Stoics in Silicon Valley learn to manage disappointment

Byline: Philip Delves Broughton

History will one day tell us more about the meeting this week between Donald Trump and the biggest names in Silicon Valley. We will find out why these usually swaggering characters came so meekly to Trump Tower. Why Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Tim Cook of Apple and Larry Page of Alphabet, who never appear in suits and ties, wore suits and ties. And why not Peter Thiel, who showed up in an open collar? What brought them together besides curiosity?

Leading up to the presidential election last month, Silicon Valley was mostly at odds with Mr Trump, both culturally, on account of his illiberal attitudes to immigrants, women and minorities, and economically, because of his condemnation of outsourcing. But the leading technology companies and the men and women who lead them are nothing if not shrewd. They have gulped hard and by showing up to meet a president-elect they might not care for, they are practising the resurgent philosophy of Stoicism - accepting what they cannot change and managing what they can.

Stoicism is the new Zen, a rediscovered set of ideas that seem tailor-made for a period of rapid change. The musings of Seneca and Chrysippus are being seized upon by entrepreneurs whipsawed by fate, and corporate leaders battered by disruption. Steve Jobs was fascinated by Zen Buddhism. But had he been starting out today, he might have been quoting Marcus Aurelius.

This week, the New York Times profiled Ryan Holiday , a 29-year-old former publicist for American Apparel, who now makes his living as an evangelist for Stoicism. He has sold nearly a quarter of a million copies of his book The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph , which is inspired by Marcus Aurelius's Meditations . It is a favourite among athletes, Hollywood celebrities and the venture capitalists and entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, who find solace in its messages of perseverance in the face of adversity and spray them all over Twitter.

Mr Cook took a Stoic approach in a note he sent out to Apple employees after Mr Trump's election victory last month. He called on them to unite and move forward at any pace they could, quoting Martin Luther King: "If you can't fly then run. If you can't run then walk. If you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward." Not exactly "Think Different", but times change.

The Stoics were in theory a hair-shirted bunch, indifferent to pleasure and pain, wealth and poverty, fortified by their distance from the emotions that trouble ordinary minds. When they kissed their children goodnight, they imagined them dying, so that if the worst were to happen they would be ready. In his Meditations , Marcus Aurelius wrote that when you were presented with a fine meal, you should consider "this is the dead body of a fish and this is the dead body of a bird or a pig".

But such joyless mental disciplines did not prevent worldly success. Seneca became fantastically rich through his roles in Rome's imperial court. He argued that it was precisely his virtuous indifference which made him so valuable to the powerful. Others have said he was a hypocrite.

The modern embrace of Stoicism seems vapid if one tries to compare the torments of an entrepreneur in Mountain View with the agonies of Marcus Aurelius facing war and death on the fringes of his empire. But Jim Collins found a solution in his wildly popular book about high-performing businesses, Good to Great .

He interviewed James Stockdale, a former US navy pilot, who spent nearly eight years in North Vietnam as a prisoner of war. Stockdale had discovered Epictetus, a Roman Stoic, while studying at Stanford and drew on what he learnt to survive his imprisonment with his dignity and virtue intact. But Mr Collins noted an apparent contradiction in Stockdale's philosophy.

Stockdale said he never lost faith that he would get out of the camp and that his suffering would shape his life in a positive way. But he also had to "confront the most brutal facts of [his] current reality, whatever they might be".

The men who didn't survive the Vietnamese camps were the optimists. "They were the ones who said, 'We're going to be out by Christmas.' And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they'd say, 'We're going to be out by Easter.' And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart."

Mr Collins named Stockdale's mix of pragmatism and belief the "Stockdale Paradox", and argued it was essential to great companies. Stoicism for Stockdale was not a set of cute, consoling aphorisms, but a gruelling practice. He recalled a line from Epictetus: "Men, the lecture-room of the philosopher is a hospital; students ought not to walk out of it in pleasure, but in pain."

For those who never wanted Mr Trump to win, but must deal with the fact of his presidency, the Stockdale approach seems the least painful way to go.


last updated february 2017