The Danish existentialist philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, once proclaimed that “we live forward, but we understand backward. Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forward”. Such thought-provoking aphorisms are just one example of how a discipline which has its origins dating back to over 2000 years ago can still offer foresight into the future. However, despite laying claim to be the oldest discipline in the world and providing the epistemological framework for academia – the influence of philosophy in society has waned in recent times. In 2010, for example, the late Professor Hawking declared that scientists rather than philosophers “have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our quest for knowledge”[i]. The decline in philosophy’s significance as a method of inquiry is reflected in the statistics too, with figures from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences showing the number of people obtaining philosophy degrees has fallen by 8.7% since 2012[ii].
Despite diminishing interest in the discipline, the increased importance of human skills in the age of automation and technological advancements means there is a strong argument to be made for the recrudescence of philosophy within all spheres of society, and none more so than within the corporate sphere. With this in mind, I thought it would be interesting to explore what the wisdom from some of the greatest philosophers in history can tell us about some of the main themes that are shaping the future of work.
The Stoics and remaining calm in times of accelerated change
It is widely acknowledged within the future of work community that two of the main characteristics that define modern work are volatility and uncertainty. The notion of a lifelong career is seemingly redundant; while there seems to be little consensus on the extent to which technological advancements will threaten the existence of jobs. Thus, to begin this voyage into the relationship between philosophy and the world of work, it seems appropriate to start by exploring the ideas of a group of Athenian scholars who became known as ‘The Stoics’. Widely regarded as the founding fathers of practical philosophy, central to their belief system is the idea that regardless of how unpredictable the world can be, by using our minds correctly we can always be in control of our emotions and impulses, no matter how overwhelming they might be. This mindset is commonly referred to as ‘stoic calm’.
Embracing the virtues of ‘stoicism’ in the modern corporate world unlocks tremendous benefits for organisations experiencing profound change. For instance, a ‘stoic’ individual would show greater resilience to any changes brought about by macro forces such as technological disruption, as they would in theory express a greater willingness to acquiring the skills needed to overcome the challenges such forces present. Similarly, they would be accepting of the fact that the traditional three-stage model of education, work and retirement was obsolescent. Indeed, the stoic individual is one who acknowledges that the only constant in life is change and is therefore also equipped with the emotional skills required to effectively cope with acute forms of disruption.
To this end, stoicism differs from most existing branches of philosophy in one important sense: its purpose is a practical application that can harness the cognitive skills needed for modern work, and as such, it is not a purely intellectual enterprise. Instead, it’s a tool that we can use to become better in our craft, establish more meaningful relationships with colleagues and business partners also allowing us to pragmatically navigate any fundamental disruptions in the labour market. Thus, despite being over 2,000 years old, it is a mindset that, if adopted correctly, could equip modern workers with the mental clarity and resilience required to thrive and prosper in this period of uncertain and accelerated change.
Aristotle, being virtuous and organisational ethics
Keeping with the theme of Athenian scholars, Aristotle, a man regarded as one of the most influential of all philosophers, and his concept of ‘virtuous ethics’, can help provide clarity on the ethical decisions organisations need to make in the future. In essence, Aristotle believed that the framework for being a virtuous person simply consisted of being a good person, and not being a slave to one’s lowest impulses. With recent revelations such as the ‘Cambridge Analytica’ Facebook data scandal, the moral fibre of organisations is under great scrutiny and an adoption of virtuous ethics as a framework can help provide organisations with the necessary moral guidance to make ethically sound decisions.
The concept of ‘virtuous ethics’ not only provides a strong moral framework for organisations to abide by, but it also enables people to fulfil their potential and improve their overall well-being. With recent data indicating that 58% do not trust their colleagues[iii], and 7 out of 10 people not trusting their HR department[iv]; living more virtuously offers a set of ideals that can help galvanise people while simultaneously healing fractured relationships and lead to greater cohesion within organisations.
Nietzsche the Übermensch and high-performance
At first glance, the often misanthropic and pessimistic rhetoric of another great philosopher – Nietzsche has no place in the context of optimising performance. But dig deeper into his philosophy and it becomes clear that the ‘future of high performance’ can learn a lot from his musings. Notably, the concept of the ‘Übermensch’ – translated into English as the ‘Superman’ offers a unique philosophy for how to optimise performance and unlock potential.
For Nietzsche, the idea of Übermensch was more like a vision than a theory; a vision whereby one is emboldened to find the necessary inner strength to overcome any personal insecurities and embrace fear and uncertainty, rather than run away from it. With research demonstrating that creating a space of psychological safety is pivotal for organisations looking to unleash their creative potential; following the principles of Nietzsche’s Übermensch and believing that failure is a necessary stage in the path to fulfilment, can help lay the foundations for people to experiment without fear and come back stronger if they fail.
Perhaps in these increasingly uncertain times when disruptive technology raises profound questions about the skills humans will need to prosper in the future, revisiting the most ancient of disciplines can, in a somewhat paradoxical sense, offer a strong foundation for the cultivation of the uniquely human skills needed to effectively navigate accelerated periods of change. Indeed, to quote Steve Jobs – “technology alone is not enough, it’s technology married with liberal arts, married with humanities that yield the results that make our hearts sing.”
If you would like to discuss further how teaching philosophy can prepare you for the future of work, then please contact Marvin at firstname.lastname@example.org.