Do your job, do it right

Continuing my tradition of writing on each chapter in The Obstacle is the Way, and following my last post on this, continuing in my tradition of disagreeing slightly with Ryan Holiday.

This chapter begins with a story of Andrew Johnson being proud of his working-class origins, not as a link to the mythical ‘common man,’ but because he was a good tailor and continued to be proud of excelling even in humble work.

Then, it goes on to talk about James Garfield:

… paid his way through college in 1851 by persuading his school, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, to let him be the janitor in exchange for tuition. He did the job every day smiling and without a hint of shame. Each morning, he’d ring the university’s bell tower to start the classes–his day already having long begun–and stomp to class with cheer and eagerness.

Within just one year of starting at the school he was a professor–teaching a full course load in addition to his studies. By his twenty-sixth birthday he was the dean.

This is what happens when you do your job–whatever it is–and do it well.

I take objection to the last line. I could take objection because “hard work is its own reward” precludes doing hard work only because you expect returns of the sort that James Garfield got. But that’s not why. I think it’s ridiculous to hold up such a rags-to-riches story as an example of “what happens when you do your job” in 2018.

It’s not that I agree with the value of doing hard work. I believe that you are what you do, and if you consistently do sloppy work, you’ll be a sloppy person. The idea of “I can do it right when I have to” has proven itself wrong in my experience. (Naturally, I’m thinking of others when I say this, but I can think of at least one instance recently when I wasn’t able to perform like I should have on a job because I’d consistently slacked off with that company.)

In talking about this, Ryan Holiday eventually moves away from the idea of “you’ll get your just rewards in due time,” which sounds to me like something you’d say to someone who is being exploited, and gives better reasons for working hard:

The great psychologist Viktor Frankl, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is somene else’s responsibility to tell you. Instead, he said, the world is asking you that question. And it’s your job to answer with your actions.

In every situation, life is asking us a question, and our actions are the answer. Our job is simply to answer well.

I think that’s a better argument for doing the right thing, often, even when nobody is looking. However, I think that, if life is asking you “what is the meaning of life?” you’re welcome to answer: “not this.”

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Follow the Process

This chapter of The Obstacle is the Way inspired me a little, but then I got a bit more… critical, I suppose. It starts off describing ‘the process’ in a sports metaphor. That’s not my thing, so I’ll use an example from later in the chapter.

After describing ‘the process’ as breaking tasks down into manageable chunks and focusing on them, the story of James Pollard Epsy is presented.

Unable to read and write until he was eighteen, Espy attended a rousing speech by the famous orator Henry Clay. After the talk, a spellbound Epsy tried to make his way toward Clay, but he couldn’t form the words to speak to his idol. One of his friends shouted out for him: “He wants to be like you, even though he can’t read.”

Clay grabbed one of his posters, which had the word CLAY written in big letters. He looked at Espy and said, “You see that, boy?” pointing to a letter. “That’s an A. Now youve only got twenty-five more letters to go.”

Espy had just been gifted the process. Within a year, he started college.

I don’t care how hard Espy worked, I can’t help but think that college admissions were easier back then.

Still, the idea is simple: if you know the steps to do, a project seems pretty basic. And, in his way Ryan Holiday mentions projects we can work on: a book, a novel, a new skill or an instrument. Each of them, he says, are about understanding the process and doing what needs to be done today.

And I get that. You won’t make progress if you only spend your time being overwhelmed.

However, if your process is simply to break a 50,000 word manuscript into 500 words per day, after a hundred days you’ll have your 50,000 words, but that’s not to say that you’ll have a novel. I think that the idea of ‘trusting the process’ only makes sense if you’re constantly re-evaluating the process (possibly that’s a process step that’s so self-explanatory that it needn’t be mentioned).

If, for example, you want to get good at making “things” online (as I do), how much should I focus on finishing up the one website I have working, and how much should I focus on the next thing? Either one of them presents enough work to fill all my free time.

I try to navigate this unknown territory by committing to having Dynamic-EFL.com finished, if only so that I know that I can finish things. But, the more I think “it’s almost finished,” the more I realize how much more could be added to it. So, I have one more review activity I want to add, and some polishing I want to do to the interface, and I’ll declare it done.

Then, I rationalize I can work on trying to attract users (something I’ve started doing) and get that extra experience and (hopefully) skillset while I work on the next thing.

Still, the idea of “a process” seems best suited to things like playing basketball or learning an instrument, where a lot of people have gone before you and signposted some best practices. When it comes to just getting the most out of my life, the “process” only tells me not to sit on my hands.

And, really, I knew to do that.

Practice Persistence

The most recent chapter in my continuing reading of The Obstacle is the Way is all about persistence and, to be honest, it’s exactly what you’d think.

The chapter starts with Ryan Holiday relating a story of General Ulysses S. Grant besieging Vicksburg. Challenges are enumerated, obstacles recounted. Distractions are mentioned. And, do you know what? Grant takes the town in the end, proving all the naysayers wrong.

The next story is of Thomas Edison inventing the lightbulb. You know that story, but it does include a cameo from Nikola Tesla, which seems worth recounting:

Nikola Tesla, who spent a fustrated year in Edison’s lab during the invention of the lightbulb, once sneered that if Edison needed to find a needle in a haystack, he would “proceed at once” to simply “examine straw after straw until he found the object of his search.”

The fact that that paragraph ends with “Well, sometimes that’s exactly the right method” pretty much sums up the whole message: get ready to work hard.

You can probably tell I’m a little sarcastic about the whole thing, partly because it seems cliché and partly because it seems like bad advice. (Some obstacles just won’t be overcome — you’re not going to head-butt your way through a concrete wall.)

However, later in the chapter, there is this paragraph:

Once you start attacking an obstacle, quitting is not an option. It cannot enter your head. Abandoning one path for another that might be more promising? Sure, but that’s a far cry from giving up. Once you can envision yourself quitting altogethr, you might as well ring the bell. It’s done.

I find that paragraph to be the most valuable of all that is in the chapter.

I guess that “work harder, not smarter” doesn’t seem like great advice. And, the “examine every straw” seems like the worst way to find a needle in a haystack. In fact, I think that we’re under an obligation to make the most out of the time that we have, and I think that if a certain approach isn’t yielding results, you have to start looking for the one that will.

(In an unrelated note, I seem to be happy to consider jumping between projects.)

I get the idea that you can’t give up too early, but I certainly think it’s just as wrong to never give up. Maintain the original objective, but be willing to rethink how you’ll get there.

More than simply saying “practice persistence,” I think it’s valuable to gain some insight into what kind of things you get better at with persistence (and what kinds of things just don’t get better, not matter how much you try and try) and how to benchmark, even informally, whether or not you’re making progress or just spinning your wheels.

So, my takeaway from this chapter is this: be persistent, but be willing to change what you’re being persistent at.

Get Moving

Continuing the ‘Action’ section in The Obstacle is the Way, this chapter is a call to action, and to a lot of it. It starts with a quote from my favorite President, Theodore Roosevelt:

We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.

And continues with an anecdote of Aemilia Earhart receiving an offer to be the ‘token woman’ on a flight across the Atlantic. Though she wouldn’t be able to actually fly the plane and would be treated as ‘less than’ the men who did the flying, she swallowed her pride and accepted the offer.

The lesson is simple: she knew what she wanted to do, and making any kind of start at all was more important than her pride. We need to do more than swallow our pride: we need to say that, once we’ve identified the action to take, it’s time to get moving, even if it’s only an attempt or a symbolic gesture. Doing something is always preferable to doing nothing.

(I don’t know if I need to say this, but Ryan Holiday makes it clear in the text that “waiting for the perfect opportunity” is the same as doing nothing.)

Moving on to the story of the WWII German Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the next lesson is that, once you’re doing something, anything at all, it’s time to do more.

Here, I don’t know how I feel about this. Sure, if you have Elon Musk’s overarching life mission, you need to be doing all you can to achieve it. But, if you’re balancing several projects with a family and a full-time job (I’m thinking of myself here), I don’t know that I can approach each project with an attitude of “how can I be doing more?” It’s a recipe for burnout.

So, for me, I think I’m going to be adapting this second lesson to be: don’t let any time in your life be wasted, know what you’re doing with it. If you need to recharge, recharge. But, if you’re just scrolling through Twitter because you don’t feel like writing a worksheet, it’s time to get started on that worksheet.

It seems as though my traditional closing to a post like this is to quote something from the end of the chapter, so let me do that here. I really enjoyed this (the beginning of the second-to-last paragraph):

We talk a lot about courage as a society, but we forget that at its most basic level it’s really just taking action–whether that’s approaching someone you’re intimidated by or deciding to finally crack a book on a subject you need to learn.

The Discipline of Action

We’re finally getting to the action section of the book. The perception section did seem as though it were getting repetitive, didn’t it?

This chapter starts with the story of Demosthenes, an ancient Greek orator who was orphaned young, had his inheritance stolen, was sickly… and went on to become a great orator. The story runs over a bit more than a page and is well told, but this paragraph sums it up:

Sure, Demosthenes lost the inheritance he’d been born with, and that was unfortunate. But in the process of dealing with this reality, he creted a far better one–one that could never be taken from him.

The first part of the chapter seems to be dedicated to one lesson: don’t feel sorry for yourself, get busy.

The second part of the chapter is less narrative (not as many stories) and more an inspirational speech for action, and, as the chapter draws to an end, for right action. (After all, action for action’s sake will most likely not work.)

[Fun aside, as I’m writing this, I’m waiting for SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy to launch. It’s been postponed, and in the meantime, I watched this video on the 5-year delay on the Falcon Heavy. One of the lessons I took from that video was the idea that SpaceX was wise to postpone the Falcon Heavy in order to take advantage of design improvements in the Falcon 9. It makes sense, and it’s the first thing that popped into my head when talking about right action.]

At the end of the chapter, right action is defined a bit more narrowly, and a rhetorical question is asked:

Therefore, we can always (and only) greet our obstacles

  • with energy
  • with peristence
  • with a coherent and deliberate process
  • with iteration and resilience
  • with pragmatism
  • with strategic vision
  • with craftiness and savvy
  • and an eye for opportunity and pivotal moments

Are you ready to get to work?

Isn’t that a great way to end a chapter? Why did I make the mistake of tagging a bit more on at the end?

An over-abundance of action, I suppose.

Prepare to act

It’s a bit funny that this is a ‘chapter’ in the book. And a whole page and a half, it’s more a segue from discussing perception to action. Because it’s so short, long excerpts would mean basically writing the whole chapter up.

Here’s the core message:

The demand on you is this: once you see the world as it is, for what it is, you must act. The proper perception–objective, rational, ambitious, clean–isolates the obstacle and exposes it for what it is.

And, that makes sense. After all, what good is seeing things for how they are if it just makes you apathetic.

I think what I like about Stoicism is that it requires action. We (I mean ‘I’) imagine a stoic person as a person who just sits there and takes whatever life dishes out, uncomplainingly. But, who needs a philosophy that reduces to “shut up and take it”?

Instead, a philosophy of “accept things for how they are, and then look at what you can do and do it.

When I’m rationalizing it in my own head, it’s like sitting down to card game every day and saying “what can I do to improve the cards I get tomorrow? Is it worth it? How can I play these cards to make the most out of today?” And then figuring out what needs to be done and doing it.

Finding the Opportunity

Continuing my The Obstacle is the Way reading, I was glad to get into this chapter, of only because it starts with WWII history. More to the point, we’re slowly finishing the section dedicated to perception and getting ready for the section dedicated to action (which fits: as I’m ready to incorporate a bit more action in my life).

The thesis of the chapter is simple: look for opportunity in adversity. But I love the fact that it starts with Eisenhower in WWII. After describing the German Blitzkrieg and some counter-offensives made after D-Day, Ryan Holiday says this:

Striding into the conference room at headquarters in Malta, general Dwight D. Eisenhower made an announcement: He’d have no more of this quivering timidity from his deflated generals. “The present situation is to be regarded as opportunity for us and now disaster,” he commanded. “There will only be cheerful faces at this conference table.”

[…]

By allowing a forward wedge of the German army through and then attacking from the sides, the Allies encircled the enemy completely from the rear. The invincible, penetrating thrust of the German Panzers wasn’t just impotent but suicidal–a textbook example of why you never leave your flanks exposed.

Fortunately, he goes on to name some situations that are closer to home for most of us than being a five-star general in the world’s largest conflict. One of my favorites was the idea of turning a job where you’re so miserable you could quit on its head by turning the job you’d like to leave into an interpersonal laboratory until you’ve got your next job lined up.

The chapter is long and full of other examples and wisdom, but that’s the core of it: when faced with an obstacle, learn to look for what you can get out of it, since you’re going to be enduring it anyway.

As seems to be a tradition, I’ll close with the last paragraph from the chapter:

No one is talking glass-half-full-style platitudes here. this must be a complete flip. Seeing through the negative, past its underside, and into its corollary: the positive.