So what has ancient Greek philosophy got to do with modern approaches to business?
Let’s take Epicurus, perhaps the most misunderstood of all the Greek philosophers. His doctrine is often portrayed as advocating pure hedonism, and his name’s become a byword for the extravagent gourmet lifestyle, but that’s a long way from what he advocated.
Epicurus did believe that the ultimate goal of all actions was pleasure, but he was a bit more subtle in what he meant by that. He defined pleasure as the elimination of a need, and argued that there are three kinds of need. Necessary and natural: like having enough to eat to keep you alive. Unneccessary and natural: like being able to have a satisfying meal. Unneccessary and unnatural: like the gourmet’s quest for new tastes.
The first two are fine, since there’s a point at which your desire is fulfilled, the need is removed and you experience pleasure. The third type, though, has no point of fulfilment, so your need can never be removed and there’s no pleasure to be had. In fact, Epicurus advocated living a quiet life with no extravagent needs and avoiding unbridled desires and passions – and that includes falling in love.
If you really look at Epicureanism, though, you find that what he was really talking about was setting goals, and specifically about setting goals that are realistic and achievable. If you’ve done any kind of training or reading about success in business, the chances are that you’ve been told very much the same as Epicurus said – that the only goals worth setting are those with a measurable point of achievement.
So what business goals might you set that relate to Epicurus’s three types of need?
A necessary and natural aim might be make enough money from the business to pay your mortgage or rent, cover your bills and buy enough food for yourself or your family. That may or may not be easily achieved, depending on the quality of your business plan, but there’s an easily identifiable point at which you’ve done all that. Need is eliminated, and you experience some degree of fulfilment.
I suspect that most of us, though, would rather set an unneccessary but natural aim: to have a nice home, a better car, afford your favourite luxuries, go on the kind of holidays you enjoy. Again, whether or not you actually reach that point, it’s a measurable and achievable goal that you can enjoy if you actually meet it.
Some people who go into business, though, set unneccessary and unnatural goals. You might want simply to make as much money as you possibly can. That can’t be achieved because, however much you make, you could always do better. Or you might set out to own the richest business in the world. That might seem like an achievable goal, but even if you reach it, it’s not fulfilled. Everyone else will be gunning for your position, and like Alice’s Red Queen, you’ll find yourself having to run as fast as you can just to maintain your position. No achievement; no fulfilment; no removal of need. No pleasure, as Epicurus knew well.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that we should all adopt quiet, unexciting lives. It does show, though, that setting realistic, achievable goals is not only excellent advice but very old advice. Epicurus knew all about it more than two thousand years ago.