Practical advice: my coworkers are difficult, should I change job?

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B. Writes: I am struggling with a decision about what to do about my job. Seneca says “You must change the mind, not the venue. Though you cross the sea, though lands and cities drop away … still your faults will follow you where ever you go.” (Letter 28) At what point is a venue change justified? 

In my current job (a school district finance manager) there is a lot of internal within the management team I am on. My boss is incompetent, I have a difficult co-worker who seems to be bent on actively undermine me, and the negativity of my co-workers is making it difficult to overcome my own. However, there is no guarantee that a change in “venue” will be better. In a new school district I will just face a whole new set of difficult people to work with. 

I also do recognize my own faults and how I have brought them with me from one job to the next. I don’t want to make that mistake again, but these things have been going on for several years at my current job and they are wearing me down. Does there come a point where a Stoic should change their venue, or should they remain in the situation and continue working on being a better Stoic?

The letter you cite, as you know, concerns travel. For instance, Seneca writes:

Why do you wonder that globe-trotting does not help you, seeing that you always take yourself with you? The reason which set you wandering is ever at your heels. (Letters, XXVIII.2)

Your case is different, and yet you are correct in perceiving some similarities. However, we need to be very careful in not falling for a common trap when people think about Stoicism: the notion that our philosophy is a quietist one, where we are told to just stick with whatever situation, because it’s really all about how you think about stuff. This mistake is invited by some of the ancient Stoic writings, for instance where Epictetus says:

What, after all, are sighing and crying, except opinions? What is ‘misfortune’? An opinion. And sectarian strife, dissension, blame and accusation, ranting and raving – they all are mere opinion, the opinion that good and bad lie outside us. (Discourses III, 3.18-19)

In context, this is a deep insight into the nature of human affairs, and contains much wisdom. Epictetus is reminding us that many of the things we regard as good or bad are not intrinsically so. It is our opinion of such things that make them good or bad. This is true in the sense that events and people don’t come with judgment labels pre-attached to them: “this event is bad,” “this person is good.” Judgments, rather, are human creations, internally generated labels that we slap on events and people.

As such, while it may not be in our power to change externals, it is certainly within our power to change our attitude toward them. Bill Irvine wrote a whole book about this, exploiting the Stoic early understanding of what modern psychologists call the framing effect. For instance, in your case you could re-describe the situation in objective terms, and then decide what your attitude toward such situation should be. Instead of saying “I have a difficult co-worker” (a value judgment), write out specifically what your coworker is doing, and in what sense it is useful to or hinders your work. Then rephrase the situation in something like the following terms: “Ah! My coworker is actually a challenge issued to me by the universe, let’s see how well I do in facing it.”

That said, there is nothing at all in Stoic philosophy that says that we shouldn’t try to change the actual situation, not just our attitude about it. Consider Seneca’s letter 56, where he tells Lucilius that he is hampered in his work by the constant noise coming from the street. The letter concludes in this fashion:

“What then?” you say, “is it not sometimes a simpler matter just to avoid the uproar?” I admit this. Accordingly, I shall change from my present quarters. I merely wished to test myself and to give myself practice. Why need I be tormented any longer, when Ulysses found so simple a cure for his comrades even against the songs of the Sirens? (LXI.15)

I actually find this both funny and refreshing. Sure, Ulysses could have worked on resisting the Sirens’ temptation by a strenuous exercise of virtue. Or he could have simply asked his comrades to tie him to the ship’s mast, so that he could listen to the songs without being drive to madness and jump overboard. The wise Homeric hero — a Stoic role model — chose the second, more practical solution. And so did Seneca: he moved to another apartment!

The actual course of action to take depends, as always in virtue ethics, on both the details of the situation and the judgment of the moral agent, that is, you. How likely is it that you will find a new job with less problematic colleagues? You seem to raise doubts about that possibility, so you’ll need to judge whether it is worth pursuing such course of action. If you decide that it isn’t, then the Stoic notion of reframing situations as personal challenges to your virtue will be helpful, just as it would have been helpful to Seneca, had he not been able to afford better quarters. If you decide to leave, then you know what may be awaiting you, which means that your mind is prepared. As Seneca comments:

Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen. (Letter CVII.4)

There is another interesting aspect to your predicament: your own acknowledgment that you are not entirely without fault. Naturally, since you are a human being, I presume, not a sage. This is why Marcus Aurelius reflects:

When you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred: for example, in thinking that money is a good thing or pleasure, or a bit of reputation, and the like. (Meditations, X.30)

This aspect of the Stoic attitude, centered on other-forgiveness, is helpful because it allows you to see people for what they are: flawed just like you are, though in different respects. Just as you’d like your mistakes to be judged charitably, so you should apply the same sort of attitude to other people’s mistakes.

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