Control your Emotions

This is part of my continuing series on reflecting on The Obstacle is the Way, by Ryan Holiday.


This chapter begins with a quote from someone I’ve never heard of, Publius Syrus:

Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself.

And, as you may have guessed, the rest of the chapter is dedicated to supporting that idea. The examples running through the chapter are primarily taken from NASA’s astronaut training and the idea that NASA had to–and was able to–train the panic right out of astronauts.

Obviously, we should learn to train the panic out of ourselves.

I think the paragraph that best exemplifies the thinking on panic presented in this chapter is this one:

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 innnate, 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.

So, because I think the sense of what he’s saying here is clear, let me begin with the obvious: I love the parenthetical “again, not easy.” Because there is a clear difference between simple and easy in this case.

I think that there are a few ways I can apply this to my own life. The last time I can remember panicking was probably during the fiasco of moving my software from the development system on my notebook to the Linux server I rented from Linode.

My emotions during the whole process were not helpful, and the thoughts they conjured up “the last months of work were pointless if I can’t get this software to work on a server” were destructive. I’ve since thought I should write a guide to putting your Django project on a Linode server — as much for me as anything else — and I realized that I no longer really know how I got it to work if I ever did know. I can recall several resets, and late evenings (with wine, which clearly didn’t help), where I would wind up changing things in configuration files “just to see what happened.”

Could I have managed that better? Certainly. Did I learn from it? I don’t know. Was the panic I felt in any way constructive? No. Should I have given in? Of course not.

I like that this chapter suggests that the exposure afforded my by having panicked once will help me face my panic next time. Now I know what it feels like, now I know how destructive it was.

But I’m not going to go looking for it.

The glorification of failure.

This all feeds into a minor rant that I could easily expand on. It’s this: from a distance, it seems as though silicon valley and, by association, startup culture in general really glorifies failure. I’ve heard things on podcasts like “nobody takes you seriously in the valley until you’ve had at least three failed startups,” and wondered “don’t they risk incentivizing failure?”

Incentives are a big thing in my life. I have three small kids, and I see the world around me in the terms of carrots and sticks. When parking fees are high, and tickets are cheap, isn’t the city incentivizing illegal parking? That kind of thing.

And I don’t like the idea that failure is incentivized. I think that trying should be incentivized, and failure accepted. There’s a clear difference (in my mind) and it wouldn’t have hurt whatever anonymous speaker made the “three failures” quote I mentioned above to have reworded: “Nobody takes you seriously in the valley until you’ve made at least three serious attempts at a startup.”

To me, there are worlds of difference.

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