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The Obstacle is the Way

TheObstacleIsTheWayWe sometimes make the mistake of thinking that life is supposed to be easy. When difficulties arise we can become angry or frustrated at the interruption to our perfectly planned lives. We forget that problems are inevitable. "Life is difficult," Scott Peck reminded us. For Peck, discipline - specifically delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing - was the key to solving those problems. In The Obstacle Is The Way, Ryan Holiday argues that it's the "three disciplines" of Stoicism that we need.

"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way," said Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Holiday argues that the obstacles in our lives are not merely to be seen as things to be overcome but as opportunities to practice some virtue or improve our condition. That with the right approach we can actually emerge on the other side of life's difficulties as better people. We shouldn't avoid difficulties, or learn to put up with them, we should embrace them as the fuel we need for self-growth.

Holiday advocates the Stoic "three disciplines" as the way of doing this: the disciplines of perception, action and will. Or, quoting Aurelius again:

"Objective judgement, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance - now at this very moment - of all external events.
That's all you need."

Perception

To a large degree, our obstacles are only obstacles because that's how we choose to see them. Once we recognise that the situation and how we feel about it are two separate things, we can look for alternative, more constructive interpretations. It's an idea that recurs in many other places, from Buddhism to Shakespeare ("There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," says Hamlet).

Doing this requires us to learn to control our emotions (or "domesticate" them, to use Nassim Taleb's wonderfully evocative term), neither allowing them to control us nor pretending they don't exist. It requires a shift in perspective, looking for the bigger picture or interpreting the events in a different way. It requires mindfulness, focusing on the present moment, "not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead". It requires us to believe that there is a genuine opportunity here, buried inside the obstacle, and finding it.

"You lost your job or a relationship? That's awful, but now you can travel unencumbered... If someone you love hurts you, there is a chance to practice forgiveness."

The discipline of perception is also about recognising which things we have control over, and which we do not. As the Serenity Prayer says, "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". The things we can change, we can then subject to action. The things we cannot change require us to exercise our will.

Action

"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."

Even if the conditions are not to our liking, we must act - with deliberation, boldness and persistence. We need to make a start, even if we're not sure of ourselves, using our frustration to power our actions. If we try something and it fails, we try something different. We iterate and keep moving forwards, step by step, focused on what is in front of us, dismantling our obstacles piece by piece. Whatever must be done, we do it, and we do it well, but not letting the best become the enemy of the good. What's right is what works.

Attacking problems head-on may not be the best approach. We need to look for opportunities to attack from the flanks, where we may meet less resistance. Or wait to be attacked, using the momentum of our obstacles against themselves. If we are patient, some obstacles may prove only temporary, fizzling out of their own accord.

Sometimes the correct action can be to not attack the problem at all, using the obstacle as an opportunity to explore a different direction altogether:

"There is a certain humility required in this approach. It means accepting that the way you originally wanted to do things is not possible. You just haven't got it in you to do it the "traditional" way. But so what?"

Will

Some problems may be outside our control. These must be endured through the exercise of willpower.

"If Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul... Will is fortitude and wisdom - not just about specific obstacles but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it."

Our will is like a fortress inside of us, but it's one we have to build and actively reinforce during the good times so its strength is available to us in the bad. One way to do this is by thinking about what may go wrong before beginning an endeavour: a "pre-mortem" or what William Irvine refers to as negative visualisation.

"Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don't have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish...

About the worst thing that can happen is not something going wrong, but something going wrong and catching you by surprise. Why? Because unexpected failure is discouraging and being beaten back hurts. But the person who has rehearsed in their mind what could go wrong will not be caught by surprise."

When we recognise that something is immune to action, we need to go with the flow, not struggle against it:

"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."

Acceptance is not sufficient, however:

"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 and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness... We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens."

Echoing something that one of my schoolteachers once said when a pupil asked him how he could be so cheerful teaching the same material year after year, Holiday observes that if we have to put up with something, we might as well be happy about it. Since we can choose our response to every situation, why choose anything other than cheerfulness?

"See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must." The Obstacle Is The Way provides an excellent introduction to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and a practical guide to applying it in modern life.

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