Today is my 31st birthday. I have always found writing to be a great way to leave a snapshot of my thoughts at any point in time.
Given that a birthday is a great reflection point I have decided to write an article every year on my birthday. I hope to come back to these articles in the future and see what my thoughts were on each transition into a new age.
This year my birthday falls at a time the world is going through uncertain times. A time of the COVID-19 outbreak. The virus has spread to almost every country, infecting a large number of people. It has crashed economies and broken health-care systems, filled hospitals and emptied public spaces. It has separated people from their workplaces and their friends. It has led to people losing their loved ones. It has disrupted modern society on a scale that most living people have never witnessed.
As I write this article my residential country South Africa has just gone into a lockdown period for 21 days in order to slow down the spread of the virus.
Everyone has been affected. We are all uncertain about what our future will look like. In times like this it is hard to not view the world with a negative outlook.
About 6 years ago when I was 25 I read a book titled “The Obstacle Is The Way” written by Ryan Holiday. The book is based on some stoic principles. I have always turned to the lessons from that book when I’ve faced some challenges or in times of uncertainty.
In the book Ryan Holiday reframes a forgotten formula for success: “What stands in the way becomes the way.”
He shares countless stories of great men and women who succeeded in their lives because they lived by this formula. Holiday says, “Whatever we face, we have a choice: Will we be blocked by obstacles, or will we advance through and over them?”
The book is about mindsets that help us face adversity effectively. It teaches us how to master our emotions, how to build emotional resilience, develop persistence, and how to resist what’s so hard to resist. It helps us live in the present moment and to accept reality as it is, and yet not to resign but always try our very best.
Given the global pandemic we are facing as a world, I thought for my birthday article this year I would share some of the lessons I learnt from reading “The Obstacle Is The Way” as a reminder of how to face challenging times in our lives.
Overcoming obstacles is a discipline of three critical steps.
The discipline of perception
Perception is 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 shortsighted, we only add to our troubles. To prevent becoming overwhelmed by the world around us, we must learn how to limit our passions and their control over our lives.
It takes skill and discipline to take control 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. 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.
The discipline of action
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 can dismantle the obstacles in front of us. With persistence and flexibility, we can act in the best interest of our goals.
Action requires courage not flashiness, 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.
The discipline of will
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 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. True will is quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility; the other kind of will is weakness disguised by ambition. See which lasts longer under the hardest of obstacles.
You will come across obstacles in life – fair or unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure. You will learn that this reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming – or possibly thriving because of – them.
I hope these lessons will be useful for you in these uncertain times. They have certainly been useful reminders for me as I wrote this article.
I am confident we will get past this challenge as a world. The world is facing one common enemy that does not discriminate against any criteria. We will get over this together. Everyone has their part to play.
See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must.
Who knows, after all this is gone, humanity might come out with some important positive learnings on how we should work together and how the world should be structured. There is potential for a much better world after all this.
Stay safe. Stay at home. Check up on your family and friends frequently. Flatten the curve!