Perception, action, and will are the three disciplines central to the stoic philosophy. They also form the structure for Ryan Holiday’s new book The Obstacle Is the Way: Turning Adversity Into Advantage.
The book is an exploration of stoic philosophy through the lens of the famous quote by Marcus Aurelius:
Our actions may be impeded . . . but there can be no impeding our intentions or dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.
Holiday believes the secret to “an art known as turning obstacles upside down” can be found in these words.
To act with “a reverse clause,” so there is always a way out or another route to get to where you need to go. So that setbacks or problems are always expected and never permanent. Making certain that what impedes us can empower us.
Obstacles are nothing more than an opportunity to “practice some virtue: patience, courage, humility, resourcefulness, reason justice, and creativity.”
The three disciplines build on one another.
It’s how we see and understand what occurs around us—and what we decide those events will mean. Our perceptions can be a source of strength or of great weakness. If we are emotional, subjective and short- sighted, we only add to our troubles. To prevent becoming overwhelmed by the world around us, we must, as the ancients practiced, learn how to limit our passions and their control over our lives. It takes skill and discipline to bat away the pests of bad perceptions, to separate reliable signals from deceptive ones, to filter out prejudice, expectation, and fear. But it’s worth it, for what’s left is truth. While others are excited or afraid, we will remain calm and imperturbable. We will see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are—neither good nor bad. This will be an incredible advantage for us in the fight against obstacles.
Action is commonplace, right action is not. As a discipline, it’s not any kind of action that will do, but directed action. Everything must be done in the service of the whole. Step by step, action by action, we’ll dismantle the obstacles in front of us. With persistence and flexibility, we’ll act in the best interest of our goals. Action requires courage, not brashness—creative application and not brute force. Our movements and decisions define us: We must be sure to act with deliberation, boldness, and persistence. Those are the attributes of right and effective action. Nothing else— not thinking or evasion or aid from others. Action is the solution and the cure to our predicaments.
Will is our internal power, which can never be affected by the outside world. It is our final trump card. If action is what we do when we still have some agency over our situation, the will is what we depend on when agency has all but disappeared. Placed in some situation that seems unchangeable and undeniably negative, we can turn it into a learning experience, a humbling experience, a chance to provide comfort to others. That’s will power. But that needs to be cultivated. We must prepare for adversity and turmoil, we must learn the art of acquiescence and practice cheerfulness even in dark times. Too often people think that will is how bad we want something. In actuality, the will has a lot more to do with surrender than with strength. Try “God willing” over “the will to win” or “willing it into existence,” for even those attributes can be broken. True will is quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility; the other kind of will is weakness disguised by bluster and ambition. See which lasts longer under the hardest of obstacles.
Holiday concludes that we have a choice, “Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?” In the end … the obstacle is the way.
We might not be emperors, but the world is still constantly testing us. It asks: Are you worthy? Can you get past the things that inevitably fall in your way? Will you stand up and show us what you’re made of?
Plenty of people have answered this question in the affirmative. And a rarer breed still has shown that they not only have what it takes, but they thrive and rally at every such challenge. That the challenge makes them better than if they’d never faced the adversity at all.
The Obstacle Is the Way is a great addition to my growing collection of philosophical reads.