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.

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.

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?

Anticipation (Thinking Negatively)

This chapter (in my continuing The Obstacle is the Way series) begins with an inscription from the oracle at Delphi:

Offer a guarantee and disaster threatens.

(Fun aside: I’d always heard that “Know yourself” was inscribed at Delphi. Realizing that there were other inscriptions lead me to this page.)

The core of this chapter is fairly straightforward: plan for things to wrong as much as you plan for things to go right, and you won’t be disappointed.

But, it’s a full chapter and it does include one reference to Seneca worth recording here.

…like all great ideas, it is actually nothing new. The credit goes to the Stoics. They even had a better name: premaditatio malorum (premeditation of evils).

A writer like Seneca would begin by reviewing or rehearsing his plans, say, to take a trip. And then he would go over, in his head (or in writing), the things that could go wrong or prevent it from happening: a storm could arise, the captian could fall ill, the ship could be attacked by pirates.

“Nothing happes to the wise man against his expectations,” he wrote to a friend. “… nor do all things turn out for him as hi wished but as he reckoned — and above all he recokend that something could block his plans.”

A good part of the chapter is reiterating that this premeditation of evils does not mean that the evils will be easy to bear, but that we are at least spared a shock and have the chance to prepare our ‘playbook’ before the emotional time of confronting a disaster.

I liked this chapter. It matches to me well, and to where I am. And, I like that there was reference to the process of thinking in writing (which is, basically, what this blog is).

So, maybe I’ll sit down and wrote a blog post as a premeditation of evils.