What NOT to do at Work

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During college, all I wanted to do was become a Navy SEAL. I won an NROTC scholarship, got accepted into training, and was ready to start my career as an operator.

Unfortunately, once I got into training, I realized I didn’t want to become a SEAL, and I quit.

Not knowing what to do with my life, I looked to bloggers for help. I discovered Tim Ferriss, and decided that what I needed to do was build a passive-income web business and travel the world.

So I did. I started a (unsuccessful) web business, took off to Egypt to teach and travel, and tried to create the life I thought would make me happy.

The thing is, I wasn’t happy. None of the standard blogger advice worked for me. I felt like I would never have a meaningful career or professional life, that there was something fundamentally wrong with me.

So a few months ago, I changed strategies. I started to look outside the blogosphere for help. I began studying and practicing ancient religion and philosophy to figure out how to live a meaningful life. Over time, I added some structure to this project and began to blog about it: calling the whole endeavor the Ancient Wisdom Project.

Ultimately, I settled on the following rules to structure my efforts:

  1. Every month I identify one positive trait or quality I’d like to cultivate in myself (tranquility, compassion, etc.).
  2. I then choose an ancient religion or philosophy that I believe will help me develop that particular trait. These philosophies or religions must be sufficiently ancient (at least 500 years or so) and must still exist in some form today.
  3. After I match the religion with the trait, I select one practice from the religion to adopt for a 30-day period that I feel will be particularly useful. Ideally, it’s a practice that I can perform on a near daily basis.
  4. Then I do the practice for a one-month period and study the ancient philosophy or religion in order to maximize the effectiveness of the practice.
  5. Finally, I write about the experience on my website.

For example, the first trait I wanted was to cultivate tranquility. After a bit of research, I decided that Stoicism would be perfect for helping me develop this trait.

I then decided to adopt one physical practice and one mental practice.

For the physical practice, I decided to take daily ice baths, (to expose myself to physical hardship), and for the mental practice, I chose negative visualization, the act of imagining all the ways your life could be worse.

Over that 30-day period of ice baths and negative visualization, I learned the importance of managing my perceptions of external events and observed noticeable improvement in my daily anxiety level.

Over the past few months, I’ve explored many sources of ancient wisdom (e.g., in addition to Stoicism, Catholicism, Judaism, and Islam).

These ideas are not what lifestyle designers will tell you to do, and they aren’t always as easy to follow as what you might find in the standard Business Insider click-bait story.

But they’re based on insights that formed over thousands of years of cultural evolution, and therefore  represent some of humankind’s best thinking on these issues.

Today I want to share with you some contrarian career advice from an ancient source. I hope you find this advice as useful as I have…

Don’t Pursue Promotions 

Promotions are a wonderful tool for companies to motivate its employees. They’ll say that if you work hard, you can get a raise and a fancy new title.

For many employees, this is a worthwhile pursuit. There is nothing like external validation and more money to make you feel good about yourself.

But there are two problems with approaching your career this way:

First, promotions are not within your control.

There are a few reasons for this. There are a limited number of positions and titles in any given company. You are restricted by the inherent supply of positions that are available to you.

In addition, someone else will ultimately decide whether you receive a promotion. It might be your boss, it might be a committee, but it’s not you. You can’t waive a magic wand and give yourself a promotion.

Stoicism, an ancient Greek philosophy, teaches that you should only desire things within your control. Otherwise, you are doomed to be unhappy.

And what is within your control? Here’s what Epictetus, a slave turned Stoic sage has to say [Note: All cited passages in this section are from Epictetus]:

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.

Promotions don’t fall into the list of things you can control, therefore, you shouldn’t desire promotions. If you receive one, you’ll soon get used to the new title and larger salary and begin desiring the next promotion. If you are passed over for one, you will be unhappy.

The second major reason you shouldn’t seek promotions is that it is likely you will have to compromise something you value in order to attain one.

Are you a creative type in a conservative company? Well, it’s unlikely that you’ll get a promotion without hiding your creativity to some extent.

Do you like to work on your own, but your company emphasizes teamwork? If you stop showing up to meetings, people will question your dedication to the mission.

The pursuit of a promotion will come at a price, and it will sometimes be a price you shouldn’t pay.

Is anyone preferred before you at an entertainment, or in a compliment, or in being admitted to a consultation? If these things are good, you ought to be glad that he has gotten them; and if they are evil, don’t be grieved that you have not gotten them. And remember that you cannot, without using the same means [which others do] to acquire things not in our own control, expect to be thought worthy of an equal share of them. For how can he who does not frequent the door of any [great] man, does not attend him, does not praise him, have an equal share with him who does? You are unjust, then, and insatiable, if you are unwilling to pay the price for which these things are sold, and would have them for nothing

Cal Newport says that you should become so good they can’t ignore you. I agree that you should become “so good,” as that is in your sphere of control, but I say you should be indifferent to whether or not others ignore you. The Stoics would say instead:

“Become so good and stop worrying if others ignore you.”

If you happen to win praise and recognition for your good work, great! Just don’t let it get to your head. If you do good work and no one cares, be indifferent.

But, for your part, don’t wish to be a general, or a senator, or a consul, but to be free; and the only way to this is a contempt of things not in our own control.

[Ed Note: Dale Davidson is the founder and author of the Ancient Wisdom Project – a blog dedicated to Dale’s life as he shares his experiences with ancient wisdom and religious practices, Dale believes are maybe the key truly optimizing life. Dale chooses a practice or religion and follows it for one month, documenting his experiences. Click here to follow Dale’s epic project.]

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  • Gilfoile

    I am put off by how self absorbed this article sounds. I’m wondering where Mr. Davidson gets the income to be able to immerse himself in the practices that he is recommending to the world.