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Ancient philosophers had surprisingly helpful advice for modern small business owners

March 15, 2012

(By Paul Hense, CPA, past chairman of SBAM. From SBAM’s member-only Focus on Small Business magazine.)

We often believe the problems we have as a small business owner are unique. The reality is that people have struggled with the same problems for centuries. Marcus Aurelius (121 to 180 AD) was a Roman Emperor and author of “Meditations,” a book he wrote during a military campaign in Gaul. He was the elderly Roman Emperor in the movie “Gladiator.” Epictetus (50 to 130 AD) was a Greek slave owned by a Roman master. Jiddu Krishnamurti ( 1895 to 1986) was a Hindu and Buddhist philosopher from India. He was the author of many books including my favorite, “The Awakening of Intelligence.”

These men from distant times in distant places wrote about the most fundamental of human problems. They pursued fulfillment through the search for reality.

Of the thousands of philosophers who have written books, I have chosen these three because these are the three that have made the greatest impression on me. Here are a few of their quotes that push me to see the connection between philosophical wisdom and every day business.

From Jiddu Krishnamurti, “If we can really understand the problem, the answer will come of it, because the solution is not separate from the problem.” One of the worst things a business owner can do is to misunderstand the problem sometimes correct a problem that doesn’t exist while leaving the true problem unaddressed.

From Jiddu Krishnamurti, “What is needed rather than a running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistances is understanding fear: that means one should learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape it.” During these economically unstable times, fear often causes business owners to make bad decisions. It would be almost inhuman to expect someone to face financial difficulty calmly and coolly. Knowing that you’re afraid and that your fear is affecting your decision making gives you an opportunity to alleviate that fear by understanding.

From Marcus Aurelius, “Began to begin is half the work, but half still remained; again begin this and I will have finished.” I don’t know about the rest of you, but once I start something I find it difficult to stop. If I never start a project, that pretty much guarantees that it will never be finished. Starting the project is 50% of the problem. Once you have started a project you have been avoiding you most likely will finish it.

From Marcus Aurelius, “Look back over the past with its changing empires that rose and fell you can see the future too. “ That’s what financial statements are for. Your financial statement tells you your history. Looking at years of the company’s financial statements tells you their history. If you want to avoid failure, look at General Motors, Enron and other failed ventures. If you are seeking success, look at the financial statements and histories of companies like Microsoft. Textbooks teach you histories of countries. Financial statements are the histories of failed and successful companies.

From Marcus Aurelius, “The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing.” Much is made of the glamour of being a business owner. What is often not recognized is that a successful company is the result of simply hard work. Dancing is elegant. Success in wrestling is often simply a function of which contestant is the most determined. It’s not pretty. Operating businesses is much the same.

From Epictetus, “Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by their opinions about things that happen.” One business owner faces a crisis and turns it into an opportunity. Another business owner faces crisis and collapses. It’s all in how you view it.

Epictetus, “If a man has reported to you that a certain man speaks ill of you, do not make any defense to what has been told but say; that man did not know the rest of my faults for otherwise he would not have mentioned these only.” If you succeed greatly, you will be criticized greatly. If you want to be ignored, fail. Stoic philosophers were not famous for their humor. This was an exception.

I don’t remember which one wrote this: “An ignorant man blames others, an educated man blames himself, an enlightened man blames no one.” No matter that the event was a success or failure, the assignment of praise or blame should be irrelevant. Small businesses should operate as a team. We all share the glory. We all share the blame. In sports or the military, this is a well understood concept. It’s generally not followed, but it is well understood.

Do you have philosophical lessons to share with your fellow small business owners? Leave a comment below!

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