The Obstacle Is The Way
Welcome to the latest edition of Readman’s Read‘more’ BookClub. At the beginning of each month I ask the community to vote on a book they’d like to feature. This month’s is “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday. The book is essentially an introduction to stoic philosophy (or parts of it), how to apply those teachings to your life and contains plenty of stories on how they’re useful. I’ve been aware of Stoicism for a long time, my business partner is a ‘practising’ Stoic, and I do like the ideas espoused by them. However, I’m not going to lie, I’ve never before put in much effort to read more about it. If I’m honest, up until recently, I’ve never considered having a personal philosophy as something that could be useful to me, I always thought it would hold me back from being the dynamic thinker that I am. Other events in my life and this book have changed my opinion on that, this is a great introduction and I’d like to share some of my findings.
What is Stoicism?
For starters, the author of this book, Ryan Holiday, does a much better job of explaining Stoicism over at The Daily Stoic, so head over there for a better explanation, alternatively you can stay here for my layman’s ramblings.
Stoicism is a practical philosophy founded in Athens but flourished with the Romans, most notably by their poster boy, Marcus Aurelius. It is even said to have influenced some of the Christian teachings. In contrast to a lot of modern philosophy which ponders the cerebral, Stoicism was meant to establish a body of work that could actually help you with life’s practical problems. It might not help you find your keys (although, you never know) but it might help you get over a tough breakup, losing your job or finding a purpose in life.
Because it is a broad body of work it’s hard to summarise quickly, however, painting it with the broadest possible brush the key teachings are that they try to deal with the world as it is, not as it should be or how they’d prefer it to be, all while living virtuously. Essentially, they see the unpredictable chaos in the world, but unlike nihilists they see a positive way through the mess we all live in. In fact, they see the mess or, the obstacle, as the way. See what I did there?
“The impediment to action becomes the action, what stands in the way, becomes the way.”
- Marcus Aurelius
It also encompasses lots of things we’re familiar with such as our spheres of control and negative visualisation. To me it all sounded a very logical approach to life, and logic is not always king, however the phrase ‘Stoic joy’ exists for a reason.
My Personal Experience
Although I wasn’t aware of it, Stoicism actually helped me through one of the key transformational periods in my life. It seems to be an event I share with most men, a traumatic break-up. For quite some time I was a snivelling pathetic mess of a person and was beginning to alienate my friends, who’d started to get bored of my depressive funk and erratic outbursts. “It’s not a night out if Cammy doesn’t cry,” became a popular catchphrase within my circle of friends. Other parts of my life began to break down, but it was at breaking point I received a bit of wisdom; she’ll never get back with you if she see’s you in this state you’ve created for yourself. No self-respecting woman would. She broke up with you for a reason, her perception of you is outside your control but you can better yourself, that you can control. A genuine quest for self-improvement is a strong way to move forward with obvious rewards, because standing still in a chaotic black hole is not an option.
I should interject here for anyone going through such a period, that ‘vanity improvements’ that take little effort are just manipulative, trust me when I say your ex will see right through even your craftiest of schemes to ‘win’ them back. No, it cannot and must not be about them, it’s about you making real improvements, working on your weaknesses and honing your strengths. Not only will you find life slightly easier, it’ll give you a pursuit to strive for and you’ll be more enjoyable to be around. People will more readily gravitate towards you. You’ll have taken control of your own destiny and that’ll make you much more desirable to others. At least, that’s how it worked for me.
For the record, I didn’t win the girl in question back in the end. However, I did get in the best shape of my life, developed ways of coping with my mental health, became a kinder, more conscientious and more confident a human. It wasn’t long before my stars became crossed with a beautiful woman and, thanks to my self-improvement, I was now in a better place to have a much more functional relationship. In fact, at times it seems unthinkable to have a relationship as smooth as we have. The obstacle (getting back with my ex) contained embedded within it the way and now I am engaged to be married to the woman of my dreams. Some food for thought eh?
Of course, none of that is to say we aren’t all fallible humans capable of all manner of dramatics when something bad happens. However, it seems to me when we get the chance for a brief moment to meditate on our lives, when we can search for the opportunity in every misfortune, we’re more able to become resilient and robust people.
The Final Verdict
I would forgive you if at first glance it seems like a stupidly optimistic way to navigate life. Who in the heck is actually grateful for their misfortunes? To give my final verdict in another personal anecdote, I once attended British Army Officer Selection, a gruelling 4 day ‘interview’ process through which the army separates the wheat from the chaff. The commanding officer closed his opening speech to a group of wide-eyed, excited candidates “ultimately just be yourself, if we don’t pick you, it’s not to be cruel. We’ve done this for nearly a hundred years, we’re exceptionally good at it and I can tell you we’ve done you a favour. You won’t like being an officer.” (To those interested, I did okay and was invited back, but I decided not to become an officer to work on being a wizard instead. Right choice? You decide).
It can be a soul crushing pill to swallow, some had staked their lives on being an Army officer, but a useful and perhaps somewhat comforting route to acceptance nonetheless. It’s stuck with me since, if you lose a job, is it because you’re not motivated by the work? Maybe it’s too hard and you need a position that’ll allow you more freedom to learn and grow? Maybe it’s that your co-workers don’t like you, but why stay in a culture that doesn’t appreciate you? Being fired sucks, we might not always know the true reasons and it can leave us in severe hardship sometimes, but the hardship is nearly always temporary. What would your life look like if through complacency you stayed in a job that you hate or with people you hate? I can only imagine it leads to a miserable existence. This version of Stoicism I find can instantly take some of that weight off your shoulders. Equally if an ethereal world, society or a maleficent god is to blame, it can be much harder to find your path and recover.
To use a fantastically simple story from the book: Edison’s factory catching fire. Thanks to all the chemicals inside, the factory caught quickly and flames shot up all different colours and explosions ignited the sky. Instead of stamping his feet, swearing or shouting at his foreman, Edison told his son to fetch the rest of the family because they would never again see such a fire. Although it came at a great cost, Edison rebuilt the factory but in the process was able remove a lot of the previous inefficiencies and greatly improve it for developing his gadgets and whizzbangs. A horrific tragedy that would send a lot of us spiralling became instead a vehicle for rapid improvement.
It seems to me Stoicism lives up to its promise and does have a lot of practical implications in our lives. Even if you don’t follow it closely or fan-girl over Marcus Aurelius’ diary, there are lessons within this book we can all take away.
If I were to give it a personal rating, I would give it 4 stars. I was already quite aware of a lot of the tenets of the Stoics through those around me and so some parts moved slowly, I would’ve preferred a slightly deeper discussion. Still, I highly recommend this book, principally to anyone, but particularly to anyone currently struggling in their life. As a gentle intro to Stoic ideas it is particularly perfect for young people. I wish I’d been more aware of this philosophy at a younger age, whether wittingly or not, stoicism helped me through personal tribulations and I’m sure it can for others too.
Do you think you’ve had any ‘accidental’ Stoic moments like my own? Share your stories in the comments or on social media!
Did this article resonate with you? Or perhaps I should stop writing immediately and go to hell! Either way, let me know! Be sure to give this article plenty of claps if you enjoyed it or get in touch with me via the contact form on my website.
This article was written by Cameron Readman. If you’d like to know more or receive notifications for future articles, please head over to the Website and subscribe at the bottom of the page!