Ended: Feb. 1, 2017
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? We might not be emperors, but the world is still constantly testing us. It asks: Are you worthy? Can you get past the things that inevitably fall in your way? Will you stand up and show us what you’re made of? Plenty of people have answered this question in the affirmative. And a rarer breed still has shown that they not only have what it takes, but they thrive and rally at every such challenge. That the challenge makes them better than if they’d never faced the adversity at all.
We’re dissatisfied with our jobs, our relationships, our place in the world. We’re trying to get somewhere, but something stands in the way. So we do nothing. We blame our bosses, the economy, our politicians, other people, or we write ourselves off as failures or our goals as impossible. When really only one thing is at fault: our attitude and approach.
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.
Because obstacles are not only to be expected but embraced. Embraced? Yes, because these obstacles are actually opportunities to test ourselves, to try new things, and, ultimately, to triumph. The Obstacle Is the Way.
Our perceptions can be a source of strength or of great weakness. If we are emotional, subjective and shortsighted, we only add to our troubles.
While others are excited or afraid, we will remain calm and imperturbable. We will see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are—neither good nor bad. This will be an incredible advantage for us in the fight against obstacles.
And so instead of bemoaning this economic upheaval, Rockefeller eagerly observed the momentous events. Almost perversely, he chose to look at it all as an opportunity to learn, a baptism in the market. He quietly saved his money and watched what others did wrong. He saw the weaknesses in the economy that many took for granted and how this left them all unprepared for change or shocks.
He internalized an important lesson that would stay with him forever: The market was inherently unpredictable and often vicious—only the rational and disciplined mind could hope to profit from it. Speculation led to disaster, he realized, and he needed to always ignore the “mad crowd” and its inclinations.
Rockefeller immediately put those insights to use. At twenty-five, a group of investors offered to invest approximately $500,000 at his direction if he could find the right oil wells in which to deploy the money. Grateful for the opportunity, Rockefeller set out to tour the nearby oil fields. A few days later, he shocked his backers by returning to Cleveland empty-handed, not having spent or invested a dollar of the funds. The opportunity didn’t feel right to him at the time, no matter how excited the rest of the market was—so he refunded the money and stayed away from drilling.
Of course, many people experienced the same perilous times as Rockefeller—they all attended the same school of bad times. But few reacted as he did. Not many had trained themselves to see opportunity inside this obstacle, that what befell them was not unsalvageable misfortune but the gift of education—a chance to learn from a rare moment in economic history.
Our brains evolved for an environment very different from the one we currently inhabit. As a result, we carry all kinds of biological baggage. Humans are still primed to detect threats and dangers that no longer exist—think of the cold sweat when you’re stressed about money, or the fight-or-flight response that kicks in when your boss yells at you. Our safety is not truly at risk here—there is little danger that we will starve or that violence will break out—though it certainly feels that way sometimes. We have a choice about how we respond to this situation (or any situation, for that matter). We can be blindly led by these primal feelings or we can understand them and learn to filter them. Discipline in perception lets you clearly see the advantage and the proper course of action in every situation—without the pestilence of panic or fear.
To one person a situation may be negative. To another, that same situation may be positive. “Nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” as Shakespeare put it.
Defiance and acceptance come together well in the following principle: 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.
But you . . . confront a client or a stranger on the street and your heart is liable to burst out of your chest; or you are called on to address a crowd and your stomach crashes through the floor. It’s time to realize that this is a luxury, an indulgence of our lesser self. In space, the difference between life and death lies in emotional regulation.
If an emotion can’t change the condition or the situation you’re dealing with, it is likely an unhelpful emotion. Or, quite possibly, a destructive one.
In our own lives, how many problems seem to come from applying judgments to things we don’t control, as though there were a way they were supposed to be? How often do we see what we think is there or should be there, instead of what actually is there?
We can do this for anyone or to anything that stands in our way. That promotion that means so much, what is it really? Our critics and naysayers who make us feel small, let’s put them in their proper place. It’s so much better to see things as they truly, actually are, not as we’ve made them in our minds. 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.
One meeting is nothing in a lifetime of meetings, one deal is just one deal. In fact, we may have actually dodged a bullet. The next opportunity might be better.
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
Everything changed for Clooney when he tried a new perspective. He realized that casting is an obstacle for producers, too—they need to find somebody, and they’re all hoping that the next person to walk in the room is the right somebody. Auditions were a chance to solve their problem, not his. From Clooney’s new perspective, he was that solution. He wasn’t going to be someone groveling for a shot. He was someone with something special to offer. He was the answer to their prayers, not the other way around. That was what he began projecting in his auditions—not exclusively his acting skills but that he was the man for the job. That he understood what the casting director and producers were looking for in a specific role and that he would deliver it in each and every situation, in preproduction, on camera, and during promotion. The difference between the right and the wrong perspective is everything. How we interpret the events in our lives, our perspective, is the framework for our forthcoming response—whether there will even be one or whether we’ll just lie there and take it. 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
The things that Tommy John could change—when he had a chance—got a full 100 percent of the effort he could muster. He used to tell coaches that he would die on the field before he quit. He understood that as a professional athlete his job was to parse the difference between the unlikely and the impossible. Seeing that minuscule distinction was what made him who he was.
Focusing exclusively on what is in our power magnifies and enhances our power. But every ounce of energy directed at things we can’t actually influence is wasted—self-indulgent and self-destructive. So much power—ours, and other people’s—is frittered away in this manner.
business must take the operating constraints of the world around it as a given and work for whatever gains are possible. Those people with an entrepreneurial spirit are like animals, blessed to have no time and no ability to think about the ways things should be, or how they’d prefer them to be.
It doesn’t matter whether this is the worst time to be alive or the best, whether you’re in a good job market or a bad one, or that the obstacle you face is intimidating or burdensome. What matters is that right now is right now.
Remember that this moment is not your life, it’s just a moment in your life. Focus on what is in front of you, right now. Ignore what it “represents” or it “means” or “why it happened to you.”
Steve Jobs was famous for what observers called his “reality distortion field.” Part motivational tactic, part sheer drive and ambition, this field made him notoriously dismissive of phrases such as “It can’t be done” or “We need more time.” Having learned early in life that reality was falsely hemmed in by rules and compromises that people had been taught as children, Jobs had a much more aggressive idea of what was or wasn’t possible. To him, when you factored in vision and work ethic, much of life was malleable. For instance, in the design stages for a new mouse for an early Apple product, Jobs had high expectations. He wanted it to move fluidly in any direction—a new development for any mouse at that time—but a lead engineer was told by one of his designers that this would be commercially impossible. What Jobs wanted wasn’t realistic and wouldn’t work. The next day, the lead engineer arrived at work to find that Steve Jobs had fired the employee who’d said that. When the replacement came in, his first words were: “I can build the mouse.” This was Jobs’s view of reality at work. Malleable, adamant, self-confident. Not in the delusional sense, but for the purposes of accomplishing something. He knew that to aim low meant to accept mediocre accomplishment. But a high aim could, if things went right, create something extraordinary.
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?
One week before the first Macintosh computer was supposed to ship, the engineers told Jobs they couldn’t make the deadline. On a hastily assembled conference call, the engineers explained that they needed just two additional weeks’ work before it was ready. Jobs responded calmly, explaining to the engineers that if they could make it in two weeks, they could surely make it one—there was no real difference in such a short period of time. And, more important, since they’d come this far and done so much good work, there was no way they would not ship on January 16, the original ship date. The engineers rallied and made their deadline. His insistence pushed them, once again, past what they ever thought possible.
Now, how do you and I usually deal with an impossible deadline handed down from someone above us? We complain. We get angry. We question. How could they? What’s the point? Who do they think I am? We look for a way out and feel sorry for ourselves. Of course, none of these things affect the objective reality of that deadline. Not in the way that pushing forward can. Jobs refused to tolerate people who didn’t believe in their own abilities to succeed. Even if his demands were unfair, uncomfortable, or ambitious.
When he ordered a special kind of glass for the first iPhone, the manufacturer was aghast at the aggressive deadline. “We don’t have capacity,” they said. “Don’t be afraid,” Jobs replied. “You can do it. Get your mind around it. You can do it.” Nearly overnight, manufacturers transformed their facilities into glass-making behemoths, and within six months they’d made enough for the whole first run of the phone.
It’s one thing to not be overwhelmed by obstacles, or discouraged or upset by them. This is something that few are able to do. But after you have controlled your emotions, and you can see objectively and stand steadily, the next step becomes possible: a mental flip, so you’re looking not at the obstacle but at the opportunity within it.
Or take that longtime rival at work (or that rival company), the one who causes endless headaches? Note the fact that they also: keep you alert raise the stakes motivate you to prove them wrong harden you help you to appreciate true friends provide an instructive antilog—an example of whom you don’t want to become Or that computer glitch that erased all your work? You will now be twice as good at it since you will do it again.
How about that business decision that turned out to be a mistake? Well, you had a hypothesis and it turned out to be wrong. Why should that upset you? It wouldn’t piss off a scientist, it would help him. Maybe don’t bet so much on it next time. And now you’ve learned two things: that your instinct was wrong, and the kind of appetite for risk you really have.
Sports psychologists recently did a study of elite athletes who were struck with some adversity or serious injury. Initially, each reported feeling isolation, emotional disruption, and doubts about their athletic ability. Yet afterward, each reported gaining a desire to help others, additional perspective, and realization of their own strengths. In other words, every fear and doubt they felt during the injury turned into greater abilities in those exact areas. It’s a beautiful idea. Psychologists call it adversarial growth and post-traumatic growth. “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is not a cliché but fact.
The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of the growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity. The enemy is any perception that prevents us from seeing this.
Now the things that other people avoid, or flinch away from, we’re thankful for. When people are: —rude or disrespectful: They underestimate us. A huge advantage. —conniving: We won’t have to apologize when we make an example out of them. —critical or question our abilities: Lower expectations are easier to exceed. —lazy: Makes whatever we accomplish seem all the more admirable.
This must be a complete flip. Seeing through the negative, past its underside, and into its corollary: the positive.
Problems are rarely as bad as we think—or rather, they are precisely as bad as we think. It’s a huge step forward to realize that the worst thing to happen is never the event, but the event and losing your head. Because then you’ll have two problems (one of them unnecessary and post hoc).
Stuck in his young mind was the image of a great orator, a man he’d once witnessed speaking at the court at Athens. This lone individual, so skilled and powerful, had held the admiration of the crowd, who hung on his every word for hours—subduing all opposition with no more than the sound of his voice and the strength of his ideas. It inspired and challenged Demosthenes, weak, beaten on, powerless, and ignored; for in many ways, this strong, confident speaker was the opposite of him.
But in our lives, when our worst instincts are in control, we dally. We don’t act like Demosthenes, we act frail and are powerless to make ourselves better. We may be able to articulate a problem, even potential solutions, but then weeks, months, or sometimes years later, the problem is still there. Or it’s gotten worse. As though we expect someone else to handle it, as though we honestly believe that there is a chance of obstacles unobstacle-ing themselves.
We’ve all done it. Said: “I am so [overwhelmed, tired, stressed, busy, blocked, outmatched].” And then what do we do about it? Go out and party. Or treat ourselves. Or sleep in. Or wait. It feels better to ignore or pretend. But you know deep down that that isn’t going to truly make it any better. You’ve got to act. And you’ve got to start now. 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.
They didn’t feel sorry for themselves. They didn’t delude themselves with fantasies about easy solutions. They focused on the one thing that mattered: applying themselves with gusto and creativity.
No one is coming to save you. And if we’d like to go where we claim we want to go—to accomplish what we claim are our goals—there is only one way. And that’s to meet our problems with the right action. 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
Life can be frustrating. Oftentimes we know what our problems are. We may even know what to do about them. But we fear that taking action is too risky, that we don’t have the experience or that it’s not how we pictured it or because it’s too expensive, because it’s too soon, because we think something better might come along, because it might not work. And you know what happens as a result? Nothing. We do nothing.
We often assume that the world moves at our leisure. We delay when we should initiate. We jog when we should be running or, better yet, sprinting. And then we’re shocked—shocked!—when nothing big ever happens, when opportunities never show up, when new obstacles begin to pile up, or the enemies finally get their act together.
Of course they did, we gave them room to breathe. We gave them the chance.
Now let’s say you’ve already done that. Fantastic. You’re already ahead of most people. But let’s ask an honest question: Could you be doing more? You probably could—there’s always more. At minimum, you could be trying harder. You might have gotten started, but your full effort isn’t in it—and that shows. Is that going to affect your results? No question.
For some reason, these days we tend to downplay the importance of aggression, of taking risks, of barreling forward. It’s probably because it’s been negatively associated with certain notions of violence or masculinity.
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. Just as Earhart did, all the greats you admire started by saying, Yes, let’s go. And they usually did it in less desirable circumstances than we’ll ever suffer.
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.
In Silicon Valley, start-ups don’t launch with polished, finished businesses. Instead, they release their “Minimum Viable Product” (MVP)—the most basic version of their core idea with only one or two essential features. The point is to immediately see how customers respond. And, if that response is poor, to be able to fail cheaply and quickly. To avoid making or investing in a product customers do not want. As engineers now like to quip: Failure is a Feature.
The old way of business—where companies guess what customers want from research and then produce those products in a lab, isolated and insulated from feedback—reflects a fear of failure and is deeply fragile in relation to it. If the highly produced product flops on launch day, all that effort was wasted. If it succeeds, no one really knows why or what was responsible for that success. The MVP model, on the other hand, embraces failure and feedback. It gets stronger by failure, dropping the features that don’t work, that customers don’t find interesting, and then focusing the developers’ limited resources on improving the features that do.
In a world where we increasingly work for ourselves, are responsible for ourselves, it makes sense to view ourselves like a start-up—a start-up of one. And that means changing the relationship with failure. It means iterating, failing, and improving. Our capacity to try, try, try is inextricably linked with our ability and tolerance to fail, fail, fail. On the path to successful action, we will fail—possibly many times. And that’s okay. It can be a good thing, even. Action and failure are two sides of the same coin. One doesn’t come without the other. What breaks this critical connection down is when people stop acting—because they’ve taken failure the wrong way.
When failure does come, ask: What went wrong here? What can be improved? What am I missing? This helps birth alternative ways of doing what needs to be done, ways that are often much better than what we started with. Failure puts you in corners you have to think your way out of. It is a source of breakthroughs.
The one way to guarantee we don’t benefit from failure—to ensure it is a bad thing—is to not learn from it. To continue to try the same thing over and over (which is the definition of insanity for a reason). People fail in small ways all the time. But they don’t learn. They don’t listen. They don’t see the problems that failure exposes. It doesn’t make them better.
perhaps the most dominant dynasty in the history of college football—doesn’t focus on what every other coach focuses on, or at least not the way they do. He teaches The Process. “Don’t think about winning the SEC Championship. Don’t think about the national championship. Think about what you needed to do in this drill, on this play, in this moment. That’s the process: Let’s think about what we can do today, the task at hand.”
In the chaos of sport, as in life, process provides us a way. It says: Okay, you’ve got to do something very difficult. Don’t focus on that. Instead break it down into pieces. Simply do what you need to do right now. And do it well. And then move on to the next thing. Follow the process and not the prize.
When it comes to our actions, disorder and distraction are death. The unordered mind loses track of what’s in front of it—what matters—and gets distracted by thoughts of the future. The process is order, it keeps our perceptions in check and our actions in sync.
Another president, 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.
These men went from humble poverty to power by always doing what they were asked to do—and doing it right and with real pride. And doing it better than anyone else. In fact, doing it well because no one else wanted to do it.
There will never be any obstacles that can ever truly prevent us from carrying out our obligation—harder or easier challenges, sure, but never impossible. Each and every task requires our best. Whether we’re facing down bankruptcy and angry customers, or raking in money and deciding how to grow from here, if we do our best we can be proud of our choices and confident they’re the right ones. Because we did our job—whatever it is.
What’s your first instinct when faced with a challenge? Is it to outspend the competition? Argue with people in an attempt to change long-held opinions? Are you trying to barge through the front door? Because the back door, side doors, and windows may have been left wide open.
You don’t convince people by challenging their longest and most firmly held opinions. You find common ground and work from there. Or you look for leverage to make them listen. Or you create an alternative with so much support from other people that the opposition voluntarily abandons its views and joins your camp. 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. You’re acting like a real strategist. You aren’t just throwing your weight around and hoping it works. You’re not wasting your energy in battles driven by ego and pride rather than tactical advantage. Believe it or not, this is the hard way. That’s why it works. Remember, sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home.
Yes, sometimes we need to learn from Amelia Earhart and just take action. But we also have to be ready to see that restraint might be the best action for us to take. Sometimes in your life you need to have patience—wait for temporary obstacles to fizzle out. Let two jousting egos sort themselves out instead of jumping immediately into the fray. Sometimes a problem needs less of you—fewer people period—and not more.
Instead of giving in to frustration, we can put it to good use. It can power our actions, which, unlike our disposition, become stronger and better when loose and bold. While others obsess with observing the rules, we’re subtly undermining them and subverting them to our advantage. Think water. When dammed by a man-made obstacle, it does not simply sit stagnant. Instead, its energy is stored and deployed, fueling the power plants that run entire cities.
And yet we feel like going to pieces when the PowerPoint projector won’t work (instead of throwing it aside and delivering an exciting talk without notes). We stir up gossip with our coworkers (instead of pounding something productive out on our keyboards). We act out, instead of act.
But physical looseness combined with mental restraint? That is powerful. It’s a power that drives our opponents and competitors nuts. They think we’re toying with them. It’s maddening—like we aren’t even trying, like we’ve tuned out the world. Like we’re immune to external stressors and limitations on the march toward our goals. Because we are.
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.
We have it within us to be the type of people who try to get things done, try with everything we’ve got and, whatever verdict comes in, are ready to accept it instantly and move on to whatever is next. Is that you? Because it can be.
WHAT IS WILL? 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. Placed in some situation that seems unchangeable and undeniably negative, we can turn it into a learning experience, a humbling experience, a chance to provide comfort to others. That’s will power. But that needs to be cultivated. We must prepare for adversity and turmoil, we must learn the art of acquiescence and practice cheerfulness even in dark times.
This is the avenue for the final discipline: the Will. 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. Whereas I can try to mitigate harmful perceptions and give 100 percent of my energy to actions, those attempts can be thwarted or inhibited. My will is different, because it is within me.
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?
It’s much easier to control our perceptions and emotions than it is to give up our desire to control other people and events. It’s easier to persist in our efforts and actions than to endure the uncomfortable or the painful. It’s easier to think and act than it is to practice wisdom. 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. And, of course, prepare to start the cycle once more.
We take weakness for granted. We assume that the way we’re born is the way we simply are, that our disadvantages are permanent. And then we atrophy from there. That’s not necessarily the best recipe for the difficulties of life. 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.
A CEO calls her staff into the conference room on the eve of the launch of a major new initiative. They file in and take their seats around the table. She calls the meeting to attention and begins: “I have bad news. The project has failed spectacularly. Tell me what went wrong?” What?! But we haven’t even launched yet . . . That’s the point. The CEO is forcing an exercise in hindsight—in advance. She is using a technique designed by psychologist Gary Klein known as a premortem. In a postmortem, doctors convene to examine the causes of a patient’s unexpected death so they can learn and improve for the next time a similar circumstance arises. Outside of the medical world, we call this a number of things—a debriefing, an exit interview, a wrap-up meeting, a review—but whatever it’s called, the idea is the same: We’re examining the project in hindsight, after it happened.
premortem is different. In it, we look to envision what could go wrong, what will go wrong, in advance, before we start. Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don’t have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish.
Today, the premortem is increasingly popular in business circles, from start-ups to Fortune 500 companies and the Harvard Business Review. But like all great ideas, it is actually nothing new. The credit goes to the Stoics. They even had a better name: premeditatio malorum (premeditation of evils).
After you’ve distinguished between the things that are up to you and the things that aren’t (ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin), and the break comes down to something you don’t control . . . you’ve got only one option: acceptance. The shot didn’t go in. The stock went to zero. The weather disrupted the shipment. Say it with me: C’est la vie. It’s all fine. You don’t have to like something to master it—or to use it to some advantage. When the cause of our problem lies outside of us, we are better for accepting it and moving on. For ceasing to kick and fight against it, and coming to terms with it. The Stoics have a beautiful name for this attitude. They call it the Art of Acquiescence.
Let’s be clear, that is not the same thing as giving up. This has nothing to do with action—this is for the things that are immune to action. It is far easier to talk of the way things should be. It takes toughness, humility, and will to accept them for what they actually are. It takes a real man or woman to face necessity.
Fire engines from eight nearby towns rushed to the scene, but they could not contain the blaze. Fueled by the strange chemicals in the various buildings, green and yellow flames shot up six and seven stories, threatening to destroy the entire empire Edison had spent his life building. Edison calmly but quickly made his way to the fire, through the now hundreds of onlookers and devastated employees, looking for his son. “Go get your mother and all her friends,” he told his son with childlike excitement. “They’ll never see a fire like this again.” What?! Don’t worry, Edison calmed him. “It’s all right. We’ve just got rid of a lot of rubbish.” That’s a pretty amazing reaction. But when you think about it, there really was no other response. What should Edison have done? Wept? Gotten angry? Quit and gone home? What, exactly, would that have accomplished? You know the answer now: nothing. So he didn’t waste time indulging himself. To do great things, we need to be able to endure tragedy and setbacks. We’ve got to love what we do and all that it entails, good and bad. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens.
It’s a little unnatural, I know, to feel gratitude for things we never wanted to happen in the first place. But we know, at this point, the opportunities and benefits that lie within adversities. We know that in overcoming them, we emerge stronger, sharper, empowered. There is little reason to delay these feelings. To begrudgingly acknowledge later that it was for the best, when we could have felt that in advance because it was inevitable. You love it because it’s all fuel. And you don’t just want fuel. You need it. You can’t go anywhere without it. No one or no thing can. So you’re grateful for it. That is not to say that the good will always outweigh the bad. Or that it comes free and without cost. But there is always some good—even if only barely perceptible at first—contained within the bad.
Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some intractable or impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think: 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 else in it for us, nothing we can do for ourselves. How can we use this situation to benefit others? How can we salvage some good out of this? If not for me, then for my family or the others I’m leading or those who might later find themselves in a similar situation.
On the contrary, the more you accomplish, the more things will stand in your way. There are always more obstacles, bigger challenges. You’re always fighting uphill. Get used to it and train accordingly.
Knowing that life is a marathon and not a sprint is important. Conserve your energy. Understand that each battle is only one of many and that you can use it to make the next one easier. More important, you must keep them all in real perspective.
Passing one obstacle simply says you’re worthy of more. The world seems to keep throwing them at you once it knows you can take it. Which is good, because we get better with every attempt. Never rattled. Never frantic. Always hustling and acting with creativity. Never anything but deliberate. Never attempting to do the impossible—but everything up to that line. Simply flipping the obstacles that life throws at you by improving in spite of them, because of them. And therefore no longer afraid. But excited, cheerful, and eagerly anticipating the next round.
But don’t worry, you’re prepared for this now, this life of obstacles and adversity. You know how to handle them, how to brush aside obstacles and even benefit from them. You understand the process. You are schooled in the art of managing your perceptions and impressions. Like Rockefeller, you’re cool under pressure, immune to insults and abuse. You see opportunity in the darkest of places. You are able to direct your actions with energy and persistence. Like Demosthenes, you assume responsibility for yourself—teaching yourself, compensating for disadvantages, and pursuing your rightful calling and place in the world. You are iron-spined and possess a great and powerful will. Like Lincoln, you realize that life is a trial. It will not be easy, but you are prepared to give it everything you have regardless, ready to endure, persevere, and inspire others.
Today, Bill Clinton rereads Marcus Aurelius every single year. Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister of China, claims that Meditations is one of two books he travels with and has read it more than one hundred times over the course of his life. Bestselling author and investor Tim Ferriss refers to Stoicism as his “operating system”—and, in the tradition of those who came before him, has successfully driven its adoption throughout Silicon Valley.