Ultimate Strength

Author Ryan Holiday writes that his ultimate inner strength is his will, and he dives into what that means in his book, The Obstacle is the Way. He explains that our will stretches beyond simply our desire to do something or the degree to which we want something, and looks at will in the context of stoicism and our every day lives. Holiday writes, “Will is fortitude and wisdom — not just about specific obstacles, but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it.” In this context our will is driven beyond the world of sports or promotions where it is analogous to hard work or grit, and it becomes transformed to an internal power plant that generates strength to persevere in all aspects of our lives during challenging times.

 

For Holiday, our will is a decision that comes from our mental ability to focus and reflect on our lives, which means that it is under the control of our conscious mind. Our actions, efforts, and energy can be shaped by other people and contribute the obstacles we face, but our will can be external to those events, influenced only by our own thoughts, perceptions, and self-awareness. By taking control of will, we can build it into our own lives to power our own engines.

 

Stoicism is helpful in building will since it focuses on self-reflection and self-awareness to shape our perceptions of the world. Recognizing the power of opinion and perception helps us take control of our mind, and allows us to focus our actions on our goals with intentionality. The will that Holiday explains results from the mental fortitude that develops when we realize that the only thing affecting our mind is our own thoughts and opinions.

Our Actions are the Answer

In writing about our ability to turn obstacles into opportunities for growth and our ability to always strive toward new goals, author Ryan Holiday turns to an Austrian psychiatrist, Viktor Frankl for a unique perspective. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday writes,

 

“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.”

 

Holiday is explaining in this quote that each moment of each day, our present decisions and actions, define the life we live. How we respond to the world around us, what we choose to do with our time, and the perspectives we adopt are all part of what creates our purpose and reality. We build our own meaning, and it is established in the actions of our lives.

 

For Holiday, this means that the obstacles we face and how we react to those obstacles is all part of the meaning of life. Will we react positively and overcome our challenges, or will we be defeated and complain about the difficulties we see in our own lives but not in the lives of others? Will we build upon a solid foundation of meaningful action, or narrowly act in our own self-interest for our own desires? Recognizing that our life is not defined by the things we have or the lifestyle we pursue can help us see that we are truly defined by how we interact with the world around us. In each moment we decide how we will act, and we can decide whether those actions will be shaped to fit our own desires, or whether they will help us move toward greater ends. There is no ultimate truth that establishes the ends toward which we strive. It is up to each of us to decide what a truly meaningful existence will entail, and our actions and decisions will reflect the reality of what we find important and meaningful.

Collected and Serious

In his book The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we can use stoicism to overcome the challenges and negative situations that we face throughout our lives. When we are challenged we have control over how we react to the situation, partly through the manner in which we decide to interpret our situation. Our perceptions give us the ability to predict the ultimate outcome of events long before they manifest. What we are able to see is not the actual way that things will end up, but rather avenues of possibilities full of choices, decisions, success, and struggle.

 

Holiday writes about preparing ourselves for the journey ahead by understanding that the challenges we face will not be fair, but that we can always keep our nerve and decide if we will overcome or succumb.  Building a calm demeanor that can withstand our challenges requires an acceptance of the situation, the acceptance of our lack of control over situations, and acceptance of the effort required to persevere.  Through this process we can begin to look at our reality and find our way by maintaining control over our mindset, and knowing that our conscious and rational thought is the only tool we can possibly have sovereign control over.  Holiday writes, “This means preparing for the realities of our situation, steadying our nerves so we can throw our best at it. Steeling ourselves. Shaking off  the bad stuff as it happens and soldiering on — staring straight ahead as though nothing has happened.”

 

In this section Holiday explains that our mind is the determining factor as to whether something good or something bad has happened to us. It is our mind that ultimately decides whether we have been defeated or if we are still campaigning to reach our end goal. If we react to a negative situation in a way that gives up our mental control then we have failed, but if we respond by accepting another challenge and carrying forward, then truly nothing has affected us.

 

In some ways Holiday’s quote reminds me of Richard Wiseman and the book he wrote, 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot. Wiseman explains a common trait found amongst those who successfully follow a roadmap and work toward their goals. Those who look at the future and write down or think about the challenges they will face along the way seem to perform better than those who only think of the end goal and the rewards they will find. Preparing yourself and expecting obstacles gives one foresight into which way to take around and through the challenges that pop up. Expecting obstacles and imaging ways to overcome them before your start your journey will help you shake off the challenges you actually face and will prepare your mind for those moments when nerves become overwhelming.

We Create Our Obstacles

Ryan Holiday in his book, The Obstacle is the Way, writes about the power of our perceptions in addressing our challenges, creating change, and becoming successful in our efforts to reach our goals. He explains the ways in which we can change the way we think in order to change our behavior and help us find better approaches to scary situations. In regards to our challenges, he believes everything is a matter of perception and mental framing, “In other words, through our perception of events, we are complicit in the creation — as well as the destruction — of every one of our obstacles.” In this short section what Holiday is explaining is that we have the power to change how we think about and approach our challenges. By mentally determining that our obstacles are not obstacles, we can find ways around, over, and through our barriers.

 

Holiday’s focus on perception is a common theme throughout his book. Borrowed from stoicism, the idea that our mentality and perceptions shape our thoughts help us find philosophical grounds to approach the world in a more constructive manner. He continues in his book to write, “There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception.  There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” We are not just living in a world where things happen and we have predictable and dependable reactions.
The world of human choice and thought very well may be completely determined by physics, considering that our brains are simply matter like the world around us, and our thoughts are the chemical reactions taking place between the matter, but the way that our complex consciousness exists is so multivariate that it is our perception that ultimately shapes how decisions are made. When we change how we think about a situation, we can literally change the situation. Deciding that something is neither good nor bad, and choosing the reaction that we want to have, the reaction which will serve us and those around us the best, is how we can maximize our time on Earth.  Allowing situations to push us around and determine how we will act is a choice that we can make.

 

We can look at any situation and decide that we have been defeated and that the challenge is too great for us, or we can shift our focus and find new ways to approach our position.  We can decide to make changes, we can find ways to embrace our challenge, or we can alter the way we think and react to our challenges.  All of these options create new avenues for us and provide us with a new story to tell ourselves about our lives. We can overcome our obstacles through patience and thoughtful action, and through the process of overcoming our obstacles new opportunities will emerge.

The One Thing We Control

Perception is a major focus throughout the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. By focusing on how we see the world around us and how we choose to react to the world in which we live, Holiday explains the many ways in which we can adapt and overcome the barriers which impede us along our path. For Holiday, our perception can become either a tool that we use to expand the possibilities around us, or a roadblock preventing us from becoming the best possible version of ourselves. Holiday writes,

 

“We decide what we will make of each and every situation. We decide whether we’ll break or whether we’ll resist. We decide whether we’ll assent or reject. No one can force us to give up or to believe something that is untrue (such as, that a situation is absolutely hopeless or impossible to improve). Our perceptions are the thing that we’re in complete control of.”

 

Reacting automatically and living on autopilot is an easy way to move through life, but it is also a lifestyle that abandons self-control by giving up consciousness in regards to our perceptions. Allowing our lives to be limited by narrow views of what is possible leaves us in a position where our power to change is insignificant. Rather than allowing our mind to see obstacles in new ways, we double down on limitations, and assume that we were never meant to proceed. We accept that our world is finite, and we give control to another person or what we see on television or to forces that seem to operate above us.

 

Holiday encourages us  to regain control over our choices and our perceptions. I don’t think his message is to simply have greater will power or determination in our lives, though that may be part of what he advocates, but ultimately he encourages more thought and expansion of the way we look at any situation.  Life can pull us in many directions and our busy lives may feel like a tornado beyond our control, but through mindfulness and self-reflection, we can begin to recognize the choices we make, and we can begin to recognize how we think about and approach the situations in our life. Changing our perspective and refocusing our thoughts in ways that align with our values will allow us to be more fulfilled. Reaching this point requires the ability to shift our perspectives and to understand the power we have in deciding whether our minds with be fortified and sound, or whether our thoughts will be reactionary and at the discretion of the world around us.

What We Think of Ourselves

Marcus Aurelius constantly sought to become more self-aware by reflecting on himself, his actions, and his thoughts.  He recorded his reflections and the lessons he learned from constantly being present and observing himself and others in his book Meditations, and we can use his wisdom to help improve our lives, nearly 2,000 years later.  One of the starting points for Aurelius is how we think about ourselves, and how we think about the thoughts of others. Throughout the book Aurelius reminds us to become humble through self-reflection, and to become empathetic with others who are doing their very best to live their life in a manner that is suitable for them. He encourages us to build our own strong mental fortification while not basing our understanding of the world on the views and beliefs of others. It is in this spirit that he writes, “I have often wondered how it is that every man loves himself more than all the rest of men, but yet sets less value on his own opinion of himself than on the opinion of others.”

 

Human beings are social creatures and our tribal evolution has stuck with us, pushing us to find groups to associate with for belonging and meaning. This has allowed us to come together in societies and to achieve more than we ever could on our own, but Aurelius writes about a dangerous side of our social dependence. When we fail to become self-reflective and when we do not live our lives according to our beliefs and rational understanding of ourselves we risk becoming an amalgam of what we perceive others to think of us.  Our lives become vehicles to impress others, and the most important decisions we make are intended to satisfy other people instead of ourselves. Living in this manner places our lives in control of others, and leaves us as hollow shells of individuals.

 

Aurelius would encourage us to think about ourselves in a more profound way to understand what our needs and desires are, and to understand where our motivation for achieving our goals comes from. If we are focused on what other people want us to become, he would argue that we are not living up to our true potential. If we are confident in ourselves and value the faculties of our minds, then we must take time to become self-aware to find a true alignment in our lives. We do not need to discount the opinions of others to a point where they are meaningless to us, but we need to be able to recognize whether our motivation lies in the words of another or whether our motivation is born from our own rational thought and understanding of self.

Unbiased

One of the benefits of an increased awareness and sense of presence that Marcus Aurelius wrote about in his common place book Meditations, is the ability to begin to see things without as much bias.  He wrote his book to remind himself of lessons and values that he wished to build into his life, and this helped him create habits of self-awareness, self-reflection, and presence of mind to remain grounded and focused on the most important parts of his life.  What Aurelius found, and what I think we all can experience when working on goals related to self-awareness, self-reflection, or focusing on the present moment, is that those habits open new thoughts and new perspectives for us. For Aurelius a life built upon these foundations provided an ability to see the world with less bias.

 

“Say nothing more to thyself than what the first appearances report. Suppose that it has been reported to thee that a certain person speaks ill of thee. This has been reported; but that thou has been injured, that has not been reported. I see that my child is sick. I do see; but that he is in danger, I do not see. Thus then always abide by the first appearances, and add nothing thyself from within, and then nothing happens to thee.”

 

Through a practice of honestly evaluating oneself combined with a focus on the present moment, Aurelius believed that we could begin to see the world in a more honest way. We can’t ever see the world from every perspective possible, and we can’t fully understand the thoughts and motivations of others, but we can separate our emotional responses and pulls from the events and actions of the world around us.  Before acting and making decisions about things that happen around us or happen to us, we can take a step back and evaluate our world without the filters that tend to shape our decisions.

 

To me what this looks like in practice is slowing down our decisions and recognizing when we are bringing our own bias into a conversation. Honest self-reflection will allow us to see where our biases impact our thinking, and self-awareness will help us to understand when those biases are determining the perspective through which we are interpreting the world. When a family member or friend says something to me that is not the most flattering, Aurelius would encourage me to look at more perspectives to evaluate whether that individual is intentionally trying to harm me, or if they are being honest about the way that I present myself.  The Emperor’s thoughts also manifest in our political lives where our ideology and party affiliation has been built into our individual identity.  We can listen to political observations or statements from people who are from the same party or background as ourselves and approve of what they say, but it is much harder to honestly listen to people who we know are from a different party or background as ourselves. Remembering Aurelius’ quote may help us to see they message without a filter pre-determining whether or not we think the individual or their message is right or wrong. This will allow us to increase our thought and be more considerate of the world around us.

Obstacles and Opinions

In his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius talks about overcoming obstacles by changing our perspectives and judgements surrounding the difficulties that we face.  In his view, we are not directly affected by challenges and obstacles in our lives, but our mental state determines how we are limited or impacted. For Aurelius, how we will respond to and handle the obstacles that we do encounter is entirely up to our own decision making power.  We choose to see something as negative and detrimental to us, and we react accordingly. In Meditations he writes,

 

“If thou art pained by any external thing, it is not this that disturbs thee, but thy own judgement about it.  And it is in thy power to wipe out this judgement now.  But if anything in thy own disposition gives thee pain, who hinders thee from correcting thy opinion? And even if thou art pained because thou art not doing some particular thing which seems to thee to be right, why dost though not rather act than complain?”

 

This quote speaks to me because it becomes so easy to complain about or lives or parts of our lives rather than to take action to change our behavior or thoughts.  What Aurelius is reminding himself in this passage is that we have the power to determine what our outcome will be when faced with a challenge, and we can take steps to achieve what we would like during struggles rather than complaining about what is in front of us.

 

We may not find the perfect solution to every problem and it may not seem that we are much better off after any particular challenge, but we can always grow and learn from our difficulties.  Shifting our perspective helps us better understand the obstacles we face and gives us the ability to see the ways in which obstacle can help us grow.  It is in our power to see what we do not like and to take steps to improve it.  We can choose to complain and become cynical, or we can move forward, leaning into the obstacle and using it to help propel us in the direction we want.

Living Without Error

In his writing Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius reflected the ideas of stoicism and the lessons the philosophy taught him throughout his life. He valued the power of the rational mind, and was constantly looking for ways to better understand his own faculties so that he could better control his mental state and his perception of the world.  Through self-awareness and an ability to focus on the present, Aurelius was able to gain power over his mind by taking the control of his thoughts away from other people, objects, and events around him.  In regards to the strength of ones mind and becoming a complete individual, Aurelius wrote, “The third thing in the rational constitution is freedom from error and from deception.  Let then the ruling principle holding fast to these things, go straight on, and it has what is its own.”

 

When I first read this quote I left myself a note that I think sums up the idea presented by Aurelius in this quote and throughout his book, Meditations, in a powerful way. “He is not saying that the mind is free from making errors, but that it is free from living with those errors. The rational mind can understand an error and then chose the reaction to that error with which it lives.”  What I was trying to capture in my synopsis of the Emperor’s quote is the idea that the mind and the power of our rational thoughts decide how we will be affected by the mistakes that occur in our life. The mind can chose what will be learned from, what will shape our decisions, and what will be carried with us for the future.  The mind is in control of interpreting events and errors and choosing how they will be folded into the mess of experiences and decisions that make us who we are.

 

What separates Aurelius from other thinkers is his beliefs of what the mind is capable of doing when sorting out the events and histories of our lives.  Unlike today when it is common for us to regard our past mistakes and histories as baggage, Aurelius saw our past as nothing more than experience one could view through evolving lenses of the past.  Our mistakes and previous decisions do not have to hang around us and be carried with us constantly weighing us down and impeding our progress.  The mind is capable of recognizing its own decisions and thoughts, and the mind is capable of freeing itself from the past by controlling what it does with the experiences (both good and bad) from our lives.

Opinion and Perception

“Take away thy opinion, and there is taken away the complaint, “I have been harmed.” Take away the complaint, “I have been harmed,” and the harm is taken away.”

 

This is one of the short passages that Marcus Aurelius wrote down in his common place book in the second century, and it is one of my favorite quotes in the work which was published after his death as Meditations.  His views and ideas about stoicism are shared throughout his writing, and the quote above is one of the best examples of what stoicism is, and how it can be implemented in our lives.  Taking control of the mind is a central part of stoicism, and controlling our thoughts leads to better actions, controlled behavior, and choices that lead to better life outcomes.

 

Aurelius’ quote above shows how important our thoughts and perceptions can be.  It shows how frequently we filter everything in our lives through a good or bad lens, and what we are truly doing when we look at the world in such a way.  How we respond and what we think is very often shaped by how we perceive an event. If we think that something is good while it is happening or being said, then we are more likely to be moved to participate with it. When someone says something that we view as being wrong or negative, we react by pushing against what was said and holding ourselves in opposition to the individual or group that said it.

 

For Aurelius, the stoic emperor, the goals was to live without opinion and to be able to open perspective to take in all angles of an event.  He strained to see the world objectively by taking away his opinion, and examining the world in the way it is, and not how he wanted it to be.  This is never an easy task as it does not eliminate all perspective, but it helps us begin to see things and think about things from the perspective of others. Abandoning opinion and not needing to deem every situation or occurrence as good or bad allows us to grow and connect with others in new ways. We become better at understanding the motives and actions of others, and we can make better decisions that do not intentionally ostracize or damage another.