1% better

We are what we repeatedly do.

My morning routine is a window into my personal philosophy.

I wake up early to enjoy an hour of silence and be free of distractions before the family wakes up. I meditate to be in the present moment and to learn how to stay this way throughout the day. I ready Stoic philosophy and decide where I will apply it during the coming day. I write in my journal to clarify my thoughts. I read success literature to eliminate waste in my life and to adopt better habits. Then, feeling well armed against the world, I read the news and try to understand it through the lenses built of my morning routine. When all this is done, I’ll attempt to write a post on this blog.

This routine prepares me for the real work of life: walking alongside others. My family, my friends, my colleagues, my community. None of it is easy. Despite this daily routine, I make daily mistakes. But the mistakes would be greater without this practice.

No two people will have the same routine. What works for me won’t work for anyone else. But all of us can build a practice that seeks to make us 1% better every day. Better for those we serve, both at home and at work.

The plank and the saw dust

Most people are inclined to think that they are always right and to view others suspiciously.

The ancient Stoics knew this and trained themselves to do the opposite. They learned to question their own motives and to assume positive intent in others. “Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself,” said Marcus Aurelius.

As difficult as assuming positive intent in others can be, questioning our own motives – seeing our unconscious biases – is ever harder. It requires constant vigilance, being ready to recognize the faintest taste of righteousness.

Someone will upset us today. It could be at home or at work or out in public. Let’s try not to react. Let’s assume positive intent. Then, let’s identify when we, ourselves, engaged in a similar, or worse, behavior in the past. And, finally, let’s ask ourselves what drove us to that behavior. What belief did we have? Where did that belief come from? What bias was at play?

Imagine 7 billion of us doing this just once today. What would tomorrow look like?

Don’t lose your patience

I wrote 140 posts so far this year.

Curious about what single post had the most views in this year of pandemic and social injustice, I was surprised when my stats showed a 2017 entry, which was viewed twice as often as my most popular post from 2020.

In this post on stoic patience, I quote Marcus Aurelius’ advice that we should live life truthfully and rightly, and be patient with those who don’t.

2020 has indeed been a year when many have suffered, and in some cases died, because of the lies and wrongdoings of a few. In the face of injustice, many lose patience. But losing patience comes at a cost. Suffering and injustice should strengthen our resolve, not diminish our patience. It should propel us into just action, not into other forms of injustice.

Marcus would remind himself every morning that he would meet, in the course of his day, people that are rude and selfish and lying. He knew that a world without jerks is impossible. And so he simply accepted this reality and prepared himself to respond with kindness.

And so must we.

Let’s end 2020, and start 2021, with more truth and kindness and patience.

A year from now, you’ll wish you had started today

The obstacle in the path becomes the path.

Ryan Holiday

Many individuals have made the most out of the pandemic. The time not spent commuting or working has made room for learning a new skill, a new language, or a new instrument. For starting a podcast, a YouTube channel, or writing a book.

Others have spent these first 6 months watching Netflix.

When the pace picks up again, will we look back at this time and wish we had spent it differently? Will we have more to say than “I was stuck at home” and “I spent a lot of time on Zoom”?

Even in good times companies die because they keep doing what they did last year. Imagine what fate awaits them if they hold on to the status quo in troubled times.

Business is war

“We must undergo a hard winter training and not rush into things for which we haven’t prepared.”

Epictetus, Discourses, 1.2.32

Back in the days when war was a series of summertime raids, soldiers spent their winters in training. Every day of the winter.

Today’s employee is like a soldier. When at the front lines, she is interacting with colleagues, dealing with a supplier, negotiating with a customers, or meeting with a government official. Ethical bullets are fired at her and compliance grenades lobbed at her. The key to winning each raid is in the training she received previously.

In too many companies, the training is provided once, during a kind of boot camp after enlistment. In other companies, the training is repeated but once-a-year. Rare are the companies that prepare their soldiers for battle every winter day by embedding their values in every act and every communication.

Which is why so many soldiers are wounded or die in battle, and why so many companies lose wars.

Same words, different meaning

I read The Daily Stoic every morning.

I have been doing so for the last 4 years. The daily meditation I read this morning is the same one I read on August 20th the 3 previous years. It is familiar by now. But because I am not the same person I was one year ago, that meditation offers something new.

Your employees feel the same effect when they hear you speak of the company values. Do not assume that because they’ve heard you speak of their importance in the past that there is no point in repeating the exercise. Your employees are not the same people they were before the pandemic or before witnessing the murder of George Floyd. When you speak of safety and respect today, they don’t hear what they heard last year.

Listen

To the youngster talking nonsense, Zeno said: ‘The reason why we have two ears and only one mouth is so we might listen more and talk less.’

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 7.1.23

Just like the storied fish who doesn’t know what water is, my white privilege has been invisible to me for 50 years.

This is why the Black community, in response to so many like me wanting to do something, is asking us first to educate ourselves and to truly listen. There are books on racism and white privilege. There are documentaries and films. There are podcasts. We must take ownership of our education.

In a recent open letter, my CEO explained how, after truly listening to some of our company’s senior-most Black leaders, he understood the importance of – wait for it – more listening. In his words:

So, what comes next? […] What comes next is an intense weeks-long period of listening. I, my senior leadership team and managers across our enterprise will now canvass our global footprint to hear directly from our Black colleagues and others who face discrimination in our communities. And then, we will build a plan for action. A plan that will turn ideas into results. A plan that will help drive near- and long-term societal change.

So let us all educate ourselves and listen. Listen to our relatives, our friends, our neighbors and our communities. We all know someone who faces discrimination on a daily basis. Let us listen to them, so that we may replace cruelty with humanity.

When angry, pause

How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.18.8

A child spills milk and a parent barks a nasty comment that will resonate for years.

An employee generously offers constructive feedback to a boss, who then chooses to retaliate.

A citizen is suspected of using counterfeit money to buy cigarettes and is killed by the arresting officer.

What we need is to exercise our ability to pause. Here is how Dov Seidman puts it: “One of the simplest and most powerful tools we have as individuals is the ability to pause. Think about it. When you press pause on a machine, it stops. When we pause as humans, we begin. Pausing creates a space where one can see clearly, differentiate amongst the competing stimuli of daily life, and make determinations about how to best move forward.”

And the best way forward is not to create harm but to create a better world (tikkun olam). Today and every day, let’s recognize what ignites anger in us, let us pause, and let us begin to repair the world.

Premeditatio malorum

I occasionally write about Stoicism on this blog. I find the philosophy well suited for E&C professionals.

The Stoics like to do an exercise called premeditatio malorum, imagining things that could go wrong or be taken away. Stoics are not pessimists, they simply like to be prepared.

Seneca, one of the richest man of Rome and a Stoic, would regularly practice poverty. He would eat a meager fare, walk around town with ragged clothes and barefoot, and sleep on the floor. He knew he might lose all his money one day. He had seen it happen to others and didn’t foolishly believe himself immune to misfortune. He wanted to be prepared. And so each day that he was still rich, he enjoyed it.

We all do this exercise from time to time. We read the news, learn of somebody else’s misfortune resulting from an earthquake, a flood, or a tornado, and for a brief second we try to imagine ourselves in their shoes. The thought alone is often so uncomfortable that we quickly abandon it.

What did the average American or European think about when they first heard of the coronavirus outbreak in China? How many asked themselves how they would react if their own government banned gatherings, closed schools and restaurants, and locked down entire towns? More importantly for this blog, how many E&C professionals thought about the new risks that could be created by such a situation?

Premeditatio malorum is a simple exercise that gets you ready for challenges, softens the blow when they actually happen, and makes you grateful when they don’t.