During my senior year in high school, my French teacher asked us to make an oral presentation on a topic of our choice. My friends talked about celebrities, current events or spontaneous combustion(!) while I chose to present the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. I always were kind of a weirdo. Back when I was a teenager, I would get my hands on anything related to philosophy. One day, I found a small, intriguing book by a philosopher called Epictetus. The book was so good that I devoured it in an evening. This is how I was first introduced to stoicism, a school of philosophy founded in ancient Greece.
Fast forward more than a decade later and I am still fascinated by stoicism, a philosophy of virtue and wisdom teaching us how to be more resilient in the face of pain and hardships and become the master of our thoughts and emotions. Many articles I have published on Productive Happiness are inspired by the teachings of the stoics. Recently, it seems that many influencers have become interested in stocism, even more so now that blogger and investor Tim Ferriss has started promoting it so ardently. Ryan Holiday, author and blogger, has been an avid spokesperson for stoicism. He recently created a website called Daily Stoic where he shares tidbits of stoic wisdom every day. Since I’ve been enjoying his work so much, I knew I had to get a copy of his book, The Obstacle Is the Way, a modern take on stoicism applied to our everyday lives. Today, I wanted to share a short review of this magnificent and empowering book. Let’s dig in!
3 parts, 3 stoic virtues
The Obstacle is the Way is split in 3 parts ; perception, action, and will. In every section, Ryan Holiday has shared the stories of famous people such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison and even boxer Mike Tyson to illustrate 3 stoic virtues in apprehending obstacles and hardships. Each section covers fundamental stoic virtues in the context of our Modern lives. The point of the whole book is to teach us that, by working on our own thoughts and attitudes, we can become apt to deal with adversity and put it to good use in benefiting us, instead of letting it stop us.
In the first part of The Obstacle is the Way, the author explains that the first step to approaching any hardships is to first control our thinking. As Shakespeare so elegantly put it : “Nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” The way we choose to perceive things will change the way they affect us. The first step is to understand that we are in control of our perception. We can choose how we approach hardships and how we manage our emotions associated with the events we encounter. I talked about perception in my recent article How to Feel Better : A Model to be More Positive. I believe that the way I decide to approach life and its difficulties is the cornerstone of my wellbeing.
When we master our minds, we are better equipped to face challenges. Now we must take action and choose how to properly react to adversity. We have to put in the work, be persistent and manage our energy levels to stay on top of our plans. Persistence is the act of pushing forward no matter what stands in our way. It is a deliberate attitude in the face of adversity. A positive attitude leads us nowhere if we do not act on it.
A strong will is what makes a real stoic. Perception and action are things we do, but will is what we are. It is the state of mind that we cultivate and that becomes embedded in our personality with consistent action and focus. A real stoic develops perseverance and endurance of mind. He will push through any pain with emotional strength and courage, determined to make the most of it. Holiday wrote : “if Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul.” Developing a strong will takes time, deliberate thinking and a strong resolve. As Bruce Lee once said : “As you think, so shall you become”.
Holiday shares the story of Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, a great book I recently reviewed here on the blog. Frankl was imprisoned in 3 different concentration camps during World War 2. During his stay in the camps, he came to the conclusion that our will is the only thing that we remain in control of, even when our liberty has been taken away from us. He wrote : “The will is the one thing we control completely, always.” Decide to gain control over your will and no obstacle will ever be able to stop you.
The Inner Citadel
Marcus Aurelius’ book, Meditations, is one of the most popular publications written by a stoic to this day and it is still wildly popular. The book shares a concept named the Inner Citadel ; “that fortress inside of us that no external adversity can ever break down.” Thomas Edison was the perfect example of a well developed inner citadel. One night, he was having dinner with his family when he was asked to come quickly to his factory, only to discover a blazing fire. He told his son to gather his mother and friends for they would not have another opportunity to see such a fire. Edison could have been angry, devastated, he could have despaired at the loss of his inventory, but he chose to see this fire as fascinating and intriguing. He did not let this tragedy —which would rob him of 1M$ worth of goods— alter his composure. When asked about his incredible calm in the face of adversity, he replied “I’ve been through a lot of things like this, it prevents a man from being affected with ennui.” The stoics are teaching us how to develop our inner citadel.
The Art of Acquiescence
If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I have followed the principles of the Serenity prayer for a while now. Epictetus taught me this idea of being bothered only by the things that you can control and to remain unaffected by everything else. Lo and behold, this approach has a name! The stoics call it the Art of Acquiescence, making an art of accepting the things we do not control. Edison surely displayed this attitude when his factory was struck with fire, as Viktor Frankl did during his stay in the concentration camp when he decided to focus on his own will and fortitude instead of focusing on the injustice he was living. It is a practice that I try to apply each and every time life throws anything at me that I just can’t change. Instead, I put my energy on everything I can act upon and give it my all.
The wheel of fortune
Ryan Holiday concludes his book with the idea that life is a turning wheel. You will face challenges, react accordingly, start over, and a new challenge
will present itself. As you know, I am a tarot reader. There is one card in the Tarot that illustrates that eternal return, the Wheel of Fortune. This card represents the wheel of life, with its good things and bad, alternating from hardships to good times and back. The stoic will be mindful of this ever turning wheel and will be prepared to face the next challenge and to persevere in dealing with strong will and composure.
The Obstacle is the Way has proven really inspiring for me to change my attitude towards the challenges of life. Holiday wrote : “this is the pattern in every one of the stories in this book. Something stands in someone’s way. They stare it down, they aren’t intimidated. Leaning into their problem or weakness or issue, they give everything they have, mentally and physically. Even though they did not always overcome it in the way they intended or expected, each individual emerged better, stronger.” And that is exactly how I felt after reading this book. Better, stronger, wiser.I encourage you to get a copy of the book and see for yourself.
I am always looking for book recommendations, so if you have one to suggest, leave me a comment below and let me know what book inspired you to be in control of your emotions and grow stronger in face of adversity!
If you would like to see what I am reading at the moment, head over to Goodreads and check out the 20 something books that I am currently reading!
See you next Tuesday!
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