“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.” Marcus Aurelius
Stoicism is about turning problems upside down. Instead of treating problems as things that hinder your progress, you treat them as tools that can potentially elevate you. Remember, we don´t control what happens to us, but we do control how we respond to it. An excellent book that covers this is Ryan Holiday´s The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph. I have mentioned this book in an earlier post on books for personal transformation, but it is worth mentioning again since it can change your life. Objective judgement, unselfish action, and a willing acceptance to all external events are central to the book. It might not sound like great fun at first, but this is not a book about instant happiness. It is a book that teaches to you stand up again when life throws you over, and that is what can make all the difference.
Ryan teaches us that it is easy to find excuses for not acting on the problems we know are there. He attacks this in three central steps:
- Perception, how you see the problem. This is the story that runs in our heads, and that frames how we view the problem. Change your perception of it, and you change how you handle it.
- Act on your problem. Without acting on your changed perception, problems will not change for real. And without acting, you can never build new habits.
- Discipline and will. Acting once or twice is easy but making it a habit is harder and more fruitful. The changed perceptions and actions become your normal way of acting in the world. To stay disciplined it can also help to find bigger causes to embrace. This way, if you ever ask why you need to be disciplined, the bigger cause will tell you why over and over.
When I read this, I came to think about a step that precedes the above three steps: Inversion or premortems. Charlie Munger said it best: “Just tell me where I´m going to die so I can never go there”. Start imagining what can go wrong with your plans in life and then see how you can avoid these. Once such problems enter your life, you know how to tackle them and keep standing. Life is not just about new habits. By avoiding the things we know are bad for us, we have built a great foundation.
There will always be problems. Always. Therefore, we must learn to accept that there are problems, and act to solve them, instead of whining and complaining. Yes, sometimes we simply don´t have the energy to pick ourselves up, but when we do, we should know that there is always a road ahead. Can´t see the way? Just keep walking – it will appear again.
Ryan Holiday is right when pointing out that this is not a philosophy book not just for thinkers. It is a philosophy book for people who want to act. Read it and be ready to act.