On Stoicism: A Theme for the New Year

Happy New Year, everybody! And a good riddance to the annus horribilis that was 2020. I am quite hopeful that 2021 will be far less horrible, but then again, reality does have a way of intruding.

Nonetheless, I know I’ve been away for a bit. I decided to completely take off the week between Christmas and New Year, and force myself to do nothing at all. It wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be.

In normal years, right now would be when I would be thinking about and working on attending Inman Connect New York. It’s part of the real estate industry calendar, a ritual of renewing friendships and meeting new people in the frozen and yet slush-filled streets of Times Square. Obviously, that’s not happening in 2021. I’ll miss y’all and look forward to seeing you in the fall when in-person events look like they might start up again.

Instead, I thought I’d kick off the new year by sharing something that is becoming not only more and more personally important, but I think more and more strategic for the industry: the philosophy of Stoicism. And I think that could lead to something kinda sorta like a new year’s resolution. I say kinda sorta because I am an active denier of resolutions. I don’t think they help; in fact, I think they harm, because we tend to focus on inevitably slipping up on a resolution, which leads to total failure. Instead, I think it’s more like a “theme” for the year. So rather than a resolution to “work out every day” it’s more like a “lean towards more physical activity.” A theme, not a resolution.

With that said, let’s talk briefly about stoicism and why it might be an important theme for 2021.

The Briefest, Most Truncated, Probably Incorrect Description of Stoicism

We can start with the Wikipedia definition:

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early 3rd century BC. It is a philosophy of personal ethics informed by its system of logic and its views on the natural world. According to its teachings, as social beings, the path to eudaimonia (happiness, or blessedness) is found in accepting the moment as it presents itself, by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or by the fear of pain, by using one’s mind to understand the world and to do one’s part in nature’s plan, and by working together and treating others fairly and justly.

There have been books upon books written on the philosophy of stoicism, and there are numerous self-help books that can only be described as stoic in its teachings. I am but a rank beginner in trying to understand stoicism and its wisdom. But the briefest, probably incorrect, and likely shallow description might be that stoics try to see reality as it is, rather than as they wish it were, and then try to be as outcome independent as possible.

But there are a few main takeaways that are truly helpful in both day to day life, and in professional strategy.

Reality Bites

The first is the Stoic insistence on living according to Nature, which they believe means living by Reason. That’s a bit too esoteric for me, but I think of it as understanding and perceiving reality as it actually is, rather than as we want it to be. Logic and reason help in figuring out whether we are facing the truth about reality or telling ourselves comforting stories about reality.

It might be more comforting to believe that he’s not returning your call because he’s busy, or taciturn, or whatever; the reality might be that he’s just not that into you. Logic and reason can lead to figuring out which is which.

In professional strategic terms, then, I think the key is differentiating between external messaging for whatever purpose, and internal reflection. A broker, for example, might have to project positivity, get agents excited, convince them to do the right things, etc. “We’re worth the 70/30 split, because of how much value you get!” That’s fine; you gotta do what you gotta do to keep things going. But to quote the philosopher Eazy-E from NWA, “Don’t get high on your own supply.” It is essential that with your trusted team, or alone by yourself, you see things clearly as they are, rather than as you’d like them to be.

Yeah, I think it’s safe to say that the Stoics were probably not fans of the whole power of positive thinking school of thought.

I think this is especially important for real estate because ours is an industry that is built on hopes and dreams. It’s literally called the American Dream. Brokers and agents are in the sale business, and one that is hypercompetitive and filled with disappointment and rejection; they have to be positive, have to be hopeful, have to think everything is going to work out just fine. And they should. We all should.

The danger is that we allow that positive thinking to cloud us as to what is actually reality. Seems to me that the two are not mutually exclusive. You can be ruthless about reality, being as cold-eyed and as cold-hearted about what actually is going on, while remaining filled with hope and positivity about what you can do about that cold brutal reality.

Do I Need to React At All?

A sub-point here is whether you need to react to whatever happened at all. Because reality might not bite at all.

Far too often, our industry tends to overreact to sensational news. It’s easy to do, and frankly, it isn’t just our industry. Everybody does the same thing.

But a clear-eyed, logic and reason driven look at reality as it actually is rather than as we fear it to be might result in a different take on it. Maybe you don’t need to react to some piece of news, because once you’ve actually thought about whatever happened, it ain’t no thing.

I realize some of you are currently laughing since I have to be one of the biggest doom-porn mongers in the industry… but let logic and reason guide you as to whether you need to react, overreact, or underreact to whatever I and anyone else point out.

The news that Zillow became a brokerage last year seems like a good example of something you might not need to react to at all, once you’ve thought about it. I know the headline was shocking and sensational. We saw much gnashing of teeth and wailing on social media. But logic and reason suggest that unless you’re actually in the business of buying and selling homes with your own money (so-called iBuying), the news really wasn’t that big a deal for you. Sure, you can keep an eye out to see if Zillow Brokerage gets into the actual business you are in, but was there really a need to react to that news?

Maybe, maybe not. Again, let logic and reason guide you as to what the reality actually is, as opposed to what you want (or fear) it to be.

All About Control (and Lack Thereof)

The second most important insight of the Stoics is something we are all familiar with from the popular “serenity prayer” popular with the recovery community:

The Stoics were very big on the idea of knowing what you do and do not control, and it turns out, what you do control is mostly yourself.

The following comes from the Daily Stoic, a book I am working through this year:

“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own . . .”

EpictetusDiscourses, 2.5.4–5

The single most important practice in Stoic philosophy is differentiating between what we can change and what we can’t. What we have influence over and what we do not. A flight is delayed because of weather—no amount of yelling at an airline representative will end a storm. No amount of wishing will make you taller or shorter or born in a different country. No matter how hard you try, you can’t make someone like you. And on top of that, time spent hurling yourself at these immovable objects is time not spent on the things we can change.

As I think of it, understanding reality as it truly is as opposed to what you’d like it to be is essential in knowing what it is that we can and cannot change, what we do and do not control. And as Epictetus said, what we control are ourselves, our own actions, our own thoughts, our own feelings.

You can see how important this is for personal well-being, but I think it truly applies to strategy as well.

A favorite pastime in real estate is worrying about what Zillow/Opendoor/Insert Disruptor Here is doing, has done, or will do. Why? Unless you are Rich Barton/Eric Wu/Whoever, you do not control what any of those companies will do.

Or people complain about NAR, or about crappy agents, or about sellers who don’t want to pay, or appraisers who come in too low, or loan officers who are painful to work with, or whatever else. Why? You control none of those companies, none of those people, none of those things.

The Stoic approach is to (a) decide whether you are going to be made emotional by what you can’t control, and (b) decide what, if anything, you’re going to do about that. (We can get into all the different shadings of “emotion” in Stoicism… but let’s not. Just know that Stoics are not emotionless robots with no feelings.)

Take the crappy agent counterpart problem. You’re working on a transaction, and the other agent is unresponsive, unprofessional, perhaps even unethical. He is endangering the deal, and creating a ton more work for you. You have to step in and undo his mistakes, or prevent them from happening. It’s pissing you off!

Well, first, using logic and reason, you have to figure out whether that’s the true reality of the situation. Is he really incompetent, or is it you? Maybe you’re unreasonably demanding. Logic and reason can help you figure out what is really true and what is you telling yourself what you want to hear.

If it is that he truly is a problem, well, you can’t control the other agent. Getting angry and frustrated doesn’t help you in the least bit. You have to decide just how bothered, how angry, how pissed off you’re going to get. Then you have to decide what you’re going to do about it. Confront him to try to change his ways? Educate and train him, even though that’s not your job? Go to his broker and complain? Bring him up on ethics charges? Or maybe you decide to do the extra work, because you’d rather close the transaction for your client.

Or maybe you decide to just let it ride, and if the deal dies, well, the deal dies. You’ll get another… or not.

Point is that the only thing you control is yourself: your own actions, your own feelings about what is happening, and your own thoughts about the situation that the crappy agent on the other side is putting you in. Getting angry and losing sleep over the injustice are not helping you or your client in any way.

Corporate strategy obviously could use more of this approach as well. Say you’re an MLS and the commission lawsuit is freaking you out, and your leadership is worried and fearful. Okay, but… you’re not the judge, you’re not the lawyers… you don’t control the lawsuit. The only thing you do control is what you’re going to do about the lawsuit, if anything.

Outcome Independence

The final useful takeaway I have for now is the idea of outcome independence, or what Stoics might call detachment.

You analyze the situation, and believe that you are seeing reality as it is, rather than as you want it to be.

You decide on a course of action, because the only thing you control is yourself.

If that action results in utter failure, are you devastated and crushed? Was the action a giant mistake or a waste of time?

What if that action results in fantastic success, and you’re doing the breaststroke in your pool filled with $100 bills like Scrooge McDuck? Are you now overcome with joy and happiness, and the action you took was a genius move?

I think the Stoic approach would be to be slightly detached from it all. If something you tried failed, well, it failed. It’s not the end of the world. If it succeeded, great… but it was just one success, and there will be more work to do tomorrow. Neither failure nor success defines you or your company or even the action itself. There will be another tomorrow, another challenge, another problem, another failure and another success.

Of course we all would prefer success and wealth instead of failure and poverty… but the point is that slight detachment. Neither a manic high nor the blackest depression… but an even-keeled appreciation of the good and the bad.

The benefit of that detachment is outcome independence. That is, once you have decided on reality, and decided to act on it… then the act itself is valuable and worthwhile because you chose to do it after reflection. You might as well give it your all, no matter what happens. Taking the action is the point. The doing itself is valuable.

If it doesn’t work out, well, you learn from it and move on. If it does work out, well, you learn from that as well and move on.

I rather think this might be more important for parts of organized real estate. MLSs and Associations have a tendency to think too much about every little aspect of an action before actually taking that action. Some of that comes from the governance structure being too big, and consensus becomes more difficult more bodies you have in the room. Some of it comes from hard-earned wisdom. But some of it comes from becoming far too outcome dependent: you only want to do things that you know are going to be successful.

In times of rapid change, that can hurt you. Lean more towards becoming outcome independent so that you actually do things and act and not get caught up in paralysis by analysis.

Putting it Together in 2021

Like I said, I’m not a fan of New Year’s Resolutions because they seem never to work out, and they all seem to demotivate me when I fail on one small step. But this year, I’m thinking more in terms of themes for the year. If we put the three teachings of Stoicism above together, the theme for 2021 might be something like:

  • See reality as it is, not as you want it to be, to the best of your ability to reason through it.
  • Then decide on a course of action, since the only thing you can control is yourself.
  • Believe that the action itself is valuable, whatever the outcome.

I think one benefit of this theme is that it plays into becoming more antifragile. 2020 caught us all by surprise in a number of ways. Things changed, and dramatically so in many cases. Past trends were massively accelerated. We all hope that 2021 will be a return to normalcy, but in these times, it’s impossible to say.

The proper response then is to be more antifragile. Responsiveness and agility are far more important than ever before. I know it’s what I’ve been telling all my clients to do. And I believe that some elements of the Stoic philosophy really could help in developing that responsive, agile, antifragile mindset that 2021 calls for.

Okay, this has gone on long enough. We will return to our usual program of industry musings, but here’s to you and yours and to a new year of changes!



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Rob Hahn

Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

6 thoughts on “On Stoicism: A Theme for the New Year”

  1. ROB,

    Whatever it takes to think simply. We often get caught up in the now, which after some time is proven not to be the reality we thought it was at the time.

    I’m not a resolution guy either, but I would sure like to adopt the principles from your writing.

    The Serenity Prayer pretty much sums it up for me. 🙂

    Thanks and have a good year.

  2. I have been pondering these things by another name this week. There is so much going on that I cannot control. I need to look to what I can control. Put my energy to my own best use. Thanks Rob. Seems like a confirmation of something to read this, written before this week, after this week.

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