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10 Lessons in Life and Business from a Roman Emperor

Image of Roman Forum in Rome, Italy during sunrise.

Looking for the answers on how to lead a good, successful life is nothing new to the modern business age. The greatest thinkers since the dawn of time have been questioning and guiding people on how to lead a better life. Somewhere along that journey came Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD. Aurelius was the modern equivalent of a good journal writer, and wrote many philosophical statements to himself, to help him as a person and Roman leader, at a time of great conflict. These writings were collected after his death and later became known as the book Meditations, which has been held in high esteem as a classic ever since. It is a great book of personal development from the ancient world.

Whilst each passage of the 12 chapters can be carefully analysed, I have identified 10 key passages from Meditations that can help people in their personal and business lives:

1. If you set yourself to your present task along the path of true reason, with all determination, vigour and goodwill……then you will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you.

The ending to that statement is so key: “You will lead a good life. And nobody is able to stop you”. The message is clear; the power lies with you. All the aspects that make up a good life cannot be taken away by anyone. They have to be achieved by you of course, but if you focus on the task at hand with an uplifting and determined attitude, then the good life is what will result. The good life is an attitude, not a place.

2. Most of what we say and do is unnecessary: remove the superfluity, and you will have more time and less bother. So in every case one should prompt oneself: ‘Is this, or is it not, something necessary?’

Jim Rohn also used to say ‘Make sure you don’t major in minor things’. So much of what we say and do is unimportant and leads to nothing. If you want to live a more purposeful life, then question everything you are doing, and what the result will be. For instance, if you are speaking to people in a business sense, cover the key points and benefits of what you are saying, without the waffle on the side. Attention spans are much shorter than most people think, and you will lose people quickly if there is no understanding where a certain speech or conversation is going. Be more clear and concise with your words and tasks, and you will gain back a lot of time to concentrate on other things.

3. In this world there is only one thing of value, to live out your life in truth and justice, tolerant of those who are neither true not just.

There are bad people around. Simple as that. People with few morals, self-centred and with a lack of care for the results of their words or actions. The answer is to be a good person in spite of the bad people we will encounter. Few people change much during their life, and it is asking a lot for us to think we can make bad people good overnight. Being confident in yourself by leading an honest and just life, is a great armour to have in the world.

4. Imagine you were now dead, or had not lived before this moment. Now view the rest of your life as a bonus, and live it as nature directs.

This is a common theme throughout Meditations; the shortness of life and the struggle against time. We must be grateful for the time we have on this Earth, and not forget that it can be over at any moment.  Whilst I don’t believe we should live everyday as it if was our last (those flights to the tropical beach will shred any savings plan pretty quickly), we must realise that every day we have is a day to make a difference to the world and our life. Align yourself with your true ambitions, that show who you are at your best, and time need never be wasted.

5. Dig inside yourself. Inside there is a spring of goodness ready to gush at any moment, if you keep digging.

You know you are good. But have people really seen how good? Personal development should be important to everyone. There are great talents and skills within you, but they must be worked on, they don’t appear for free. After planting the seed, the flower still needs water. And not just once. Again and again and again. Only by continual work on yourself, by pushing yourself out of your comfort zone on a regular basis, will your true abilities and talents emerge.

6. Always remember this: remember too that the happy life depends on very little.

 Happiness is rarely ‘out there’. It’s not a case of having more, but being content with what you have. Studies have shown time and time again that money is not a key driver of happiness and in fact only contributes to your mental well-being up to a certain amount (a household income of around $75,000 a year on average if you’re interested). The real difference in happiness is created by who you are and what you do. Leading an altruistic lifestyle, with a sense of integrity and justice, and positive family and friend relationships, contribute far more to your level of happiness.

7. Every living organism is fulfilled when it follows the right path for its own nature.

Wayne Dyer used to call this concept ‘alignment with source’. In essence, it means that if you are bold and pursue your own ambitions and talents, then great things seem to happen easily. Your success is likely to be far greater if you follow the things you want to do and are good at, than if you choose a life of conformity and security. It requires a bit of faith and determination, but following your natural path is the key to your success moving to autopilot.

8. You must compose your life action by action, and be satisfied if each action achieves its own end as best can be: and no one can prevent you from that achievement.

Whilst it is essential to have a vision of where you want to be, you achieve that vision by focusing on what is right in front of you. Every action you take has a desired result, and the best thing to do at any moment is to complete the task at hand. It is important that the actions taken to accomplish a particular goal or vision are clear. Without the plan as to how you are going to achieve the goal, you are setting yourself up for failure. It would be like having a map showing your end destination but without the roads leading up to it.

9. Someone despises me? That is his concern. But I will see to it that I am not found guilty of any word or action deserving contempt. I will be kind and well-intentioned to all, and ready to show this very person what he is failing to see – not in any criticism or display of tolerance, but with genuine good will.

Being a good person means being good to good people and good to bad people. We cannot let ourselves be distracted or knocked off course by other people’s opinions. Whilst it is human to be sensitive to criticism, especially unjust criticism, we must have the strength to be true to ourselves and not let any unjust treatment allow us to respond in ways inconsistent with our own morals and values. If there is any way to change a bad person, it must be to show the value of being a good person and all the rewards that go with it.

10. The good and honest man should have the same effect as the unwashed – anyone close by as he passes detects the aura at once.

I was at a training session recently regarding anti-corruption laws, and the trainer said that a company can pay fines and improve its practices going forward but it cannot buy reputation. Your reputation is the accumulative effect of all the actions you have taken in life. It does not come quickly and easily, and can be lost in an instant. People will know a good company or person by the way they consistently act. It should not be a question whether someone is good, effective or trustworthy, it should be clear to see.

Recommended reading: Marcus Aurelius – Meditations


The Key to Success is….

It’s the reason a rock band sells out a stadium gig.

It’s the reason an author tops the bestseller charts.

It’s the reason a sports star sells millions of replica shirts with their name.

It’s the reason a leader causes a revolution.

It’s the reason a shop has a product flying off their shelves.

It’s the reason a salesperson wins the holiday at the end of year sales conference.

It’s the reason the start up company becomes a multi-million dollar business.

It’s the reason a blockbuster movie makes over a billion dollars.

It’s the reason a TV programme attracts millions of viewers.

It’s the reason the latest console game is played from Australia to Canada.

It’s the reason the social media network registers millions and millions of users.

It’s the reason the presentation has the board in rapturous applause.

It’s the reason the manager wins the support and cooperation of their team.

It’s the reason the company vision is achieved.


The key to success is CONNECTION.


The challenge is to figure out how to create it.


Love January – Everyday is a new opportunity

Young runner tying her shoelaces outside in winter nature

January is not the time for sadness. It is not the time for wishing time itself away. January is a time for planting. A time for action. And action of course is the antidote to sadness and boredom.

When you have a higher purpose you are striving towards, the bleak January mornings will not faze you. Everyday is a gift and a new opportunity to become the person you envision yourself becoming. Yes the Christmas and New Year parties are over, but life of course goes on. They will come round again soon enough. The question is; how will your life be different when they do come back round? Will you be celebrating a glorious year of progression and achievement, or will you be in despair at another year of inaction and wasted opportunities? We only get a certain amount of years.

In the Medieval age, January was springtime. A time to plant vegetables, that hopefully would result in a summer or autumn harvest. Indeed they were at the mercy of the elements and luck if they did see the fruits of their sowing, but there was a clear way to ensure you would yield no vegetables, and that was to not plant at all.

Now is your spring. Never mind what the weather is like outside, this is the time to get busy planting. How lucky we are to have today as an opportunity to make life happen. It is the greatest gift. Love January, and turn the sadness and despair of the short, cold days to create a magnificent harvest later in the year.


“Regardless of age, the core strategy for self-control is to cool the ‘now’ and heat the ‘later’ – push the temptation in front of you far away in space and time, and bring the distant consequences closer in your mind”

The Marshmallow Test – Walter Mischel

Sometimes common lessons can take years to understand. I can’t even begin to remember the first time I heard the words ‘fake it until you make it’ linked with success. But I never liked hearing the concept. It seems to go against the grain of being who you are, and being true to yourself. How can I pretend to be someone I’m not? Surely, I need to be honest about where I am, and then I can move on from there? And who likes anyone being fake anyway? You hear it all the time – “she’s so fake, it drives me mad”. No, there did not seem to be anything positive with the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach to life.

Then last year I read a book, and I finally got it. A specific book of course, and in this case it was called ‘The Marshmallow Test’ by Walter Mischel. It was the book’s tagline that me drew me to it – ‘Understanding self-control and how to master it’. I mean, who doesn’t struggle with self-control? If we could all be superbly disciplined and master self-control, what could we not achieve? So the hook was there and I happily went for it.

Kids saying no to sweets

You may have heard of Walter Mischel and the marshmallow test before. It has become the given name for a series of experiments led by Mischel that began in the 1960’s to test the effects of delayed gratification in children. The tests were varied and set up in many different scenarios, but the essence of the experiment was to offer a child a marshmallow (or biscuit, chocolate bar etc.) that was placed in front of them, which they could eat at any time, or to wait a certain period of time, 20 minutes for example, where if they held out from eating the marshmallow in front of them, they would receive another one. Thereby having a larger reward at the end of the time period, if they could control and discipline themselves not to eat the immediate reward in front of them. The results were interesting and varied (and far too diverse to cover in this blog post), but after years of study, the conclusion was clear – delaying gratification is key to a successful and fulfilling life. The children who were able to resist the immediate rewards placed in front of them, scored higher marks in tests, earned higher salaries, and had a greater sense of self-worth in life.


A big part of understanding how we can employ self-control, is learning what a hot and cool temptation is. A hot temptation is something that is almost impossible to resist. A smoker needing another cigarette. A free ice cream from the ice cream truck. And so on. Even the most disciplined children in Mischel’s tests were given certain factors that made it inevitable they would eat the sweet in front of them. A cool temptation is of course the exact opposite. It’s there, but can be resisted. It’s tempting to eat a much healthier diet to improve your health in later years, but without being able to see those years right in front of us, the temptation to eat better can be resisted. And that is why self-discipline is difficult; it’s very hard to say no to the hot temptations right in front of us, and harder to say yes to the alternatives that won’t pay off until much later on, even if we are sure they will. For a child taking part in Mischel’s experiments, to resist the marshmallow and gain a further marshmallow, would mean ‘cooling’ the temptation placed in front of them and ‘heating up’ the temptation (reward) in the distance.

Faking it

Your mind finds it incredibly difficult not to act on the hot temptation. Therefore, the key is to control what you class as the hot temptation. And here is how the ‘fake it ’til you make it’ approach fits in. If you act like the success you want to be, you will find it very difficult not to become that. Your brain is wired to act on the hot temptation. If you act like the hottest Saxophone player in town, you will create the necessary conditions to become that. If you behave like the greatest salesperson the company has, the reality will soon catch up. This isn’t delusion, this is visualisation. Becoming that that you envision. This is the winner’s approach.

So it doesn’t have to sound like you’re conning yourself – ‘Fake it ’til you make it’. A more sensible way of putting would be ‘Act now what you aspire to be’, but then that doesn’t have the catchy rhyme. I now know why it works though. Become the vision or dream you have, and the mind will play it’s part to make sure it happens. A golden future hey, how could you resist that?

Recommended reading list:

The Marshmallow Test by Walter Mischel


Physical and Mental Exercise – Are you getting both?

“We may venture to assert that anyone who can produce the perfect blend of the physical and intellectual sides of education and apply them to the training of character, is producing music and harmony of far more importance than any mere musician tuning strings”

The Republic – Plato

Society is addicted to beauty of the physical nature. People flock to gym’s to hand over a portion of their monthly salary, and fitness magazines sell in their millions. If that isn’t enough, you can find some of your friends showing off their newly toned figures on Facebook, and reminding you how far they have ran recently, via the latest fitness mapping app. Yes we love attractive people. We would love ourselves better if we could be physically fit and attractive too. But what is lost on people these days is mental exercise. And I don’t mean mental exercise as in completing the latest Sunday Times crossword or Sudoku puzzle, I mean reading books. Great books. In fact, it shouldn’t really be mental exercise at all, it should be a search for wisdom and understanding. But the brain needs it’s exercise, requiring the same stretching and toning as the body’s muscles. But who is doing it?

Science shows that the brain grows and develops with hard study and learning. Sadly, most people end this process after leaving formal education. Serious learning is replaced with weekly TV magazines, or the latest hyped novel. Yes novels can be great books, but in terms of expanding our mental understanding, it very often requires us to go back to classic literature to take us out of our reading comfort zone, and increase our reading skill.

I have recently been reading The Republic by Plato, one of the best known works of ancient Greek philosophy. The essence of The Republic is the debate surrounding justice and injustice, and what a perfect society would look like. Learning great stories and literature was certainly not lost on the early Greeks, and a huge part of the early debate identifies the earlier greek poets that Children need to learn, if they are to be raised with great character and mind. Physical education is addressed much later in the early part, but as Socrates the main speaker states, the aim of both physical and mental education is not to creates ends to themselves, but to contribute to a single goal; to train the mind.

Why it is so important to get both

Everything in life needs balance. There is another great quote in The Republic that states “Excessive emphasis on athletics produces an excessively uncivilised type, while a purely literary training leaves men indecently soft“. ‘Uncivilised type’ is perhaps going a bit too far, but the point is clear; there is no path to greatness without addressing both forms of exercise. An uneducated professional footballer may be a cruel stereotype, but after his playing days are over, unless he is in the perhaps 1% whose fame and fortune will see him through to the end of his life, he must balance his physical training with a mental education to remain employable. Otherwise, he will make a sharp fall in the income and social ladder, not an uncommon scenario.

As the previous quote alludes to though, a literary education without a physical element will not address the body’s needs for growth and replenishment. It greatly contributes to the mind with the discipline it requires, and the confidence it gains. It is clear that we need both physical and mental exercise.

So how much do we need?

It is of course much easier to write what we should be doing, than put it into practice. I struggle like anyone to get the required physical and mental exercise I need. The effects of exercise carry various reactions to different people, but I am sure that 3 productive workouts a week (45 minutes plus) will lead to improved fitness and body toning. This has always been the case with me. Workouts have to push you though, there has to be struggle, or else there will be no growth or improvement. There is a good body of scientific evidence now to suggest that we may even need only 3 minutes a week, but this involves breaking a particular exercise down into 20 second periods of activity and rest, where the activity involves the absolute hardest the person can push themselves. Having observed this type of training, people are still left exhausted and breathless, even after these surprisingly short time periods.

When it comes to reading, there is no surefire way of knowing how much we need. It again is often about quality rather than quantity. The late business philosopher Jim Rohn said we should stretch our reading to an hour a day. He went on to say you should at least do 30 minutes a day because “half rich isn’t bad“. It is clear where he thinks the full hour will take you. One hour is what I try to aim for. This should not be seen as a chore though. Reading is probably my favourite past time. There are treasures of wisdom and spiritual connection within great books. They can help you define your own character and personal philosophy. They can help you find yourself.

So the struggle for success and greatness clearly involves exercising the mind and body. Stephen Covey in his great book ‘The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People’ takes this much further, demonstrating that the four dimensions of renewal (growth) that need to be addressed are: Physical, Mental, Spiritual (values and religion) and Social/Emotional (community, friends, service etc). Keeping these all in balance will help you on a journey to success and happiness. Unfortunately, many people, if they are addressing any of these dimensions at all, are focusing entirely on the physical side. It’s not just the gym or the Zumba classes, but the sheer number of diets people put themselves on as well. If individuals would put their minds through the same workout on a daily basis, then they might find incredible riches and understanding, that they could not have possibly imagined previously.

Recommended reading list:

The Republic by Plato, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren