Being a Stoic in Advertising

The ancient Greek philosophy is helpful in business, too

I'm a fairly patient, contemplative and quiet person by nature, and a co-worker recently asked me how I remain so calm all the time. How is it that I rarely get upset about situations that arise at work? 

I explained that I'm a practicing Stoic. Not stoic, but Stoic, with a capital S. A stoic person can be described as emotionless and uncaring. But someone who practices the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism is a Stoic. When applied to business, especially the unpredictable and passionate aspects of advertising and design, Stoicism helps prioritize matters, avoid distractions and focus efforts. Studying Stoicism has helped me and my team evaluate everything from client conflicts to staffing issues to the various ups and downs of business in a way that benefits us, our partners and our clients.  

It all began several years ago when my wife gave me the book The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, which confirmed the way I approach life and work. I realized I'm not quiet because I have nothing to say; it's because I'm a Stoic and didn't realize it. 

The philosophy teaches the development of self-control and resilience based on the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance. Or in terms of our modern lives: wisdom, morality, courage and moderation. Stoicism is not always easy to practice consistently. But the concepts are simple and can be applied to every aspects of life and work. 

Worry about yourself. 

You can't control other people. You can only express your intentions for and expectations of them. 

Years ago, my team and I worried a lot about new-business pitches. How many other agencies are in the pitch? What is our placement in the order of presentations? What are the other agencies going to bring as strategies and ideas? 

Stoicism has taught me to let go of all that worrying and focus on myself and my team. Focus on our presentation and make that as creative as it can be and let the competition be damned. This has led to less spinning, more productive solutions and more focused presentations. 

When you waste time fretting, worrying, being mad or thinking about what could have been, you weaken your own self. It's better to move on and focus on the things that matter, the things one can truly affect. 

Accept what you cannot change. 

Every day we are faced with challenges and frustrations. Big and small. How we interpret and react to these situations can be simplified by an acknowledgement of our own assumptions. 

Through Stoicism, I've learned that when a perceived negative situation presents itself, I should choose not to see the bad or be offended. The situation isn't inherently good, nor is it bad. The situation is what it is. It's the context that I bring to it that informs how I feel. It's my perception of the situation that affects the way I proceed to act. 

We are never in control of our clients' budgets. We can scope and plan, but inevitably there are changes and adjustments. No matter how bad you wish more money was available to create your amazing idea, you cannot change the fact. The budget was cut, the situation is what it is. You can sit and complain, fight and waste time, or you can get to work and change your approach to accommodate the budget. Being able to accept the facts will lead to alternate solutions faster and with less stress. 

Some things are obviously beyond your control, and there's no use worrying about them. Focus on things you can change, like your own choices and judgments. You can't change the weather, but you can prepare for it.

Always be learning.

Wisdom is a core Stoic virtue. Realizing you don't know everything is at first humbling but ultimately very freeing. 

I love collaborating with clients. I love hearing what they think their ideal solution is before we go off and start concepting. We can't design in a vacuum. We need insight and strategy to guide us. We need the knowledge of key stakeholders, the industry and end users in order to design the best solutions possible. We are constantly learning about our clients' business as well as about new and old techniques we can implement into our craft to produce amazing results.

Whether you love reading, watching documentaries, pursuing continuing education or listening to TED Talks, open yourself up to learning in any form. Learn from those above and below you, and learn from every mistake. And always know that you can't learn when you're talking.

Be rational, not emotional. 

Think before you speak and react. It's a true balancing act. Stoicism can help create balance between the passionate side of creativity and the rational side of business. 

We all experience irritating situations that can sometimes cause people to react in frustration, whether it's shortened timelines or edits that seem unnecessary. If left unchecked, these emotions can lead to poor work output and harm client relations. When presented with such situations, it's important to hear people out and ask specifics about their needs and wants. Try to get all the information possible. Consider both sides, and take the time to question how different reactions can lead to different outcomes. Always know that yelling and screaming rarely instill confidence. Having passion for your work is emotional. Being able to defend your ideas and position is rational. 

This thought from Meditations by the great Stoic Marcus Aurelius can steer your actions: 

Keep this thought handy when you feel a fit of rage coming on … The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength. 

By practicing these concepts and reading more about Stoicism, I've found great calmness in taking a deep breath, not overreacting and assuming the best. Doing so has strengthened my creativity and thought process, and has made me a more rational and patient boss, employee, father and husband. It has helped me guide my team and create a balance between the passionate side of creativity and the rational side of business. 

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Ed Bennett
Ed Bennett is executive design director of interdisciplinary brand design firm 10 Thousand Design.