Participating in Life

Colin Wright’s recent book Come Back Frayed, is the story of his experiences living in Mayoyao and Boracay in the Philippines. Mayoyao is an agrarian region of the country with a small population and many rice fields, and Boracay is a small island and a popular tourism spot. Throughout his book Wright takes a critical look at culture, comparing the lifestyles of many in the United States to those in the Philippines who live with considerably less. Beyond a simple comparison of American and Philippine citizens and lifestyles, Wright dives into his own perceptions of himself and what traveling and experiencing new cultures has meant to him.

An idea expressed by Wright is that travel forces us into situations where we are no longer in the kind of control we become comfortable with in our daily lives. He discusses the importance of flexibility and adaption in travel, and I think his metaphor can be easily adapted to life in general.

He writes, “The best you can hope for is a little deck-stacking here and there, and a carefully sharpened ability to play whatever cards you’re dealt. Sometimes that means playing another game for a while. Sometimes it means you’re handed some dice instead, or a random handful of obscure game paraphernalia with purposes you haven’t yet discovered. In such cases all you can do is plaster a confident expression across your face, watch those around you for clues, and hope to hell you figure out the rules before it’s your turn to play.”

This idea of travel and life more generally being a game in which you don’t have all the pieces is a useful idea for me. I don’t think it is helpful to look at life as a game that you either win or lose, but as an activity you participate in with those around you to build relationships and community. Being engaged in the game means that we will have new experiences and find ourselves in unfamiliar places. Flexibility will always be a central part of advancing as far as possible. The more we can adjust and the more we can look to those around us to learn, the better we will be at participating and contributing.

The game idea breaks down around thoughts of winning and losing, since that may push us to act in ways that are not helpful for building the type of experiences we actually desire in our lives. When we focus on winning the game (life) we risk placing value on goals that can be hallow or self serving. We isolate ourselves and possibly push away those who are closest to us. Instead, we should look at success in the game as full participation, achieved by constantly learning and better understanding the  connections the game builds.

Returning to Wright’s quote, learning how to take disparate pieces and tie them together to play the game is a major skill worth developing. Adjusting to the needs and demands of our environment helps us not just in traveling and in moving from physical space to physical space, but it helps us throughout life as our daily experiences, possibilities, and demands shift. I believe a major skill that is not discussed enough is learning from those around us to find new growth. Rather than criticizing people for the cards they are dealt and the hands we play, we are always much better off learning from the actions of others, so that we can better use the pieces we have available to us.

Helping Others

Ryan Holiday has a solution for overcoming fears and personal anxieties – thinking beyond ourselves and our immediate situation. In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, Holiday helps us see ways in which we can reach greater growth by learning from the challenges we face and changing our thought process when we encounter difficulties. In a section I find quite moving given my recent obstacles, Holiday writes, “when we focus on others, on helping them or simply providing a good example, our own personal fears and troubles will diminish. With fear or heartache no longer our primary concern, we don’t have time for it. Shared purpose gives us strength.”

 

Holiday’s message is that our own personal growth can be something that benefits others and provides for more than just ourselves. Seeing our connections with those around us and learning to focus on ways in which we can benefit others through our own perseverance in difficult times helps us to reduce our own internal demons. When we recognize that our actions to overcome obstacles will benefit those who watch us advance or will provide opportunity for us to help others with advice and future guidance, we are able to find deeper motivation for positive action. Rather than walking away from difficulties, we can see ourselves as pioneers, leading a charge and building a pathway for others to follow.

 

A benefit of the passage above, beyond the reduced fear and anxiety that Holiday addresses, is the ability to develop stronger friendships. The message fits in with a discussion I listened to in a recent episode of The Ezra Klein Show, a podcast hosted by the director of Vox.com. Klein interviewed author Tim Ferris and at one point in their discussion Ferris introduced the idea that friendships can be strengthened by shared experiences of trials and struggles. He offered anecdotes about doing tough physical exercise with friends to build greater bonds and discussed friendships he had forged from meeting people in situations that are often difficult and challenging to sort through (like graduate school, volunteer projects, or athletic competitions).

 

Combining Ferris’s idea with the quote above helps me see that we can better connect with the world around us by reflecting on our challenges and seeing the ways in which our successes can benefit others. By pushing through tough times, reflecting on the challenges we face, and being open about our struggles we can become better human beings, and we can assist those who go through similar hard times. This will lead to better friendships, and gives our life more meaning. Our connections with others helps our mental state, and our success becomes the success of all, reducing our stress and anxiety as we understand the difference we can make in the world.

The Path of Least Resistance

The premise of Ryan Holidays book, The Obstacle is the Way, is that our fortune in life will shift continuously, and we will face success, failure, challenges, and obstacles along our journey. Reaching our goals requires that we prepare for the difficulties of the journey in order to be prepared and find growth. Holiday focuses on how these challenges mold and shape us to become better people, and he discusses the ways in which we can ready ourselves for the obstacles in our life and writes, “the path of least resistance is a terrible teacher. We can’t afford to shy away from the things that intimidate us. We don’t need to take our weaknesses for granted.”

 

His quote is building on the idea that  overcoming obstacles is what will propel our lives, and that we find the success we desire when we work toward something great without backing down from obstacles that intimidate us. We know some of the challenges that we will face along our journey and we know there are obstacles that we won’t be able to see, but we should not let that keep us from advancing or from starting out at all. When we go beyond the path of least resistance we learn more about ourselves and develop skills that will help us take greater steps toward what we want. If we see challenges and back down, then we miss an opportunity to grow and develop ourselves. If we look at the rewards of our future goals, but dismiss those goals because we think the challenges will be too great, then we are letting something external control our minds and our lives.

 

What Holiday encourages us to do is recognize our weaknesses and think forward to the difficulties we have to prepare for them. By doing so we can begin to plan for how we will surmount those obstacles and how we will battle against the challenges. By understanding our weaknesses and leaning into them, we give ourselves opportunities for action and growth. Hiding our weaknesses from ourselves and backing away from the barriers between us and our goals will limit our growth and create only an illusion of success and hard work. Ultimately without thinking of where we need to grow and how adversity helps us achieve growth, we trick ourselves into thinking we have reached our zenith and we create excuses for why we cannot go further. Avoiding the path of least resistance and planning for the challenges we will face is what will give us true growth.

Deliberate Growth

In his book, The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday discusses the ways in which we often look at our selves, our abilities, and the situations in which we find ourselves.  We tend to think that who we are is set in stone and shaped by forces beyond our control: I am naturally good at writing, I was not born with a good singing voice, I like to go to the gym, I don’t know how to do computer programming. In some way with all the examples above, we are looking at the things we do and do not do as if they are given parts of life, and not conscious choices that we make. When we look at who we are, what we excel at, where we struggle, what we like to do, and what things are not part of who we are, we begin to narrow our lives and place ourselves in a box. We define ourselves not by our ability to grow and change, but rather by who or what we perceive ourselves to be during a point in time. Holiday challenges this thinking, “We craft our spiritual strength through physical exercise, and our physical hardiness through mental practice (mens sana in corpore sano — sound mind in a strong body).”

 

His quote on its own speaks to the importance of mental and physical fortitude, but the section in which he includes the quote speaks to more than just the idea of mental and physical strength. The focus of Holiday in the quote above is on the word craft. We do not simply have mental strength by chance, and we do not simply have physical strength without working out. As Holiday explains, we must put in the effort, work, and focus to build our lives to match the quote above, to have a sound mind in a sound body.

 

Deliberate action and focus are the only things that will lead us to the growth we wish to see. We will have to put in real effort and work to develop the person we want to be, and if we do not strive to improve ourselves, we will only atrophy, and wither away as a result of the limitations we accept. Holiday continues, “Nobody is born with a steel backbone. We have to forge that ourselves.” Looking at the qualities we want to develop, and preparing ourselves for the challenging road to acquire those qualities is a must if we want to find growth. From Holiday’s perspective, self-reflection and awareness are key, as a greater understanding of self and vision for growth will build and shape who we are and the actions we take, opening opportunity and improving experiences.

 

Holiday’s advice in forging ahead on our path is similar to the advice of Richard Wiseman, who wrote in his book 59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot, encouraged journaling and reflection on the challenges we expect to face along our journey. By explaining how we will plan for obstacles in life, we can develop our sound mind, propelling us beyond our challenges. Thinking ahead and reflecting on not just our success but our failures and difficulties can help us build the strength necessary to develop our steel backbone.

Pressing Forward

In his book The Obstacle is the Way, author Ryan Holiday presents advice based on principles of stoicism developed by ancient Greek philosophers. When it comes to our life journey and reaching the level of success we desire, Holiday gives us a window into what we must do to achieve our goals. Holiday writes, “If you think it’s simply enough to take advantage of the opportunities  that arise in your life, you will fall short of greatness. Anyone sentient can do that. What you must do is learn how to press forward precisely when everyone around you sees disaster.”

 

The message from Holiday’s quote is that we must be able to persevere in challenging times and that we cannot just be great when things are going our way. We need to be wise and take advantage of the good fortune that we have in our life, but we must also be able to recognize ways in which we can press forward when we face adversity.

 

When challenges face our country, our company, or household, or just ourselves, we can look forward to find a way to build a path that makes us more resolute. Holiday’s book stems from the idea that adversity and struggle help us develop new skills and reach higher levels of fulfillment beyond anything else in our lives. Action when times are easy can take us far and make us feel great, but we will never be as successful or impactful in our lives if we only learn how to take action and drive toward success when the path is easy. Holiday’s message is to become aware of the difficulties and obstacles we face, and to use those to propel our growth and help us become better versions of ourselves.

The Long Haul

Another shift in perspective that author Ryan Holiday presents in his book The Obstacle is the Way is focused around the time frames through which we view the world and the things which happen to us. When we look at where we are and what is happening to us it is easy to be overwhelmed and frustrated by the negative things that occur on a daily basis. Often times when we step back and look at a longer view of our life and our actions, we see that what happens today that feels so negative is often a very small blip in the narrative of our life. Holiday writes,

 

“There’s no need to sweat this or feel rushed. No need to get upset or despair. You’re not going anywhere—you’re not going to be counted out. You’re in this for the long haul.
Because when you play all the way to the whistle, there’s no reason to worry about the clock. You know you won’t stop until it’s over—that every second available is yours to use. So temporary setbacks aren’t discouraging. They are just bumps along a long road that you intend to travel all the way down.”

 

Holiday’s advice is to give up worrying about things in our past that have plagued us, and to instead focus on how we can move forward in a new direction. What held us back in the past does not dictate what we are capable of today, and just because we missed an opportunity in the past does not mean that we are out of time for improving ourselves or beginning a new path today. This not just a shift in perspective of the past, but it is a reassurance that we don’t need to be limited by the expectations that we have always held, and we are not pushed into or out of certain opportunities because of our age or experience.

 

When we connect Holiday’s quote above to the theme of the book we see that each little bump and setback along the road helps us improve. As we face more small bumps and challenges our lives can feel overwhelmingly challenging and unfairly difficult, but if we learn from each bump and grow, we will constantly be improving and developing ourselves to handle future challenges. Looking over the entire span of our life, past, present, and where we expect to go in the future, we can see each challenge as a badge of knowledge and experience showing that we can handle difficulties that arise in the future. We can see the obstacles we have overcome in our rearview mirror, study how we overcame our challenges, and apply those lessons to our current dilemmas or use those lessons to prepare for  the challenges we have yet to face. The important thing to remember is that our current challenge is not what will define our life, but rather a small chapter in the story of how we applied ourselves throughout our time on this planet.

Obstacles and Growth

“The struggle against an obstacle inevitably propels  the fighter to a new level of functioning. The extent of the struggle determines the extent of growth. The obstacle is an advantage, not adversity. The enemy is any perception that prevents us from seeing this.” Author Ryan Holiday wrote this in his book The Obstacle is the Way, perfectly summarizing his thoughts about the challenges and difficulties we face along our journey. We will all struggle and we will all hit roadblocks trying to get to the point we want, but we are only ever defeated if we decide to allow ourselves to be overcome by the challenges we face.  In his book, Holiday explores ways in which we can change our perspectives and work to better understand ourselves and our expectations, so that the difficulties and limitations which seem to hold us back instead become tools to be used in our own growth.

 

The quote above starts with an idea that is nothing more than a change in perspective. The idea that our obstacles, the things that hold us back, are actually the propellents we need on our journey is incredibly foreign to most people. We often desire a life where things simply come easy and where we move without being inhibited from one success to another, but that is simply not the life for any of us. Holiday urges us to study our obstacles and press forward even harder when faced with challenges. It is absolutely true that modern descriptions of success, defined by income and possessions, can be more easily attained for some with fewer obstacles, but true growth and fulfillment necessarily includes obstacles and challenges. To  learn and become a more well rounded and an overall better individual we need to have adversity to learn from. The challenges that hold us back and make our lives difficult are also the things that connect us with the rest of humanity, and understanding those challenges and growing from them is what will help us reach a version of success that is far more rewarding than a bank account or vehicle.

 

Recognizing the ways in which obstacles help us requires a herculean shift in our perspectives and the ways in which we think about success, hard work, and growth. If success is reaching a place where struggle no longer exists, then you may need to rethink your goals. The only place where struggle does not exist is in a land of mediocrity where one is well supported (read: spoiled) by people beyond oneself. It is a goal that necessarily lacks any goals. At the same time, a goal defined by a certain income, house, or lifestyle can be just as dangerous as the goal of a life  free from challenges since we never truly control our income and are using a false measure of success as our yardstick. It is a goal with a constantly moving finish line that is often well beyond our control.

 

Holiday would encourage us to better understand our goals so that when we face obstacles we can better understand the ways in which those obstacles help us and prepare us for the success we actually seek. Focusing on the way an obstacle holds us back and diving to better understand the obstacle will force us to action and growth in a way that a life of simplicity never could. By being challenged we are given an opportunity to expand who we are, and we can find ways forward that we never knew existed.