Greg Sadler is a philosopher, speaker, author, consultant, coach, and content creator. He is the Founder and President of ReasonIO, a professional training and coaching company that helps working professionals access and adapt complex and powerful resources from classical philosophy to help them solve contemporary problems, challenges, and issues. Sadler is also an APPA-certified Philosophical Counselor, editor at Stoicism Today, Adjunct Professor in Philosophy and Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and Lecturer in Business Ethics at Carthage College.
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up on the border of the village of Wales and the town of Delafield, about 30 miles west of Milwaukee, in the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, that area was very rural, with lots of farms, and lots of former farmland that had been allowed to revert to woods or prairie. When I was four, we moved out there, into a house my parents had built within a subdivision that took quite a long time for other families to move in.
My childhood was a time of many joys and sorrows, spent exploring, playing with the other kids, reading a lot (I started reading when I was 3 years old), and spending a lot of time with my family. On my dad’s side, we didn’t have a lot of family, since he was an only child, but his dad moved in with us after his wife died and he was largely unable to take care of himself due to his alcoholism. My mom’s family is a sizable French-Canadian clan. She was a fourth-generation American but grew up not just in a French-speaking household, but in a block of Chicago where nearly everyone was French or Menomonie, and just about everyone spoke French. All of her cousins in our branch of the family lived on that block, and they spent summers together out on a farm in Indiana that my grandfather’s generation had pooled their money to buy. So they were all very close, and my generation of cousins was sort of like brothers and sisters to each other.
My dad was a tax attorney, and had both earned a law degree and passed the CPA. He was a very hard worker, but also loved spending time with all of us. He died after a long illness, at the Mayo Clinic, when he was only 36. I was 11 and my sister was 9. We went from living a solidly middle-class lifestyle back into the working class. My mom went back to work, we cut costs wherever we could, and my grandfather chipped in, so we could keep our house. I started working (other than cash jobs, like cutting grass) when I was 15. I’d say that if I had to pick one thing that changed the trajectory of my – and my family’s – life, it was the death of my dad at such a young age.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
It’s two things that go together. The first is that most of the time, most people are not paying much attention to what is going on around them, or even most aspects of what they’re doing at the moment. The second is that in the end, you have no control over what people will choose to think about any given matter. You can do your best to steer things a certain way in other people’s minds, but that’s about it.
I wasted a good bit of time early on in my life being concerned not so much with what other people do think about matters, for instance about things I did or said, but with the much wider range of what people might think about those. It’s quite liberating to discover that much of the time, most people are largely preoccupied with what they’re focused on. That’s not to say that nobody will focus on what you’re doing or saying, if that is something that they’re interested in, for example, when you’re teaching, giving a talk, or leading a workshop. And that’s where the second realization comes in. It’s equally liberating to take the pressure off yourself about what students, listeners, readers, viewers and the like will derive from what it is you’re doing or saying. All you can do is to do your part well – you don’t even have to do it great, let alone perfectly – and you’ve done enough. It’s up to them what they want to derive from it if anything.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
Cutting corners through productivity “hacks”. There are no shortcuts in studying or practicing philosophy, and there’s no shortfall of misguided people trying to do things – or sell other people on approaches – that seem promising but actually waste their time and often set them back.
Anything worth learning in the humanities requires time, thought, effort, and going at matters over and over again. Plato or Descartes don’t yield up everything their texts offer with a single reading – especially to the speed-reader! Nor can you get much of what a philosophy of life like Stoicism offers its practitioners by just skimming books, reading listicle or “life-hack” blog posts, or chattering about it in forums or online groups. There’s no substitute for putting in the work.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
My first full-time position after I finished my Ph.D. was with Ball State University, teaching Philosophy and Religious Studies classes in their B.A. program for inmates at Indiana State Prison. That position got phased out as Indiana gutted and closed many of their prison education programs, and I had to get onto the job market quite suddenly. I had several on-campus interviews, and two job offers. The one I ended up going with was Fayetteville State University, a struggling Historically Black University in the North Carolina system, and that meant leaving my children and soon-to-be ex-wife behind in our house in Indiana and moving down to Fayetteville, living a spartan life in a small apartment, and starting work at what turned out to be one of the most dysfunctional institutions I’ve ever worked at.
When I arrived there, the chancellor had just been fired and was being replaced. There were no contracts for us to sign for weeks, so I couldn’t be sure that I’d even get paid. We were expected to provide office hours to our students, but the school had no offices to assign to any new hires until the last few weeks of that Fall semester. I could go on and on, but won’t – just to save some space! I’ll just mention for those who might not remember that the last major financial meltdown here in the USA started in 2007 and was well underway in 2008. North Carolina, like many other states, anticipated that tax revenues would drastically decline, and started making serious cuts to the budgets across the entire UNC system. None of us could be sure that we’d keep the jobs we had.
That was a lonely, dismal, frustrating, anxiety-provoking time for me. Fortunately, I had plenty of work of various types to throw myself into. I was finishing my first book, doing research for articles, teaching four classes per term, and getting involved in faculty development. One of the few really functional parts of FSU at that time was the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. They provided faculty development workshops, bringing in experts to teach us new ways and methods to teach, and the CETL offered us mini-grants to apply those modes of pedagogy in our classes and to report on what worked and what didn’t.
Long story short, I took advantage of just about every opportunity of that sort that was offered to me. The extra money helped out, and trying out all those new approaches – particularly since my course load was often four sections of a Critical Thinking class required for all FSU students – made teaching a lot more interesting and enjoyable. By my second year there, I was starting to provide presentations on faculty development and got involved in the assessment of student learning. By my third and last year at FSU, I had co-founded an Ethics in Business Education Project, was overseeing university-wide assessment, designed and ran a Writing Across the Curriculum pilot program, and helped to write the 10-year Quality Enhancement Plan required for reaccreditation.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
I’ll give you two. One is from earlier on, and the other is something I’ve been doing more of lately. The first is just grinding away consistently at things where that’s what’s needed. When I wanted to learn languages in my 20s – at least with the ones I did learn and still have available as research tools – I just kept working away, doing the seemingly boring stuff, day after day, building away, even when I didn’t feel like it, or wasn’t seeing any immediate rewards or progress. It’s like that with physical exercise as well. You keep going back to the gym and lifting, or practicing forms and drills in martial arts, or even making sure to get a good walk in, and eventually, you see some results. If you learn to focus on the process and just keep working away, rather than getting sucked into the ever-present hype about the next “big thing” that promises to change everything – provided it’s the sort of matter that rewards incremental effort – you’ll see lasting results or changes eventually. And by the time you do, your motivation won’t be centered around those results.
The other thing that has been very helpful for me is something that I still need to do more of. It’s saying No to offers, requests, and opportunities, and then not just being ok with turning things like that down, but also genuinely moving on from it. It’s one thing to keep oneself
What is your morning routine?
It varies to some extent from day to day, and whether I’m currently within the time-frame of an academic semester or not. I can say this, though – it always involves plenty of coffee and usually something for breakfast.
When our dogs were still with us, the morning routine involved me getting up early enough to take them both out for their morning walk. We lost both of them over the last several years, and both of them made it to 14 years old, which meant they needed a good bit of care in their last months. The only member of our “four-legged family” remaining is our 18-year old cat, and feeding, petting, and sometimes cuddling with her often figures into some sort of morning routine.
Some mornings I record footage for my video. Some mornings I don’t. On some mornings, I have a few client appointments, usually with my clients overseas, since the time-zone difference usually works out best that way. Usually, I check my personal, business, and academic email accounts, as well as address new comments on YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
As to when I wake up, that depends as well. Some days, it might be as late as 9:00 AM. Other days, it might be as early as 6:00 AM.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
I suppose it would be the long walks that I take about 3 or 4 times a week here in Milwaukee. We live downtown, in a neighborhood called “Westtown,” and this is an area where my dad worked when I was a kid, and where I’d walk down to when I lived in Milwaukee in the 1990s. When we first moved back here, we had two dogs who were about 10 years old, but in good shape and health for their age. I started taking them for long walks along the Riverwalk, and well into a number of the nearby neighborhoods: Easttown, Bronzeville, the Third Ward, the Harbor District, Marquette, and the Menomonie Valley. We’d range for miles, which was a great exercise for all of us. It also tended to lift my spirits, and let me see a lot of this part of our city.
As our dogs started approaching their lives’ ends, the range of those shared walks got shorter and shorter, eventually just a block or two. But around the same time, I began teaching for three local schools – Marquette University, the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and Milwaukee Area Technical College – all of which were walking distance from our place, so I kept up that practice of walking through the local neighborhoods.
When Covid-19 hit in March 2020, and we shifted classes online, our last dog was in her final days, and only lasted a month. All the gyms closed as well, and in order to get some exercise, and get out of the apartment, I started taking long walks again. In fact, I began exploring new routes and ranging further and further south, north, and west. For someone who puts in as many work hours as I typically do, I find that this practice of just heading out for walks, getting in a few miles at a quick pace, letting my eyes wander over the streets, buildings, rivers, parks, and everything else, and listening to some good classic metal in my headphones, this practice helps keep me grounded through the workdays.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
I don’t use “strategies”. In fact, I find those sorts of things rather bothersome, artificial, and restrictive – for me at least. Other people might benefit from them. I don’t. I simply aim to be prudent in my use of time, to prioritize rationally, and to be willing to shift things around when called for.
I can say that one thing that can be helpful with that is explicitly raising the value of something you’re devoting time to, and asking: ‘is this really a good use of my time, compared to other things I could be doing?’ That’s very useful in curbing temptations to engage in more conversation than one really needs to, particularly in our online environment.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
I can’t say that there is one, or even a small set. I’m fortunate in that I had some raw intelligence that my mom could work with systematically when I was a kid because I was reading by the time I was three, and by the time I was entering elementary school, I was not only devouring books at a pretty rapid pace, I was reading at a high-school level. What I was required to read for my classes was just a fraction of what I did read, and I grew up in a family where many of the members didn’t have a lot of education, but where reading was encouraged, indulged in, and talked about. My great-uncle Hubert, who had to leave elementary school as a kid and start work to earn money for his family, was one of the best-read people I’ve known in my life. He read widely, whenever he could, and without pretensions, and he also fostered reading in the rest of our family, down to my generation.
So it’s not as if there is a set of books that are the most influential for me. I probably can’t even say that about authors, that there would be one or a few whose work as a whole has been very influential. That’s not to say that if you were to say to me something like, “I see you’ve done a lot of talks, or videos, or writing about this person – what’s that about?” I wouldn’t be able to say what ideas communicated within their writing I think are particularly good, and why, and how they might be applied or interpreted. But it would be very hard to put them into a kind of scale or listing where some of them are most “influential” and others less. It would probably depend on when you’d ask me – the list would change from situation to situation – which would make it considerably less definitive than one might want!
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I don’t, quite honestly. I understand how short, pithy passages can be very useful for many people, to remind themselves of important ideas and values when they run into challenges, to give themselves a bit of extra energy or resolve in tough moments, or even just to provide some consolation when things get tough. That practice goes way, way back in traditions of philosophical, religious, and other wisdom literature, by the way. Instead of “quotes”, you’ll see them called “proverbs”, “maxims”, or even “dogmata”. People were counseled to think about them – or rather, on them – and to have them “ready at hand” to use when they need them. So, there’s nothing wrong with memorizing “quotes”.
When you study a lot of them, over the course of years, within more or less systematic contexts, the individual maxims become more powerful in what you can do with them, when you want to or need to. But, at least in my experience, those specific “quotes” also recede into the background. They’re there when you need them, and you can call them up when they’re useful. But you’re not starting the day off with them, or putting them on t-shirts, mugs, or tattoos. You don’t need to, because they’re there for you, ready at hand, like tools that you bring out for specific uses and contexts.
I will say that there is one exception to this for me, though it’s more an expression that made its way into my mind at an important formative time of my life. I was fortunate to have a really good high school gym teacher and track coach – good both in the sense of being good at his job and in the sense of being a good human being. When I’m lifting weights, I sometimes hear a phrase he said countless times to us: “Don’t cheat yourself”. It’s only when I’m close to the end of a set, and I am tempted to slack off a bit. I can’t say I even really hear it in any full sense – I’ve long since forgotten what his voice sounded like – but it’s there in my head, so to speak. And it is a helpful spur to finishing up the exercise properly.
Where can we go to find out more?