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‘I think, therefore I work’…five ways using philosophy can enhance your professional performance

Thinking woman

Want your career to really take off? Then get philosophical about it all. Philosophy is not just an academic art or a way to ‘navel gaze’ — at its core it is the practice of asking big questions, many of which begin with ‘Why?’, and most of which don’t have one single answer. In a modern world, the ability to consider multiple viewpoints, look at things from different perspectives and consider things with rigour are crucial. As such, the philosophies of historical thinkers such as Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Descartes and Nietzsche are as relevant today as they have ever been.

The recognition of the power of these eternal wisdoms is also the reason why businesses are increasingly turning to professional philosophers to help them and their employees to expand their thinking, reflect and work though difficult challenges in new ways. Cristina DiGiacomo, author of Wise Up! At Work and founder of US philosophical consulting firm MorAlchemy, notes: ‘Philosophy encourages critical thinking, which is a desired skill set when it comes to employers, as well as an important skill in life in general.’

Philosopher Ben Wilberforce-Ritchie agrees. He works with UK organisation Philosophy at Work which provides professional support to companies to help them to achieve their aspirations through thinking well. ‘The concept of necessary activity has always been an integral part of humanity’s survival, yet ‘work’ has been used in a more modern setting to be seen as a mundane chore. Philosophy, and the thought processes it has developed in me to question, challenge, and seek practical purpose in the tasks I apply myself to and enables me to bring meaning and vision to my professional life.’

Critical thinking, open-mindedness, communication, problem solving and even emotional intelligence can all be sharpened by applying philosophy to your daily life. So, steeple your fingers and consider five concepts that can improve your performance and help you to think more fully about your work and who you are in relationship to it.

 

1. SUCCESS

Excellence…represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not change, determines your destiny’ – Aristotle

Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle noted that a life is made up of an enormous tapestry of choices, and that not all choices are equal. Breaking the experience of existence down into the act of minute-by-minute, day-by-day choices, shows excellence to be a habit of making the right choices, and one that is both worthy in of itself and ultimately leads to overall achievement through repetition.

This philosophy returns power to our actions, acknowledging that while there may be many options in any given situation, the ones that support us, foster self-confidence, keep us healthy and take us in the direction we want to go in will ultimately be wisest. In this case, self-reflection and the setting of personal and professional goals, along with understanding our own values, is vital to keep us clear of mind, focused and able to make these choices, even when facing change and uncertainty.

In the same way, questioning the motives behind any choices we make that seem to run counter to our overall goals can also help us to understand ourselves more deeply — are we trying to sabotage ourselves because of under-confidence, fear or other more unique ‘payoffs’ that may not be immediately obvious — or do we actually need to reassess our overall goals to be more in line with what we really want?

 

2. COMMUNICATION

‘Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something’ – Plato

Plato stressed the virtue of being circumspect in speech to elevate our communication —meaningful communication is the hallmark of any successful business endeavour and speaking for the sake of it can be a sign of anything from nerves to ego. Either way, keeping Platonic thought in mind will help you to remember that silence can be golden, and that listening is the greater skill in all exchanges. When you do speak, keep it simple. Austrian philosopher Wittgenstein, an expert in communication, insisted that it was important to understand that if you can’t convey something simply then you don’t know it. If you leap to use jargon and acronyms to make a point do you really understand what you are talking about in its clearest, most fundamental terms?

He also considered good communication to be essentially about humility and discipline. ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent, he notes in his book Tractus, which boils down to the fact that because we can’t know everything, we can’t explain everything — and it’s important to make the distinction between what we can and cannot communicate effectively.

 

3. CHANGE

‘You can’t step in the same river twice’ – Heraclitus

 

Learn to think differently about change and even to stop being afraid of it with the recognition that the very nature of reality is change and flow. Ancient Greek, Heraclitus believed that everything is constantly changing and becoming something other than it was before, an observation he formed by watching the dynamic flow of the seasons and nature around him.

His most famous quote has been modernised for popularity; the original is subtly different: ‘We both step and do not step in the same rivers. We are and are not’. It is an important distinction though as it underlines that it is not only the river that is in a state of flux, but that as the river changes – so do you. In understanding that, we can embrace and anticipate not only the inevitable changes that will happen in our personal and professional lives but also our own evolution through time as we interact with these changes. And in this way, we can become confident in our ability to move with change, actively look for the opportunities in it, dispense with regrets — and ultimately learn to value the present time as well, for it is unique and will not come again.

 

4. RESILIENCE

‘You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength’ – Marcus Aurelius

 

Stoicism is a philosophical branch concerned with the pursuit of self-mastery, perseverance and wisdom. Premier proponent, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, wrote his Meditations on this action-oriented way of living, which prizes virtue, self-restraint, gratitude and self-awareness. The core idea is that confidence and self-esteem come from within, self-control is the only thing that can succeed 100 per cent of the time and self-determination is the bedrock of true understanding.

We cannot control external events outside us, only our reactions to them, say the Stoics — offering a powerful lesson in resilience and stress reduction. Beyond our reactions — the circle of control — we all have a circle of influence, things that we can sway with our own actions, and beyond that a circle of things we cannot control – external events in the main.

Putting our energies toward things we have no control over undermines our sense of agency and power and increases our stress and anxiety — while directing our thoughts to the right place is crucial to retaining and reframing our experience and sense of control in a chaotic and unpredictable world.

 

5. LEADERSHIP

'Don’t explain your philosophy – embody it’ – Epictetus

 

Fellow Stoic, Epictetus considered that the single best way to bring people round to your way of thinking Is to embody your philosophy in all that you do. If you spend your time talking about work-life balance yet are constantly emailing others out of hours, or talk-up the benefits of diversity yet do nothing to address the lack of it in your pipeline, others will eventually come to understand who you are and what you’re all about based on what you do, rather than what you say. ‘Show don’t tell’ for the most powerful message to team members and colleagues. And on a personal level, pushing yourself for authenticity and consistency in your values and creating a cogent sense of self and purpose between thought, word and deed is key to personal power and will help to build self-reliance and confidence.