Seize the Initiative

In my continuing The Obstacle is the Way project, this is the chapter I chose to write about today.


This chapter was short and basically boiled down to “when life has you on the defensive, go on the counter-attack.” But, there were a few quotable moments, beginning with the opening quote:

The best men are not those who have waited for chances but who have taken them; besieged chance, conquered the chance, and made chance the servitor.

-E. H. Chapin

Isn’t that great? I want to besiege chance.

Another great line is this, from Ryan Holiday himself:

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.

Aside from the truth of it, I would probably love any sentence that threatens me with ‘falling short of greatness’ and encourages me to be something more than ‘merely sentient.’

Something I like about this chapter is that, aside from the stories (Barack Obama’s campaign and the WWII German general Rommel), there are examples of how this might work, and they aren’t simply “working through the pain.”

Ryan Holiday suggests looking at the catastrophes in your life and seeing what they offer. If a relationship has ended, you have more time to work on projects. If you’re in bed recovering from something, you can write. That sort of thing.

I’d like to think that I’m the kind of guy who does that. But, maybe I’m the kind of guy who plans to do that, but then just sinks into depression when life hits him hard.

After reading Love Everything that Happens, I’ve got a lot of mileage out of thinking “this is what I wanted to do, I get to do this now,” whether it’s freezing cold campground showers or trying to do pushups to muscle failure. I think that, teaching myself to think, “this is an opportunity to go on the counter-attack” could be just as valuable.

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Perseverance

Continuing my The Obstacle is the Way project, I picked this chapter based on its title. I felt like I needed a little reminder of the value of perseverance as I continue trying to work on the worksheet generator and spend time with the family.


This chapter begins with a reference not to a traditional historical figure, but instead to Odysseus of myth. It was a nice change.

Even more, than a change, I think it was a great choice to illustrate a difference. Determination, Ryan Holiday says, is Odysseus at Troy, trying one trick after the next in the attempt to get past the city’s walls.

Perseverance, on the other hand, is Odysseus surmounting challenge after challenge. (Weirdly, his seven years of sex on an island are considered a ‘challenge’ in this context.) Here’s how Holiday describes 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 tame. It’s about what happens nojust in round one but in round two and every round after–and then the fight after that and the fight after that.

It’s the idea of expanding the concept from “the obstacle is the way” to “the obstacles are the way.”

There’s a nice anecdote about Magellan’s greatest strength being his ability to endure hunger more than other men… and then there’s a tangent which criticizes Ryan Holiday’s generation for losing something that was once “uniquely part of the American DNA.”

I could go on about that topic, and I might at some point — because he’s right, we’ve lost a sense of perseverance that we all think we once had — but I think most Americans want to have something hard to work at, but society is changing and it’s growing hard to find the challenges we seek. Holiday quotes Emerson’s ‘counter-example’ to suggest what kind of people we should be:

Someone who is willing to try not one thing, but “tries all the professions, who teams it, farms is, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, lands on his feet.

The thing is, all the things listed above have a much higher barrier to entry now than they did when Emerson was writing that. You can’t even drive a team anymore and the modern equivalent — a CDL — runs for about $4,500 in my home state, not counting the fact that it’s a training program and you’ll have costs during the program. Never mind the cost of buying a farm.

So, I could go on here about society and the erroneous nature of Ryan Holiday’s accusations against his own generation, but the core of the matter: that each person is responsible for finding his or her own way with perseverance, remains true.

But when do you quit?

Here’s something to think about: I’ve learned a lot in these projects I work on. I’m thankful for the experience I had making my worksheet generator. But, as the umbrella of what that project is grows to encompass promotion strategies (and costs) I have to ask: when do you quit?

It’s easy to look at the example of Odysseus and say: never give up, there is light at the end of the tunnel. But, on the other hand, in the same story there is Agamemnon, who was basically a worthless King (you could write leadership manuals based on “don’t do what Agamemnon did”). He persevered and made his way home to be killed.

Even if the moral of the story is that perseverance will get you where you want to go, it doesn’t follow that it will get you where you need to go.

My answer

There are things I’d like to work on, but really don’t have the capacity to focus on. (See the stalled projects on my projects page for a list.) I don’t want to be doing what I’m doing now in ten years. But, I’m not doing now what I was doing when I started working on the worksheet generator.

The fact of the matter is that the EFL reading stories that I’m writing are a big help in my classes. Even if nobody else ever uses them, I’m glad I have them.

Additionally, just brainstorming on a blog for teachers has made me a better teacher, as I dialogue with myself and begin to see where I fall short of my own goals as a teacher. Writing the blog — to begin soon, I keep telling myself — will no doubt also be a help.

So, what makes my experience different from Odysseus’s is that I’m benefitting from the individual stages of it. (Maybe he did to — see the bit about seven years of sex.) Perhaps he felt smarter because he got to outwit a Cyclops. I don’t know.

My answer on when do I quit is simple: when I no longer sense a benefit from what I’m doing, I’ll move on to the next thing.

A headstand is also a burpee

This post could be titled “Burpee challenge, modified” and is inspired — like the whole burpee challenge thing, by a post on lifehacker. In this case, it was a post about getting a hundred burpees done.

How things are now

I still do burpees most days. Following my initial math, I worked up to sets of ten, by managing to get twenty done in two minutes.

The thing is, it’s not as fun as it once was, and I’m not seeing improvement. I get at least one burpee done (the old minimum) at least six days a week. And on one day, I managed seven sets of nine — in competition with my daughter who takes some liberties with form.

Still, I’m feeling more and more like I’m plateauing. The number of burpees I can do is not going up. I’m not getting more pull-ups done in a single set. And, adding burpees to my runs (the kill-two-birds-with-one-trip-outside strategy) means that I seldom run much more than a kilometer without a ‘break.’ (To be honest, the running feels like a break.)

How I want things to be

I don’t have a clear answer. I want to get back to feeling like I’m getting stronger, to being proud of my workouts, rather than just getting them out of the way.

I genuinely want to feel stronger.

A good fitness memory

Here’s a thing we did not long ago that made all of this seem a little more worthwhile: getting the kids outside (one of my biggest summer priorities) we found an oak tree that had a lot of branches that we could reach. Of course, we climbed it.

I haven’t spent much time in a tree in a while — though that is a long-term goal — and was surprised to see how effortless it seemed to about using my arms and shoulders to support a lot of my weight. I wasn’t doing insane rock-climbing stuff, and there was still a lot of weight on my legs.

None of those caveats, though, takes away from the feeling I had — not much more than two meters in the air — of being somehow stronger than I was used to being. And being strong enough to help my kids climb.

I loved that.

You can bet we’ve been back to that tree — and others, though that’s the one that seems to need my arms the most — often, as much for my benefit as for theirs.

So, here’s what I guess I want: to continue doing workouts that impress me (without injury, I might add!) and to have more of those moments of relative strength.

The way forward

I don’t know what the way forward is. Often, I make these posts after I’ve come up with an idea I want to try. Instead, I wanted to make a record of how things stand right now.

There is one change I’m making now, as I look at how to continue this fitness adventure. And, unfortunately, it revolves around an experience I had in which I felt less strong: headstands.

There was a time when my sister and I had a competition to see who could do the longest headstands. I could count to twelve and back down while standing pretty reliably on my head (not, I should add, my hands). It was one of those things that made me feel strong.

And then back hurt and I got into planks, and from planks into burpees.

Then, recently, my daughter has become interested in headstands, handstands, cartwheels, the like. And she asked me if I could still do a headstand (she’d seen them)… and it was hard. I got my legs in the air, but not with the confidence I’d had before.

So, I guess I’m going back to doing headstands. And that’s okay. I’ve just rationalized that I’ll try to substitute headstands for burpees on those days when I’ve realized I haven’t done enough burpees.

Maybe I’ll join my daughter in her handstand/cartwheel goals.

 

In Praise of the Flank Attack

Continuning my The Obstacle is the Way project, a chapter on the underdog.


This chapter begins talking of George Washington. It points out that he never led large armies in masterful attacks against other armies, but instead specialized in attacking the British where they were weak, and withdrawing troops who would have been lost in open conflicts.

Of course, I’m reading this after listening to the Hamilton soundtrack so often that I can’t read anything by him in another voice. Still, this paragraph is good:

Never attack where it is obvious, Washington told his men. Don’t attack as the enemy would expect, he explained, instead, “Where little danger is apprehended, the more the enemy will be unprepared and consequently there is the fairest prospect of success.” He had a powerful sense of whic minor skirmishes would feel and look like major victories.

Ryan Holiday’s point isn’t to belittle Washington, or even to “bring him off a pedestal.” Instead, he’s saying that the genius we admire about him was his ability to do what worked for him, not what worked for his enemies.

To me, this is prescient in an era in which we say things like “we have to sacrifice some civil liberties because the terrorists don’t accept liberties.” Or, less politically, “if you want to operate an online business, you have to track your customers or you’re going to lose out against the big companies who do.”

There’s something attractive to me about abandoning the idea that, to beat the biggest player in the ring, you have to do what that player is doing.

The chapter includes a few other examples, including a basketball superstar I’ve never heard of (me and sports, I guess).

Then, there’s something valuable towards the end:

The way that works isn’t always the most impressive. Sometimes it even feels like you’re taking a shortcut or fighting unfairly. There’s a lot of pressure to try to match people move for move, as if sticking with what works for you is somehow cheating. Let me save you the guilt and self-flagellation: It’s not.

All in all, I liked this chapter. Upon reflection, I don’t know that it said anything that wasn’t in the other chapters, but it was presented well and, as I get to work on the next steps in my own idea, I needed the encouragement to do something unusual.

Love Everything that Happens: Amor Fati

Continuing my The Obstacle is the Way project, I picked this chapter to read and write about because it keeps catching my eye. Who doesn’t like a bit of Latin in the title?


This chapter starts with a quote from Nietzsche:

My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it… but love it.

And, that is the whole chapter in a nutshell.

This is one of the chapters that focus on a few incidents from famous people’s lives: Edison’s factory burning down and the boxer Jack Johnson. (I wasn’t familiar with Johnson or his story: he was a black boxer who was hated for being black.) Both men were able to smile in the midst of their adversity and to turn that cheerfulness into a strength.

There’s a lot of talk in the chapter about this, but I think one paragraph summed up the mechanics of this pretty well:

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.

I like that. I like that it’s something we choose — I don’t know if I’ll be reflexively happy in adversity in the foreseeable future — but I can make the choice when I realize I’m in adversity. Further, there’s a certain wisdom in saying “okay, I’ve chosen my path, but I won’t truly own this path until I enjoy it.”

After all, why would you be miserable if you’re happy with the choices you’ve made?

To a certain degree, I think I’ve gotten good at this with my kids. I’ve learned to lean into the time I have to spend looking after them as the only chance I’ll get to have them. After all, there’s nothing quite as ephemeral as a childhood — especially if it’s not yours.

And so, even when I’m frustrated because I’m comforting a child who is crying for no great reason I remind myself: this is the dad I want to be, the dad I get to be, so why not just relax and enjoy getting some extra cuddle time with a kid.

It’s something I tell myself because I’m still too self-absorbed to do it automatically. But, it’s also a source of strength (in this case, patience) to me, and I can see the wisdom of applying the logic in the rest of my life.

What’s Right is What Works

As I continue my reading in The Obstacle is the Way, I felt like reading something about action again, as I begin gearing up to work on my own projects for a bit. The pragmatism in the chapter of this title really appealed to me.


This chapter begins in an unlikely place: in a battle between two American fruit companies in South America. I don’t know the last time they were considered models to emulate, but the moral of the story was clear: two different people claimed to own land that both companies wanted to own. One company did the ‘right’ thing by hiring lawyers to figure out who the land belonged to. The other company did the right thing by simply buying the land from both people and then clearly owning it outright.

What’s right is what works.

My own story

I have my own story along these lines that I think of often. It involves an amateur volleyball tournament that I agreed to join on the condition that our team would play ‘just for fun.’ We traveled to a lake and camped at the beach where the tournament was to be held.

Then, when the tournament started, the competitiveness of the neighbor who put the team together took over. Having fun was no longer important, winning was. And the thing was, we had the wrong strategy for winning.

At lower levels of volleyball, most teams score against themselves by hitting the ball out of bounds or failing to get it over the net in their three hits. My strategy was to just put the ball over the net and let the other team mess up by trying to be perfect with ‘pass, set, and spike.’ But, the team captain insisted that we pass, set, and spike.

We lost consistently, by giving our opponents points. Or, when the opponent made a mistake and gave us the serve, we’d serve overhand (the ‘correct’ way) and into the net, giving up the serve.

I’ve since gotten over the experience, but it wasn’t fun, and we didn’t win. So, neither the team captain nor I was really happy. And, it’s what I think of every time I think of people putting the “right way” to do things over the value of getting results.

A radical pragmatist

There’s a paragraph towards the end of the chapter that I really like:

Start thinking like a radical pragmatist: still ambitious, aggressive, and rooted in ideals, but also immenently 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.

In these days of perfectly-executed solutions and people presenting their brilliance on social media as though it bust fully-formed from their heads like a latter-day Athena, it can be worthwhile to say that “when I don’t think I can, I’ll focus on what I need.”

Sure, I might never be a fully-qualified software developer if I never sit down and take structured courses and intern in a real software company. But, as long as I’m able to execute the projects that matter to me, why would I waste time on being more of a developer?

The Master Plan

As we move towards the summer — and, even more, towards the fall when a lot of language courses start up — I’ve been brainstorming how I’ll promote the worksheet generator. It’s not something I’m naturally good at, but I rationalize that means it’s an area where I can grow the most.

So far, two things are clear to me: 1) I can’t afford to buy every click I get on Google 2) I need to increase the rate at which people who do click through to my site create free accounts and experiment with them.

That brings me to step one:

Finish the worksheet generator

It’s an obvious step and will mean a bunch of small changes, tweaks to the interface, and walkthrough videos. I hope to fix the one thing I’m aware of going wrong, as well as to add an extra review activity.

Basically, this step addresses part two up above: before I start really pushing people towards the website, I want it to be as ready as possible to wow them with its functionality.

On the topic of pushing people towards the website, that brings me to the next step (which isn’t necessarily chronologically next — I can do these things in parallel).

Make two free websites

That’s right. In order to promote what I hope will be a paid website, I think it makes sense to make two more free websites. These should attract English teachers and ‘prepare’ them to want to see great vocab worksheets.

Here is the idea:

The New Spork City Website

I have already moved the stories I wrote for EFL students to their own website, called New Spork City. (If you never read the stories, New Spork City is the fictional setting.) This website should serve several purposes:

  1. Get me to keep writing the stories. I use them, and I can’t write them week-by-week just in time for a class. I have to set aside time to sit down and make the stories.
  2. Let me showcase the worksheets. Using the worksheet generator, I’m creating vocab worksheets that could be passed out in parallel to the stories. Naturally, these will be amazing on their own, but I’m hoping they’ll be an argument for creating tailor-made worksheets for your groups.
  3. Let me showcase the other resources. I don’t think I personally would invest class time playing a memory game based on a reading activity, but the website will give me a chance to show the resources it can make.
  4. Let me promote a free website. Having a free website means I could add it to lists that are only for free resources. Or, I could upload a few stories to worksheet-sharing sites with links back to the New Spork City site.

A blog for teachers in Germany

I don’t know if I really have time to commit to a second blog (third, if you count New Spork City, which has a blog component), but I rationalize that I could pre-write articles and commit to an article-per-week plus things like conversation topics/games.

Here are the goals that I think this could help me accomplish:

  1. Promote the worksheet generator, of course. After all, teachers who come to a blog with teaching tips are probably more open to learning about new resources. What’s more, I couldn’t find a list of online resources for teachers in Germany. I could make (and be on the top of) that list.
  2. Push me to get some stuff done. That is to say, there are activities and ‘teacher documents’ that would make more sense to host on a site for teachers as opposed to on the specific New Spork City site. Having a site that needs content might push me to get it done.
  3. Push me to learn and do some of the things I want to learn and do. It might surprise you to know that I’m not a perfect teacher, but there are things I could improve at. Researching, practicing and writing about those things for a blog would be a great way to improve. That’s in addition to the fact that writing about the things I do think I know will make me understand them better.
  4. Give me a second free website to promote. This is the same as point four above (and it’s point four, here!) It’s not a high priority, but I think that it could be part of a sustainable model for the worksheet generator, to have things that I give away for free as well as a service I provide for money.

That certainly seems like enough, doesn’t it?

So, in addition to finishing the one website I’ve been working on for years, I’m looking at making two more. I get that it seems absurd.

However, most of the work for the two websites can be divided into two categories: initial setup work that has to be done once, and then stays done; and work like writing stories, making worksheets and classroom activities that I would do either way, and which I might do a little better if I knew it was for an ‘international audience’ and ‘promotional purposes.’

I’ll check in again soon.