It would seem impossible to reconcile the thoughts of ancient stoic philosophers with the work of modern-day workers creating digital products… But somehow the principles and practices that guided philosophy teacher Zeno or Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius are applicable in our lives as contributors to design systems.
Written in Latin, the mantras I’m about to share make it very simple to ground yourself and remember what matters in the heat of the moment, or to simply write on a small piece of paper and keep it at your desk. Let’s dive in!
That every event is the right one. Look closely and you’ll see. Not just the right one overall, but right. As if someone had weighed it out with scales.
The practice of learning to love what happens as it does.
The goal of this practice is to look at the silver lining in everything that happens, so much that you’re happy it happened how it did for all the good opportunities and side effects it brought you. Finding a bug is probably the top thing on your list right now, yet it can be the first step towards improving your user’s experience, your testing quality, your team’s processes, and learning new things.
Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.Marcus Aurelius
A good translation for this one could be “the highest good”. The goal here is to always try and do the right thing in all circumstances.
What is “the highest good” will vary, everyone has their own perspective on the matter. This is what design systems’ Principles stand for, this is where company Vision comes into play. Having a clear idea of what is your definition of the highest good, and acting according to it at all times is the best way to provide happiness in your life and to be at peace with yourself.
As a design system contributor, this can mean a lot of things. It could be doing something that is not really your job, just because it’s what the team/project/company/world needs to move a little towards being a better version of itself. Sometimes it is standing up for something that is one of your core values. It can look difficult at first, but the good thing about always working for the highest good is that it makes accepting all the consequences that derive from your actions easy to accept, because in the end, no matter what happens, you’ve been doing the right thing.
You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.Marcus Aurelius
This one is really two-fold. It looks kind of depressing to think about death (or your involvement in a company or project) constantly, but it also helps to see where your priorities really are and what matters.
You can’t change everything in a day, you can’t get all the work that needs to be done right now. Yet this might be your last edit on a file, your last commit, or your last meeting. If it was, what do you want to leave behind you for others to keep going?
This stoic practice is all about not postponing doing the right thing when you have an opportunity. For developers, it could be to fix linting errors, not on all files at once, but on each file that they have to touch for example. All in all, it’s about finding the meaningful way in which you can make things a better place every time you do something.
Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.Marcus Aurelius
This practice is the act of looking at things from a wider perspective.
Trying to think about the world around you, not thinking about how it revolves around you, but about how you’re just part of one big puzzle made of many pieces. The word “system” makes perfect sense here: being part of teams, companies, projects, and industries, what happens around us is governed by a large number of forces that are often difficult to acknowledge when not looking at the big picture.
It is therefore a good idea to always try and remind yourself that you are a piece, as important as every other, that makes a whole, and to always try and ensure that your actions go in the system’s direction and towards the common good. This also helps understand other people’s perspectives and take some feelings out of the equation.
Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck. All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.Seneca
When it comes to Stoic philosophy, this tenet refers to preparing yourself for the evil you will inevitably encounter so that you’re better equipped to deal with it properly when it happens.
One way to look at it from a design system perspective would be to accept that some needs will change, some assumptions will be wrong, some teammates won’t be interested in the design system, or that some stakeholders will be reluctant to pay the price… But I think there is another way to interpret it!
Preparing for inevitable evil can also be about anticipating the common hurdles that your team or company faces. Internationalization and long strings of texts, friction with different departments, or any other kind of common issue. These are the kind of things that you can prepare for: how do you make it so that they impact you the least that you can, how do you ensure that they don’t deplete you from the energy you need to keep moving forward, and eventually how do you prevent them from actually happening at all?
That’s all I have for you from the Shower Thoughts department! I hope that it inspired you to change some of the ways you think about bad things and hurdles of working with design systems, using old adages that still ring true to this day.
Please let me know if there are other mantras, from Stoic philosophy or not, that help you go through the project life with ease and stay in tune with your values.
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