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.

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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.

Use Obstacles Against Themselves

I picked this chapter to write about because I was afraid that reading another chapter of “get to it, right now!” in my The Obstacle is The Way project would only serve to discourage me.


Gandhi didn’t firt for independence for India. The British Empire did all of the fighting–and, as it happens, all of the losing.

That’s how this chapter begins. And it covers, pretty well, what it’s about: the most direct, obvious action might not always be the best option.

And, to be honest, I appreciate this in the book, because there are clearly times in life when immediate action isn’t called for. Ryan Holiday goes on to mention more examples: He writes about Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent protests for civil rights. He even mention’s Alexander the Great breaking in his horse by simply waiting it out.

He even mentions the Mississipi river:

Before the invention of steam power, boat captains had an ingenious way of defeating the wickedly strong curent of the Mississippi River. A boat going upriver would pullalongside a boat about to go downriver, and after wrapping a rope around a tree or a rock, the boats would tie themselves to each other. The second boat would let go and let the river take it downstream, slingshotting the other vessel upstream.

The thing is this: there’s no real unifying theme behind all these obstacles, except that they all seemed insurmountable until they were surmounted.

That’s what, for me, this chapter is missing: some sort of tip that goes beyond “sometimes action isn’t the right action” towards explaining when it might not be the right action.

I don’t have an answer.

I do have a suggestion: perhaps rather than focusing on inaction, or using the obstacle against itself, another idea might be to say “what allies — including intangibles — can I find that might help me here?”

Ghandi was allied with moral right, and the fact that the British Empire’s behavior didn’t line up with its values. (Imagine a non-violent protest by Jews in the Warsaw ghetto and you’ll see that moral right alone doesn’t get you far.) Martin Luther King, Jr. saw that African Americans were in the same position and that the same strategies would work. The Mississipi boat captains were able to ally themselves with physics. And Alexander the Great was able to ally himself with patience, tenacity, and the limits to his horse’s endurance.

Even that, though, works applying it to the solutions found in the past. How does it help me with my problems?

At the moment, I’m frustrated by my inability to find users for my website. I’ll ponder it, but I don’t see how being unkown is the kind of thing that collapses in on itself.

But then, maybe this advice isn’t meant for me right now. Maybe I need to be doing more direct action.

Meditate on your mortality

It turns out that I accidentally wrote on a chapter out of order the last time I wrote in the The Obstacle Is The Way project. But, I liked it. So here’s another chapter chosen at random.

This chapter is a bit morbid, but my mind runs in these directions. It starts like this:

When a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.

-Dr. Johnson

And that sets the tone for the whole chapter. It continues to the story of Michel de Montaigne, who nearly died in a horse riding accident and was left changed by his near-death experience.

Ryan Holiday describes it this way:

… Coming so close to death energized him, made him curious. No longer was death something to be afraid of–looking it in the eyes had been a relief, even inspiring.

Death doesn’t make life pointless, but rather purposeful. And, fortunately,  we don’t have to nearly die to tap into this energy.

The rest of the chapter can be summarized like this: we like to pretend we’re going to live forever, but we’re clearly not. So, let the fact that you have things you want to get done and limited time focus your mind.

Put another way: live each day as though you would soon die.

Normally, I get a little reflexively … frustrated by this line of thinking. I want to say “why should I save for retirement when I’m supposed to be living like the terminally ill?” “Who would have children in that circumstance?”

And it’s hard for me, even now, wanting to engage with the material, to not take that refuge.

But, the fact of the matter is, if I did die in a car accident tomorrow, I would be glad that I’d made time for my kids today. I’d hate for my last day with them to have been one in which I was “busy” with “work stuff” and left them feeling less important than they really were.

I did a good job today.

But, on the other hand, it’s a balancing act and the chapter doesn’t do enough to acknowledge that. On top of living each day as though I want my kids to have a great ‘last memory’ of me, I’m also trying to live each day so that we have the resources to do the same thing tomorrow and next year.

However, Ryan Holiday is right in saying that there isn’t time to complain about what isn’t fair, or how things should be (I tend to be guilty of this latter offense). If I’m already saying that the dual responsibilities of living correctly today and preparing to live correctly in the future are too much, then why would I take on the extra responsibility of letting everyone know that I’m unhappy with things?

And, as always, the chapter ends pretty well:

And so, if even our own mortality can have some benefit, how dare you say that you can’t derive value from each and every other kind of obstacle you encounter?