How ancient greek philosophy will make you a better developer

No matter the difficulty you face - it's certain someone has faced it before. Harnessing the power of Ancient philosophers can help us to overcome difficulties and ultimately be better at what we do: software.

“They’re the scariest man at AND Digital” !
Exclaimed a developer to me about a colleague. I burst out laughing. Not at the developer, but at his choice of words. The developer isn’t native English. This made his choice of wording rather amusing. I knew exactly what he meant; scary was not the word he was looking for!

“Why do you say that?” – I enquired, containing my amusement.
The developer went on to describe the other. He explained that under times of stress the reactions of this other developer were calm. Almost to the point that it was “scary”.
Hearing this description – I can’t help but think of Fight Club. When the mobster finds out that the club is in his basement. He proceeds to beat Tyler to a pulp. After the beating Tyler looks up at him, face bruised and bleeding and laughs in his face. Tyler chose how to react, he chose not to be afraid.
Being calm under pressure is an attribute we depend on as software developers. We face adversity and difficulty that we must overcome:
  • The server goes down.
  • Our boss shouts at us for something that wasn’t our fault.
  • A release fails and the site goes down.
  • A senior developer is sick during an urgent deadline.
Software development is fraught with danger. Drama and adversity are thus unavoidable in the workplace. Rather than seeking to avoid difficulty we can hone our coping strategies.
A coping strategy we can use is Stoicism.
“Stoicism … that sounds boring!”
Remarks Tim Ferris in his recent TED talk. Tim goes into great detail about how Stoicism has brought great fortune into his life. Tim now refers to Stoicism as his “personal operating system”.

But what is stoicism?

Stoicism is an ancient Greek philosophy on how to create resilience. It is where the word “Stoic” originates.
Note: If you want to learn more about Stoicism, I can recommend The Daily Stoic: 366 meditations on wisdom, perserverance, and the art of living as a good introduction.
When hearing “philosophy,” most think of sitting atop a mountain contemplating life. Yet, there are many practical areas of philosophy that we can leverage in our careers:
  • Becoming better leaders
  • Have happier professional careers
  • Deal with stress
Sitting and pondering is not all there is to philosophy. The Stoics themselves even condemn this thinking. Instead, believing that without action we cannot put into practice our learnings. I agree.

You only control your perception

“Keep in mind that it isn’t the one who has it in for you and takes a swipe at you that harms you, but rather the harm comes from your own belief about the abuse” Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20.
In modern phrasing of Epictetus’ words:
You cannot control external events, people or occurrences. You do not control your job, your money, your partner and even your own health and body. You only control your perception and your judgment. This means that in any part of life, you do not control anything except the way you choose to see the event.
The Stoics even say that drama, stress, and anxiety come from the stories that we tell ourselves. As humans, we seek to find meaning in events. We judge events as either positive or negative. This is the narrative fallacy.
The Stoics show us that we can, in fact, choose to tell ourselves whatever stories we want.
This means that under stress and under difficulty we can and should take the time to consider how to respond.


Next time the server goes down – remember the Stoics. You choose how to percieve an event. 
Is it bad, or is it good?
Is it a big mess that you cannot clean up? … Or will you crack on with the work and do your job.

What other tools/strategies have you used to stay calm under pressure?

Lou Bichard