Tag: Donald Robertson

To refrain from imitation is the best revenge

Today’s title comes from Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, which regular readers of my writing will know I read on repeat. George Herbert, the English poet, wrote something similar to this in “living well is the best revenge”.

But what do these things actually mean in practice?


One of my favourite episodes of Frasier (the only sitcom I’ve ever really enjoyed) is when Niles has to confront his childhood bully. It leads to this magnificent exchange:

Frasier:
You know the expression, “Living well is the best revenge”?
Niles:
It’s a wonderful expression. I just don’t know how true it is. You don’t see it turning up in a lot of opera plots. “Ludwig, maddened by the poisoning of his entire family, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act by living well.”
Frasier:
All right, Niles.
Niles:
“Whereupon Woton, upon discovering his deception, wreaks vengeance on Gunther in the third act again by living even better than the Duke.”
Frasier:
Oh, all right!

In other words, it often doesn’t feel that ‘living well’ makes any tangible difference.

But let’s step back a moment. What does it mean to ‘live well’? Is it the same as refraining from imitating others, or are Marcus Aurelius and George Herbert talking about two entirely different things?


During an email exchange last week, someone mentioned that they weren’t sure whether my segues between topics were ‘brilliant’ or ‘tenuous’. Well, dear reader, here’s a chance to judge for yourself.


In a recent article for Fast Company, ostensibly about ‘personal branding’ Trip O’Dell gets awfully deep awfully quickly and starts invoking Aristotle:

Aristotle is the father of Western philosophy because he didn’t focus on likes, engagement, or followers. Aristotle focused on the nature of authenticity; what it means to be real but also persuasive. He broke the requirements for persuasiveness into four simple elements: ethos (reputation/authority), logos (logic), pathos (feeling), and kairos (timing). Those four elements are required to argue persuasively in any context. However, the stakes are higher in business. Confidently communicating who you are, what you stand for, and why you’re great at what you do is not only essential, it’s liberating.

Trip O’Dell

What I particularly like about the article is the re-focusing on ‘personal ethos’ rather than ‘personal brand’. Branding is a form of marketing, of changing the surface appearance of something. It’s about morphing a product (in this case, yourself) into something that better fits in with what other people expect.

An ethos runs much deeper. It is, as Aristotle noted, about your reputation or authority, neither of which are manufactured overnight.

The hardest part of establishing a professional ethos is describing it; it takes work, and it isn’t easy. The process requires a level of maturity and self-awareness that can be uncomfortable at times. You’re forced to ask some essential questions and make yourself vulnerable to critique and rejection. That discomfort is the tax that is paid to eliminate self-defeating habits that hold many people back in their professional lives.

Trip O’Dell

This is where that magnificent word ‘authenticity’ comes in. No-one really knows what it means, but everyone wants to have it. I’d argue that authenticity is a by-product of reputation and authority. Easy to destroy, difficult to build.


Let me set my stall out by saying that I think that Marcus Aurelius (“To refrain from imitation is the best revenge”) and George Herbert (“Living well is the best revenge”) were actually talking about much the same thing.

I don’t know much about George Herbert, but Wikipedia tells me he was an orator as well as a poet, and fluent in Latin and Greek. So I’m surmising that he at least had a passing knowledge of the Stoics. The chances are he was using his poetic flair to make Marcus Aurelius’ quotation a little more memorable.


Revenge can be dramatic and explosive. It can be as subtle as tiny daggers. Either way, revenge involves communicating something to another person in such a way that they realise you’ve got one up on them.

Malice may or may not be involved; it’s probably better if it isn’t. The pop diva Mariah Carey is the queen of this, claiming that she “doesn’t know” people with whom she’s allegedly having a feud.

But, back to the dead white dudes. In How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, Donald Robertson explains that the Stoics saw that both way we live and the way we communicate as important.

The Stoics realized that to communicate wisely, we must phrase things appropriately. Indeed, according to Epictetus, the most striking characteristic of Socrates was that he never became irritated during an argument. He was always polite and refrained from speaking harshly even when others insulted him. He patiently endured much abuse and yet was able to put an end to most quarrels in a calm and rational manner.

Donald J. Robertson

In other words, you don’t need to imitate other people’s anger, irritability, or lack of patience. You can ‘live well’ by being comfortable in your own skin and demonstrate the calm waters of your soul.

This, of course, is hard work. Nietzsche is famously quoted as saying:

He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself; and if you gaze too long into the abyss, the abyss will gaze into you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

Feel free to substitute ‘internet trolls’ or ‘petty-minded neighbours’ for ‘dragons’. The effect is the same. Marcus Aurelius is reminding us that refraining from imitating their behaviour is the best form of revenge.

Likewise, George Herbert is telling us that ‘living well’ is (as Trip O’Dell notes in that Fast Company article) about having a ‘personal ethos’. It’s about knowing who you are and where you’re going. And, potentially, acting like Mariah Carey, throwing shade on your enemies by not acknowledging their existence.

Even in their sleep men are at work

For today’s title I’ve used Marcus Aurelius’ more concise, if unfortunately gendered, paraphrasing of a slightly longer quotation from Heraclitus. It’s particularly relevant to me at the moment, as recently I’ve been sleepwalking. This isn’t a new thing; I’ve been doing it all my life when something’s been bothering me.

When I tell people about this, they imagine something similar to the cartoon above. The reality is somewhat more banal, with me waking up almost as soon as I get out of bed and then getting back into it.

Sometimes I’m not entirely sure what’s bothering me. Other times I do, but it’s a combintion of things. In an article for Inc. Amy Morin gives some advice, explains there’s an important difference between ‘ruminating’ and ‘problem-solving’:

If you’re behind on your bills, thinking about how to get caught up can be helpful. But imagining yourself homeless or thinking about how unfair it is that you got behind isn’t productive.

So ask yourself, “Am I ruminating or problem-solving?”
If you’re dwelling on the problem, you’re ruminating. If you’re actively looking for solutions, you’re problem-solving.

Amy Morin

Morin goes on to talk about ‘changing the channel’ which can be a very difficult thing to do. One thing that helps me is reading the work of Stoic philosophers such as The Enchiridion by Epictetus, which begins with some of the best advice I’ve ever read:

Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.

The things in our control are by nature free, unrestrained, unhindered; but those not in our control are weak, slavish, restrained, belonging to others. Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free, and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.

Aiming therefore at such great things, remember that you must not allow yourself to be carried, even with a slight tendency, towards the attainment of lesser things. Instead, you must entirely quit some things and for the present postpone the rest. But if you would both have these great things, along with power and riches, then you will not gain even the latter, because you aim at the former too: but you will absolutely fail of the former, by which alone happiness and freedom are achieved.

Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Epictetus

Donald Robertson, founder of Modern Stoicism, is an author and psychotherapist. Robertson was interviewed by Knowledge@Wharton for their podcast, which they’ve also transcribed. He makes a similar point to Epictetus, based on the writings of Marcus Aurelius:

Ultimately, the only thing that’s really under our control is our own will, our own actions. Things happen to us, but what we can really control is the way that we respond to those things. Stoicism wants us to take also greater responsibility, greater ownership for the things that we can actually do, both in terms of our thoughts and our actions, and respond to the situations that we face.

Donald Robertson

Robertson talks in the interview about how Stoicism has helped him personally:

It’s helped me to cope with a lot of things, even relatively trivial things. The last time I went to the dentist, I’m sure I was using Stoic pain management techniques. It becomes a habitual thing. Coping with some of the stress that therapists have when they’re dealing with clients who sometimes describe very traumatic problems, and the stress of working with other people who have their difficulties and stresses. [I moved] to Canada a few years ago, and that was a big upheaval for me. As for many people, a life-changing event like that can require a lot to deal with. Learning to think about things like a Stoic has helped me to negotiate all of these things in life.

Donald Robertson

Although I haven’t done it since August 2010(!) I used to do something which I referred to as “calling myself into the office”. The idea was that I’d set myself three to five goals, and then review them at the end of the month. I’d also set myself some new goals.

The value of doing this is that you can see that you’re making progress. It’s something that I should definitely start doing again. I was reminded of this approach after reading an article at Career Contessa about weekly self-evaluations. The suggested steps are:

  1. Celebrate your wins
  2. Address your losses or weaknesses
  3. Note your “coulda, woulda, shoulda” tasks
  4. Create goals for next week
  5. Summarise it all in one sentence

While Career Contessa suggests this will all take only five minutes, I think that if you did it properly it might take more like 20 minutes to half an hour. Whether you do it weekly or monthly probably depends on the size of the goals you’re trying to achieve. Either way, it’s a valuable exercise.

We all need to cut ourselves some slack, to go easy on ourselves. The chances are that the thing we’re worrying about isn’t such a big deal in the scheme of things, and the world won’t end if we don’t get that thing done right now. Perhaps regular self-examination, whether through Stoicism or weekly/monthly reviews, can help more of us with that?


Also check out:

  • Trying (Snakes and Ladders) — “I realized that one of the reasons I like doing the newsletter so much is that I have (quite unconsciously) understood it as a place not to do analysis or critique but to share things that give me delight.”
  • 43 — All in & with the flow (Buster Benson) — “It’s tempting to always rationalize why our current position is optimal, but as I get older it’s a lot easier to see how things move in cycles, and the cycles themselves are what we should pay attention to more than where we happen to be in them at the moment.
  • Four Ways to Figure Out What You Really Want to Do with Your Life (Lifehacker) — “In the end, figuring out your passion, your career path, your life purpose—whatever you want to call it—isn’t an easy process and no magic bullet exists for doing it.”