Prepare to Start Again

This is the final chapter in my The Obstacle is the Way project! It’s a little hard for me to believe I made it.


This chapter is two pages long. To be pedantic about it, it’s less than two pages long, as neither page is completely covered with text. It’s a short chapter.

And, nonetheless, I have a few gripes. Not with the overall message: after one obstacle comes the next. In fact, I like this two-line paragraph:

Elysium is a myth. One does not overcome an obstacle to enter the land of no obstacles.

Who can argue with that? And who isn’t guilty of secretly thinking “if I just get these things here lined up…. I’ll never have to worry again” even though any degree of human observation tells us that’s not the case? I know I’m guilty.

It’s a solid ending to a book about overcoming obstacles: we learn to overcome obstacles, not because we want to live free of obstacles, but to become good at overcoming them.

A tangent and a rant

But then, there’s a phrase on the chapter’s second page that makes me crazy:

Passing one obstacle simply says you’re worthy of more. The world seems to keep throwing them at you once it knows you can take it.

I am available for a conversation about ‘the world’ as a sentient being that can somehow care for us in a quasi-spiritual way. However, I think it’s ridiculous to think of the world knowing anything about me, or first checking whether I can ‘take’ an obstacle before throwing it at me.

The idea makes me think of two beneficial gut bacteria, fading quickly under the onslaught of an antibiotic regimen.

“I don’t know if I’m going to make it.” The one says to the other.

“Come now!” The other answers. “I’ve heard the human say he values his microbiome. He wouldn’t do this if he didn’t know we can handle it. Be strong!”

Returning from my brief venture into the ridiculous, I feel like this is something of a dangerous mindset. Not because it pretends to know the unknowable (the mind of ‘the world’), but instead because it handicaps our empathy.

I want to get better at overcoming obstacles. And, the book was a great inspiration and provided tools. But, for every example of people beating obstacles, a good google search for celebrity suicides would give a counter-example of people being beaten by obstacles.

The fact of the matter is, regardless of all the tools we may be able to develop, anyone can need a hand up in a desperate moment. The idea that “the world wouldn’t give you this challenge if you couldn’t handle it” has the unspoken corollary that “the world chose this experience for you for a reason and I would be robbing you of it if I helped.” And that’s never true.

Winding up

This project has dominated the blog for more than a year. It’s probably the thing I write about the most. And now it’s over.

But that probably just means it’s time for me to find a new mountain to climb.

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Channel Your Energy

This is the second-to-last chapter in my The Obstacle is The Way project, bringing me that much closer to claiming the title of ‘finisher.’ I wasn’t super impressed with this chapter.


This chapter kicks off with a killer quote from Marcus Aurelius:

When jarred, unavoidably, by circumstance revert at once to yourself and don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of harmony, if you keep going back to it.

Partly, I wish that ‘revert to yourself’ was the kind of thing I could use in conversation: “Son, you have diabetes, but let me first help you revert to yourself.” It sounds cold, but it’s such great advice because it’s the first thing I want people to do: get back to yourself, because that’s the person who’s going to have to deal with this problem.

But then, Ryan Holiday lists examples.

And I have a problem with his examples. Partly, it’s that there’s a lot of sports in there and… who cares?

My larger problem, though, is that I’m wary of using black athletes as examples of overcoming adversity, because I’m not always sure they do. Ryan mentions Arthur Ashe and Joe Lewis. I’ve only ever heard Joe Lewis’s name in passing, and Arthur Ashe’s name not at all, but the premise in both examples is this: denied ‘permission’ to be emotional players because they were black, they both channeled all that energy back into their performance and excelled.

And I certainly think that channeling your energy into constructive channels is better than not. Without knowing anything about either of the athletes, though, when I put myself in the shoes of an elderly Joe Lewis or Arthur Ashe, I wonder if they’d look back and feel successful.

Everything I’ve heard suggests that the world of the 1% is just as degrading for minorities as the rest of reality, though maybe not quite as dangerous. Maybe they can see themselves as one link in a long chain of change, and be content. I don’t know.

Either way, Ryan Holiday is right in using them as examples of people standing up to adversity, and the examples he draws — here in my favorite paragraph — from daily life seem pitiful in comparison:

And yet we feel like going to pieces when the PowerPoint projector won’t work (instead of throwing it aside and delivering an exciting talk without notes). We stir up gossip with our coworkers (instead of pounding something productive out on our keyboards). We act out, instead of act.

Physically loose, mentally tight

My greatest takeaway from this chapter will be to lines: the ‘revert to yourself’ quote from Marcus Aurelius that I mentioned at the beginning of the post, and an epithet that Arthur Ashe created for himself: “physically loose, mentally tight.”

Of course, he was talking about sports. (Ick.) But, I like the idea of feeling limbered up, energized and ready for spontaneous, but controlled action coupled with mental focus. It’s the kind of line I can adopt and apply to coding as much as to tennis.

And, it fits in with this paragraph from Ryan Holiday:

To be physically and mentally loose takes not 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 phyiscal looseness combined with mental restraint? That’s powerful.

I hope I can learn to be physically loose and mentally tight… and to revert to myself when I start to stray away from who I want to be.

The Art of Acquiescence

This is another chapter reflection in my The Obstacle is the Way project.


Be guided by the fates

This chapter starts with a quote from someone named Cleanthes, who I know nothing about. But, I’m a sucker for mythology so I liked it:

The Fates guide the person who accepts them and hinder the person who resists them.

-Cleanthes

The rest of the chapter was about the value of being guided by the fates. It began with the story of Thomas Jefferson and the speech impediment he was born with. In an era when oratory was the accepted route to politics, it seemed like an insurmountable obstacle, but Jefferson wasn’t deterred. Instead of going the Teddy Roosevelt route and deciding to overcome his challenges, he decided to ‘go with the flow’ and instead focus on his writing.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Then, the chapter offers a really interesting definition of genius:

“True genius,” as the infamous Dr. Samuel Johnson once said, “is a mind of large general powers accidentally determined in some paticular direction.”

I like the idea that the ‘particular direction’ we take is at least in part accidental. (It matches my experience of life.)

And then Ryan Holiday gives a great example:

If someone we knew took traffic signals personally, we would judge them insane.

Yet this is weyactly what life is doing to us. It tells us to come to a stop here. Or that some intersection is blocked or that a particular road has been rerouted through an inconvenient detour. We can’t argue or yell this problem away. We simply accept it.

The chapter continues for a few more pages, but that’s the meat of it right there: learning to accept the fates can mean accepting that your path in life is sometimes more accidental than you hoped for, and that events that you can’t change are to be accepted.

I like the comparison with traffic signals, because it’s easy to relate to. We’ve all driven detours and still arrived at our destination. And, we’ve also seen the traffic signals and decided “you know what, I can go there another time.” (That’s how I interact with major road closings downtown.)

When should you bend?

The fun of reading the book out of order now is that I get to directly contrast this chapter with the chapter on the Inner Citadel. To go from holding up Teddy Roosevelt as an example of will triumphing over circumstances to Thomas Jefferson as an example of will bending with the circumstances, it’s logical to ask yourself: when should I bend? When should I invest my will in defying circumstances?

It’s easy to complain that Holiday doesn’t go into specifics. (He almost never does.) But I think that the two examples and the traffic metaphor are enough to extrapolate some thinking.

First, it should be pointed out that Teddy Roosevelt didn’t randomly decide to overcome his asthma. He had the advantage of his father’s wisdom which said to him: I think you can do it. I know it will be hard, but it seems doable. Further, it seems like the only route to where you’re destined to go.

Second, Jefferson didn’t have that level of wisdom at his disposal (in the anecdotes. I don’t know anything about his actual family.) Today, perhaps they’d have organized a speech therapist for him and he’d be the prequel to “The King’s Speech.” The fact of the matter is: nobody could tell Jefferson if there was a route open to him that involved investing a lot of willpower in overcoming his speech impediment. (And, in the other example of Edison’s difficulty hearing, we know there’s not a solution).

My point is this: it takes a certain degree of wisdom to know what’s available.

Third, the car metaphor is apt, because it lends itself well to the idea of ‘goals as destinations.’ We’re trained to think that a car is the fastest way to get somewhere. The longer you live somewhere — the more wisdom you gain about a place — the more you realize that often walking, a bicycle, or public transportation are faster than a car. There are times when it makes more sense to get out of the car and to put in the ‘hard work’ of walking, because that’s the smartest thing to do.

Returning to the earlier examples: Roosevelt and Jefferson both saw a mountain between themselves and their destination. But Roosevelt had the advantage of his father’s wisdom who said “Teddy, the only way over this mountain is to climb it. It’s going to be difficult, but I think you have what it takes. Further, you’ll be happier on the other side and glad for it.”

Jefferson, on the other hand, had to reach a conclusion on his own and it seems to have been something more along the lines of “I don’t know if I can get over this mountain. Nobody ever has. But, I think I see a pass further along in that direction. Better to invest my energy into getting into and through the pass than in an attempt that might never work.”

They both would up where they wanted to go, and they both (probably) took the route that was right for them.

Conclusion

When I started writing this, I didn’t expect there to be so much of my own thought in it. (It’s part of why I write, I guess.)

The thing is: it’s easy to analyze the two stories and their well-known outcomes and say “Teddy was right to draw on the strength of his Inner Citadel, and Jefferson was right to be guided by the fates.” But, when we see our own mountain in front of us, how can we know whether we should get out of the car and climb, or start moving laterally in search of a pass?

The answer seems to lie in Roosevelt’s father: we need wisdom. We need both to learn what we can — what have other’s accomplished? what is possible? — and to have our own council of the wise that can I say to us “I think that can be done” or “that’s the fates at work, there’s no sense in railing against them.”

And, of course, there’s the additional challenge of developing the wisdom needed to recognize that wisdom. But, I don’t know if I have an answer to that.

Build Your Inner Citadel

In my continuing The Obstacle is the Way project, I’m writing on this chapter of the book.


In another chapter that provides a great tip, but doesn’t explain how to follow through with it, Ryan Holiday begins this chapter of The Obstacle is the Way by referening my (sometimes) favorite American president, Teddy Roosevelt.

[speaking of asthmatic, weak young Teddy] One day his father came into his room and delivered a message that would change the young boy’s life: “Theodore, you have the mind but you haven’t got the body. I’m giving you the tools to make your body. It’s going to be hard drudgery and I think you have the determination to go through with it.”

You’d think that would be lost on a child, especially a fragile one born into great wealth and status. But according to Roosevelt’s younger sister, who witnessed the conversation, it wasn’t. His response, using what would become his trademark cheerful grit, was to look at his father and say with determination: “I’ll make my body.”

I love Theodore Roosevelt for a number of reasons, but I think his relationship with manliness is problematic. (I read an article that suggested he may have driven a son to suicide with his expectations.) Still, his determination is enviable, at the least.

Moving on philosophy, Holiday talks of developing “mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body,” and matches this to what stoics called their “Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down.”

Then, the narrative returns to Roosevelt:

To Roosevelt, life was like an arena and he was a gladiator. In order to survive, he needed to be strong, resilient, fearless, ready for anything. And he was willing to risk great personal harm and expend massive amounts of energy to develop that hardiness.

And all that is great… but that’s where the chapter winds down. (There’s one last quote that I’m saving for the end, as seems to have become my tradition.)

And, as a guy who flirts with an obsession with fitness, it’s easy for me to think that I’m moving down the right path. But, I don’t know. Holiday doesn’t end the chapter with his list of “Ten Things You Can Do Today to Become the Architect of your Own Inner Citadel” and I’m left with a list of questions:

  • Should I invest more energy in meditation?
  • Do the things I do to practice practice help?
  • What about cold showers: they certainly demand willpower, do they also strengthen it?
  • Does enduring voluntary adversity help when involuntary adversity comes knocking?

There aren’t answers, and I’m left reaffirming my commitment to fitness and “making the most of my time.” (Whatever that means.)

However, I did mention that there is one last great quote. It’s as close as Holiday comes to direct advice in this chapter, and I like the first sentence enough to maybe write it on my wall:

The path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. We can’t afford to shy away from the things that intimidate us. We don’t need to take our weaknesses for granted.

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.

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.

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.