The path to Stoicism, part II

Last week I began the story of how I came to find Stoicism, with part I of this series. To recap quickly, I was trying to deal with managing multiple projects and while working to organize myself I came across the next logical question: to what end?

I found Steve Chandler’s “Time Warrior” book, and it provided an interesting bridge between the traditional understanding of time management and something deeper about leading your life. It made me very curious about mindfulness and thus led me into the next stage of the journey.

I began reading about Zen Buddhism and was soon attending one of the local Zen centers. I found most of the ideas about Buddhism align very closely with my personal views, I discovered meditation and began practicing. Having grown up in a mostly Roman Catholic country, I was technically raised as a Catholic even though my parents were never practicing Catholics. I found Zen’s positions and approach very refreshing, particularly because the Minnesota Zen Center strives to make itself very accessible for people. The introspection practices really resonated with me, although I always struggled with a couple of topics. (Disclaimer: I am not claiming that Zen is wrong, and it’s likely that my dissatisfaction with some areas of it is based on a misunderstanding of Zen ideas. My point is that my interpretation of the Zen ideas I was presented with did not cover the gap between the Zen master meditating in hermitage and me trying to get the servers to ship on time). This anecdote humorously highlights my disconnect within Zen:

He awoke to find that God is everywhere. And as he wandered the streets, he smiled as he saw his beloved in all things. Before he knew it, he was walking right in the path of an elephant being driven by a man who had lost control. The elephant was running right toward the student! “No fear,” he thought. “God is in me, God is in the elephant.”

The driver of the elephant was now screaming at the top of his lungs: “Wild elephant! Get out of the way!” The student kept telling himself, “God is in me, God is in the ele”-BAM! Before he could finish thinking the word elephant, he was struck down by the uncontrollable beast. The student awoke in the hospital days later, saying he didn’t understand: If God was everywhere, how could this have happened? And his friend said, “God was also in the elephant driver, telling you to get out of the way”.

– Daniel Levin, “The Zen Book”

After almost two years of practicing Zen, I was reading Theodore Roosevelt’s biography and found that one of the books he would take with him on his travels was Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations”. Curious, I obtained a copy and tried reading it but I didn’t get much out of it at the time.

The next part of this series will have more direct Stoic influences.


The path to Stoicism, part I

Recently, I have begun studying Stoicism. I often tend to reflect on the series of events that lead me to a particular point in my life, and the convoluted path that I followed to get to Stoic thinking is coming up close to six years. This is the first part of this story, I will update the posts with links as the following parts are posted.

As a mechanical engineer, I ignored and sometimes mocked philosophy studies throughout most of my academic career. Science and numbers were where the truth was. As soon as I finished school and entered the workforce, I found that most of what I needed to know to solve the problems in front of me was not at all related with engineering (I may expand on this and my thoughts on education on a separate post).

I have always believed that if I don’t know how to do something, I can always look for information and learn enough on my own to keep moving forward. In this case it was trying to manage multiple projects, I did some research and found the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen. I will not go into much detail on the GTD methodology, there are plenty of resources available online discussing it. Part of the planning process proposed by Allen includes more high-level, long-term goal setting once the day-to-day tasks are under control. This was the first time I had directly though about what I want to do, and there was a sense of overwhelm just as described in this post from Art of Manliness that I found much later.

I stumbled on a book called “Time Warrior” by Steve Chandler, which took me into the next step of the journey.

The meaning of words

As I was drafting a larger post, I wrote the word “Catholic” and for some reason I wondered what it actually means. It turns out it means broad or wide ranging, having sympathies with all. I thought it was interesting that even growing up as a Catholic, I never wondered what it meant before.

Procrastination & creativity?

A very interesting TED talk was released recently by Adam Grant where he presents his research regarding procrastination and creative work.

I wrote a bit about procrastination in organizations before, and I think that a distinction needs to be made between procrastinating on a task while having to execute others, and procrastinating while engaging in non-work tasks.

I think everyone has experienced that flash of inspiration that happens in the shower or while stuck in traffic, when the solution of a problem you’ve been working on suddenly hits you. There is something to giving yourself time to process the information and make the connections, I recommend long walks with your dog.

Solvitur Ambulando.

Making sure they know.

In my professional experience, it has been common that the person I report to directly is not close to my day-to-day activities. Early in my career, when having a performance review, I would complain that my boss had no idea what I had done or been through this year, leaving me feeling like the review was inaccurate.

What about now? Been a consultant, my direct manager is even further from the action than before, so I started writing a status report and sending it periodically to her. I believe that the best approach to make sure something happens is to be the driver of the action.


One of my favorite TED talks is from Dan Ariely regarding what motivates people at work. As he describes his research on the topic, you cannot help but having small revelations about your own professional life.

A key point that always resonates with me, if what you’re building will not matter in the end, you will lose the motivation to build it. This is a very powerful insight that unfortunately has not been embraced in organizations. How many times have you been asked forced to “put together a slide deck/report/document”, while knowing no one will read it or use it? This doesn’t even address whether the task adds value or not (although if the task doesn’t matter in the end, it’s likely zero value-add), it is about making sure the organization recognizes the work it asks from their teams.

Being aware that feeling demotivated about a task points to not seeing the purpose of the task can steer you in the right direction to improve your organization, how it connects people’s work to the organization’s purpose and reduce pointless work.

Why do you have a process?

Have you ever worked at an organization that has very well defined processes? You must use this form, you have to have this meeting, you must wait two weeks for the committee to meet.

A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

-Ralph Waldo Emerson

This quote always comes to mind in situations like this, because having such a heavy-handed rigid structure stifles new ideas, it does not provide enough wiggle room to improve.

Why not instead define clear boundaries for your team, and as long as they stay within their boundaries, give them full reign to use their judgement?

The purpose of a process is to ensure you have repeatable results, but in modern organizations there are usually many ways to reach a successful outcome and not having the chance to adapt to circumstances can put your work at risk.

If your organization has created new processes to allow people to circumvent previous processes, you should really ask yourself why are the processes there to begin with? It may be time to let the teams doing the work determine the best approach.