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Stoicism In Sales

I discovered stoicism some five years ago now in the form of the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Admittedly, our life situations aren’t that similar: he was an emperor, I’m a salesman. He ruled over the vast dominions of the Roman empire, I rule over my small patch; he waged massive military campaigns and won wars, I wage marketing campaigns and win deals. Yet it was through his journal that I was first introduced to the philosophy of Stoicism, and to their universal applicability. I’ve read others since, most interestingly Epictetus, who was a slave who freed himself. He turned to teaching Stoic thought, and wrote his Handbook, which is a very useful, short work I always carry with me. The reason I’m telling you this is because Stoicism is immediately applicable to a sales career, and can mean the difference between happiness and despair during that time.

Obstacles.

Try to remember your last sales deal. Did it go as smoothly as you’d thought it would? How about the one before it? Or the one before that? In fact, rather than going through all of your sales deals backwards, try to pinpoint one that was simple, straightforward, and went exactly according to plan without the slightest hitch. It’s hard, right? Or perhaps ‘impossible’ is the right word. I’ve been in sales for a while, and I’ve just spent ten minutes trying to think of one without success.

A deal is a complex thing with many moving parts. It involves multiple people, all with their own agendas, working at cross purposes to each other. There are some deals that seem to click, but even those usually have some kind of hiccup, even if it’s a minor one. And that’s just the deals! There are hundreds of other impediments in your environment as well; impediments you work hard to ignore or remove.

Marcus Aurelius had something to say about this in his Meditations, all those thousands of years ago. It’s particularly enlightening, and blew my mind the first time I read it:

“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

The reason it did is because it completely reshaped, in 14 words, how I thought about the challenges I faced every day. Obstacles aren’t there to be overcome, sidestepped, or ignored. They are there to be embraced, and to empower us. Worst case, the obstacle will provide you with an opportunity to practice patience or calm. Best case, it can become a stepping stone to greater success.

Calm.

The concept of cultivating calm is predominant in Stoicism, and is extremely useful in the hectic, pressure cooker that is the sales environment. Of course, it’s usually easier said than done. I’ve spoken about this concept before (link here), but I’ll provide a quick summary regardless. The pressures in sales come from all sides, as do the responsibilities. Your boss wants results, you need your prospects to pick up the phone and play ball, and your team is competing against you. There’s so much going on it’s a wonder salespeople manage to get anything done at all.

Stoics have a clever solution to this issue (of course; they were philosophers after all), and Epictetus nails it in his first paragraph:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion

In order to remain calm, we must focus on that which is in our control. He divides it very clearly in this quote, and also includes body, property, and so on in the things that aren’t in our control. If we take it a slight step further, we can see that in a sales environment, our own activities and our actions are in our control. And nothing else. He adds:

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Epictetus, The Enchiridion

This is the challenging part of the discipline: to stop worrying about these things. It’s easier said than done, and comes with practice. For each thing that upsets or worries you, consider if it’s in your control or not. If it isn’t, there’s nothing you can do. If it is, go and act!

Motion.

The last point may make it seem like stoicism was a remarkably laid-back philosophy. Telling someone to stop worrying and to generally relax doesn’t sound like it results in much success. Happiness, perhaps, but not success. And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. Stoicism was about action, but focused on the right kind of action. I won’t go into detail about the right way of acting here, mainly because framing it in the correct historical context would be difficult in a blog-length entry.

Suffice it to say there were a multitude of extremely successful people throughout history that espoused the philosophy. The examples I’ve mentioned so far have included an emperor and a slave who worked to free himself. There is, therefore, another dimension of Stoicism I need to cover: that of action. Stoics believed (much like the Cynics) in preparing well, and in acting. They looked down upon laziness, and have some interesting ideas around self-motivation.

“Luck is a matter of preparation meeting opportunity.”

Seneca the Younger, Letters

Luck plays a large role in sales, to the extent that the Harvard Business Review wrote an article about it (link here). They state that luck is an important factor in sales, and that the best salespeople know how to manage it. I agree; I think sales is about hedging your bets and learning how to play the numbers. In order to do so, though, you must be proactive and be prepared for when it hits. Seneca, thus, hit the nail on the head.

Dividing things into those which you have power over and those you don’t enables you to act much more efficiently. You are able to focus on that which you can influence and can safely observe the rest, while making plans for a time when they are within your control. But that’s not the only point of action.

Cultivating this mental discipline allowed Stoics to exert much more control over their lives than would otherwise be possible. Since they don’t allow worry or stress to suffuse their thoughts, they maintain a clarity of thought when others don’t. Another quote by Seneca highlights this very nicely:

“It is the power of the mind to be unconquerable.”

Seneca, Letters

Stoicism is a philosophy often adopted by those in extreme circumstances. While this doesn’t really describe sales, it certainly is a testament to its efficacy.

Practice.

Stoicism isn’t just a concept you entertain for a moment and discard. In order for it to be useful to you, you must practice it. You must make it a part of your life; the underlying part, in fact. If you’re interested, I would recommend reading Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus to start with. Don’t forget, though:

“Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents.”

Epictetus as quoted in The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness

I hope this has been useful to you, and, as ever, I wish you all the best!

Do you agree with what I wrote here? Disagree? Did I miss something? Could I have done something better? Please let me know in the comments!

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