When my future boss was interviewing me, she asked me how I liked to be managed. How could I best work with a supervisor to be successful in this role? My answer: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
I had given this a lot of thought, though I didn’t dream I’d be asked about it in such an open way (and I viewed the question itself as a very good sign). I had worked before as a writer and editor, both on staff at publications and freelance. I felt that I knew what it took to get the job done independently.
In fact, that’s what first drew me to working as a journalist.
You might start with an editor’s tip or an idea, but then it was all on you: the reporter goes out, finds sources, gets the story, and writes it as she thinks it should be written. Then after I produced a first draft, an editor might come along and change some things, but usually the story turned out better with a wise hand gently guiding it at the end. That was the check-in. Someone was there to question your assumptions, to make sure you’d thought through your sources’ potential agendas, to ensure you weren’t leaving out a crucial piece of information.
(Very often, stories I read in publications today are missing something: a date, a figure that would flesh out the story, even a quoted source’s first name or title or relationship to the information. News orgs have ceased employing both writers and especially editors at alarming rates.)
So when I was asked by my potential employer about my ideal management style, I was quite clear. “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
This approach resonates with my practice of Stoicism. Stoic thinkers emphasized that we are only truly responsible for—and in control of—our own choices, which emanate from our sense of reason. Using our autonomy to its fullest is an opportunity to embrace the things we can pursue on our own and feel pride in achieving, without waiting for others to recognize our good works.
Autonomy is a key concept in ancient Stoic texts. Princeton professor John M. Cooper has written about the Stoic view of autonomy and compared it ideas advanced by later philosophers such as Kant. He points out that “autonomy” is a classical Greek term. Ancient Stoics, he says, believed autonomy meant adhering to laws of one’s own making, “not mere self-direction or self-governance, which might, of course, be quite arbitrary, unprincipled, and inconsistent.” Rather, autonomy has as its heart “reason itself.”
Cooper explains that ancient Stoic autonomy is somewhat neglected by scholars and deserves more study. After all, it is “a deeply interesting conception of human nature, human rationality, and the basis of morality.” (For more on this, see Cooper's book Knowledge, Nature, and the Good: Essays on Ancient Philosophy.)
Of course, practicing Stoics (ancient and modern) such as Marcus Aurelius knew full well that as soon as we go out into the wider world with our ideas and choices, we will inevitably encounter resistance from others. People who think they know better will try to block you. As the famous quote from Marcus’ Meditations, Book 2, Section 1, goes:
"Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad." (Robin Hard translation)
But if you have a solid life philosophy on the one hand, and a mentor or role model, a strong friend, a caring spouse, or close-knit community on the other, you have the means to check in. These are the critical ingredients we need to fall back, no matter what befalls us.
“Autonomy, with check-ins” is also how I try to parent my children, especially now that they are 10 and 12.
When they were very small, it was mostly all check-ins from me and their dad, with a lot less autonomy for them. But even then, we tried to give them limited choices. Peas or carrots? Sandbox or swing? It gave us a chance to figure out their likes and dislikes. They could try new things and make decisions about their activities and the time they spent on non-essential pursuits, ones where they could have a choice.
(Granted, I wouldn’t overwhelm them with more than two or three options in most cases. More than that could prove tough. I saw the paralysis that picking from a whole toy store elicited on birthday shopping trips.)
And as time has gone on, we’ve reaped the benefits of this approach. My daughters are growing up, and I feel I can trust them—in public, to get information, and to speak confidently with people they don’t know… in school, to perform to their best in academics, respect the learning environment, while navigating the complex social situations they encounter… after school, to decide which extra-curriculars to do, and to help get to said activities on time and prepared (at least minimally)… in life, to develop their own interests, whether it’s in pop music, guitar, piano, coding, animated movies, theater, Lego, running, writing, art, basketball, constructing with glue guns, or Tae Kwon Do.
I could never have been a “Tiger Mom.” I have no interest in constantly making decisions for my kids and propelling them forward towards “success” with high-pressure activities. That kind of management may seem to work in the short term with certain (pliable) kids, but in the long term, I’m not so sure. It’s certainly not how I want to connect with my family, my relationships, or my own career.
My kids’ sense of autonomous responsibility has mushroomed over the past year. Both my daughters took the initiative on a few things lately I never quite thought I’d see. Each may be small, but the overall effect adds up. They quite thoroughly cleaned out their bedrooms when my husband and I were busy with other projects one afternoon, much to our astonishment. They went from dawdling over the smallest things (like putting on shoes—I can’t count the number of hours I have wasted waiting for my kids to put on shoes!) to being very concerned about arriving to their classes on time. When teachers allow it, they voluntarily make up or re-take tests that they’ve made mistakes on to earn more points.
But we still check in on them all the time, offering guidance and help and love and unsolicited advice and exposure to super-old movies that every American should know.
So next time you think about how you’d like to relate to your boss or even your kids, consider this: “Autonomy, with check-ins.”
Last week, Modern Stoicism published my guest post on Stoic Parenting in the Age of Distraction. If you haven't seen it, please check it out. If you already have, thanks!
The post is my take on staying focused on what really matters - as parents, modern Stoics, and technology users. It's not an easy task in our world filled with distracting devices and competing demands.
My story begins with my dad, who had remarkable powers of concentration. I find it much more difficult than he did, but every day is an opportunity to practice. I try to squeeze in dedicated periods of concentration. The more I remind myself to be present, the more I'm able to focus on the people and projects I truly care about.
In case you are not familiar with it, Modern Stoicism is an excellent source on applying Stoic philosophy to our lives today. Writers for the blog explore a wide range of interpretations of Stoic thought. The group also organizes the annual Stoicon conference and Stoic Week.
The human condition. I used to think the expression was reserved for pedants and philosophers. But now I know better. It's as important to children as it is to high-thinking adults. Perhaps even more so.
Sometimes I feel as if I can almost watch the thoughts happening, the neurons firing, in my daughters' heads. Those thoughts are getting more and more complex. Now they are both old enough and mature enough to question everything in a very grown up way. They ask more than just what and why, but how and when and what will it feel like.
As we sat under the stars on our last night visiting the island of Kauai as a family, we looked up and observed an incredibly luminous Sirius shining down on us. My younger daughter, age 10, asked a very serious question. "What happens after we die? What does it feel like?"
This is the biggest and baddest of them all when it comes to challenging questions. Not just for children but for every last one of us. None of us will escape our fate. As soon as we our born, when we gain consciousness, we realize we will someday die. And what does that mean? Also: What does it tell us about how to live?
I struggled to answer. I came up with platitudes. My husband and I veered onto shaky, nearly mystical ground, trying to reassure her while at the same time dealing quietly with our own terror. It's not the first time we've been asked this. I still have no response.
That, my friends, is the human condition in a nutshell. Trying to calm and reassure and guide our loved ones while feeling our own existential crisis boiling inside. Knowing that we don't know. Facing the scary uncertainty of life and the sure certainty of death.
She tried to get us to answer, to provide something concrete. I fumbled further.
In the end, I said essentially this: We know these explanations don't satisfy you, but this is this best we can do--and this is the human condition. We live, we enjoy a remarkable moment like this one surrounded by an amazing family that we have created, sitting outside at a patio table of a lovely restaurant, feeling the cool night air, under unusually bright stars and a nearly full moon, hearing the waves crashing onto the beach below us, just out of sight in the night's shadows.
This is what we have. All we have. And we are extremely lucky to have this. The rest is the great unknown.
In fact, often, the rest is us dealing with pain, loss, frustration, anger, resentment, sorrow, suffering, and not having any way to end it other than returning to the moment we have, and resting in it, taking any joy we can from it, keeping everything sad and tough and joyous and awe inspiring in our minds at the same time.
Sometimes it feels as if we might explode from it all, but generally we don't. We go on. As long as we can. And then we stop. But we hope that by then, we will have left something worthwhile and indeed precious behind.
And for us, that thing will be you.
This is part two of my conversation with author, trainer, and teacher Donald Robertson. Read on for his thoughts on Stoicism and parenting, and on how Stoic philosophy can help us question our own values.
Add to the discussion in the comments… and share your questions and suggestions for future posts and interviews.
Q: How can Stoic philosophy help me become a better parent? And how should I begin teaching Stoic values to my kids?
A: The best way to teach is through role modeling. Stoic philosophers did lecture and wrote books, but they also thought that the best thing to do is to set a good example. To start by improving our own character.
Accepting that our children and our students are not under our direct control is critical. Even Socrates had bad students who went off the rails. Well, he said, I don’t control their minds. All I can do is provide a role model. Sometimes it’s in the hands of fate.
We need to work on accepting these limits and not getting frustrated with them.
The ancient Stoics were a lot tougher on kids than we are today. They believed that character is instilled through exercise, sport, and work.
Today, many parents express their love through consumerism, buying toys, taking kids out to places for entertainment. But in Stoicism, it’s more important what we give them to DO, rather than possessions. The way we invest our time is a more appropriate gift – and to have them do things that require effort. We develop virtue through hard work.
Q: Parents today get competitive about their children’s success in academics, sports, careers, everything. How can we re-think that with Stoicism?
I live in quiet Nova Scotia. That’s not as obvious here. The competitiveness of parents varies a lot.
As Stoics, our goal isn’t to give our kids skills that would make them externally successful. Stoicism challenges some of our culture’s values that way. Stoics believed that what they were proposing should upset people. It’s an “epistrophe” in Greek–like a U-turn. Part of that is questioning consumerism and narcissism.
Stoics would say – what is Success in LIFE? Will a degree and a good job make our children good people? Is our priority to make our children materially successful, or more rounded people?
Sometime pursuit of wealth is obstacle. Epictetus says you can’t serve two masters. If you pursue a successful career, you can earn wealth. Some career paths suck you into a certain type of character and values, which is not necessarily good. External success is not same as virtue.
Instead, we should ask: Do our children have wisdom? Integrity? Are they true to themselves? Are they living in a way consistent with rational values?
Q: Interesting. Could we apply these same questions to ourselves, as people and as parents?
A: Yes. In Stoic week, we do an exercise known as “values clarification.” It’s Socratic. Rather than saying “these are the values,” this approach asks you a bunch of questions. It asks you to figure out what you care about and reflect on those values. The Socratic method can expose contradictions between our beliefs and actions.
Another approach is the double standard strategy. You think about what you want for yourself. Then you make a list of what you admire most in other people. Then you ask: What if I did what I admire in others? What would it be like to apply that in practice?
We have a Stoic model for this: Marcus Aurelius. In Book 1 of his Meditations, all he does is describe others’ virtues. It’s a huge list.
As parents, we could ask: What do you spend most of your time doing with your kids? What are things you most admire about other parents? What if you could do what they do?
Q: Let’s go back to the source material for a moment. Much of the language and emphasis in ancient Stoicism is masculine. Discussions focus on “the wise man” and on “manly” attributes. How did the Stoics of Greece and Rome view women?
A: Stoicism’s founder, Zeno, wrote a book called The Republic that we only have fragments of now. It was a critique of Plato’s Republic. He said that everything would be equal in the Republic. That implies no slavery, and that men and women would be equal.
Ancient Cynics also seemed to have believed there was an equality between men and women. The idea was shocking then. And maybe only Cynics would think this—they were known for saying shocking and anarchic things.
We believe that Cleanthes wrote on the thesis that virtue is the same in men and women, but we know nothing about what he said.
Then 400 years later, Musonius Rufus’ lectures argue that virtues are the same in men and women, and he argues that girls should be taught philosophy as well as boys. Women should be able to practice philosophy.
Next time: ANGER rears its ugly head. And it is indeed ugly, as Donald Robertson tells us in part three of our interview. Leave any questions or thoughts in the comments!
“Let the goddess within you be in charge of a person who is mature, womanly, strong, brave, a leader, a ruler.… In brief, you must hold yourself upright, not be held upright.”
- Adaptation of Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book III, Part 5
Here is an uplifting thought: that we, as people, women and men, parents, and citizens can derive strength, energy, and--above all--reason from within ourselves.
Where exactly does this goodness spring from? From part of us that Roman emperor and Stoic thinker Marcus Aurelius calls “the god within," and sometimes refers to as an inner genius or guardian spirit.
I’ve been studying Marcus’ Meditations, and this element stands out over numerous pages. Although it’s unclear whether Marcus believed in a single, powerful deity, or in pantheistic gods, or thought it was impossible to know the nature of the spiritual realm, it does seem that he held fast to the notion of a divine spark within us all.
This piece of ourselves is the source of our reason and intelligence as humans. And it is that which we must preserve by following philosophy and living a good life.
It's not easy. Modern Americans are struggling with the many pressures inherent in a highly individualistic and judgmental culture, the swirling mess of work, home, housework, family, politics, finances, and an increasingly self-absorbed and self-indulgent society that seems more likely to alienate and embitter people than to care for them.
From my vantage point in Silicon Valley, I often see precious little community and pitching in for the polis; it’s a very “I got mine” vibe. I am guilty of being overworked and overcommitted, too, and lacking time and energy to take on more. I worry about my kids seeing so much self-centered behavior. The bright spot for them is that their school environments are one potential source for coming together, and I've found a handful of good friends in the parent community here (supportive for me and potential role models for children).
The question is: Can you be strong and self-sufficient without being cut off from other people? Can you cultivate that wisdom and logic within, share it, and use it to participate for the good in your community and world?
And can we teach this to our children?
I do not have a certain answer now, and I am seeking one actively. There are some rays of hope. I know that both my daughters want to pursue “take action” projects in our area with the girls in their Girl Scout troops. I’m waiting expectantly to find out what that means. Can they channel their energy into something useful and create change?
As for me, I’m engaging in helping my friends and fellow humans with their lives and issues, my colleagues with collaborations on innovative, creative work, and my world with supporting causes I care about. My company offers matching grants and I have recently been busy directing donations to local, national, and international efforts I want to advance.
But much more needs to be done. Spreading ideas inspired by this philosophy and the primacy of truth, justice, and service could help. My younger daughter serves as an example. She has started the school year strong, working to form a "stop stereotypes" club with a handful of other students. These fourth graders don't like kids getting pegged by gender, and they want to see change within classrooms and on the playground, as well as in the wider world. (I was disappointed, though, when her school principal declined to meet with the group, despite their hope to be taken seriously on the highest level available to them.)
Her enthusiasm is inspiring. We could all learn to do more, and to grow in wisdom and leadership, propelled by our inner spark.
Seething inside me is a dark image. A picture of myself that I'd like to change. Part of my journey into Stoicism is about how to gain a more balanced interior world. That begins with taking a step back to acknowledging how I got here.
For me, much of it boils own to the simple idea that I grew up with, reinforced by countless teachers, people all around me, and our culture's preoccupation with "perfect girls." The basic concept: "You should act smart because you are smart.” And more than that: "Be perfect."
This approach implies that being/acting intelligent and competent defines your self-worth. Supporting this line of thinking, the next logical step is to believe that the highest grades, scholastic achievement, degrees, and prestigious careers are marks of your worthiness as a human being. Praise is what matters, and getting something wrong is shameful.
For me, this kind of mentality led to a trap of constant self-doubt about and negativity around my own sense of value, wholeness, and, ultimately, happiness. For years, I’d often tell myself how “stupid” or “idiotic” I was for making what I perceived to be a "dumb" mistake. I’d even say “I am worthless" or "I hate myself.”
I internalized the idea that I had to be perfect, that I couldn’t make a simple error without demonstrating that, in reality, I wasn’t smart or valuable, but in fact, I was incompetent and a failure.
Why did I persist in believing this in the face of so much evidence that I was indeed, in most people's eyes, a capable, intelligent, and strong individual?
I have a theory. Over the years, I used this thinking as a protective shield in some twisted way. In 12-step programs, people look at how their addiction “served” served them in a sense. Perhaps that has been true here too. If I could preventatively say, “What an idiot I am!” then I knew deep down I would feel it less when someone else said it (or when I thought someone might say it under their breath). I’d be somehow immune when other people pointed out my flaws or shortcomings. My horrible self-talk formed a series of pre-emptive strikes.
I’d also force myself to work harder that way: “If I’m not prepared for this test, the teacher will think I’m a dunderhead, I’ll get a bad grade, and I’ll never be successful.” “If I don’t ace this interview, I must be truly incompetent, and I won't really deserve a good job. What a failure I am.” And so on.
Weird and absurd, right? Yet that’s how messed up I’ve been on the inside. That’s the kind of treatment of my own psyche that I used to propel myself forward through very competitive schools and tough work environments.
It has also taken a tremendous toll.
I have had a Dorian Gray-like picture of myself hidden away inside me, eating away at everything good.
You likely recall the Oscar Wilde story: a handsome young man hides away a painting of himself, one that ages and decays and sours and becomes monstrous as he commits bad acts. Meanwhile, his real body remains beautiful (on the outside).
My self-portrait carries the marks of emotional wounds, often self-inflicted, but dangerous nonetheless.
The acid effect of internal damage finally became too great when I found myself trying to drive my own children using the same mentality. Of course, I want them to know I have high expectations because they can live up to them and be their best selves. But I don’t want to plant a Dorian within their young, vulnerable hearts.
That is why I began, a couple years back, to work on my negativity and lack of self-compassion. I took classes on meditation and on mindfulness, I studied compassion and Buddhism, I met with counselors, I did self-assessments of who I am and how I got here, and where to go next to get over this mentality and be healthier.
I learned to care about my own suffering more. The very first step was to actually notice it, to be aware of how I talked to myself. I began slowly to try to focus on satisfying moments rather than fears.
This is a work in progress that still needs a lot of effort. But at least now I can break down why I feel this way in a more granular understanding.
Among all these efforts, my studies of Stoicism and of recovery from addictive behavior have had the most lasting and helpful effect. I am trying now to give my darker thoughts up to the universe and to the force for good instilled in humanity, that “divine spark” that Marcus Aurelius and others refer to.
I have to remember to protect my own spark. Even from myself.
A quote to meditate on:
“The duration of a person’s life is as a point; the substance of it ever flowing, the sense obscure; and the whole composition of the body tending to unravel. Her soul is a restless vortex, fortune uncertain, and fame doubtful; in a word, as a rushing stream so are all things belonging to the body; as a dream, or as smoke, so are all that belong to the soul. Life is a warfare, and a sojourn in a foreign land. Fame after life is nothing more than oblivion.
What is it then that will guide us? One thing alone: philosophy. And philosophy consists in this, for a woman to preserve that inner genius or divine spark which is within her, from violence and injuries, and above all pains or pleasures; never to do anything either without purpose, or falsely, or hypocritically: wholly to depend from herself and her own proper actions: all things that happen to her to embrace contentedly, as coming from the Eternal from whom she also came...”
A woman-centric version of Marcus Aurelius, from the Meditations, Book II, Section 15
With so much violence and death in the news recently—both human-made and nature-made—it’s hard to comprehend so much suffering.
I sometimes wonder if there is a threshold to witnessing so many things that are out of control—and out of OUR control, as the Stoic thinkers have shown us. Perhaps there is a point beyond which we just break down and turn away. (If that is true, the ancients must have experienced it, given the scale of war and disease at that time.)
After I heard about the mass shooting in Las Vegas that claimed 59 lives, my sense of despair and disconnection went into overdrive. The unthinkable cruelty hurt me on a personal level. I went through the motions of my day, trying not to discuss the horror with my kids. I didn’t want them to see my alienation and sadness. And I did not know how to explain what had happened.
We are seeing these kinds of staggering acts monthly, weekly, and daily if you look at violence on the local level around the country. It makes me ask: What values do we share in common as Americans—as human beings? How can we live “in accordance with nature” in our modern world? So many people seem to have forgotten what it means to tap into the logic of our brains and the spark of virtue, kindness, and joy within.
Human life is much more than an instinct to survive. Nor is it just material comfort or a set of serial goals, like “graduate from school," “get a job,” "get married," and “buy a house." There’s a deeper spiritual element. To feel connected, valuable, and good, the Stoics tell us, we must try to live a virtuous life, in harmony with the best elements of our natures.
Maybe by attempting to live a good life—a caring and thoughtful existence supporting those around us—we can somehow serve as a bulwark against acts of violence and terror. At the very least, we can continue to promote and protect the core virtues that make our lives meaningful while we are on this planet. Stoicism means living far from despair even in the worst circumstances, and I try to keep that thought in the forefront of my mind.
When my husband was a boy, he’d get frustrated about competing with other students at school or in activities—as we all do. He remembers what his dad used to say in response: “There will always be a quicker gun.”
This Wild West metaphor is very apt today (minus the actual gun, I hope). But while the quicker gun concept is meant to be vaguely reassuring—reminding us that we can’t always be uniquely excellent at difficult things—I’m finding our situation more and more disconcerting.
Sure, I can’t expect to always be able to best other people when it comes to, let’s say, doing vector calculus or piloting an aircraft or dancing a pas-de-deux. I get it. Those things take a lot of focused learning and training, plus some native ability that not everyone has.
But now, with instant and constant access to the Internet, the examples of quicker guns hit us square in the jaw like a rubber bullet whenever we go online to research something we are interested in doing, exploring, learning, etc. There’s always someone out there already doing it much, much better than we are—and ready to tell us all the things we have to do to approach their level of greatness.
This “quicker gun” idea applies even when you consider simple and fun activities, things we used to think we could just do here and there in our spare time without getting enmeshed in a competitive race or an intense learning process.
Consider colorful Fimo (or Sculpey) polymer clay. As a kid I used to make little animals, fun shapes, and simple jewelry out of many vivid hues of Fimo, and I considered myself pretty good at it. I gave my pieces away as gifts and I even had my own exhibit of polymer clay objects I’d crafted at our local public library.
Now, when I looked up polymer clay online to get a refresher on how to do simple, fun clay projects with my daughters, I am shocked. Immediately, dozens and dozens of tutorials and articles on advanced techniques by highly-touted clay "experts” pop up on my screen.
For a perfectionist like me, this situation presents a terrible quandary: “Why do it at all if you can't be great at it? Or at least, pretty good. You should have something decent to point to when you are done.”
We can now see just how far short we fall with the click of a mouse. You’re not only comparing yourself to people on your street or in your town or state or country but to people around the world. Now you're just the millionth person to search techniques provided the by “experts.”
Is this part of the reason why there’s been such a backlash against expertise in the national mood lately? Are people getting increasingly tired of hearing those who claim to know more lecturing them on how to improve?
Especially when it comes to highly subjective pursuits like art and crafting, maybe expertise isn’t really what’s needed. Following some 18-step process we see online to learn a technique won’t improve our creativity or our love of the craft. It might just make us feel like crap—like rank amateurs who don’t know a thing about “real” art or pro techniques. What’s more, seeing images of the perfect clay (or the perfect scrapbook, quilt, watercolor, knit sweater, etc.) could just dampen our interest and our love for doing our creative pursuit our own, individual way.
And as to my daughters, I want them to try new things. I want them not to care if they are following all the rules and “getting it right” the first time, or really any time. I don’t want to see them suffer under the crushing weight of having to execute everything—even hobbies and extracurriculars—perfectly, according to someone else’s yardstick.
Here is where my Stoic mom approach comes in. I’ve got to let go of the constant desire to compare. Rather than focusing on what I lack, think of what I can actually do and enjoy.
And as I search online, I stop to remind myself: Stoic philosophy teaches that we can’t control what others do and say. Nobody has all the answers, and my reaction to the “perfect” online people is up to me. Supposed experts could talk all day and all night—if we did not listen and if we did not pay attention, they’d have no audience. We must be our own audiences, our own believers, if we are going to steer clear of all those “quicker guns.”
About The Stoic Mom
I'm Meredith Kunz, a writer, editor, and mom to two daughters in Northern California on a journey to discover how Stoic philosophy and mindful approaches can change a parent's - or any person's - life.