“Some things are in our control and others not.”
So begins the Enchiridion, a 1,900 year old philosophical handbook written by (or told to a student of) a Greek-speaking Roman known as Epictetus, one of the major proponents of the school of thought known today as Stoicism.
Stoicism has, in recent years, undergone something of a revival. The philosophy long associated with a Spock-like disdain for emotion is now viewed as “the West’s answer to Buddhism” (as if Buddhism needed one), and several authors like Lawrence Becker and William Irvine have helped popularize it among a modern audience. Stoic thought was also a major influence on the development of Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, which encourages anxiety and depression sufferers to calmly and rationally challenge their negative thought patterns.
While Stoic philosophy was comprised of three main branches—logic, physics, and ethics—today most scholars are preoccupied with Stoic ethics. Stoicism holds that human beings are endowed by nature with reason, and that reason, fully realized in the form of virtue, will lead us to a state known as eudaimonia, which translates roughly as ‘happiness.’
One of the main routes to eudaimonia is to focus only on those things which are ‘under our control’: our thoughts, impulses, and will. The rest, according to Epictetus, which includes our health, wealth and reputation, is not under our control, and is therefore “nothing” to us (though it’s fine to prefer to have them, just not at the cost of your virtue).
Stoics hold that our negative reactions to events beyond our control, including rumination over the past which is gone and worry about the future which isn’t here yet, are fundamentally irrational, and we have an active duty to question and challenge our negative impressions over these things whenever they arise. Our job is to focus on doing our best in the the here and now and wish for, but not expect, a happy outcome. The Stoics offer several techniques to train for this, including cultivating an acceptance of our fate, and imagining how we would respond to worst case outcomes (premeditatio malorum).
Here is a long but helpful video on the subject.
Lest this turn into something akin to Business Secrets of the Pharaohs, let me make this segue as elegant as I can—I am not obviously advocating football executives adopt Stoic principles wholesale. Rather, I think there is some value in having a basic Stoic outlook when it comes to running a successful, sustainable football club. Like:
- Think about what is under a football club’s control and what is not. Can we control individual results or long term gains? The success of each individual transfer? Or the overall success of the player portfolio as a whole? Which of these is worth our time and expertise to focus on?
- Challenge our own knee-jerk impressions, and those of the media. Is our four game losing streak truly the result of playing three at the back? Or should we take a deeper dive to see if the results match the club’s underlying performance?
- Plan for worst-case scenarios. A club can either view relegation as a fate so awful it’s not worth planning for, or take the time to lay out a sensible contingency plan, no matter its likelihood.
- Think about why you’re in this business in the first place. Is it to get rich? To merely break even? Or is there something more, like and doing your best to diligently serve a community of fans no matter the present circumstances?
Ultimately, the club that doesn’t waste time trying to affect events beyond its control, doesn’t make irrational decisions in a blind panic, and has a sense of mission to its club, is more likely to enjoy long term success, whenever that may be.