What the Greek philosophers can teach us about entrepreneurship

Many of the everyday fundamentals of our Western lifestyles come from the Ancient Greeks – democracy, drama, all-action blockbuster war epics, and lying around thinking about stuff, or philosophy as it’s known. All activities in the Eastern Mediterranean 2,500 years ago, and all still popular today in our house – as well as other aspects of their culture including souvlaki, ouzo, lashings of taramasalata and a big, chunky feta salad.

Greek dancing and plate smashing are optional and mostly accidental for me, but my affection for all-things Greek stems from the fact that I met my future wife as a student whilst on holiday in Corfu back in the halcyon summer of 1984. It was a Greek holiday romance which blossomed to the sun-drenched sounds of bouzouki, fuelled by dolmades and lashings of Ionian wine.

The rendezvous back in England survived the irrepressible deities etched on the cheap pottery bought as presents too – Dôs moi pâ stô, kaì tàn gân kīnā́sō – but every time we have Greek food (yesterday was Moussaka) memories of that first, ever-lasting encounter, and the Greek influence on our way of life with their pioneering attitudes, once again come into my thoughts.

There is no doubt Greek philosophy can help us understand more about ourselves as individuals, and as entrepreneurs. Peter Thiel, co-founder of Paypal, Palantir and the first outside investor in Facebook, credits philosophy for his success, giving him clear, critical thinking and strong communication skills to socialise his ideas to a wider audience.

Although today’s entrepreneurs obviously live a very different way of life, a lot of what the Ancient Greeks had to stay still applies to what we all long for: to be happier and more content in our day-to-day living. A quote from Plato struck a chord with me when thinking about this blog as being very relevant to startup thinking: The beginning is the most important part of your work.

Plato encourages us to get our hands dirty and see what transpires. Even if we fail, at least we know the outcome. Never starting doesn’t teach us anything. Whilst Greek philosophers have a reputation for free thinking, look again, at this Plato quote – it’s about reality, they were realistic and pragmatic. They understood that things often go the opposite of the way that we want them to, so it’s all about thinking things through and reflecting. Doing so will make you a more successful, thoughtful and self-assured entrepreneur.

The Greeks all had some lessons for our entrepreneurial endeavours. Socrates, for example, insisted on our right to think for ourselves. Too often, he warned, humans sleepwalk through life, simply going along with the crowd. Socrates believed in talking problems through, that being in conversation helps you work issues out by inspecting or analysing another person’s point of view.

My favourite philosopher is Pythagoras, and he’d have something to say about today’s smart data revolution. The work of Pythagoras was crucial to shaping the rationalist conception we have of the Greek thinkers, although he was great at maths but had no desire to employ it practically. Pythagoras loved the number three because it had a beginning, middle, and end. But three had some stiff competition in ten, which Pythagoras thought was the ideal number. So good was the number ten that Pythagoreans would never gather in groups of more than ten.

The point is that Pythagoras pioneered mathematics through his use of it, even if not its application. He believed that maths can grant us access to a higher truth, and in some sense he was correct: the more data you have, the more patterns you can find and the more models you can build. From maths comes life, so maybe Pythagoras was right after all? Nowadays data is everywhere and in everything. If you’re not making use of it in your business then you’re letting yourself down, but most importantly you’re letting Pythagoras down.

As an entrepreneur, adopting some of these philosophical approaches can transform negative emotions into a sense of perspective and prepare you to have the right state of mind. At its heart it’s about controlling things, which are in your power to influence and ditching the rest. So, let’s look at the traits of Plato and others, and how we can benefit from their philosophical outlook on life for our startup ventures.

They love a debate. An important trait that all philosophers have is the ability to follow an argument all the way to the end. As an entrepreneur, it’s an essential skill, for example, if you’re sitting in front of a potential customer.

Equally, healthy discussion becomes more important when your business starts to grow, debate is often the key to finding the most effective course of action from a range of options. Encouraging your team to share a different point of view is healthy. Remember, you’re not trying to win arguments (‘be right’), rather, you’re trying to find the best path forward (‘get it right’), so embracing other perspectives is powerful.

They’re comfortable with the uncomfortable. As an entrepreneur, you have to make decisions on issues that aren’t always conveniently shaped in black and white, you have to get comfortable working in an environment of uncertainty and unknowns. If you want a guarantee, buy a toaster.

It’s a steep learning curve ploughing your way forward in a startup, but for philosophers, ambiguity is nothing new. Embracing it teaches you to manage uncertainty and stay calm. As an entrepreneur, you’re always, in the words of Walt Whitman, conquering, holding, daring, venturing.

You’ll likely spend a lot of your time operating in the unknown, so you’ll need to be able to tolerate ambiguity. Next time you find yourself at a fork in the road, think about making a decision with 51% confidence, simply look at the balance of outcomes and make a judgement call. While it’s not ideal, it’s far better than procrastinating and waiting for ideal or easy solutions that never present themselves.

They see the big picture in the smallest details. If you can’t see the big picture, you’re lacking direction and consequently can end up going randomly anywhere, wasting time and energy. It’s easy to get side-tracked by details and suddenly find yourself struggling in the long grass.

Taking a more philosophical approach helps you envision how smaller decisions will eventually fit into bigger ones, playing back your thinking. One way to ensure that you’re always on the right track is to step back, reflect and go back to your vision and big picture, and your broader horizon, and consider how minor tweaks might affect your future expansion plans.

They keep their emotions in check.Your passion makes the difference as an entrepreneur to what you do, but never confuse enthusiasm with capability. In philosophy, you learn to detach from your emotions and make decisions with logic. As an entrepreneur, that’s a valuable lesson, since it’s easy to fall in love with a new idea, and overlook obvious flaws.

They dissect complex problems. Einstein said, If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions. This thinking highlights a skill that philosophers have mastered: the ability to break down complex problems into simpler ones.

As an entrepreneur, you’ll have to solve complex problems early and often on your startup journey. You’ll have a leg up if you can break the big stuff down into digestible pieces, rather than trying to solve it all at once.

Recently the philosophical approach of Stoicism has become an influence on entrepreneurial thinking. Stoicism is a philosophical practice considered to be a complete way of life. It focuses on these four core principles:

  • Make the best use of your time
  • Be the master of your emotions
  • Walk the path of virtue
  • Develop self-mastery

In the increasingly competitive, confusing and complex digital world, the key is stripping back the nonsense and keeping things simple and straight forward, it’s vital we focus on the signals and not the noise. Stoicism reminds us that amidst this maelstrom, we are required to be mindful, fully present and aware, and exercise self-control, rather than being lost to emotion and lost to random thought processes. It can build the resilience and state of mind required to rebound from knock backs.

The things you think about determine the quality of your mind, so let’s look at the four tenets of Stoicism and how they impact an entrepreneur.

Make the best use of time. Some periods of time are snatched from us, some are stolen and some simply seep away. Yet the most shameful loss is the loss due to carelessness – Seneca

Seneca reminds us to not waste our time because time is precious. In other words, live your life with intention and be the master over your time. Be clear with your intentions for the day and be firm on getting goals complete. Design your week in a way that makes sense for you.

Be the master of your emotions. The Stoics teach us that unpredictable things happen in our lives that we can’t control, but we can control how we respond to events. Responding (as opposed to reacting) requires you to be in control of your emotions and thoughts, and in control of your daily habits.

Entrepreneurs often have to figure out a way to make something possible within all the things that are impossible, and can’t waste time complaining or blaming because of deadlines to meet – we have too much on our plate to worry about that. Take time to think before responding to pressure and avoiding immediate reaction is a difficult style to develop, but invaluable.

Walk the path of virtue As a startup entrepreneur, there will be plenty of ethical dilemmas requiring you to make difficult choices. Take a moment to think through the possible ways you could respond, and consequences. Cross out the negative responses and circle the positive ones. These are your virtuous reactions.

Develop self-mastery The Greeks famously called this form of self-discipline askesis. Seneca writes It is precisely in these days that we need to discipline our spirit… for the spirit gives the strongest proof of its resolve by not being attracted or distracted by pleasures which lead to self-indulgence.

Developing self-mastery and rigorous self-discipline enables you to become a master over your time and your actions and can result in incredibly helpful outcomes. Zeno said Man conquers the world by conquering himself. The core of his philosophy consists of virtue, tolerance, and self-control.

Entrepreneurs need to be able to achieve goals, they want to see quick results, but taking a more thoughtful approach adopting some of the lessons from Greek philosophers has merit. Instead of the usual headlong rush into getting stuff done, take a deep breath, open your mind and speak the future into being.

If you believe, as the Greeks did, that man is at the mercy of the Gods, then you’ll write a tragedy. The end is inevitable from the start. However, flip this around, with a positive mindset, if you believe that man can solve his own problems and is at nobody’s mercy, then as an entrepreneur you will probably write melodrama and romance.

Ah, melodrama and romance, this takes me back to Roda, Corfu, August 1984. In the middle of a relentless hot sunny day, I was relaxing under a cafe awning in the shade with ouzo, fresh souvlaki and kolokythokeftedes, the Mediterranean Sea breeze blowing gently. I started a flirtatious encounter which has become a lifetime conversation with a girl from Oldham. Later, we danced around the local Vassilopoulos supermarket, before getting on a ferry to the mainland, eating honey and yoghurt, but that’s for another blog.

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