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How to get through challenging times by applying principles from ancient stoic philosophy

„Be like the cliff against which the waves continually break; but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it.“ — Marcus Aurelius

The FinTech industry is experiencing some difficult times due to an inflation spike, a number of crypto crashes, and a dramatic drop in the valuation of companies. All of this resulting in some massive layoffs. It’s quite risky to work in a startup, even in good times, but given the current turmoil, people are facing even higher levels of uncertainty and stress, both personally and professionally. It’s no wonder that many begin to feel a sense of fear and anxiety in such an environment.

There are different approaches that could help people across the Fintech world and the broader startup ecosystem regain their confidence, cope with negative emotions, increase the level of resilience to overcome difficulties and find comfort in the face of fear. One of them is Stoicism - an ancient practical philosophy which is also known as the philosophy of difficult times.

Studying an ancient philosophy may seem like a waste of time in today’s digital world, but think about the value something must hold for it to be passed on and used for over 2000 years and even up to this very day. Stoics were not only philosophers but also some of the wealthiest and most influential people of their time, from political leaders and entrepreneurs to athletes. 

Stoicism was founded by Zeno, a Phoenician merchant in Athens, Greece, around 300 BC. He lost his entire fortune at sea after a shipwreck near Athens. It forced him to reconsider his priorities and led him to philosophy. Soon after that, Stoicism reached Rome and was adopted by the Romans during their world dominance by 155 BC. 

Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius were key contributors to the Stoic philosophy. Thanks to them, the ancient Stoics not only survived but thrived during times of turmoil and uncertainty. So, let’s see what we can learn from them.

 

Principle 1 - Focus on what you can control 

The dichotomy of control is one of the important concepts of Stoicism. There are things you can control and things you can’t control, and it’s a complete waste of time and energy to focus on the latter.

“You have power over your mind - not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

A simple practice you can try is to divide a sheet of paper into two columns and list what is in your control and what is out of your control. You’ll most likely find a number of things that you can only observe and analyse (or refuse to observe them). And this is fine. Focus your energy on what you can do right now and stop worrying about what you can’t control.

Can you control if a competitor launches a new product or service? Can you control a service malfunction or a missed deadline from your partner vendor? Definitely not, but you can control your reaction to these things and how you and your company choose to respond. See it as a chance to re-engage or improve your product to make more customers happy. IT service outages can lead to improved monitoring that will make your systems more resilient.

 

Principle 2 - Preparing for failure 

Negative visualisation is one of the most powerful practices that the Stoics have gifted us. Any business and especially a startup could find itself in a crisis at any moment - the Stoics believed that their wealth and stature could be stripped away from them at any time. 

Stoics believed that a wise person would always be prepared for such drastic swings of misfortune because they'd visualise the events that could lead to what they feared and prepared themselves in advance.

“It is in times of security that the spirit should be preparing itself for difficult times; while fortune is bestowing favours on it is then is the time for it to be strengthened against her rebuffs.” - Seneca 

The Stoics used times of peace and tranquillity to prepare themselves for failure. Negative visualising and preparing for failure is something that tech leaders across the industry have taken up as part of their teams’ standard practices. For example, before any product or project launches, teams will get together for a “premortem” workshop to imagine that the project ends up being a huge failure in a few weeks or months. From there, the team lists all the events that could bring about failure, what they could do to better prepare for that failure, and how to recover. 

Treat potential failures as opportunities to improve, knowing that the only thing worse than falling is never getting back up.Hardship is inevitable for any business and “practising” misfortune and failures could help teams be better prepared for the hard times. 

 

Principle 3 - Acknowledge and learn from mistakes 

“If anyone can prove and show to me that I think and act in error, I will gladly change it for I seek the truth, by which no one has ever been harmed” - Marcus Aurelius

Being afraid of failing or being wrong is completely natural, however, setbacks and roadblocks to success are inevitable, especially in a startup. Failure is just an opportunity to search for the right product-market fit, the right marketing and sales strategies, and to learn how something works through a series of experiments. That's why startup founders and startup leaders should embrace being wrong as no one builds a business without encountering setbacks and failure. 

“If you are defeated once and tell yourself you will overcome, but carry on as before, know in the end you’ll be so ill and weakened that eventually you won’t even notice your mistake and will begin to rationalise your behaviour.” — Epictetus

The Stoics believed that every seemingly large setback was an event to be embraced rather than ashamed or afraid of. They consciously control their reactions to problems by tweaking their perceptions and practice turning obstacles into opportunity  

There are many examples of modern leaders who applied a similar approach to talking about failure in a positive light that helped their companies stay resilient and motivated in the face of repeated failure.  

Jeff Bezos highlighted it in a 2015 letter to Amazon shareholders: “One area where I think we are especially distinctive is failure. I believe we are the best place in the world to fail (we have plenty of practice!), and failure and invention are inseparable twins”

Bill Gates is another CEO who values failure: “It’s fine to celebrate success but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”

Stoic leadership also means taking responsibility for mistakes, even when they aren’t necessarily your fault. Being the “owners” and holding yourself accountable for everything happening in the business is one of the key principles of Vivid Money that we live and breathe. 

 

Principle 4 - Embrace frugality

Stoics practised and advocated simple living and frugality as a way of toughening yourself to prepare for adversity, as a way of avoiding disappointment. For example, Marcus Aurelius famously sold many of the palace furnishings to pay down his empire’s debt

Jeff Bezos has purposefully built Amazon with a culture of frugality. Why? “I think frugality drives innovation, just like other constraints do,” he said. “One of the only ways to get out of a tight box is to invent your way out.” 

Staying lean on expenses, constantly revising plans and adjusting to threats accordingly to reduce the cash burn is vital for many tech startups to survive in times of crisis. 

 

It’s worth studying and practising to succeed in hard times 

Stoicism is an ideal philosophy for the startup ecosystem. Stoicism has helped ancient rulers stay resilient in the face of adversity, and remain free from arrogance in the spotlight of success. The wisdom found in Stoicism will continue to help our modern leaders practice courage, take risks and learn how to conquer their fear of failure in order to succeed in a startup or as a startup leader.

Hard times are inevitable in the highly competitive and fast-paced world of business. Stoicism helps to find comfort in the face of fear and helps you thrive despite the challenges you face. It’s for those who place more value on wisdom and self-discipline rather than external events.

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Alexander Morsakov

Alexander Morsakov

Head of Partnerships and Expansion

Vivid Money

Member since

25 Jul

Location

Berlin

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