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.

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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 tha tplace. 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 Discipline of Will

As I continue in the home stretch of my The Obstacle is the Way project, I thought a chapter on will was especially welcome today. As I’m trying to fit more into my days — more work, and more superpower activity — I’m learning to value willpower.


This is another one of the chapters that focus mostly on a single person as an example: Abraham Lincoln. And, it focuses on an aspect of his life that I hadn’t been aware of.

This is the opening chapter:

Because he has become more myth than man, most people are unaware that Abraham Lincoln battled crippling depression his entire life. Known at the time as melancholy, his depression was often debilitating and profound–nearly driving him to suicide on two separate occasions.

The thrust of the chapter following that is that Lincoln learned from his suffering — not just his depression, but poverty, and ballot box defeats — to develop a fortress of will that kept him safe.

Ryan Holiday makes the argument that we’ve come to believe that we can control anything, but that that is not true. That Lincoln excelled in learning what he could from experiences and allowing them to make him stronger and wiser and better prepared to confront the next hardship.

Of course, there is a reference to a stoic maxim, as well:

Lincoln was strong and decisive as a leader. But he also embodied the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward in your task.

And, there is a last bit of wisdom from this chapter that I will carry with me:

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.

When few other things seem to be in our control, it’s nice to know that there is one thing that is. When I’m busy with work assigned to me by other people and unable to do the things I’m passionate about, it’s nice to know that I still have the opportunity of training myself in the art of willpower.

It’s something that’s always available to me, and it’s something I’ll always be able to make use of.

Prepare for none of it to work

After writing up a pretty ambitious plan — to jump up two levels in my personal social hierarchy — it seems like this is a good time to reflect on the possibility of failure. This is a chapter in my continuing The Obstacle is theWay writing project.


This is a short chapter. Two pages. It could easily be one if there weren’t so much whitespace. Still, it includes an important message: things might not work out.

It begins with a quote from Seneca:

In themeantime, 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.

Some things are out of your control. Fortune is a fickle goddess and cannot be forced by any measure of willpower to bend to our desires. Some things go wrong.

In this chapter Ryan Holiday points out that we can use failure as an opportunity to practice other virtues, such as humility. But, that doesn’t seem like it would make me feel better. I can’t imagine myself looking at the ashes of a project and thinking “well, at least I get to practice humility.”

My relationship with failure

In my heart, I’m a kid to whom things always came easily — or not at all. I was a good student and got a great SAT score without studying. My grades were fine and I got through college on my ability to read and be curious about anything. There was not much hard work involved.

In fact, the first time I really invested hard work over time — learning German — was more about proving something to people who thought I couldn’t do it. Even now, I can remember the feeling when I realized that my German was not bad, and that nobody but I would really appreciate the hard work and willpower that went into it.

It was a good feeling, and I liked to know that I had that in me.

Of course, I didn’t tap into that ability again for a long time. I made it through the National Guard based on an attitude of ‘do the minimum, but do it cheerfully’ and college was not super hard.

Not until I decided to get in shape did I need to remind myself that I had capacities that I had hidden away from the world.

Hidden is a good word, because I’d grown up with the philosophy of “if at first you don’t succeed, destroy all evidence that you ever tried.” Don’t let people see you fail, and they’ll think you’re a wunderkind. (Told you I learned German!)

It’s hard to run secretly, though. And people are going to look if you do burpees in the park.

Fitness — an area where I strive visibly for pretty modest success — was my first encounter with public failure.

Coding was a secret passion for well over two years before I began sharing it. And, even now, the teacher I respect most — my boss — doesn’t know that I have an amazing worksheet creation tool. If she doesn’t like it — or understand what it does — that would feel like failure to me.

I can’t fail

It’s a weird thing to say, especially in a reflection on a chapter titled “prepare for none of it to work,” but it’s true: I can’t fail.

The project might be a flop. It’s possible that it will always lose money and I’ll have to admit that the idea was only great for me. (Just yesterday, I heard a former and present student of mine talking about how much they loved the worksheets I make — so that seems unlikely).

And, I might spend years of my life with people asking “whatever happened to that website you talked about so much.”

The fact of the matter is, though, that I can’t fail. Already, I’m learning things like how AdWords works. As well as setting up a django site.

To that end, as long as I have a list of projects I’d like to apply that experience to, I can’t fail.

Something bigger than yourself

I’ve fallen behind in my weekly writings on the Obstacle is The Way, and I’m currently overwhelmed with work. But, I needed a break and decided to get the post about this chapter written as a treat to myself. I picked the chapter thinking I’d find it uplifting. I didn’t.


This chapter begins with stories that I’m supposed to find uplifting: the tales of U.S. Navy pilots who’d be shot down over Vietnam and were able to resist their captors in as much as they stuck together.

Unfortunately, the days of my looking up to John McCain are not likely to return because of a single anecdote in a single chapter, and so I mostly found myself thinking “Hmm, seems like moral fortitude is a resource that can get used up.”

And that’s not why I’m in this project.

However, later in the chapter, the musician Henry Rollins is quoted as saying this in the financial crisis:

People are getting a little desparate. People might not show their best elements to you. You must never lower yourself to becoming a person you don’t like. There is not better time to have a civic backbone. To have a moral and civic true north. This is a tremendous opportunity for you, a young person, to be heroic.

And I think I can get behind that. I can understand the idea that it’s worth remembering that, adversity is the only opportunity you have to really be heroic. Because anything you do that is easy for you is… well, easy.

Later, I got more into the idea when it was suggested that focusing on others could be a selfish coping strategy. (It’s the kind of thing I want to do, wrapped in the kind of thing I need.) The question is put like this:

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 in it for us, nothing we can do for ourselves. How can we use this situation to benefit others?

[…]

You’ll be shocked by how much of the hopelessness lifts when we reach that conclusion. Because now we have something to do.

Of course the chapter continues, but it’s more of the same. That doesn’t matter, I like the idea of knowing that, when I feel helpless, it doesn’t mean there aren’t actions I can take.