting precious energy on those things over which we cannot exert any influence. To do so is to cast oneself as a victim. The art of life is to make a difference where we can. Epictetus said “there is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will”. Whatever leads to a sense of our own futility harms our sense of agency. Before putting the world to rights, it is wise to put our own house in order. Seneca observed that “if you really want to escape the things that harass you, what you need is not to be in a different place but to be a different person”.

The Stoics remind us that in times of peril a degree of self-concern is a mark not only of wisdom but also virtue. This idea is well captured in the safety instruction on board an aircraft “to put on your own oxygen mask before helping someone else put on theirs”. In a pandemic, perhaps we need to be reminded that sorting out your own mind before jumping to sort out the affairs of the world is good advice.

“I wish I hadn’t allowed my emotions to cloud my judgement and colour my thoughts to such a great extent”

We must guard particularly against negative emotions, by becoming, for example, intemperate, judgemental, or ungracious towards those responsible for managing the crisis. The Sophists warn us that we become what we most project onto others. Nietzsche warned us, “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster … for when you gaze long enough into the abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you”

One way of stilling our emotions is by trying to name them. By explaining our emotional state we begin to understand it and thereby release ourselves from it. This is the first step towards emotional intelligence.

“I wish I hadn’t wasted the opportunity to learn from such a rare set of circumstances”

What should we be taking from this crisis? One answer is a much clearer sense of what we want out of life. Moments such as these – rare, unfamiliar and profoundly unusual – are a gift to be treasured. One of the most startling trends of the last 10-15 years is the appetite for thinking about meaning and purpose, driven partly perhaps by the pace, ambiguity and uncertainty of change.

The worst way we could use the crisis would be to use it solely to reinforce our pre-existing beliefs and ideology. We could go back to how we were, but even more set in our ways, and even more dogmatic. Marcus Aurelius observed that “the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts”. Or we could challenge our thoughts and, in so doing, redirect our life.

About the Author - Jules Goddard is a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at
London Business School & co-author of What Philosophy Can Teach You About Being a Better
Leader which is published by Kogan Page and priced at £14.99. Find out more here

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