Stoicism: Day 11 – The Stoic Career Guide

I ran an experiment yesterday with my ice bath. I did my usual routine first (two bags of ice, 20 minutes in the water), but then instead of running around like a crazy person in my apartment trying to warm up, I decided to take a warm shower right after the bath to see if I’d appreciate it more.

It was nice to get warmer without exerting physical energy and it was definitely nice to reduce my shivering time, but I felt a little….guilty, like I was cheating or something.

It’s almost as if I wasn’t doing my duty to ensure I was uncomfortable for the duration of this experiment.

This got me thinking about the concept of duty, and how it’s lacking the modern world, especially in our jobs and careers.

Cal Newport, in his most recent book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, debunked the myth that following your passion is good advice. Most people don’t have pre-existing passions, and the correct path is  to build skills that are rare and valuable, which you can then cash in for a remarkable life.

This makes sense and is a likely path to career success.

However, as I was re-reading his book, I began to wonder what the Stoics would think about the concept of a “career.”

We already know that they shunned the pursuit of wealth and fame as it would require you to give up your liberty. If you pursue and acquire wealth, you might become addicted to a luxurious lifestyle and destroy your tranquility. If you want to acquire fame, you are by defining success by what others think of you, which is not true freedom. Moreover, these things fall into the category of “things outside of your control.” They are certainly within your influence, but it’s possible you might never become wealthy or famous.

If you take those two external drivers away, many careers in the modern world seem quite pointless. Investment banking, for example, would attract almost zero people if it weren’t lucrative.

So do the Stoics advocate abandoning any sort of career pursuit?

Not quite.

The Stoic Career Guide

Here is my Stoic justification for not immediately quitting my job and practicing my Stoic values as a homeless and penniless person.

1. Skills aren’t highly valued by Stoics, but it’s not bad per se. Though acquiring marketable skills is not as valued as pursuing wisdom and philosophy, there is nothing inherently wrong with acquiring skills. In order to practice philosophy, you need to, at the very minimum, survive.

“But,” one says, “since you declare that virtue cannot be attained without the ‘liberal studies,’ how is it that you deny that they offer any assistance to virtue?” Because you cannot attain virtue without food, either; and yet food has nothing to do with virtue. Wood does not offer assistance to a ship, although a ship cannot be built except of wood. There is no reason, I say, why you should think that anything is made by the assistance of that without which it cannot be made.  – Seneca

2. Stoic practice and virtues are conducive to acquiring skills.  There is enough physical and mental discipline inherent in Stoicism that it’s only natural to apply them to other areas of your life.

In every affair consider what precedes and follows, and then undertake it. Otherwise you will begin with spirit; but not having thought of the consequences, when some of them appear you will shamefully desist. “I would conquer at the Olympic games.” But consider what precedes and follows, and then, if it is for your advantage, engage in the affair. You must conform to rules, submit to a diet, refrain from dainties; exercise your body, whether you choose it or not, at a stated hour, in heat and cold; you must drink no cold water, nor sometimes even wine.  In a word, you must give yourself up to your master, as to a physician. Then, in the combat, you may be thrown into a ditch, dislocate your arm, turn your ankle, swallow dust, be whipped, and, after all, lose the victory. When you have evaluated all this, if your inclination still holds, then go to war.   – Epictetus

3. You must fulfill your duties honorably. Though we certainly don’t see job descriptions with a list of “duties” (they’re usually listed as skills and responsibilities), it’s helpful to view your job in that way. You are receiving compensation to perform your job well, and you should strive to do so. Of course, this assumes you are not required do anything unethical in your work.

In the Meditations, Marcus explains the nature of this social duty. The gods, he says, created us for a reason—created us, as he puts it, “for some duty.” In the same way that the function of a fig tree is to do a fig tree’s work, the function of a dog is to do a dog’s work, and the function of a bee is to do a bee’s work, the function of a man is to do man’s work—to perform, that is, the function for which the gods created us. – William Irving

4.  If wealth or fame is a by-product of performing your duties honorably, so be it. By applying the discipline you acquire as a Stoic to your career, it is very well possible that you are rewarded with increased pay and such. If you act with integrity among your peers, you might earn their respect and some level of “fame.” This is ok, as long as it’s merely a by-product and your goal. 

Even though she doesn’t pursue wealth, a Stoic might nevertheless acquire it. A Stoic will, after all, do what she can to make herself useful to her fellow humans. And thanks to her practice of Stoicism, she will be self-disciplined and single-minded, traits that will help her accomplish the tasks she sets for herself. As a result, she might be quite effective in helping others, and they might reward her for doing so. It is possible, in other words, for the practice of Stoicism to be financially rewarding. – William Irving

5. Value your liberty above all else. This does not mean acquire a billion dollars and retire to a beach, this means you should be mentally tranquil and only desire things within your control. As long as you have your liberty and behave consistently with your values, you will be successful.

You may be unconquerable, if you enter into no combat in which it is not in your own control to conquer. When, therefore, you see anyone eminent in honors, or power, or in high esteem on any other account, take heed not to be hurried away with the appearance, and to pronounce him happy; for, if the essence of good consists in things in our own control, there will be no room for envy or emulation. But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.  – Epictetus

Perhaps I should put “be more Stoic” in my performance plan this year.