A philosophy book about being a stoic in the 21st century. Interesting, well-writen and useful, anyone can benefit from this book, even if you never liked philosophy.
Authors: Ryan Holiday
Originally published: 2014
Goodreads rating: ⭐️ 4.15/5
The Obstacle Is The Way
Our actions may be impeded… but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.
And then he concluded with powerful words destined for maxim.
The impediment to action advances action.
What stands in the way becomes the way.
In Marcus’s words is the secret to an art known as turning obstacles upside down.
“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
“The Things which hurt,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “Instruct.”
Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps.
It begins with how we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them into opportunities; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty.
It’s three interdependent, interconnected, and fluidly contingent disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will.
What Is Perception?
It’s how we see and understand what occurs around us—and what we decide those events will mean. Our perceptions can be a source of strength or of great weakness. If we are emotional, subjective and shortsighted, we only add to our troubles. To prevent becoming overwhelmed by the world around us, we must, as the ancients practiced, learn how to limit our passions and their control over our lives. It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation, and fear. But it’s worth it, for what’s left is truth. While others are excited or afraid, we will remain calm and imperturbable. We will see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are—neither good nor bad. This will be an incredible advantage for us in the fight against obstacles.
The Discipline Of Perception
You will come across obstacles in life—fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure. You will learn that this reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming—or possibly thriving because of—them.
Where one person sees a crisis, another can see opportunity. Where one is blinded by success, another sees reality with ruthless objectivity. Where one loses control of emotions, another can remain calm. Desperation, despair, fear, powerlessness—these reactions are functions of our perceptions. You must realize: Nothing makes us feel this way; we choose to give in to such feelings. Or, like Rockefeller, choose not to.
There are a few things to keep in mind when faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. We must try:
- To be objective
- To control emotions and keep an even keel
- To choose to see the good in a situation
- To steady our nerves
- To ignore what disturbs or limits others
- To place things in perspective
- To revert to the present moment
- To focus on what can be controlled
This is how you see the opportunity within the obstacle. It does not happen on its own. It is a process—one that results from self-discipline and logic.
Recognize Your Power
We decide what we will make of each and every situation. We decide whether we’ll break or whether we’ll resist. We decide whether we’ll assent or reject. No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of.
They can throw us in jail, label us, deprive us of our possessions, but they’ll never control our thoughts, our beliefs, our reactions.
Which is to say, we are never completely powerless.
If an unjust prison sentence can be not only salvaged but transformative and beneficial, then for our purposes, nothing we’ll experience is likely without potential benefit. In fact, if we have our wits fully about us, we can step back and remember that situations, by themselves, cannot be good or bad.
To one person a situation may be negative. To another, that same situation may be positive.
“Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as Shakespeare put it.
There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.
Welcome to the power of perception. Applicable in each and every situation, impossible to obstruct. It can only be relinquished.
And that is your decision.
Steady Your Nerves
When we aim high, pressure and stress obligingly come along for the ride. Stuff is going to happen that catches us off guard, threatens or scares us. Surprises (unpleasant ones, mostly) are almost guaranteed. The risk of being overwhelmed is always there.
In these situations, talent is not the most sought-after characteristic. Grace and poise are, because these two attributes precede the opportunity to deploy any other skill.
Defiance and acceptance come together well in the following principle: There is always a countermove, always an escape or a way through, so there is no reason to get worked up. No one said it would be easy and, of course, the stakes are high, but the path is there for those ready to take it.
This is what we’ve got to do. And we know that it’s going to be tough, maybe even scary.
But we’re ready for that. We’re collected and serious and aren’t going to be frightened off.
This means preparing for the realities of our situation, steadying our nerves so we can throw our best at it. Steeling ourselves. Shaking off the bad stuff as it happens and soldiering on—staring straight ahead as though nothing has happened.
Control Your Emotions
Uncertainty and fear are relieved by authority. Training is authority. It’s a release valve. With enough exposure, you can adapt out those perfectly ordinary, even innate, fears that are bred mostly from unfamiliarity. Fortunately, unfamiliarity is simple to fix (again, not easy), which makes it possible to increase our tolerance for stress and uncertainty.
Obstacles make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those emotions in check—if we can keep steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate.
The Greeks had a word for this: apatheia.
It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind. Don’t let the negativity in, don’t let those emotions even get started. Just say: No, thank you. I can’t afford to panic.
This is the skill that must be cultivated—freedom from disturbance and perturbation—so you can focus your energy exclusively on solving problems, rather than reacting to them.
Does getting upset provide you with more options? Sometimes it does. But in this instance? No, I suppose not.
Well, then. If an emotion can’t change the condition or the situation you’re dealing with, it is likely an unhelpful emotion. Or, quite possibly, a destructive one.
But it’s what I feel. So go ahead, feel it. Just don’t lie to yourself by conflating emoting about a problem and dealing with it. Because they are as different as sleeping and waking.
You can always remind yourself: I am in control, not my emotions. I see what’s really going on here. I’m not going to get excited or upset.
We defeat emotions with logic, or at least that’s the idea. Logic is questions and statements. With enough of them, we get to root causes (which are always easier to deal with).
It might help to say it over and over again whenever you feel the anxiety begin to come on: I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this. I am not going to die from this.
Subconsciously, we should be constantly asking ourselves this question: Do I need to freak out about this?
And the answer—like it is for astronauts, for soldiers, for doctors, and for so many other professionals—must be: No, because I practiced for this situation and I can control myself. Or, No, because I caught myself and I’m able to realize that that doesn’t add anything constructive.
Don’t let the force of an impression when it first hit you knock you off your feet; just say to it: Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test. — EPICTETUS
To paraphrase Nietzsche, sometimes being superficial—taking things only at first glance—is the most profound approach.
In our own lives, how many problems seem to come from applying judgments to things we don’t control, as though there were a way they were supposed to be? How often do we see what we think is there or should be there, instead of what actually is there?
Having steadied ourselves and held back our emotions, we can see things as they really are. We can do that using our observing eye.
Perceptions are the problem. They give us the “information” that we don’t need, exactly at the moment when it would be far better to focus on what is immediately in front of us: the thrust of a sword, a crucial business negotiation, an opportunity, a flash of insight or anything else, for that matter.
Everything about our animalistic brains tries to compress the space between impression and perception. Think, perceive, act—with milliseconds between them.
We can question that impulse. We can disagree with it. We can override the switch, examine the threat before we act.
But this takes strength. It’s a muscle that must be developed. And muscles are developed by tension, by lifting and holding.
In the writings of the Stoics we see an exercise that might well be described as Contemptuous Expressions. The Stoics use contempt as an agent to lay things bare and “to strip away the legend that encrusts them.”
Epictetus told his students, when they’d quote some great thinker, to picture themselves observing the person having sex. It’s funny, you should try it the next time someone intimidates you or makes you feel insecure. See them in your mind, grunting, groaning, and awkward in their private life—just like the rest of us.
The aim was to see these things as they really are, without any of the ornamentation.
Take your situation and pretend it is not happening to you. Pretend it is not important, that it doesn’t matter. How much easier would it be for you to know what to do? How much more quickly and dispassionately could you size up the scenario and its options? You could write it off, greet it calmly.
Think of all the ways that someone could solve a specific problem. No, really think. Give yourself clarity, not sympathy—there’ll be plenty of time for that later. It’s an exercise, which means it takes repetition. The more you try it, the better you get at it. The more skilled you become seeing things for what they are, the more perception will work for you rather than against you.
Alter Your Perspective
Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. By the same token, every human being has the freedom to change at any instant. — VIKTOR FRANKL
Perspective is everything. That is, when you can break apart something, or look at it from some new angle, it loses its power over you. Fear is debilitating, distracting, tiring, and often irrational.
The Greeks understood that we often choose the ominous explanation over the simple one, to our detriment. That we are scared of obstacles because our perspective is wrong—that a simple shift in perspective can change our reaction entirely. The task, as Pericles showed, is not to ignore fear but to explain it away. Take what you’re afraid of—when fear strikes you—and break it apart.
Remember: We choose how we’ll look at things. We retain the ability to inject perspective into a situation. We can’t change the obstacles themselves—that part of the equation is set—but the power of perspective can change how the obstacles appear. How we approach, view, and contextualize an obstacle, and what we tell ourselves it means, determines how daunting and trying it will be to overcome.
It’s your choice whether you want to put I in front of something (I hate public speaking. I screwed up. I am harmed by this). These add an extra element: you in relation to that obstacle, rather than just the obstacle itself. And with the wrong perspective, we become consumed and overwhelmed with something actually quite small. So why subject ourselves to that?
The way we look out at the world changes how we see these things. Is our perspective truly giving us perspective or is it what’s actually causing the problem? That’s the question.
What we can do is limit and expand our perspective to whatever will keep us calmest and most ready for the task at hand. Think of it as selective editing—not to deceive others, but to properly orient ourselves.
Perspective has two definitions.
- Context: a sense of the larger picture of the world, not just what is immediately in front of us
- Framing: an individual’s unique way of looking at the world, a way that interprets its events
Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.
Is It Up To You?
In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices. — EPICTETUS
The Serenity Prayer:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
This is how they focus their efforts. It’s a lot easier to fight addiction when you aren’t also fighting the fact that you were born, that your parents were monsters, or that you lost everything. That stuff is done. Delivered. Zero in one hundred chances that you can change it.
So what if you focused on what you can change? That’s where you can make a difference.
And what is up to us?
- Our emotions
- Our judgments
- Our creativity
- Our attitude
- Our perspective
- Our desires
- Our decisions
- Our determination.
To argue, to complain, or worse, to just give up, these are choices. Choices that more often than not, do nothing to get us across the finish line.
When it comes to perception, this is the crucial distinction to make: the difference between the things that are in our power and the things that aren’t.
Focusing exclusively on what is in our power magnifies and enhances our power. But every ounce of energy directed at things we can’t actually influence is wasted—self-indulgent and self-destructive. So much power—ours, and other people’s—is frittered away in this manner.
To see an obstacle as a challenge, to make the best of it anyway, that is also a choice—a choice that is up to us.
Live In The Present Moment
The trick to forgetting the big picture is to look at everything close up. — CHUCK PALAHNIUK
Do yourself a favor and run down the list of businesses started during depressions or economic crises.
For the most part, these businesses had little awareness they were in some historically significant depression. Why? Because the founders were too busy existing in the present—actually dealing with the situation at hand. They didn’t know whether it would get better or worse, they just knew what was. They had a job they wanted to do, a great idea they believed in or a product they thought they could sell. They knew they had payroll to meet.
Yet in our own lives, we aren’t content to deal with things as they happen. We have to dive endlessly into what everything “means,” whether something is “fair” or not, what’s “behind” this or that, and what everyone else is doing. Then we wonder why we don’t have the energy to actually deal with our problems. Or we get ourselves so worked up and intimidated because of the overthinking, that if we’d just gotten to work we’d probably be done already.
Our understanding of the world of business is all mixed up with storytelling and mythology.
The point is that most people start from disadvantage (often with no idea they are doing so) and do just fine. It’s not unfair, it’s universal. Those who survive it, survive because they took things day by day—that’s the real secret.
Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead.
For all species other than us humans, things just are what they are. Our problem is that we’re always trying to figure out what things mean—why things are the way they are. As though the why matters. Emerson put it best: “We cannot spend the day in explanation.” Don’t waste time on false constructs.
It doesn’t matter whether this is the worst time to be alive or the best, whether you’re in a good job market or a bad one, or that the obstacle you face is intimidating or burdensome. What matters is that right now is right now.
The implications of our obstacle are theoretical—they exist in the past and the future. We live in the moment. And the more we embrace that, the easier the obstacle will be to face and move.
You’ll find the method that works best for you, but there are many things that can pull you into the present moment: Strenuous exercise. Unplugging. A walk in the park. Meditation. Getting a dog—they’re a constant reminder of how pleasant the present is.
Remember that this moment is not your life, it’s just a moment in your life. Focus on what is in front of you, right now. Ignore what it “represents” or it “means” or “why it happened to you.
Finding The Opportunity
It’s one thing to not be overwhelmed by obstacles, or discouraged or upset by them. This is something that few are able to do. But after you have controlled your emotions, and you can see objectively and stand steadily, the next step becomes possible: a mental flip, so you’re looking not at the obstacle but at the opportunity within it.
It’s our preconceptions that are the problem. They tell us that things should or need to be a certain way, so when they’re not, we naturally assume that we are at a disadvantage or that we’d be wasting our time to pursue an alternate course. When really, it’s all fair game, and every situation is an opportunity for us to act.
Of course you’d want to avoid something negative if you could. But what if you were able to remember, in the moment, the second act that seems to come with the unfortunate situations we try so hard to avoid?
Now the things that other people avoid, or flinch away from, we’re thankful for.
When people are:
- rude or disrespectful: They underestimate us. A huge advantage.
- conniving: We won’t have to apologize when we make an example out of them.
- critical or question our abilities: Lower expectations are easier to exceed.
- lazy: Makes whatever we accomplish seem all the more admirable.
So focus on that—on the poorly wrapped and initially repulsive present you’ve been handed in every seemingly disadvantageous situation. Because beneath the packaging is what we need—often something of real value. A gift of great benefit.
Prepare To Act
The demand on you is this: Once you see the world as it is, for what it is, you must act. The proper perception—objective, rational, ambitious, clean—isolates the obstacle and exposes it for what it is. A clearer head makes for steadier hands. And then those hands must be put to work. Good use.
But boldness is acting anyway, even though you understand the negative and the reality of your obstacle. Decide to tackle what stands in your way—not because you’re a gambler defying the odds but because you’ve calculated them and boldly embraced the risk.
What Is Action?
Action requires courage, not brashness—creative application and not brute force. Our movements and decisions define us: We must be sure to act with deliberation, boldness, and persistence. Those are the attributes of right and effective action. Nothing else—not thinking or evasion or aid from others. Action is the solution and the cure to our predicaments.
The Discipline Of Action
In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you or where you came from. It matters what you do with what happens and what you’ve been given. And the only way you’ll do something spectacular is by using it all to your advantage.
No one is saying you can’t take a minute to think, Dammit, this sucks. By all means, vent. Exhale. Take stock. Just don’t take too long. Because you have to get back to work. Because each obstacle we overcome makes us stronger for the next one.
But… No. No excuses. No exceptions. No way around it: It’s on you.
No one is coming to save you. And if we’d like to go where we claim we want to go—to accomplish what we claim are our goals—there is only one way. And that’s to meet our problems with the right action.
Therefore, we can always (and only) greet our obstacles:
- with energy
- with persistence
- with a coherent and deliberate process
- with iteration and resilience
- with pragmatism
- with strategic vision
- with craftiness and savvy
- and an eye for opportunity and pivotal moments.
That’s how people who become great at things—whether it’s flying or blowing through gender stereotypes—do. They start. Anywhere. Anyhow. They don’t care if the conditions are perfect or if they’re being slighted. Because they know that once they get started, if they can just get some momentum, they can make it work.
Life can be frustrating. Oftentimes we know what our problems are. We may even know what to do about them. But we fear that taking action is too risky, that we don’t have the experience or that it’s not how we pictured it or because it’s too expensive, because it’s too soon, because we think something better might come along, because it might not work.
And you know what happens as a result? Nothing. We do nothing.
Tell yourself: The time for that has passed. The wind is rising. The bell’s been rung. Get started, get moving.
So the first step is: Take the bat off your shoulder and give it a swing. You’ve got to start, to go anywhere.
Now let’s say you’ve already done that. Fantastic. You’re already ahead of most people. But let’s ask an honest question: Could you be doing more? You probably could—there’s always more. At minimum, you could be trying harder. You might have gotten started, but your full effort isn’t in it—and that shows.
That’s the next step: ramming your feet into the stirrups and really going for it.
While you’re sleeping, traveling, attending meetings, or messing around online, the same thing is happening to you. You’re going soft. You’re not aggressive enough. You’re not pressing ahead. You’ve got a million reasons why you can’t move at a faster pace. This all makes the obstacles in your life loom very large.
And that’s the final part: Stay moving, always.
Just because the conditions aren’t exactly to your liking, or you don’t feel ready yet, doesn’t mean you get a pass. If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started.
If we’re to overcome our obstacles, this is the message to broadcast—internally and externally. We will not be stopped by failure, we will not be rushed or distracted by external noise. We will chisel and peg away at the obstacle until it is gone. Resistance is futile.
Genius often really is just persistence in disguise.
Too many people think that great victories like Grant’s and Edison’s came from a flash of insight. That they cracked the problem with pure genius. In fact, it was the slow pressure, repeated from many different angles, the elimination of so many other more promising options, that slowly and surely churned the solution to the top of the pile. Their genius was unity of purpose, deafness to doubt, and the desire to stay at it.
So what if this method isn’t as “scientific” or “proper” as others? The important part is that it works.
Working at it works. It’s that simple. (But again, not easy.)
Once you start attacking an obstacle, quitting is not an option. It cannot enter your head. Abandoning one path for another that might be more promising? Sure, but that’s a far cry from giving up. Once you can envision yourself quitting altogether, you might as well ring the bell. It’s done.
Consider this mind-set:
- never in a hurry
- never worried
- never desperate
- never stopping short
Remember and remind yourself of a phrase favored by Epictetus: “persist and resist.” Persist in your efforts. Resist giving in to distraction, discouragement, or disorder.
There’s no need to sweat this or feel rushed. No need to get upset or despair. You’re not going anywhere—you’re not going to be counted out. You’re in this for the long haul.
Doing new things invariably means obstacles. A new path is, by definition, uncleared. Only with persistence and time can we cut away debris and remove impediments. Only in struggling with the impediments that made others quit can we find ourselves on untrodden territory—only by persisting and resisting can we learn what others were too impatient to be taught.
It’s okay to be discouraged. It’s not okay to quit. To know you want to quit but to plant your feet and keep inching closer until you take the impenetrable fortress you’ve decided to lay siege to in your own life—that’s persistence.
It’s supposed to be hard. Your first attempts aren’t going to work. It’s goings to take a lot out of you—but energy is an asset we can always find more of. It’s a renewable resource. Stop looking for an epiphany, and start looking for weak points. Stop looking for angels, and start looking for angles. There are options. Settle in for the long haul and then try each and every possibility, and you’ll get there.
When people ask where we are, what we’re doing, how that “situation” is coming along, the answer should be clear: We’re working on it. We’re getting closer. When setbacks come, we respond by working twice as hard.
What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first steps to something better. — WENDELL PHILLIPS
Failure really can be an asset if what you’re trying to do is improve, learn, or do something new. It’s the preceding feature of nearly all successes. There’s nothing shameful about being wrong, about changing course. Each time it happens we have new options. Problems become opportunities.
In a world where we increasingly work for ourselves, are responsible for ourselves, it makes sense to view ourselves like a start-up—a start-up of one.
And that means changing the relationship with failure. It means iterating, failing, and improving. Our capacity to try, try, try is inextricably linked with our ability and tolerance to fail, fail, fail.
On the path to successful action, we will fail—possibly many times. And that’s okay. It can be a good thing, even. Action and failure are two sides of the same coin. One doesn’t come without the other. What breaks this critical connection down is when people stop acting—because they’ve taken failure the wrong way.
When failure does come, ask: What went wrong here? What can be improved? What am I missing? This helps birth alternative ways of doing what needs to be done, ways that are often much better than what we started with. Failure puts you in corners you have to think your way out of. It is a source of breakthroughs.
Can we acknowledge that anticipated, temporary failure certainly hurts less than catastrophic, permanent failure? Like any good school, learning from failure isn’t free. The tuition is paid in discomfort or loss and having to start over.
Be glad to pay the cost. There will be no better teacher for your career, for your book, for your new venture.
It’s time you understand that the world is telling you something with each and every failure and action. It’s feedback—giving you precise instructions on how to improve, it’s trying to wake you up from your cluelessness. It’s trying to teach you something. Listen.
Lessons come hard only if you’re deaf to them. Don’t be.
Being able to see and understand the world this way is part and parcel of overturning obstacles. Here, a negative becomes a positive. We turn what would otherwise be disappointment into opportunity. Failure shows us the way—by showing us what isn’t the way.
Follow The Process
In the chaos of sport, as in life, process provides us a way. It says: Okay, you’ve got to do something very difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing. Follow the process and not the prize.
The process is about finishing. Finishing games. Finishing workouts. Finishing film sessions. Finishing drives. Finishing reps. Finishing plays. Finishing blocks. Finishing the smallest task you have right in front of you and finishing it well.
Whether it’s pursuing the pinnacle of success in your field or simply surviving some awful or trying ordeal, the same approach works. Don’t think about the end—think about surviving. Making it from meal to meal, break to break, checkpoint to checkpoint, paycheck to paycheck, one day at a time.
And when you really get it right, even the hardest things become manageable. Because the process is relaxing. Under its influence, we needn’t panic. Even mammoth tasks become just a series of component parts.
When it comes to our actions, disorder and distraction are death. The unordered mind loses track of what’s in front of it—what matters—and gets distracted by thoughts of the future. The process is order, it keeps our perceptions in check and our actions in sync.
How often do we compromise or settle because we feel that the real solution is too ambitious or outside our grasp? How often do we assume that change is impossible because it’s too big? Involves too many different groups? Or worse, how many people are paralyzed by all their ideas and inspirations? They chase them all and go nowhere, distracting themselves and never making headway. They’re brilliant, sure, but they rarely execute. They rarely get where they want and need to go.
All these issues are solvable. Each would collapse beneath the process. We’ve just wrongly assumed that it has to happen all at once, and we give up at the thought of it. We are A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.
The process is the voice that demands we take responsibility and ownership. That prompts us to act even if only in a small way.
Like a relentless machine, subjugating resistance each and every way it exists, little by little. Moving forward, one step at a time. Subordinate strength to the process. Replace fear with the process. Depend on it. Lean on it. Trust in it.
The process is about doing the right things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture.
Do Your Job, Do It Right
Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.
But you, you’re so busy thinking about the future, you don’t take any pride in the tasks you’re given right now. You just phone it all in, cash your paycheck, and dream of some higher station in life. Or you think, This is just a job, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t matter. Foolishness.
Everything we do matters—whether it’s making smoothies while you save up money or studying for the bar—even after you already achieved the success you sought. Everything is a chance to do and be your best. Only self-absorbed assholes think they are too good for whatever their current station requires.
An artist is given many different canvases and commissions in their lifetime, and what matters is that they treat each one as a priority. Whether it’s the most glamorous or highest paying is irrelevant. Each project matters, and the only degrading part is giving less than one is capable of giving.
To whatever we face, our job is to respond with:
- hard work
- helping others as best we can
You should never have to ask yourself, But what am I supposed to do now? Because you know the answer: your job.
Whether anyone notices, whether we’re paid for it, whether the project turns out successfully—it doesn’t matter. We can and always should act with those three traits—no matter the obstacle.
Whether we’re facing down bankruptcy and angry customers, or raking in money and deciding how to grow from here, if we do our best we can be proud of our choices and confident they’re the right ones. Because we did our job—whatever it is.
In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well. Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question. That’s one way to find the meaning of life. And how to turn every obstacle into an opportunity.
If you see any of this as a burden, you’re looking at it the wrong way. Because all we need to do is those three little duties—to try hard, to be honest, and to help others and ourselves. That’s all that’s been asked of us. No more and no less.
What’s Right Is What Works
Don’t worry about the “right” way, worry about the right way. This is how we get things done.
Sometimes you do it this way. Sometimes that way. Not deploying the tactics you learned in school but adapting them to fit each and every situation. Any way that works—that’s the motto.
We spend a lot of time thinking about how things are supposed to be, or what the rules say we should do. Trying to get it all perfect. We tell ourselves that we’ll get started once the conditions are right, or once we’re sure we can trust this or that. When, really, it’d be better to focus on making due with what we’ve got. On focusing on results instead of pretty methods.
Pragmatism is not so much realism as flexibility. There are a lot of ways to get from point A to point B. It doesn’t have to be a straight line. It’s just got to get you where you need to go. But so many of us spend so much time looking for the perfect solution that we pass up what’s right in front of us.
Start thinking like a radical pragmatist: still ambitious, aggressive, and rooted in ideals, but also imminently practical and guided by the possible. Not on everything you would like to have, not on changing the world right at this moment, but ambitious enough to get everything you need. Don’t think small, but make the distinction between the critical and the extra. Think progress, not perfection.
In Praise Of The Flank Attack
If we’re starting from scratch and the established players have had time to build up their defenses, there is just no way we are going to beat them on their strengths. So it’s smarter to not even try, but instead focus our limited resources elsewhere.
Part of the reason why a certain skill often seems so effortless for great masters is not just because they’ve mastered the process—they really are doing less than the rest of us who don’t know any better. They choose to exert only calculated force where it will be effective, rather than straining and struggling with pointless attrition tactics.
We’re in the game of little defeating big. Therefore, Force can’t try to match Force.
You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them listen. Or you create an alterative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp.
You’re acting like a real strategist. You aren’t just throwing your weight around and hoping it works. You’re not wasting your energy in battles driven by ego and pride rather than tactical advantage. Believe it or not, this is the hard way. That’s why it works.
Use Obstacles Against Themeselves
Sometimes you overcome obstacles not by attacking them but by withdrawing and letting them attack you. You can use the actions of others against themselves instead of acting yourself.
Opposites work. Nonaction can be action. It uses the power of others and allows us to absorb their power as our own. Letting them—or the obstacle—do the work for us.
When we want things too badly we can be our own worst enemy. In our eagerness, we strip the very screw we want to turn and make it impossible to ever get what we want. We spin our tires in the snow or mud and dig a deeper rut—one that we’ll never get out of.
We get so consumed with moving forward that we forget that there are other ways to get where we are heading. It doesn’t naturally occur to us that standing still—or in some cases, even going backward—might be the best way to advance. Don’t just do something, stand there!
We push and push—to get a raise, a new client, to prevent some exigency from happening. In fact, the best way to get what we want might be to reexamine those desires in the first place. Or it might be to aim for something else entirely, and use the impediment as an opportunity to explore a new direction. In doing so, we might end up creating a new venture that replaces our insufficient income entirely. Or we might discover that in ignoring clients, we attract more—finding that they want to work with someone who does not so badly want to work with them.
We wrongly assume that moving forward is the only way to progress, the only way we can win. Sometimes, staying put, going sideways, or moving backward is actually the best way to eliminate what blocks or impedes your path.
What matters is whether a certain approach gets you to where you want to go. And let’s be clear, using obstacles against themselves is very different from doing nothing. Passive resistance is, in fact, incredibly active. But those actions come in the form of discipline, self-control, fearlessness, determination, and grand strategy.
Channel Your Energy
Adversity can harden you. Or it can loosen you up and make you better—if you let it.
We all have our own constraints to deal with—rules and social norms we’re required to observe that we’d rather not. Dress codes, protocols, procedures, legal obligations, and company hierarchies that are all telling us how we have to behave. Think about it too much and it can start to feel oppressive, even suffocating. If we’re not careful, this is likely to throw us off our game.
Instead of giving in to frustration, we can put it to good use. It can power our actions, which, unlike our disposition, become stronger and better when loose and bold. While others obsess with observing the rules, we’re subtly undermining them and subverting them to our advantage. Think water.
What setbacks in our lives could resist that elegant, fluid, and powerful mastery? To be physically and mentally loose takes no talent. That’s just recklessness. (We want right action, not action period.)
To be physically and mentally tight? That’s called anxiety. It doesn’t work, either. Eventually we snap. But physical looseness combined with mental restraint? That is powerful.
It’s a power that drives our opponents and competitors nuts. They think we’re toying with them. It’s maddening—like we aren’t even trying, like we’ve tuned out the world. Like we’re immune to external stressors and limitations on the march toward our goals. Because we are.
Seize The Offensive
If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.
It’s at the seemingly bad moments, when people least expect it, that we can act swiftly and unexpectedly to pull off a big victory. While others are arrested by discouragement, we are not. We see the moment differently, and act accordingly.
You always planned to do something. Write a screenplay. Travel. Start a business. Approach a possible mentor. Launch a movement.
Well, now something has happened—some disruptive event like a failure or an accident or a tragedy. Use it. Perhaps you’re stuck in bed recovering. Well, now you have time to write.
Perhaps your emotions are overwhelming and painful, turn it into material. You lost your job or a relationship? That’s awful, but now you can travel unencumbered. You’re having a problem? Now you know exactly what to approach that mentor about. Seize this moment to deploy the plan that has long sat dormant in your head. Every chemical reaction requires a catalyst. Let this be yours.
Life speeds on the bold and favors the brave.
At certain moments in our brief existences we are faced with great trials. Often those trials are frustrating, unfortunate, or unfair. They seem to come exactly when we think we need them the least. The question is: Do we accept this as an exclusively negative event, or can we get past whatever negativity or adversity it represents and mount an offensive? Or more precisely, can we see that this “problem” presents an opportunity for a solution that we have long been waiting for? If you don’t take that, it’s on you.
Prepare For None Of It To Work
In the meantime, cling tooth and nail to the following rule: not to give in to adversity, not to trust prosperity, and always take full note of fortune’s habit of behaving just as she pleases. —SENECA
Perceptions can be managed. Actions can be directed.
We can always think clearly, respond creatively. Look for opportunity, seize the initiative. What we can’t do is control the world around us—not as much as we’d like to, anyway. We might perceive things well, then act rightly, and fail anyway.
Run it through your head like this: Nothing can ever prevent us from trying. Ever.
All creativity and dedication aside, after we’ve tried, some obstacles may turn out to be impossible to overcome. Some actions are rendered impossible, some paths impassable. Some things are bigger than us.
This is not necessarily a bad thing. Because we can turn that obstacle upside down, too, simply by using it as an opportunity to practice some other virtue or skill—even if it is just learning to accept that bad things happen, or practicing humility.
Problems, as Duke Ellington once said, are a chance for us to do our best. Just our best, that’s it. Not the impossible.
We must be willing to roll the dice and lose. Prepare, at the end of the day, for none of it to work.
Anyone in pursuit of a goal comes face-to-face with this time and time again. Sometimes, no amount of planning, no amount of thinking—no matter how hard we try or patiently we persist—will change the fact that some things just aren’t going to work.
What Is Will?
Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world.
Placed in some situation that seems unchangeable and undeniably negative, we can turn it into a learning experience, a humbling experience, a chance to provide comfort to others. That’s will power. But that needs to be cultivated. We must prepare for adversity and turmoil, we must learn the art of acquiescence and practice cheerfulness even in dark times.
True will is quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility; the other kind of will is weakness disguised by bluster and ambition.
The Discipline Of The Will
If Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul. The will is the one thing we control completely, always.
Will is fortitude and wisdom—not just about specific obstacles but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it. It gives us ultimate strength. As in: the strength to endure, contextualize, and derive meaning from the obstacles we cannot simply overcome (which, as it happens, is the way of flipping the unflippable).
This, too, is part of the will—to think of others, to make the best of a terrible situation that we tried to prevent but could not, to deal with fate with cheerfulness and compassion.
Certain things in life will cut you open like a knife. When that happens—at that exposing moment—the world gets a glimpse of what’s truly inside you. So what will be revealed when you’re sliced open by tension and pressure? Iron? Or air? Or bullshit?
As such, the will is the critical third discipline. We can think, act, and finally adjust to a world that is inherently unpredictable. The will is what prepares us for this, protects us against it, and allows us to thrive and be happy in spite of it. It is also the most difficult of all the disciplines. It’s what allows us to stand undisturbed while others wilt and give in to disorder. Confident, calm, ready to work regardless of the conditions. Willing and able to continue, even during the unthinkable, even when our worst nightmares have come true.
In every situation, we can:
- Always prepare ourselves for more difficult times.
- Always accept what we’re unable to change.
- Always manage our expectations.
- Always persevere.
- Always learn to love our fate and what happens to us.
- Always protect our inner self, retreat into ourselves.
- Always submit to a greater, larger cause.
- Always remind ourselves of our own mortality.
Build Your Inner Citadel
We take weakness for granted. We assume that the way we’re born is the way we simply are, that our disadvantages are permanent. And then we atrophy from there. That’s not necessarily the best recipe for the difficulties of life.
Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves. We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice.
The Stoics called the Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down. An important caveat is that we are not born with such a structure; it must be built and actively reinforced. During the good times, we strengthen ourselves and our bodies so that during the difficult times, we can depend on it. We protect our inner fortress so it may protect us.
Whether we were born weak like Roosevelt or we are currently experiencing good times, we should always prepare for things to get tough.
No one is born a gladiator. No one is born with an Inner Citadel. If we’re going to succeed in achieving our goals despite the obstacles that may come, this strength in will must be built.
Are you okay being alone? Are you strong enough to go a few more rounds if it comes to that? Are you comfortable with challenges? Does uncertainty bother you? How does pressure feel?
Because these things will happen to you. No one knows when or how, but their appearance is certain. And life will demand an answer. You chose this for yourself, a life of doing things. Now you better be prepared for what it entails.
It’s your armor plating. It doesn’t make you invincible, but it helps prepare you for when fortune shifts… and it always does.
Anticipation (Thinking Negatively)
Your plan and the way things turn out rarely resemble each other. What you think you deserve is also rarely what you’ll get. Yet we constantly deny this fact and are repeatedly shocked by the events of the world as they unfold. It’s ridiculous. Stop setting yourself up for a fall.
Always prepared for disruption, always working that disruption into our plans. Fitted, as they say, for defeat or victory. And let’s be honest, a pleasant surprise is a lot better than an unpleasant one.
Your world is ruled by external factors. Promises aren’t kept. You don’t always get what is rightfully yours, even if you earned it. Not everything is as clean and straightforward as the games they play in business school. Be prepared for this.
The only guarantee, ever, is that things will go wrong. The only thing we can use to mitigate this is anticipation. Because the only variable we control completely is ourselves.
The world might call you a pessimist. Who cares? It’s far better to seem like a downer than to be blindsided or caught off guard. It’s better to meditate on what could happen, to probe for weaknesses in our plans, so those inevitable failures can be correctly perceived, appropriately addressed, or simply endured.
Anticipation doesn’t magically make things easier, of course. But we are prepared for them to be as hard as they need to be, as hard as they actually are.
As a result of our anticipation, we understand the range of potential outcomes and know that they are not all good (they rarely are). We can accommodate ourselves to any of them. We understand that it could possibly all go wrong. And now we can get back to the task at hand.
You know what’s better than building things up in your imagination? Building things up in real life. Of course, it’s a lot more fun to build things up in your imagination than it is to tear them down. But what purpose does that serve? It only sets you up for disappointment.
With anticipation, we can endure. We are prepared for failure and ready for success.
The Art Of Acquiescence
It doesn’t always feel that way but constraints in life are a good thing. Especially if we can accept them and let them direct us. They push us to places and to develop skills that we’d otherwise never have pursued. Would we rather have everything? Sure, but that isn’t up to us.
That channeling requires consent. It requires acceptance. We have to allow some accidents to happen to us.
If someone we knew took traffic signals personally, we would judge them insane. Yet this is exactly what life is doing to us. It tells us to come to a stop here. We can’t argue or yell this problem away. We simply accept it.
That is not to say we allow it to prevent us from reaching our ultimate destination. But it does change the way we travel to get there and the duration of the trip.
After you’ve distinguished between the things that are up to you and the things that aren’t (ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin), and the break comes down to something you don’t control… you’ve got only one option: acceptance.
When the cause of our problem lies outside of us, we are better for accepting it and moving on. For ceasing to kick and fight against it, and coming to terms with it. The Stoics have a beautiful name for this attitude. They call it the Art of Acquiescence.
All external events can be equally beneficial to us because we can turn them all upside down and make use of them. They can teach us a lesson we were reluctant to otherwise learn.
The way life is gives you plenty to work with, plenty to leave your imprint on. Taking people and events as they are is quite enough material already. Follow where the events take you, like water rolling down a hill—it always gets to the bottom eventually, doesn’t it?
Because (a) you’re robust and resilient enough to handle whatever occurs, (b) you can’t do anything about it anyway, and (c) you’re looking at a big-enough picture and long-enough time line that whatever you have to accept is still only a negligible blip on the way to your goal.
As Francis Bacon once said, nature, in order to be commanded, must be obeyed.
Love Everything That Happens: Amorfati
To do great things, we need to be able to endure tragedy and setbacks. We’ve got to love what we do and all that it entails, good and bad. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens.
The next step after we discard our expectations and accept what happens to us, after understanding that certain things—particularly bad things—are outside our control, is this: loving whatever happens to us and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness.
It is the act of turning what we must do into what we get to do.
We put our energies and emotions and exertions where they will have real impact. This is that place. We will tell ourselves: This is what I’ve got to do or put up with? Well, I might as well be happy about it.
Learning not to kick and scream about matters we can’t control is one thing. Indifference and acceptance are certainly better than disappointment or rage. Very few understand or practice that art. But it is only a first step. Better than all of that is love for all that happens to us, for every situation.
We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. And why on earth would you choose to feel anything but good? We can choose to render a good account of ourselves. If the event must occur, Amor fati (a love of fate) is the response.
Don’t waste a second looking back at your expectations. Face forward, and face it with a smug little grin.
That is not to say that the good will always outweigh the bad. Or that it comes free and without cost. But there is always some good—even if only barely perceptible at first—contained within the bad. And we can find it and be cheerful because of it.
If persistence is attempting to solve some difficult problem with dogged determination and hammering until the break occurs, then plenty of people can be said to be persistent. But perseverance is something larger. It’s the long game. It’s about what happens not just in round one but in round two and every round after—and then the fight after that and the fight after that, until the end.
Life is not about one obstacle, but many. What’s required of us is not some shortsighted focus on a single facet of a problem, but simply a determination that we will get to where we need to go, somehow, someway, and nothing will stop us.
We will overcome every obstacle—and there will be many in life—until we get there. Persistence is an action. Perseverance is a matter of will. One is energy. The other, endurance. And, of course, they work in conjunction with each other.
The good thing about true perseverance is that it can’t be stopped by anything besides death.
We can go around or under or backward. We can decide that momentum and defeat are not mutually exclusive—we can keep going, advancing, even if we’ve been stopped in one particular direction.
Our actions can be constrained, but our will can’t be. Our plans—even our bodies—can be broken. But belief in ourselves? No matter how many times we are thrown back, we alone retain the power to decide to go once more. Or to try another route. Or, at the very least, to accept this reality and decide upon a new aim.
We don’t control the barriers or the people who put them there. But we control ourselves—and that is sufficient.
The true threat to determination, then, is not what happens to us, but us ourselves. Why would you be your own worst enemy? Hold on and hold steady.
Something Bigger Than Yourself
Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some intractable or impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think: If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people? Take it for granted, for a second, that there is nothing else in it for us, nothing we can do for ourselves. How can we use this situation to benefit others? How can we salvage some good out of this? If not for me, then for my family or the others I’m leading or those who might later find themselves in a similar situation.
What doesn’t help anyone is making this all about you, all the time. Why did this happen to me? What am I going to do about this?
Whatever you’re going through, whatever is holding you down or standing in your way, can be turned into a source of strength—by thinking of people other than yourself. You won’t have time to think of your own suffering because there are other people suffering and you’re too focused on them.
We’re not special or unique simply by virtue of being. We’re all, at varying points in our lives, the subject of random and often incomprehensible events.
Reminding ourselves of this is another way of being a bit more selfless.
Embrace this power, this sense of being part of a larger whole. It is an exhilarating thought. Let it envelop you. We’re all just humans, doing the best we can. We’re all just trying to survive, and in the process, inch the world forward a little bit.
Help your fellow humans thrive and survive, contribute your little bit to the universe before it swallows you up, and be happy with that. Lend a hand to others. Be strong for them, and it will make you stronger.
Prepare To Start Again
The great law of nature is that it never stops. There is no end. Just when you think you’ve successfully navigated one obstacle, another emerges.
But that’s what keeps life interesting. And as you’re starting to see, that’s what creates opportunities.
Life is a process of breaking through these impediments—a series of fortified lines that we must break through.
Each time, you’ll learn something. Each time, you’ll develop strength, wisdom, and perspective. Each time, a little more of the competition falls away. Until all that is left is you: the best version of you.
There are always more obstacles, bigger challenges. You’re always fighting uphill. Get used to it and train accordingly.
Knowing that life is a marathon and not a sprint is important. Conserve your energy. Understand that each battle is only one of many and that you can use it to make the next one easier. More important, you must keep them all in real perspective.
The Obstacle Becomes the Way
Something stands in someone’s way. They stare it down, they aren’t intimidated. Leaning into their problem or weakness or issue, they give everything they have, mentally and physically. Even though they did not always overcome it in the way they intended or expected, each individual emerged better, stronger.
What stood in the way became the way. What impeded action in some way advanced it.
Not everyone looks at obstacles—often the same ones you and I face—and sees reason to despair. In fact, they see the opposite. They see a problem with a ready solution. They see a chance to test and improve themselves.
Nothing stands in their way. Rather, everything guides them on the way.
There is no special school that these individuals attended (aside from, for many, a familiarity with the ancient wisdom of Stoicism). Nothing that they do is out of reach for us. Rather, they have unlocked something that is very much within each and every person. Tested in the crucible of adversity and forged in the furnace of trial, they realized these latent powers—the powers of perception, action, and the will.
With this triad, they:
- First, see clearly.
- Next, act correctly.
- Finally, endure and accept the world as it is.
Perceive things as they are, leave no option unexplored, then stand strong and transform whatever can’t be changed. And they all feed into one another: Our actions give us the confidence to ignore or control our perceptions. We prove and support our will with our actions.
There’s a saying in Latin: Vires acquirit eundo (We gather strength as we go). That’s how it works. That’s our motto.
Of course, it is not enough to simply read this or say it. We must practice these maxims, rolling them over and over in our minds and acting on them until they become muscle memory.
See things for what they are.
Do what we can.
Endure and bear what we must.
What blocked the path now is a path.
What once impeded action advances action.
The Obstacle is the Way.