Stoic advice: how do I balance career and life?

M. writes: I am 28 years old, doing my PhD in evolutionary biology. I have a young family and am often struggling to combine the different aspects of my life with my own values, and as a result make mistakes on a regular basis. Now, one would think that a scientist is mostly guided by logic and rational thinking, and that this therefore makes him well suited to Stoicism. But my impression is that a lot of fellow scientists are anything but logical and rational thinking, and I know that I am often not. There are so many potential frustrations, e.g., financial insecurity, short contracts, low chance to get a permanent job, unfair judgment of success by publications, or simply that an experiment hasn’t worked for the 100th time.

All of the above should be considered non-preferred indifferents, since I do not have any control over a lot of these issues, or maybe a small portion of control. And I do try to accept the risks and potential pitfalls of my choice to pursue a PhD. At the same time, I try to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I think to myself, ‘If I am going to decide to carry on with science with a PostDoc, then I surely need to make smart decisions, so prepare yourself, network, choose the right lab. However, often enough I find myself in a place of utter frustration about the circumstances. ‘Why have I just spent ten hours in the lab working hard, without getting any scientific or personal benefit from it, and have not spent it with my child and wife?’ ‘If the chances of success are low and unfair, wouldn’t I be better off in a normal job (whatever that is…)?’

So my questions are: how would a prokopton deal with the inner discourse of scientific fascination and (potential) negative real-world consequences? and what are some steps I can take to counteract improve the odds, to continue on with my scientific career?

To begin with, know that your situation is far from unusual, and it actually is very similar to my own early career path, back in the 1990s. I came to the United States on a six-month fellowship, without assurance of further funding down the road. I got a postdoc position thanks to my PhD advisor, but it was guaranteed only for a year, which meant either obtaining more funds or getting a job in that short period. Then came the low paid tenure track position (but hey, at least it was tenure track, which is more than a lot of young colleagues are likely to obtain now). Peace of mind only came in my late ‘30s, once I secured tenure and could engage in better long term planning. Even so, my daughter grew up far from me, and a marriage that I thought would be the thing ended in part for reasons related to my career. Indeed, the first decision I made that prioritized quality of life over work came only in my mid-40s, when I decided to move to New York City without a job at a local university. All of this to say that I have a lot of sympathy for what you are going through.

That said, you seem to have a good grasp of Stoic theory: yes, career, quality of life, and even your family are all preferred indifferents, meaning — of course — not that you don’t care about them, but that they do not affect your value as a person. One can have all of that and be a shitty human being, and one can lack all of it while being virtuous and living a life worth living.

Also, as you note, those externals are outside of your control, as you do not determine any of those outcomes. Yes, you can influence the odds of succeeding at a career as a scientist, and you can work on your family relations. But ultimately only your efforts are under your control, not the actual outcomes. That is why the Stoics counsel to focus on those efforts, but then to accept whatever outcome with equanimity, as getting angry or frustrated at the lack of success only adds self-inflicted injury to the already existing one.

Understanding the above is no rocket science. Putting it into practice is very hard. Which is why Epictetus says:

“If you didn’t learn these things in order to demonstrate them in practice, what did you learn them for?” (Discourses I, 29.35)

But he also explains what it means to practice:

“If from the moment they get up in the morning they adhere to their ideals, eating and bathing like a person of integrity, putting their principles into practice in every situation they face – the way a runner does when he applies the principles of running, or a singer those of musicianship – that is where you will see true progress embodied, and find someone who has not wasted their time making the journey here from home.” (Discourses I, 4.20)

What he means is that you can’t afford to be a weekend Stoic, so to speak. You need to be mindful, in the Stoic sense, every day, every minute. That experiment failed for the 100th time? Repeat to yourself: “it was just an experiment, my worth as a human being does not depend on it.” (Then, if I may, change experiment, approach things from a different angle, there is no sense in wasting more time and resources in pursuit of something that stubbornly refuses to work.)

Did you not get that job interview or grant funded? Repeat to yourself: “it was just a job interview (or a grant proposal), my worth as a human being does not depend on it.” (Then, again, consider seriously if it is worth submitting the same proposal again, rather than writing a new one; or, more pointedly, if you are applying for the right jobs with the right resume.)

As you say, you knew going into this that the odds were low and the amount of sacrifice required high. Don’t misunderstand me: I wouldn’t trade it for any other job in the world. But I got lucky, as it takes talent, effort, and luck to succeed in academia, with the latter playing by far the largest role, unfortunately. Early on, I did have to consider alternative career paths, in case my first choice stubbornly refused to work out. Lucky for me I never had to go for plan B, but it is always wise to have a plan B.

And of course this isn’t true only in academia. If you wanted to become an actor, a writer, a musician, a painter, or an athlete, you’d be facing far worse odds and an even more demanding set of sacrifices. I realize that to be told “it could be worse” is meager consolation, but Stoics are supposed to look at reality as it is, to the best of our knowledge, not as how we wished it would be.

Which brings me to the trade-offs between your career path and the rest of your life, particularly your family. There the major Stoic resource is Epictetus’ role ethics, a development of a previous version of the concept by Panaetius. I covered Brian Johnson’s brilliant book on this topic in six posts, though the book itself is well worth reading.

Basically, Epictetus thought that we have three sets of roles: the fundamental one as a human being, a member of the human polis; the roles that are assigned to us by the Logos (being a son, being born in a certain society); and the roles that we choose based on our character and preferences (our career, but also our relationships).

The primary role is that of a human, and it trumps all others. Every time you make a decision, Stoically speaking, you should ask yourself whether you are doing right by humankind. After that, each role tells you what to do by its very label (allowing, of course, for personal interpretation of each role as broadly defined by society):

“And next, if you’re sitting on the council of some city, remember that you’re a councillor; if you’re young, remember that you’re young; if an old man, remember that you’re an old man; if a father, remember that you’re a father. For each of these names, if carefully considered, indicates the actions that are appropriate to it.” (Discourses, II.10.10-11)

Neither Epictetus nor I can tell you what to do. It is up to you to navigate the complexities of your life. But Stoic principles provide a framework, a compass of sorts, to help you in that navigation. So you need to ask yourself how much are you willing to sacrifice not just personally, but also in terms of your family, in order to pursue your chosen career. What are your duties to yourself, to your partner, to your children, if you have any? While you consider this, remember:

“You’re the one who knows yourself, and knows what value you set on yourself, and at what price you’ll sell yourself; for different people sell themselves at different prices. … Only, consider at what price you’re willing to sell your power of choice. If nothing else, make sure, man, that you don’t sell it cheap.” (Discourses I.2.11,33)

I truly and sincerely wish you the best of luck.

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Categories: Stoic advice

6 replies

  1. Hi Massimo, thank you again to have given space to the relationship between Stoicism and academic life. I would like to add only one further problem not listed in the letter above: “detachment” from the human community around you. As always happens, PhD research drains all my time (weekends included) and often is an isolating experience; although I am doing it with great pleasure due to my love for philosophy. However, it brings to focus more and more on your studies and to neglect what happens around you. With the consequence — at least for me — to perceive myself less and less part of what Stoics defined as the universal community of humankind. Thing contradictory, if you think that humanities should engage indeed with humans and their way to understand the world. Any suggestion?

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  2. Thank you very much. I appreciate your writings.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Alessio,

    I know exactly what you mean. My advice is going to be trivial: get out of the office, from time to time. If you need to, make a note on your calendar about taking a break and enjoying your faimly. as Seneca put it (at the end of On Tranquillity of Mind):

    “Cato used to refresh his mind with wine after he had wearied it with application to affairs of state, and Scipio would move his triumphal and soldierly limbs to the sound of music. … It does good also to take walks out of doors, that our spirits may be raised and refreshed by the open air and fresh breeze: sometimes we gain strength by driving in a carriage, by travel, by change of air, or by social meals and a more generous allowance of wine: at times we ought to drink even to intoxication, not so as to drown, but merely to dip ourselves in wine: for wine washes away troubles and dislodges them from the depths of the mind, and acts as a remedy to sorrow as it does to some diseases.”

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  4. Thanks for this post Massimo. Every word resonates with me haha 😂.

    I’m also a PhD student but also a mum bringing up a kid with special needs. Some days I feel the PhD = a demanding kid. 24/7 attention is needed and constantly occupies my mind.

    However, 3 years ago, I was in a well paid job, spending all my spare time playing my favorite sports and partying with my friends. It feels like a completely different life back then! 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. My plan B? Journalism. A friend who worked at one of the major Italian newspapers was keen on getting me hired there.

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