On Becoming a Stoic

A Marcus Aurelius quote I had clipped over 25 years ago.

My journey to Stoicism began before I was born. In fact I am not sure where, when, how, or over what time period, but it began with my grandfather, Rick Leonard.

He always used to say “Learning to live is an art” and he had a copy of the serenity prayer in his bed room for as long as I can remember. If you aren’t familiar with it, it goes:

God grant me the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.

Reinhold Niebuhr, Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serenity_Prayer

I didn’t know it at the time, but both these sentiments are at the heart of Stoicism.

The notional that learning to live is something you need to work at and practice (some would say train) for, and as an art it isn’t black and white, and you are never done with the job of making your best self.

And for those familiar with Stoicism, the serenity prayer can be said another way:

See things for what they are.
Do what we can.
Endure and bear what we must.

Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way

That latter quote coming from one of the most read recent rearticulations of Stoicism for the modern person. Discovering and then reading it brought together a lot of threads in my life, from the teachings of my grandfather that in hindsight contained so much stoic thinking that it is hard from me to believe he hadn’t read some of its primary texts, to my time in the US Army which is deeply imbued with the stoic ethos, to even my time in the corporate world where I picked up little stoic maxims without realizing it over the decades.

While you might say I have had elements of a stoic mindset for my whole life, it was listening to the Tim Ferriss podcast that formally introduced me to approach Stoicism as a way to live. Ferriss calls it his “personal operating system” and a way to stay focused on activities that make a difference, and avoiding wasting energy and time on things that don’t. Ferriss regularly features Ryan Holiday, who along with a host of accomplishments is a leading thinking and proponent of modern Stoic thought. So I bought and read his books, which led me to the older texts, especially Marcus Aurelius‘s Meditations.

I felt like I had been give access to some secret texts that the Great People throughout history have turned to, not for solace or a promise of a better life in the hereafter, but for the strength to dig deep and keep going, to persevere, to push forward, literally one step at a time in some cases. In fact it is a simple yet powerful life view that has brought me the strength and focus to achieve many things in my life that I had absolutely no business doing. That is not to say that this path is easy, it demands that you hold yourself accountable even when no one else will.

In this day and age it has become a troupe that we are to0 soft and too weak, the younger generation has lost its way, etc. (hmm, when have I heard that before). I have a lot to say about how wrong that is, but the point here is that the fact that stoicism is gaining so attention and interest over the last several years is an encouraging sign that there are plenty of people ready to pick up the mantle of responsibility.

I am about to start a 14 Day Stoic Challenge and will document that process here. So I wanted to put down some initial thought on how I have arrived at Stoicism before that starts, and depending on how it goes, I may write more of my thoughts on relating Stoicism to life and business.

On leaving Sapient and 3 lessons learnt

A few months ago I left Sapient, the company where I had worked for 15 years.

Whaaaaat? You left Sapient!?!?

A career of business cards
A career of business cards

That has been the most common response I’ve gotten, and it’s understandable as 15 years is a long time, and being a “Sape” had in many ways become part of my identity. As I wrote my farewell email, it struck me how many people I wanted to thank for the help and support in my career who are no longer at Sapient. So thank you to the innumerable people I have worked with over the years for your advice, support, encouragement and laughs – in ways big and small you made an impact on my career and my life.

As I move on to a new chapter in my career, I took some time to reflect on what I learned, and want to share the 3 I feel are most impactful. These are by no means unique observations about Sapient, nor unique to Sapient. However, in my 20 years of professional experience, including other consultancies, two startups, and dozens of clients, finding a organization with these attributes is rare.

 

Culture

You cannot talk about Sapient, especially in the early years, without talking about culture. We were obsessed with building a culture that would build a great company. How we chose to define our culture is interesting in itself, and is the subject of an HBS case study. What your culture is should be unique to each company and relate to your business context and purpose. However how you craft, promote, and use your culture is what I want to highlight here. My observation is that corporate culture is either what you get or what you do. Meaning, if your culture is a set of values that hang on the wall, rather than a shared set of expectations and values that you use every day to make decisions and shape behaviour, then you aren’t crafting a culture, and you will simply get the culture that your employees bring in with them. To make a culture a cohesive force I believe you have to use it daily, you have to talk about it with your teams, you have to visibly use it in your decision making. And most difficult of all, you have to, as we used to say, reject non-fits like a virus. Sounds harsh, but time and again I have seen people of great skill and experience who were culturally poisonous retained in organizations well past the point where the damage they were doing was greater than the benefits they brought to company. No doubt this is a hard decision to make, but forcing the conversation is the difference between believing in your culture as an asset versus a slogan.

Openness

Openness means different things to different people, but in the context of Sapient it meant being direct and generous with your feedback to others, and more difficult, open to hearing the generous amount of feedback you were going to get. Every day. I believe this was essential to developing a learning organization, where at our best we were in a state of continuous improvement for years. We would debrief as a team not just at the end of an iteration, but after every client presentation, meeting, or checkpoint. During our intense workshop sessions we would debrief at lunch and the end of day. By debrief, I mean we went around the room and critiqued ourselves not just as a team but each other. Now, some feedback and coaching experts will tell you that constructive feedback should be given one on one, not publicly. And that works for individual coaching, but we were trying to raise the game of the whole team, and it worked. If everyone heard everyone else’s feedback they could learn from each other. It requires a culture of trust at the team level for sure, and it wasn’t for everyone, but if you had “purple in your blood” as we used to say, it was what you expected.

People

Growth Model
Growth Model

Like many companies Sapient certainly focused on hiring bright, talented, ambitious people. And being in Cambridge, MA certainly gave us access to lots of that kind of talent. But it was a focus on people, and in particular people growth, as we used to call it, that I feel accelerated  the growth of the company. Almost all companies today say people are there most important asset. But executives and managers at many companies don’t behave that way. At the time, Sapient made a decision to aggressively manage the growth of the entire company.  So what does that mean? It meant in our case not just the feedback intensive culture and openness discussed above. It also meant constantly looking at our team, whether it was a project team, an account team, the office or region’s leadership, and actively looking for, or creating, opportunities to push people out of their comfort zones. Because we believed (and we experienced) that is where people grew the most. It was our own take on that old adage that sometimes the role makes the person. And that is so unlike most of corporate America in my experience, where if we need a new leadership role the most likely place to look for it is outside.

What was also really different is we used to talk about it as a whole office, and I remember we’d draw the simple diagram to the right on the board to explain, we are choosing to live right on the edge of growth and failure, because that is how we are all going to grow the most. And just as importantly, when people struggled or failed, that had to okay. It meant we knew where they needed coaching and support, and at that moment, it’s critical to dial it back a little and give them the support to work on those growth areas. Was that perfectly executed? I am sure not, and I may have been lucky in the people who I reported to, but nonetheless, that was definitely my experience for the bulk of my tenure.

So that’s my two cents. Disagree or have something to add, leave a comment.