We complete our series on The Future of Work by looking to ancient philosophy to understand the future of business, success, and the good life...
Sometimes you have to look back, to look forward. All the way back, in fact, to around 350 BC when Aristotle was bashing out his heady philosophy of ‘eudaimonia’, and – like all challenging thinkers – was probably getting trolled for it on a regular basis.
Hard to spell, even harder to say, ‘eudaimonia’ doesn’t have a perfect translation and is often conflated with ‘happiness’, which loses some important nuance. Aristotle thought that the idea of happiness was vulgar, centering on the self and unable to separate the different forms of pleasure we seek and crave. In his writings, Aristotle put forward the notion that the ultimate goal for humanity should be manifest in our flourishing and wellbeing. Reaching our potential is the greatest human endeavor, and key to that is actively behaving with virtue. We will do well, by doing good – both for ourselves and society around us.
Sound familiar? You’d be forgiven for thinking this kind of philosophy was born out of the current craze for biz-lit and self-help manuals urging us to get mindful, get positive, get creative, lean in, lean out, work faster, work smarter. But no, the Ancient Greeks had it nailed thousands of years ago. We’ve just been trying, and failing, to get it right ever since.
But now it feels we’re on a tipping point. It feels like enlightened businesses are moving from the fringe to the centre of the debate about what the definition of success is, and you don’t have to possess a degree in Classics to join in.
The sonic-boom of start-ups has fundamentally changed individual expectations of what our lives can look like. Research by The Prince’s Trust and RBS shows that a quarter of young people expect to become their own boss in the next five years. That’s seismically different to just a generation ago, when most worked towards a job for life and the agonizing slither to the top of the greasy pole for just a lucky, lucky few.
We know that brand loyalty has shifted in recent years, and there is now a nuanced interplay between people moving more rapidly between big corporations – both as employees and as consumers – whilst seeking the endorsement that popular brands can bring to their lives and their CVs. We also talk now about lattices, not ladders, as workers explore different ways of shining in the workplace in various roles and levels.
And the undercurrent in all of this is that idea of virtue and the collective good. Whatever the corporate structure, however the start-up environment, the traditional bottom line is becoming just one part of a bigger vision for how we all work together in this finite planet we call Earth.
It’s fitting that this piece falls at the end of our series on The Future of Work. It’s the philosophical cherry on top of the many-tiered career cake. In the past few weeks, our articles have ranged from exploring the ways in which technology has disrupted our working lives, to the rise of collaborative leadership and the dismantling of the desk partition. What is the culmination of all this? How do we ensure that all we have said and written becomes more than the sum of its parts?
I go back to Aristotle, and his guidance and his visionary approach for doing your absolute best. He may not be hitting the New York Times Bestseller list any time soon, or joining us on Twitter or gracing the stage at TED, but businesses which embrace this not-so-new idea of human potential in the ways they strive and thrive owe something to this extraordinary thinker.
So what’s the definition of success? Happily, it’s all Greek to me.