What Mike Tyson and the Stoics Teach Us About Innovation
I spend a great deal of time searching for new ways of thinking about innovation and I must admit that I never thought that I would write an innovation article that included both Mike Tyson’s coach and the ancient practice of Stoicism.
However, after book reviews about these topics I recognized some interesting parallels that are worth exploring. I also have always believed in the value of juxtaposition of contrary ideas as a way of stimulating new thinking, and I assume that the typical reader of this article was at least somewhat curious about the subject matter, or at least curious enough to scroll down and read further to see how these two subjects might possibly align. Although it is tempting to start with Mike Tyson’s coach, I will instead start with the Stoics, saving the most intriguing concepts until the end.
In a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, Massimo Pigliucci reminds us of the relevance of Stoicism to modern day living. Most of us think of Stoics as emotionless, dull individuals who are inured to the pleasures of daily life, such as Mr. Spock in Star Trek or anyone who maintains a “stiff upper lip” in terms of enduring hardships without complaint. Pigliucci, the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, writes in his new book, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life, that Stoicism is worth studying, is “practical and humane,” and “has plenty to teach us.”
Stoicism, he notes, seems to be enjoying a modern renaissance, with people from all over the world set to attend the fourth annual Stoicon conference in Toronto this fall. Pigliucci observes that Stoicism can be traced back to 300 B.C. and its techniques concerning how to live a good life, navigating through ups and downs by maintaining a balanced approach, “have stood the test of time over two millennia.”
Pigliucci selects his five favorite teachings from Stoicism and applies them to modern living. I, in turn, will apply those aphorisms to the challenges faced by the modern innovation practitioner.
Learn to separate what is and isn’t in your power
The second-century teacher Epictetus listed out a number of things that were in and outside of one’s control. Things within a person’s control included “opinion, motivation desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing.” Things not within a person’s control include “our body, our property, reputation, office and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” This is well-trod territory in terms of a statement of the human experience, as evidenced by its similarity to the Serenity Prayer written by the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Pigliucci sees this as a way for a modern person to render judgment on one’s own efforts in the context of whether those efforts ever had a chance to affect an outcome, thus leading to greater happiness by not beating oneself up over failing to address things one cannot control.
This is sage advice for the innovator, for in our careers we will encounter situations where, no matter how strong our efforts, we will be thwarted by variables that we cannot control. The useful advice from the Stoics is to be aware of these things upfront and document them rather than suffering unnecessarily from the bad outcomes. When launching into an innovation effort, it might be useful to think about variables one might encounter that are beyond one’s control and document those in advance so that when one of those appears it is not a surprise and the innovator is able to overcome the obstacle.
Contemplate the broader picture
Pigliucci writes that the Stoics advocated a concept called “the view from above” that provides a person with a sense of perspective on a situation, focusing on those things that are worth worrying about and those things that one can ignore. This was perhaps best articulated by the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote that “[a]ltogether the interval is small between birth and death; and consider with how much trouble, and in company with what sort of people and in what a feeble body, this interval is laboriously passed.”
A former mentor of mine put this another way early in my career. Sensing my intense frustration at the status of a project, he said that at the end of the day when one leaves the office, it’s acceptable to let the work stay here (pointing to his head), but not here (pointing to his heart). For my former mentor, taking things to heart was a fast path to burning out and prevented one from thinking clearly with the mind about how to solve a problem.
For the innovator, context is important to prevent oneself from becoming overwhelmed with small challenges, and by obsessing wrongly over certain small details, one might miss the bigger picture where a real solution may be found.
Think in advance about challenges you may face during the day
Epictetus is again cited here with an intriguing example of the importance of having a “prepared mind.” He comments that “[i]f you’re going out to take a bath, set before your mind the things that happen at the baths, that people splash you, that people knock up against you, that people steal from you.” In other words, if one anticipates the negatives associated with an activity, then one can absorb them and focus on the beneficial aspects of the activity, which in the case of the bath for Epictetus was achieving internal harmony.
For the innovator, this is a highly under-appreciated approach. When we are preparing for a workshop or presentation to executives, we tend to focus on the positive aspects of the upcoming session and devote little time to thinking about the possible challenges or obstacles in the meeting, other than perhaps a brief examination of the meeting attendees in terms of advocates and opponents. Spending time thinking about potential negative occurrences in the meeting can enable the innovator to be better prepared to handle those problems quickly and effectively, thus increasing the likelihood of success for the overall endeavor.
Be mindful of the here and now
In this aphorism, Pigliucci notes, the Stoics focus on leaving the past behind by concentrating on the present. The Roman Senator Seneca provided a succinct summary of this dictum: “[t]wo elements must therefore be rooted out once and for all – the fear of future suffering and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.” One can do absolutely nothing about the past, and likewise one can do very little about the future, so work efforts should be focused on the present.
For the innovator, this can serve as a reminder to avoid re-treading over past ground (such as a past innovation effort that failed) while simultaneously not becoming too focused on something that is very far in the future, such as a great idea that would take years and years to develop with unproven methods or technology. A proper mixed portfolio of short-, medium-, and long-term initiatives is the best approach.
Before going to bed, write in a personal philosophical diary
The Stoics saw the time before bed as an opportunity to reflect on the events of the day and to focus on what went well and what did not go well so as to continue the process of self-improvement the next day. By writing these down, the Stoic can internalize these lessons and potentially speed up the self-improvement process. Personal journals seem to be something that has gone the way of the horse and carriage in modern times, but the value of capturing thoughts and self-analysis for the modern innovator is very high.
The innovator could use a daily diary in the form advocated by the Stoics in order to capture the highlights and lowlights of one’s daily work. However, there is an additional benefit to maintaining the journal, particularly in a bedside location. The innovator may go to sleep while sorting out a particularly challenging problem and, in the middle of the night, may wake up with a sudden insight into how to solve the puzzle. Having the journal nearby permits the innovator to capture that information accurately and immediately so that he or she can apply the information to work the next morning.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, Brenda Cronin relays important life lessons from Mike Tyson’s manager and mentor, Cus d’Amato. In Tyson’s new book, Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus d’Amato, Tyson tells the story of the well-known boxing manager who had shepherded the careers of great fighters such as Floyd Patterson. At age 71, d’Amato took on the challenge of turning a rough-and-tumble kid from the streets of Brooklyn into a champion fighter. D’Amato saw Tyson sparring in the ring at age 13 and presciently proclaimed that the young Tyson would one day become a world champion. When Tyson’s mother died of cancer when Mike was only 16, d’Amato adopted him and took him to Catskill, NY to continue his training and make him a part of his family. Although d’Amato died in 1985, Tyson became the youngest heavyweight boxing champion of the world at age 20 in 1986.
In his new book, Tyson recalls a number of life lessons from his coach that he applied to his career and to which he attributed much of his success. As was the case with life lessons from the Stoics, these ideas are definitely worth exploring from an innovation practitioner perspective.
D’Amato saw the importance of psychological training alongside the physical conditioning typically required of athletes. D’Amato instilled a sense of confidence in his fighters by showering them with encouragement. Tyson recalled one mantra that he repeated over and over: “[d]ay by day, in every way, I’m getting better, better, better.” This approach, according to Tyson, took a kid with no self-esteem and transformed him into a champion.
For the innovator, positive reinforcement is important to keep a team motivated as one works through the trials and tribulations of a typical innovation project. Allowing colleagues to sense progress even when it is somewhat difficult to see can keep spirits high on the team and can keep energy levels in the right place to maximize the work effort. While this doesn’t mean that one should ignore negative outcomes, it does remind us of the importance of positive affirmation as a motivational device for the team.
In addition to positive affirmation, d’Amato also leveraged the visualization technique with his fighters many years before that technique became popular with athletes around the world. Tyson notes that his mindset was that he had to “see himself […] winning that title.” Tyson states that he “used to fear my win […and…y]ou can let it destroy you and everything around you, like fire, or maybe it can keep you warm.” Rather than letting fears drive behavior, d’Amato wanted his fighters to use that fear to drive them to greater achievements, and by visualizing where they wanted to end up in their performances, they could achieve better results.
For the innovator, fear of failure is a common theme, especially when so many innovation projects fail (are some are even lauded for failing). The innovator periodically needs to visualize successful outcomes to stay motivated. Moreover, forcing oneself to visualize what success actually means may provide insights into how the innovation work should proceed. Often times we enter a project with a vague notion of what a successful outcome would entail, and thus we might miss out on some aspect of the project that would warrant success that we might miss seeing in our work. The more time we spend thinking about and visualizing the end game, the better we will be able to perform tasks along the road to that objective.
D’Amato had spent time in the military before his career as a boxing manager and the notion of the importance of discipline never left him. Tyson notes that this military order applied to his entire life in the d’Amato household, including attending school regularly, training daily, and helping out with chores. As Tyson observes, “I was getting on the cover of Sports Illustrated […] and people were taking pictures of me, like I’m this big star. And as soon as they were finished, I had to sweep the gym and mop it.”
For the innovator, discipline is a concept that may seem anathema to the concept that generating new thinking requires a loose, free-wheeling effort with few boundaries and constraints. While free-thinking may be useful during an ideation phase, discipline is always crucial to success in terms of capturing details of the ideation session properly and managing projects (schedules, costs, resources) at a level of granularity that will avoid mistakes and improve the chances of success.
A final piece of advice from Tyson’s coach is the adage for which d’Amato is perhaps most famous. The statement concerns preparation, and appears frequently as a sports aphorism. D’Amato stated succinctly that “[e]verybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Tyson saw this as a foundation for the relentless focus and work associated with his life with d’Amato. The statement itself is a reminder that it’s not enough just to plan for an event. Rather, one has to be ready to engage intensively in the event itself and be prepared for the physical impact of the event, not letting that first punch distract one from one’s original plan. Although innovators are highly unlikely to get “punched” in a work effort, the concept at a figurative level is important.
Innovators may spend a great deal of time preparing all the intricacies of a presentation of a new idea to decisionmakers, only to encounter something negative at the outset of the meeting that is the equivalent of a “punch in the mouth.” Innovators should think about these circumstances in their presentations and be ready with the appropriate response. It’s not enough just to know all the details of one’s proposal; one should also think about other concerns, variables, events, or opinions that could appear in the course of the session. Proper preparation for these eventualities will increase the likelihood of success for the overall innovation effort.
I did not expect the life lessons from Mike Tyson’s coach to align with those from the ancient Stoics, but upon further analysis there are interesting parallels between these concepts. The easiest way to show these connections is via a straightforward mapping of these ideas:
Stoicism Learn to separate what is and isn’t in your power
Stoicism Contemplate the broader picture
Stoicism Think in advance about challenges you may face during the day
Stoicism Be mindful of the here and now
Stoicism Before going to bed, write in a personal philosophical diary
Tyson Creative visualization
For the innovator, both Cus d’Amato and the Stoics provide interesting approaches that one can leverage to help generate new thinking.
Massimo Pigliucci, “Rules for Modern Living from the Ancient Stoics,” The Wall Street Journal (May 27, 2017), p. C3.
Brenda Cronin, “Lessons from Mike Tyson’s Trainer,” The Wall Street Journal (May 25, 2017), pp. A13-14.
Massimo Pigliucci, How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Live (New York: Basic Books, 2017).
Mike Tyson and Larry Sloman, Iron Ambition: My Life with Cus D’Amato (New York: Penguin Books, 2017).
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Scott Bowden is an independent innovation analyst. Scott previously worked for IBM Global Services and Independent Research and Information Services Corporation. Scott has Ph.D. in Government/International Relations from Georgetown University. Follow him on Twitter @sgbowden
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