Exhausted from being three hours into a four-hour meeting, my patience started wavering. I turned to Jak, the CEO who less than three months ago welcomed me on board at Habu, and said:
Me: “Jak, are you excited about the vision we’ve put together so far?”
Jak: “Well, is it exciting enough to get me out of bed in the morning? Probably not, but…”
Me: “It’s a yes or no question, Jak. Just tell me yes or no.”
My patience stopped wavering, and without listening until the end of the sentence, I snapped at him.
It took me a couple of days to apologise for my impatience, and given that I still have a job, no offence was taken. Jak and I agreed that no meeting should last that long if left unstructured and, more importantly, it shouldn’t ever be held in a small meeting room without air conditioning.
I was warned multiple times that joining a Startup as a solo Designer would mean finding myself in difficult situations, wrestling with ambiguity and dealing with unclear processes. But in my experience, the biggest challenges in any company don’t come from what needs to be done, or why and how. They come from getting every and each person aligned on them.
Speaking to many fellow designers, I know they’ve found themselves in situations at work where they wanted to flip the table and say “screw this! I’m out!” a few too many times, and after the “incident” with Jak, I’ve come to the conclusion that most of us have been taught to be a nice person, but haven’t been taught how to keep our shit together. That’s the kind of cool I’m talking about!
I’ve spent the last few weeks doing great at keeping my cool, and I believe I have to thank the book I just finished reading for it: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, a book on the story of emperor Marcus Aurelius, and a compelling modern-day guide to the philosophy of Stoicism.
If you often find yourself angry with your boss, your clients, or yourself, here are some Stoic principles that will help you to be just cool when facing anger.
Empathize with yourself first.
Stoicism calls for taking responsibility and control of our decisions so we can be at our best for others. The Stoics believed in social reform, but they also believed in personal transformation.
In the design world, we hear the word empathy thrown around like confetti. Empathy is one of the most important skills for designers and creatives alike, it’s true. But the way this is usually portrayed in our profession is limited, as it starts and ends with the user in mind. The way I see it, empathy has to go towards the individual who practices it first (i.e. self-love) and only then can be extended to everyone else, including family, friends and...users.
“I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.” –Marcus Aurelius
If you find yourself easily snapping at others, it might mean it’s time to start practising some form of self-love. Understanding yourself will allow you to understand others better and have more empathy for them.
Learn how to listen to others.
The Stoics were sometimes depicted as cold and bleak, but they were interested in other’s feelings and emotions more than people gave them credit for. Marcus Aurelius was said to strive to listen to what was said to him very carefully, so he could enter the mind of the speaker and really understand them.
Disagreements often happen because people don’t get the “real” message behind what others say. Since it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to elaborate what they say in the most concise and understandable manner, listening with attention and without judgment should be a priority.
“In conversation, one should attend closely to what is being said, and with regard to every impulse attend to what arises from it; in the latter case, to see from the first what end it has in view, and in the former, to keep careful watch on what people are meaning to say”– Marcus Aurelius
When you start listening to others in conversation, without simply waiting for your turn to speak, it’s when you start to understand what they are saying. Sharpening your listening skills could lead to fewer misinterpretations and, as a consequence, less anger.
If things upset you, it’s because you allow them to.
Marcus Aurelius believed that it’s not things or other people that make you angry, but your judgments about them. If you can let go of your value judgments and stop calling other people’s actions “awful,” then your anger will diminish.
Things that upset us usually have one thing in common: they’re out of our direct control. Take this few examples:
- You can’t control how the person who cuts you off in traffic drives their car;
- You can’t control how punctual your colleagues are to meetings;
- You can’t control the person who doesn’t understand why UX is the holy grail of business.
“The more we value things outside our control, the less control we have” — Marcus Aurelius
Getting angry at things that are out of your control is a waste of time and energy, but more than anything, it’s a choice. Letting go of those things or taking action in trying to better them — like talking to your colleagues face to face to resolve matters — is much better than just judging them or keeping those judgments in your head. You don’t have to be Zen when you don’t feel like it, but accept that not everything is in your control and it shouldn’t occupy too much space in your mind.
Manage your expectations of others.
Marcus Aurelius thought that a wise person who views the world rationally is never surprised by anything in life. We know that there are good people and bad people in the world. Bad people are bound to do bad things, so it would be irrational to expect otherwise.
It’s foolish to expect others to always behave correctly, and there are many expectations that we place on people that cause us to get unsettled. That feeling changes when we realise that almost everyone — in their own way — is trying their best not to screw up.
“Whenever you are about to find fault with someone, ask yourself the following question: What fault of mine most nearly resembles the one I am about to criticize?” — Marcus Aurelius
It’s helpful to remind ourselves that we aren’t all cut from the same cloth, and we go through different things on a daily basis. Like you, people live in their own world, and sometimes it’s not an enjoyable one. Understand this when you expect someone to always be at their best, and ask yourself if you really are in a place to make judgments for how they’re acting. Are you really that different?
We are designed to help one another.
The Stoics were a tough bunch, and they often contemplated on the evil of mankind, but in spite of that, they were big believers of cooperation. The Stoics thought that the true nature of humans isn’t to be awful and destructive, but rather to be cooperative, so they can help each other form civilised societies.
“We are made for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.” — Marcus Aurelius
This is worth thinking about: we design for humans, and we collaborate with other humans to make it happen. In a way or another, we find ourselves drawn to work with others. Anything significant we want to achieve in this life, we can’t achieve without cooperation. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that cooperation and collaboration are the skills of the future.
When you get frustrated with people, remember that we are designed to help each other, even when they don’t act like it. One positive way to handle frustrating situations is to try your best to make things work, regardless of how others act.
Be patient. There’s a season for everything.
Stoics underlined living in accordance with our inner flow, with a thought to the outer flow of life. They thought that excessive urgency can cause disregard toward procedures and blind us from seeing that some things just need to flow naturally.
Sometimes you’ll find resistance to applying the methodologies you know in your heart to work, and sometimes things don’t move forward at the pace you’d want them to. When that happens, you need to have patience and take time to work things out, trying not to feel frustrated or angry. Like it or not, some things can’t be forced and need to happen at their own time.
“No great thing is created suddenly, any more than a bunch of grapes or a fig. If you tell me that you desire a fig, I answer you that there must be time. Let it first blossom, then bear fruit, then ripen.”– Epictetus
Stagnation can easily conflict with the ambition of always wanting to be productive and create a good amount of anger and frustration if things don’t go as we expected them to go. If you feel like you’re not going anywhere in a conversation, a project, or a simple task, take some time away from it and approach it again another time. Giving something an extra day or two can make a huge difference.
Get perspective on your work problems
Marcus Aurelius said that looking at the stars could make our problems seem very small compared to the infinity of the universe. He used this concept to clear his mind of all the annoyances he encountered day-to-day.
“I can only admire the grace and majesty of the stars as my mind is blessed to accompany them, and I marvel further still at the vision of the whole cosmos before me. Travelling through the breadth of Nature, my mind expands to a vastness that envelops individual events, swallowing them up and making them appear like a pinpoint by comparison” — Marcus Aurelius
Most problems we face at work don’t really make a dent in the grand scheme of things, believing they do, would just give them the importance they don’t deserve. When you feel angry and frustrated, take a deep breath, remember yourself of the universe, the stars, and how lucky you are to experience all of it.
If you’ve read this far, it probably means that you resonate with some of this philosophy and would like to keep your cool more often. If you’re also wondering whether I live like a Roman Emperor myself, the answer is no. I still lose my cool from time to time.
I don’t think living like a Stoic is indispensable to have self-control, nor that any of this philosophy is easy or immediate to implement in your thinking. But I think that adopting just a tiny amount of it in your life could be a game-changer. It’s definitely helped me to be more understanding in different situations, and I hope it will help you too.
Thank you for reading and sharing 🙏🏼