Much can be learned from history. Stoicism flourished in the ancient Greek and Roman worlds through the third century A.D. The Stoics taught us to accept each moment as we find it, avoid being controlled by our desire for pleasure and fear of pain, and use our minds to understand the world around us. If you Google “stoicism,” the first definition in the search is incomplete, yet revealing: “the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint.”
Many young professionals seeking to grow their careers today face a world of uncertainty, complexity, and a dearth of well-worn paths. How, then, to proceed? How to succeed? How to prosper over the long-term? Ironically, some of the most durable answers to these questions originate in ancient Greek Stoicism.
A common refrain: one year in the same job is a long time; meeting expectations justifies a raise or promotion; managers should chart a course for their employees’ careers; there is a perfect job somewhere out there for you, you need only to find it. A Stoic would argue that none of this is true. One year is not a long time, it just feels long. Meeting baseline expectations warrants nothing more than continued employment. Managers should not chart employees’ careers, if for no other reason than because they can’t. And there are no perfect jobs—not here, not there, not anywhere. Accept these moments as you find them.
Focus the mind on indispensability—that is, making yourself indispensable. Doing so will change your entire approach to career development, and is likely to yield far better results than the popular tactics of today. You can’t distinguish yourself by meeting basic expectations alone, by taking orders, by fulfilling requests when asked. Indeed, you must do these things and do them well, but they are unlikely to yield raises, promotions, or growth. Accept this, and do the basics well in as stoic a manner as possible. This flies in the face of popular sentiment, which encourages us to build a “personal brand” and engage in perpetual self-promotion. Realize that your manager sees through this; your tactics are more transparent than you may realize. And besides, everyone does this, so how can you distinguish yourself by doing more of the same? You can’t.
Becoming indispensable means focusing on contribution over consumption, on ambitious and collaborative goal-setting with your manager, on a relentless push for goal clarity, on socializing your highest priorities with stakeholders, and on volunteering to solve thorny and difficult problems that others have avoided. Then, displaying a willingness to work the problem until it is solved, regardless of the pain or time commitment involved (whether weeks, months, or years).
Now ask yourself: how many have you worked with who employ the techniques and inherent mindset described above? Few? None? Therein lies the key to your success. A quiet, determined, thoughtful, and stoic resolve to contribution and problem-solving will distinguish you more and grow your career faster than the popular—and often empty—approaches so often embraced by eager young professionals today. Managers want creative problem-solvers. Companies need creative solutions to old problems. If you can deliver these while wrapping them in a cloak of emotional maturity and mental toughness, you become the total package most companies so desperately seek.
If you treat your life as a canvass on which to paint, new questions unfold. What do you want to create? What is your current state like compared with your vision? What would it take to close the gap? Do you have the tenacity to close it? What’s holding you back? How can you remove the obstacle? Here again, Stoicism will help you navigate the path between your current and desired state. It allows you to treat frustration, set-backs, delays, and failures as merely texture in the terrain. Your goal remains unchanged: reaching your desired state. In the case of your career, this can mean delivering a project ahead of schedule, under budget, and with better than expected results. Or it can mean mustering the courage to take a strategic step down so that you can enter a new discipline and change your long-term trajectory. Most importantly, a stoic approach can help distinguish between mere happiness and real satisfaction. Happiness is a feeling, and all feelings fleet. But satisfaction is a durable and gratifying state—and perhaps the ultimate goal of every career throughout time, even as far back as ancient Greece.