Teaching Resilience Through Stoicism

Presented by Sanne Visser at IT Matters Conference ONLINE

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Today I'd like to talk to you a lot about stubbornness, which is one of my core skills, but also how to use that type of stubbornness in order to refuse to become miserable about absolutely anything. Now, this title has been blatantly stolen. It's the title of a book by Albert Ellis, I'll link it to you in the last slide again. But this is all about resilience, and it's based in stoicism. But before we begin, I just want to set the scene to about a year ago where I was in quite a tough situation. And I'm going to use this tough situation to explain all these concepts and the way I use these techniques to manage my stress levels. So here we go. Now as a consultant, you tend to enter teams in quite unexpected ways. So this is the situation that I knew I was entering into, it was going to be a seven person team, I was replacing the tester of the team, we knew that our business analysts was leaving us, but someone was already lined up. So we knew there would be two new people, and the rest of the team was expected to stay stable. Now, you will notice I've labelled this team 'Misery', the moment I entered, I did notice that the team wasn't very happy together. There were no socials, there was not much joking around. John, our product owner definitely seemed to be a big fan of playing the blame game. So he pushed on the team a lot. And he put a lot of pressure on there. But I figured, you know, we'll manage this. We'll see how it goes. And I think it will get better. Two weeks later, this is what happened. So our business analyst told us that he's not coming. He basically didn't sign the contract. After spending a day with the team, decided it was too dangerous, having just come out of a burnout to there was no way he was going to come and work with us. Our developer who'd been with the team for seven years, announced that he was quitting in two months time. And our team lead Joe suddenly stayed home after we didn't meet a sprint deadline. And for three days basically fell off the map. So we spent that week, very depressed, with John yelling at us, and all of us being quite miserable, all at the same time. And I honestly felt about two weeks in "what am I doing here? Can I still quit? Can I go and find a different project, please?" How am I going to now get out of feeling this stressed this pressured and also quite hopeless, because when the person that has significantly taking the lead in a group, and this person suddenly disappears, it can leave you feeling very, without a way forward. So having Joe drop out all of a sudden, and not communicate with us, which was a personal crisis for him as well, he felt he told us later, personally responsible for not having met any of these targets. So he felt so bad and so pressured, that he felt unable to come and faces us and [come in] come into work or even explain his absence. So that that just was about where the team was at. So how do you avoid becoming miserable in a situation like this? Now luckily, for me, I am an avid reader and I had discovered stoicism through a coach of mine two years before. Now as things will go when you're feeling good, and you're feeling happy, you tend not to need any of these techniques. But once the shit hits the fan, so to speak, there are things that you can do to manage stress to manage the way you're feeling, and to deal with the circumstances that you're in in a way that is both virtuous and wise. And this is what stoicism is all about. stoicism is about finding a way to become calm. So I like this as a little picture. I have it in a lot of my notebooks. I think about it as a way to load calm, a way to get to a situation where you're not necessarily very happy, very sad or very miserable or ecstatic. But you're generally just calm. I like to call this the more or less, okay, not more, okay, not less, okay, but more or less. Okay, so somewhere just about in the middle.

So my advice would be to everyone to become a stoic. And to do this, there's a couple of exercises I want to take you through that I used very actively during this period again, I had used them before in the two years previous, but I dropped them for a while, which again, coming back to this whole mental exercises, a lot of these things I would recommend to keep training and keep exercising even when things are going well, because once you end up in situations that are very stressful, having these techniques be very natural and very at your fingertips, so to speak, is essential for finding your way back to calm. So there's three techniques I want to share with you. And then as a surprise, today, I'm adding a fourth bonus one, because I found out that it's nice to give a sort of the last big bang exercise to take you away with a lot of action oriented thoughts. So just to be clear, it's all based on stoicism, but a lot of these things are also what are called cognitive behavioural therapy techniques. So there's a lot of overlap between these two. A lot of psychologists will also talk to you about the Cognitive Behavioural Therapy things being rooted in stoicism. Now, obviously, becoming a bit of a philosopher is not the same thing as going into therapy. But it's about these techniques that manage stress, and they are effective even when trying to implement them as an amateur. Now, this is not just me talking, there have been plenty of empirical studies that have shown that the, the techniques here do reduce stress in people. So there have been a lot of double blind studies where people are adopting these stoic techniques themselves, or they're combining stoic techniques in combination with therapy. And generally, they have concluded that yes, this is a good way to manage stress. So there is a lot of science behind this one, which I find very important. I'm a sceptic by nature. And these are the things I want to take you through. Negative psychology imagining the worst, preparing for the worst. Morning meditations or morning reflections, as I like to call them because it's not so much a meditation as we just did previously, with Joanna. Tthere's a view from above exercise, which actually can be a guided meditation, I'll walk you through that one. And then there's the concept of there is no better place to be that we are shaped by our hardships, and it builds our moral character.

So the first thing I want to take you through is it could be worse, it really could. There's a story about Albert Ellis, the author of this book, which I base the presentation on, he was in his late 80s. And he was still doing seminars, and he was in a big group at the time, he was already wheelchair bound. And he asked the audience to imagine the worst thing that could happen to them. Now the worst thing that could happen to somebody one of the audience members offered, well, you could get run over by a bulldozer, there's literally nothing worse, right? So Albert Ellis at at the time squeaks over in his wheelchair, and he rolls up to this person. And then he asked them at what speed was the bulldozer driving when you got run over. So this is one of the the fundamental illustrations of this concept. So I'm stuck in this team, everybody's miserable. My team members are gone, they're absent. They're not connecting with me. There's so much stress, there's people literally yelling at me, how could that be worse? Oh, it doesn't take that much imagination. You know, there could be an international pandemic, for instance, not that that would happen, or some team member could have died, literally, that would have been a lot worse, I could have gotten really sick, I could have gotten depressed, for instance. And I could imagine that even externally to the team, things might happen, you know, the company might go bankrupt, we might all be out of a job. Now, these kinds of things, you would think they would make you feel worse, but what they generally tend to do is the more actively you try and imagine the situation being worse than it is, the better you feel about the situation you're in. So literally imagining in this case, I focused on Chris, Chris was one of the more stable factors more amiable guys in the teams. I imagined that Chris got sick and died. And I imagined this to such a detail that you picture yourself going to bring flowers to his hospital bed. You imagine going to the funeral and holding hands with his wife and consoling her try and be as imaginative as possible about the bad situation and how you would feel and let it impact you. So a really good imagination helps a lot with this type of exercise. Again, this is one I also use a lot with my kids say you fall down you scrape your knee. One of the things I like to do with them is you know, it could be a lot worse you could have just [not a you know you You, you could have] had an elephant step on your toe. And then my kids by now they're very used to me. And they're very practised at this. So they have their own favourites, which they add to it. So after the initial screaming sort of subsides, that'd be like, Yeah, well, house could have fallen on my head, Mommy, like, yes, a house could have fallen on your head, that would have been much worse, and then an aeroplane could have come out of the sky and dropped on us. Yes. So that that that would definitely have been much worse. And so this is a way that helps them sort of relative relatively put the harm that they're currently in in perspective that he has, it could be much worse. There's another side to this as well, which is in dealing with these hardships. Now everyone has situations in their lives, which are incredibly tough to deal with. And I think that's something that when you are in a situation you're in, it's good to reflect back on. If you have had times in your past that were worse. This is the moment to go back to those journals, dig it back up, bring those emotions back up, and realise that at the time you got through those, and also, right now it's maybe not as bad. So it helps you to put those feelings into perspective.

Another good exercise to do when it comes to feeling Imagining The worst is to have these morning reflections. I like to take some time, particularly when I'm feeling stressed to just spend a few minutes in the morning reflecting on a stoic quote. Now I have a little app. And it serves me up a quote by Seneca or Marcus Aurelius every morning. And one of the things I do is I do these writing exercises because it helps me to calm down. Now the writing exercise is look at the quote and try and personalise it. So put it in a way that works for you, a kind of wisdom, a little book of wisdom in the end that you take with you. That's the goal of this. So you get things like this. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman Emperor, and he had to deal with a lot of politics. There was a lot of backstabbing going on, and people asking things of him the entire day. So you get a quote like this "Begin in the morning saying to myself, I shall meet with a busy buddy, the ungrateful, the arrogant, the deceitful, the envious and the unsocial." Now, before you suffer through the entire quote, I'll give you something that's a lot more manageable in these days. So this is my translation. "In the morning, I begin by saying to myself, today, I shall meet the indecisive product owner, the incompetent developer, the irate manager, and the coffee machine that never works, right. And it really spits out the most disgusting coffee in the world. I have dealt with these before. And those I know I can do. So again, I will not let them make me miserable for it is my view of them that makes them annoying. (Again, I'll repeat this part, it's my view of them, that makes this so annoying.) And this I can change, I can decide that I am not annoyed by any of these things, it's within my power to do so". So this is a way that I really like to be involved with the stoic practice, pretty much every morning, I'll take one of these quotes that my little app serves up to me. And I'll translate them in a way that makes sense to me. And this is my Book of Wisdom. And I keep it with me at all times. So I would recommend this for especially the people that like to journal or to work things out on paper, this is a great way of doing that. At the end, I'm going to link you again to somebody who's very good at guiding you through this process. All right. So that's exercise number one, not just imagining the worst that could have happened or imagining something that is worse, but also imagining yourself capable of dealing with them or changing your perspective on them in dealing with them.

Then comes another exercise and this is more meditative. ( /Background Noise/ Google was just triggered.) Alright, the view from above, taking a different perspective. Now in this case, it's an exercise of cognitively distancing yourself. Now, what this means is basically taking yourself right out of that most urgent emotional reaction and creating some distance to me. So the thing with this team Team Miserable is I want to try and make it as small as possible. So instead of feeling in the middle of things, dealing with Joe not being there, knowing that, William is leaving, I zoom out of it a bit. And I do this mentally just sitting by myself. It can be anywhere. It doesn't have to be in a closed space. But I sort of zoom out of the room and I look at us from above. We're sitting in the office, or at least at home right now. But I zoom out of that space like, okay, taking a step back, this team is part of a department, this department is in this company, this company is in this city, it's in this country, and I assume out and out and out until I feel that I am standing quite above everything. So I zoom out, basically, to the top of a mountain. That's the idea. And as I'm standing on top of this mountain, everyone that's down there, they're just tiny, tiny little ants being really busy about their lives, going through the Marketplace, going to work, being upset over trains being late, but I'm on top of the mountain, so I'm not in the middle of it. And this exercise, disassociates your mind from the urgency of the here and now. And it's a way to create calm again. So this is another way to sort of distance your emotions from the shitty situation that you're in. And this one can be used at any time. If you're feeling overwhelmed, right at that moment, it's a good exercise to do. I also like to add a lot of empathy into the people I'm seeing from the top of this mountain. Because to me, that just feels very natural. But that's a personal thing, not necessarily a stoic thing. So when I'm up there, I'm also very sympathetic towards the people that are rushing around trying to get their work done, everybody's obviously doing their best. And from this distance, it actually looks a bit like an anthill. And all the ants are very productively trying to help and contribute to the anthill itself. And I'm very happy. So it feels very calm. And yes, there is also a way of sort of backing out even more and going into space. But you have to think stoicism at this time, you know, so many thousands of years ago, did not have this perspective so much yet. But there is even more of a zoom out. astronauts do talk a lot about this view from space as well. So looking at the earth at this beautiful, very zen, blue green ball just floating through space, not bothering anyone. But this is just to cut the tie between you and the emotions you're feeling at that very moment. So this is an excellent one, to sort of use as a break on the day itself. Whereas the morning reflections, I would suggest doing those outside of work. Alright, so that's the technique looking from above, now, there's a guided meditation that I really like. And I've linked it in the post at the end, where it will take you through like Joanna just did, and talk you through the steps of distancing yourself. And that could be something that works really well for you. Personally, I find them really triggered by certain voices when they speak to me. And this is a voice that I really like. But there is so much in there that is personal. So if that's not necessarily the thing for you, maybe take one of your own, or just walk through it yourself, in your mind, it still works. And it's a really useful little stress reducing method.

The third one, the third exercise, the universe works in mysterious ways. And basically, this is finding acceptance that you are exactly where you are supposed to be. Now, this is a little bit more active. And it's more about thinking that you are now dealing with the situation at exactly the level of stress that you are capable of dealing with. So this is finding strength in yourself. This is thinking about, sort of you live, you learn mentality. And I put it into this little graph to sort of illustrate it to people. As you grow as you grow, especially in terms of managing stress and dealing with life situations. You sort of start out by dealing with some tough stuff, you have to find your first job, then you get some tougher stuff, maybe one of your parents is ill and you have to care take then maybe you have to deal with some ninja expert level tough stuff, maybe there is an international pandemic going on. And you have to deal with your kids and your cats and your husband 24/7, and maybe that's ninja expert level stuff. But you know, you've been through the other tough stuff. So you know, you are where you're supposed to be because if you weren't in this situations, then obviously you weren't growing. You weren't learning and just by being in that tough stuff that's gonna make you such a ninja expert level, tough shit dealer. So that, you know, there's something to be really proud of there. Yes, life is really complicated. It's difficult. There are things to take care of. There's ourselves to take care of, and we are in this current international pandemic. But having gone through this, you'll be so resilient coming out of it, and that's something to be proud of. Because you are dealing and you are capable. So there's a lot of comfort in that thought so when I was dealing with T misery I took a lot of comfort from that from thinking, "well, this is my first job as a consultant. But God, every job after this is going to be so much easier to deal with. Because I'm now learning this level of resilience that's just unknown. You know, people don't deal with these type of team miseries every day, this is ninja expert level stuff. I'm so proud of myself."

All right. Now, a bonus. And this is an extra one I added after I gave the presentation the first time because these three methods are about acceptance, they are about learning to be calm, they're about dealing with the internal emotions that you're in. But there's a very large component in stoicism that is not so I would say passive. So there's a prayer that almost everybody knows because it's used by Alcoholics Anonymous, but it's actually a stoic quote, it's based on that. And that is helped me accept the things I can and change the things I cannot accept. So all of these three exercises, so far have been about accepting the world as it is dealing with the fact that you're in the mud, you're in there dealing with the tough shit. And you're learning to accept and deal with that. The other side of this coin is action oriented. So help me now to deal with this by taking action. So what if acceptance is not enough? There are times when things need to change. And there's not the option of just sitting there being happy about the fact that you're now dealing with this tough stuff and being proud of yourself. I mean, it helps. But some things need to change. And there are reasons that in stoicism, these two things are balanced, they're seen as a dichotomy. There is a lot to do with: When do you take action? When do you accept people as they are? When do you accept situations as they are? So what they recommend is then entering the arena. And this is a lot of echoes with Bernie Brown, because I'm a major fan of hers. But basically, she always says that, if you're unhappy with the situation you're in, that's when you enter the arena. That's when you show up you as your authentic self. And you go and you do battle. And this is the most active version I can think of this is deciding that okay, Team Misery, everybody wake up, I'm now going to tell you, we are going to change. And we're going to try and do that. Spoiler alert, none of this works in Team Misery. But I did decide in a few areas that I would be more proactive. So one of the main things in terms of doing battle, which was very scary for me, is I went face to face with Joe, our product owner, the first next time that he yelled at the team, I took him apart, we went into a room and I told him if you ever speak to me that way, again, there's no way anybody's ever going to listen to anything you say. And we discussed it, we talked about it, it worked out really well. In the end, he only yelled at our suppliers and all the other departments but no longer at the team. So I wouldn't say that was a battle one. But it was helpful. So there is a very active side to stoicism as well where you have to deal with the situation that you're in. And Marcus Aurelius knew this very well, he was at one point betrayed by his brother who tried to usurp his throne. So he knew very well. And there's some wonderful quotes about accepting the humanity of his brother, the folly of wanting what he wanted, being very clear that, obviously his brother was still doing his best. And he was very accepting of that. But he still had to go and take his army, and go and put down the rebellion. So there's that dichotomy constantly. One thing I would advise in terms of using these stoic exercises, is to separate them in the moments of practice, you don't want to be both trying to accept the overbearing yelling product owner and at the same time, be thinking about how you're going to take action to change that type of behaviour. So you want to separate those two, in time, if not in days, so you can balance that stress management. S

o in the end, this is what it's all about, right? The Happy ending? Well, this is life, there are no happy endings. And the stoics are very clear about that. They basically say you have a choice you are dealing with this life as it is, if you don't like it, go ahead and leave. They're very clear about that. And it's very confrontational, this attitude towards death. But they're basically saying if you're sticking with it, if you're staying in this battle, you're staying in this life, then you have a duty to try and be wise and virtuous and be more or less open. All of the time, if you think you can't, and the only rational option for you is to not then go and do that. It's an incredibly pragmatic way of looking at things. And I find a lot of comfort in it. But I'm sure a lot of people will find that one quite tough. So this is the goal for me, I want to be more or less, and this part's very important, more or less, okay, all of the time. That doesn't mean I don't get sad ,doesn't mean I don't get annoyed. I really do. It doesn't mean I don't get frustrated or angry or happy or ecstatic. But more or less, most of the time, I'm very calm. Alright, here's a wonderful little Bonanza of links and quotes and stuff for you. The first one is my favourite sites, modern stoicism dot com. The one below that is the hyperlink to the meditation exercise. There's a conference coming up in October, it's going to be virtual this year is going to be my third time attending. It's absolutely wonderful if you want to sort of get an introduction real quick, stoic, con 2020. There's also a really great stoic week, which is coming up. It's usually in November. This one's awesome, guys, because what they do is they send you a questionnaire with about 160 questions on it. I'm slightly exaggerating, but they measure how stoic you are at the moment. And then you do these exercises with them for a week. And then they measure how much more stoic you have become. I'm a big fan of science. So I love the fact that this is measurable. In terms of journaling, and these writing exercises, 'the stoic writer.com', it's, awesome, lady, Kristen, she'll guide you through, she'll help you with all the exercises. And in terms of books, there's 'how to think like a Roman Emperor' by Donald Robertson, and of course, 'how to stubbornly refuse to be miserable about anything' by Albert Ellis Yeah, I see, I haven't put the app up there. But I'll quickly look that up for you. It's called 'the stoic' is the app that I use. It just serves up one quote a day, it's quite basic, actually, although the stoic writer will help you out with that as well, they'll send you an email. And they do tend to work in themes, which I like. So there's that.

All right, everybody, I want to thank you so much for your attention. If you do want to reach out to me, I'll be hanging around in 'gather town', of course. And you can tweet at me or just email me or anything like that. Also, at some point, I'd really like to set up a modern stowa in the Netherlands. It's sort of one of my mini dreams. So if anyone's interested in that, you know, look me up. We'll do that. And now I've sure I've time for a few questions. Thank you so much. And I noticed your question about John's resemblance to a certain historical person. I don't know why he decided to do that. During Corona. It was he all of a sudden he grew the little moustache and and he kept with it. And we kept joking to him about it, but he was quite oblivious to any feedback on how he was looking. I think that was part of his charm. like not being very good at responding to how people felt about the way he acted or looked.

That's one way to put it.

All right, what happened with Team Misery? Yeah, I get this question a lot, um, in the end four people left. So it started with me replacing a team member and then four more people were replaced. So we only had Hohn and Joe left as original team members. And we got better as a team not so much as a project but as a team it did improve with the new people. And in the end we completed the project and that was it money was done and there was no way to continue we wanted to, we saw finally we were making progress. But yeah, we had a little as you call it bottle so we a little meeting with some beers. And the product owner was again asking us about why certain issues he was still blaming kind of find some culprits for why certain issues had gone wrong. And this is a month after the project ended. So yeah, Team Misery, it's a good thing. They are no longer there. It's it stopped now.

All right. Next question. Another one from Vaaleur first apologise and don't apologise everything is perfectly fine.

So how did you get interested? Yeah, stoicism i think is making a really big comeback right now during the pandemic. So it's not a niche thing anymore. But when I started out two years ago, certainly almost nobody had heard of it. For me, I was guided into it by a coach. I was in a tough situation that a previous employer, a manager I was having trouble dealing with. I think a lot of us have that in our past and he pointed me towards These techniques.

Yeah. Cool. Then we have one more question. I'm not sure what it means I am missing some pop culture or movie culture. But did the Team Misery get a Kathy Bates.

No, so they didn't. So the team just ended. I didn't really manage to turn any of those things around. And I tried within the bounds of what I felt I wanted to do, I was very careful about managing my energy in terms of trying to change an entire team. I did feel very responsible for it, especially having come from other places where usually I am the social glue within a group. But I was very careful about managing how I did and didn't try and help this particular team. And I was much more focused on coming out of it. More or less, okay.

Okay, thank you very much.

About the talk

This talk was originally titled "Teaching resilience: How to stubbornly refuse to be miserable about absolutely anything."

This presentation is a practical guide to dealing with stuff that makes you miserable. I’ll teach you an exercise (or two) how to stubbornly refuse to let things make you miserable. The answers are rooted in stoicism, and no, I promise it won’t be a philosophy lesson. I’m sticking to the practical, hands-on exercises that help at the moment. Attend this presentation and you’ll never be miserable again, about anything!

About Sanne Visser

Winner of the EuroSTAR RisingSTAR Award 2018 – Chairperson for the Meetup “Blockchain Testing Community” in the Netherlands and passionate software tester. Working as Blockchain tester at Capgemini. Sanne is passionate about quality, developing best practices for blockchain that traditional software development doesn’t have answers for yet.

She is an experienced public speaker. Sanne has been a stoic philosophy enthusiast for the past three years. She has attended Stoicon twice, 2018 and 2019. She is a part of the modern stoic group and follows along with stoic week, a practical exercise to live like a stoic’, every year.

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Sanne Visser


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