There’s an old saying that there are no new problems, which is why it’s so important to read nonfiction: someone has already encountered your problem before and written about it.
The same logic applies to the lessons of small business. And given a tradition of high-quality philosophy from Socrates on up, it’s only fair to wonder if there are lessons in history books for the entrepreneurial minds of the 21st century. As it turns out, some of antiquity’s greatest minds have plenty to say on the matter:
From Marcus Aurelius: Don’t Take Every Rejection Personally
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can't tell good from evil.”
Marcus Aurelius was a philosophical pillar in the stoicism movement, which has gained modern popularity through modern-day authors like Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday.
This man’s remarkability comes from more than his quote-making, however; he also happens to be one of those rarities who not only knew what it was like to run something, but ran the ancient Roman Empire at its height. To say that Marcus Aurelius picked up a thing or two about human nature along the way would be an understatement.
This particular quote is of interest thanks to its application for startups. When you’re a new business, it can be difficult to build the confidence to pitch, to cold-call, to write effective sales emails—but Marcus Aurelius reminds us that rejection is not final, or even necessarily personal. A rejection might come from someone’s cross mood, for all you know. The best thing to do from Marcus Aurelius’ perspective was to keep your head and move on. If even Roman emperors could encounter “surly” people, why shouldn’t you learn to deal with them as well?
From Seneca: Attitude Still Wins the Day
“Virtue alone affords everlasting and peace-giving joy; even if some obstacle arise, it is but like an intervening cloud, which floats beneath the sun but never prevails against it.”
Speaking of stoics—Seneca is something of a legend in this philosophical movement, for obvious reasons. With the above quote, Seneca describes how a strong attitude can prevail, even when small businesses encounter the inevitable hiccups and obstacles that seem year-defining.
When Bud Tribble of Apple Computer used the phrase “reality distortion field” to describe Steve Jobs’ charisma—a reference to a “Star Trek” episode in which aliens created new worlds through sheer mental force alone—he was describing exactly what Seneca is talking about. While Seneca packages the power of mental attitude in the word “virtue,” it could just as easily be said that Steve Jobs’ “distortion field” is what pushed Apple forward into the innovator it became.
From Sun Tzu: Don’t Fear Growth
“Management of many is the same as management of few. It is a matter of organization.”
Any person in charge of a small business knows how complicated things can get when adding someone new. Whether that means adding a third person to a team of two or bringing on an entirely new company after buying them out, the challenges are the same. Sun Tzu, wise in the ways of warfare, said that managing many essentially boils down to the same problems you have when you manage a few.
For small businesses, the idea of managing a lot of customers can be just as scary. You don’t have a big customer relationship team, but your sales are increasing. But rather than fear this situation, keep in mind this lesson from Sun Tzu: it’s not the growth you should fear, but allowing yourself to get disorganized. If you stay organized and hire the right people to manage your customer relationships, you’ll do just fine.
From Aristotle: The Difference Between Knowledge and Wisdom
“Knowledge of the fact differs from knowledge of the reason for the fact.”
It might seem like Aristotle is splitting hairs here, but he’s really getting at the difference between knowing and understanding—of hearing and listening. A good marketer, for example, can identify the differences in two strategies through A/B testing. A great marketer should be able to take that knowledge and understand why the differences exist.
Doing so would not only get to the fundamental reasons one ad is effective and one is not, but in understanding one’s customer base to begin with. Countless entrepreneurs recommend thinking about your product or service in the sense of understanding the customer’s story. If your story begins and ends with, “My customer comes along with money, buys my stuff, the end,” then something’s wrong. You’re accurately describing the transaction, but you haven’t gotten to the key insights about why a customer entered your niche in the first place.
From Virgil: Try Something New
“Fortune favors the bold.”
Virgil’s quote is simple and memorable—and completely understood by those of you who have had the courage to branch out on your own and start a small business. The epic undertaking is rife with all sorts of challenges and learning opportunities, from taxes and accounting to learning how to manage people. Many small businesspeople even say they don’t have the personality for it.
But what effective leaders do have in common is the ability to think with vision—to see bold new things and try them, even if there is no guarantee of future success. It’s in trying, after all, that A/B testing works in the first place. Without being willing to throw a few ads out the window, you wouldn’t learn which ones are effective.
So it is everywhere you look in small business. It takes boldness to hire someone for an expensive salary without knowing them beyond a couple of job interviews. It takes boldness to hold your first meeting or make an expensive pitch for the first time. It takes boldness to do everything you do as a small business owner, and it’s easy to forget that. But as Virgil says, fortune favors the bold. And in business, it can never hurt to have fortune on your side.
Taking the Lessons to Heart
It’s been said that there are no new lessons to learn—that everything you could ever want to know has already been written about. That’s the case here. Some of the wisest minds in history understood exactly what kinds of challenges we go through, whether we head small businesses or not—and it’s important to take those lessons to heart and shorten our learning curves.
Which lesson from antiquity resonates most with you in the 21st century? Is there any philosopher or writer from the ancient world that speaks to you? If so, share your comments below.