by Ryan Holiday
About The Book:
The book draws its inspiration from stoicism, the ancient Greek philosophy of enduring pain or adversity with perseverance and resilience. Stoics focus on the things they can control, let go of everything else, and turn every new obstacle into an opportunity to get better, stronger, tougher. As Marcus Aurelius put it nearly 2000 years ago: “The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
*All notes are taken directly from the book. Few, if any, of the words below are my own. All credit goes to the Author. In this case, Ryan Holiday.
Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting.
The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
And from what we know, he truly saw each and every one of these obstacles as an opportunity to practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason, justice, and creativity.
Whatever we face, we have a choice: Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?
Every obstacle is unique to each of us. But the responses they elicit are the same: Fear. Frustration. Confusion. Helplessness. Depression. Anger.
There have been countless lessons (and books) about achieving success, but no one ever taught us how to overcome failure, how to think about obstacles, how to treat and triumph over them, and so we are stuck.
“Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them.” Great individuals, like great companies, find a way to transform weakness into strength.
“The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.”
Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps. It begins with how we look at our specific problems, our attitude or approach; then the energy and creativity with which we actively break them down and turn them into opportunities; finally, the cultivation and maintenance of an inner will that allows us to handle defeat and difficulty. It’s three interdependent, interconnected, and fluidly contingent disciplines: Perception, Action, and the Will.
It’s how we see and understand what occurs around us—and what we decide those events will mean.
There are a few things to keep in mind when faced with a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. We must try: To be objective To control emotions and keep an even keel To choose to see the good in a situation To steady our nerves To ignore what disturbs or limits others To place things in perspective To revert to the present moment To focus on what can be controlled
There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.
A mistake becomes training.
There is always a countermove, always an escape or a way through, so there is no reason to get worked up. No one said it would be easy and, of course, the stakes are high, but the path is there for those ready to take it.
When America raced to send the first men into space, they trained the astronauts in one skill more than in any other: the art of not panicking. When people panic, they make mistakes. They override systems. They disregard procedures, ignore rules. They deviate from the plan. They become unresponsive and stop thinking clearly. They just react—not to what they need to react to, but to the survival hormones that are coursing through their veins.
Obstacles make us emotional, but the only way we’ll survive or overcome them is by keeping those emotions in check—if we can keep steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate. The Greeks had a word for this: apatheia. It’s the kind of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions. Not the loss of feeling altogether, just the loss of the harmful, unhelpful kind.
Or try Marcus’s question: Does what happened keep you from acting with justice, generosity, self-control, sanity, prudence, honesty, humility, straightforwardness?
The phrase “This happened and it is bad” is actually two impressions. The first—“This happened”—is objective. The second—“it is bad”—is subjective.
Marcus Aurelius had a version of this exercise where he’d describe glamorous or expensive things without their euphemisms—roasted meat is a dead animal and vintage wine is old, fermented grapes. The aim was to see these things as they really are, without any of the ornamentation.
Objectivity means removing “you”—the subjective part—from the equation. Just think, what happens when we give others advice? Their problems are crystal clear to us, the solutions obvious. Something that’s present when we deal with our own obstacles is always missing when we hear other people’s problems: the baggage. With other people we can be objective.
Perspective is everything. That is, when you can break apart something, or look at it from some new angle, it loses its power over you.
Perspective has two definitions. Context: a sense of the larger picture of the world, not just what is immediately in front of us Framing: an individual’s unique way of looking at the world, a way that interprets its events
Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.
In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices. —EPICTETUS
Serenity Prayer: God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change The courage to change the things I can, And the wisdom to know the difference.
Behind the Serenity Prayer is a two-thousand-year-old Stoic phrase: “ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin.” What is up to us, what is not up to us. And what is up to us? Our emotions Our judgments Our creativity Our attitude Our perspective Our desires Our decisions Our determination This is our playing field, so to speak. Everything there is fair game. What is not up to us? Well, you know, everything else. The weather, the economy, circumstances, other people’s emotions or judgments, trends, disasters, et cetera.
Focusing exclusively on what is in our power magnifies and enhances our power.
Our perceptions determine, to an incredibly large degree, what we are and are not capable of. In many ways, they determine reality itself. When we believe in the obstacle more than in the goal, which will inevitably triumph?
Blessings and burdens are not mutually exclusive. It’s a lot more complicated. Socrates had a mean, nagging wife; he always said that being married to her was good practice for philosophy.
Psychologists call it adversarial growth and post-traumatic growth. “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger”
Problems are rarely as bad as we think—or rather, they are precisely as bad as we think.
Action is commonplace, right action is not. As a discipline, it’s not any kind of action that will do, but directed action.
We forget: In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you or where you came from. It matters what you do with what happens and what you’ve been given. And the only way you’ll do something spectacular is by using it all to your advantage. People turn shit into sugar all the time—shit that’s a lot worse than whatever we’re dealing with.
Therefore, we can always (and only) greet our obstacles with energy with persistence 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
If we’re to overcome our obstacles, this is the message to broadcast—internally and externally. We will not be stopped by failure, we will not be rushed or distracted by external noise. We will chisel and peg away at the obstacle until it is gone. Resistance is futile.
Genius often really is just persistence in disguise.
Great entrepreneurs are: never wedded to a position never afraid to lose a little of their investment never bitter or embarrassed never out of the game for long They slip many times, but they don’t fall.
Being trapped is just a position, not a fate. You get out of it by addressing and eliminating each part of that position through small, deliberate actions—not by trying (and failing) to push it away with superhuman strength.
Whatever is rightly done, however humble, is noble. —SIR HENRY ROYCE
To whatever we face, our job is to respond with: hard work honesty helping others as best we can
How you do anything is how you can do everything. We can always act right.
Pragmatism is not so much realism as flexibility. There are a lot of ways to get from point A to point B. It doesn’t have to be a straight line. It’s just got to get you where you need to go. But so many of us spend so much time looking for the perfect solution that we pass up what’s right in front of us.
Start thinking like a radical pragmatist: still ambitious, aggressive, and rooted in ideals, but also imminently 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. Think progress, not perfection. Under this kind of force, obstacles break apart. They have no choice. Since you’re going around them or making them irrelevant, there is nothing for them to resist.
Gandhi didn’t fight for independence for India. The British Empire did all of the fighting—and, as it happens, all of the losing.
To be physically and mentally loose takes no 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 physical looseness combined with mental restraint? That is powerful.
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. It’s at the seemingly bad moments, when people least expect it, that we can act swiftly and unexpectedly to pull off a big victory.
Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card. If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared.
If Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul.
Certain things in life will cut you open like a knife. When that happens—at that exposing moment—the world gets a glimpse of what’s truly inside you. So what will be revealed when you’re sliced open by tension and pressure? Iron? Or air? Or bullshit?
These lessons come harder but are, in the end, the most critical to wresting advantage from adversity. In every situation, we can Always prepare ourselves for more difficult times. Always accept what we’re unable to change. Always manage our expectations. Always persevere. Always learn to love our fate and what happens to us. Always protect our inner self, retreat into ourselves. Always submit to a greater, larger cause. Always remind ourselves of our own mortality.
Not everyone accepts their bad start in life. They remake their bodies and their lives with activities and exercise. They prepare themselves for the hard road. Do they hope they never have to walk it? Sure. But they are prepared for it in any case. Are you? Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.
Inner Citadel, that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down. An important caveat is that we are not born with such a structure; it must be built and actively reinforced. During the good times, we strengthen ourselves and our bodies so that during the difficult times, we can depend on it. We protect our inner fortress so it may protect us.
The credit goes to the Stoics. They even had a better name: premeditatio 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 captain could fall ill, the ship could be attacked by pirates. “Nothing happens to the wise man against his expectation,” he wrote to a friend. “. . . nor do all things turn out for him as he wished but as he reckoned—and above all he reckoned that something could block his plans.” Always prepared for disruption, always working that disruption into our plans. Fitted, as they say, for defeat or victory. And let’s be honest, a pleasant surprise is a lot better than an unpleasant one. What if . . . Then I will . . . What if . . . Instead I’ll just . . . What if . . . No problem, we can always . . . And in the case where nothing could be done, the Stoics would use it as an important practice to do something the rest of us too often fail to do: manage expectations.
It doesn’t always feel that way but constraints in life are a good thing. Especially if we can accept them and let them direct us. They push us to places and to develop skills that we’d otherwise never have pursued. Would we rather have everything? Sure, but that isn’t up to us.
If someone we knew took traffic signals personally, we would judge them insane. Yet this is exactly 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.
We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it. And why on earth would you choose to feel anything but good? We can choose to render a good account of ourselves. If the event must occur, Amor fati (a love of fate) is the response.
Persistence & Perseverance
Persistence. Everything directed at one problem, until it breaks.
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 game. It’s about what happens not just in round one but in round two and every round after—and then the fight after that and the fight after that, until the end.
Persistence is an action. Perseverance is a matter of will. One is energy. The other, endurance.
As the Haitian proverb puts it: Behind mountains are more mountains. Elysium is a myth. One does not overcome an obstacle to enter the land of no obstacles. On the contrary, the more you accomplish, the more things will stand in your way.
The philosopher and writer Nassim Nicholas Taleb defined a Stoic as someone who “transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.” It’s a loop that becomes easier over time.
See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must.