To quote Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself, everyone else is taken.” Sounds easy enough. The reality is of course rather different. As our working patterns continue to evolve in both complexity and form, the nature of our connections to one another can become strained and it can be really tough to hang onto a clear sense of self. One of the most common ways that people cope with this is to assume different modes or persona in the varying contexts of their lives. Mum, manager, friend, colleague, partner, dog-walker, runner, stamp-enthusiast, etc ad nauseam. In many ways this approach is a practical solution, but I fear that by siloing these aspects of our lives we run the risk of segmenting our sense of self along the way.
This dissolving of self worries me for three reasons. Firstly, and crucially, because it creates vulnerabilities around the mental health and wellbeing of individuals. Secondly because it makes it more difficult for individuals to work effectively within their various roles. And finally, it creates a concerning legacy of behaviours which are being modelled to the next generation of workers. We need to be embodying authentic and sustainable working and living patterns in order to care for ourselves and to ensure the wellbeing of the next generation.
I am very interested in the philosophical ideas of Epicurus as a guide to gaining an authentic sense of self amidst the melee of life. Epicurus lived from 341-270 BC and, in a nutshell, the purpose of his philosophical approach was to attain and retain a happy life. Such a life should be characterised by ataraxia, (freedom for fear) aponia, (the absence of pain and presence of pleasure) and by living your life surrounded by friends who know you well and understand you. Now Epicurus wrote extensively on topics from ageing to epistemology, he was prolific in that regard. I don’t want to focus on his writings, rather I wanted to share with you a rather wonderful physical legacy of Epicurean thought left to us by a man called Diogenes of Oenoanda.
At some point between 117-138 AD, almost 400 years after the death of Epicurus, Diogenes acquired a piece of land in the city of Oenoanda, in the Muğla Province in modern day Turkey. On this land he constructed a rectangular piazza surrounded by a portico, and furnished with statues. On the two longer sides he inscribed a lengthy account of Epicurean doctrines. The inscription was 2.37 metres high, and extended about 80 metres, a fairly enormous undertaking. The inscription references various topics but, predominantly, focuses upon why happiness and authenticity ought to be the driving purpose of our lives. Why on earth did he do this? In short, Diogenes was worried that his fellow citizens were failing to flourish and he wanted to share with them a way to become, and stay, happy. The really wonderful thing is that it worked. Evidence suggests that the people of Oenoanda lived as Epicureans for many moons, indeed there are still some small communities within Southern Turkey where an Epicurean lifestyle is pursued to this day.
A nice enough piece of history, but why have I taken up your time thinking about it? Because, the most important lesson that history has to teach us is that our human fallibilities are pretty constant over thousands of years and that, in the end, the solutions lie in re-orientating back to what makes us happy. We perhaps need to take a leaf out of Diogenes’ book (or wall…) and surround ourselves with reminders of how to live a better, happier life. If we could consistently do that we would be able to solve the three problems I highlighted earlier on. The mental health and wellbeing of individuals would improve; and we would be happier and more effective in a workplace context. Now, popping my work hat back on (!), we would also be in a much better position to present an authentic version of ourselves and our working lives to the next generation. Happier people are better able to talk honestly and openly about the jobs they do in a way that young people can understand and connect with.
As any experienced teacher will tell you, young people have a fantastic way of sniffing out when adults are putting on an act. They want people to be themselves, to tell the truth and to be authentic. At Founders4Schools we provide an online platform that connects educators to the community of business leaders local to them. The very best feedback we have from schools always comes from educators and young people who have had a volunteer come in and communicate authentically about themselves, their vocation and their purpose. Young people are of course just adults without the edges rubbed off, and I suspect that they’d think the people of Oenoanda were on the right track as well. So, be yourself.