“Marcus Aurelius is the noblest of all the men who, by sheer intelligence and force of character, have prized and achieved goodness for its own sake and not for any reward.” – Michael Grant, Historian
It’s no secret that the Stoics have deeply influenced my personal and professional life. When I need wisdom, I turn to the writings of these ancient philosophers, as well as their contemporary heirs.
Other than Ryan Holiday and his incredible breadth of Stoic works, few other Stoic philosopher are likely as influential or as widely read today as Marcus Aurelius.
Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of the Roman Empire from 161 to 180 CE. Known as one of the Five Good Emperors, his reign helped usher in much prosperity for the Roman people. Equally as impressive is that he is considered one of the few real-world examples of the Philosopher King that Plato so longed for. He was called “The Philosopher” in many ancient history texts, such as Historia Augusta.
Aurelius wrote what came to be known as Meditations over the course of his life, most likely near the end when he was on the battlefields in present day Austria. The book as we know it today is a collection of his journals that survived after his death. They were never meant to be published or shared, but by happenstance and Providence, we have this wisdom today.
Much like a Christian turning to the Bible, a Muslim turning to the Koran, or a Buddhist turning to their respective Buddhavacana, we can turn to the Meditations when we need some comfort, wisdom, or guidance.
The best thing about Meditations is that it’s not the “word of God” but the word of a very mortal, flawed human being written down in the morning or evening during his most private moments of solitude and reflection. I believe this makes it more relatable and applicable to our life. If the most powerful person in the world had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, then it’s OK that so do we!
Meditations has inspired millions over time – from St. Augustine of Hippo, American Founder George Washington, former president Bill Clinton, the rappers Twista and Lupe Fiasco, former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, actresses Brie Larson and Anna Kendrick, and so so many more. It is a collection of wisdom written by a flawed man, read by flawed people – all trying to be less flawed.
That’s the beauty of the work. We keep trying to be better every single day. We will fall. We will stumble. We will fail. But though that failure, we get better and become better.
As I have maintained since day one of writing this blog, philosophy offers professionals a difference making outlook on life, work, love, and everything. And thankfully, philosophy is more than stuffy textbooks in a college classroom, as Meditations shows.
Philosophy is about living one’s best life and acting on what is right. Stoicism especially teaches this. So, in essence, I take that to heart.
Doing HR right is an act of philosophy to me. It is always important to create space to think, put things into perspective, and act on what is right. Marcus Aurelius has helped me with this!
Here are nine powerful quotes from Meditations that can help us all become better professionals, and people!
Note: There are numerous translations of the ancient text. I used the one by Gregory Hays. It is contemporary and easy to read by eschewing the “thous” and “thees” that make such texts difficult to read. Regardless, any translation can be a great starting point to deepen one’s understanding of the values that Aurelius tried to hold himself to. S/O to O’Brien McMahon for the recommendation!
- “When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.” – Meditations 2.1
Even Emperors, or especially Emperors, must face the daily barrage of people issues. People are messy. They have different priorities, sometimes conflicting priorities. They are annoying. They are backstabbing. They lie, cheat, steal. But people are our profession in HR, and we wouldn’t be in it if we didn’t know that they are also good. People need help, and we need people. We are here to bridge the gap between wrong and right. In our profession, we help them understand “good” and “evil,” or more contemporarily, we help them understand the culture, the expectations, and their potential! Just keep reminding yourself we’re here to guide them. Don’t let the 20% of your people ruin the other 80% of your experiences!
- “The tranquility that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do.” – Meditations 4.18
This lesson is one learned through time and age, except for those very special personalities and young rebels. To listen to yourself over naysayers is something we can all hope to achieve. Whether it is finally taking that leap to start your own business, or taking the time to learn a new hobby, or fighting for that policy you know would benefit the people and the organization – listening to yourself starts with trusting yourself. Trust.
- “The things you think about determine the quality of your mind. Your soul takes on the color of your thoughts.” – Meditations 5.16
In ancient Rome, purple symbolized the Imperium, and it has stuck with Western culture since antiquity. The purple dye came from the innards of shellfish from present day Lebanon. This comment is reference to that process. Much like dying wool, our minds are dyed by the colors we provide it. This isn’t just Stoic philosophizing. There are scientific studies that show people become what they think. The brain rewires itself to meet reality – or what we believe reality to be. This is powerful. Believe in yourself, as hokey as it sounds, and you will succeed because YOU define what success is. Self-fulfilling prophecies are amazing things. If you are a King. Be a King. If you are a Queen. Be a Queen. If you are a Monarch. Be a Monarch. And you will become royalty.
- “Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and convers to its own purposes and obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way [emphasis mine].” – Meditations 5.20
This phrase changed my life. I’ve written about its influence and meaning a lot here, here, here, and here.
- “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.” – Meditations 6.2
This one is both inspirational and frustrating. YES! Let’s do the right thing! It’s so easy! Except, what is the right thing to do? Sometimes, it is easy. Don’t lie. Don’t steal. Don’t invade Ukraine. Other times? Do we need to have layoffs? Will the company go under if we don’t? Do we hide this from employees, or do we be open about it? Sometimes, the right thing to do is not so easily known. However, the goal is always to strive towards doing the right thing with the information, feeling, and reason we have at the time. In the future, it may be proven true. Or, it might be proven that it wasn’t the right thing. Ultimately, we need to keep trying and keep our shared humanity at the center of making the decisions we make. Speaking of…
- “My city and state are Rome… But as a human being? The world. So for me, ‘good’ can only mean what’s good for both communities.” – Meditations 6.44
“HR is just a shill for corporate.” Anyone in HR has heard this in some form or another! An employee once told me “I know where your loyalties lie.” In an uncharacteristic moment, I let my emotions get the better of me, and said rather curtly “You don’t know anything about my loyalties, so please don’t say that to me again.” The employee backed down, but still that cut me deep because despite all my work over my tenure to be as employee friendly as I could, I was still seen as the employer’s shill. This phrase means a lot to me because, yes, I am on the employers’ side, but I am also on the employees’ side. One cannot exist without the other! Why is this such a hard concept to grasp? We can have a mutually beneficial relationship. Life is not a zero-sum game. Ultimately, what is good for all is the direction HR should lead.
- “You don’t have to turn this into something. It doesn’t have to upset you. Things can’t shape our decisions by themselves.” – Meditations 6.52
In today’s world of “hot takes” and “instant outrage” and “cancel culture,” it’s nice to know that we really don’t have to have an opinion on every little (or “big”) thing. That’s powerful. Do we really need hot takes on everything!?! Having no opinion on trivial garbage is so freeing! And it leaves us space to have opinions on what really matters! The decision to have an opinion is just that, a decision! Opinions are decisions, and we can change our opinions, or decide not to have them. There’s so much going on in the world, that being discerning with our thoughts adds more value than having a half-baked opinion on everything.
- “Don’t be ashamed to need help.” – Meditations 7.7
The Emperor of the Roman Empire, one of the most powerful and consequential states in world history, wrote to himself that it’s OK to need help. If this man can accept help from others, why can’t you? Are you so proud? Are you so much better? No. All people need help, and we need to be more open and accepting of that – not only with others, but with ourselves. The mental health crisis in America and the world is only going to get worse with the continued fallout of COVID the renewed threat of nuclear holocaust. Just be kind to yourself and others. It’s OK to not be OK. Roll with it.
- “To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice – it degrades you. And you can also commit injustice by doing nothing.” – Meditations 9.4-5
Now, seemingly more than ever, HR is at the apex of organizational right and wrong. If HR has historically been a gatekeeper, even if we despise and revile that term and role, then let’s make our gates open only for what is right and just. When HR acts inappropriately towards others, they hurt themselves. When they act on what is right for others, they do good for themselves. So, do good! Build policies for real DEI+ Belonging advancement. Build a culture that welcomes trusting and engaging with employees. Open the doors for pay transparency and pay equity. All of it while closing the door to bigotry, harassment, and social non-acceptance. HR is pivotal for changing our culture for the better. Accept the cause and take it up and run!
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