Stefan Knapen

PhD-student – Co-assistent

The Obstacle is the Way

I read the book The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday. Here are my notes and thoughts.

The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph by Ryan Holiday

81SLYRdcbaLISBN: 1591846358
Read: 2015
Amazon page for more details and reviews. page page for Dutch people.

This is a great book for everybody with interest in personal development and Stoicism as a philosophy. Ryan Holiday translates century old Stoic wisdom to applicable, current practices. A great read, highly recommended.

All these notes are directly from the book, cursive texts are my thoughts.

My notes

“The Things which hurt,” Benjamin Franklin wrote, “instruct.”

We must try:

  • To be objective
  • To control emotions and keep an even keel
  • To choose to see the good in a situation
  • To steady our nerves
  • To ignore what disturbs or limits others
  • To place things in perspective
  • To revert to the present moment
  • To focus on what can be controlled

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.

If an emotion can’t change the condition or the situation you’re dealing with, it is likely an unhelpful emotion. Or, quite possibly, a destructive one.

You can always remind yourself: I am in control, not my emotions. I see what’s really going on here. I’m not going to get excited or upset.

Epictetus told his students, when they’d quote some great thinker, to picture themselves observing the person having sex. This is a great one, works as well with picture the person sitting on the toilet.

Marcus Aurelius had a version of this exercise where he’d describe glamorous or expensive things without their euphemisms—roasted meat is a dead animal and vintage wine is old, fermented grapes.

But beneath this particular quip is the fundamental notion that girds not just Stoic philosophy but cognitive psychology: Perspective is everything.

Steve Jobs was famous for what observers called his “reality distortion field.”

Psychologists call it adversarial growth and post-traumatic growth. “That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger” is not a cliché but fact. An often explained concept of whatever harm is done unto you, only makes you more ready for the next time.

Action is the solution and the cure to our predicaments. Work is almost always a good solution to your problems, in whatever field you are.

About a man who needs to study more: To ensure he wouldn’t indulge in outside distractions, he shaved half his head so he’d be too embarrassed to go outside.

We’ve all done it. Said: “I am so [overwhelmed, tired, stressed, busy, blocked, outmatched].” And then what do we do about it? Go out and party. Or treat ourselves. Or sleep in. Or wait.

Therefore, we can always (and only) greet our obstacles with energy with persistence with a coherent and deliberate process with iteration and resilience with pragmatism with strategic vision with craftiness and savvy and an eye for opportunity and pivotal moments Are you ready to get to work?

We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out.

That’s definitely not what they say about most leaders today. While overpaid CEOs take long vacations and hide behind e-mail autoresponders, some programmer is working eighteen-hour days coding the start-up that will destroy that CEO’s business. And if we were honest, we’re probably closer to the former than the latter when it comes to the problems we face (or don’t face).

While you’re sleeping, traveling, attending meetings, or messing around online, the same thing is happening to you. You’re going soft. You’re not aggressive enough. You’re not pressing ahead. You’ve got a million reasons why you can’t move at a faster pace. This all makes the obstacles in your life loom very large.

Too many people think that great victories like Grant’s and Edison’s came from a flash of insight. That they cracked the problem with pure genius. In fact, it was the slow pressure, repeated from many different angles, the elimination of so many other more promising options, that slowly and surely churned the solution to the top of the pile. Their genius was unity of purpose, deafness to doubt, and the desire to stay at it.

Epictetus: “persist and resist.” Persist in your efforts. Resist giving in to distraction, discouragement, or disorder.

Edison once explained that in inventing, “the first step is an intuition—and comes with a burst—then difficulties arise.”

We can take a breath, do the immediate, composite part in front of us—and follow its thread into the next action. Everything in order, everything connected.

We’ve just wrongly assumed that it has to happen all at once, and we give up at the thought of it. We are A-to-Z thinkers, fretting about A, obsessing over Z, yet forgetting all about B through Y.

When we get distracted, when we start caring about something other than our own progress and efforts, the process is the helpful, if occasionally bossy, voice in our head. It is the bark of the wise, older leader who knows exactly who he is and what he’s got to do: Shut up. Go back to your stations and try to think about what we are going to do ourselves instead of worrying about what’s going on out there. You know what your job is. Stop jawing and get to work.

To whatever we face, our job is to respond with:

  • hard work
  • honesty
  • helping others as best we can

This, too, is part of the will—to think of others, to make the best of a terrible situation that we tried to prevent but could not, to deal with fate with cheerfulness and compassion.

We take weakness for granted. We assume that the way we’re born is the way we simply are, that our disadvantages are permanent. And then we atrophy from there.

But the person who has rehearsed in their mind what could go wrong will not be caught by surprise. The person ready to be disappointed won’t be. They will have the strength to bear it. They are not as likely to get discouraged or to shirk from the task that lies before them, or make a mistake in the face of it.

It is far easier to talk of the way things should be. It takes toughness, humility, and will to accept them for what they actually are. It takes a real man or woman to face necessity.

It’s time to be humble and flexible enough to acknowledge the same in our own lives. That there is always someone or something that could change the plan. And that person is not us. As the saying goes, “Man proposes but God disposes. ”

People are getting a little desperate. People might not show their best elements to you. You must never lower yourself to being a person you don’t like. There is no better time than now to have a moral and civic backbone. To have a moral and civic true north. This is a tremendous opportunity for you, a young person, to be heroic.

Start thinking: Unity over Self. We’re in this together.

Pride can be broken. Toughness has its limits. But a desire to help? No harshness, no deprivation, no toil should interfere with our empathy toward others. Compassion is always an option. Camaraderie as well. That’s a power of the will that can never be taken away, only relinquished.

Death doesn’t make life pointless, but rather purposeful.

We forget how light our grip on life really is.

Well, thank God I don’t have cancer. But we do. The diagnosis is terminal for all of us. A death sentence has been decreed. Each second, probability is eating away at the chances that we’ll be alive tomorrow; something is coming and you’ll never be able to stop it. Be ready for when that day comes.

First, see clearly. Next, act correctly. Finally, endure and accept the world as it is.

defined a Stoic as someone who “transforms fear into prudence, pain into transformation, mistakes into initiation and desire into undertaking.”

See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must.

My thoughts

The Obstacle is the Way is an interesting book, translating Stoicism as a philosophy to the daily practice in the 21st century. The book is easy to read, and very applicable to knowledge workers. It is an especially good read after reading Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, a classic book on Stoicism. I can definitely recommend this book to people similar to me, twenty-something, interested in both personal development and philosophy.

Get it from Amazon or Bol