We had the incredible opportunity to interview Tewodros Ashenafi, the Ethiopian entrepreneur and CEO of SouthWest Energy. Earlier in his life he survived a plane crash, and he reached out to say how much Stoic philosophy has helped him to thrive and emerge stronger afterwards. He is an avid fan of Marcus Aurelius and rereads Meditations often, which he discovered while studying at Columbia University and considers it part of his modus operandi to pick it up during challenging periods. We were of course honored to hear from him and decided to ask him questions about what must have been a harrowing experience and also, what’s it like being a CEO of large company and how Stoicism helps him on a day-to-day basis. Enjoy!
You told us that you re-read Meditations by Marcus Aurelius many times since first picking it up in college. Tell us the story of how you were introduced to Meditations. And why do you find yourself re-reading it so often?
I come from a prominent family in Ethiopia. When a Communist Revolution took place in 1974, a number of my family were executed and most of our possessions were nationalized. I then went to the US to boarding school, then I had the privilege and opportunity to attend Columbia College of Columbia University in New York City. Columbia has a wonderful Core Curriculum, where every student has to study the literature humanities, contemporary civilization, etc. In one of my classes, I was introduced to Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. Ever since my first reading of this Classic, it struck an incredible chord with me. Over the years, as part of my modus operandi when going through challenging periods and situations, I always go back to it.
You have survived a plane crash and numerous other adversities. What were the key principles and ideas that helped you endure and thrive? What was your self-talk like in those moments?
Naturally, the plane crash was one of the defining moments of my life. It is difficult to explain the fear I felt in the few minutes when the engines failed and we were going down. I had to force myself to be calm and steady my Spirit. I said my Prayers and the Stoic philosophy of “what is meant to be shall be” helped steady my Spirit. I truly believe that the Divine Protection, it not being my time to go from this earth, and the fact that I steadied my Spirit helped me survive the crash unscathed.
And as a CEO of a large company, how do you find that the thinking of someone like Marcus helps you shape your own behavior in your day-to-day of leading the organization? Some people might think that philosophy and commerce are at odds (though in truth, Zeno the first Stoic, was a merchant) but clearly you don’t see it that way.
I have had an opportunity to start and grow a number of business. I wholeheartedly believe that Stoic philosophy is even more relevant in this day and age of vast quantities of information, decision overload and general business war, in various spectrums. One needs a guiding philosophy to navigate through these paradigm-shifting times.
Given what you’ve faced in your business, the stresses of international finance, the difficulties of building something in Ethiopia of all places, what have you learned about adversity? Do you see it as a test? Something to put up with? Do you enjoy or thrive in moments like that?
Adversity is like oxygen for someone who is out to accomplish anything worthwhile in this world. I am a believer of the archetypal warrior (in business) where he or she is tested by numerous challenges, obstacles, defeats etc. It is in the passing of these tests that one emerges in order to fulfill one’s Destiny.
Have you read much of the other Stoics? Is there a quote from them or from Marcus that you really love that you could share?
I have also read and re-read Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, which is also one of my favorites. A favorite quote from Marcus:
“VI. To be cheerful, and to stand in no need, either of other men’s help or attendance, or of that rest and tranquility, which thou must be beholding to others for. Rather like one that is straight of himself, or hath ever been straight, than one that hath been rectified.”
Any advice you’d have for young people, someone in college just picking up Marcus Aurelius as you did?
Read it and absorb it with the utmost seriousness, and try to make it a part of your psyche.
What are you currently working on and are excited about?
Try to accomplish something which has never been done before in my country indigenously.
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