After reading The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday around the start of my PhD, I decided to adopt stoic philosophy as my way of life. It’s very similar to the teachings in Buddhism and in the book the Tao Te Ching by Lao Tsu. It’s interesting how western and eastern philosophers came to the same conclusions as to how one should live their life.
The Obstacle is the Way basically explains stoicism in a modern context. And it summarises stoicism into 3 guiding principles: Perception. Action. Will.
Easiest to understand but hardest to execute. It is the ability to look at a situation objectively v.s. subjectively (i.e. labelling it as positive/negative). The situation is always neutral, but we choose to label it as good or bad. We cannot control the situation, but we can control our perception of the situation – and that’s where we are most powerful.
Objective judgement is helpful, subjective judgement is not. Change perception, change reaction. It’s not “this isn’t so bad”, but it’s “I can make this good”.
The action then is to greet our obstacles with: energy, persistence, a coherent and deliberate process, iteration and resilience, pragmatism, strategic vision, craftiness and savvy, and an eye for opportunity and pivotal moments.
This is where you practice persistence and resistance. Persist when things get tough. Resist distraction, discouragement, and disorder.
The most important step is the next step, or starting. Like an aeroplane, you need to gain momentum first before you can fly. And this also involves consistency, no starting and stopping, you’re just wasting energy (momentum).
If perception and action are disciplines of the mind and body then will is the discipline of the heart and soul. Will is the one thing we control completely always. Whereas I can try to mitigate harmful perceptions and give 100% of my energy to actions, those attempts can be thwarted or inhibited. My will is different, because it is within me.
Will allows us to think, act, and finally adjust to a world that is inherently unpredictable. It is what prepares us for this and protects us against it, and allows us to thrive and be happy in spite of it.
How do we build our strength in will? Keep putting pressure on it. Don’t get comfortable. keep putting yourself through challenges, keep practicing. Soon it will be second nature and we can intuitively respond to every situation.