In today’s post, I am looking at Marcus Aurelius’ “Meditations” and how it relates to us today. Marcus Aurelius, Emperor of Rome from 161 to 180 AD, was a follower of Stoicism, a type of philosophy that extols a way of life based on moral virtue. It emphasizes logic and rationality, and views man as a microcosm corresponding to the macrocosm of the universe. Man has to use his reason to discern the universal order present in nature and he is obligated to live his life in accordance with nature . I have identified 10 lessons from “Meditations” that I hope will be valuable to the lean leader. I have used the translation of “Meditations” by George Long for my notes.
1) Make Time for Contemplation:
“We ought to remember not only that our life is daily wasting away and a smaller part of it is left, but also that if a man should live longer, it is quite uncertain whether his mind will stay strong enough to understand things, and retain the power of contemplation to strive after knowledge of the divine and human.”
Marcus believes in making time for contemplation. He encourages us to “retire” into ourselves to recharge on a frequent basis. This is similar to the concept of “Hansei” in Lean. He continues;
“It is in your power, whenever you shall choose, to retire into yourself.”
Marcus talks of cleansing your soul so that you are free of discontentment and this allows you to return to the “stale things” with a refreshed mind. He reminds the reader that things cannot touch your soul since they are external to you, and that our perturbations come from our own opinions and viewpoints. This too shall pass.
2) Observe the Small Things in the Light of the Big Picture:
“We ought to observe also that even the small characteristics of things produced according to nature have something in them pleasing and attractive.”
Marcus believed that everything must be aligned with nature. Even the smallest detail has its own charm and beauty in the big picture. Marcus talks about the example of the cracks in the surface of a loaf of bread. In his eyes, they are beautiful even though they were not designed or intentionally added by the baker. They are visually appealing and stimulate the appetite. Observing small details in relation to the bigger picture is a beautiful thought. On the contrary, small characteristics are not pleasing and attractive when they are not according to nature. This is an important lesson for us at the Gemba – Why is the operator reaching out to get his retracted tool every time? Small characteristics not according to nature indicate all of the wasteful motions which can have a negative impact on a rational natural process.
3) Labor Not Unwillingly:
“Labor not unwillingly, nor without regard to the common interest, nor without due consideration, nor with distraction”.
When we do something, do we pay attention to the purpose? How many times do we catch ourselves doing things without thought, just to realize that we have wasted away a whole weekend. Does my action do anything to improve the common betterment of my organization, my family, or my neighborhood?
“On every occasion a man should ask himself, ‘Is this one of the unnecessary things?’”
Tim Ferriss talks about a Not-To-Do list , which is a list of things not to be done instead of a list of thing that needs to be done. This different approach trains our minds to pay attention to the habits that secretly steal valuable time away from us.
Marcus also advises us to “Do every act with a purpose.”
4) Don’t Jump to Conclusions:
“Honor the faculty which produces opinion. On this faculty it entirely depends whether there exists in your ruling part any opinion inconsistent with nature and the constitution of a rational being. And this faculty urges freedom from hasty judgment.”
Marcus clearly explains why we should not jump to conclusions. We need to recognize the faculty to ensure that the opinion is consistent with nature (virtuous) and rational.
“Make for yourself a definition or description of every object presented to you, so as to see distinctly what it is in its own naked substance, complete, and entire.”
Marcus is advising us to use a methodical approach to give us a rational and virtuous opinion when a situation presents itself to us the next time at the Gemba.
5) Be Virtuous:
“Whatever you do, do it as befits that character of goodness in the sense in which a man is rightfully supposed to be good. Hold this rule in every act.”
Virtue is a key theme in Stoicism. Virtue is getting the human mind aligned with nature.
“To a rational being the act that is according to nature is according to reason.”
The natural life is one controlled by reason. Stoics believe that happiness is found in virtue. How would you apply this in your organization? Are people happy in your organization? Does your organization provide happiness to your neighborhood? For example, one of Toyota’s Guiding Principles is – “Dedicate our business to providing clean and safe products and to enhancing the quality of life everywhere through all of our activities.”
6) Pursuit of Rationality:
“Always hasten by the short way: and the short way is the natural one. Say and do everything in conformity with sound reason. For such a rule frees a man from trouble and strife and artifice and ostentatious display.”
Marcus is advising that the easy way is not necessarily the shortest way. The path chosen with sound reason, in alignment with nature is the short one. In the first manual of Toyota Production System, there was a concept that was introduced as the “pursuit of rationality”. Marcus has explained this really well. It is not always about efficiency, but about effectiveness. We should pay more attention to effectiveness than efficiency.
7) Staying Calm:
“You can pass your life in a calm flow of happiness, if you can take the right way, and think and act in the right way. The two things common to the soul of God and to the soul of man, and to the soul of every rational being, are not be hindered in their purpose by another; and to holds good the disposition of justice and the practice of it, and in this to let your desire find its satisfaction.”
Stoics are expected to remain calm in all situations, like an emotionless being. This is not exactly true. Stoics are expected to express emotions like being startled by a loud sound, but they are not to dwell on the emotion. They find calmness and happiness when they do not let the opinions and emotions control them. They do not get distracted by the acts of others or by things that are beyond their control, as long as they stay on their path. This is similar to the Serenity Prayer.
“I do my duty. Other things do not trouble me, for they are either things without life or things without reason, or things that have wandered and know not the way.”
“No man can hinder you from living according to reason of your own nature; nothing will happen to you contrary to the reason of the universal nature.”
Things can go against your way on a frequent basis at the Gemba. To be a good leader, heed Marcus’ advice.
8) Holistic View:
“Consider frequently the connection of all things in the universe and their relation to one another.”
“All parts in the universe are interwoven with one another, and the bond is sacred. Nothing is unconnected with some other thing.”
“Observe the continuous spinning of the thread and the single texture of the web.”
Marcus believed in the grand scheme of things and the natural order. He advises us to look at everything from a systems standpoint. Everything is connected to one another. Changing one thing here can cause changes at another end, and sometimes we cannot anticipate the extent of the consequences.
“That which is not good for the swarm, is not good for the single bee.”
He also advises us to look at the optimization from a system standpoint and not from a local optimization standpoint.
“He who acts unjustly acts irreverently. For since the universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another, to help one another according to their worth, but in no way to injure one another.”
“First, do nothing thoughtlessly or without a purpose. Secondly, see that your acts are directed to a social end.”
Being rational in Stoicism means to work towards a common good in accordance with nature. This also indicates that you should allow everybody to reach their greatest potential, which is the rational thing to do. Harmony is a key theme in Stoicism, and this means being harmonious with nature as well as with other human beings. There is a lot of similarities between the concept of “Wa” in the Japanese culture. I have talked about it here .
Marcus also talked about being willing to request help from others.
“Be not ashamed to take help… Stand erect or be helped to stand erect.”
10) Change Must Happen:
“Is anyone afraid of change? Why, what can be done without change?”
Marcus advises us that change is inevitable. Marcus continues;
“Life is more like wrestling than dancing, in that it should stand ready and firm to meet onsets, however unexpected.”
We must be ready to wrestle while being rational. We should pursue rationality, engage in contemplation on a regular basis, do things that are only just, and be prepared.
Marcus Aurelius did not write “Meditations” in the hopes that it would be read by generations to come. He wrote these passages as part of his journal. The book does not have any particular organized structure to it. It is also strange that the title that Marcus gave to the book did not mean “Meditations”. In Greek, it meant “To Himself”. The title was given by an anonymous person much later.
My favorite section from the book also captures the essence of the book:
“Where every act must be performed in accord with the reason which is common to gods and men, we have nothing to fear; when we can profit by activity which is successful and in harmony with our nature, need suspect no harm.
Everywhere and at all times it is in your power to accept reverently your present condition, to behave justly to those about you, and to exert your skill to control your thoughts, that nothing shall steal into them without being well examined.”
Always keep on learning…
In case you missed it, my last post was Gemba Playlist:
 Ethics: The Study of Moral Values – Mortimer J Adler and Seymour Cain
Marcus Aurelius and His Times by Walter J Black Inc.