Michael McGill is Chief Information Officer with Medical Service Company and has been in the IT industry for more than 20 years.
Rising through the ranks from front-line IT professional to IT leader, he has seen his fair share of change in a fast-moving industry.
In response to the everyday chaos that a career in tech brings, Michael has deployed Stoicism as his own operating system.
“Change is Nature’s delight.”Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.35
It was great to be able to interview Michael recently, here are his answers!
You can also find him online at these locations:
How did you first become interested in Stoicism?
I don’t remember exactly how, but somehow I stumbled my way onto the book, The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday. That was my gateway to Stoicism. The book talks about using Stoic principles to help face the challenges you encounter in life and use them as opportunities. I really loved that book, so I started digging more into Stoicism.
The next book I read was the excellent A Guide to the Good Life, by William Irvine. That book goes a little deeper into Stoicism: it’s history and how to integrate Stoic principles into your life. After that I was off to the races. Stoicism really resonated with me and “fit like a glove.”
Next, I started digging into the works of the actual Stoics, starting with Marcus Aurelius, then Epictetus, then Seneca.
I recommend to people who want to learn more about Stoicism that you read ABOUT Stoicism before you actually read Stoic works. Personally, I don’t believe I could have just picked up Meditations by Marcus Aurelius and got as much out of it without learning a little about the philosophy first.
How does Stoicism influence your role as a CIO?
I believe all leaders would benefit from learning a little about Stoicism. How it personally benefits me is summed up nicely in my favorite Marcus Aurelius quote.
“Objective judgment now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance, now at this very moment. Of all external events. That’s all you need.”
The three Stoic pillars Marcus references in this quote benefit me greatly as a CIO: Objectivity, Unselfishness, and Acceptance. If I look at things objectively, act unselfishly, and accept the results…I am on my way to being a good leader.
I don’t talk much about Stoicism directly with people in my company. I try to lead more by example. My hope is that if someone I worked with learned about Stoicism, they would think: “Oh yeah, that is how Michael acts.”
How do you think Stoicism can help IT professionals in general?
IT is tough. Servers “crash”, code has “bugs”, we get “hacked”. It’s a battlefield out there. It is important for us to face these setbacks objectively and with a cool head. Responding emotionally when things go sideways is not effective.
Stoicism to the rescue. Learning some basic Stoic principles can help you become more effective when things go differently than planned. One of the main Stoic principles comes from the philosopher Epictetus:
“Of things some are in our power, and others are not.”
These are simple, but extremely powerful words of wisdom for IT professionals. When something goes wrong, separate what you can and cannot control, and objectively work on what you can control in the moment.
You regularly share great wisdom via your Stoic Thought of the Day on Twitter, do you have any other daily Stoic practices?
It is important to remember that Stoicism is a “practice”. To get the most out of it, you have to put in the work. You have to practice it daily. For me, it starts out first thing in the morning where I read a passage from the “Daily Stoic.” This helps get my day started off on a Stoic trajectory.
A few months ago, I started doing a daily “Stoic Thought of the Day” on Twitter. I take a quote from one of the Stoics and add a few of my own thoughts to it. This is a great daily reflection and reinforcement for me, and hopefully others get something out of it too.
I loosely follow a Stoic framework when I do my nightly journaling. I will reflect and write on what I did “good”, “bad”, and how I can do “better”. I typically look at “good” and “bad” through a Stoic lens. Where did I follow Stoic principles? Where did I not? How can I respond differently in the future? My nightly journaling is a key part of my Stoicism practice.
Lastly, I am typically reading a book by one of the Stoics or “about” Stoicism. I read Meditations yearly. Same with the Enchiridion by Epictetus. It is such a quick, easy read; but pound for pound it is packed with the most Stoic wisdom. I typically have a Stoic “nightstand” book ay my bedside. I like to read a little philosophy before I go to sleep. It helps to put the silly little troubles of the day in perspective.
So, in a nutshell, I read, write, and reflect on Stoicism in my daily practice.
Are there are Stoic principles you find difficult to adhere to?
I tend to find more difficulty in context than principle. I believe we live both an “inside” and an “outside” life. The inside life is the life we live inside our own heads. The outside life is the life we live among other people.
Stoicism has been a HUGE help for my inside life. When I am alone, reflecting on things, Stoic principles easily come to mind and help keep my mind peaceful. This has been the single biggest benefit of Stoicism to me. It has greatly improved the tranquility of my inside life. Which is good, because that is where we spend most of our time.
My outside life? I am still a work in progress there. Sam Harris has a great analogy where he compares the things that “trigger” us to level bosses in video games. If you have played video games, you get the analogy. As you progress through a game, every level has a “boss” that you have to get through to move on to the next level. They typically have a certain tactic they use that gets you every time. Life is the same, we face our “level bosses” every day. Situations that always “get” us. I have those too.
Where I have found Stoicism to help the most in my “outside” life is through recovery. When I face one of those life “gotchas”, Stoicism helps me recover much more quickly, and have a bad moment instead of a bad day.
What are your favourite Stoic resources currently? (e.g. blogs, podcasts, social media accounts)
My single most valuable Stoic resource is my Evernote. I am a a pretty voracious reader and note-taker. The notes and highlights from every book on Stoicism live in my Evernote for easy recall. Evernote is the source for my Stoic Thought of the Day on Twitter. The time spent capturing my notes and highlights really helps to connect the dots between Stoicism and other books I read too.
After that, Twitter is the next most valuable resource. There are a lot of really great Stoicism accounts on Twitter that I follow; What is Stoicism? being one of them. They provide a great daily reflection on Stoicism either through quotes directly from the Stoics, or reflections on Stoicism.
And, of course, blogs like The Daily Stoic are great resources for Stoic learning and inspiration.
Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Michael. A slightly open-ended question to finish off – in terms of what the philosophy means to you, what is Stoicism?
To me, Stoicism is an “operating system for life”. A set of teachings and practices that will help to improve the quality of your life. If you follow Stoic practices to any degree, your life will definitely improve.
I am not saying that practicing Stoicism today will make your life drastically better. But, by practicing Stoicism daily, you will begin to enjoy the “compounding interest” benefits. That is where the Stoic magic happens. Through daily practice and investment in yourself.
I look forward to enjoying more and more “compound interest” benefits of Stoicism as I continue my daily practice.