The Stoic Tax Professional

Recently I have been totally captivated by Stoicism and what are called the Stoic Exercises.  If you are not familiar with Stoicism, I think a good start would be anything written by Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca.  A good start is the Enchiridion.  The Stoic Exercises set out a mindful and brilliant plan to live life.  Like a software program constantly running in the background, ensuring we live a life of virtue, compassion, and temperance.  While reading about the Exercises, I realized they can be applied to the lives of professionals.  Let me explain the five most prominent Exercises and how they would fit into the world of a tax professional.

  1. Otherize – This is usually described as treating something bad that happens to oneself the same as if it had happened to someone else. Making mistakes at work is normal.  If your colleague misinterpreted the law, you would likely excuse it out of hand.  However, if you make the same mistake it is suddenly the end of the world!  Avoid being too harsh on yourself.
  2. Take the view from above – This principle aims to ensure that we live our lives with perspective. Picture yourself, then widen your lens and picture your city, your province, the country, the world and then the universe.  Realize how small we are.  We should do this at work as well.  When we are stressed with pending deadlines or a difficult manager, put it all in perspective.  You are a mammal on a massive rock orbiting a star.  Do not (overly) sweat the small stuff.
  3. Strive for discomfort – The Stoics encouraged others to occasionally live like paupers. To eat nothing for a day.  To sleep in the woods.  The point was that after these exercises in self-denial one would be more grateful for all that one has.  In tax law or accounting, what we need to do is ask for difficult projects.  We need to do things that scare us.  Take a shot with that clever argument.  Ask to speak at a busy event.  After all, struggle not only cultivates character but professional skill as well.
  4. Speak little, speak well – This requires little explanation. The Buddhists have a great quote, which is that one should only speak if the words one will say are more beautiful than the silence one will break.  Courts, the CRA, nearly everybody, appreciates succinct to-the-point communication.  Use the point-first method when drafting a factum.  Start with the main point when writing a letter.  Do not waste time on small talk.  The area of tax requires its professionals to be excellent communicators since we are continuously called upon to simplify very complex matters.
  5. Find a role model – In the Stoic texts a role model was referred to as a Stoic Sage. Someone you refer to when required to make a tough decision.  Someone to model your decision-making after.  As a tax professional (and any professional for that matter), it is incredibly important to find a mentor.  Someone you trust and someone who exhibits sound judgment.

And that is it.  A few simple principles written a couple of millennia ago which can and should be utilized by all of us.  Have a good day.