Conversations in Management: Marcus Aurelius

Do your job without whining.

 Marcus Aurelius

Marcus AureliusMarcus Aurelius—Emperor of Rome—made this edict while on military campaign during the closing years of his life. He was engaged in the slow but steady reestablishment of the empire’s northeastern borders which had been penetrated by multiple Germanic tribes. The incursions had been significant and had necessitated the raising of two additional legions. It was hard duty under harsh conditions and the campaign provided ample opportunity for whining.

If anyone had a right to whine it was Marcus Aurelius. Life had been good to him up to that time. He had been born into a well-connected and aristocratic family of Spanish origin. As a boy he so excelled in his studies of rhetoric, literature and philosophy, that he drew the attention of his fellow-countryman, the Emperor Hadrian. Hadrian took a keen interest in the boy. He showered him with honors and personally took charge of his education. In return, Marcus Aurelius didn’t disappoint. To the contrary, he so pleased the Emperor, that Hadrian engineered a complicated process of adoption and marriage that positioned Marcus Aurelius to be his heir.

While waiting for the succession plan to unfold, Marcus Aurelius pursued his passion for philosophy. It was a passion that would shape his entire life and, in turn, provide the framework for his reign as emperor. His philosophy of choice was Stoicism, which viewed philosophy not simply as an intellectual pursuit, but as a way of life. The Stoics understood the world as a rational, well-ordered place in which individuals were free to make judgments about what was good and what was bad. The challenge was to make right decisions. In his book, Meditations, Marcus Aurelius makes it clear that right decisions come through discipline, restraint and learning. Importantly, he argues that anyone can make a good life for themselves anywhere.

That’s why whining was on his short list of things to avoid. Whining is a form of surrendering to events that are simply annoying or uncomfortable. It’s the act of becoming helpless in the face of minor inconveniences that could just as easily be overcome. In a very real sense, it’s the embarrassing admission that you lack the character to confront adversity squarely and lack the restraint to keep from mewling your discontent. It’s not a pretty picture.

The whiners among us—and you know who you are—might derive comfort in the knowledge that whining was so prevalent in the second century that it warranted an admonishment from the Emperor. (That gives it a sort of anthropological cachet.) But for those of us who find the sound of an adult’s whining roughly akin to the sound of fingernails scraping across a chalkboard, there is no pleasure in this news. The realization that folks have been whining for the last two thousand years won’t make it easier to bear today. So take the whine-free pledge. The next time you feel a really good whine coming on, stop, and think about how it reflects on you. Then, for everyone’s sake, follow Marcus Aurelius’ advice!       —Ebert 

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