In 2015 I read a Sports Illustrated article about a book, The Obstacle is the Way, that was making its way through sports locker rooms. I decided if it worked for Bill Belichick it was worth reading. Since then I have read this book at least a dozen times. This book has helped me to understand how to effectively respond to the challenges of life.
I chose now as a time to review this book as a way for me to use this book to handle the current uncertainty we are experiencing. Life is difficult. It routinely presents us with situations we didn’t anticipate nor want. I have always struggled with those realities and the seeming unfairness of them. This book made me more aware of my reaction to such events and then helped to shift my mindset to accept that while I don’t control events, I do control how I respond to them.
The author, Ryan Holiday, wrote this book based upon Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations which was originally written over 2,000 years ago as personal journal entries of Marcus Aurelius while he was emperor of Rome. While these were his personal thoughts which he never intended to be published, reading Meditations lets the reader know that the problems we all struggle with are common. Marcus Aurelius struggled with his temper just like many of us. This book is based upon the specific passage- “The impediment to action advances the action. What stands in the way becomes the way (pg. xiv).” Despite being emperor of Rome, things didn’t always go his way. Marcus is writing about how to shift perspective of obstacles and instead how to view them as opportunities. Throughout the book, Ryan uses more recent examples such as Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Edison, and Amelia Earhart and how they have been able to turn their situations and seeming obstacles into an advantage.
One story I found particularly useful in illustrating the theme of the book is the story of two rival American fruit companies, United Fruit and a small company owned by Samuel Zemurray, both of which were interested in acquiring the same plot of land in South America. The obstacle facing both of the companies was that two separate tribes claimed rightful ownership of the land. While this was an obstacle for each company, they pursued a different strategy to the dilemma. United Fruit, the more powerful and rich company, sought to leverage their extensive financial resources to determine the rightful owners of the land. Zemurray took a different approach knowing that he didn’t have the financial resources to compete with United Fruit. Zemurray chose the more expedient route and simply paid both tribes for the land. While this meant that he did pay for the land twice, he understood his objective was to acquire the land, not litigate rightful ownership of the land.
How often do each of us get stuck in the mindset of United Fruit instead of reframing the situation like Samuel Zemurray? In writing about this situation, Ryan is trying make us aware of our ability to choose how we frame a situation. This book is filled with similar thought-provoking anecdotes.
One of the criticisms of this book and of the author in general is that he doesn’t present any new material. This is correct. Rather, Ryan is illustrating how to make ancient philosophy applicable to modern life. He is trying to take Philosophy out of college classrooms and illustrate how it applies to our everyday life. This book attempts to show the reader an effective framework to handle the challenges we face throughout our lives.
Thought provoking quotes-
“Bad companies are destroyed by crisis. Good companies survive them. Great companies are improved by them. – Andy Grove” (pg. 3)
“Real strength lies in the control, or as Nassim Taleb put it, the domestication of one’s emotions, not in pretending they don’t exist.” (pg. 30)
“In life, it doesn’t matter what happens to you or where you’re from. It matters what you do with what happens and what you’ve been given.” (pg. 68)
“Adversity can harden you. Or it can loosen you up and make you better- if you let it.” (pg. 115)
“It’s the act of turning what we must do into what we get to do.” (pg. 152)
“We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can always choose how we feel about it.” (pg. 154)
“See things for what they are.
Do what we can.
Endure and bear what we must.” (pg. 180)
Interesting note– After reading this book, I became surprised to learn how many military leaders read the Stoics. The two that stood out to me were General James Mattis, USMC (Ret) and VADM James Stockdale, USN (Ret). In his book Call Sign Chaos, General Mattis writes about how he carried Meditations with him on deployment and referred to it routinely.
VADM Stockdale wrote multiple articles and books about Stoicism, and it was critical in allowing him to endure his captivity during the Vietnam War. In a speech Stockdale said, “After ejection … I whispered to myself: I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus … as I ejected from that airplane it was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are ‘up to him’ and (B) those things that are ‘not up to him.’ Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are ‘within his power’ and (B) those things that are ‘beyond his power.’”
Fifteen words or less takeaway- You don’t control external events but you do control how you respond to them.