Stoic Accountability

Hope is not a strategyI’ve started listening to Sarah Jaffe’s latest book, Work Won’t Love You Back. Nikole Yinger, a local D&I thinker, and Wright Institute trained psychotherapist suggested it. Halfway through chapter one, I’m running up to the “windy gap” just below the Mountain Home Inn on Mt. Tam (here in Mill Valley, CA). Sarah is running through the history of work from early industrial England to the modern U.S. As I grind my way up this final hill, I’m hit with that much-repeated emotion of late, guilt. 

I’m a white Anglosaxon man of a certain age. My lineage hasn’t been the best model for building equity or justice. I am listening while thinking through how to write this blog on accountability.

Black Lives Matter. The MeToo movement. Western colonial history. It’s been an illuminating few years for men like me. As our thirty-two-year-old daughter often says not so nicely, “Just shut up and listen.” Understood. This along with spending Covid reading books like These Truths, The First Congress, Humankind, and God’s Shadow while exploring philosophy with Marcus Aurelius and Joseph Cambell. I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far in life knowing so little.

I was raised by troubled parents but surprisingly taught good values. The highest being virtue and honor. But the rest like keeping promises, following up, owning your problems, not so much. In our house, there wasn’t much accountability for getting to school, completing homework, or frankly doing much of anything practical. It was mostly about survival. Dodging angry outbursts and irrational missteps. My brothers and I mastered the skill of calm in the middle of many storms. All children raised by narcissistic alcoholics and troubled souls, know exactly what I mean.

When I co-founded our business in my early thirties with my wife and partner, some of these missed lessons became evident. The most challenging one was around cashflow management. We didn’t start with a capital influx. We launched on sales and sales alone. This meant we had to steal Peter to pay Paul. This would get us into trouble as you can imagine.

We were lucky to have an early employee named Randall Van Nostrand. She joined us as our bookkeeper. We crossed swords immediately. Her message, “This is unethical. Wrong.” She went right to my self-view of being honorable. A man of virtue. I fought her because my lifetime of managing debt through high school, college, and my twenties had gotten me here. So I thought. But she was right. I needed to be accountable for the promises made to the money we had received. I changed.

I continue to learn. Overcome my deficiencies. And I continue to change. Evolve. Yes, we can all do it. Even at the ripe age of 63. So here are my humble suggestions for learning true accountability.

  • Be aware of your limitations. Be honest with yourself. Fix them when you must.
  • Manage yourself. Plan your time and commitments. Easier said than done.
  • Work at honesty. Instead of needing to please, be liked, or accepted, tell the truth.
  • Note that accountability is not just the task to be done but everything related to it, whatever it touches, eliminating the excuse of “but I was only tasked to do …”
  • Once you’ve gotten these first steps somewhat underway, accept commitments with much tenderness and seriousness. Think in terms of virtue and honor.
  • Then simply do what you say and say what you’ll do. Attach deadlines to everything and give yourself the time to do it within the reality of your life.
  • Oh, and please, don’t be hopeful or optimistic or, for god’s sake, reliant on miracles. Yes, I used to do that. Hope is not a strategy.

Or more simply put, quoting the Oz Principle, see it, own it, solve it, and do it.

In addition to listening to Sarah Jaffe’s latest book, I’m catching up on the Stoics too.  Zeno, Epictetus, Seneca, among others. Amazing thinkers. According to the Stoics, the foundation of accountability is teaching yourself the basic values of virtue, wisdom, courage, justice, and even moderation. And this wisdom has been available to us since 500 BCE. Where have I been? Sometimes it takes an epidemic. Accountability indeed.

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