Ryan Holiday offers us wisdom from the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius applicable to modern life.
The only questionable application of Marcus’s words from long ago I find in the section headed “A Proper Frame of Mind.” Holiday quotes The Meditations 2.2, wherein Marcus says to himself (and to us) that we ought not allow ourselves to be pulled like a puppet by every impulse. Then Holiday writes,
“We resent the person who comes in and tries to boss us around. Don’t tell me how to dress, how to think, how to do my job, how to live. This is because we are independent, self-sufficient people.” And he concludes the section by writing, “We would never let another person jerk us around the way we let our impulses do.”
We do resent the bossy person, especially the newly-arrived bossy person, who tries to push us around, but if that new person happens to be our new boss, what do we do? We sit there and take it. That’s what we do. Because that’s our job. Workers experience bossy ignorance all the time in the workplace. Take my industry, for instance. Assa Abloy, a multinational provider of doors, frames, and hardware for commercial construction out of Scandinavia, in an ongoing process, started gobbling up all the American manufacturing companies it could find over the last decade and firing every person who actually knew how to run those businesses, replacing him and her with completely inexperienced bureaucrats who’d never run an entity that large. What, exactly, were the people on the line supposed to do in that case? Most of them tried to follow orders until they could no longer do so and then they quit, largely sacrificing the twenty-odd years of service they’d given to their original company. Others, who had worked themselves fairly high up into management positions within the new company structure, patiently explained to their new Scandinavian bosses why the system they were trying to put in place wouldn’t work, and explained, as a corollary, why we do things around here as we do them. Sometimes, the explanations would work, and Assa would revise its plan. Often, though, the explanations were spoken to deaf people who could neither hear nor lipread. Assa would barrel ahead with some harebrained scheme, losing time and productivity, and they’d eventually lose the management people, too.
If your bosses don’t listen, but you value the work you do, there’s little choice but to shut up and do what they tell you to do.
Sometimes, our work lives and our personal lives intersect. I had such an intersection for the first couple of years I worked at American Door, in the shipping office. My father ran his delivery service through our office, and many times he did not want to do deliveries to job sites in the way I requested. The president of our company, David, happens to be my brother-in-law. He was well aware of my father’s stubbornness, having dealt with it for many years before I got there. He would often proudly tell me of the day he simply wouldn’t put up with my father’s bullshit and sent him home to stew in his own juices for a while. That was his way of telling me not to let my father push me around.
It was useless advice.
It was useless because, literally and figuratively, I had to live with the guy. David didn’t. David had the authority to fire my father any time he wanted to and replace him with any one of six other delivery services we were already using from time to time. I could not fire him. I had to deal with him, and do so within the rules of the workplace. It’s easy for emperors like David or Marcus to give advice like “Don’t let’ em push you around,” because they’re already emperors. Nobody’s going to push them around, at least not inside the palace. They got to be emperors in the first place not because they were necessarily more aggressive but because they were more imaginative and more creative than their possible replacements. They had to prove themselves to doubters, to be sure, and it is true that the demands on their time and their resources are enormous, but the longer one stays in a palace, the more divorced he (or she) is likely to become from the difficulties involved in dealing with one’s co-workers without the leverage available to the ruler himself.
Those who work with you will test you; they will bait you; and until you stand up to them and tell them to back the hell off, they won’t respect you. It took a long time for me to learn that lesson, but I learned it. The workplace events of which I write happened years ago. My father, who was once knocked off the dock by several of my co-workers (their way of not being pushed around by him), has long since retired, and I have moved on to a happier place within the company. After considering the matter for over a decade, I’ve come to think Stoicism is highly useful–but only within limits–as a personal philosophy, and though I have reservations about it as I sit here at my desk, I suppose, like Marcus, that life can be well-lived just about anywhere, even in a palace, and even in a warehouse.