Preparing for Challenges

In November of 2018 I wrote a post about planning for resiliency. Michael Bungay Stanier described the importance of planning for failure, looking ahead and anticipating obstacles, and thinking through the ways we could recover from a drastic blow to our plans. It is not easy, but preparing ourselves for hard times will make it more likely that we can successfully manage setbacks when they occur.

 

This idea seems pretty clear and while we all familiar with saving for a rainy day, there has been relatively little focus in our society on preparing ourselves for other non-financial hardships. Interestingly, the idea from Michael Bungay Stanier is not as new as I thought when I first encountered it. In Letters From a Stoic Seneca wrote, “It is precisely in times of immunity from care that the soul should toughen itself beforehand for occasions of greater stress, and it is while fortune is kind that it should fortify itself against her violence.”

 

Stoic philosophy advises us to take advantage of the times when things are going well so that we can ready ourselves for times when it all falls apart. Rather than simply relaxing and enjoying our comforts, stoicism suggests that we pause, evaluate what is truly needed to live a good life, and consider how we would move on if all our comforts were suddenly stripped from us. It asks us what could go wrong and forces us to think about how we would still move forward, a skill that is hard and gloomy, but has a lot of upside.

 

I don’t think we need to overwhelmingly focus on death, loss, and hardship. We can still enjoy our comforts and our pleasures, but at least once every day we should stop to consider what things we have, how we live our life, and what is truly important for us. By doing this, we can enjoy our hobbies, relationships, and comforts more fully. By recognizing that things could fall apart we can better appreciate what we have now. Additionally, seeing the potential obstacles before they arrive allows us to be better prepared to overcome them when we must rise to the occasion. We don’t have to be on guard at all moments nor do we need to constantly look over our shoulder for danger, but we should be prepared to work for what is important or move in the direction we want when something shows up to block our path. We will be more successful and sound if we have been considerate and acted accordingly along the way.

Be Calm Ahead of Your Obstacle

In Letters From a Stoic Seneca writes, “There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.” Our minds work really hard to keep us safe, keep us in important positions, and keep us connected so that we can succeed and so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy a high status life. Our minds are trying to help us navigate an uncertain future, but sometimes our minds go too far and we become paralyzed with a fear that is worse than the outcome we want to avoid.

 

Seneca continues, “What I advice you to do is not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not come yet.”

 

We can live our lives worrying about what will go wrong five minutes from now, five days from now, or five years from now, but we never truly know what is around the corner. Sometimes we set artificial deadlines on ourselves and sometimes those deadlines are forced upon us, but that doesn’t mean we need to live every moment of our lives up to that deadline in fear of what will happen if we don’t achieve what we intended by that date. The fear that we feel can be useful in pushing us to get stuff done and avoid procrastination, but when we notice that we can’t sleep at night because we are worried of the negative consequences of what may happen if that bad thing we fear occurs, then it is time for us to step back and refocus on our present moment. I find that it is helpful for me to look at the fears that I have and recognize that in the present moment I am fine, and to recognize that the status quo will most likely continue if I miss the deadline or if the bad thing does happen. There are plenty of things to fear, and we should build a capacity to see that we will still be able to move on with life even if some of our worst fears come true.

 

Ultimately, we know we are going to have obstacles and setbacks in our lives, but that does not mean we need to live every moment in fear of what bad thing is around the corner. We can live conservatively and save money and resources to confidently weather such challenges, but we do not need to allow negative things in our lives to cause us trauma before they have occurred. Preparing ourselves ahead of time will help mitigate the fear, but learning to accept that bad things will happen and learning to enjoy the present moment are the only ways we can truly escape from the fear of what lies ahead.

Individual Circumstances

For many of us, things in our life and our mental states begin to break down when we look around and compare ourselves to others. We can be perfectly happy on our own, enjoying our own flow of life, but when we see the neighbors buy a new car, when a friend posts vacation pictures on Facebook, and when a family member gets a promotion, we suddenly feel inadequate. Conversely, when we have overcome obstacles it is easy to look at everyone else who has not been as successful as us and look down on them, criticizing them for not being as strong as us and for not making the smart decisions that we had to make to get to where we are.

 

In my first example of comparing ourselves to others, I am referring to jealousy and envy that we can feel relative to others. Our status in the world will always be relative, which means that as someone else does better, our status relative to  that person is in a worse position. There is no global status meter ranking us all, but we unconsciously rank our status against one another all the time. It is stressful, and it is also all made up. Recognizing our status comparing impulses and choosing not to allow these impulses to drive our lives will free up our mind, our goals, and what we feel we must do to show that we are just as successful as other people in our orbit.

 

The second example from the opening paragraph of comparing ourselves to others is something I have been thinking about more recently. Once we become successful, I would argue that we have an incentive to over-hype the obstacles we faced and to make it even more challenging for other people to follow in our footsteps. If I had come from nothing and succeeded, and a hundred thousand people after me also came from nothing and found success, then my achievements would look smaller. If, however, I came from nothing and achieved great success and suddenly found myself in a rare group of individuals with very few other people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then my accomplishments would look even more impressive. What I did to achieve success may not have changed, but how it is perceived will change based on how many others also become successful. We have plenty of incentives to build up our story, trump up the obstacles we had to overcome, and to then criticize those who don’t make it. We shouldn’t believe the story we tell ourselves, because it is probably and exaggeration and will likely make life unnecessarily challenging for others, just so we can hold a special place in our own minds and in the eyes of society.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, Colin Wright writes the following, “Don’t compare your efforts to that of your peers. Everything you do should be customized for your individual circumstances.” We never know all of the challenges that another person faces. We never know what advantages another person has in life. And ultimately, for ourselves, neither of those things matter. What does matter is whether or not we are making efforts to be well-rounded individuals and whether we exist in society for ourselves or with the goal of making all of society better for everyone. Comparing ourselves to others in an attempt to monitor who is working hard, who is cheating, who deserves what they get, and who is high or low status will simply burn us out and lead to negative thinking and negative interactions with others.

A Clear Picture of Success

In 2017 I wrote a piece about an idea from Colin Wright in his book Come Back Frayed. In our lives, the primary yardstick we use to measure our success, Wright explains, is often a monetary yardstick. We look at our bank account, the funding levels of the organization we are a part of, and how much we make each pay check and determine whether our lives have value and are meaningful based on how much we make. Colin Wright was one of the first authors who helped me be aware of how frequently I judged myself and others based on income, or cues related to income (how fancy is someone’s car, what shoes does someone have, do they live in a wealthy neighborhood?).

 

Wealth and income, however, are both impacted by a number of forces beyond the control of a single individual and both people who we hold in high esteem and people who are self centered and morally questionable can become fantastically wealthy through either hard work or dumb luck. Therefore, judging someone based on wealth and income is an incomplete measure of another person. Wright was one of the first people to express this in a way that really connected with me, and I found the idea again in the writing of Ryan Holiday and Marcus Aurelius. In a long quote from Ryan Holiday’s book Ego is the Enemy, he writes,

 

“You will be unappreciated. You will be sabotaged. You will experience surprising failures. Your expectations will not be met. You will lose. You will fail.
    How do you carry on then? How do you take pride in yourself and your work? John Wooden’s advice to his players says it: Change the definition of success. “Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to do your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming.” “Ambition,” Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, “means tying your well-being to what other people say or do … Sanity means tying it to your own actions.””

 

We cannot expect that in our lives everything will go well and we will live up to the external yardsticks we use to define success. If we expect a certain number of followers, likes, or shares then we are deciding the value of something based on the perceptions of other people and whether something randomly becomes a hit. If we decide that we are only successful if we have enough money to buy a new Tesla, we are putting ourselves in a position where we may compromise on being a good human being in order to obtain enough money to purchase something that we think will tell people that we are valuable and successful. We give control of ourselves to other people when we live this way. Our happiness is not our own, but a yo-yo string controlled by the opinions of our social, work, and family networks.

 

Changing our definition of success to measures internal to who we are is more healthy and reasonable. Pursuing a craft, hobby, or passion for self-fulfillment is different from pursuing a goal for reasons of obtaining greater wealth, respect, and admiration from others. Those things may come from living well, but when they are a result of good work and arrive obliquely through our efforts to do our best at what is in front of us, they will be more rewarding and less tied to our definition of who we are. This can give us the opportunity to live on our own terms, content with the person and lifestyle we pursue.

The Destructive Ego – Lessons from Jefferson Davis and Napoleon

In his book Ego is the Enemy, author and super reader Ryan Holiday gives us lots of examples of the ways in which our ego can lead us astray and tear down the things we are trying to accomplish. Holiday explains that part of why the ego is dangerous is because it damages our relationships with others and doesn’t allow us to set aside trivial matters to focus on the important things in our lives. It dials in on perceived slights, seeks recognition and attention, cannot handle even the slightest criticism, and ultimately pulls us down while we try to vault to new heights.

 

As an example, while Jefferson Davis was the Secretary of War for the United States, he was engaged in correspondence with General Winfield Scott. In his book, Holiday explains that Davis, “Belligerently pestered Scott repeatedly about some trivial matter. Scott ignored it until, finally forced to address it, he wrote that he pitied Davis.” In a letter addressed to Davis Scott wrote, “Compassion is always due to an enraged imbecile who lays about him in blows which hurt only himself.” Davis was a successful politician, but he continued to attack the General in an attempt to gain leverage over him or to at least call him out on a flaw or issue. In a battle of ego, he tried to magnify the flaws of another by attacking him, and ultimately just made himself look worse. The ego likes to draw energy from outrage, to draw a line in the sand and yell that the ego is on the correct side and the offending parties are on the wrong side. The ego wants to be right and it wants to angrily shout down those who are wrong. The problem with allowing our ego to run free in this way is that it reveals how impulsive, insecure, and weak our ego truly is.

 

Holiday continues with another example of the ego ruining goals and objectives by writing the following about Napoleon, “A critic of Napoleon nailed it when remarking: “He despises the nation whose applause he seeks.” He couldn’t help but see French people as pieces to be manipulated, people he had to be better than, people who, unless they were totally, unconditionally supportive of him, were against him.” The ego wants everyone’s adulation, but it is constantly putting other people down so that it can feel superior to the rest of society. When the ego takes control of the steering wheel, we mock other people but at the same time everything we do is some type of performance or show with those same people in mind.

 

What we can take away from Davis and Napoleon is the danger that flows from our ego. When we put a great deal of importance on our own self-image and live in a way that is meant to show off and inflate who we are, we risk alienating others and alienating ourselves. The ego will pester others and put them down, but at the same time the ego will only feel validated when it receives praise from those who we put down. Its destruction of meaningful connections and relationships with others is what ultimately dooms our goals and aspirations.

The Ego Drives the Wrong Outcome

The idea in Ryan Holiday’s book, Ego is the Enemy, shows up over and over again in children’s movies. We frequently see main characters who have incredible ambition but are not patient enough to learn from the wise elders of the show. They set off with confidence that they can be great, take on the mighty challenge, and achieve some impressive feat only to fail and return to gain knowledge and insight from the wise leader whose advice they previously ignored. The message is to be confident in yourself, to push yourself, but also to be patient and learn from those who have come before you. In other words, the message is to control your ego.

 

We see this all the time in children’s movies, but in our own lives, that message often seems forgotten as we plunge into AP classes in high school, 20 credits our first semester of college, and into a new career with an eye toward the corner office. We set out to be recognized in each of these areas, driven by our ego, with the advice of our elders falling on deaf ears unless that advice is really just someone telling us that we are great and will get into a great school, will get a great job, and will make boatloads of cash. Our ego takes over and the focus is not on doing great work and learning, but on getting something so we can show off.

 

What is worse, when we are under-prepared for challenges that we face in this situation, we tend to let the ego drive us forward as if it is our will that will push us where we want to go. As Holiday put it, “We tend to think that ego equals confidence, which is what we need to be in charge. In fact, it can have the opposite effect.” We face challenges and want to look strong and prepared for what we face. We want others to be impressed as we handle these difficulties without breaking a sweat. We try to be a leader by inflating our ego and standing tall in front of our desk with our arms crossed, the cliche magazine cover image of a CEO.

 

How we actually reach our goals and become successful is a different picture. We learn from grunt work. We set stretch goals and challenge ourselves, but within reasonable bounds that we know will force us to grow. This is completely different from setting goals that we know will impress other people. Trying to be the leader through sheer ego will make us look small and put us on a path toward isolation. Becoming a leader through experience and a willingness to learn from others will actually make us great, but it is something we can only do if we can control the ego and allow ourselves to learn from others. It all requires self-awareness and a dose of humility to put our ego aside and learn from the wise people in our lives and to take on our ambitious challenges when we are ready.

What Coaching Does

Michael Bungay Stanier explains why coaching is such a positive force for those receiving coaching, and why we should invest more of our time and effort into learning to be a great coach. He writes, “Coaching can fuel the courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar, can help people learn from their experiences and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfill a person’s potential.” These three areas identified by Bungay Stanier are key to growth and development and are some of the hardest areas in life to harness and improve.

 

Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, helps demonstrate ways to develop other people and outlines the benefits that coaches, teams, and individuals receive when coaching is done right. As I wrote before, it is not just the individual who benefits from good coaching, but also the coach who develops a stronger team and is able to empower the individual to do and take on more. Good coaching maximizes the potential and growth of an individual and helps them take the scary first steps toward improvement.

 

When I think about the three areas that Bungay Stanier identifies in good coaching, I think the process to become successful and how we often fail to take big steps toward our goals and fail to learn from our experiences. Research has shown that many people, do not actually apply their talents to the best of their ability and do not step out to take on new and larger roles for themselves. I study political science and one of things that researches have found is that there are many people who would make good political candidates, but that many of them never think they have a chance and never run for office. A simple invitation and a little coaching to encourage political participation makes a big difference in terms of who runs for office and who steps out of their comfort zone to try. On our own it is hard to step forward and drive toward the things we want when the future is muddy and complicated, but with someone who can help encourage us and help us view success, we are more likely to make the first move.

 

I think we also fail to learn well from our experiences. It is not that we are ignorant, self-centered, and think we are flawless, but rather that life is busy and distracting, and pausing to think critically of an event from our past is hard to do. As Bungay Stanier explains, good coaches ask more questions than they provide answers, and their questions are often reflective in nature. Good coaches encourage us to think about our experiences in a way that we normally would not, and they help us make new connections and discoveries from the things we have done or have happened to us in the past. Encouraging us to take chances and helping us think more critically about our past experiences is what allows us to better reach our potential.

Plan To Be Resilient

The most well designed systems have back-ups. Major buildings have back-up power generators, sports teams have back-up athletes, and companies have back-up computer drives. The reason  that all these back-up exist is because plans fail, infrastructure breaks, and people make mistakes. Designing the best building, coaching the best team, and creating  the best company requires that we think about what will happen when things go wrong, so that we can bounce back quickly, stay on track, and make sure the lights stay on. If back-ups are part of the best teams, buildings, and companies, shouldn’t they also be part of our plans when we try to design and create the best possible lives for ourselves?

 

Michael Bungay Stanier thinks so. He quotes Jeremy Dean’s book Making Habits, Breaking Habits in his own book The Coaching Habit to talk about how to build resilience into your plans and goals for changing habits. We already know that the best engineers and the best designers and planners of buildings, boats, and barbecues expect that things will go wrong and that you will need back-ups to make sure your building power is not gone for good, to make sure your boat can still get you out of the storm, and to make sure your grill doesn’t blow up. It is important to see that no matter how well we plan our own life, we will still need back-ups so that when things go wrong our life doesn’t explode and leave us without a way to come back together.

 

Bungay Stanier writes, “Plan how to get back on track. When you stumble–and everyone stumbles–it’s easy to give up. … What you need to know is what to do when that happens. Resilient systems build in fail-safes so that when something breaks down, the next step to recover is obvious.”

 

In my own life I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about what I will do to be resilient. I spend a lot of time thinking about how awesome I am and how I am obviously going to crush-it and achieve my goals the first time. I spend less time thinking about what I am going to do to still be successful or achieve my desired outcome if for some reason my initial plan does not work out. What I end up doing for myself, without recognizing it, is failing to set myself up to be resilient in the face of challenges and obstacles.

 

This is not the first time I have written about the benefits of thinking ahead to the challenges and roadblocks that we might face on our journey. I have written about Richard Wiseman’s recommendation that we look ahead and anticipate the road blocks that we will face on our journey. By expecting challenges and then writing about how we will overcome those challenges, we are planning to be resilient. Rather than looking ahead and just expecting easy success and wins, we can look ahead to the obstacles we must overcome and build a plan to reach those. When we fail, which we know we will, we can have a plan in place so that we only fall one rung on the ladder, and don’t land on our butt at the bottom, paralyzed and unable to restart our climb.

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.