Are we more stoic than we admit?

​This FT book review of Svend Brinkmann’s Stand Firm: Resisting the Self-Improvement Craze, is a welcome antidote to the promise of positive thinking. It will certainly prompt executives to reflect on, and refine, their work and career expectations.

Mar 27, 2017
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According to this ‘refreshingly gloomy Dane,’ says the FT’s Miranda Green, we are ‘addicted to quick-fix career solutions which give us the illusion of control.’ The author rails against ‘enfeebling pop psychology’ at a time when executives need to ‘build an inner core of resistance and integrity.’ Moreover, ‘being yourself has no intrinsic value whatsoever.’ Far better ‘to cultivate mental toughness to prepare for our economically unpredictable future.’ As FT columnist Lucy Kellaway recently wrote, ‘the biggest reason for unhappiness is that we expect too much….The corporate obsession with happiness is part of the cause of our unhappiness.’

Brinkmann’s call for greater stoicism (in both its original and colloquial sense) is certainly timely and relevant—though perhaps not always in ways he intends. For at least a century, each generation has had it easier than its progenitor. From the war-time ‘greatest generation’ to today’s globally connected millenials, life has generally improved—that is until now. Over the past decade, household incomes in western economies have flatlined or declined for the first time, giving rise to protectionist political movements. In the US, the tipping point for many Trump voters, for example, was the realisation that a lifetime of struggle would not guarantee better opportunities for their children.

Better to adopt the stoicism of our grandparents than assume endless career opportunities await

Indeed, things could get still worse for tomorrow’s executives. AI, robots and other disruptive technologies are presenting still unquantifiable threats to job security. And even if digital transformation does generate untold wealth, our faulty free market economy is more likely to concentrate, rather than spread, the prosperity, as the global financial crisis amply demonstrated. Better, therefore, to adopt the stoicism of our grandparents than assume that endless career opportunities await us.

Easy targets

However, while an understandable response to tougher economic conditions might call for greater stoicism, it is all-too easy to ridicule the executive coaches who promise control, empowerment and new ways to unleash the innate power of millenials. Every profession has its charlatans. But such executive coaches only prosper because they ride on genuinely thoughtful, thorough, nuanced and tested ideas that do make a difference. Most senior executives can point to some training during their careers that was genuinely worthwhile. One hopes, for example, that Uber’s chief executive will find personal development training to be useful. Furthermore, given that many trainers are hired by executives looking to chance their luck outside the big corporation, or who are simply entering a new career phase, these motivational coaches clearly do deliver on some of their promises.

Brinkmann’s delicious rejection of the upbeat corporate outlook may miss a bigger issue. Like many products whose value lies in branding rather than functionality, self-help optimism provides an illusory glamour that some corporate executives find necessary to get them through the day. When asked at the proverbial dinner party: ‘what do you do?’ many executives will refer to their position as ‘director of this or that’, or they will name the globally-respected company they work for. Few will outline the dull and dispiriting daily routines that define too many jobs. Fewer still will be truthful about a life’s work whose main tangible result might amount to little more than a mortgage repaid. The relentless portrayal of work and career as exciting, challenging, self-realising and meaningful provides, at the very least, the essential cover for executives who must brace themselves for the daily commute year in year out. And that surely requires stoicism.

Paul Lewis

Editorial director, Headspring

Paul Lewis is a writer and editor, specialising in business, management, economics and politics.