[Feel free to submit a question for this column, but please consider that it has become very popular and there now is a backlog, it may take me some time to get to yours.]
M. writes: I’m currently a college student nearing graduation and I’m curious how a Stoic sage might approach the problem of job hunting. While I’ve been looking for a full-time job, I’ve been cognizant of the trichotomy of control and so I understand that almost all of the hiring process (such as when/whether I get called for an interview, if I get an offer, etc.) is completely outside of my control. I’ve realized though that there are a few key moments in the process where I do have control: one is which positions I apply to, and the other is whether to accept a job offer (if given).
From my point of view, those decisions appear to be completely within my control, but it’s not clear how I should think about those decisions. The field I’m going into (electrical engineering) is wonderful because it’s full of opportunities and many different career paths. The problem is that the plethora of choices can be it’s own burden. Which industry should I go into? Should I apply at a small company? A large company? Should I only apply to positions that seem interesting or a good fit, or should I literally apply to every position I can find and accept the first good choice offered (i.e., satisfice)?
My inner Epictetus says to just take whatever is the easiest to acquire and learn to enjoy it, but I’m having difficulty letting go of the control I have. I want to serve society as best as I can, so I feel like I should be aiming higher than merely satisfying my own needs. Do you have any suggestions on how I can apply Stoic principles to help clarify what I should focus on?
I think there are three ways of approaching your problem from a Stoic perspective. One invokes the concept of preferred indifferents; the second one brings in the discipline of action and the related virtue of justice; and the third one is something I haven’t talk about on this blog yet, but about which I’m preparing a series of posts: Epictetus’ role ethics.
Let’s start with the obvious: preferred indifferents. Not only which particular job you end up having, but even having a job to begin with is, of course, a preferred indifferent. As I’m sure you know, this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter, it just means that your profession, or even having a profession, is not going to affect your moral integrity and your practice of the virtues. That said, unless you want to go Cynic, you will need a job, and it would be preferable if your job has certain characteristics, both in terms of your preferences and of society at large.
Which brings me to the second point: the discipline of action and the virtue of justice. Justice for the Stoics means to treat others with respect and fairness, and more generally to strive to be useful to society at large. Here is Marcus, for instance:
“Do what is necessary, and whatever the reason of a social animal naturally requires, and as it requires.” (Meditations IV.2)
“Where the end is, there also is the advantage and the good of each thing. Now the good for the reasonable animal is society.” (Meditations V.16)
“So long as nothing of the kind drives me out, I remain, am free, and no man shall hinder me from doing what I choose; and I choose to do what is according to the nature of the rational and social animal.” (Meditations V.29)
This ought to tell you that, other things being equal, a socially useful job is better than one that is not particularly socially useful. That means that a satisficing approach is not good enough. Indeed, you yourself explicitly say that you want to feel socially useful. So you don’t want to just accept any job, nor do you want to go into a profession irrespectively of its effect on society at large. Now, we are talking about electrical engineering, and I’m not sufficiently versed in that field to give you more specific advice. But to see what I’m getting at, imagine you were going into medicine instead. There you could rank different specialties according to social value, where, for instance, the very remunerative plastic surgery for celebrities would end up at the bottom of the scale, while working for a field NGO like Doctors Without Borders would probably be very high. Of course, not everyone is cut out to work with DWB, so you might want to look for alternatives that are more suitable to your personality and preferences, and yet still rank as high as possible in terms of social value. Does it make sense for you to look at the choices available within your field in this fashion?
Now that we are talking about personality and preferences, we get to the third approach: role ethics. I’ve just finished a fascinating book by Brian Johnson: The Role Ethics of Epictetus: Stoicism in Ordinary Life. I’m planning a series of blog posts to discuss several chapters in the book, but you may want to take a look at it in the meantime.
Johnson’s main point is that Epictetus, while accepting standard Stoic ethics framed in terms of the virtues, and of course also explicitly articulating the distinction among the three disciplines (desire, action, and assent), elaborates a rather novel additional approach based on the multiple roles we play in society.
The idea of the ethical valence of roles was not new for the Stoics. For instance, Cicero discusses it in De Officiis, which is based on a now lost work by the middle Stoic Panaetius (the teacher of Posidonius, who in turn was a teacher of Cicero), entitled “Concerning Proper Function.”
Cicero/Panaetius proposes an analysis of ethics in terms of four roles (personae) that each of us may play: (i) as a human being; (ii) in terms of our personality; (iii) considering our social standing; and (iv) in terms of career choice. You may want to check out chapter 8 of Johnson’s book, and particularly what he has to say about role (iv).
But I agree with Johnson that Epictetus’ account of roles is both more broad and more sophisticated than the one offered by Cicero/Panaetius, so I’ll talk briefly about that one, again referring you to the book, or at the least to my forthcoming posts, for more.
Epictetus’ first, and more fundamental, role for us is that of a human being (similar to role (i) for Cicero/Panaetius). As human beings, we ought to use our faculty of prohairesis (volition) to make correct judgments about what is and is not under our control, as well as about any other matter regarding which we have “impressions” that need to be given or denied assent. As far as your problem is concerned, this basically confirms my advice above: to think of jobs as preferred indifferents, but within that category to try to select a career that is as virtuous (in particular in terms of justice) as possible.
Epictetus then — unlike Cicero/Panaetius — does not proceed to give us a list of roles, because there are many (e.g., father, son, co-worker, boss, friend, companion, public official, and so on). Rather, he gives us criteria by which to both locate our specific roles and to judge whether we are “playing” them well.
The Epictetean criteria are: (a) our specific natural abilities; (b) our social relations (both natural, like parent or child, and acquired, like spouse or neighbor); (c) our personal choices (which enter into the equation when our capacities allow us to pursue more than one possible career); and (d) “divine” signs (or, in modern parlance, the feeling of having a special “call”).
I assume you have already taken (a) into consideration. After all, one doesn’t attempt to pursue a career in electrical engineering if one isn’t good at, say, math and physics, as well as practical stuff. I also assume you have already factored in (c), meaning that you have chosen this particular field in preference to other professions that your abilities might have allowed you to pursue.
We will set aside (d) because Epictetus is clear that very few people get the call, and it doesn’t sound to me from what you write that you did (I could be wrong, of course!). The classic example of someone getting the call to pursue a special life is Socrates, though I think this is also the way a lot of artists and writers, and even scientists (such as myself) would describe it.
We are then left with (b), thinking about the question at hand in terms of your social relations. This one could be useful to you because you mention, for instance, the alternatives of working for a small company or for a large corporation. In both instances you would play the role of employee (and, perhaps, eventually, of boss). Is there something in your personality that makes you think that you would be better able to play that role in one rather than the other environment?
Another way to deploy (b) is indirectly. It’s possible that at some point you will want a long-term relationship (if you are not already in one), and maybe children. That adds one or two more roles to your portfolio: partner and father. How will your profession influence how well (i.e., virtuously) you will be able to perform these additional roles? Those are all good questions to keep in mind while you ponder your choices.
Johnson says that Epictetus’ role ethics puts at the forefront the practice of self-analysis, and it seems to me you are at a juncture in your life where self-analysis is going to be crucial. You have started the process already, I hope the above considerations will be helpful to you to move forward.