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Thriving in Uncertain Times: Lessons from Marcus Aurelius

To lead an extraordinary life, you need to upgrade your internal program at a rate equal to or greater than the rate of increasing complexity in your environment.

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It’s said that we are living in a VUCA world. V.U.C.A. is a military term that stands for volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. The current coronavirus outbreak is just one more reminder of how true this is. The world seems to be getting increasingly complex. And the rate at which complexity is increasing seems to be getting higher. So much so that it seems hard to keep up.

How then do we lead and live in times of increasing complexity? This seems to be the question of our era. The answer lies in a fundamental choice. We can either take on the Sisyphean task of trying to reduce the complexity of our environment, or we can take on the inner game of increasing the complexity of our thinking. In my book Master Your Code, I argue that the latter is the only viable path.

Think about your smartphone. Imagine running today’s current applications on an operating system from five years ago. Your phone likely wouldn’t function. In many ways, your mind operates in the same manner. Unfortunately, your internal program doesn’t upgrade quickly enough to effectively meet the change in your environment. The result is that you feel stuck, anxious, frustrated, and overwhelmed.

To lead an extraordinary life, you need to upgrade your internal program at a rate equal to or greater than the rate of increasing complexity in your environment.

So how do you increase the complexity of your thinking? It starts with awareness. This means recognizing that much of how you experience reality is a function of your underlying, subconscious program – a set of safety-based beliefs, values, and rules that are designed primarily to keep you safe and, as a result, limits your effectiveness. With this awareness, you will realize that you have a choice to be the architect of your experience, not a prisoner of your program. You have the ability to choose to construct a code – a set of consciously chosen beliefs, values, and rules that are purposefully designed to serve you and lead to extraordinary results.

How you experience the current environment is not so much a function of the environment as it is the rules you have constructed to interpret the environment. The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers knew this two thousand years ago. There is no better (and perhaps more relevant) example than the Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Marcus was trained in Stoicism. He understood the critical distinction between what was in his control and what wasn’t. He didn’t waste any energy on those things he couldn’t control. And he realized that it wasn’t his circumstances that mattered but how he interpreted his circumstances. He was among the first rulers to understand that we all possess a human superpower – the ability to choose the meaning you give to your circumstances. The most important part of your code.

This way of living and leading was put to the test multiple times for Marcus Aurelius. The most significant occurred later in his life. The plague was ravaging the empire, resulting in millions of deaths. If that weren’t enough, one of Marcus’ top generals, Gaius Avidius Cassius, instituted a coup and began a civil war that threatened to tear the Roman empire apart. Marcus had been training for this inevitability. A common Stoic practice of the time was to meditate on the many hardships that could occur. And, most significantly (and perhaps shockingly), to welcome their occurrence. The complexity of this thinking allowed Marcus to receive the news of Cassius’ coup with detachment and objectivity. Marcus was not frustrated, angry, fearful, and upset. He knew that none of these emotional reactions would serve him. Instead, he was able to summon the best of his thinking. He chose to act, not react. He leveraged a complexity of mind that far surpassed the complexity of his environment.

The first action he took was to address his troops. He encouraged them to not waste time feeling frustrated or angry. Instead, in a speech to his soldiers, Marcus publicly forgave Cassius.

To forgive a man who has done wrong, to be still a friend to one who has trodden friendship underfoot, to continue to be faithful to one who has broken faith. What I say may perhaps seem incredible to you, but you must not doubt it. For surely all goodness has not yet entirely perished from among men, but there is still in us a remnant of the ancient virtue. However, if anyone should disbelieve it, that merely strengthens my desire, in order that men may see accomplished with their own eyes what no one would believe could come to pass. For this would be the one profit I could gain from my present troubles, if I were able to bring the matter to an honorable conclusion, and show all the world that there is a right way to deal even with civil war.

From a state of radical acceptance, Marcus sprung into action, commanding his troops towards Syria and Egypt where Cassius had begun the revolt. His act of grace, maturity, and strength led to a swift and relatively peaceful end to the conflict. Cassius was murdered by his own soldiers, and order was restored.

We are living in a new decade. One that promises to be increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. You have to not only prepare for this but welcome it. You have to train your mind so that you shape how you experience your circumstances, not the other way around. We are all going to be called on to be at our best over the coming years. We could do a lot worse than to study the ancient philosophers and to commit to increasing the complexity of our thinking. It’s the only answer.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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