Applying Philosophy to Design Thinking: Stoicism

Design is about human experience. What’s a better way to learn how to think and how people think other than learning some philosophy? Especially if it can be applied daily to realistic circumstances and is not abstract or controversial.

Stoicism: What Stands In the Way Becomes the Way

I highly suggest that you learn the philosophy and techniques of stoicism. Some examples of famous stoics are Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Ulysses S. Grant, George Washington, Margaret Thatcher, Barack Obama, Apollonius, Abraham Lincoln, and Steve Jobs. When you have a goal, always stay focused on that goal no matter what steps are necessary to get there. Ryan Holiday, media strategist and writer, clearly articulates this in his book The Daily Stoic, where he distills the classic philosophy of stoicism into daily application in our careers and personal lives:

“…he (Marcus Aurelius) concluded with powerful words destined for maxim.

‘The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.’

In Marcus’ words is the secret to an art known as turning obstacles upside down. To act with “a reverse clause” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.’”

Stoicism teaches you that obstacles actually become the way to reach your goal. If you can turn a negative situation upside down (or Turning the Obstacle Upside Down, as it’s known), you will redirect and channel the energy into something positive. An example is if you’re a manager on a marketing campaign and there’s a snag with the original plan of implementation. Instead of lamenting that the original plan of implementation didn’t work, you look at other options for implementation by stepping back. A lot of times in the workplace, projects don’t go exactly as we planned, so if we can stay cool, we can then channel our frustrations into focus, control, and tactical precision to get the job done. You can use these obstacles to practice a virtue, from a place of non ego and truth, such as patience, courage humility, resourcefulness, justice and creativity.

Perception has two definitions: The ability to see, hear, or become aware of something through the senses” andA way of regarding, understanding, or interpreting something; a mental impression.”

Perception is how we make choices. How you view the world affects everything you do and feel. If you’re able to face obstacles and change your way of viewing those obstacles, that’s when you can take action. Instead of spinning your wheels or getting anxious about something just make a plan and go do it. Go get it done. If we choose to be negative, we will be negative and not productive in a constructive way. With your perception of the world, make sure to have clarity on the things in our power and the things that are not in our power.

Choose to be confident to accomplish something. That is the difference between people who do great things, who accomplish the unthinkable, and those who do not. Be open to questioning reality and to go beyond what others say or think. This doesn’t mean to have your head in the clouds, but to have a goal with a gameplan on how to get things done.

Here’s a handy list from Ryan Holiday’s website with suggestions one lives by in regards to daily practical stoicism:

Don’t make things harder than they need to be
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Viktor Frankel, Neurologist, Psychiatrist and Founder of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis

Say a frustrating boss or coworker comes up to you and demands that you do your design a certain way. Instead of saying “no,” which usually escalates this type of situation, step back and look at the larger picture. Is everything that they’re asking unreasonable? Usually, it’s not or at least part of it is not unreasonable. Rise up to the occasion and agree to do part of it, or all, if it’s an insignificant thing. Why waste energy on arguing on small tasks when you could have it done already? Or, if you really do disagree with most of what they say, take a step back, and give a suggestion on an improvement to whatever project you’re working on. This ties back into design thinking.

Impossible without your consent
Our emotions are what we feel. They do not come from external sources. Yes, outside of your body there may be a ton of projects to do because your boss doesn’t understand expectations, which in turn may cause you anger, frustration and stress. However, you have control over how you feel. It’s your perception of the situation that needs to change. Why not channel those feelings into accomplishing each task, until everything is done? That’s a better way to use your time, to flip the situation and turn something negative into something positive.

A proper frame of mind
We need to be the ones in control, not our emotions. Don’t let society tell you that you have to drink or eat cookies just because you’re offered one. Don’t let your boss jerk you around just because they’re trying to do so.

Keep it simple
Stay focused on what needs to be done. Act as the master of your craft, free of a distracted mind, and you will be able to create solutions to problems that you’ve never been able to before.

Never do anything out of habit
“Ask yourself: Is this really the best way to do it? Know why you do what you do—do it for the right reasons.” — Ryan Holiday

Always push yourself out of your comfort zone and the way things have been done. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again to get the same outcome. If you’re working on a new marketing campaign for a product to solve real world problems, why not do things differently in order to get different, better results? That’s the way true growth happens.That’s when innovation happens is when you are willing to take a risk (based on tactical precision).

Protect your peace of mind
“Keep constant guard over your perceptions, for it is no small thing you are protecting, but your respect, trustworthiness and steadi- ness, peace of mind, freedom from pain and fear, in a word your freedom. For what would you sell these things?”—Epictetus, Discourses, 4.3.6b–8

You’re only as best as the 5 people you spend the most time with. If those people are not willing to grow and change, perhaps it is time for you to go out of your comfort zone and get a new job.

Practical Application
When launching a new product or service, I suggest starting with the Minimum Viable Product (MVP). Start ups have this mentality all the time. According to Technopedia,:

“A minimum viable product (MVP) is a development technique in which a new product or website is developed with sufficient features to satisfy early adopters. The final, complete set of features is only designed and developed after considering feedback from the product’s initial users.”

When starting a new product or service, in the early stages, make sure to identify the must-haves in the product. You can always have a list of features to have if the product or service does turn out to be successful. However, by only investing in the MVP, you won’t take as big of a hit if the product or service is a total flop. In the end, we’ve got to make money to keep a business operating and the way to do that is to provide valuable products or services that really do improve people’s lives.

I also do suggest that you follow the design process around user experience throughout the whole project cycle, which I will get into later.

Tools & Resources:

Reframe Your Way of Thinking of Design post by Charlotte Chapman
Design Thinking in Action post by Charlotte Chapman
Achieving Goals with Prime Your Vibe post by Charlotte Chapman
How to Deal with the Asshole at Work post by Charlotte Chapman
The Obstacle is The Way by Ryan Holiday
The Tao of Seneca: Practical Letters from a Stoic Master, Volume 1




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