Maintaining Your Character

“It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character.”

 

Ryan Holiday starts one of the chapters in his book Ego is the Enemy with the above quote from Marcus Aurelius. Holiday, in both Ego is the Enemy and his previous book The Obstacle is the Way, outlines principles of stoic philosophy and connects stoicism with the modern day. The only thing we can control, Holiday explains, is how we react to the events of the world around us. We are going to experience a lot of good and bad luck, and it is how we react to the events of our life that determine whether we will be successful.

 

No matter what goes on around us, Holiday argues that we can always think about how we are behaving and reacting and choose to act in the way that will be the most helpful for us. Whatever bad luck, failure, loss, or challenge rolls our way, we can decide how we will react to it and what impact it will have on who we are. We may lose the physical ability to do something, we may lose a spouse or family member, our property could be taken away from us, our career paths may be derailed, or our Facebook post might not get any likes. In each of these situations, we could react as though our life is over and as though there is no possible recovery. If we do, then we will create an almost self-fulfilling prophecy where the negative thoughts and opinions of our minds manifest in our lives. Stoic philosophy would encourage us to look at the loss around us and see that within the misery exists the opportunity to display strength in character and to maintain clear thoughts.

 

Most of us will never be tortured in our lives, but Holiday does give examples in his two books of prisoners of war who used stoic philosophy and maintained their character to stay united and survive the horrors of torture. There are people who are trafficked and exploited, and their pain and trauma is certainly real and help and guidance is certainly something they should seek out, but a touch of self-awareness can help everyone look at their current situation and think about how they can move forward in a positive way. For most of us, we can recognize that we will struggle and will feel as though things could never get worse, but we can also remember that people have faced far worse pain and recovered.

 

Ultimately, we can look at the negative pieces in our lives and the decisions we make each day and try to move in a direction which continually improves our character. The good things and the bad things in our life are only good or bad based on our opinions and decisions. Nothing can ruin our lives unless we decide that it has the power to ruin us. Choosing to maintain our character in any situation always gives us the option of being strong in the face of obstacles and turning those obstacles into learning opportunities for ourselves and the people around us.

Defined By Focus

Marcus Aurelius and stoic philosophy have had a huge impact on my life. I came to stoicism through Colin Wright and Ryan Holiday, whose books Considerations and The Obstacle is the Way greatly changed my perspectives and the ways that I think about who I am, how the world works, and what is good or bad. Aurelius two thousand years ago and Wright and Holiday today demonstrate over and over in their writing that there is nothing more important in our lives than our focus and attention. How self-aware we are, how focused we are on things that truly matter, and the perspectives we adopt shape how we understand and view the world, and in turn determine how we react to the world. I see this same concept carried through lots of the media that I consume, especially in writing about success, happiness, and fulfillment. Michael Bungay Stanier’s book The Coaching Habit is one of the latest places where I have come across the ideas of focus and attention.

 

Bungay Stanier looks at the power of questions in coaching interactions, specifically the question, “What’s on your mind?” He explains that this question is so powerful because it reveals to both the coach and the individual where the individual’s focus and attention is. A lot of times we are not quite consciously aware of the things we spend our time focusing on and thinking about, and when we are asked this question, our focus is turned inward to the things that have been taking our mental energy, even if we are not verbally honest with our coach. He continues, “one of the fundamental truths that neuroscience has laid bare: we are what we give our attention to. If we’re mindful about our focus, so much the better. But if we’re unwittingly distracted or preoccupied, we pay a price.” The things we focus on are the things that define us and make us who we are.

 

Do we see a large bank account, a big home, a flashy car, and lots of vacations as the definition of success? Is our mental energy spent thinking about how we can obtain and achieve these things? Do we focus on our thoughts and reactions to events and people around us to cultivate the person we want to be? Do we direct our attention to politics and try to better justify our position and our tribe relative to the opposing side? Whatever it is that we focus on will define our actions and our behaviors. Drawing this out and thinking through it will help us to be able to ask ourselves whether we like where our brain is and what we are doing. If we find that we do not like the person we are becoming or that we are spending all our time and effort straining toward something that ultimately does not help us grow and make the world better, then we should step back and try to refocus on the things that matter most.

 

As a coach, the best thing we can do is help the other person become more self-aware and attentive to the things that are on their mind and taking their mental energy. We can help paint a picture of success, growth, and achievement that takes away the pressures and expectations placed on that person by other people such as family, high school cohorts, or even other people in the work place. Coaches can help people refocus their mind after expanding on self-awareness and guide them to think more thoroughly and completely about the things that have been subconsciously eating away at them. By cracking into the mind we offer a chance for real change and growth through awareness and refocusing.

Lasting Imprints

“What we do or fail to do—to one another, for one another, or with one another—leaves a lasting imprint beyond what we can imagine.” Cory Booker includes this early on in his book United as he reflects on the lessons he learned from family and the connections he sees between all people. We often fall into a world where we think primarily of ourselves and we do not consider those around us. If we do consider those around us, we usually only think about those we are the closest to, our family and close friends, and we do not see how we are connected with those we have never met. Remembering that our lives are deeply connected with everyone, including those who came before us and those who will come after us, helps us remember just how important our actions are.

 

No matter what we do, our actions will always be infinitesimally small in the history and course of the entire world, but we always have an opportunity to improve someone’s day or to help establish a world that we would be proud to live in. Despite the limited impact of our actions on world affairs, the simplest gesture can still be important in the life of another person. What Booker is explaining in his quote, is that we can never predict how our actions will truly impact those around us and those who are connected to us, and we can never predict the value that our tiny action will have on the world. By believing that our tiny actions can be of value in the world and shape the planet in the direction we want, we can begin to approach the world in a more deliberate sense.

 

Booker’s quote is interesting because he directly refers to the impact of what we do not do. Do we fail to stand up for justice? Do we fail to acknowledge the value of another human being? Do we restrain ourselves from lashing out at others when we feel threatened? Thinking about what we do not do, not just the actions we perform, helps us value our decisions even more strongly. Recognizing the times when it is appropriate for us to show restraint and to honor another person builds self control in a respectful manner. Being aware of times when we want to move toward passiveness and inaction helps us confront fear and develop the courage to stand up and act during challenging times that require our effort.

 

Booker’s ideas align with Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way and a quote he shares from Leroy Percy, “A man’s job is to make the world a better place to life in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal…” We cannot predict what impact our actions will have, but we can make sure they are moving people in the right direction and helping us make a difference in the world.

 

What Booker and Holiday truly encourage is to consider our actions more deeply. To think beyond how out actions benefit us right now, and to ask ourselves, what impact do out actions have on the lives of those around us, on the lives of those beyond out community, and on the lives of future generations? When we build this sense of awareness into our actions we can begin to make the world a better place, and we can begin to also recognize the things that have helped us and allowed us to become the people we are today.

Privilege, Opportunity, Character, Honor

United is Senator Cory Booker’s story of his time living in Newark, New Jersey and the start of his venture into politics. The son of IBM business executives who overcame racial obstacles to find success in the business world, Booker grew up keenly aware of the challenges that people face on their journey through life, and he received down to Earth advice and support from his parents. Booker’s parents, despite their wealth and success in the business world, always remembered the struggle and fight of those who came before them to create the opportunities they enjoyed, and they made sure Booker understood the ways in which he had benefitted from the actions and decisions of others.

 

In his book he shares a quick message from his parents, “Privileges and opportunities say nothing of character and honor, they would tell me. Only actions do.” His parents taught him that social position and that a person’s socioeconomic situation at birth are not what define them, but rather actions are what make us who we are and who others understand us to be. For Booker’s parents, character is enacted in our actions, and honor is demonstrated by the way we live.

 

The quote from Booker’s parents reminds me of three quotes that I recently wrote about. In his book, Come Back Frayed, Colin Write states, “We show with our actions what our priorities are. Time unclaimed, time traded for something else, is one’s priorities in practice.” His idea of actions aligns perfectly with the message from Booker’s parents. Having privilege and opportunity means nothing if our actions are not in alignment with the message we try to present to other people. We may be able to fool ourselves by telling others about our character and about what we want to do, but ultimately, our actions reveal what is truly important for us and demonstrate our true character.

 

On opportunity Ryan Holiday writes, “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.” The idea in Holiday’s quote stretch beyond the lesson of Booker’s parents, but still connect through the idea of actions and opportunity. Booker’s parents did not simply accept the status quo in their pursuit of career success and the lifestyle they wanted, but instead they made deliberate decisions to drive toward the future they wanted. The opportunities they experienced were open to many, but they put forth true effort and lived in a way that made the most of the opportunities presented to them.
The final quote that comes to mind from Booker’s parents also comes from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, and is a quote he uses to express the importance of our actions:

 

“The great psychologist Viktor Frankle, survivor of three concentration camps, found presumptuousness in the age-old question: “What is the meaning of life?” As though it is someone 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.
    Right action—unselfish, dedicated, masterful, creative—that is the answer to that question.”

 

What builds our character and our honor, in the eyes of Viktor Frankle is not the outcomes of our lives that we often drive toward, money, nice things, a powerful career, but rather the actions we take to reach those end goals. The opportunities and privileges we are born with are nothing if we cannot make unselfish and creative decisions that we can act on in dedicated and masterful ways. Through action that is beyond ourselves and designed to put others first we can show that our honor and character are priorities in our life, and we can use the opportunities we experience to build something greater than ourselves and the situation we are born into.

Change for the Better

In his book Come Back Frayed, author Colin Wright echoes some of the sentiments and ideas that Ryan Holiday puts forward in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. Speaking about the challenges of travel and the new experiences and situations that travel forces us into, Wright focuses on the growth that is possible from getting outside what we are comfortable with and challenging our expectations. He writes,

 

“The energy produced when we struggle, when we grow, gives us the torque we need in order to climb. Seeing these frictions as fuel, as substance to burn so that we might achieve greater heights, means that every discomfort, peril, and concern is valuable. The environmental influences which cause us to change become tools we can use to guide our own evolution and ensure the changes are for the better.”

 

What Wright expresses is the same idea that Holiday focused on in his book: using our struggles and turning the impediment to action into the catalyst for action. Both authors follow stoic traditions, and the common theme between the two of them runs back to Marcus Aurelius who focused on how perception and struggle are pair together to either hold us down or create new opportunities for us.

 

Wright’s quote specifically looks at how the environment around us either pushes us toward growth, or allows us to slide backwards into predictability, comfort, and stagnation. What Wright explains is that travel puts us in new places where we experience friction and are unable to move forward using our standard rules and must develop new rules and strategies for advancing. Leaning into these experiences and working hard to better understand where our model of the world fails to meet the new culture around us is what fuels our growth. Looking at the small friction points as learning blocks gives us a chance to grow in ways that we never would have imagined had we not put ourselves in unfamiliar situations. Simply being in a new place where things are not familiar causes us to think more deeply and turn off the auto-pilot that usually guides our direction along pre-set paths in our day to day lives.

The Obstacle is the Way

The final section that I highlighted from Ryan Holiday’s book, The Obstacle is the Way, is a quick passage that sums up the author’s personal philosophy and views of the world. Throughout the book Holiday encourages us to persevere and to find true growth in the challenges we face. He acknowledges the difficulties we will encounter, but helps us understand the ways in which our perspective can turn obstacles into opportunities. Throughout his book I was reminded of a painting that hung on the wall of Coach Kirk Elias’s office at the University of Nevada. Coach E is the women’s cross country coach, and during an internship with the University’s Sports Media department, I spent a lot of time in his office talking running, coaching, and the team. He had a small abstract painting with a person holding a big square object and a caption reading something along the lines of, “here is a large block of whatever is the most difficult for you to carry. Throughout life you will carry it more times than you expect, until it no longer becomes so heavy.” Holiday’s book takes that message and shows us how that heavy block becomes the thing that gives our life direction, not by crushing us, but by helping us develop greater strength.

 

Toward the end of holiday’s book he recaps his writing with the following, “see things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must. What blocked the path now is a path. What once impeded action advances action. The obstacle is the way.”

 

It is so easy to become frustrated by events beyond our control, but changing our focus and perception can help us better approach our challenges. What keeps us up at night can become the thing that defines us by either crushing us, or by giving us a greater foundation to stand upon. Overcoming obstacles does not just put us further along our path, it creates an entirely new path for us. When we shrink from challenges or back away when we see difficulties ahead we limit our growth, but remembering that we will always face obstacles and that we can only grow by facing them nobly allows us to charge forward. Things are always difficult, indeed Abraham Lincoln described life as a trial, but enduring the challenges will help us reach a more meaningful place where we can make a difference in the world as an example for those who follow and run up against the same challenges.

New Avenues for Movement

One of the ideas in Ryan Holiday’s book The Obstacle is the Way is developing a focus on other people and things beyond ones-self and one’s immediate wants and desires. Holiday follows stoic principles to build a more purposeful and meaningful life, and one of his strategies is to think more deeply about others. He encourages present mindedness in our thoughts, but in a way that is reflective and understanding, beyond a presence that is concerned about what we have, what we want, and what others have that we do not. By applying this type of thinking to the challenges we face, Holiday give us a new vision of obstacles, the difficulties we face, and how our challenges relate to other people. He writes, “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?”

 

This quote shows the importance of thinking beyond ourselves when we are faced with obstacles. The easy thing to do when we are stuck and unable to see potential solutions is to give up and complain about how unfair our situation is. What Holiday argues is a productive response to being stuck, is to stop thinking about ourselves and how limited our possibilities are. By shifting our focus of the problem away from our own “stuckness” and instead thinking of what we could do to help those who are in similar situations, we give ourselves new pathways forward. They may not be the pathways we originally envisioned, and they may not lead to the same destination, but they do move forward.

 

The crucial idea in Holiday’s quote is that thinking of others allows us more growth through deeper reflection. This mindset provides an opportunity for us to develop deeper connections with other human beings through the struggles we share. We likely will not find ourselves in situations that are truly unique to only us. Others have certainly been in our shoes at some point, and many more will experience situations similar to ours in the future. Thinking about what would have been helpful for ourselves, and creating ways to share our experiences, attempted solutions, and successes allows us do something meaningful at a point where none of our actions seem important.

 

This thought process gives us a new direction and new goals. we likely will have to shift our aim and pursue new actions to try to implement ideas that benefit others, but in doing so, we abandon our stuckness, and open doors for others. We experience new energy through acts that do good for others, and we create new opportunities for ourselves that we could not have predicted had we not been creative during our struggles. Holiday’s simple idea gives us an oblique approach to forward growth and a more meaningful life for ourselves and those around us.