“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live.”

“Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store.”

“Only an ingrate would fail to see that these great architects of venerable thoughts were born for us and have designed a way of life for us.” —SENECA

Having dabbled and somewhat discarded it once before, I’m greatly warming to Stoicism…

The Daily StoicbyRyan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman: offers a year’s worth (in 366 date-stamped, bite-sized nuggets) of: “wisdom, perseverance, and the ‘Art of Living’: from Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.”

I find a nightly dose is a great way to take the good advice on board… As the foreword sets out:

Stoicism was once one of the most popular civic disciplines in the West, practiced by the rich and the impoverished, the powerful and the struggling alike in the pursuit of the Good Life.

But over the centuries, knowledge of this way of thinking, once essential to so many, slowly faded from view.

Except to the most avid seekers of wisdom, Stoicism is either unknown or misunderstood. Indeed, it would be hard to find a word dealt a greater injustice at the hands of the English language than “Stoic.”

To the average person, this vibrant, action-oriented, and paradigm-shifting way of living has become shorthand for “emotionlessness.”

I have to say that’s where I’d largely left Stoicism; an argument for detachment and disengagement. But as ‘The Daily Stoic underlines:

What a sad fate for a philosophy that even one of its occasional critics, Arthur Schopenhauer, would describe as “the highest point to which man can attain by the mere use of his faculty of reason.”

Channelling my ‘inner Buddhist’ and combining it with Aristotle’s worldly Ethics, I now see things very differently. Stoicism is basically the best of both, applied to the secular world…

Holiday and Hanselman agree:

It has been the doers of the world who found that it provides much needed strength and stamina for their challenging lives… as a practical philosophy they found Stoicism perfectly suited to their purposes.

Born in the tumultuous ancient world, Stoicism took aim at the unpredictable nature of everyday life and offered a set of practical tools meant for daily use.

Our modern world may seem radically different than the painted porch (Stoa Poikilê) of the Athenian Agora and the Forum and court of Rome.

But the Stoics took great pains to remind themselves that they weren’t facing things any different than their own forebears did, and that the future wouldn’t radically alter the nature and end of human existence.

One day is as all days, as the Stoics liked to say.

They continue:

Making its way from Greece to Rome, Stoicism became much more practical to fit the active, pragmatic lives of the industrious Romans.

As Marcus Aurelius (above) observed:

“I was blessed when I set my heart on philosophy that I didn’t fall into the sophist’s trap, nor remove myself to the writer’s desk, or chop logic, or busy myself with studying the heavens.”

Instead, he (and Epictetus and Seneca) focused on questions we continue to ask ourselves today:

“What is the best way to live?”

“What do I do about my anger?”

“What are my obligations to my fellow human beings?”

“I’m afraid to die; why is that?”

“How can I deal with the difficult situations I face?”

“How should I handle the success or power I hold?”

Stoics frame their work around three critical disciplines:

The Discipline of Perception (how we see and perceive the world around us)

The Discipline of Action (the decisions and actions we take—and to what end)

The Discipline of Will (how we deal with the things we cannot change, attain clear and convincing judgment, and come to a true understanding of our place in the world)

Master these and you master yourself and your world:

By controlling our perceptions, the Stoics tell us, we can find mental clarity.

In directing our actions properly and justly, we’ll be effective.

In utilizing and aligning our will, we will find the wisdom and perspective to deal with anything the world puts before us.

Far from sombre and sober, Stoics believed:

That by strengthening themselves and their fellow citizens in these disciplines, they could cultivate resilience, purpose, and even joy.

The Daily Stoic Stoic offers some down to earth Roman ‘Maxims’ to add to La Rochefoucauld’s French fancies.

In what has been a very trying week at work, this one certainly helped:

“You shouldn’t give circumstances the power to rouse anger, for they don’t care at all.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS, 7.38

But the best and most useful maxim this week, came to me by text message from my old boss:

Worthy of Maximus that one.

The Lancaster

In years gone by I used to liken one of my old colleagues to a WWII Lancaster bomber.

You could always rely on her to slowly but surely drone towards the required organisational target; drop her bombs all over it, and chug back over the North Sea – usually with a rueful smile, half a wing blown off and one of her engines misfiring.

In that era I fancied myself more the de Havilland Mosquito: fast, accurate – but lightly armoured; the ideal pathfinder.

Now I realise it’s my turn to be the Lancaster pilot.

Thankless (and at times seemingly pointless) long lonely missions; flying through the dark; constant flak and regular strafing; searchlights hunting you down; uneven inexperienced crews – no sooner back from one mission before back in the cockpit again toward another improbable and impregnable target.

But the penny dropped the other week; this is what my kind of job now is. A big operational job is much more Bomber Command than fast reconnaissance and precision bombing with an expert co-pilot.

Resilience, calm under fire, keeping a crew intact and in the sky; and taking it one day at a time are the thing. The Lancaster wasn’t the prettiest machine, but it got the job done.

This footage I found – from the cockpit radio of a Lancaster on two raids in 1943 – is a sobering listen. There’s plenty of tension at 20,000 feet, but spare a thought for the destruction down below.

Makes my modest troubles seem small beer indeed; it took something special to fly a Lancaster.


I texted the person I’m slowly turning into late last night:

“Phew wee – a really stretching week… grievances, gross misconduct, controversial and risky things to land before Xmas and much change being imposed.”

“I suspect like you at a similar stage – I am strangely both deeply affected and also somewhat distant in my reaction to all this – it matters and it affects me; but much of it is not my doing and not in my gift to change.”

“A dawning of a more realistic sense of personal responsibility and the limits thereof?”

Maybe so.

I also have fought off the desire to compete, undermine and fight back in the face of many provocations these last weeks. And this is a lesson well learned…

As I also admitted to my pal:

“One of the bigger lessons of recent years was that firing two Exocets into an adversary’s hull damaged me below the waterline more surely than it did them.”

It has been hard; but I’ve largely managed to let go of a week of days packed without pause with relentless interpersonal aggro.

As I sit here listening to happy tunes in the school carpark (having chosen to save my eldest from a cold walk home from dancing) I have refound my equilibrium, equanimity – and the all important inner peace.

It gets the blood up; but Exocets just aren’t worth firing.


Talking to a nice person at work this week, as we descended several flights of stairs; she said:

"Yes John, but you're about the most positive person I've ever met."

I nearly tripped and fell down the remaining stairs… As I subsequently texted to one of my finest friends:

And a good week it has indeed been – against all the odds!

Which goes to show why being more positive and following my new motto: trust the universe to provide an answer – is a goodie.

Still, another marvellous former colleague of mine (now working in a real zoo; not just a human one) offered an even better motto to end the week…


In a meeting this week I asked how people felt about ‘whacking the beehive again’. 

We are trying a new ‘change management’ approach (as opposed the University standard of ‘resistance management’) on a major move; part of which involves regularly asking people how they feel about what we’re doing to them and all the things we’re changing. 

It’s finely poised. As I pointed out, asking people to put on the beekeepers outfit again – as we bring out all the angry bees – feels like a big ask on the hottest June in record at the end of a long academic year…

Still the point of change management is to keep asking, keep answering and keep moving forwards; so we agreed to give the beehive one last whack before summer and ask people if they felt ‘adequately informed’, ‘knew what they needed to do’ and were ‘broadly positive or broadly negative’.

Afterwards, I sent two of my fellow beekeepers this [only slightly doctored] quote from Marie Curie; which serendipitously had landed in my inbox that morning: 

Nothing in life [including bees] is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less. 

Marie Curie (1867 – 1934)  

But later in the day we did have a laugh, agreeing that we might need to pump a bit of smoke in the hive afterwards, to calm it all down again. 

Still as I emailed them later: 

“A former colleague of mine who keeps bees claims that you have to keep your hive in a reasonable state of agitation otherwise half of them clear off and make a new one!”

And now we can practise the art with the real thing… on the vary same day, we discovered a bee panel has just been installed on one of our busy London campuses…

I’ll be making a bee line!


Famously clever like us, Cetaceans are the smart cookies of the ocean – and they’ve been in my thoughts at work this week. The question being which one to be…

The Sperm Whale?

Wikipedia tells us the Sperm whale “has the largest brain of any animal on Earth, more than five times heavier than a human’s.” Sadly however: “the spermaceti oil from which the whale derives its name was a prime target of the whaling industry, and was dominant for use in oil lamps, lubricants, and candles.” Ouch – so much for my strategy of staying below the waterline.

The Dolphin? 

Fast, flashy, polygamous and a glossy surface performer Wikipedia cautions re the dolphin thus: “Dolphins engage in acts of aggression towards each other. The older a male dolphin is, the more likely his body is to be covered with bite scars. Male dolphins engage in acts of aggression apparently for the same reasons as humans: disputes between companions and competition for females. Acts of aggression can become so intense that targeted dolphins sometimes go into exile after losing a fight. Sounds like a young man’s cetacean to me – as I said in my performance appraisal this week: “I’m knocking on 50; I’m getting too old for some of this stuff!”

The Orca?

This is the chap: “a toothed whale with a diverse diet, there is no animal that preys on them. Killer whales are a cosmopolitan species; their sophisticated hunting techniques and vocal behaviours, which are often specific to a particular group and passed across generations, have been described as manifestations of animal culture. Killer whales are highly social; some populations are composed of family groups (pods) which are the most stable of any animal species.”  

As the pack ice breaks up, and lots of things start moving around; the Orca’s my pick of the cetaceans!

Everybody’s talkin’ at me…

I sat through nearly two days of interviews this week. And, as so often, was amazed by how much people like to talk – and what they shared! 

Surely the most valuable thing to learn in life (and certainly in interviews) is that the most important and influential thing you can ever do is stop talking; all the time you’re talking, you’re basically draining the interview panel’s energy away!

We all want to talk; but if you want to get a job, in the words of the otherwise flawed Aaron Burr, from the wonderful Broadway musical ‘Hamilton

“Talk less; smile more…”

Smile, surf, sleep


Talking to my daughter about her friendship angst this morning, I advocated she try a welcoming smile. 

I told her about the nice lady at work who told me about the cold snap in Romania and how it’s threatening the cherry trees; people are tending fires to gently waft smoke through the branches to protect the cherries. We both wished them well.

This lovely encounter grew from simply smiling, on three occasions as she made me a latte; and the smile developed into an exchange and then a conversation. 

Let’s see how my eldest gets on – I suspect it might take me than a smile with this ‘friend’.


I’m reading a rather terrific book about letting go of anxiety and fear and tapping into your own energy. 

More of this anon, but one of the many useful reminders is nearly everything that happens to us, in truth, is outside of our control. This means there are only two options, try to resist, control or avoid life – or roll with it. 

This week (like so many) looked on Tuesday morning (after an enjoyable but tiring bank holiday) like wave after wave of bother, problems, egos, unreasonable demands, risks and stressors; culminating in large forum event – at which I would have to orchestrate, perform and keep the whole show together. 

So it was; but by (largely) surfing along on the top of it all and not fighting it (and myself) I got through it just fine. By saving the energy on worry, avoidance and fear – I got it all done quite happily. 

As King Canute amply showed, there’s little point trying to stop the waves; may as well get up on your board and ride ’em.


My old friend sleep. I need it so much, I never get enough of it and I never do enough to make sure I do. But I have improved in a few areas… to earplugs I’ve added eyepatches and from last week a booze curfew at 9pm. 

All the book and all the sage advice in them can’t help me when I’m tired. Without my sleep I’m hopeless; with it I’m smiling and surfing along.

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

This rather wonderful documentary was recommended to me nearly four years ago, when I visited Japan. 

With the hustle and bustle of family and working life I’d forgotten it; but thanks to the digital traces we leave everywhere, I re-found it the other day. 

I hardly ever watch TV and never have time to watch a film alone. But I consumed this in four (sushi-sized) chunks on my iPhone over this weekend. 

Jiro has made sushi for more than 70 years: and lives, works and dreams of nothing else.

It is Japan – its culture of craft and specialisation and seeking perfection – in a nutshell; or an eggshell given the 10 year of apprenticeship Jiro expects before you are allowed near the eggs…

Knots, Seeds and Red Lights

I’ve just finished Thich Nhat Hanh’s ‘Peace is Every Step’. 

It’s never a bad idea to have a Buddhist book on the go in the pile by the bedside. The basic precepts of living in the moment, breathing and mindfulness are always a good antidote to the hurry and rush of modern life.

This one is a little twee in places, but the Vietnamese Monk is as deep as he is light, and there are some memorable ideas in here.

Three that have stuck with me: 

1) Breathe when you see Red Lights – Thich Nhat Hahn points out that ‘while we are driving we only think of arriving’. So every time we see a red light (and in suburban London that’s every 10 seconds) as he gently puts it ‘we are not very happy’. Not half. His tip is to take a red light as a cue to focus on your breathing – and it really works… And not just in the car. I’ve found a couple of times on a bus this week that just as I’m starting to get het up at the queue of red brake light in front of us, a turn inwards and a consciously deep breath – and peace miraculously breaks out in my previously troubled soul.

2) Avoid Knots – any time something bad happens that we don’t understand Thich Nhat Hahn suggests a ‘knot’ is tied in us. If we deal with it – through reflection and understanding – the knot is easily untied. If we leave them though, the knots get stronger and tighter. And this is particularly the case with those we spend most time with. The best thing we can do for those closest to us is to help them untie their knots, but if you’re all tied up yourself the odds are you’ll be making them more not less knotty.

3) Think about the seeds you’re planting – like a pot of peaty soil we all readily grow the ’emotional seeds’ which are planted in us. Plant a healthy, ‘happy’ seed and more will spring from it – let a hostile, angry seed sprout and Thich Nhat Hahn assures us the seeds of hostility and anger will spread. 

A deep breath on the bus, a few of my own knots untied; but the most important things I did this week were to stop seeds of hostility sprouting in a few places at work. 

My top New Year’s Time Management resolution from Chris Croft has been to have a daily diary reminder titled ‘biggest problem’ as my first job of the day. 

Thanks to Thich Naht Hahn I changed it this week to ‘Biggest Problem/Most Difficult Thing’. And one of them was to email, while walking into work, to explain and apologise to someone I’d talked at and talked over in a large forum. 

Knot untied, seeds of future trouble nipped in the bud and onto a bus; red light – relax and breathe. Life is good.