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Focus on what matters, say the Stoics

(First of four parts)

R ico (not his real name), 55, a second-generation scion in a successful retail family enterprise, governs his life by the teachings of Roman Stoic philosophers. His favorite book is “The Daily Stoic,” by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman. For the next several weeks, we will discuss how the Stoics help Rico succeed in business, relationships and life.

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Rico loves this quote from the sage Seneca, who in the end bravely faced death at the hands of his pupil Nero: “How many [of you] have laid waste to your life when you weren’t aware of what you were losing, how much was wasted in pointless grief, foolish joy, greedy desire, and social amusements—how little of your own was left to you. You are dying before your time!”

“I am successful because I don’t waste time on things that don’t matter,” Rico says. “We all have the same 24 hours in a day, and it’s up to us how to spend them.”

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According to Emperor Marcus Aurelius, “Were you to live 3,000 years, no one ever loses a life other than the one they are living … The longest and the shortest life amount to the same, for the present moment lasts the same for all and is all anyone possesses … The attention you give to any action should be in due proportion to its worth, for then you won’t tire and give up, if you aren’t busying yourself with lesser things.”

“Time is gold, so I don’t play golf,” says Rico. “It takes too much time to close a deal on the course, so I talk to people over dinner. When my children complain about work-life balance, I tell them to manage their lives—skip the long lunches, don’t [use] Facebook or Viber at work, decline friends’ invitations to meet afterwards—so they can go home early and spend time with the family.”

“I tell them to develop good habits,” continues Rico, “which is easier than trying to turn around bad ones later on.”

He quotes Epictetus, a former slave who became an adviser to Emperor Hadrian: “Since habit is such a powerful influence, and we’re used to pursuing our impulses, we should set a contrary habit against that.”

“I also don’t waste energy pondering on slights, real or imagined, from other people,” adds Rico. “You cannot please everyone all the time, and if you are successful, many people envy you and want to bring you down.”

According to Marcus Aurelius, “When you first rise in the morning tell yourself: I will encounter busybodies, ingrates, egomaniacs, liars, the jealous and cranks. They are all stricken with these afflictions because they don’t know the difference between good and evil. Because I have understood the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil, I know that none can do me harm, or implicate me in ugliness.”

Rico talks about Mr. X, who he says is a savvy businessman, albeit with one failing: “He cares too much about what others think of him. When he did not get this business award, he felt horrible. I told Mr. X that the winner’s company donated to the organization who gave the award, and that could be why he won. Who cares about awards if your business is booming, I told my friend.”

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Mr. X reminds Rico of the people Marcus Aurelius talked about thus: “I am constantly amazed by how easily we love ourselves above all others, yet we put more stock in the opinions of others than in our own estimation of self. How much credence we give to the opinions our peers have of us and how little to our very own!”

“I told Mr. X to stay grounded,” says Rico, channeling Epictetus who advised us that if all we wanted was to “impress someone,” we have “wrecked our whole purpose in life.”

“Seneca said that we will never feel at peace if we keep on comparing ourselves to others: ‘Tranquility can’t be grasped except for those who have reached an unwavering and firm power of judgment—the rest constantly fall and rise … What is the cause of this back and forth? It’s because nothing is clear and they rely on the most uncertain guide—common opinion,’” adds Rico.

“I told my friend that for me, it is clear that he is very successful, award or no award. At his age, he should not mind what people say.”

(To be continued)

Queena N. Lee-Chua is with the board of directors of Ateneo’s Family Business Center. Get her book “All in the Family Business” at Lazada or Shopee, or the ebook at Amazon, Google Play, Apple iBooks. Contact the author at [email protected]

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