Philosophy at Work: Stoicism and Web Development

This is probably the most non-technical post I’ve ever written about coding or WordPress ever. In fact, it’s not about WordPress or coding at all. This post is about how philosophy and our personal beliefs, things that are extremely personal, that end up helping us at work. I’ve been a Stoic for a few years and ever since I read The Obstacle is the Way, Stoicism has done more than just help me personally–it has helped me professionally. I wanted to take a moment to explore some ways Stoic practices have informed my dev work.

Please note that this post isn’t meant to be evangelical; take what works for you, what resonates with you, and leave out what doesn’t.

These are some tenets that have helped me be a better developer (and all around better person!):

Employing Reason

The first rule is to keep an untroubled spirit. The second is to look things in the face and know them for what they are. –  Marcus Aurelius

To a Stoic, virtue is looking at life with perfect reason. Stoics believe that the only thing that brings you happiness in life is your ability to use reason, and nothing else. Stoics believe that if you want to be happy, you have to employ reason and that it is the only thing in life that is good.

Why? Often times things occur and we look at it simply at face value. All too often our initial reaction to something is based on just how we feel. When feelings of fear, anxiety, or even love happen we often take them this way and we aren’t really looking at them reasonably for what they are and end up reacting to them badly. Because Stoics seek to use reason instead of pure emotion, they are often misunderstood as emotionless and unfeeling. But in reality, Stoics do not shun emotion–only emotions that have not been reasonably thought through, and so good Stoics are seen as calm and never seem controlled by their temperament.

Just reacting based on emotions alone, in Stoic thought, is a vice that brings you grief, simply because it lacks reason. Next time you have a negative feeling about something, try employing reason and see if it makes you feel better.

Employing Indifference

The materials are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not a matter of indifference. – Epictitus

Stoics have a label for things that are neither good nor bad; they call them indifferents. The only thing good in life, to a Stoic, is virtue, or using your mind to apply reason; everything else is indifferent.

For example, if my computer is suddenly not connecting to the Internet (we remote workers know how this feels), the “indifferents” in this example are my computer, my ISP, and the guy on the help line. We might tend to think that these things are to blame for us being happy or not, but if we look at the Stoic definition of indifference, we can clearly identify that these things are not directly to blame for our tranquility. Again, it is the application of reason, or the lack of it, that controls our tranquility. Therefore we can’t get angry at these things.

The idea is to, first, identify these external things as indifferent (not directly to blame for our happiness or grief). Through this practice, we’ve clearly identified that chucking our computer out the window or ripping the help-desk guy a new one is not going to help us be happier, resulting in possibly a computer that is in once piece and a more pleasant and useful call to the local ISP.

Applying the practice of first identifying the indifferents has helped me avoid a lot of initial frustration. When things go wrong, we tend to take our finger out and point at other people, things, and events as the cause for our unhappiness. A Stoic is taught that this is untrue, and that the effort of pointing the indifferents helps us realize it faster. What you’ll find is that people, things, and unexpected events don’t usually cause you to be unhappy anymore. Try this practice out next time Windows installs hundreds of updates when you turn your computer on (this does not apply to Mac users, obviously).

Employ Social Duty

…he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law… – Marcus Aurelius

Stoics place high importance to the duty towards our communities. The Stoic call to live in accordance to nature calls us to be good social beings. Nature has made each and every one of us highly social beings. We have language, writing, text messages, satellites circling the planet, and, of course, HipChat. A Stoic, therefore, looks at their life in proximity to the communities they are in. But that doesn’t mean that we all just love each other all the time, right? Conflicts and disagreements come and go. But Stoics spend time constantly reminding themselves to play their part in the community and remember that we’re all here to work together in the end.

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil. But for my part I have long perceived the nature of good and its nobility, the nature of evil and its meanness, and also the nature of the culprit himself, who is my brother (not in the physical sense, but as a fellow creature similarly endowed with reason and a share of the divine); therefore none of those things can injure me, for nobody can implicate me in what is degrading. Neither can I be angry with my brother or fall foul of him; for he and I were born to work together, like a man’s two hands, feet or eyelids, or the upper and lower rows of his teeth. To obstruct each other is against Nature’s law – and what is irritation or aversion but a form of obstruction. – Marcus Aurelius

Marcus, here, is noting that troublesome people are indifferent. What really matters is how he looks at the people around him. He reasons that, clearly, we’re meant to work together. Our very nature causes us to form communities and live around one another, and to do that well we have to uphold our social duty. Next time someone unjustly criticizes your work, take time to remember that we are social beings and ultimately need to work together as a community. The WordPress community is a great example of this in practice; though there are disagreements and conflicts, WordPress has always seemed to move along as a community because that is help in higher priority than personal conflict.

We’re all on the same team, and keeping that centered can help us all grow, both personally and professionally.

Employ Negative Visualization

Is [a wise and good man] surprised at anything which happens, and does it appear new to him?  Does he not expect that which comes from the bad to be worse and more grievous than what actually befalls him? And does he not reckon as pure gain whatever (the bad) may do which falls short of extreme wickedness? Such a person has reviled me. Great thanks to him for not having struck you. But he has struck me also. Great thanks that he did not kill you.  – Epictetus

The Stoic practice of Negative Visualization is pretty simple–just remember things can always be worse. I personally spend about ten minutes before work visualizing just how worse off things could be. The idea here is to go a bit beyond just recognition; you want to actually visualize it.

When you do, you feel an immediate release of stress when you stop, and suddenly you’re a bit happier because you don’t have to deal with those situations. It puts things into perspective. It also prepares you for when those things do come up. If you already thought you might encounter a negative situation, you might take better steps to prepare for them. This seems obvious, but applying this practice daily and intentionally helps make sure your day goes much more smoother.

Ultimately, Keep Your Cool

I ultimately feel Stoicism can help you keep your cool at work. Work can get stressful and things are always bound to change. I have found that these few practices of my own personal philosophy have trickled down into my work habits and help me do better work by avoiding unnecessary stress and grief. I think it’s important to talk about how our personal philosophies and beliefs help us professionally.

If you feel philosophies you follow can help at work, please share in the comments below!

And if you want to read more about Stoicism, check out this Reddit FAQ.


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