COVID-19 and the Power of Choice

What the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can teach us about facing the toughest of situations.


Expect the unexpected. That’s what they tell us. But there’s just one problem—you can’t expect the unexpected; that’s what makes it well… unexpected. Enter COVID-19, a virus no one had ever heard of a few short months ago which at the time of this writing has killed over 120,000 people, brought entire industries to a screeching halt, and is threatening to sink the world into an economic recession (or worse). Grocers, video conferencing companies, and toilet paper manufacturers aside, people and companies the world over are grappling with an extraordinary level of uncertainty. Here in the business of home technology, we are no exception. Integrators, service providers, software vendors, and hardware suppliers alike are feeling the kind of existential angst we haven’t experienced since 9/11. Bumper sticker advice about expecting the unexpected aside, these events may indeed be unpredictable, but that does not mean we are powerless. Last year, I was fortunate enough to discover Stoicism, a school of philosophy founded in Athens in the 3rd century BC. Stoicism has seen a resurgence in popularity recently, and for good reason—it is a deep and rich area of study with lessons as relevant today as they were in ancient times. Amongst the core tenets of this philosophy is the practice of getting very clear with ourselves about what is and what is not under our control and then deliberately choosing to focus on the former.


“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own…”
— Epictetus

Make no mistake about it, hard times lay ahead. The list of issues is long—employee absenteeism, job site closures, supply chain issues, shelter-in-place orders, and a roiling economic landscape, just to name a few. Daunting as these issues may be, they lie largely outside of what the Stoics call our “circle of influence.” This doesn’t mean we should ignore them; it does mean we should not squander precious energy dwelling on them. Instead, we should focus on identifying what we can control and on taking decisive action. Many of us will have to deal with immediate issues—our own health, the health of our teammates or love ones, pay cuts, layoffs, and more. This won’t be easy. But if we can zoom out and gain some perspective, we’ll see that this terrible situation does present us with a choice. To put it in Stoic terms, we can elect to become paralyzed, or we can choose to adapt and overcome.


"For the mind adapts and converts any obstacle to its action into a means of achieving it. That which is an impediment to action is turned to advance action. The obstacle on the path becomes the way."
— Marcus Aurelius

Like many others, COVID-19 has been a catalyst for me to check in with numerous industry colleagues to see how they are faring. Trepidation is universal. But another pattern has emerged in these conversations; the human spirit is on full display. Individuals and businesses are already digging in and looking for the silver linings. People are coming together. Leaders are stepping up. Companies are looking for ways to help their communities. And business owners are getting creative, using the downtime to keep employees engaged and productive on long-delayed projects.


None of this is to dismiss the sheer gravity of the COVID-19 pandemic. Over a hundred thousand have died, and many more will. And even for those of us lucky enough to avoid health issues, the prospect of layoffs, business closures, and severe economic contraction looms large. No amount of scrolling through social media feeds and consumption of 24/7 news can answer the one question on all of our minds—how far will the damage extend? We feel uncertain and vulnerable. However, as the Stoics so effectively argue, we still have a choice. We can choose to get rattled, to panic, to make rash decisions. Or, we can accept the circumstances and turn our attention toward making the best of a tough situation. We can focus on making a positive impact on those around us. On exerting calm, confident leadership. On getting back to the fundamentals of our businesses. On building new skill sets. On strengthening our own character. On supporting our clients and our communities. We can choose to show up. This will not be easy. But times like this that bring us together in ways unimaginable under normal circumstances. Right now, your teammates, your family, your community, and the industry as a whole are counting on you. So, what will you choose?


This post originally appeared on CEPro.com on Friday, March 27, 2020

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